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Joo Won 주원- Welcome Back !

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And here are today's pics!

 

Spoiler

Some really nice edits for "My Sassy Girl"

 

 

 

Meeting with the fans

 

 

This scene from "Nae Il's Cantabile" cracked me up :P 

 

 

 

Some really gorgeous lighting here :) 

 

 

 

 

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A bit later than usual today, but here are my pics!

 

Spoiler

Here's a nice black and white pic

 

 

A really sweet photo

 

 

I don't think this needs any explanation ;) 

 

 

Cute behind-the-scenes shot from "Yong Pal"

 

 

 

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Here I am with today's pics

 

Spoiler

I like how this shot turned out, but what's really standing out to me right now are the words: "The first symptom of true love in a man is timidity; in a girl, it is boldness". lol - Sound familiar? ;) 

 

(From this Instagram slideshow: https://www.instagram.com/p/BktFraVgeWK/)

 

 

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A warm and sweet smile

 

 

These are just cute

 

 

A collection of shots from "Nae Il's Cantabile"

 

 

I've seen photos from this set before, but not the actual magazine page

 

 

 

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Here I am with today's pics!

 

Spoiler

A bunch of different behind-the-scenes selcas from "Nae Il's Cantabile"

 

 

"My Sassy Girl" Behind the Scenes - What goes into one of JW's epic crying scenes :bawling:

 

 

A bunch of shots from a commercial for Beansbins Coffee 

 

Spoiler

By the way, I've heard somewhere once that apparently the line he says at this point, asking whether someone wants to go to Hong Kong with him, is a Korean euphemism that implies the person who's talking being sexually available, which...what? Is that true???

 

Mind you, I know that the commercial is scripted, so it's not like I think JW's actually saying that if that is what that line could mean. But it's just so weird, you know, thinking that something that sounds so innocent to a foreign/overseas fan might actually mean something entirely different to a native audience.

 

(From this Instagram link: https://www.instagram.com/p/BP3gf-rlwPf/)

 

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lol - I remember this shot from "Life Log"; that Angry Birds Star Wars sweatshirt was awesome :P 

 

 

 

A few shots I've never seen before

 

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And, finally, because I can, here's Preview #3 of the fic that I'm working on. This time, it's a two-for-one special: two shorter excerpts from two different points in the fic.

 

Spoiler

I must not be used to sleeping on the floor beside Il Rak’s bed just yet; even slight noises are waking me up in the middle of the night.

 

Still, over the past week that Nae Il and I have been here, I’ve learned how best to fall back asleep. So even though the sound of the bedroom door clicking open brings me to awareness, I keep my eyes closed as I roll over to face towards the bed and away from the door.

 

Chances are, Il Rak just had to use the washroom; and unlike that first time we’d done this – that time when we were both staying at Si Won’s apartment in Vienna for New Year’s – he’s now become an expert at slipping in and out of bed without disturbing me.

 

So the last thing I’m expecting is to feel someone trip, kicking me lightly in the small of the back.

 

“Oops – mianhaeyo.”

 

That – that was….

 

My eyes fly open and I jolt awake, sitting up and scrambling to back away from the person I can just barely see in the darkness before me.

 

“Ya, Seolle-”

 

In a flash, Nae Il is crouched down on the floor beside me, one hand clamped over my mouth as the other one grabs me by the back of the neck, holding me in place.

 

“Quiet, Orabang,” she hisses in my ear. “If Ahjussi wakes up, we’re really in trouble.”

 

Still struggling to break free, I shoot a glare at her, then up out of the corner of my eye towards the bed.

 

What’s happening? What is she doing here? And where the hell is Yoo Il Rak that he hasn’t been woken up by now?

 

Oh.

 

There’s no-one there. The bed is empty.

 

“Can I let go now, Orabang?” Nae Il asks, “Or are you going to scream again?”

 

Never mind that she’s just asked two completely opposite questions; when I nod in response, she abruptly lets go, moving to sit down on the floor beside me as I, finally able to breathe again, gasp for air.

 

“All right,” I whisper once I have caught my breath, “what’s going on?” I glare first at the bed, then back at her. “Whose brilliant idea was this?”

 

[...]

 

After bidding a quick goodnight to the girls, Il Rak and I retreat into his room and shut the door. Almost immediately, he grabs his violin case from its corner and places it onto the bed.

 

“Si Won told me,” he says, opening the case and pulling out the instrument from inside, “that she and Nae Il have already picked out what they want to do for their duet.”

 

“Oh?” I turn back from the poster I had been idly studying on his wall – one of several for rock bands that I do not recognize – and glance over at him.

 

“Mm,” he answers with a nod. “Zigeunerweisen, by Sarasate.”

 

“Ah, geu rae?”

 

“It was one of the pieces from Si Won-ie’s graduation recital, so I know what to expect,” he explains. “Trust me, Yoo Jin-ah: if you haven’t heard her play it before, prepare to be blown away. She does an amazing job at it.”

 

“Arasseo,” I answer with a nod. “I’ll be ready for it.” Gesturing to the violin in his hand, I add, “Does this mean that you’ve got an idea now, too?”

 

“Of course!” He jumps up from the bed and brings the violin up to his shoulder. “See if you know this.”

 

He starts playing, then, a quick and dissonant melody, his bow almost sawing across the strings as he sways with the beat.

 

In a flash, it comes to me.

 

“Camille Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre.” I let out a short laugh. “Trust a rocker like you to pick something like this.”

 

“Wae? ‘Black as the darkness in my soul’ and all that jazz?”

 

When I nod in response, he beams. “Of course!” he cries out, switching his bow to the hand that’s holding the violin’s neck, then flashing me that hand gesture of his once again. “I’ve wanted to do this piece for a while now, but it was never assigned to me at Haneum, and now that I’ve graduated and could do whatever I want, I haven’t found a pianist for it.

 

“So, what say you? You up for doing this with me or not?”

 

“Of course,” I answer. “I’m fine with it if it’s what you want to do.”

 

“Daebak!” He holds out his free hand to me in a fist. Realizing what he wants me to do, I make a fist of my own and lightly touch it to his: a gesture that makes his smile grow impossibly wider.

 

“By the way, while we’re on the subject….” I repeat his gesture right back to him: thumb, forefinger and pinky extended with the other two tucked away. “Just what exactly does this mean anyway?” When Il Rak looks skeptically at me, I explain, “I see you doing it a lot, but have no idea what it means.”

 

“Ah,” he says, nodding in understanding. “Well, since you asked, Yoo Jin-ah: when you hold it up like this –” he shows me a similar, but different, sign that just has the forefinger and pinky extended “– you’re making the ‘Devil’s horns’.”

 

Something about the name makes me glance  warily at him as I slowly nod. “I see….”

 

“But what I was doing – and what you’re doing now – is something different. In English, that spells out ‘I.L.Y.’. Or in other words, ‘I love you’.”

 

Immediately, I let go of the sign as though it has scorched my fingers and burst out into a coughing fit.

 

“Mwo?!”

 

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Here I am with today's pics

 

Spoiler

A collection of miscellaneous selcas

 

 

A shot from a Chinese magazine

 

 

Some interesting old-school lighting here

 

75700a56bae3e3ea5b09413bac5f3110.jpg

 

Really liking these close-up shots

 

 

 

Mini and Current JW

 

 

 

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Here I am with today's pics - and, once again, it's Throwback Thursday time!

 

Spoiler

A shot from 1N2D - This was from the episodes when each of the cast members was paired with a Korean immigrant who had come to visit from overseas. And then they went to Dokdo, and JW's behaviour there really cemented his reputation as a "patriotic actor" ;) 

 

 

Nice shot from the 2012 KBS Drama Awards - I think he also wound up wearing this suit in "Level 7 Civil Servant"...or at least one very similar to it. I like this look on him, though :) 

 

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This shot from his 2012 appearance on "Win Win" is just awesome :P 

 

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What do you guys think about this hairstyle on him?

 

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Cutie face from "Don't Click"

 

 

And we don't often get to see JW with a five o'clock shadow, so these shots from "Ojakgyo Brothers" are a bit of an eye-opener as to just what he'd look like with one. (It's a slideshow, so make sure you click through ;))

 

 

 

And, while not strictly a throwback, "Good Doctor" was recently featured on this Soompi article: 11 K-Dramas with Deliciously Satisfying Slow-Burn Romances

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A bit later than usual (sorry - I was busy), but here are today's pics.

 

Spoiler

A collection of black and white photos

 

 

This next shot's from this Instagram post (sorry; the site's glitching right now so I can't embed it properly): https://www.instagram.com/p/BM6eXibjkN5/

 

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Such a cute expression

 

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Personally, I'm not a fan of this look on him (it's not JW's fault - I just think that sweater's ugly, no matter who's wearing it, and I've seen a couple :P). But I will say that his cute expression and demeanour make up for it.

 

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A couple of shots from "Nae Il's Cantabile"

 

 

Behind the scenes from a photo shoot

 

 

Cute and sweet smile

 

 

I like the way focus was used in this shot

 

 

 

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Still just me? Okay, then. :confused:

 

Anyway, here are today's pics!

 

Spoiler

Some really nice fan-edits for "Yong Pal"

 

 

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I'm quite liking the framing/composition in this shot from "Nae Il's Cantabile"

 

(From this Instagram slideshow: https://www.instagram.com/p/Bk5F_XqgQeg/)

 

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Some shots from an interview he did in Hong Kong

 

 

Let's do an autograph pic

 

 

Some pages from magazines - I think it's multiple publications, since I see both Japanese and Chinese in there.

 

 

Such a cute and sweet smile

 

(From this Instagram slideshow: https://www.instagram.com/p/BbjuCEHleo9/

 

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Just stopping by with today's pics!

 

Spoiler

A cute expression from "Yong Pal"

 

 

I just really like how this shot turned out

 

 

Some funny faces from "Level 7 Civil Servant" - Honestly, JW as Han Gil Ro had some of the most comical expressions EVER.

 

(From this Instagram slideshow: https://www.instagram.com/p/Bk5YdtQBBAf/)

 

 

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Just so casually cool

 

 

And, before I go, one last point I want to make: 

 

I don't know why, but for some bizarre reason, I always end up thinking that JW looks really cool when he's completely soaking wet - or, if nothing else, when his hair's wet.

 

Like in this shot from "Nae Il's Cantabile"...

 

 

...Or this one from "Yong Pal"...

 

 

...Or this one from "Gaksital" (Okay, not gonna lie - I don't like the bloodiness here, and this episode was just painful to watch, but you get the idea)

 

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Like...shower scenes don't do it for me, but somehow, this does? Somebody help me - is this actually a thing, or am I just weird? :flushed:

 

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Just popping by quickly for the fourth and final Preview of my fic!

 

I won't be able to release any more teasers without getting into spoilers, so this will be it until the whole thing's finished.

 

Spoiler

For a long moment, none of us says anything, but then, perhaps since it is finally allowed to wander freely, my mind conjures up a moment from earlier this afternoon.

 

“By the way,” I begin, “since we’re on the subject: did either of you tell Lee Yoon Hoo about the incident at the waterpark?”

 

Moving as one, Nae Il and Il Rak both shoot me confused looks.

 

“I know I didn’t,” Il Rak ultimately says. He gives Nae Il a sideways glance. “What about you, Seollebal?”

 

She shakes her head. “I did mention it in passing once, but just to say that I didn’t see who saved you. Wae? Did something happen?”

 

I answer with a shrug. “Nothing much. It’s just that he said something really weird: ‘The last time I saw you like this, you nearly died.’”

 

Il Rak blinks in surprise. “That is weird.”

 

My brow furrows as I try to put the pieces together in my head. “To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure he was referring to the incident at the waterpark. I mean, we only met for the first time later that day at the Yoon Yi Song Festival, so…”

 

Suddenly, Nae Il straightens up in her seat with a gasp, snapping her fingers. “Wait – I remember now!”

 

I round on her. “Ya, Seollebal – are you saying you did tell him?”

 

She shakes her head. “Aniyo. But….” She directs her gaze at Il Rak, waving a finger at him as though trying to jog her memory. “Rak-kun, you remember, right? That time Yoon Hoo-sunbae treated us to lunch and I’d said –”

 

“Ah, geu rae – you’d said that from the look of Yoon Hoo’s hands, your guess was that the person who saved Yoo Jin must’ve been a cellist and –”

 

“Mwo?!”

 

Startled by my outcry, both of them turn to gape at me.

 

“Or- Orabang….”

 

“Yoo Jin-ah….”

 

“Look, don’t you two get it?” I blurt out, my voice rising in agitation.

 

This can’t be right. This can’t be happening. Of…of all the people I could possibly be indebted to, why does it have to be him?!

 

When they continue to just blink at me in confusion, I am unable to stop myself from burying my face in my hands with a growl of frustration.

 

“Do the damned math, both of you!”

 

Taking my instructions literally, Nae Il starts counting out the points we have established so far on her fingers. “We were on our way to the Yoon Yi Song Festival, so chances are, Yoon Hoo-sunbae was, too. I didn’t see the guy’s face when he rescued Orabang, but I did see his hands. He had hands like a cellist’s -”

 

“Lee Yoon Hoo is a cellist,” I cut in, with just enough edge in my voice that I hope Nae Il takes the hint.

 

“Geu rae, Orabang. Yoon Hoo-sunbae is a cellist, so that’s why I –”

 

Her words die on her lips, and she is left simply gaping as understanding finally flares up in her eyes.

 

“What?” Il Rak asks, reaching over to seize her arm with both hands. “What is it?”

 

She turns slowly to look at him, eyes wide and shining. “It was him.”

 

His brow furrows in confusion: a move that makes me roll my eyes and slap my forehead despite my better judgment.

 

“Don’t you get it, Rak-kun?” Nae Il gasps. “It’s got to be him. Who else could it be? Yoon Hoo-sunbae was the one who saved Orabang!”

 

Come on - I've been wanting this bunch of idiots to figure it out for a long time now. Like, seriously, just how dense did they have to be not to realize it? :tounge_xd:

 

Once again, this is it for the previews. So stay tuned for the full story once it's completed! :grin:

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Okay, before I get to today's pics, just wanted to show this to everyone: the trailer for the Japanese version of "Good Doctor" has now been released! :mask:

 

 

I don't know about you guys, but I think this one just might give the Korean version - and JW's performance - a run for its money. It's definitely picking up on nuances that I didn't notice in the American remake, so.... Here's hoping it goes well! :thumbsup:

 

And now for pics!

 

Spoiler

Sleepy Kim Tae Hyun.... :sleeping:

 

 

This shot from JW's appearance on "Witch Hunt" (which also was his reunion with Sung Si Kyung ;)) is so cute

 

 

I wonder what he's reading....

 

 

I'm really liking the composition/posing for this shot

 

 

That sweet contagious smile

 

 

Getting a little bit sassy on 1N2D. lol - JW doesn't do sassy or mischievous often, but when he does, it's hilariously innocent and childlike like this :P 

 

f7bd2ffffc6c7acbaf2056239be3509c.jpg

 

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Still quiet here, but I'm not about to let that stop me! :smiley:

 

(They seriously need a "Fighting!" emoji here for moments like this :tounge_xd: Come on, Soompi, you're a Hallyu forum; get your act together!)

 

First of all, though, I want to share this video I came across on Instagram.

 

 

I think it's awesome, and just wish that the program that featured this list (including JW's entry) had had the time to go into more detail. Mostly because filial piety - which, by the way, is the personality trait that made me fall hard for JW for good - is just really hard to measure or quantify. Like, for instance, I'm not someone who counts, say, expensive gifts for one's parents (e.g. celebrities who buy houses or fancy cars for their parents) as a set marker of filial piety. It's more an attitude thing. So I would have liked to see what the show was using as its evidence. I dunno...something like interview quotes or something would've helped a good deal.

 

Okay, now time for pics!

 

Spoiler

Generally speaking, I like how JW looks when he's wearing a mask like this that just leaves his eyes exposed. Maybe it's because his eyes (followed by his smile) is my favourite feature of his, so anything that emphasizes them is great for me :) 

 

 

 

It's known among JW's fans that his favourite colours are black and white - and he does wear them quite often

 

 

A couple of really nice close-ups - I'm especially loving the first one, but they're all great

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ending it off with this slideshow of shots from "Nae Il's Cantabile" filming, when they did the super-sweet-and-adorable backhug scene

 

 

 

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Just popping by with today's pics!

 

Spoiler

A few collages/fan-edits for "Good Doctor" - I love how Park Si On looks at Cha Yoon Seo in these :love:

 

 

 

 

Some nice miscellaneous shots for Mountia (second one's a slideshow)

 

 

 

Quiet, everyone - Oppa's speaking ;) 

 

 

 

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Here I am with today's pics! This time, it's Throwback Thursday!

 

Spoiler

First of all, a double throwback: a picture of JW with his best friend, Lee Se Wook, on 1N2D (which is already a throwback in and of itself), coupled with their high school class photos :) 

 

 

 

This one, I think, doesn't require any explanation ;) 

 

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Looking back at Gu Ma Jun 

 

 

 

 

JW's final episode on 1N2D

 

 

And here's a happier shot from the show - By the way, that's a pretty deep neckline there, isn't it...?

 

11ef41bc0aa98bed1d9d893d0f765ae3.jpg

 

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Here I am with today's pics!

 

Spoiler

I always love pics from this fan-signing event. That really innocent and trusting way JW looks at his fans is just adorable :love:

 

 

Some nice shots for Mind Bridge

 

 

That moment when you realize Lee Kang To and Kim Tae Hyun had really similar costumes....

 

 

I really like how this collage turned out

 

 

This set of photos is just so cute! (Note: it's a slideshow, so make sure you click to see everything)

 

 

 

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On 7/3/2018 at 2:52 AM, kittyna said:

I've seen photos from this set before, but not the actual magazine page

 

This magazine photos were taken about the same period when JW was preparing to film Sweet Sixteen.  So I have the feeling that Qu Wei Ren was already in him. 

 

On 7/6/2018 at 2:44 AM, kittyna said:

What do you guys think about this hairstyle on him?

 

This pic reminds me of JW’s first (and only?) exposure with BoA in the same occasion. when at that time they may not even befriend yet.  He was presenting the Golden Disk Award to SJ and BoA. 

 

 

On 7/6/2018 at 2:44 AM, kittyna said:

And we don't often get to see JW with a five o'clock shadow, so these shots from "Ojakgyo Brothers" are a bit of an eye-opener as to just what he'd look like with one. (It's a slideshow, so make sure you click through ;))

 

 

Well, the beard (real or shadow makeup?) also stands out.  The total look and JW’s immersive acting ability really makes a man at 30’s but mind me, he was only 24 at that time.  I’ll never have enough of pics of WTH the humble man.

 

Spoiler

 

 

 

On 7/10/2018 at 4:32 AM, kittyna said:

I don't know about you guys, but I think this one just might give the Korean version - and JW's performance - a run for its money. It's definitely picking up on nuances that I didn't notice in the American remake, so.... Here's hoping it goes well!

 

I’ve just seen the Japanese Good Doctor episode 1.  The plot mostly resembles the Korean original whereas the individual patient story combined key features of more than one patient cases from the original. This is a clever rewrite as usually the J-drama comes in less than 10 episodes.  Many of the script lines were exactly replicated so I was like going through the K-drama once again.  The actors and actresses all did a good job.  I like the female lead in particular for her natural performance.  By the way she was the original Nodame, such a small world.

 

On 7/12/2018 at 1:55 AM, kittyna said:

Some nice miscellaneous shots for Mountia (second one's a slideshow)

 

I'm curious about how Mountia goes without JW and just have a look at their website.  Huayi supplied 2 of its stars, one being the winner of the My Sassy Girl audition. The other is well-known locally.  Somehow the new portfolios give me the look and feel of a middle-age dad and his teen girl.  Never the same as JW before: youthful, radiant, relaxed and calm.  I wonder how well their sales is nowadays.  Anymore fan-signing promotions?

 

Here's my pics selection.

 

Spoiler

The lighting and JW’s styling is a perfect match. 

 

 

A rare photo: the boy next door revealed his feet bared

 

A cute ghost.

 

Cute civil servants.

 

Cute creature hunter.

 

While a real huntsman should be like this.

 

 

 

 Add one more wet look

 

 

Not really wet look but a funny scene.

 

 

And to finish my once-in-a-while post :sweatingbullets:, a compilation of JW’s Korean projects before 2016.

 

 

 

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Okay. I'll get to my normal pics post - this time, including replies (thanks, @soomoi - I've been getting a bit stir-crazy here) - some other day. Because today...it's new fic time!

