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♥ Happy Birthday, dearest Aka!♥

Your generosity with your time and talents make dS / C6D a fantastic place to be, but your kindness and thoughtfulness makes the rest of the world better too! I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels my life is better for knowing you. I hope your day and your year ahead is as shiny and wonderful as you are! *many birthday hugs*

Here is a birthday fic for you, based on the Microfic AU – “...And coming up later on Arts Review, we talk to the Philharmonia’s principal violinist, Benton Fraser, about the appointment of their charismatic and controversial new conductor, S. Raymond Kowalski...”

Overture
F/K pre-slash
~2000 words
AU
Author’s Notes: due South is not mine. Any organisations mentioned in this story are entirely made up as far as I can google tell. Many thanks to [personal profile] vsee  for beta.

Overture

The rehearsal room was buzzing with gossip. Even in this there was music, Benton reflected, as the rhythm of ‘Do you know...?’, ‘Is it true...?’ and ‘Well I heard... ‘ punctuated the excited chatter. Usually he was one of the first to arrive. Today, however, most of the orchestra were already present, assembled in small groups and eager to hear the latest news.

“Benton! Over here!”

The two trombonists, Jack Huey and the generally cheerful – though slightly obnoxious – Tom Dewey, were waving at him. Francesca Vecchio was also with them. As Benton joined the group he tried to position himself between the two men, rather than by the over-eager young clarinettist.

“Have you heard?” asked Jack. “Have you heard what her brother’s done to us? Abandoned us with only 10 days left until the Philharmonia’s centenary concert!”

Shocked, Benton turned towards Francesca. Her exasperated tone suggested that she’d had to give the same explanation several times already that morning. “I’m his sister, not his keeper,” she said to Jack. “Nevada State Orchestra made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, apparently.”

Benton was bitterly disappointed at this news. As the leader of the orchestra, it had been important to develop a good professional relationship with the conductor, but his association with Ray Vecchio had become deeper than that. Ray’s friendship had been as important to Benton during this period of – admittedly self-imposed – exile as any professional guidance he had been able to offer. He forced himself to concentrate as Francesca attempted to pull them all towards her in some sort of huddle.

Anyway”, her voice lowered as she checked she had the full attention of her audience, “I hear Harding’s already fixed something up. A replacement. S Raymond Kowalski.”

“Kowalski? Like the Stella Kowalski?” asked Tom.

“The ex-husband of,” replied Francesca with a knowing nod. “I saw her on TV last night. She’s doing very well for herself.”

“What else do you know about him?”

“Well I heard he has a tattoo...and he was nominated for three Golden Batons.”

Despite Francesca’s obvious pleasure at her knowledge of their new conductor, Benton couldn’t understand how any of this information could be of practicable use. “What’s a Golden Baton?”

Francesca seemed slightly deflated by having to provide further explanation. “It’s an award for conductors, given by Midwestern Music Monthly Magazine.”

“Oh, that’s just not fair,” complained Tom. “Why don’t they give awards to trombone players too?”

“Because a ‘Golden Bone’ award sounds like something a porn magazine would give out,” replied Francesca, manoeuvring her way around Jack and laying a hand on Benton’s arm. “Isn’t that right, Benton?”

Mercifully, Benton was saved from discussing pornography with Francesca by the arrival of the Chicago Philharmonia’s managing director, Harding Welsh. He was accompanied by another man, presumably the S Raymond Kowalski they all knew so much – or so little – about. Kowalski was about the same height as Benton, but of a leaner build. His fair hair was spiked and he wore a faded grey t-shirt with a rather worn looking pair of jeans – a marked contrast to his predecessor who always took such care over the neatness of his appearance. Benton noticed a narrow stripe of red and black under the edge of Kowalski’s sleeve. His thumbs were tucked into the pockets of his jeans, his hands resting at the top of his thighs, and Benton’s gaze followed the long fingers as they pointed down Kowalski’s long legs. He felt a pulse of heat surge through his blood, even more so when he looked up and found Kowalski staring straight at him.

Welsh raised his hands to quiet those who hadn’t noticed his presence and were still chattering. “Ladies and gentlemen. Please be seated for a moment. I imagine many of you are anxious to find out what’s going on.”

The orchestra members sat, by force of habit, in their usual section places. Welsh waited until he had everyone’s attention before speaking again. Benton was ready to listen, but he also watched Kowalski with interest.

“I know some of you aren’t too happy that Ray Vecchio took the job at the Nevada State Orchestra, and with only ten days until the centenary concert, I appreciate the timing is far from ideal,” Welsh said. “But we are fortunate that S Raymond Kowalski is...available to step in at such short notice. So, I’ll hand you straight over to him – I expect he’d like to say a few words before you all get started. Mr Kowalski?” Welsh stepped to one side to allow Kowlaski to take the central position at the conductor’s stand, but Kowalski finished the long, appraising look he was giving the orchestra, ending with a long look at Benton, before moving forward to speak.

