Ash is back from another brutal rehearsal. He’s cold from the January wind, and his violin case is heavy, and his back is so sore he wishes he’d meet his soulmate already. Conductors shouldn’t schedule a five hour rehearsal the day before a big concert, anyways, and that assistant conductor Golzine is especially cruel on them. He haphazardly tosses his music on the flimsy wire stand in his “living room”, which is just the hallway between his kitchenette and bedroom. His apartment is cramped, and bare, and he needs—deserves—a raise. He’s concertmaster, for fuck’s sake. Just because he’s younger than all the geezers in the section doesn’t mean he should be paid less! God, he needs a drink. He’ll have to settle for a coffee instead, since there’s no way he’s walking to the grocery store after that kind of a day.
His apartment is above a small cafe. Cute enough, except for the fucking grand piano in it. It has one of those feel good signs asking for trouble, aka snotty children banging on it when their mothers pop in for a sugary latte before school. At least he can practice whenever he wants because of it. It’s the only good thing about it.
The cafe is crazy busy this afternoon, strangely enough. As Ash winds his way around the tables and chairs toward the counter, cranky and needing a strong cup of black coffee, he notes that everyone in the store is whispering excitedly, looking at that banged up grand. Probably another prodigy who can’t phrase for shit. Another selling point on the apartment was its proximity to the symphony, so every once in a while musicians wander in. Maestro Griffin Callenreese himself has even graced this hole in a wall once.
He gets his coffee, and turns back to the stairs, when a pianist starts to play a piece he’s known since birth. One that makes his whole body warm, one that makes him burn now. Thrown by an unturnable urge, he dashes upstairs, knowing he has just a few beats to return. He throws open the door to his apartment, snatches up his violin and bow, and practically falls down the stairs to return in time. He’s made it.
Ash begins the first movement of the Sibelius violin concerto, accompanied by worn ivory. The orchestration calls for the barest of entrances by the upper strings, but the delicacy with which this someone is playing the piano—not even close to a violin!—is astounding. Ash’s eyes close, as he feels the collective gaze of the crowded cafe turn to him. He plays, heat and cold pooling in his fingertips, pain forgotten, beautiful in a way he knows not how to be. He gets lost, as they say, in the music.
The pianist, from across the room, responds to his every breath and string crossing. Effortless, airy, and then full-bodied, rich, each color supporting his own tapestry of melody. Ash pulled aggression and tension from them, and they light from him. It was pure delight.
They finished the movement together, satisfying in its darkness and excitement. Ash whirls to the piano, finally peering across the room. Holy fucking shit.
The man sitting across the room from him, looking breathless and flushed, appeared youthful and innocent in his daytime attire, someone incapable of whatever that just was. But Ash knows better. Legendary prodigy Okumura Eiji, coming to the U.S. for his first international tour, is this very pianist. One of the few musicians taken under conductor Shunichi Ibe’s wing. No wonder there’s a crowd. No sheet music in front of him, this stranger looks at him with a wry and secret smile from his vantage point of a piano bench. He is beautiful.
Roaring applause brings Ash back to Earth. Customers and shopkeepers alike leap to their feet, not a few wolf whistles in the mix. Blinking, he meets the other man’s eyes again with a smile, watched his pleased expression bloom from surprise.
Across that room, he mouthed, “Eiji. Nice to meet you, Ash Lynx.”
Eiji becomes a fixture in his life, settling comfortably into a role he seemed always meant to fill. Nothing in Ash’s life had ever come so easily, much less something so, well, good. Eiji would rehearse with the N.Y. Phil, eyes flaring and melting, all brilliance and poise, and then would toss popcorn into Ash’s mouth backstage during breaks. They’d make fun of Golzine’s pomposity in the protection of drawn curtains and make exquisite music the moment after. It was wonderful, and he was wonderful, but Ash knew it might only last for this one month. Eiji’s tour left New York March 1st, and he was scheduled out for another whole month in D.C.
February though it was, Ash takes him to all the tourist spots. They flip off Trump tower, run through Central Park, hit up the best local delis, and spy on the Met. Ibe’s assistant stuck them in a hotel on the opposite side of the city from Lincoln Center, so oftentimes, when it got late, Eiji would just sleep over at Ash’s, talking late into the night.