 

Just be forewarned: I don't think much about length as I'm writing. I just say what I want to say, and whatever happens, happens. This time around, it's a long one - in fact, my longest thus far. So make sure you get nice and comfy before you start reading it, and buckle up: it's gonna be a wild ride ;) 

 

Spoiler

Title: For the Love of Music

Drama: "Nae Il's Cantabile", some elements from "Secret Love Affair"

Characters: Cha Yoo Jin, Seol Nae Il, Yoo Il Rak, Lee Yoon Hoo, Jung Si Won, Lee Sun Jae (from "Secret Love Affair" - for those who haven't seen it, just imagine Yoo Ah In ;))

Premise: As preparations finally begin for Rising Star's biggest performance yet, Cha Yoo Jin and Seol Nae Il also spend their summer break back in Korea rekindling old friendships and making new ones. And for Cha Yoo Jin in particular, things are not always what they seem: could the one person he thought of as his enemy actually be one of his best friends of them all?

Warnings: Some discussion of sex (nothing explicit - characters just talk about who has/hasn't done it), discussion and depiction of PTSD

 

Note on Warnings: This time, my warning is not so much a warning as a disclaimer. I don't want to spoil too much right here at the beginning, but let me just say this: if PTSD is something you or your loved ones struggle with, please do not take anything I suggest in this fic as proper medical advice. The thing about being an author is that my focus must always be on what the characters would do, not what they should do. So please do not assume that, say, what Cha Yoo Jin or Seol Nae Il or Lee Yoon Hoo do here is the appropriate or best response; the reactions and actions shown here are simply what I think would have made the most sense for their personalities: no more, no less.

 

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"

 

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

For the Love of Music

 

“Well – thank goodness that’s over.”

 

Nae Il flashes me a reassuring smile, taking hold with both hands of the handle of the suitcase I have just lugged off the conveyor belt in Incheon International Airport’s baggage claim.

 

“Oh, come on, Orabang,” she says, setting the suitcase down onto the floor, “the flight wasn’t that bad.”

 

“It wasn’t that good either,” I grumble back. In my mind, the only redeeming quality of the past twelve-hour flight was that it had been overnight, so, fortunately, I had been able to sleep through most of it.

 

Nae Il’s mouth opens and, for a moment, it looks like she wants to say something in response. But just then, I spot the second of our two suitcases coming towards us on the conveyor, so, holding up one finger to signal for her to wait, I dash over to retrieve it.

 

When I get back, and as we start to make our way through the terminal to the exit, she goes on with what she had had to say.

 

“The way I see it, Orabang, you’ve already gotten a lot better at this than you had before.” Using her free hand, she starts counting out on her fingers all the times I had been on a plane before: the flights to and from Jeju-do when I had gone there to find her, the flights to and from Salzburg for her competition, the one we had taken when we moved there to start our studies in earnest and, finally, this one.

 

“Six,” she says triumphantly when she is done. “Six times on a plane in the past two years – and that’s from someone who would have thought it entirely impossible two years ago.

 

“Not to mention the fact that by the time this summer is over, we’ll have done three more: two when we go to visit my parents, and one last one to get back to Austria -”

 

“All right, I get it!” I bark out. My voice rings out just a bit too loudly in my agitation, making several of the people around us in the crowded terminal turn and stare at us in surprise. “You don’t have to remind me, Seollebal.”

 

Because right now, I would much prefer to just deal with those when we get there rather than dwell on them now.

 

My obvious irritation doesn’t deter Nae Il for long, though. Instead of getting riled up, she gives me a knowing sympathetic look. Then, once we have passed through the sliding doors that take us to the main arrivals hall in the terminal, she fishes out her phone and makes a call.

 

“Rak-kun? Where are you right now?” After a brief pause, she nods. “Ne. We’re ready when you are: just tell us which door you manage to find a spot by, and we’ll come out.”

 

The two of us had had no shortage of people willing to come and pick us up at the airport, but ultimately, that battle had fallen between Eomma and Yoo Il Rak – and, somehow, he had been the one to win out, using the fact that we would be staying at his house during the summer as his main reasoning.

 

Just before Nae Il hangs up, though, I see her biting her bottom lip hard out of the corner of my eye: a clear sign that she is holding in a laugh.

 

“Wae?” I ask her once she’s free. “What did Il Rak say that was so funny?”

 

Jumping a little in surprise, her eyes widen for just a brief moment before she schools herself into a more innocent-looking expression. “Nothing.”

 

I let out a brief scoffing laugh. “Liar. I know you and Yoo Il Rak are up to something.”

 

That earns me a pout from her. “You could at least pretend to play along, Orabang….”

 

“Ara, ara.” I concede defeat with a nod. “Surprise me all you want, then. If playing ignorant is what you want, then don’t think I won’t.”

 

~~~~~

 

Just as expected, Yoo Il Rak scrambles out of his car as soon as he spots Nae Il and me coming out of the terminal. Racing towards us with a wide grin, he takes Nae Il’s suitcase from her and gestures for her to go on ahead. Then, once the two of us are alone, he reaches out with one hand and claps it on my shoulder.

 

“So, Yoo Jin-ah – how’ve you been?”

 

Knowing that he isn’t aware of how I am on planes – that’s something that Nae Il and I have kept secret from our friends – I just answer with something vague and polite: a response that, mercifully, Il Rak just attributes to my being tired from the long journey.

 

“Gwenchana,” he says breezily, leading the way to the trunk of his car, I following a few steps behind. “Trust me: by the time Abeoji’s done with you, you’ll be right as rain again.”

 

I give him an appreciative smile in response as, now that he’s already loaded Nae Il’s suitcase into the car, I push mine towards him.

 

The next thing I know, I find myself lurching forward, a sudden weight pressing on my back and two arms wrapping around my shoulders. I let out a surprised yelp, only to be answered by a familiar singsong voice ringing in my ear:

 

“Cha-neunim! Just how long has it been?!”

 

As Il Rak, finally unable to hold it in any longer, lets out a snort and then bursts out laughing, I straighten myself back up as much as I can, rolling my shoulders back to nudge Ma Su Min off of me. Fortunately, noticing my predicament, he lets go just enough for me to free myself – and, as I round on him, ready to ask him exactly what the hell is going on, I also spot Choi Min Hee stepping out from behind him.

 

“Mianhaeyo, sunbae,” she says in response to my questioning look. “When Su Min-sunbae found out when your flight was coming in, he just had to come along.”

 

I raise an eyebrow. “And what about you? Surely, you didn’t just happen to be passing by here.”

 

Realizing she’s been caught, Min Hee’s eyes shift this way and that nervously for a second, but then she draws herself up to her full height and stares directly right back at me.

 

“I’m here for Nae Il, of course.”

 

Speaking of Nae Il, I shoot her a penetrating look as she now comes up to us. “Ya, Seollebal, is this what the surprise was?”

 

Her sheepish expression is answer enough.

 

“All right, then,” Il Rak finally cuts in, closing the car’s trunk shut with a bang before gesturing toward the main compartment with a flourish. “Let’s continue the chit-chat inside so we’re not hogging up the lane.”

 

Still, it takes my seconding his idea for the three others to actually listen, trickling into the backseat while Il Rak and I get in the front. The first thing he does, after making a quick phone call home to notify his father of our whereabouts, is to then hook it up to the car’s stereo system and turn on his music player.

 

Immediately, the car is filled with the sound of violin music – an arrangement of Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24 – but one that doesn’t sound like any interpretation I know. This one has just ever so slight of an edge to it, and immediately, the player’s name comes to my mind:

 

“That’s David Garrett, isn’t it.”

 

Although he doesn’t dare take his eyes off the road, Il Rak answers with his characteristic wide grin. “How’d you guess?”

 

I shrug. “He’s the only violinist I know of who’s been able to successfully combine classical and rock in a way that I could actually stand.”

 

“Exactly!” Taking his right hand off the steering wheel for just a second, he flashes me that rock gesture of his. “Those are my two idols: Paganini in the past and Garrett in the present. Finally someone gets it, and, of course, it just has to be my best buddy in the whole wide world.”

 

“And I thought Jung Si Won-eonnie would be one of them, too, Rak-kun.”

 

I turn to catch Nae Il pouting at us from the backseat at the same time that Il Rak gives her a glance in the rearview mirror.

 

“Of course Si Won-ie is big, too! Her playing is what made me fall for her after all,” he answers. “It’s just that the two of us have very different styles, and there’s no way in hell I’d try to get in on her turf like that!” He gives me a quick peek. “Isn’t that right?”

 

“Mm,” I affirm his words with a nod of my own, and that seems to settle Nae Il enough that she now enters fully into conversation with Su Min and Min Hee, leaving Il Rak and me to our own thoughts.

 

After a moment, though, he speaks up again.

 

“Wait – if you got that, then why did you say my playing sucked at first?”

 

I give him a sideways look. “To be honest, I didn’t get it at first. I didn’t get that you were trying to do something new, and thought you were just ruining perfectly good music instead. But even if I did understand then, my judgment wouldn’t have been any different.”

 

“Mwo?”

 

“Before you start bending the rules,” I explain, “you have to know them first. And back then, you weren’t there yet.” I turn to face him completely, one corner of my mouth twitching up into a smile. “But if you want to try any of that now, I won’t stop you.”

 

“Ya, Yoo Jin-ah…” Il Rak says, his voice sounding oddly thick to my ears. “Just what the hell do you want me to say to that?!”

 

I shrug and turn back around to look out the window. “Then don’t.”

 

We drop into silence then, choosing instead to bask in the music and listen to the conversation happening behind us: Nae Il, Min Hee and Su Min trading stories back and forth, laughing at each other’s jokes. At one point, Nae Il even passes Min Hee’s phone up to me in the front to show me some photos she had taken of a building she had found festooned with Austrian flags during a recent excursion with her parents to Namiseom: a temporary exhibit focused on Haydn and his music.

 

Once we have gotten back to Seoul and dropped Su Min and Min Hee off back at their respective homes, leaving just the three of us in the car, Il Rak speaks up again.

 

“Yoo Jin-ah.”

 

I turn to look at him. “Eh?”

 

“Um…” he begins nervously, “you know that Si Won flew in last week, right?”

 

“Ne.” Things had been rather chaotic on their end in the past month or so: Il Rak had managed to fly to Vienna to attend Si Won’s graduation recital, but had flown back home alone so that she would have time to pack up her things, close on her apartment, and move back to Seoul for good. And now, from the sound of it, it’s finally happened.

 

“Well, here’s the thing,” Il Rak says. He hesitates for a moment, clearing his throat, then continues, “She doesn’t have a place to stay right now.”

 

“Geu rae? I thought she’d be with her family.”

 

“Her parents are in the States right now on some sort of business trip, so she didn’t want to be home alone. Said that she’d been living by herself for the past year already, and that she didn’t fly back just to do that all over again,” he explains. “As for her grandfather…she could stay with him, I suppose, but his house is too far from Haneum to be practical.

 

“Point is: she’s staying over at my place, too, until after the Rising Star concert.”

 

I stare at him, gobsmacked. At the same time, Nae Il’s voice once again rings out from the backseat, this time in a whoop of excitement.

 

“What about Abeonim?” I ask once Nae Il has settled back down again. “I thought he didn’t like Si Won much.”

 

“Oh, he’s fine with her now,” Il Rak answers. “Ever since I told him that I liked her and that I didn’t see her as a rival, he’s been cool with us being together.”

 

I let out a short laugh, but don’t say anything more.

 

Yoo Il Rak’s father spoils him rotten – and I have always envied him for it.

 

~~~~~

 

Mendelssohn, the restaurant that takes up the ground floor of Yoo Il Rak’s house, is his father’s pride and joy. Mostly, I know, because the restaurant is inextricably linked to Abeonim’s greatest love: Il Rak himself.

 

“Nothing makes it onto the menu unless I’ve tried it and liked it first,” he had boasted to me once, back when I had come over on a near-daily basis to work with him on his solo for the Tchaikovsky concerto.

 

Perhaps this is why the food on offer here is just as eclectic as Il Rak is: large set meals of multiple Western-style dishes meant to be shared by three or four people; and a wide selection of cocktails and fruit juice blends served, in deference to the latest online trend, in wide-mouthed jars rather than glasses.

 

Abeonim already has food ready on the table for us by the time we arrive, so after rushing through the greetings as quickly as etiquette would allow, Il Rak and I each take hold of a suitcase and bring it upstairs to the apartment. We run into Si Won just as she is stepping out of the guest room to meet us, and I find myself having to abruptly look away in a random direction when Il Rak immediately greets her with a kiss on the cheek.

 

After we have put away the luggage – Nae Il’s suitcase in the guest room with Si Won’s, and mine in Il Rak’s room – the three of us head down the stairs to the private room in the restaurant that has been set aside for us. Nae Il is already there when we arrive, sitting on her hands in vain attempts to stop herself from fidgeting impatiently. She brightens up as soon as she spots us, scrambling up from her seat to gesture for Si Won to take the spot beside her while Il Rak and I take the seats opposite.

 

Now, at last, we can get a good look at the impressive lunch spread Abeonim has prepared, all four of us unable to hold back from leaning out of our seats in interest. Two large plates on opposite corners of the tray hold the main entrees: a carved-up steak with a side salad on one, and a seafood pasta dish on the other. On the remaining two corners and running down the middle are the sides: a wire basket of fries, assorted vegetable dishes and several dipping sauces.

 

Nae Il, as can be expected, is the first one to actually say something, yelling out a word of thanks that is received somewhere outside in the main dining room, where Abeonim is busy serving other customers. Then, without further ado, we dig in all at once, the girls bursting out into giggles when both Il Rak and I simultaneously jab a piece of steak each with our forks.

 

The two of us exchange awkward glances.

 

“Yoo Jin-ah, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

 

I answer his query with a shrug. “We’ll just have to find out.”

 

Sure enough, all four of us burst out laughing when Il Rak and I once again end up moving as one: not taking the food for ourselves, but forking it out onto the girls’ plates.

 

For the most part, Abeonim leaves us to chat and catch up among ourselves, only stopping by to bring us our drinks. However, once we have finished up, neatly piling up all the plates and cutlery on the tray to make it easier for him to take back into the kitchen, he comes back inside.

 

Wearing a serious expression on his face – or, at least, as serious as a good-humoured man like him could manage – he plants himself behind Il Rak.

 

“Now, I’m sure you kids are all mature and responsible adults here, so I won’t beat around the bush. You three –” he scans his eyes over the girls and myself “– are more than welcome to make yourselves at home here. But I do have a single ground rule: no nighttime shenanigans.” He shoots me a pointed look. “Yoo Jin, I know you and Nae Il have already moved in together while you were abroad, but could I trust you two to stay out of trouble while you are here at least?”

 

I feel the blood rush up to my face as Abeonim’s warning sinks in: a reaction that prompts Nae Il to press one hand to her mouth to hold back a sudden burst of laughter. But I eventually manage to school myself into a more neutral expression before firmly promising to stick to the rules.

 

After all, this at least is something I’ve never struggled with so far.

 

As Abeonim turns to leave, after giving me one last approving nod, I happen to spot, out of the corner of my eye, the stricken look that has come over Il Rak’s face. He is biting his lip hard, keeping his gaze firmly focused on a random spot in the room; and, underneath the table, I could see that one hand has been clenched into a fist.

 

I glance over at him quizzically, but all he does in response is to give me a slight shake of the head, signalling for me to feign ignorance. So I don’t pursue the matter further until all four of us have once again retreated to our rooms upstairs. Once Il Rak and I are alone, however, I shut the door and round on him.

 

“All right – when was it?”

 

His eyes widen. “What – what are you talking about?”

 

“When did it happen?” I give him a pointed look. “This past May, during her graduation? Or was it even earlier – during your visit to Vienna to Christmas, for instance?”

 

“Ya, Cha Yoo Jin!”

 

Il Rak is careful to keep his voice hushed, but I could sense the desperation in his tone.

 

I hold up my hands in a placating gesture. “Look, Yoo Il Rak: don’t misunderstand me. What you and Jung Si Won do is your own business, and I’m not about to judge you or think less of you for it either way.” When I see him breathe a sigh of relief, however, I add, “But you do have to be careful. My understanding is that Abeonim still doesn’t know about this – correct?”

 

A nod.

 

“Well, then, you’ve been extremely lucky so far, Yoo Il Rak. You do realize that you almost gave yourself away just now?”

 

Immediately, Il Rak’s jaw drops. “I – I did?” he gasps, his voice cracking in surprise.

 

I simply respond with a silent nod: one that, from the way he smacks himself on the forehead and plops down onto his bed with a groan, I guess already says more than enough.

 

For a moment, I don’t know how best to react, but I eventually settle for sitting down on the bed beside him.

 

“Gwenchana,” I say finally. “I think you got away with it this time; Abeonim was so focused on Nae Il and I just then that I doubt he would have noticed anything you did. But right now, you only have two options in front of you: either you tell him yourself, or you get more subtle at keeping your secret.”

 

Il Rak lifts his head up from his hands at that last part. “Cha Yoo Jin, has something like this ever happened to you?”

 

I quirk one eyebrow at him. “Mwo? You mean getting found out?”

 

“Ani.” Suddenly sheepish, he gestures vaguely in the air with one hand. “I mean the actual sex part.”

 

“Ah….” At first, I wonder whether I should tell Il Rak the truth, but I decide that it’s only fair. “Never.”

 

“Never?” He lets out a loud gasp that has me tensing up in alarm lest we be overheard. “Not even once?” His voice drops down the quietest it has been since this conversation started. “Not…not even with Chae Do Kyung?”

 

I shoot him a pointed look. “I’d told you already: whenever Do Kyung stayed over at my place, it was because she needed an accompanist for her practice. If you didn’t believe me back then, that’s your own fault.”

 

“I know that! But –”

 

“But what?”

 

“You know what they said about you two at Haneum, right?”

 

Of course I do.

 

By some strange fluke, Chae Do Kyung and I had both been pegged as the school’s star pupils almost from the first day we both started classes there: a role that both of us found difficult to play. We had been friends and classmates ever since middle school, so I guess it simply made sense for us to stick together at first, the two of us trying to make sense of this new fame we’d been thrust into as a team.

 

In hindsight, Do Kyung and I were both more in love with the idea of being a campus couple than we ever really were with each other. It had just seemed like the proper progression of things: close friends of the opposite gender inevitably wonder if they should take it a step further. But even though our relationship had been companionable, I had never felt the sort of emotional – or physical – connection with Do Kyung that I do with Nae Il now. So by the time we decided to go our separate ways, we did so with no hard feelings: just the mutual acknowledgement that we would be better off simply staying friends.

 

Still, no matter what the truth of the matter had been, rumours had always spread about Do Kyung and me, fanned in no small part by those people like the Chairwoman of the Board of Directors, who could only see the superficial details and turned us into a publicity stunt for the school. Even after it was common knowledge that we had broken up, we were both still asked by the board to fake it for the press on the night of my Grieg concerto:

 

Haneum’s virtuoso and prima donna; the son of Cha Dong Woo and the only-daughter heiress of Gaon Instruments? Of course they should be together!

 

It is no wonder, then, that the gossip had gotten so out of hand.

 

Remembering all this makes my tone come out surprisingly bitter and short when I finally answer Il Rak’s question:

 

“Things aren’t always like they seem. You won’t believe how much happens just for a show.”

 

“Mwo?”

 

“You’re lucky, Yoo Il Rak. You’re an S and you always will be. So don’t try to understand what an A’s world is like; it doesn’t suit you.”

 

And, to his credit, from the look he gives me in response, he actually gets my words for the compliment they are.

 

~~~~~

 

Although Yoo Il Rak suggested that Nae Il and I simply take it easy on our first day back in Seoul, we decide to head out anyway. After all, Eomma already knew we were supposed to fly in today. If we don’t at least make a stopover at her coffee shop sometime this afternoon, she’s liable to show up at Mendelssohn herself to fuss over us, and that would just be damned embarrassing.

 

She is already sitting in her favourite spot, the long bar-style table from which she could keep a close watch on the entrance, when we arrive. And, almost before either Nae Il or I could take a second step, she is scrambling out of her seat and rushing over to intercept us.

 

We have done this often enough that Nae Il now knows exactly what I want from her; sure enough, she steps in front of me to greet Eomma first, receiving an enthusiastic hug in return. That gives me the precious few seconds I need to brace myself for her onslaught, but I still find myself instinctively raising my hands to stop her from putting her arms around me.

 

Without missing a beat, Eomma adjusts her hold so that she is reaching up to grasp onto my shoulders instead. But still, she lets out a soft cluck in mock-displeasure at my response.

 

“Still as cold as ever. Would it kill you to let me hug you just once?” Casting a sideways glance at Nae Il, she adds sarcastically, “I wonder where he got that from – certainly not from me.”

 

“And you haven’t changed a bit either,” I quip just as drily in response as Nae Il, knowing this to be part of our usual banter, breaks into giggles beside us.

 

Eyes twinkling in mirth herself, Eomma jokingly raises one hand as though she is tempted to smack me. But then, as I knew she would, she changes tactics to instead take me by the hand and guide me to the seat beside hers, Nae Il taking one across from us. She then calls for the barista to bring each of us our drinks: her signature black tea coffee for the two of us, and a mocha for Nae Il.

 

“I know it’s probably a sorry excuse for coffee compared to what you two have in Salzburg,” she murmurs, pitching her voice so that only Nae Il and I could hear her, “but this is the best I can do.”

 

“Gwenchanayo, Eomeonim,” Nae Il says, taking a grateful sip of her drink, then licking the extra cream off of her upper lip. “Sometimes, it’s what reminds people of home that’s the best.”

 

Eomma glances skeptically at me. “I’m not sure if Yoo Jin-ie feels the same way, though….”

 

“To be honest, it doesn’t matter too much to me,” I answer with a shrug. “I might be a connoisseur about some things, but coffee isn’t one of them: as long as it gets me awake in the morning, that’s all I care about.”

 

It is at this point that Nae Il reaches into her bag to take out the present we have brought over from Austria: a copy of our photobook, finished at last. Eomma’s eyes immediately light up in interest, and we spend a good long while poring over its pages, exchanging anecdotes from our current lives and my childhood in Salzburg respectively.

 

When we have finished, Eomma setting the book off to one side for safekeeping, Nae Il diverts her attention to a spot in the room behind me. She points towards it, and my eyes follow her finger to find the black grand piano set up in its corner.

 

“You still have that there, Eomeonim?”

 

Eomma glances over at the instrument. “Of course! Why would I get rid of it?”

 

I can tell from the way Nae Il lights up in interest where this is going.

 

“Has anyone tried playing it?” she asks.

 

“A couple of students have used it for practice since you left,” Eomma answers, “but it’s only recently that someone’s actually taken over your job of playing here part-time.”

 

Both of us swivel around to look at her.

 

“Geu rae? Who?” Nae Il asks.

 

“I’m not sure if you’d know him; he’s not from Haneum.”

 

Her mouth drops open in surprise. “He…he’s not?”

 

“Ya, Seollebal,” I cut in, “does that matter?”

 

“I was just curious.”

 

Eomma glances down at her watch. “Actually, now that I think about it, you two have come at just the right time.” She raises herself just a little out of her seat, peering out the window to the sidewalk outside. “He usually gets here about now….Ah! There he is!”

 

Immediately, Nae Il and I both turn to look towards the door, just in time to see a young man step inside. He looks to be somewhere in our age group, and is dressed simply in a plain dark blue t-shirt and faded jeans, his shortly cropped hair unstyled but simply left to fall naturally over his forehead.

 

He pauses in the entryway for a moment, eyes scanning slowly across the room until they meet Eomma’s, at which point she raises one hand to wave him over.

 

“Sun Jae-yah! Come over here for a second; there’s someone I want you to meet.”

 

Giving us a shy smile, he ambles casually towards our table; as he approaches, Nae Il and I both stand up, she scurrying quickly around the table to my side, in order to greet him properly.

 

“Now, I don’t think you kids have met, so allow me to make the introductions,” Eomma says. Clapping a hand first on my shoulder, and then Nae Il’s, she gives him our names before leaving us to it, walking off to speak with the barista about something or other.

 

“Annyeonghaseyo,” the man says once we are alone. His voice is soft and warm, surprisingly deep for one who looks so young. He gives us a slight bow. “Pleased to meet you; my name is Lee Sun Jae.”

 

“Lee Sun Jae….” I echo to myself in response. The name sounds vaguely familiar, like I had heard it once before.

 

Finally, after a moment’s hesitation, it hits me.

 

“Ah…I remember now. You were one of the piano students at Seohan, right?” When he answers with a nod, I step forward and hold out one hand towards him. “I was there for your debut recital: the Rachmaninoff,” I say as we shake hands. “It was truly amazing.”

 

That concert had been a small one, if I recall correctly: quite unlike my own debut with the Grieg concerto in that respect. I had gone at Dean Song’s recommendation, as part of the preparation for my own recital; she firmly believed that just as much could be learned from observing others than from practicing alone or with one’s instructor. And there was definitely something intriguing about Lee Sun Jae at the time: a piano prodigy, almost entirely self-taught, who had only been discovered by Seohan’s faculty when the videos he had posted online of himself playing at home had gone viral.

 

Now, as I finally have the chance to compliment his performance in person, his eyes flicker down towards the floor as a small, bashful smile spreads across his face. “Komapsumnida,” he says.

 

“By ‘the Rachmaninoff’, do you mean the piano concerto?” Nae Il asks.

 

I open my mouth to respond, but this time, Sun Jae answers for me.

 

“Aniyo – his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.”

 

“That’s not a far cry from a concerto, though,” I add in, “since it’s still featuring a solo pianist with an orchestra.”

 

“Your Grieg was really good, too, by the way.”

 

My eyes widen in surprise at Sun Jae’s interjection. “You were there for that?”

 

“Probably for the same reason why you were there for mine,” he says with a wink. “But –” he suddenly slaps his hands against his legs, then jerks one thumb over his shoulder towards the piano behind him “– speaking of which….”

 

“Right. Of course,” I respond, gesturing for him to go on ahead. “You should get going; we’ve kept you long enough.”

 

As Sun Jae heads towards the piano, Nae Il makes as though to follow him. Instinctively, I reach out and grab her hand before she could get any further.

 

“Ya, Seollebal – where do you think you’re going?”

 

At the sound of my voice, Sun Jae, too, stops in his tracks, turning back slightly to look at us. As for Nae Il, she turns her head this way and that, glancing back and forth between both of us before asking me, “May I go with him, Orabang?”

 

“Why are you asking me?” Looking her directly in the eye, I then shift my gaze over her shoulder towards Sun Jae. “I’m not the one you’d be disturbing with your chit-chat if you did.”

 

Nae Il turns to ask him directly then, but I can’t help but notice that he doesn’t gesture for her to follow him until after I have nodded my assent. Clearly, Lee Sun Jae is an observant one; he’s already figured out the nature of our relationship just from these few minutes, and the parting thumbs-up he gives me serves as his promise not to overstep his bounds where Nae Il is concerned.

 

Of course, I was just teasing; I know Nae Il well enough by now to know that she won’t actually cause any trouble. Indeed, just as I had expected, after exchanging a few more pleasantries with Sun Jae as he gets settled at the piano, she simply takes a seat at the closest available table, the better to listen to him by.

 

I, on my part, return to the seat that I had occupied earlier, but, like Nae Il, my attention is wholly on the music that is coming from the piano now: Mozart’s Rondo in A-minor. It is an unusual choice for a busy café like this one: the melody slow, lyrical, and sad. This is not the sort of piece for accompanying lively conversation; instead, I would say that it is better suited for quiet contemplation, and complete and utter concentration. This is music that, in its very simplicity, demands its listener to stop and take notice, lest a single note, a single nuance, be missed.

 

“He always starts with this one.”

 

Startled, I turn in my seat to find that Eomma has returned to her spot next to me.

 

“He does?”

 

“Mm.” She takes a sip of her coffee, then adds with a fond smile, “It suits him.”

 

Eomma is right. As much as I might have thought it a strange piece of music for a coffee shop, I could both see and hear just how utterly absorbed Sun Jae is in his playing. His eyes are closed and he leans down over the keyboard, gently coaxing out every single note, sculpting every single phrase so that it rises and falls like a sigh of longing.

 

I had noticed it before during his Rachmaninoff, and I am glad to see my thoughts confirmed once again here: Lee Sun Jae is a natural performer. Not a showman – not the sort of musician who deliberately contorts his face or raises it up to the heavens or sways his body back and forth just for the sake of having a visual – but someone who simply immerses himself into the music and lets that shape how he moves.

 

“How did you find him?” I ask Eomma idly as now, having finished the Rondo, he moves on to a lighter, livelier piece.

 

“Mwo?”

 

I shoot her a pointed look. “Don’t try to hide it from me; I know that, with you, there’s no such thing as a coincidence. Especially with your massive gossip network.”

 

For a moment, it looks like she wants to say something in rebuttal, but when she opens her mouth to speak, nothing comes out. Instead, after thinking over it a moment longer, she finally lets out a sigh of resignation.

 

“Fine,” she says. “You’ve got me. It was Song Mi Na.”

 

This, I wasn’t expecting. “What does Dean Song have to do with this?”

 

Eomma shoots me a long look, the one that she gives me when I am not getting something when, really, I should. “You do know about what happened at Seohan, right?” she asks, her tone no less sarcastic for how quietly she is speaking lest we be overheard. “The corruption scandal?”

 

“Of course I do.”

 

It had, after all, been the big news story in Seoul’s classical music scene two years ago. While I had not followed the details closely, having no patience for anything even remotely related to power plays and corporate business dealings, I knew enough about the way of the world to be able to guess what the accusations entailed: slush funds, bribery, backdoor admittances to children of wealthy or influential families while more qualified but poorer students were ignored.

 

Haneum, after all, had had its fair share of these problems as well – and the only reason why things had never gotten so far out of hand had been that Dean Song Mi Na had consistently acted as a counterweight to the Chairwoman’s machinations on that front. I, of course, had thrown my glove in with Dean Song in their feud from the start.

 

“What you may not know, though, is that our Sun Jae here had been right in the middle of the whole mess. While he was admitted to Seohan fairly – no-one would dispute that he’s talented – it was also part of a scheme from the admin to cover up all the backdoor admittances they had.

 

“Not to mention, of course, there was the whole deal with his instructor –”

 

“Stop.” I hold up one hand, palm facing towards her. “I don’t want to hear it.”

 

I know what the rumours had been, of course, although I had never believed them and had instead just pushed them far into the back of my mind. After all, people could say whatever the hell they want with no way of ever knowing the truth – and nowhere is that clearer than in tales of illicit romance.

 

People will always talk. But let Lee Sun Jae have his privacy. It’s the least that I can do.

 

Startled at my interruption, Eomma drifts into silence for a moment, then continues on, picking up the story at a different point.

 

“Arasseo. What matters for us, though, is that Sun Jae dropped out from Seohan during that time. He continued taking private lessons – with a new instructor this time – taking part in competitions and whatnot. But you know how things are around here, Yoo Jin-ah: without credentials, without a degree, even the most talented musicians won’t get far.”

 

“And that’s where Dean Song comes in?” I ask with a raised eyebrow.

 

“Exactly. Mi Na wanted to offer him a spot at Haneum. Of course, I don’t think I need to tell you that the Chairwoman wasn’t having any of it –”

 

I nod, giving Eomma an understanding smile. Even talent can’t make up for the potential taint of scandal as far as that woman is concerned.

 

“Well, Mi Na was going to fight for it anyway – except that Sun Jae declined himself.”

 

“Mwo?”

 

“From what she told me, he said to her that he wasn’t interested in getting involved with any sort of institution again – no surprise, really, considering how badly he’d been burned the first time. Instead, he wanted to play music in a way that brought it out to the people: open for anyone to listen to and enjoy regardless of who they were or where they came from.”

 

“And this café was one such place?”

 

A smile breaking on her face, Eomma suddenly reaches over and this time, I am unable to duck away before she ruffles my hair like she did when I was little.

 

“You always were a smart one, Yoo Jin-ah.”

 

I return her smile with a small one of my own, and then once again direct my attention towards the piano. At some point in our conversation, it seems that Nae Il, no longer able to resist, had left her seat and instead planted herself right next to the instrument. She is leaning casually against it now, watching with wide-eyed interest the way that Sun Jae’s hands are dancing over the keys.

 

Just then, the piece he is playing comes to an end, and she bursts into applause; he turns to look up at her, and although I cannot see his face from where I am sitting, I could easily imagine the same shy smile I had already seen earlier today. She says something to him then, and he replies.

 

Whatever it was he said, it makes her laugh – and, to my surprise, I find myself smiling, too.

 

That is what a shared love of music can do.

 

~~~~~

 

“Wait, wait, wait – so you’re saying, Nae Il-ah, that Seohan had an uprising just like ours? And in 2014 as well? Daebak…that year’s gonna go down in history now: our very own revolution!”

 

From her spot on my left, Nae Il stares, jaw dropped open in surprise, across the coffee table at Il Rak on my right. It is now late at night and the four of us are all sitting on the floor of the living room in Il Rak’s upstairs apartment, having decided to order chimaek for dinner rather than troubling his father to make anything. It’s not a very large space, with a couch on one side of the wall and a big-screen TV on the other flanked by shelves filled with his collection of DVDs and video games. Just now, after the two of us had told Il Rak and Si Won about what had happened this afternoon in the coffee shop, Nae Il is filling us in on just what she and Lee Sun Jae had been chatting about: the time that he and several other students, whom had all been cast aside by the faculty and their elite classmates, had formed an ensemble of their own.

 

Now, though, she trails off mid-sentence at Il Rak’s interruption. Eyes angling slowly down towards the floor, she murmurs, “I didn’t mean it quite like that, Rak-kun….”

 

“Aish.” He waves one hand dismissively in the air. “So what if it was just a quintet and we had an orchestra? The point is: a bunch of students who had been shafted as ‘leftovers’ decided to just stick it to the man and put on their own performance anyway – even when the faculty tried to stop them.” Il Rak’s words had been rushing together in his excitement – helped more than a bit by the fact that he was already a bit drunk by this point – and I jump, startled, when he suddenly pumps one fist into the air with a whoop. “Don’t you guys see? That’s the spirit right there – you know, ‘Power to the People’ and all that!”

 

All three of us – Nae Il, Si Won across from me, and I – stare at him, incredulous. But it is finally Si Won who actually says something.

 

“Mwo?”

 

Realizing that he’s just lost us completely, the smile slowly melts from his face.

 

“You mean…that’s not it?”

 

I let out a sigh as I reach over and carefully take the can of beer out of his hand. “Not exactly. And besides, you could hardly call Jung Si Won a ‘leftover’, could you?”

 

Mouth dropping in shock, he suddenly lunges out and grabs one of her hands in his two. “Mianhae,” he gasps, “I didn’t mean it like that!”

 

Clearly more than a bit used to the way he behaves when he’s been drinking, Si Won simply accepts his apology with a smile. We all know that he’ll have completely forgotten about this by morning, so none of us see any worth in making a fuss.

 

But Nae Il still isn’t done.

 

“The thing is, talking about this gave me an idea: what if we did something like that? Just the four of us.”

 

This time, it’s my turn to round on her. “Ya, Seol Nae Il – do you honestly think we have time for that right now?”

 

After all, we still have the large Rising Star reunion concert to prepare for. It’s been set for mid-August, a bit more than a month from now, and we haven’t even started rehearsals as an entire group yet.

 

She meets my stare with one of her own. “You can make it work, Orabang; I know you can. I mean, aren’t you meeting with Yoon Hoo-sunbae tomorrow to work out a schedule?”

 

“I am – but that’s not the point.” I sweep my hand across the room to indicate all three of them. “The point is that you all already have enough work to do – you and Si Won both are soloists with a concerto each, and Il Rak, as concertmaster, has to learn everything – and now you’re wanting to add more to that? Andwae.”

 

Nae Il scoots closer to me with a pout. Then, grasping onto my arm, she tugs on me and whines, “Come on, Orabang….”

 

I shrug her off of me. “I’d told you: my answer is no. And I’m not going to say it again.”

 

All this time, Si Won has been watching us closely, a sharp appraising look in her eyes. I have seen it often enough while working with her over the years – first as two A-type students, and later as conductor and concertmaster of the Rising Star orchestra – to know that she is carefully assessing the situation, trying to come up with the best solution possible.

 

Finally, she speaks up.

 

“Actually, Cha Yoo Jin, it’s not impossible – if we’re smart about it.”

 

Nae Il and I have simultaneous but different reactions. While she immediately lets go of me and turns to Si Won with an excitedly gasped, “Jinjja?”, I return her level stare with an equally pointed one – the one that I know she’d understand to mean that I’m ready to talk business.

 

“How so?”

 

Probably not even realizing she’s doing it, Si Won tosses her hair back over her shoulder: a move that I note out of the corner of my eye immediately makes Il Rak sit up in interest from his previous drunken state.

 

“Two things,” she says firmly, holding up the same number of fingers for emphasis. “First of all, we keep it short. Any pieces we pick must be under ten minutes in length – five if at all possible. Second, we only use music we already know: things that only need a refresher and won’t entail us learning anything new.” One eyebrow quirks up in my direction. “You, of course, can be an exception to that, since you’re not already playing something.”

 

“I’m open to learning something new, too,” Il Rak cuts in.

 

“Me, too!” Nae Il interjects, raising one hand in the air like a schoolgirl.

 

“After all,” Il Rak continues, “didn’t the S Orchestra learn all of Beethoven’s Eroica in the same amount of time? So just how hard can this be – am I right, Yoo Jin-ah?”

 

Noting the looks all three are giving me – pleading from Nae Il, earnestness from Il Rak, assured confidence from Si Won – I finally relent with a sigh and a shrug.

 

“All right, then,” I say, throwing up my hands in defeat. “You’ve got me. If you guys think you can pull it off, then I’m not stopping you.”

 

Nae Il and Il Rak let out simultaneous cheers, reaching out to give each other a high-five across the table. Then, all three of the others take up their drinks and turn to offer me a toast, thus sealing the deal.

 

~~~~~

 

Even though I know it’s silly, and definitely something more like what Nae Il would do than me, I can’t help reaching out and touching the black grand piano, stroking it and feeling its smooth lacquered surface under my fingertips as I walk slowly along its length.

 

After all, this instrument in my favourite piano practice room at Haneum had once been my faithful companion for years, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen it.

 

The sound of the door clicking open behind me stops me up short, though. Eyes widening instinctively, I jump back from the piano and whirl around to face the entrance.

 

Nae Il, her hand still on the door, blinks at me in surprise.

 

“Gwenchanayo?”

 

Cringing on the inside at my own exaggerated reaction, I answer with a nod. “Gwenchana. You startled me, that’s all.”

 

“Mianhaeyo,” she says, bobbing her head in apology as she steps inside. “But you were the one who’d said that you would be here this morning, Orabang.”

 

“Right. So I did.” Recovering my composure, I gesture towards the piano bench. “After you.”

 

She does as she is told, marching resolutely to the piano and setting out her sheet music. Nae Il’s copy of her piece, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A-Minor, is not the full score, but nor is it just her own solo part. Instead, the music is shown in double staves: one line hers, the other a piano transcription of the orchestral accompaniment.

 

Once she is ready, she places her hands on the keyboard, then looks up attentively at me.

 

“I’ll have to head off to the rehearsal soon,” I begin, “but there’s something I wanted to point out to you first. It’ll be useful once you join us this afternoon to go over this concerto.”

 

Moving to stand behind her, I reach past her and play the first four notes of the main theme of the concerto’s first movement.

“What notes are those, Nae Il-ah?”

 

“C-B-A-A.”

 

“Correct.” I turn my head to look her straight in the eye. “How about in German? What would these notes be called then?”

 

She shoots me a questioning look. “C-H-A-A. Wae? Why does that matter?”

 

Giving her a fond smile, I straighten myself back up, then step over to stand beside the piano bench, joining my hands coolly behind my back.

 

“You may not know this, Nae Il-ah, but Robert and Clara Schumann used to speak with each other through music – a language of love, if you will.”

 

Gasping in wonder, Nae Il clasps her hands together as she turns in her seat to face me completely. “Jinjja?”

 

I nod. “If you know where to look, you’ll find it in the music.”

 

“Arasseyo,” she says, nodding slowly to herself in turn. “So what does this phrase mean? C-H-A-A? If you’re bringing this up now, Orabang, then it must mean something.”

 

Asking Nae Il for a pencil, I gesture for her to scoot over to make room for me beside her on the bench. Then, setting myself down on her right, I write on the top right corner of the page in front of us: C-H-i-A-r-A.

 

Before I even need to prompt her, she reads it out loud: “Chiara.”

 

“Geu rae. ‘Chiara’ is the Italian version of ‘Clara’.”

 

Nae Il traces over the name with one finger. “So are you saying that whenever these notes show up in the music….”

 

“What I want you to do, Nae Il-ah, is find them. By the time you join us this afternoon, I want you to have highlighted this sequence of notes. Every single one of them, both in your solo and in the orchestral part. They won’t always start on a C, so you’ll have to look instead for any four-note sequence with the same intervals and rhythm in the melody.”

 

Knowing without even having to look at her that she’s opened her mouth to object, I hold up one finger for silence. “I know you don’t like score study, Seollebal, but this is important.

 

“Think about it this way: every single time you find this motif in the orchestral part, that is Robert telling Clara that he loves her –”

 

“And every single time I see it in the solo, that’s Clara answering back,” she finishes for me.

 

“Exactly.”

 

Nae Il nods, turning her face away so that she is now glancing down at the floor, but she does not do it so quickly that I fail to notice the odd sparkle in her eyes.

 

Gently cupping one hand against her cheek, I lift her face back up towards me. I brush my thumb slowly under her eye, just managing to catch that first tear when it falls.

 

I let out a short laugh despite myself.

 

“Ya, Seol Nae Il…what’s all this?”

 

Instead of answering me directly, she leans in closer, then suddenly wraps her arms around my waist, resting her head on my shoulder. Stiffening in surprise, I take a furtive sideways glance at the window to my left, the one that offers a view to the hallway outside. But when I see that there is no-one there and that we are alone, I finally let myself relax, reaching out with one hand to stroke her on the back.

 

“Nae Il-ah?”

 

“Komawoyo, Orabang,” she finally says, snuggling in even closer. “For saying to me with music what you cannot say with words.”

 