One such nights, a blizzard struck, all but snowing in the city. After Ash punched through the snowdrift in front of the cafe’s door (Eiji was laughing at him the entire time, shaking his hands to get him to stop), Ibe called to tell them that rehearsal was cancelled, thank God. He’d definitely bloodied his knuckles a little bit.
Before Ash can pull Eiji out of the cafe to go find a real piano so they can practice anyways, Eiji says, “Why don’t we just take the day off? Or, maybe, you could show me how to play a little on the violin?”
Surprising. Eiji’s never asked that before, but the way he’s holding his own hands (gently, as if they sting, probably sore from the cold and the prior night’s practice session) makes Ash willing to be a little flexible.
They climb the rickety stairs back up to the apartment. It’s strange, how they seemed so short when they first met. Ash pulls out his violin, first.
“What, no bow? Do you not trust me at all?” Eiji pouts.
“It’s not that—well, it’s a little bit that, heh—but no one learns first by starting with everything at once. Have you never really tried a violin before?”
“No, never.” Eiji’s pout moves more to the puppy-dog side of frowns.
“Ibe should let you out of your cage a little more, yeesh. Now, there’s four strings: E, A, D, and G, high to low.” Ash points to each as he says this, patronizingly slow.
“Ash, I know that already!”
“No whining, I am your teacher now. Tuck it under your chin, and put your left hand under the neck…”
Eiji is a fast learner, evidently, as the minutes tick imperceptibly by. Nothing can be helped when it comes to his bow hold and tone. “Could you just help me make it not so bad sounding, Ash? Why would you play such a devil’s instrument?”
“Here, I’ll show you again—” “Could you just move my hands for me?”
“Ah, fine, so needy.”
“Hey! I’m older than you!”
Eiji’s fingers are long and slim, a little stiff but more nimble as they work. Ash eventually puts his arms around him from behind to show him how to finger and bow at the same time, properly. Eiji’s skin is soft, and he huffs cutely each time he misses a note. His back is pretty muscular for his lean frame. Helping him, Ash can see just how bloody his knuckles really are, against Eiji’s pretty hands. At least it doesn’t hurt.
Like this, Eiji is doing scales in no time at all. He even plays the first few notes of the Sibelius, albeit with pisspoor quality.
“Looking to replace me as concertmaster, eh? I’ll have you know, I’m the best thing that’s happened to New York since Bernstein!”
“Unlikely. You’re going to tour the world. I doubt you will be here long enough to even make a dent in them. Golzine becomes so angry when you even have a suggestion, so good luck with that!”
“Do you really think that?”
“What, that Golzine dislikes you? Yes, for sure.”
“I resent that. No, I mean… if I will be a soloist.”
“Let’s put your violin away, shall we?”
“Alright. But, really. You’re the one on tour.” Ash takes his violin carefully from Eiji, loosening his bow as he listens closely.
“Ash, I think- I think you already are a soloist. You are too much of an individual to be in an orchestra for the rest of your life, even as a concertmaster. If I didn’t know you were a violinist, I would say you are a conductor.”
Ash turns back to him. From this distance, he can see Eiji’s posture. Tall back, away from the seat, good for a violinist. Dark eyes intently on his. But his hands are clasped again in his lap, almost clenched. He looks not quite fierce. Ash says nothing.
“Don’t look at me like that! I am only telling the truth. Your heart is too strong to be told what to do, and music is performance, yes, but it is all h- heart. Music is heart. You know this as well. ...Why do you stay in the orchestra, anyways? It is not where you want to be, right?”
“Aren’t you cheesy? Didn’t expect that. I… I meet the people I need to meet to do what I want to do in the future. As the concertmaster. If I toured now I wouldn’t have the support you do, with Ibe. I don’t have the money or the respect to perform, yet.”
“I respect you, and your music. Come back over here.”
Ash comes, as if pulled by a string. What is it that makes Eiji so easy to talk and listen to? Why can’t Ash ask him to do favors or order him to change an interpretation of a crescendo, but to work so intimately with him?
Eiji stands, and abruptly hugs him tight. He whispers, “Ash, you deserve everyone’s respect. And there is a reason for the phrase, ‘starving artist’, no?”