~~~~~

 

While I really should have been expecting this, it still surprises me just how much, out of the original members, the S’s outnumber the A’s now in the Rising Star Orchestra. It makes sense: a number of the A students would have moved on to their studies abroad by this point, or, if they’ve since graduated, have managed to find solo or ensemble work elsewhere. Yet there is something jarring about seeing it in person for the first time as I open the door to the rehearsal hall and step inside.

 

There are, of course, some new faces: those of members who have joined the orchestra in the past year and a half. However, for the most part, those I see are familiar ones, and they immediately welcome me as one of their own:

 

Ma Su Min breaks out with an improvised drum roll. Choi Min Hee, knowing that she is hidden by both her contrabass and the taller students in front of her, raises her bow over her head and waves hello with it. Lee Dan Ya, seated with the other violists, waves as well, shooting me a coy wink while she’s at it. Yoo Il Rak, although he just saw me earlier this morning, gives me a mischievous salute with his bow hand, then uses his bow to prod Jung Si Won beside him until she, too, has turned around and noticed me.

 

And in the centre of it all the action, a beacon of calm in the storm, is Lee Yoon Hoo. He had just finished setting out his score on his music stand, and is now slowly taking his baton out of its box. Although he must have seen and heard the commotion and known what it was all about, he only turns and looks over his shoulder at me when he is done.

 

“Ah, you’re here already – and just in time, too.”

 

One corner of my mouth twitches up into a knowing smirk as I walk towards him, careful to keep my stride quick yet firm. “You know me, Lee Yoon Hoo,” I say once I have come up to the conductor’s stand. “Have I ever been one to be late?”

 

He shakes his head with a genuine smile, then steps down from the stand to meet me, holding out one hand for a handshake.

 

“You know, we don’t need to do this so formally,” I point out to him, pitching my voice so that only he could hear. “We did already meet up yesterday, after all.”

 

“Ara,” he answers, just as softly. “But I like to do things properly.”

 

With that being said, Yoon Hoo resumes his spot on the stand, rapping his baton against his music stand for attention.

“Everyone, I’m sure most of you already know who this is, but for those who are new here….” He beckons me up onto the stand beside him with one hand. “This is Cha Yoo Jin: Rising Star’s founder, and our guest conductor for our upcoming performance.

 

I raise an eyebrow at him. “‘Founder’?” I whisper.

 

“Close enough,” he answers with a shrug. “I might have been with these guys longer, but you were here first.”

 

“Well, I’m glad you admit to that at least,” I mutter dryly, but I don’t get a chance to say anymore, because he then pushes on.

 

“He’s going to be working with you guys on the second half of our programme – and, just so you’re forewarned, he’s scarier than I am, so you had all better show him some respect.”

 

I round on him, gobsmacked. “Ya, Lee Yoon Hoo!”

 

“Just doing you a favour,” he tells me with a wink. “Trust me; these kids could get wild otherwise.”

 

“Gwenchana, you guys!” Yoo Il Rak calls out. He points at me with his bow. “I’ve known this guy from the start – he is scary when he wants to be, but trust me when I say his bark’s worse than his bite, and that whatever scolding you do get from him is for your own good. And if there’s anyone here who’s willing to go to hell and back for us – no offence, Lee Yoon Hoo – it’s him: Cha Yoo Jin.”

 

“Geu rae!” Ma Su Min answers from the back. “Our concertmaster’s right: I’ve seen it before. None of us would be here like this were it not for Cha-neunim, so let’s give him a hand!”

 

They all break out into cheers then, applauding by stamping their feet rhythmically on the floor. Beside me, I notice Yoon Hoo stiffen slightly out of the corner of my eye. It’s short, just a fleeting moment, but I can see how the others’ enthusiasm is putting him in a very awkward position.

 

I don’t doubt that the members love him, too, but this really is getting out of hand.

 

“That’s all great and good,” I begin once the room is quiet again, “but right now, we’re starting with the Carmen – and that, I believe, is your regular conductor’s area.” I give Yoon Hoo a wink with that last statement: one that earns me a grateful smile. Then, once he has nodded his assent, I give the orchestra a slight bow and step off the podium.

 

As I hear him getting the others set up for their rehearsal, I make my way towards a chair that has been set up in advance for me a short ways behind the violins. Then, once I have settled myself there, I reach into my bag and retrieve a notebook and a pen.

 

For years now, I have kept a musical journal, recording anything interesting that I find while watching a performance or a rehearsal in notebooks just like this one – or, in the event that I do not physically have pen and paper with me, as soon as I get the chance. I suppose that I could do this electronically on my phone like Yoon Hoo does, but for some reason, I have always preferred the old-fashiond way. So, by now, I have accumulated enough such books that they now take up an entire row on the bookshelf in our music room at home in Salzburg, and I expect this one to be full by the time we get back there.

 

This spot where I am now is the perfect place for me to watch over the rehearsal. It is the same one that Professor Stresemann had occupied while observing me during rehearsals with the S Orchestra – and, later, where Lee Yoon Hoo had watched and learned as I worked with Rising Star.

 

And now, it is my turn.

 

In one last three-way video chat before my flight from Austria, Professor Stresemann had finally revealed to Lee Yoon Hoo and me the purpose for having us collaborate for this concert: to take note of each other’s conducting and teaching styles and techniques and learn from them. So when we had met yesterday to work out a rehearsal schedule, ultimately deciding to split each day into two halves, we had also made an agreement that whenever one is leading the rehearsal, the other will be watching in the background.

 

“You seem to have toned things down a bit, Cha Yoo Jin.”

 

Startled right out of my thoughts, I turn to look at Jung Si Won, who has pulled up a chair beside me.

 

“What makes you think that?” I ask, reorienting myself back around to face the front of the room.

 

“I still remember the way you just bristled up that first time you walked in to find Lee Yoon Hoo up on the conductor’s stand,” she replies. “You looked just like an angry cat – or like someone who’s about to have a tooth pulled.”

 

“It comes with the job,” I say with a shrug. “No conductor likes having someone else in his place.”

 

“So what’s different now?”

 

“Well, we’re all older and wiser for one.” Glancing up to see that the others are almost done setting up, I open up my notebook in my lap, pen at the ready. “Secondly, I know my place. I’m here as a guest conductor: no more, no less.

 

“And third…we’re on a truce: no interfering with each other’s territory during rehearsal.”

 

Si Won gives me a wry smile. “So does that mean I could expect fisticuffs when you two are alone?”

 

I want to answer right then and there, but just then, Yoon Hoo directs his gaze towards me as he, once again, raps lightly on the music stand to command silence from the members.

 

Our eyes meet: the signal that we are both ready to begin.

 

“Right.” He lays his baton down on top of his copy of the score for the time being. “Let’s have a recap.” From the look he sends my way, he is clearly doing this for my benefit. “Who can tell me where Carmen takes place?”

 

Su Min raises his hand eagerly. “In Spain,” he calls out brightly when prompted to answer.

 

“Correct. Now, had he been to Spain before?”

 

Several of the students mutter in the negative, as others shake their heads.

 

“So now we’ve got a problem,” Yoon Hoo continues, casually joining his hands together behind his back in that way he often does. “In the original opera, with the sets and costumes and everything, anyone watching could tell that the story of Carmen was meant to take place in Spain, even though Bizet and his audience were French. But how do we know here: in Guiraud’s rearrangement of the music?”

 

This time, Dan Ya is the one who answers. Setting her viola and its bow across her lap, she raises her hands above her head, twisting and turning them with a flourish. “Flamenco!”

 

“Close enough,” Yoon Hoo answers with a grin as the others chuckle softly at her antics. “It’s the first movement of the Carmen Suite after the Prelude: the Aragonaise.”

 

To my surprise, and Si Won’s amusement, Yoon Hoo then beats out the rhythm of the Aragonaise’s first opening phrase: a hard stomp on the podium for the heavily accented downbeat, then rhythmic clapping, his own hands held up beside his head in a simulation of flamenco, to indicate the remaining notes.

 

“That’s what we’re looking for: that downbeat. It is the music’s pulse: what gives it rhythm and life and makes it flare up in passion like blood rushing through your veins. So I really want to hear that from all of you when you play. Push down hard on that first note, and use its momentum to carry through the rest of the phrase. Arasseo?”

 

When the members nod in understanding, he finally takes up the baton once again. “So let’s try that now. On the count of three.” And, after silently mouthing that count, he flicks his baton up on the upbeat and, as he’d suggested, comes down hard on the downbeat. The orchestra, already waiting with bated breath, meets him exactly, and the room fills with a bright fanfare-like dance from the brass instruments, punctuated by Su Min and a second percussionist – a new student whom I haven’t seen before – with the timpani and triangle.

 

“In answer to your question, Jung Si Won,” I say finally, “ani. We won’t fight like that. Not anymore.

 

“Because even if Lee Yoon Hoo and I do it in different ways, both of us still take the music to heart.”

 

~~~~~

 

I must not be used to sleeping on the floor beside Il Rak’s bed just yet; even slight noises are waking me up in the middle of the night.

 

Still, over the past week that Nae Il and I have been here, I’ve learned how best to fall back asleep. So even though the sound of the bedroom door clicking open brings me to awareness, I keep my eyes closed as I roll over to face towards the bed and away from the door.

 

Chances are, Il Rak just had to use the washroom; and unlike that first time we’d done this – that time when we were both staying at Si Won’s apartment in Vienna for New Year’s – he’s now become an expert at slipping in and out of bed without disturbing me.

 

So the last thing I’m expecting is to feel someone trip, kicking me lightly in the small of the back.

 

“Oops – mianhaeyo.”

 

That – that was….

 

My eyes fly open and I jolt awake, sitting up and scrambling to back away from the person I can just barely see in the darkness before me.

 

“Ya, Seolle-”

 

In a flash, Nae Il is crouched down on the floor beside me, one hand clamped over my mouth as the other one grabs me by the back of the neck, holding me in place.

 

“Quiet, Orabang,” she hisses in my ear. “If Ahjussi wakes up, we’re really in trouble.”

 

Still struggling to break free, I shoot a glare at her, then up out of the corner of my eye towards the bed.

 

What’s happening? What is she doing here? And where the hell is Yoo Il Rak that he hasn’t been woken up by now?

 

Oh.

 

There’s no-one there. The bed is empty.

 

“Can I let go now, Orabang?” Nae Il asks, “Or are you going to scream again?”

 

Never mind that she’s just asked two completely opposite questions; when I nod in response, she abruptly lets go, moving to sit down on the floor beside me as I, finally able to breathe again, gasp for air.

 

“All right,” I whisper once I have caught my breath, “what’s going on?” I glare from the bed and back at her. “Whose brilliant idea was this?”

 

She looks away, swallowing nervously as she picks up a corner of my blanket and rubs it between her fingers.

 

“All three of us, actually.”

 

My brow furrows as I stare aghast at her. “Mwo?”

 

“Well, it started with Rak-kun and Eonnie – you know that the two of them have been….”

 

I nod. “Go on.”

 

“So we decided that on the nights they wanted to be together, we would go to bed like normal, but then Rak-kun and I would switch places after Ahjussi was asleep.”

 

My eyes narrow as I give her a penetrating glare. “And none of you three thought to tell me about any of this because…?”

 

“Mianhaeyo, Orabang,” she says. “But we thought you wouldn’t like it.”

 

“Geu rae. I don’t,” I answer with a nod. “Not least because I don’t appreciate having the crap scared out of me like this in the middle of the night.”

 

“Mianhaeyo,” she murmurs again.

 

Well, there’s not much I can do about the situation now. I could just send her back, of course; but considering that doing so would most likely mean her walking back in on the others in a rather compromising position, that is probably not the best idea right now.

 

So instead of doing that, I simply relent with a sigh.

 

“Fine. Do what you want. Just remember to switch back before morning. And if any of you three get caught, I knew nothing about this – arasseo?”

 

“Ne.” Nae Il brightens for the first time this rather bizarre conversation started. “Komawoyo, Orabang.”

 

“Now,” I add, reaching up to pat the bed beside me, “it’s late; go back to sleep.”

 

But to my surprise, rather than obeying, Nae Il chooses to straddle me instead, kneeling in my lap with her hands placed firmly on my shoulders.

 

“Ya, Seol- Seollebal,” I sputter in surprise, “just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

She puts one finger to my lips to silence me, then, with that same hand, moves to brush my hair back from my forehead, following it along to run her fingers through it. Her touch makes my breath hitch in my throat, and I find myself coughing softly in futile attempts to clear it.

 

“Nae Il-ah.”

 

“You know, Orabang,” she says softly, “it’s a pity that this is the most that I could ever see of you, not counting that first time.”

 

I know exactly what she means.

 

I’m not sure when it started, but for as long as I could remember, I have preferred to dress more conservatively than most, opting for long-sleeved collared shirts even in summertime. It’s only at night, when I go to sleep, that I’d wear any less: in this case, a simple grey T-shirt. It hangs loosely on me, I being rather slender and flat-chested for a man, and the neckline falls open to leave more exposed from above than I’d care to admit.

 

My eyes follow hers as she looks me over: first down inside my shirt as far as she could, then back up until, once again, I find myself peering up at her.

 

“And just what exactly do you plan to do about that?” I finally manage to ask.

 

“Nothing much,” she answers. “Just….”

 

Nae Il doesn’t say any more at this point. Instead,  cupping one hand against the back of my neck, she slowly leans down and puts her lips against mine. At the same time, her free hand travels down to my waist and reaches up inside my shirt.

 

Even though we are both equally new to this, each of us being the other’s first serious partner, in moments like this, Nae Il is the one who takes charge. Any and all girlish innocence disappears. Instead, she is all woman, whereas I, usually the leader and the man when we are in public, find myself reduced to a boy: naïve and childlike, eager to follow her lead.

 

So when her fingers, slightly cold from the night air, slowly walk up my stomach and then my chest as though I myself am an instrument for her to play, I respond exactly the way she wants. My body tenses up and I rear back away from her, inadvertently pulling myself free from her kiss, as a shudder passes through me; the surprised gasp I initially let out deepens and thickens, turning into a pleasurable moan that makes her eyes widen in anticipation for what is to come. Sure enough, within seconds, I find myself pushing back against her as I place one hand on the small of her back, meeting her kiss with one of my own, unwilling to let this moment end.

 

Soon, much too soon, Nae Il pulls back, releasing me from her spell. But I am still feeling that rush of exhilaration that this moment has caused: lightheaded, almost like she has pulled all my strength from me. Gasping for breath, I find myself having to brace my hands on the floor lest I collapse right then and there.

 

“What do you think, Orabang?” she asks me. “Did you like that?”

 

Tearing my eyes away from her to look down at the floor, I nod several times, swallowing hard before then unconsciously licking my lips.

 

I did like it. And somewhere deep inside, there is a part of me that wants even more.

 

Yet, somehow, when Nae Il tries to lean in for a second kiss, I find myself reaching out instinctively, pushing her back with one hand.

 

“Andwae,” I gasp. “Not now. Not like this.” I pause to give her a pointed look in the eye. “Not when we have promised not to.”

 

It takes her a moment to understand – just how close I am to losing all sense of control and taking her right then and there, just how much the thought of that frightens me. But once she does, she answers me with a nod, finally climbing up off of me into Il Rak’s bed, pulling the blanket up completely over her head to muffle the squeal of excitement that bursts out of her. What she does not know is that I am doing the same, pressing one hand over my mouth and curling up into a ball to keep my own rush of desire in check.

 

I don’t know just how many times we will end up going through this arrangement for the remainder of the summer, but we will have to be careful in the future, Nae Il and I.

 

Why is it that things like this are so much more tempting once they are forbidden?

 

~~~~~

 

“You know, if we could figure out a way to recreate some of the coffee drinks you’ve had in Austria, I think they’d really take off here.”

 

I look skeptically out of the corner of my eye at Yoo Il Rak. “And in what universe does that have anything to do with what we’re talking about?”

 

“I’m just saying!”

 

“Rak-kun’s onto something, actually,” Nae Il butts in, leaning forward to rest her elbows on the table and prop her chin in her hands. “I’ve heard from Mini Min Hee – there’s been so much talk at Haneum about how Eonnie, you and I have been studying in Austria that, apparently, there’s been some real interest there. And besides, didn’t Eomeonim say that she didn’t have anything ‘as good’ as the stuff over there? Maybe this is a way out.”

 

Pressing my lips together to hold back a rebuke, I clap one hand down hard onto the table, making the others jump as they turn to stare at me.

 

“Look: are we going to stay on topic or not?”

 

Il Rak gapes at me. “Ya, Cha Yoo Jin –”

 

“He’s right, though; as interesting as this conversation is, we do need to get back to business.”

 

Where even I fail, Jung Si Won succeeds. As Il Rak meekly murmurs an apology to her, I give her an appreciative smile across the table.

 

It’s been just over a week since Nae Il had first brought up the idea of the four of us putting together a small performance of our own this summer, and by now, the plan is starting to really grow and take shape. Rather than trying to find a piece in which all four of us could be involved, we have decided to make it a series of duets: Nae Il and I; Il Rak and Si Won; both the girls; and both of us guys. We have also decided to have the performance two weeks from now at the end of July: plenty of time for us to practice, and still with enough afterwards to focus wholly on the Rising Star concert two weeks hence.

 

The one thing left to decide, then, is location. We have gathered here at Eomma’s coffee shop to brainstorm for ideas, and just now, Il Rak had become sidetracked when our drinks had arrived.

 

But now we can go back to where we were.

 

“The most obvious choice would be Haneum, of course.” I scan my eyes over the group. “Thoughts?”

 

“That would be the most straightforward,” Il Rak concedes, “but also the least fun.”

 

“Well, then, what exactly did you have in mind?” Si Won asks, raising an eyebrow at him.

 

He opens his mouth to answer, but nothing comes out. Instead, after a moment’s hesitation, he lets out a nervous chuckle, one hand reaching up to rub the back of his head in that way he does.

 

“Let me guess: you don’t have anything,” I cut in.

 

“Well, um…I was hoping you would.”

 

“Jeogiyo – may I join in?”

 

Startled at the voice that had just come from behind me, I turn around in my seat and glance up at the newcomer.

 

“Ah, Sun Jae – it’s you.”

 

That’s right. I had noticed him already at the piano when I came in earlier, but hadn’t wanted to interrupt at the time.

 

Quickly, I get up from my seat and pull over an empty chair from the table next to us as the other three scoot closer to make room. Smiling gratefully, he introduces himself to Si Won and Il Rak before sitting down beside me.

 

“Are you on break right now?” Nae Il asks once we are all settled again.

 

“Ne.” He points back towards the piano. “I’ll have to get back there soon, but thought I’d come and hang out for a bit first.”

 

She glances questioningly over at me, and I answer with a slight nod. I know what it is Seol Nae Il is thinking right now, and who knows? It just might work.

 

“Actually, Sun Jae, now that you’re here….” She fills him in on what we have been discussing: our plans to put together a performance, and even how it was inspired by his story about the quintet from Seohan. “But now,” she finishes, “we’re just not sure about where we should hold it. I mean, Haneum makes the most sense, but as Rak-kun – mianhae, Yoo Il Rak – just pointed out, that also doesn’t have the sort of fun and casual feeling we were aiming for.”

 

“Ah,” he says, nodding in understanding. “Well, then,” he adds, turning his head this way and that to indicate the café around us, “what about here?”

 

All four of us say it at the same time: “Here?!”

 

“Why not?” Sun Jae answers, leaning back in his seat, his arms crossed in front of his chest. “You said you wanted ‘fun and casual’, and this place fits. You even already have a piano here. If you ask me, anything else would be overthinking it.”

 

“Actually, now that you mention it….” Slowly, a smile dawns on Il Rak’s face. “This place would be perfect.”

 

I give him a sideways glance. “Wae?”

 

“I was thinking about it at one point, actually: holding the performance in a restaurant.” He peers over at Si Won, reaching out to take one of her hands. “It’d be just like that first time – remember?”

 

Nae Il suddenly gasps. “You – you mean Czardas? You and Eonnie, right?”

 

“Exactly!”

 

Finally, it dawns on me what the others are referring to; somehow, they have all been quicker on the uptake than me this time around. Slowly, I say it to myself: “Casual, spontaneous…two violinists just whipping out their instruments at a moment’s notice….”

 

“Exactly, Sunbae,” Sun Jae whispers to me, seemingly having been the only one to overhear my words.

 

I glance skeptically at him. “‘Sunbae’?”

 

“Orders from the boss. With you, it’s either ‘Sunbae’ or ‘Hyung’ – take your pick.”

 

“Aish….” I mutter, rolling my eyes and then shaking my head.

 

Trust Eomma to say something like that.

 

“Whatever,” I answer, waving one hand dismissively in the air. “I don’t care either way.”

 

He flashes me a self-satisfied smile. “‘Sunbae’ it is, then.”

 

Shaking my head in bemusement, I redirect my attention back to Yoo Il Rak, who is just now talking about the logistics of holding a performance here.

 

“I think, if it’s either Nae Il or Yoo Jin doing the asking, we should be able to get permission to use this place –”

 

“Gwenchana,” I cut in. “If it’s Eomma, I know it’ll work. Come to think of it, she’s probably kept a piano here all this time just for something like this.”

 

“Arasseo. As for the rest –”

 

“What about Abeonim?” Si Won suggests. “We could ask him.”

 

Il Rak beams, snapping his fingers. “Geu rae! That’s it! If we tell Abeoji about this, we won’t even have to ask – he’ll be offering to help all on his own.”

 

By now, although she hasn’t said much, I can tell that Nae Il is having a hard time holding in her excitement. Eyes dancing, her hands are pressed together tightly in her lap; and I’d wager that if I could peer under the table, she would be kicking her feet as well.

 

~~~~~

 

As expected, Il Rak’s father agreed to our proposal right away, even going so far as to offer catering for that night.

 

“Gwenchansumnida, Abeonim,” I’d said to him, the others nodding in agreement. “There’s no need for you to trouble yourself.”

 

“Nonsense!” he’d barked right back, brushing my objections aside with one hand. “This is a great opportunity for you kids, and this is the least that I could do.”

 

I hadn’t had anything good to say to that, so the four of us had decided to drop the matter and just let him do as he wanted.

 

Now, once again, we have retreated to our separate rooms for the night. After bidding a quick goodnight to the girls, Il Rak and I retreat into his room and shut the door. Almost immediately, he grabs his violin case from its corner and places it onto the bed.

 

“Si Won told me,” he says, opening the case and pulling out the instrument from inside, “that she and Nae Il have already picked out what they want to do for their duet.”

 

“Oh?” I turn back from the poster I had been idly studying on his wall – one of several for rock bands that I do not recognize – and glance over at him.

 

“Mm,” he answers with a nod. “Zigeunerweisen, by Sarasate.”

 

“Ah, geu rae?”

 

“It was one of the pieces from Si Won-ie’s graduation recital, so I know what to expect,” he explains. “Trust me, Yoo Jin-ah: if you haven’t heard her play it before, prepare to be blown away. She does an amazing job at it.”

 

“Arasseo,” I answer with a nod. “I’ll be ready for it.” Gesturing to the violin in his hand, I add, “Does this mean that you’ve got an idea now, too?”

 

“Of course!” He jumps up from the bed and brings the violin up to his shoulder. “See if you know this, Yoo Jin-ah.”

 

He starts playing, then, a quick and dissonant melody, his bow almost sawing across the strings as he sways with the beat.

 

In a flash, it comes to me.

 

“Camille Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre.” I let out a short laugh. “Trust a rocker like you to pick something like this.”

 

“Wae? ‘Black as the darkness in my soul’ and all that jazz?”

 

When I nod in response, he beams. “Of course!” he cries out, switching his bow to the hand that’s holding the violin’s neck, then flashing me that hand gesture of his once again. “I’ve wanted to do this piece for a while now. But it was never assigned to me at Haneum; and now that I’ve graduated and could do whatever I want, I haven’t found a pianist for it.

 

“So, what say you? You up for doing this with me or not?”

 

“Of course,” I answer. “I’m fine with it if it’s what you want to do.”

 

“Daebak!” He holds out his free hand to me in a fist. Realizing what he wants me to do, I make a fist of my own and lightly touch it to his: a gesture that makes his smile grow impossibly wider.

 

“By the way, while we’re on the subject….” I repeat his gesture right back to him: thumb, forefinger and pinky extended with the other two tucked away. “Just what exactly does this mean anyway?” When Il Rak looks skeptically at me, I explain, “I see you doing it a lot, but have no idea what it means.”

 

“Ah,” he says, nodding in understanding. “Well, since you asked, Yoo Jin-ah: when you hold it up like this –” he shows me a similar, but different, sign that just has the forefinger and pinky extended “– you’re making the ‘Devil’s horns’.”

 

Something about the name makes me glance warily at him as I slowly nod. “I see….”

 

“But what I was doing – and what you’re doing now – is something different. In English, that spells out ‘I.L.Y.’. Or in other words, ‘I love you’.”

 

Immediately, I let go of the sign as though it has scorched my fingers and double over in a coughing fit. He sets down his violin on his desk, then comes up beside me, slapping me on the back until I have recovered.

 

Once I do, though, it is only to shoot him an incredulous glare.

 

“Mwo?!”

 

Noting the scandalized expression on my face, Il Rak lets out a nervous chuckle, grinning sheepishly as he backs slowly away from me towards the bed.

 

“Yoo- Yoo Jin-ah….”

 

“You mean, all this time that you’ve been doing this – this thing – to me,” I gasp out, “you’ve been saying what?!”

 

Both of us move at the same time. Il Rak ducks past me towards the door right as I lunge past him and snatch up his pillow in one hand. Pivoting around on one heel, I hurl it in his direction. He easily bats it aside with one hand – and when I try to run past him to retrieve it, I find myself suddenly caught up short.

 

Jaw dropping in surprise, I glance down at Il Rak’s choice of weapon: his bow, which he is now brandishing in front of him like a sword, its end jabbing dangerously close to my throat.

 

Rolling my eyes, I let out an exasperated sigh. “Aish…you have got to be kidding me,” I mutter to myself before adding, more loudly, “Ya, Yoo Il Rak – is this how you ought to be treating your instrument?”

 

His eyes are sparkling with barely suppressed laughter when he answers. “Well, that’s because I trust you enough to know you wouldn’t risk any harm coming to it.” One eyebrow quirks up in good-natured humour. “Looks like I’ve got you good this time, Cha Yoo Jin,” he quips with a laugh. “I’ll have to remember this trick from now on.”

 

“Ya!”

 

I try to lunge for him once more, but true to his word, he manages to get away, even succeeding in using well-placed feints and attacks with his bow to force me back further and further until I find myself hitting the side of his bed and falling backwards onto it.

 

He takes a step closer then, slashing his bow down with a flourish so that it comes to a stop just inches away from my throat like I am some sort of vanquished foe. We exchange glances, and that is when we both lose it: bursting out into laughter that rings out throughout the room.

 

Such is the position we are in when the bedroom door suddenly opens with a click, revealing Il Rak’s father, his eyes wide in surprise at the sight.

 

In a flash, the two of us spring apart, Il Rak hurriedly packing up his violin as I scramble up, hastily brushing my hands over my clothes to straighten them, to offer his father an apologetic bow.

 

“Joesonghamnida; were we disturbing you?”

 

It takes Abeonim a moment to recover, but once he does, he shakes his head, amusement twinkling in his eyes.

 

“Ani,” he says before stepping inside to set the plate he is carrying – a late night snack of cut-up fruit – on the low bookshelf by the door. “On the contrary, it’s good to see that you boys are having fun.” He gives me a pointed look. “I’ve heard from Il Rak-ie that you don’t get that chance often. Who knows? Spending some time with my son like this might do you as much good as your coaching has done for him.”

 

I am thus the one who is left gaping in surprise when Abeonim leaves, closing the door behind him. Seconds later, I hear Il Rak sidle up beside me and feel one hand clap down onto my shoulder.

 

“Gwenchana, Yoo Jin-ah,” he begins. “Abeoji is like that.”

 

I shoot him a sideways glance. “Just what the hell did you say to him earlier?”

 

“Not much. Just that you’re a total nerd who didn’t have any friends until I came along.”

 

“Ya! Yoo Il Rak!”

 

~~~~~

 

“All right, everybody – let’s get this rehearsal started!”

 

Hearing Nae Il’s voice ring out through the rehearsal hall, followed almost immediately by the scrape of metal chairs on the floor as everyone assumes their places, I can’t help the bemused smile that comes to my face.

 

I had already told her numerous times that she need not do this for me: that I am more than capable of kicking off the rehearsal myself. But, of course, old habits die hard, and I know Seol Nae Il is not about to give up her self-proclaimed job of acting as my personal assistant and Rising Star’s mascot anytime soon.

 

Still, I could do without her tendency to then immediately follow through by sidling up beside the podium to peer up at me through batting eyelashes like some puppy expecting to be petted for a job well done. Especially since, just now, on the edge of my vision, I spot Lee Yoon Hoo in his spot at the back pressing one hand to his mouth, unable to hold back a laugh at her antics.

 

“Ya, Seollebal,” I whisper, just loudly enough so that only she alone could hear, “shouldn’t you be getting set up now, too?”

 

Immediately her mouth opens slightly, and she points one finger up in the air as though a new thought had just come to her.

 

“Ah, geu rae…” she murmurs to herself as, finally turning away from me, she goes to take her seat at the piano.

 

Even though the plan right now is to work on the full orchestral piece in my half of the programme, Smetana’s Die Moldau, and although that does not have an official piano part, Nae Il is still needed here. Both this piece and Yoon Hoo’s Carmen have parts written for a harp; but as of right now, the Rising Star orchestra does not have a harpist – nor, for that matter, does Haneum more generally. For the most part, we plan to make do by dividing the harp part amongst the other string instruments: siphoning out a violinist or violist or cellist here and there to pluck out the relevant notes as needed. But there is one section where I want a piano instead, hence Nae Il’s presence today.

 

Before then, though, there is something that I need to say to everyone first.

 

Unlike Yoon Hoo, I don’t rap my baton against the music stand to draw the orchestra’s attention. Instead, I simply adopt my own proper stance – back straight; shoulders relaxed; arms held out slightly at chest height; the baton held gently but firmly in my hand – and wait.

 

It’s not the quickest approach, but slowly, surely, it works. It starts with just one or two members; then, as those nearby notice, three, four, five….Within seconds, everyone is looking at me in rapt interest, their instruments at the ready.

 

“As you all know,” I begin once I am sure they are all listening, “we have worked through each segment of Die Moldau separately, and each one is coming together nicely. Today, however, we will begin to work on stitching them all together, as Smetana intended. And to do that,” I add, pausing for effect, “you need to keep one thought in mind: nostalgia. That longing that grows in the heart of someone who has been cut off from the place they feel most at home.”

 

From his spot in the back, Yoon Hoo’s eyes widen slightly, and I meet them with a penetrating look of my own. I had told him once that I would explain why I had chosen Die Moldau for this summer’s concert; and now, I can see that he understands.

 

Thirteen years of separation. Thirteen years of loss and pain. Thirteen years of just making do in Seoul when my heart was, in fact, elsewhere. And even though I am now back where I feel I truly belong, living in Austria now still can’t undo those thirteen years, can’t erase them as though they had never happened.

 

Taking my eyes from him, I now scan over the entire orchestra before stopping at the wind instruments. “Starting with the flutes. You have the introduction, so you will be in charge of setting the tone. Remember: this music should be wistful, almost dream-like. So I want you to focus on bringing that quality out. Keep it soft; keep it lyrical. Guide the audience to let their minds wander so that they, like Smetana, could conjure up their vision of home. Arasseo?”

 

When they nod in response, and after I have given similar guidelines to each section in turn, it is finally time for us to begin. Raising my baton once more, I gesture for the orchestra members to take up their instruments.

 

“Everyone – from the top, juseyo.”

 

It says a lot to the skill of the orchestra members that they are able to achieve the effect I am asking for almost from the start. The introduction, an exchange of solo lines between the two flautists, is gentle and lilting, wending and winding its way around the room. Slowly, with a sweep of my left hand, I signal for others to join – the clarinets, the strings – until the piece’s main melody gradually emerges, rising and growing in waves like water lapping along the shore.

 

Perhaps I am being a fool, choosing a piece of music that is dedicated to a body of water. But the river that is evoked in Die Moldau is no threat to me. It is safe and warm; I do not fear it. So instead of holding back, I let the music envelope me, seeping from the orchestra into my heart, then passing back out through my hands towards them.

 

The exchange is haunting, hypnotic – and as the music shifts from the main theme to each of the secondary themes in turn, a series of images float up unbidden in my mind.

 

Images of Salzburg, my childhood and present home.

 

Where Smetana imagined a scene of mounted kings and nobles on a hunt in the woods, evoked by an echoing fanfare of trumpets, I see the gilded splendour of Baroque palaces and churches: the Mirabell with its perfectly manicured gardens that Nae Il loves so much; the Hohensalzburg standing proudly upon the hill overlooking the town; the cathedral in the Domplatz with its booming clanging bells echoing up to the mountains.

 

The quick and folk-like dance, meant to evoke a peasant wedding, reminds me of moments in my childhood when, innocent and carefree, I had run through the streets, violin case strapped to my back, skipping in time with the music in my head, stopping in wonder at the merry tunes played by street performers.

 

The third theme, quiet and serene and still, is a moment of peace and calm. And this is when Nae Il comes in. Playing soft and muted arpeggiated chords in place of the harp, she manages to imitate its magical shimmering effect, lending an air of fairytale mystery to the other instruments.

 

As the music returns to the original theme, the one meant to evoke the river and Smetana’s desire for home, I feel myself fully caught up in its embrace. It comes out in my conducting, as I gesture for the orchestra to accent the notes and drag out the melodies just so, turning each phrase into a sigh of longing.

 

But wait.

 

What is this?

 

Cha Yoo Jin, you idiot. You colossal idiot!

 

How the hell could I have forgotten the way the dream turns into a nightmare?

 

That hadn’t been Smetana’s intention, of course, with the next section, which explodes abruptly onto the scene in a loud cacophony: short, rapid runs from the strings; piercing whistling notes from the flute and piccolo; blasting trumpets and brass; rumbling drums and clanging cymbals.

 

He was trying to evoke chaos; that much is true. But he meant it as the majestic fury of white-water rapids: violent and rushing, but also exhilarating to watch.

 

He certainly did not mean howling winds. Nor crashing thunder.

 

And certainly – most certainly – not the screaming whine of a jet engine, turning into a piercing ringing in my ears.

 

Keep it together; don’t lose control.

 

I am not where I think I am. I know where I am. I am here. In Haneum. In the rehearsal hall.

 

Ani. That can’t be right.

 

Because if that’s where I am, then why am I seeing a child’s hand where my own should be? A child’s hand reaching out, reaching down, grasping tightly onto a bottle of pills, just out of sight.

 

Pain cuts into my palm when I finally grab onto it. But I ignore it. I will not let go. I cannot let go. Not when that old man’s life depends on it.

 

Geu rae. Gwenchana. That’s it, Yoo Jin-ah. Just hold it. Whatever you do, don’t let go.

 

Too late.

 

The music falters, falls into an ever spiralling downward scale. And I feel myself plummet with it.

 

Dizzy. Nauseous. Gasping for air, only to feel water rushing in instead….

 

“Ya! Cha Yoo Jin!”

 

An arm comes up from behind me, wrapping around my waist, holding me up before I hit the ground.

 

A hand reaches out and grabs mine. The same one that is holding the bottle of pills.

 

Fingers weave in with mine. Fingers stronger than mine.

 

“Andwae….Andwae….”

 

Don’t make me let go. Jebal. I’m begging you.

 

If I lose that bottle, he’ll die!

 

Too late. My hand opens. The bottle falls out and rolls away out of sight.

 

Shaking my head, I lurch forward, groping for that bottle once again.

 

“Andwae….”

 

“Hush….” A whisper in my ear. The arm around my waist pulls me back with a jerk. The hand that had been holding my hand now comes up to rest soothingly on my forehead.

 

“Gwenchana, Yoo Jin-ah. That’s it; I’ve got you.”

 

A voice from behind me. Eomma’s voice.

 

Am I safe at last?

 

Relief washes over me. My legs give out, buckling at the knees as I feel myself sag backwards, resting my head on her shoulder.

 

“That’s it. Just relax. That’s it; you’re doing great.”

 

Eomma never lets go of me as she guides me back, the two of us floating together in the sea, before softly, gently, she lowers me down, switching her grip to my shoulders.

 

I feel a solid surface underneath me: cool metal…a chair?

 

“That’s it. Just breathe for me: in for four, out for four. Hana, dul, set, net….Hana, dul, set, net….”

 

I follow that counting voice, those words softly whispered in my ear. In for four, out for four, each successive breath a beacon bringing me out from the darkness into the light.

 

Slowly, the water I had seen around me fades and drains away, leaving a hardwood floor in its place. And in front of me….

 

“Ya, Yoo Jin-ah! Gwenchana?”

 

“Sunbae – what happened? Gwenchanayo?”

 

“Cha-neunim! What’s the matter? Are you ill? Do we need a doctor?”

 

Faces flood my vision. Faces that I know I ought to recognize but don’t. Eyes widening in terror, my pulse racing once again in rising panic, I turn my head this way and that, trying to break free from the hands that are now holding me down on the chair.

 

Who are these people? Where am I? What’s going on?

 

Just then, one voice rings out above all the rest:

 

“Could everyone just shut up and move back for a moment?! You’re scaring him!!”

 

Nae Il. That’s Nae Il’s voice.

 

Startled at the uncharacteristic ferocity in her voice, the crowd of faces freezes, then slowly pulls back. I start to make them out, one by one, as they come into focus: Yoo Il Rak, Choi Min Hee, Ma Su Min, Lee Dan Ya…everyone.

 

Except Nae Il. There she is, crouched down on the ground in front of me, one of my hands in hers.

 

“Gwenchanayo, Orabang,” she says gently, her thumb rubbing across the back of my hand. “You’re safe now.”

 

I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Closing it again, coughing softly to clear my throat, I try again.

 

“Nae- Nae Il-ah….What – what happened?”

 

“What happened?!” Yoo Il Rak bursts back into view, his face now just inches from mine. “You passed out – that’s what!”

 

My jaw drops. I stare at each of the others in turn.

 

“Mwo?”

 

“Well, maybe ‘passed out’ isn’t the best way of putting it, but seriously, you just totally freaked me out!”

 

“Wae? What happened?”

 

Min Hee stares at me, brow furrowed incredulously. “You honestly don’t remember, Sunbae?”

 

I shake my head.

 

“We – we were playing the piece together,” Su Min cuts in. “Everything was going fine when you – when you…”

 

“You just stopped,” Il Rak explains. “It looked almost like you’d seen a ghost; your jaw just dropped and you went completely white – even whiter than usual, I mean.”

 

“Mwo?” I gasp.

 

“You must have known something was wrong, because you suddenly lowered the baton and grabbed onto the music stand for dear life.”

 

Wordlessly, I glance down at my right hand. Sure enough, there is a deep red line stretching all the way across my palm where the sharp metal edge of the stand had dug into my skin.

 

“But you must have done it too hard and overbalanced,” Il Rak finishes, “because that’s when you fell.”

 

“It all happened so fast. Even though we stopped playing as soon as we noticed, we were so worried that we wouldn’t get to you in time, Cha-neunim,” Su Min says, his voice still high and shaking in hysteria. “You know that I’m all the way in the back –”

 

“Same with me,” Min Hee adds.

 

“And even though Il Rak was close enough, he still had his violin in hand, and it’s not like he could just throw it down or anything.”

 

“Almost knocked over my music stand trying, though,” he cuts in.

 

Su Min looks over my shoulder someplace behind me. “So it’s a good thing Yoon Hoo was able to get there first.”

 

“Mwo?!”