Eiji leaves later that cold morning, still holding his fingers to him closely, but somehow Ash doesn’t want to see him go.
“No, Ibe-san, it’s not like that!”
“Are you sure it isn’t?”
“He’s my friend! And, in a sense, my coworker. He’s an incredible violinist.”
“I’ve never heard you play so well, and I think it’s the same for you, too. But are you sure he feels the same way? That you’re just friends?”
“You spend every spare minute with him. It’s very sweet. You know, I think you two are a good pair. Neither of you can think straight with each other. It isn’t just you who thinks that!”
“Go get ‘im, tiger. You don’t have much time.”
During their final rehearsal with Eiji, Golzine asks to talk to him about bowings for the string section. Ash knows better than this. Perhaps he’ll be told off, perhaps his paycheck is going to be cut, but whatever it is, it’s not bowings. Eiji sees him go at break, and shoots him a worried glance, but before he could say anything, Ash pulled into Golzine’s office.
“Ash. You and I both know this is not about bowings.”
“Yeah, I’m not that naive. What’s up, old man?”
Golzine grits his teeth, tense. The office is dark, and Golzine hadn’t bothered turning the lights on when he closed the door. Stacks of music sit on the desk, disorderly and mismatched, all heavy German music; clearly, Golzine wasn’t Griffin’s choice for a successor, but the board is the board, after all.
“That is just what I want to talk about. I run a formal orchestra in the good old fashion. I need my musicians to respect me. If their concertmaster is a quarter their age, practically a child, fine. But when that kid mouths off in rehearsals or sectionals, it does not allow us to make music well.”
“Why are you so stuffy, Maestro? This is the U.S., we do things differently here. Just because you’ve got the rest of the Phil quaking in their boots doesn’t mean I should be.”
“Maestro Callenreese, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is not likely to recover. His ways were unorthodox, and the Phil suffered under his tutelage!”
“Dino—can I call you Dino?—we suffered because you gave us terrible programs and because we had a quarter of the rehearsal time so Griffin could rest. You wouldn’t know how good the orchestra was before you got here. We’re not meant to play all classical music. We do everything here. If you actually could conduct this orchestra, you would know that, Dino.”
Golzine looked murderous. He stood, chair screeching back, slammed his hands down on the desk.
“Oh, did I touch a nerve, Maestro?”
Golzine slaps him, just like that. Across the face, as hard as he could. There is sudden, remarkably sharp pain, and then the pain siphons off. God, he could use a soulmate right now.
“You’re out. After tonight’s concert, you will hand in your resignation in exchange for six month’s pay, or I will fire you in front of the orchestra.”
Ash is stunned. The phone rings, and Golzine, taking a breath, picks it up.
“Hi, is this Maestro Golzine? This is Eiji. I am calling to ask about Ash’s departure from the New York Phil.”
Eiji’s tinny voice echoes out into the silence that is the office. Shakily, Golzine asks, “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, Ibe and I have been talking, and we came to the agreement that we would like to ask Ash to join us on tour. He truly is such a promising violinist. But of course, I understand that it is quite abrupt, and that his contract probably doesn’t end for a while. Would you be amenable letting him go to us?”
“Ah, I know, it’s so much to ask! I wouldn’t want to let him go either. But I think it would be a grand opportunity for him, and you will be able to say you worked with the great Ash Lynx of the violin. Five years down the road that will be a nice touch to your resume if you plan on transferring to another orchestra after Maestro Callenreese returns.”
“Eiji, I don’t know what you’ve heard about the maestro, but he is not in good condition at the moment.”
“What are you talking about? The doctors are saying he is still able to make a near full recovery. His recent fainting spell was merely due to a dosage change. I am here with him now, in fact. The hospital is so close to Lincoln Center that I just popped by for a visit. I wanted to confirm with him first that Ash would be free to go.”
“That would be. Amenable to me. Thank you for the call.”
“Oh, any time! I’d love to chat again soon. I am so glad this has all been worked out. Until tonight?”
Ash watches as Golzine puts down the phone hard, shell shocked. “Guess I’ll let myself out. Later, Pops.”