 

Immediately, I turn around to glance behind me – and sure enough, there is Yoon Hoo standing just behind my chair, his hands, I belatedly notice, still on my shoulders. He even has the nerve to give me a small knowing smile as he bends his head down closer to mine. “You sure put up a good fight when you want to, Cha Yoo Jin,” he murmurs in my ear. “The way you were holding the baton just now, it’s almost like your life depended on it.”

 

Not my life; someone else’s. But I’m not about to say that.

 

Giving me one more smile, he then straightens up and addresses the orchestra: “Ten minute break, guys. And after that, we’re going back to the Carmen.”

 

As the others look reluctantly between the two of us before finally returning to their places, I gape up at him. “Ya, Lee Yoon Hoo! You can’t –”

 

But he is already gone, sauntering, his hands clasped behind his back, towards the door leading out of the rehearsal hall. In a flash, I am scrambling out of my seat and dashing up behind him, managing to reach out and clap one hand on his shoulder just steps away from the exit.

 

“What are you doing?” I burst out, using all my strength to spin him around towards me. “Who said you could butt in like this?”

 

Staggering back a few steps at the force of my attack, he stares up at me, then opens his mouth to explain. “Ya, Cha Yoo Jin –”

 

“We had a truce! No interference with each other’s rehearsal – or have you oh-so-conveniently forgotten that?!”

 

Silence rings out over the room. All the orchestra members, who had been busy milling about and chatting amongst themselves, turn to stare, gobsmacked, at the two of us. Nae Il, who had been busy packing up her sheet music, slowly gets up from the piano bench, a stricken look on her face.

 

“Orabang….” She takes a staggering step towards me, one hand raised as though trying to reach out to me.

 

Clenching my jaw, resisting her offer for solace, I turn abruptly away from her and redirect my attention to Yoon Hoo. He, in turn, is giving me a hard look, his lips pressed together in a thin determined line.

 

Then, suddenly, he jerks his head towards the door, indicating that we should take this outside.

 

Wordlessly, still seething, I follow him out of the rehearsal hall, down the main stairway in the foyer, all the way to that familiar piano practice room.

 

But once we are alone, he gets the first blow. Before I could get a word out, he rounds on me, eyes blazing.

 

“Look, Cha Yoo Jin. I don’t like using language like this, but damn you, for once in your life, could you not just automatically assume I’m out to get you?!”

 

I stare at him, incredulous. “Mwo?”

 

“Maybe,” he growls out sarcastically, “I’m not trying to screw you over. Maybe – just maybe – I’m actually trying to help. Have you ever thought about that?”

 

Taking in a sharp breath through my teeth, I straighten myself up to my full height and cross my arms in front of my chest. In moments like this, as I glare down at him, trying to feign an arrogance that I do not actually feel, that one inch I have on him can make all the difference.

 

“Well, perhaps I don’t need your help.”

 

“Mwo?”

 

“Look. I get it.” I raise up both of my hands in affected surrender. “You did the right thing by stepping in when I fell, so komapda. But I’m not even hurt. See?” I lay out my right hand, palm facing upwards, before him. “It didn’t even break the skin.” My voice hardens as I glare at him through narrowed eyes. “So what makes you think that I can’t continue with the rehearsal?”

 

“Because a person can be hurt in more ways than just physically, that’s why!”

 

Startled at his outburst, it takes me a moment before I could speak.

 

“Ya, Lee Yoon Hoo –”

 

“Listen to yourself,” he growls out, his right hand balled up into a fist. “If I could take a recording of us right now, then you’d know: how much you’re sounding like I did two years ago.”

 

What he says gives me pause. I remember that: how he had insisted on performing his duet with Nae Il despite the injury in his left hand; how he had repeated, over and over again, that he was alright despite all the evidence to the contrary; how he had become angry when, for his own good, I had offered to cancel the performance.

 

“You remember it now, don’t you,” Yoon Hoo says. “You’d said to me then that if I was in pain, then I was clearly in no condition to play. Well, right now, I’m saying the same thing back to you.”

 

Something in his words makes me snap.

 

“Who gave you that right? I told you: I’m fine!” I take an urgent step towards him. “Or are you going to just completely override me because you think I’m crazy?” My voice rises into a full shout right into his face: “Don’t hide it from me. That’s what you really think, isn’t it?!”

 

That was, after all, what Abeoji had done. He’d told me that I was crazy, that I was weak. Cutting me, belittling me, overriding my wishes – all because he thought me no longer capable of making my own decisions.

 

And I, fool that I was, had actually let him do it.

 

Yoon Hoo blinks several times in surprise, a stricken and hurt look on his face. “Ya, Cha Yoo Jin…” he gasps at length. “Is that really what you think of me? For real?”

 

I feel something lurch inside of me, my heart jumping up into my throat, at his response. Too late, I notice the odd glimmer in his eyes, the eerily haunted tone in his voice, the fact that he is only setting his jaw firmly so that it would not quiver.

 

“You…you mean it’s not?”

 

Slowly, giving me a small smile, he shakes his head.

 

“Of course not. You’re not crazy – just hurt. I don’t know what caused today’s incident, but whatever it was, I know that it’s not your fault. I also know you well enough by now to know just how strong and determined you are.” Reaching out to pat me on the arm, he adds, “So just take a break. Just for one day. We can resume our normal schedule tomorrow, but jebal, just for today, let it rest.”

 

He tightens his grip on me for just a fleeting moment, then steps past me and makes to leave. Turning to watch him go, I call out after him just as his hand touches the door latch.

 

“Wait.”

 

When he turns back to look at me, I ask the question that has been weighing on my mind this entire time:

 

“Wae? Why are you doing this to me?”

 

Yoon Hoo answers with a casual shrug. “Experience.”

 

“Mwo?”

 

“The last time I saw you like this, you nearly died. And while that’s not likely to happen again anytime soon, I’ve also learned never to take this lightly.”

 

His answer throws me off guard, and I am still puzzling over it as he opens the door and steps out into the hallway, passing by the window set in the wall and then out of sight.

 

But then, moments later, I hear his voice echoing back towards me:

 

“Ah, Nae Il-ah – perfect timing. I need to head back to the rehearsal, so keep an eye on him for me, juseyo. I know how stubborn he gets, but try to make sure he actually rests. Really, truly rests. You know him best out of all of us, so you’ll know what to do. Arasseo?”

 

I don’t hear what Nae Il says in response to that, but seconds later, she steps into the room, holding both my bag and hers. Setting them both down on the floor beside the piano, she comes closer and takes one of my hands in both of hers.

 

“Orabang,” she begins hesitantly, “gwenchanayo?”

 

“Mm,” I answer with a nod as I let her guide me to the chair that is usually reserved for the professors. Not like either of us care about that, though. Now that we are alone, the defensive front I had put up for Yoon Hoo drains away, and I collapse, exhausted, into it with a groan.

 

“Are you sure?” she asks. “It hasn’t been this bad for you for a long time.”

 

“I’m sure.” Closing my eyes, I let out a long sigh. “Mianhae. I know that frightened you earlier. It’s just that I…I never would have thought that…that a piece of music, of all things, might set me off. If I’d had, I would have prepared myself for it first.”

 

I bring my free hand up to my forehead, pressing firmly on my temples with spread fingers. “Ottoke? We can’t change the programme now; there simply isn’t enough time for that. But if something like this happens again, then –”

 

She runs her thumb along the back of the hand that she is still holding. “Gwenchanayo, Orabang,” she says, her voice soothing and gentle, “you still have me.”

 

Nae Il lets go at this point: a sudden movement that makes me open my eyes and lower my hand just in time to see her settling herself down at the piano.

 

I let out a short scoffing laugh despite myself. “Ya, Seollebal, are you going to play something for me right now?”

 

She peers out at me from the piano. “Well, you were the one who set a ‘no hypnonsis’ rule, Orabang, so this is the next best thing. Don’t say anything; just close your eyes and listen.”

 

The seriousness in her expression compels me to obey her and soon, a slow lyrical melody emanates from the piano. Realization dawns on me, making me open my eyes as I gasp in recognition. “Nae Il-ah, this – this is….”

 

She stops her playing at the sound of my voice, and gives me a beatific smile. “You guessed correctly, Orabang. This is Clara Schumann’s Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann.”

 

I sit up straight, leaning towards her in interest. “When did you learn this?”

 

“About a month ago, just in case we needed it,” she answers with a shrug. “And now – ” she resumes her position, then shoots me a pointed look, wagging a scolding finger like a schoolteacher “– just let me play it. No more interruptions, arasseyo?”

 

I concede with a nod, settling back against the chair with my eyes closed as, once again, the music envelopes me. As a general whole, the music is soft, gentle and soothing. Instinctively, my breath and my pulse slow down to match it; finally, I feel myself begin to relax.

 

That was, perhaps, its original intent. This piece, after all, was composed as a gift from Clara Schumann to her husband during a dark point in their lives. Mentally, emotionally, and physically, Robert Schumann’s health had been rapidly deteriorating: withdrawing further into himself as his depression worsened; becoming irritable with friends and colleagues; even experiencing hallucinations, a constant ringing in his ears. And although she could not have known it at the time, tragedy was just on the horizon: less than a year later, he would attempt suicide and then, when that failed, he would hide himself away in a mental asylum, never to return.

 

But even if she could not have known the future, Clara must have known how dark her present was at the time. How helpless she must have felt while creating this gift! How desperately, then, must she have yearned to comfort her husband’s tortured mind and soul!

 

Perhaps, because of that, I am able to find hope in this piece. I hear it in the way the variations alternate: some calm and gentle; others darker, tumultuous and filled with agony. Yet Clara – yet Nae Il – never allows the darkness to stay for long. Always, a harsh variation is followed by a gentler one: Robert’s struggles acknowledged and validated, yet coupled with Clara’s attempts to hold and support him from underneath.

 

Hold and support from underneath…yes, that is it.

 

As realization grows upon me, I feel my hands clenching into fists as I fight the urge to spring up right then and there to act on the idea that is now forming in my mind. Instead, I force myself to wait until, finally, the piece is done. Then, without yet another moment’s delay, I’m off: scrambling up from my seat and making a beeline for my bag, still lying in its place at Nae Il’s feet.

 

Startled at my sudden movement, she, too, gets up from the piano bench, following just a step behind as I make my way towards the couch near the exit.

 

“Or- Orabang,” she asks in confusion, “what are you doing?”

 

Tossing my bag down onto the couch, I reach one hand inside of it and pull out my full score of Die Moldau.

 

Immediately, she grabs onto my wrist, stopping me in my tracks. “Andwaeyo, Orabang,” she implores me gently. “Don’t you remember? Yoon Hoo-sunbae said –”

 

I cut her off. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” Opening up the score and flipping through the pages, I move to explain. “But don’t worry; I won’t be long. I just need to double-check something, that’s all.”

 

Within moments, I have found it. The spot in the music that I am looking for. Letting out a sigh of relief, I tap it with my index finger, then, retrieving a pencil from my bag, mark it with a star.

 

“This. Here. This is exactly what I need.”

 

“Mwo?”

 

Turning to face Nae Il, I give her a fond smile. “Komawo, Nae Il-ah. You’re a lifesaver – did you know that?”

 

~~~~~

 

“Ya, Yoo Jin-ah, are you sure that you’re okay?”

 

I shoot Il Rak a pointed look across the coffee table. “That’s got to be the third time you’ve asked tonight.”

 

He pouts at me, slowly turning the can of beer on the table in front of him with one hand. “Well, forgive a guy for worrying. Do you even know just how messed up it is to see your best friend in trouble and not be able to do anything about it?!”

 

“Gwenchanayo, Rak-kun,” Nae Il cuts in, her voice warm and soothing as she reaches over and pats his knee with one hand. “We understand.”

 

When Il Rak peers questioningly at me, I affirm Nae Il’s words with a nod.

 

In hindsight, I get why Lee Yoon Hoo had suggested that I take a break while I still could. Because, as it turns out, if I don’t carve that time and space out for myself, it’s never going to happen.

 

All afternoon, and even well into the evening, I have had to field endless questions from everyone as word of my episode spread. Eomma, especially, had nearly blown up my phone with a continuous stream of worried text messages until I must have told her at least a hundred times that I really am truly fine. As for Abeonim, he had been as affable as ever, but I could not help noticing the fact that he had prepared all of my favourite dishes from Mendelssohn’s menu for our dinner tonight, or all the sad sidelong glances he sent my way when he thought I couldn’t see him. At least Jung Si Won isn’t here right now, having left this morning to spend the day with her grandfather, or I would be having to deal with her as well.

 

I don’t think I have ever been so pampered before in my life – it is, quite frankly, absolutely suffocating.

 

“So, just what happened there anyway?” Il Rak asks eventually, his words breaking into my thoughts.

 

Instinctively, I tense up. Swallowing nervously, I shoot Nae Il a wary sideways glance.

 

The two of us had discussed this earlier: in order to put my plan into motion, I have to let Il Rak in on what was going on. But that doesn’t make opening my mouth any easier.

 

In response to my questioning look, Nae Il gives me a gentle smile and a nod: her silent encouragement for me to answer.

 

Still, I feel myself breaking into a cold sweat, one that I try to hide by wiping my hands on my trousers, as I begin.

 

“Yoo Il Rak, you do know what PTSD is, right?”

 

“‘PTSD’…” He echoes my words quietly to himself, then answers, “Of course, I know what it is, but –”

 

Suddenly, he rounds on me, eyes wide. “Jeongmal?! You?! But…why? How?”

 

“Ya, Rak-kun,” Nae Il hisses at him, her tone far sterner than what she’d normally use with him, “freaking out’s not going to help anything. If you can’t stay calm, Orabang’s not going to tell you.”

 

Nodding shakily several times, he clears his throat, then takes a deep breath as he tries to school his features into a more neutral expression. “Arasseo…go on.”

 

“You know that I grew up in Salzburg, right?”

 

A nod.

 

“Well, the year I was nine, we moved back to Seoul, my parents and I, so that I could at least get some schooling here in Korea. The plan was for Abeoji to continue touring internationally as usual, and for Eomma and I to fly out to join him during my school breaks. But in the end, that never actually happened.”

 

“Wae?”

 

This is the hard part, the part where, whenever I tell people about this, I feel myself starting to lose my nerve. Nae Il, having been on the receiving end of this before, silently reaches out and takes one of my hands, intertwining my fingers with hers and giving me a reassuring squeeze.

 

“Komawo, Nae Il-ah,” I say softly to her. Then, turning back towards Il Rak, I take in a deep steadying breath and press on.

 

“The first chance we got to try this plan out was in the year that I turned ten. Abeoji was in Berlin, and we were going to go over and meet him. I was especially looking forward to this, because, at the time, Sebastian Viera was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.” When Il Rak nods in recognition, I add, smiling fondly at the memory, “I had met him shortly after coming here to Seoul. He was the person who inspired me to work towards becoming a conductor, so I really wanted to see him again and learn more from him.

 

“But we never made it to Berlin; the plane’s engines failed during a thunderstorm and it crashed somewhere in the sea between Korea and China.” Choosing to leave out the incident with the old man passenger, I simply say, “I was knocked out during the fall when I was thrown into the armrest of the seat in front of me. So one moment, I was on the plane; and the next thing I know, I was underwater and struggling to pull on the string to inflate the lifevest Eomma had put on me before I could lose consciousness again. If I hadn’t managed to do it in time, who knows what would have happened to me that night.

 

“Ever since then, I have had difficulty getting on a plane or being near any large body of water. With Nae Il’s help, it’s been better, but even now, if something unexpectedly reminds me of that incident, then….”

 

I let that statement trail off on its own; there’s no point in my repeating what Il Rak already knows. Still, as my words sink in, his mouth drops open and the colour slowly drains from his face. For a long moment, it looks like he wants to say something but can’t find the words.

 

“So,” he eventually stammers out, “so you’re saying that, like…that that time at the waterpark, you – I mean, we – when we pushed you in, you – you were….” He then lowers his head and looks down at the floor, his lips pressed firmly together as though trying to hold back a sob.

 

In a flash, Nae Il scrambles up from her seat and scurries to his side, reaching out with both hands to firmly hold onto his shoulders.

 

“Gwenchanayo, Rak-kun,” she says soothingly. “It’s not like you could have known. Even I didn’t know back then, since Orabang wanted so badly to keep it a secret.”

 

“Nae Il’s right,” I add, also trying to keep my voice as calm and reassuring as possible under the circumstances. “What’s done is done; nor do I fault you for what happened. You thought I would enjoy it, and that’s what matters.”

 

When Il Rak looks glumly up at me, tears already running down his cheeks, I force myself to let out a mischievous smile. “One more thing: you and Nae Il are the only ones out of our group to know about the accident,” I say in a jokingly stern voice, pointing a finger at him for good measure. “So you’d better not blab about it to anyone else. I’ll make an exception for Ma Su Min, since he was at the waterpark, too, but that’s it. Arasseo?”

 

Closing his eyes, he nods emphatically several times. Then, opening them once again, he tilts his head back and looks up towards the ceiling, trying to blink away his tears; when that fails, he resorts to pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes.

 

Thus distracted, Il Rak is unable to see when Nae Il gives me a pointed look across the coffee table, then jerks her head slightly towards the door leading out to the hallway. Giving her a wink to show that I have taken the hint, I reach out and knock several times on the table’s surface with one fist.

 

“You know, Yoo Il Rak,” I say once he is looking at me again, “if it makes you feel better, there is a way that you can help with Die Moldau at least.”

 

As expected, he immediately brightens, scooting closer towards me. Slamming both palms down onto the table’s surface, he leans forward in interest. “Of course!” he barks out. “Anything for my best friend! Just say the word, Yoo Jin-ah, and I’ll do it!”

 

I tilt my head towards the door. “Go get your score, and I’ll show you.”

 

Il Rak scrambles to his feet before I have even finished speaking and dashes out of the room like a shot. Moments later, he returns, a stack of sheet music in his hand. He lays it down on the table as Nae Il pushes everything else – a box of tissues and the several cans of beer we have had – out of the way.

 

“Go to measure 329 for me.”

 

He does as he is told, flipping through the pages until he finds the spot that I have noted in my own copy of the score earlier today.

 

“Ya, Cha Yoo Jin,” he says, his head shooting up to look me firmly in the eye. “Isn’t this part…?”

 

“Ne,” I answer with a nod. “This is where we were in the piece when I fell – or, more specifically, just after it.”

 

I point to the relevant measure in his sheet music. “You only have the first violin part here and not the whole thing, but what’s relevant for us is that at this moment, it’s just you playing: those quivering notes, it’s just the first and second violins.

 

“If what came before this moment was an uncontrolled plunge into the sea,” I explain, pointing to the downward melodic line of the preceding bars, “then this part here –” I point to measure 329 and the ones immediately following “– is a tremor: a person lingering just beneath the water’s surface. Not drowning or dying, but working up his strength to burst back out in triumph like a phoenix.” I finish by tracing the ascending scale at the end of this brief section, peering up through my eyelashes to see whether Il Rak is following my logic.

 

He gives me a nod. “Arasseo – I see it.”

 

Noting his response, I now look him straight in the eye, putting all my authority as a conductor behind my gaze to hold his in place. “What I need you to do, then, Yoo Il Rak, is to lead the orchestra through this section.”

 

His brow furrows in confusion. “Mwo?”

 

“Chances are, this sort of incident won’t happen again,” I explain. “Once I know that there is a possibility of being triggered by something, I can take the necessary steps beforehand to ground myself mentally so it doesn’t happen. But if – and I’m only saying if – something were to happen despite my efforts, if you can get the orchestra through this section without me, the shape of the melodic line itself –” I trace it once more for emphasis “– should be enough to bring me back.

 

“Promise me, Yoo Il Rak, that you will do this: not just as Rising Star’s concertmaster, but as my best friend.”

 

After mulling it over for a moment, Il Rak eventually answers me with a nod. He then extends one hand to me across the table, and when I take it, he suddenly yanks me closer and gives me a slap on the back. Startled and initially unsure what to do with this unexpected gesture, I feel myself tense up for a moment before finally allowing myself to relax.

 

“Komapda, Il Rak-ah.”

 

He lets go of me and we retreat to our respective places in an awkward, but still amicable, silence. For a long moment, none of us says anything, but then, perhaps since it is finally allowed to wander freely, my mind conjures up a moment from earlier this afternoon.

 

“By the way,” I begin, “since we’re on the subject: did either of you tell Lee Yoon Hoo about the incident at the waterpark?”

 

Moving as one, Nae Il and Il Rak both shoot me confused looks.

 

“Not me. It’s possible Ma Su Min said something, but I know I didn’t,” Il Rak ultimately says. He gives Nae Il a sideways glance. “What about you, Seollebal?”

 

She shakes her head. “I did mention it in passing once, but no details: just that I didn’t see who saved you. Wae? Did something happen?”

 

I answer with a shrug. “Nothing much. It’s just that he said something really weird: ‘The last time I saw you like this, you nearly died.’”

 

Il Rak blinks in surprise. “That is weird.”

 

My brow furrows as I try to put the pieces together in my head. “To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure he was referring to the incident at the waterpark. I mean, we only met for the first time afterwards at the Yoon Yi Song Festival, so…”

 

Suddenly, Nae Il straightens up in her seat with a gasp, snapping her fingers. “Wait – I remember now!”

 

I round on her. “Ya, Seollebal – are you saying you did tell him?”

 

She shakes her head. “Aniyo. But….” She directs her gaze at Il Rak, waving a finger at him as though trying to jog her memory. “Rak-kun, you remember, right? That time Yoon Hoo-sunbae treated us to lunch and I’d said –”

 

“Ah, geu rae – you’d said that from the look of Yoon Hoo’s hands, your guess was that the person who saved Yoo Jin must’ve been a cellist and –”

 

“Mwo?!”

 

This can’t be right. This can’t be happening. Of…of all the people I could possibly be indebted to, why does it have to be him?!

 

Startled by my outcry, both of them turn to gape at me.

 

“Or- Orabang….”

 

“Yoo Jin-ah….”

 

“Look, don’t you two get it?” I blurt out, my voice rising in agitation. When they continue to just blink at me in confusion, I am unable to stop myself from burying my face in my hands with a growl of frustration.

 

“Do the damned math, both of you!”

 

Taking my instructions literally, Nae Il starts counting out the points we have established so far on her fingers. “We were on our way to the Yoon Yi Song Festival, so chances are, Yoon Hoo-sunbae was, too. I didn’t see the guy’s face when he rescued Orabang, but I did see his hands. He had hands like a cellist’s –”

 

“Lee Yoon Hoo is a cellist,” I cut in, with just enough edge in my voice that I hope Nae Il takes the hint.

 

“Geu rae, Orabang. Yoon Hoo-sunbae is a cellist, so that’s why I –”

 

Her words die on her lips, and she is left simply gaping as understanding finally flares up in her eyes.

 

“What?” Il Rak asks, reaching over to seize her arm with both hands. “What is it?”

 

She turns slowly to look at him, eyes wide and shining. “It was him.”

 

His brow furrows in confusion: a move that makes me roll my eyes and slap my forehead despite my better judgment.

 

“Don’t you get it, Rak-kun?” Nae Il gasps. “It’s got to be him. Who else could it be? Yoon Hoo-sunbae was the one who saved Orabang!”

 

As slowly, realization finally dawns on him, I take in a deep breath, bracing myself for impact. I know I’ll only have a few seconds to prepare for what is to come, but even so, despite my efforts, I can’t help jumping in surprise when he finally reacts.

 

“Geu rae?! It was Lee Yoon Hoo?! How – how the hell didn’t we figure it out sooner?!” Clapping his hands to his mouth in at least some attempt to maintain control, Il Rak is still unable to stop himself from letting out an excited whoop, one which, to my embarrassment, brings his father running into the room.

 

“What’s going on?” he asks, eyes scanning over the three of us. “What’s all the fuss about?”

 

“Abeoji!” Il Rak bursts out. “You’ve got to hear this!” Quickly, he explains about that waterpark incident, mercifully leaving out everything else I had said to him. “So that means, Abeoji, that one of my good friends, Lee Yoon Hoo, actually rescued my best buddy, Cha Yoo Jin, and we didn’t even know.” In his enthusiasm, he flashes that signature rock gesture of his again. “Isn’t that awesome, Abeoji?!”

 

As with the son, so with the father. Beaming, Abeonim bends down and gives me a firm slap on the back.

 

“Looks like fortune’s been looking out for you, kid – here’s hoping some of it rubs off on our Il Rak as well.”

 

He makes his way back outside at this point, leaving the three of us sitting together on the floor. Once we are alone, Il Rak immediately hurriedly fishes his phone out of his pocket and starts tapping quickly on the screen.

 

“Ya, Yoo Il Rak,” I ask, “what are you doing?”

 

“Calling Yoon Hoo, of course,” he answers, looking up just long enough to give me a grin. “Wae? What did you think I was doing?”

 

I stare at him, gobsmacked. “What? Now?”

 

“Of course now!” he gushes out, pushing the call button and bringing the phone up to his ear to wait for a response. “It’s only right for us to thank him, you know, now that we know what really happened. Especially you, Cha Yoo Jin.”

 

Feeling my pulse start to race, I point one finger to my chest. “Me? But –”

 

“Don’t try to get out of this one, Orabang.” The sound of Nae Il’s voice suddenly hissing in my ear makes me jump in alarm, and I notice belatedly that she is now kneeling behind me, her hands firmly grasping me by the shoulders. “It’s one thing if we didn’t know, but if you’re not even gonna do it now, then that’s just cruel.”

 

I know that, of course. Even if Lee Yoon Hoo and I don’t get along, I certainly know how to behave with decency around him.

 

What Nae Il and Il Rak don’t understand, though, is just why I’m stalling:

 

After everything that I had said to Yoon Hoo this afternoon, how the hell am I supposed to face him now?

 

Fortunately, Il Rak decides to go first, and he ends up talking long enough to give me at least some time to brace myself. But in the end, it still takes him coming up beside me and literally pressing the phone against my ear like I am some sort of hostage before I am finally able to say it:

 

“Komapda.”

 

I was expecting Yoon Hoo to respond with his usual glib gloating, but instead, I am simply met with a long awkward silence. Then, eventually, he answers with a single hushed question:

 

“Now do you believe me?”

 

I nod, then answer aloud in the affirmative before bidding him a good night, my signal to Il Rak that he may now hang up the phone.

 

After all, with all that’s happened, what else can I say?

 

~~~~~

 

It is amazing what, once we put our minds to it, a small group of people could do. In the space of just a few hours, Eomma’s coffee shop has been transformed into a concert venue.

 

We all had our separate tasks. Us guys, for instance, had been in charge of the furniture: rearranging the tables and chairs into a series of concentric semi-circular rings radiating out from the grand piano in its corner by the entrance. There had been five of us working together – myself, Yoo Il Rak, Ma Su Min, Lee Sun Jae, even Lee Yoon Hoo. And that, of course, meant that there were several times when Yoon Hoo and I would inadvertently go for the same table, finding ourselves staring awkwardly at each other from either side before, after a moment’s hesitation, lifting the table as one as though nothing had happened.

 

“Sooner or later,” I had overheard Il Rak whispering to Su Min at one point as we passed, “something’s gotta give.”

 

“Do you think they’ll be friends?” Su Min had whispered back. “I’d love it if they could.”

 

“Hard to say right now,” Il Rak had replied with a shrug. “I think Yoo Jin’s still in denial. But once he comes to accept it…who knows?”

 

Neither of them had gotten further than that, their words trailing off in response to the warning glare I had shot them, but I had continued to mull over what I had heard for the rest of the afternoon.

 

Although it has already been several days since the incident during the Die Moldau rehearsal and the events afterwards, there is still a palpable tension between Lee Yoon Hoo and I. Not hostility – not like before – but simply tension, both of us no longer sure what to make of the other anymore.

 

All this has gone unnoticed by the girls, who are in charge of the decorations and refreshments for tonight’s show. The windows are now covered with posters that Choi Min Hee had made, announcing our lineup and inviting any passersby to come in. And our refreshment table – really Eomma’s favourite long bar table – is now covered with trays and platters of finger foods from Mendelssohn, courtesy of Il Rak’s father, and an assortment of pastries from the coffee shop’s usual menu.

 

There is, however, one additional item: one that I am particularly glad to see for the way it takes me back to my childhood.

 

This morning, Eomma, Nae Il, Choi Min Hee and Lee Dan Ya had gotten together to make dozens of lebkuchenherzen: heart-shaped spice cookies that are a popular festive treat in Austria. It had turned into an entire girls’ day as they baked the cookies according to the old recipe Eomma had retained from my childhood, painstakingly decorating each one with piped icing. Now, as Jung Si Won carefully arranges them onto the tray at the centre of the table, I can see out of the corner of my eye that each one features a musical motif of some sort – notes or clefs or approximations of musical instruments – and the words “Rising Star Orchestra” in Min Hee’s flowing script.

 

Just then, I feel someone poking me in the arm. When I turn to look, I see that it is Nae Il, who has sidled up beside me and is now holding out one of the cookies to me.

 

“This one cracked on the way over here, Orabang,” she says by way of introduction, “so count it as an extra.” She breaks it in half and raises one piece up to my lips. “Come on; try it.” She opens her mouth wide, showing me exactly what she wants me to do. “Ah….”

 

I roll my eyes at her display, turning my head to take in the entire room around us. “Ya, Seollebal,” I whisper, “not in front of everyone.”

 

“No-one’s looking right now, and they won’t if you don’t make a fuss,” she retorts. “So if you don’t want them to see, you’d better just take it now. Bbali.”

 

There’s nothing I could say to refute that, but nor do I want Nae Il to feed me. So I grab the piece from her hand myself and take a bite.

 

All at once, I am met with a strong dose of ginger: a clear sign to me that this was, in fact, made with Eomma’s recipe. While lebkuchenherzen are usually made with a blend of different spices, Eomma, perhaps in attempts to accustom me to Korean flavours, had always been rather heavyhanded with the ginger in comparison to everything else. The result that I remember from my childhood had been a taste that was strong and spicy, almost overwhelmingly so, but one that was then immediately followed by a spreading sense of comforting warmth – and that is what I am experiencing now, echoing back to me over the years.

 

“What do you think, Orabang?” Nae Il asks, looking up at me eagerly. “Do you think I could take over from Eomeonim as the baker in our family?”

 

I turn my head to glance down at her, biting back a laugh as I raise an eyebrow at her. “‘Our family’? Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself, Seollebal?”

 

She pouts and lets out a whine, giving me a nudge in the side.

 

“But it’s good, Nae Il-ah,” I say finally, returning the nudge and giving her a fond smile and a wink. “Looks like you’ll have to take over from me for Christmas this year.”

 

“Jinjja?” Beaming, she immediately takes a large bite out of her half, eyes closing in bliss as she savours it. I’m not sure if it’s the cookie’s taste or my comment that’s making her so happy, but it doesn’t matter, so long as I could see that smile on her face.

 

~~~~~

 

Just as I had expected, it is only a matter of time before I feel Nae Il’s hand reaching out for mine under the table. Although I do not look directly at her, I move my own hand slightly closer in response, spreading my fingers apart just a little bit so that she could interweave hers in more easily. Once we are holding hands, I press my palm firmly against hers and tighten my grip to give her a reassuring squeeze: one that she returns along with a grateful smile.

 

It’s always like this before a performance: even though she has come a long way in terms of overcoming her fear, she still craves some sort of comfort from me every single time she has to go up on stage.

 

“Gwechana?” I whisper to her, softly enough so that only she could hear.

 

“Gwenchanayo, Orabang,” she whispers back, her grip on my hand tightening momentarily to show me that she really means it.

 

As Jung Si Won and Yoo Il Rak take their places up on the platform, they being the ones to start tonight’s miniature concert, I turn my head to glance at Nae Il. The two of us are seated at a table in the front, right by the piano, so as to make it easier for us to get on and off stage. Surreptitiously scanning her over with my gaze, I can’t help but note how beautifully demure she looks tonight.

 

For simplicity’s sake, all four of us performers have decided to dress all in black, taking turns ducking into the staff locker room at the back of the café to change. Right now, Nae Il is wearing what the two of us have dubbed her “summer competition dress”. It’s something we had both decided on prior to flying back to Seoul: since the competition dress she had was only good for cold weather, she should look into buying a similarly plain black dress that could be appropriate for summer functions like this one. So, during a girls’ day out with Choi Min Hee, Nae Il had done just that, coming back with the one that she has on now: a short-sleeved dress with a flared skirt going down just past her knees, the only decorations a small bow at the waist and a lattice-like band that sweeps all across the shoulders. This last detail perfectly compliments the pendant she is wearing: the one I had given her for Christmas, featuring a treble and bass clef intertwined together into a heart.

 

Too late, I realize that I have been so distracted in staring at her that I haven’t noticed the way that Nae Il is looking right back. Noting the way I start in surprise at being so easily found out, she giggles, one hand covering her mouth. Then, her own gaze flickers down to the pendant that I had been so focused on and she places that same hand over it with a flirtatious smile.

 

The two of us are brought back to reality by the sound of a chair scraping across the floor beside me. Startling for the second time, I turn just in time to see Lee Sun Jae taking that spot. He had shown up this afternoon in his usual jeans and T-shirt, but had now changed into a pair of black trousers and a white dress shirt: a look that I now surmise to be his version of formalwear, seeing as he had worn something similar at his debut recital.

 

“I was supposed to wear a suit that night,” he confides quietly to Nae Il and I when I point this out. “Seohan’s admin had even helped to cover the cost for it.” He leans back in his seat with a casual shrug. “But I changed my mind at the last minute; I feel like this is more ‘me’.”

 

Nae Il nods. “It suits you.” Then, a moment later, she adds, nodding to indicate the room around us, “What do you think? Is this the sort of vibe you were looking for?”

 

“Mm…” Sun Jae hums softly as he peers around us on either side. “Sort of. It’s a lot more put-together than what my friends and I had done, though.”

 

“That’s Haneum for you,” I cut in with a laugh. “Or, more specifically, the Rising Star Orchestra. With these guys –” I surreptitiously point to Yoo Il Rak at the front, then at the table a short distance away where Choi Min Hee, Ma Su Min, Lee Dan Ya, and Lee Yoon Hoo are sitting, then, finally, at Nae Il herself “– there’s no such thing as ‘small’. Anything and everything turns into an event once they get their hands on it.”

 

“So long as we all had fun,” he replies, now interlacing his fingers together and stretching his arms out in front of him, “that’s all that matters.”

 

Nae Il shoots me a glance. “Should we make Lee Sun Jae an honourary S then, Orabang?” she asks with a wink.

 

He looks at the two of us in confusion. “‘Honourary S’? What do you mean by that?”

 

I open my mouth to explain, but note that by now, Si Won and Il Rak are finally ready, having tuned their violins and now assumed their places on either side of the small circular platform.

 

“I’ll tell you some other time,” I whisper back. Sun Jae, also realizing that the performance is about to start, nods in understanding.

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I note that something about the way Si Won and Il Rak are standing now, angled slightly towards each other on the stage, is making our friends at the other table lean forward in interest. I turn my head to glance over at them, just in time to see Ma Su Min prodding Lee Yoon Hoo in the shoulder, then murmuring something in his ear as he gestures towards the front.

 

When I turn back around, Nae Il’s eyes meet mine. “Czardas?” she whispers.

 

“Mm. Czardas.”

 

Of course, the two of us had known well in advance that this was the piece that Si Won and Il Rak had chosen to start this performance with, but it is not the title that we are commenting on with this exchange. Rather, we have both just had the same simultaneous thought: these two intend to recreate – or, perhaps, rewrite – that first duel they had had with each other, back when they were still rivals. Indeed, at first glance, they couldn’t look more different from each other: Si Won poised and elegant in the same simple fitted knee-length dress with long lace sleeves she had worn to our New Year’s celebration; and Il Rak, who I have discovered does not in fact possess a single unembellished formal black shirt, in one with a subtle printed pattern, the rock aesthetic accented by dark distressed jeans and a small silver chain clipped to his collar.

 

He takes charge of the introduction, followed by the first half of the piece’s opening slow section. Swaying in time with the music, using drawn-out wavering vibrato, he turns each long note into a plaintive, soulful cry. This has always been the technique that he excels in: his way of adding emotion and pathos to his music to captivate the audience.

 

Smiling at him, one corner of her mouth twitching up slightly into a parody of the arrogant smirk she must have sent him that first time, Si Won takes over the second half of that section. In contrast to Il Rak’s style, Si Won’s is more delicately precise, the notes and phrases more clipped, but no less warm for it. After allowing her to play alone for a moment, Il Rak comes in with an improvised harmony, allowing them to finish this first section together.

 

And now, the real fun begins. After a brief pause, Si Won launches headlong into the piece’s second section: a quick-tempoed and technically difficult dance. Within seconds, Il Rak joins her, and I notice a pattern becoming to form. They are echoing each other; with each short repetitive phrase, one starts and the other finishes, the two of them passing the melody back and forth in a continuous call-and-response.

 

Finally, after one more slower section, the dance comes to its conclusion: a reprise of the second theme, but this time growing gradually faster and faster still. Someone somewhere in the audience starts clapping along, caught up in the music’s infectious rhythm, and soon, we have all joined in. As for Si Won and Il Rak, this time they are in perfect unison, keeping continuous eye contact to make sure neither one rushes on ahead, Il Rak only breaking away at the very last moment to add yet another improvised harmonic line to bring the entire piece to a close.

 

As the room breaks out in applause, including a shouted cheer from Su Min, both Si Won and Il Rak bow to the audience, then make their way towards our table. Beaming, Si Won takes her spot in the chair on Nae Il’s other side, while Il Rak remains standing, staying just long enough to take a long sip from the glass of juice his father had provided for each of us before gesturing for me to get up.

 

“Ready to raise hell, Yoo Jin-ah?”

 

“Of course.” Returning Il Rak’s mischievous grin with an equally devilish smirk of my own, I push myself up out of my seat, then step around the table to meet him in a handshake. “Let’s do this.”

 

Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre was originally composed for a solo violin and an orchestra, but the arrangement we have chosen is a duet. It starts simply: Il Rak plucking out a steady twelve notes in imitation of a clock striking midnight. Then, after a soft series of bass notes from me at the piano, he suddenly breaks out into a series of loud, dissonant chords to symbolize Death’s arrival on the scene before we are both off, breaking into a quick dance-like melody.

 

In my opinion, calling this piece “macabre” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s true that at the time of its composition, the music would have sounded unnervingly dissonant and bizarre to its audience. Much of the violin’s melody is based on the then-unusual and infamous tritone: the devil’s chord, one that sits uncomfortably between a fourth and a fifth. But by now, that sound has become far more commonplace in both classical and non-classical forms of music, and, to my ears, can even be a bit mischievous and fun.

 

Most of the piece is comprised of a continuous dialogue between the piano and the violin, both of us exchanging themes based on tight intervals, repeated unison notes that require Il Rak to saw his bow back and forth in place on the strings, and dark descending chromatic scales. And while I don’t do anything all that unusual on my end, Il Rak takes full advantage of his violin’s own natural dissonance to bring further tension into the sound. A violin’s strings will screech and squeal if the bow pulls across them with just the right amount of tension, and Il Rak incorporates this technique into his playing as often as he could get away with it. There are even some moments where he could show off: glissando scales in which his fingers slip and slide along the strings; wide arpeggios that allow him to seesaw his bow up and down in an exaggerated bouncing motion; sections where he is playing pizzicato, plucking the strings instead of bowing them.

 

By the time we reach the finale of the piece, I am looking full-on at Il Rak, completely fascinated by his performance. Even though, normally, I am the conductor and he is the violinist, I now let him take charge as he accelerates, I just managing to keep up as his music grows ever faster and faster.

 

Then, suddenly, we stop.

 

A single wavering line from Il Rak imitates a rooster’s crow, signalling the coming of dawn – and, thus, the end of our dance, as both of us quiet down until we fade off into silence.

 

This time, it is Nae Il who breaks out into loud applause first, bouncing in her seat as she claps her hands enthusiastically. Then, in a move that makes my eyes widen in surprise, she reaches out and grabs onto Sun Jae’s arm with both hands. As he, too, startles and jumps to pull himself free from her, she points a finger up at me and calls out loudly for everyone to hear:

 

“You see that? That’s my Orabang!”

 

As Il Rak bursts out laughing beside me, so hard that he nearly doubles over and is forced to grab onto the side of the piano with one hand to support himself, I round on her.

 

“Ya, Seollebal!”

 

But rather than being chastised by my reprimand, Nae Il instead springs up from her seat, stepping up onto the stage just as Il Rak steps off and takes the chair she had vacated. She steps over beside me, and I scoot over slightly to the left so that she could take the right side of the piano bench.

 

As she sits down, I give her a slight nudge. “Remember, Seollebal: no matter how tempting it is, don’t do it,” I whisper. “This isn’t a rehearsal, but the real thing.”

 

“And if I just can’t help it?” she asks mischievously.

 

“You wouldn’t dare!”

 

“Who knows? I just might.” Then, noting the scandalized look on my face, she grins and nudges me in return. “Don’t worry, Orabang. I won’t. No matter how tempting it is, I won’t laugh.”

 

Sometimes, enjoyment comes with a price, and that is certainly true with the four-handed piece that Nae Il and I have chosen for tonight’s performance: the second of Schubert’s Marches Militaires. Although not nearly as well-known as the first piece in the set, this one is our choice for the way in which the playful, rollicking melody is evenly distributed between the two of us: whereas, in the first, the bass mostly just supports the treble, in this one, both have their moment in the spotlight.

 

The section that is our concern now comes in the middle of the piece: a rapidly descending scale that we are supposed to play in complete unison before ending with a bouncing staccato chord. And somehow, for some reason that we don’t know or understand, this one moment sounds insanely comical to both of us. Many times during our sessions playing the piece together at home in Salzburg, as well as during our practices for tonight, one of us would burst out laughing at this point, setting the other person off as well until neither of us could go on. And while there is nothing wrong with that happening in the privacy of our apartment, or in the no-consequences safety of a practice room, I would much prefer for it not to happen here, in the middle of a performance, no matter how casual it is.

 

So my warning to Nae Il is not so much because she is the only one vulnerable to this, but rather because her keeping herself under control is the only way I could keep myself in line as well.

 

That scale appears twice in the same section and, although I catch Nae Il biting her lip strongly when we peek at each other afterwards, we get through the first time without incident. However, that brief glance we exchanged, during which we could both see the mirth twinkling in each other’s eyes, proves to be our undoing.

 

I’m not sure who does it first, but it doesn’t matter. Whether Nae Il laughed first or I did, the difference between us would only have been a matter of milliseconds, anyway. All I do know, though, is that Nae Il, as is usual for her, is the first of the two of us to actually stop playing as, laughing, she collapses sideways and crashes into me right in the middle of the next phrase.

 

In a flash, my hands are no longer on the keyboard, but are instead reaching out and grasping her by the shoulders, moving as though they had a will of their own.

 

“Ya, Seollebal! What was that for?”

 

“Mianhaeyo, Orabang,” Nae Il replies, barely managing to speak between peals of laughter. “I’d told you – sometimes…sometimes, I…I just…just can’t help it!” Then, having finally gotten herself together, she turns and looks out over the room.

“Looks like they liked it, though,” she whispers.

 

“Mwo?”

 

It’s only now, as I rear up to my full sitting height and look out over Nae Il’s head at the audience, that I notice it: everyone is laughing. Not out of ridicule, but out of genuine amusement and enjoyment of the moment.

 

And, just when I have twisted myself around at the waist to look behind me at our table, I see it: Yoo Il Rak looking mischievously between me and his glass, a pen – how had he gotten his hands on that? – in one hand.

 

Slowly, feeling myself tense up in dread, I shake my head.

 

But it’s no use. Giving me a devilish smirk, Il Rak starts tapping the pen rapidly against the glass. The tinkling sound that results echoes out over the entire café.

 

Blood rushing up to my face, I jump out of my seat.

 

“Ya, Yoo Il Rak – jugulae?!”

 

But there’s no taking it back. Within seconds, others have started to join in: Lee Sun Jae, laughing at this sudden turn of events, next to Il Rak; Eomma and Dean Song at their spots side-by-side in the back; Ma Su Min and Lee Dan Ya at their table, the two of them poking and prodding Lee Yoon Hoo and Choi Min Hee respectively until they, too, start, albeit a bit more reluctantly.

 

Just then, I feel Nae Il’s hand weaving its way into mine as she, too, stands up beside me.

 

“You know Rak-kun, Orabang,” she murmurs. “He’s not gonna stop until we do it. So we might as well just get it over with.”

 

I look down at her, taking note of the warm smile on her face, the way her eyes light up as they look into mine, our pendant – treble and bass intertwined; Nae Il and myself intertwined – resting just perfectly at the base of her throat.

 

And that, not the raucous cacophony around us, is what I focus on as, slowly, I cup her chin with my free hand and lean in to kiss her softly on the lips.

 

Immediately, cheers and applause burst out, seemingly from all sides. And although we keep this kiss short and chaste, just a gentle touching of the lips without the passion that we sometimes indulge in when we are alone, it is enough to satisfy the others.

 

“Now,” I say curtly as I guide Nae Il to take her place beside me at the piano bench again, “shall we finish?”

 

“Ne, Orabang,” she answers, briefly touching her fingers to the keys before, moving perfectly in sync, the two of us pick up from where we have left off, this time completing the piece without a hitch.

 