To say the concert was a smashing success would be wrong. It was an absolute miracle that Ash and Golzine were able to be on the stage together. But the orchestra played better than they ever had, perhaps something to do with how closely the concertmaster and the soloist moved together. Golzine waves Eiji up to the podium for a final bow and goodbye, and Ash watches as Eiji shakes his hand, and says, perfectly precise, “I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t slap my soulmate in the future, my friend.” Golzine pales considerably.
Eiji then turns, dreamlike, to him, and raises him to his feet. “You deserve this applause as much as I do. Let’s thank the audience for it.”
And they bow, tears in their eyes.
Backstage, at the afterparty, after Ibe is down preening over Eiji’s performance, Ash looks at Eiji strangely, and says, “You didn’t have to do that, ya know. Pick me out of this orchestra.”
In the dim room, people mingled, nibbling on cheese and crackers, sipping white wine and champagne. The soft hum of people talking abounds. Eiji looks into him. “I wanted to. And so did Ibe-san. It was nothing like the pity you think it is.”
“Are you sure? Are you sure it wasn’t that?”
“Ash, I. I want to keep working with you. It’s mostly admiration.”
“And what else, Eiji?”
“If you just spit it out, it’ll be easier.”
“It’s not! It’s the opposite of easy, for me. I just… I care for you. Maybe too much. And one would think it goes both ways, but I keep taking and taking your pain but you haven’t said anything. I thought I was wrong until you were slapped. I was so angry. And then I saw the handprint under your makeup tonight and I knew it was him and I… I just…”
“You think we’re soulmates? Isn’t that what you told Golzine?”
“Did your hands hurt after punching the snow? Did your back hurt when we met? Did you feel the sting when Dino hit you? I took that. That was me.”
Ash pinches himself, hard, at the inside of his left elbow. And it fades immediately, as Eiji gasps quietly, hand moving to his own left arm.
“What the fuck? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought you knew! No one punches snow until they bleed and then doesn’t feel anything, you idiot! I thought you were being a jerk! Did you feel nothing,” Eiji says, voice no longer indignant, “when you heard me begin to play in the cafe?”
“I… can we have this conversation elsewhere, where Dino’s goons and grandpas can’t hear us?”
“Come outside with me.”
As they push through the crowd, wellwishers say their goodbyes with an ever cheerful Eiji replying, “We’re turning in early for the night! I’ll stay in touch! Good night!” Not knowing how that sounded to strangers. Although they weren’t too far off the mark, apparently.
To step into the cold, snowy outside was a relief from the bustle of the party. Snowflakes fell gently from the dark sky above, landing delicately on Eiji’s hat and coat. Ash involuntarily brushed some of the snowflakes off Eiji, who laughs bitterly. “I was thinking about confessing to you, like a schoolboy, on Valentine’s Day. That was when you taught me to play the violin. But I thought you wouldn’t like it, even though we are soulmates. Or at least I am yours. Yes, it is America, but you might not want a man. Or me. I was right.”
“Eiji, how do you take away my pain? What does it feel like?”
He turns his head away. “I feel a pull toward you. When I found you in the cafe I found you by your soreness. It was the first time I had ever felt such a way before. When you’re in pain, I want to reach out to you. And when I do, I take it, and it’s lighter.”
“Am I in pain now?”
“Not that I can feel.”
“But I am. My heart hurts. I think if I—”
Ash reaches out, drawn by something inexplicable yet obvious. He touches the front of Eiji’s coat and pulls back.
There is a new weight on his heart. It is sorrow, it is deep and resigned and confused, and as he senses this, it dissipates altogether.
“Did you…? Ash!!”
He pulls again, physically this time, and takes Eiji into his arms, abrupt and final in the most beautiful way. The snow keeps falling. He blinks back tears, face buried deep into Eiji’s warm coat.
“I didn’t know I was allowed to love you, Eiji.”
Eiji steps back some, and brings their foreheads together. “Thank god,” he whispers into the cold air. “Thank god.”
Ash slides his hands up to cup his face. He pushes forward, pressing his lips to Eiji’s cheek, and then his forehead, the tip of his nose, affection and happy tears bubbling up. “No, thank you.”
(Moments later: “I can’t believe you thought I was straight! This kind of drama is not bestowed on the fucking unworthy, Jesus Christ.”
“Oh, quiet! I didn’t know! Kiss me already!”
“...I can do that.”)