~~~~~

 

“And just how the hell do you expect Jung Si Won to beat that?”

 

Il Rak shoots me a sheepish grin. “Oh, she will, don’t worry.”

 

We are now just moments away from the final piece for this evening: Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen. I have returned to my original seat between Il Rak and Sun Jae, and right now, all three of us are looking on as Si Won does one last check of her violin.

 

“I’ve told you already, Yoo Jin-ah,” Il Rak continues, “I’ve seen Si Won play this before at her recital. Even with that trick you and Nae Il pulled –”

 

“Ya,” I cut in, “we did not –”

 

“Even with that, she’s gonna be tonight’s star. Just you wait and see.”

 

I would have said something in my own defence at this point, but just then, with a grand rumbling introduction from Nae Il at the piano, the piece begins.

 

Jung Si Won, as befitting the title of Haneum’s best violinist, hits the ground running with her performance. Opening with a mournful and lyrical melody in a minor key, one that carries the chromaticism that we so oftentimes associate with Gypsy music, she makes quick work of a series of virtuosic flourishes in rapid succession. And although she does not sway and bob with the music the same way Il Rak does, preferring to keep a straight and elegant posture, her absorption in the melody is no less apparent. During the slower and more mournful passages, I could see that her eyes are closed as she focuses almost entirely on the quality of the sound that she is producing. And, in the quicker runs, scales and trills, the short bursts of staccato notes, she knows exactly how to let each moment have its impact, ending each trick with a brief moment of silence that echoes loudly through the room.

 

Professor Stresemann had once told me that a performance without a visual component is boring, that if it was only the sound that mattered, then people could just as easily purchase a recording.

 

It’s too bad that he hasn’t flown in yet, and won’t until it is almost time for our Rising Star concert, because Jung Si Won would have completely proven him wrong tonight.

 

Without excessive movement, without dramatic changes in her expression, she brings forth beauty in the form of pure sound. And, from the wide-eyed, slack-jawed faces around us, I can see that that sound is more than enough to have us all spellbound.

 

All too soon, the music comes to an end, the melody turning into an ascending scale that grows softer and softer until it culminates in a single faded high-pitched note. As I watch Si Won open her eyes and gently lift her bow off the strings, I feel Il Rak’s foot nudging mine under the table.

 

“This,” he whispers, “is when it gets good.”

 

So, leaning forward in interest, propping my elbows on the table in front of me, I wait with bated breath as Si Won’s eyes scan over all of us in the audience, flashing us her most disarming smile.

 

Then, almost out of nowhere, it happens. Nae Il, playing the accompaniment, suddenly bursts out with a rapid series of octave-wide chords, and Si Won, without a moment’s hesitation, jumps right in.

 

What follows is an explosion, as Si Won begins to play an extremely quick dance melody.

 

Il Rak, clearly already expecting this, bursts into applause, letting out a whoop of excitement. Indeed, he is not the only one, as several others in the audience join him.

 

As for me, I am left entirely speechless.

 

Never have I seen or heard Jung Si Won – or any of Haneum’s violinists, for that matter – play so fast, nor so precisely. The tempo is quick, but the real challenge is in how intricate the melody is, incorporating both bowed and pizzicato notes in rapid succession. These, she does completely flawlessly, using her left hand to pluck the strings even as she draws her bow across them with her right.

 

The rhythm is infectious, too. Within moments, Il Rak is clapping in time with the music, even getting up from his seat and raising his hands above his head in attempts to get everyone else to follow along. As I finally join in, allowing myself to be swept away by the music’s festive mood, I catch a glimpse of Nae Il, who, playing her part by memory, has turned her head momentarily away from the piano to glance back at me. She grins brightly at the sight of me, her head even dipping slightly as she is unable to hold back a short laugh.

 

Finally, the piece comes to its real conclusion, Si Won and Nae Il playing a bright cadence in perfectly synced staccato to bring the music to a close. That is our cue to get up on our feet, most of us, myself included, jumping up to give the girls a standing ovation.

 

“Brave!” I cry out despite myself. “Brave! Bravissime!”

 

Nae Il shoots me a look at that, one eyebrow quirking up slightly before her expression, too, melts into a grin. Her knowledge of Italian is quite limited, but she knows enough concert etiquette to what I have just done: giving my praise in the plural rather than in the singular, making sure to include her as well.

 

That, however, is not the end of tonight’s surprises. Next thing I know, as everyone resumes their seats, Il Rak scrambles back up onto the stage, leaning heavily in towards Si Won as he holds out his arms towards her. But then, to my astonishment, rather than accepting the kiss, Si Won suddenly stops him, planting the index finger of her bow hand firmly against his forehead. She pauses there for a moment, one corner of her mouth twitching up flirtatiously, before then pushing him away as hard as she could, sending the stunned and gaping Il Rak stumbling several paces back.

 

Against my better judgment, I burst out laughing. And from several tables over, I hear a familiar girl's voice ring out:

 

“Rejected! Serves you right, Sunbae!”

 

Choi Min Hee has never been one for romance.

 

Satisfied with her joke, Si Won now sashays away from Il Rak, who could only look on, gobsmacked, as she begins to play a riff from Paganini’s La Campanella. Once she has come to the end of the phrase, having taken several strides all the way to the opposite side of the stage, she now turns abruptly on her heel and points her bow at Nae Il, inviting her to join in.

 

This, Nae Il does. But instead of playing the Liszt arrangement of the piece she knows so well, she astounds us by improvising a variation on the spot: using octaves in the treble to replicate the melody and adding a series of chords in the bass.

 

Grinning broadly, having recovered from his momentary setback, Il Rak now dashes back to our table and snatches up his violin. Then, prancing back up onto the stage, he answers in kind, this time with the main theme from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. When he has finished to yet another quick burst of applause, rather than prompting Nae Il to take over, he looks straight over to our table and gestures at me.

 

Clearly, he wants me to do what Nae Il has just done. I, however, have a better idea.

 

“Ya, Lee Sun Jae,” I call out, clapping him on the shoulder with my right hand and pointing towards the stage with my left, “get out there and show them what you’ve got!”

 

Immediately, he responds with his bright bashful smile, even going so far as to dip his head in a slight bow in thanks. “Ne, Sunbae,” he says before getting up from his seat. Some of the orchestra members, probably regular customers at this coffee shop, seem to recognize him, because they then start chanting out his name. Seconds later, all of us have joined in: “Lee Sun Jae! Lee Sun Jae! Lee Sun Jae!”

 

Nae Il gets up to make room for him, lightly scampering back down from the stage and hurrying over to sit beside me once again. And not a moment too soon, because Sun Jae, using Il Rak’s riff for inspiration, responds by playing several of the variations of this same theme from his Rachmaninoff piece. Of course he doesn’t do all of them – without an orchestra, some would sound oddly sparse – but the ones he’s chosen must be his favourites: one featuring just the single line played with an arpeggiated staccato; one made up of quick pounding chords; and the explosively joyous finale. This last is my own personal favourite of his, as he puts his all into playing it: leaning in to the keyboard with each phrase; flicking his wrist with the momentum of each accented staccato note so that his hand almost flies up into the air; even sweeping his right hand across the keys in a long glissando before ending with a flourish.

 

With the applause that bursts out at this point, I find myself no longer able to resist. Reacting to some unseen force inside of me, I once again get up on my feet, this time snatching up my glass with me. As it turns out, Lee Yoon Hoo is the first one to notice; he stands up with his own glass in kind. The two of us stare across the room at each other, maintaining eye contact for much longer than either of us has been able to for the past several days.

 

By now, everyone else has noticed, too: either standing up in their places with their own glasses or, in the case of those who had been on the stage, coming back to our table to claim theirs.

 

For a long moment, silence reigns, no-one daring to speak until either one of us does so first. It’s a pause that makes me hesitate, but then I note the way that Yoon Hoo’s eyes widen slightly as he raises one eyebrow at me: his signal for me to take charge.

 

So, I do. And on an occasion like this, there is only one toast that I can give. Raising my glass high for everyone to see, I call it out in my strongest conductor’s voice:

 

“To music!”

 

For a moment, it looks to me like Yoon Hoo is answering me with that cocky smirk of his, but then I notice that it is, in fact, his genuine bright grin. He, too, raises his glass and calls back just as loudly:

 

“To music!”

 

And then, as one, we all do it:

 

“To music!”

 

Authors Notes (in "Hidden Contents" because of spoilers)

 

Spoiler

Compared to other fics in my "Seolleim in Salzburg" series, theres not a whole ton of extra goodies this time around. I didn't have to scout out any locations in Salzbrg or Vienna, nor do research into Austrian customs that might require explanation here. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't behind-the-scenes tidbits I want to feature, so here goes!

 

1. 'A's and 'S's

 

You may have noticed some instances where I use these terms - A and S - like labels in Cha Yoo Jin's thoughts and dialogue. While it would have stemed from the initial division between the A and S Orchestras at Haneum, I hope I was able to make it clear in the fic itself that I also meant the terms more metaphorically.

 

In part, this was inspired by the fact that Seohan - the music university in "Secret Love Affair" - and Haneum had some very similar issues: in both institutions, someone in the administration was treating music almost like a business, and was affecting school policy accordingly. The way it works in "Nae Il's Cantabile" is a bit more lighthearted, suiting the drama's nature as a comedy, but in both schools, we see how students who are seen as "elite" are given preferential treatment compared to those considered "leftovers".

 

The distinction that I thought Yoo Jin would have, though, between A and S is a bit more complicated, because it encompasses several factors. In short:

 

A = the "elite" students, the students who show enough talent to qualify for studies abroad or soloist fame, the students who are treated with a certain level of prestige because they come from wealthy or connected families

 

S = the "leftover" students, the students who are more focused on playing music with feeling than following the rules, the students who oftentimes have to struggle financially in order to achieve their dreams nad ambitions

 

From this, I think it's pretty clear which students might be "A" and which ones might be "S". Students like Chae Do Kyung or Si Won's friends (teh oboeist and trumpeter) from the A orchestra would fit really firmly in this camp. Meanwhile, students like most of our main cast, I imagine, would be S in multiple senses of the term.

 

What about Cha Yoo Jin, though? He's someone who, if one were to look objectively, would probably be both. Or neither. The same applies for someone like Lee Yoon Hoo or Lee Sun Jae (even though Seohan used different labels for it). But one thing that I wanted to touch upon in this fic is that I think, if he had to pick a side, Yoo Jin would still identify himself as an A - not because he likes it (he doesn't), but beccause he's aware that no matter what he does, people will always see him that way (Haneum's virtuoso, Cha Dong Woo's son and Stresseman's apprentice? What else could he be?!).

 

2. The Music

 

Writing a "Nae Il's Cantabile" fanfic without music would be impossible. And this time around, taking advantage of the fact that I didn't have as much "research" to do, I really went full-out here. To make it easier, I'll divide the listening clips to pieces prior to and then during the mini-concet.

 

Miscllaneous pieces (i.e. those not from the mini-concert)

 

For starters, I featured two pieces that showed up in "Secret Love Affair", so - for the benefit of those who haven't watched that drama - I'll just share clips of each from that drama rather than sharing the whole pieces.

 

1. Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Rachmaninoff

 

(FYI: As much as I think JW did a good job with his piano-playing acting in "Nae Il's Cantabile", I personally think Yoo Ah In beat him, hands down, in "Secret Love Affair". I was, as someone who's grown up playing classical piano, absolutely blown away - and I hope, from this video, you could see why)

 

 

2. Rondo in A-Minor by Mozart

 

 

And now, for the two pieces from that rather diastrous rehearsal.

 

 

1. Die Moldau by Bedrich Smetana

 

It's possible that you may see this piece being called Vltava, and that's because that would be its name in Czech, Smetana's native language. However, since Yoo Jin is originally from Austria and, thus, is more fluent in German, I have him using the German title for this piece throughout.

 

 

2. Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann by Clara Schumann

 

 

Pieces from the Mini-Concert

 

I won't do a separate feature on Czardas, since that's already present in "Nae Il's Cantabile" itself - the scene in question would be the duel between Yoo Il Rak and Jung Si Won in Episode 4, so you can always go back to that for reference.

 

Everything else, though....

 

1. Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens

 

 

2. Marche Militaire No. 2 by Franz  Schubert

 

 

 

3. Zigeunerweizen by Pablo de Sarasate

 

I chose this clip because you really need to see a live rendition to fully appreciate just how insanely difficult this piece is; however, I do want to point out that this is not what I envisioned for Jung Si Won's performance style. 

 

 

 

3. Miscellaneous Trivia

 

Not much here,but since I do end up describing what I imagine Nae Il and Si Won to be wearing during the mini-concert, I should point out that I was inspired by these two real-life dresses:

 

Nae Il's Dress

 

Black Lattice Neckline Alika Swing Dress

 

Si Won's Dress

 

Buy Romantica 3/4-Sleeve Sheath Ruffle Dress | YesStyle

 

 

If you've made it all the way to the end, congrats!

 

If anyone wants to access a master list of all my fanfics as well as some other Hallyu-related writings, that can be found under the "About Me" tab on my proifile page. Thanks, and enjoy reading!

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On 7/14/2018 at 12:47 PM, soomoi said:

This pic reminds me of JW’s first (and only?) exposure with BoA in the same occasion. when at that time they may not even befriend yet.  He was presenting the Golden Disk Award to SJ and BoA. 

 

If I recall correctly, this was when their friendship started - if someone knows more for sure, please let us know.

 

On 7/14/2018 at 12:47 PM, soomoi said:

Well, the beard (real or shadow makeup?) also stands out.  The total look and JW’s immersive acting ability really makes a man at 30’s but mind me, he was only 24 at that time.  I’ll never have enough of pics of WTH the humble man.

 

One thing I have noticed from "Ojakgyo Brothers" is that JW is not all that babyfaced of an actor - it's not that he looks old for his age (I do think seeing him as 30 at this point was a bit of a stretch), but he was easily able to look/feel older than the actor who was playing his younger brother but who was, in fact, a few years older than JW.

 

On 7/14/2018 at 12:47 PM, soomoi said:

I'm curious about how Mountia goes without JW and just have a look at their website.  Huayi supplied 2 of its stars, one being the winner of the My Sassy Girl audition. The other is well-known locally.  Somehow the new portfolios give me the look and feel of a middle-age dad and his teen girl.  Never the same as JW before: youthful, radiant, relaxed and calm.  I wonder how well their sales is nowadays.  Anymore fan-signing promotions?

 

Maybe it's because JW was with them for so long, but am I the only one who has a hard time imagining Mountia without him? I hope he ends up renewing his contract with them after his enlistment, but even if he doesn't, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what endorsements he'll get when the time comes.

 

On 7/14/2018 at 12:47 PM, soomoi said:

Not really wet look but a funny scene.

 

lol - I remember the way the actresses were talking about this scene during the "Ojakgyo Brothers" episode of "Happy Together". They were getting all excited about seeing the guys shirtless (or, in JW's case, nearly shirtless), but apparently the reality didn't meet their expectations :P And I think I recall something about the guys doing pushups behind the scenes to try to bulk up a bit, too.

 

On 7/14/2018 at 12:47 PM, soomoi said:

And to finish my once-in-a-while post :sweatingbullets:, a compilation of JW’s Korean projects before 2016.

 

Ooh...I've never seen that collage before. Thanks for sharing!

 

And now for my own pics!

 

Spoiler

This moment from "Good Doctor" is really sweet

 

8dccec7f4a6f3f8937da04332ed16b8b.jpg

 

I don't think I've seen this picture before

 

 

Kim Tae Hyun and Lee Kang To are style buddies once again

 

 

This look is really simple, but neat and stylish

 

 

A collage of miscellaneous shots

 

 

Loving his tuxedo look

 

 

A behind-the-scenes shot from "Good Doctor"

 

 

 

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Here I am with today's pics!

 

Spoiler

Read the caption for a behind-the-scenes look at "My Sassy Girl" in JW's own words

 

 

Okay, let's be shallow for a moment - because these screenshots from "Life Log" are just absolutely gorgeous!

 

 

Fanservice during a 2017 fanmeeting in Hong Kong

 

 

I'm really liking these close-up shots

 

 

This shot from "Yong Pal" turned out really well - note Tae Hyun's "You've got to be kidding me..." face here.

 

 

I like it when JW does a sporty or casual look

 

 

 

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