“Okay. So...um, the name...” He stopped to clear his throat. “The name thing. Just ‘S’ is kind of weird, ‘S Raymond’ isn’t any better, so I go by Ray. You can all just call me Ray, like the last guy.” His expression remained a mixture of apology and challenge as he carried on, “ And yes, the Stella Kowalski on the Stella’s Flute Fantasy CD is my ex-wife.” Out of the corner of his eye Benton saw Francesca give Tom and Jack a slightly triumphant look, but he was more interested in the new Ray to pay them any further attention. He didn’t look particularly nervous to be there, but he definitely had an abundance of nervous energy. His long fingers were tapping at the stand, as if it were impossible to keep them still. Benton gave him a small smile, in what he hoped was an encouraging way. Ray relaxed slightly, having clearly got the two most uncomfortable points he had to make over with.

“So, what else? I love conducting, but I may not do it in a way you’re used to. I’m gonna ask you to play things in a way you’ve probably never been asked to play them before. Sometimes I use proper Italian terms and sometimes I don’t – I just say what I want to say. I rarely use a baton – golden or otherwise.” There was a faint murmur from a few of the players at this last remark and Benton felt a slight thrill at the way Ray had already summed up some of the orchestra members. He looked again at the hands Ray would use to lead them through the music. They appeared as elegant as a floating melody and as strong as a heavy bass line. Benton wondered which musical instrument would suit those hands best, and was, as if Ray had read his thoughts, answered immediately.

“Before I became a conductor I studied the cello so I’ll give you fair warning, I tend to ride the strings pretty hard.” He looked directly at Benton and at the musicians assembled around him and then smiled. “But, on the upside, I’ll bitch with you about fingerings and if I can help with technique or anything, then that’s cool too.”

Ray waited, as the cellists gave some pantomime groans at the idea of being under extra scrutiny from their new conductor, before he went on. “Okay. This morning we’re just going to run through the concert pieces you’re....we’re....working on at the moment. No stopping, no picking apart, just a play through to see what you can do and how you follow me. So, I’ll give you 5 minutes to get ready, tune up and we’ll work through the Copland, Bartok, Bernstein and Holst in that order.”

A voice from near the back called out, “Whatever you say, ‘S’!” Tom Dewey’s feeble joke was met with more groans than giggles, but Ray held up his hand and addressed the players with mock seriousness.

“Don’t laugh at the trombones, please. It only encourages them.” There was more laughter, genuinely good humoured this time, as people started to get up and move to where they had left their instrument cases.

Benton stood, ready to collect his violin, but was met with Ray Kowalski’s outstretched hand.

“You’re Benton Fraser, right?” Ray said.

“Yes,” Benton replied with a nod.

“Okay. Good.” The handshake lasted longer than expected and Ray suddenly gave an embarrassed smile and dropped Benton’s hand.

“I’ll let you...um..” He gestured as if to let Benton pass by.

“Yes, I’ll....” Benton moved away, feeling the heat in his face as he walked over to where he’d put his violin case.

Renfield Turnbull, who played the French horn, was warming up next to him. “He’s a bit scruffy, don’t you think?” he asked.

“Perhaps a little different from what we’re used to,” Benton ventured, as neutrally as possible. He accepted the musical responsibility that came with his position as leader of the orchestra, but was a little bemused by the way in which the other members gave their opinions so freely and frequently to him, as if he were the orchestra shop steward. Perhaps the fact that he’d been involved in...unrest...in the past had given the impression that he actively sought confrontation.

He also had personal reasons for wanting to keep his impressions of Ray Kowalski private for the time being. He felt disoriented by this new Ray – or by his possible attraction to him, his feelings as jumbled as the random tuning notes and passages which now filled the room. Blocking them out, he used the routine of preparing to play to calm himself. He breathed in time to the sweeping strokes he made as he applied the rosin from one end of his bow to the other. He adjusted the shoulder rest and let the familiarity of the violin under his chin, in his hand, part of him, settle his nerves.

Once everyone was ready and tuned, Ray returned to the conductor’s stand. Benton watched with fascination as Ray shrugged his shoulders several times and rolled his neck from one side to the other. The exposed stretch of Ray’s neck was extremely appealing, though Benton was concerned at how much Ray resembled a boxer, preparing to fight. Remembering the challenge in Ray’s expression earlier, he hoped they were not about to do battle with the music. Benton glanced around at the expectant faces of the orchestra and then gave Ray a small nod to let him know they were all ready to play. Ray gave an answering nod and held up his hands. They were about to begin.

Benton’s fear that Ray would be a combative conductor disappeared immediately. Ray adapted himself to the varying styles of the different pieces, blending in as if he were inside the music, invisibly woven together with the time signatures, tunes and textures. He could switch instantly from intense energy to utter calm, and although at times his whole body moved with the music, it was his hands which captivated Benton. He was astonished by their eloquence. Never before had he found the beat, or the conductor’s intentions so easy to follow. Benton expected to play the correct notes – he was a professional musician, after all – but today everything seemed to fall under his fingers with a rightness he couldn’t explain, and he played louder, softer, faster and with more feeling than he could ever remember playing before. Ray said nothing between each piece – he just nodded to himself and made one or two notes before picking up the next score and letting his expressive hands say everything that needed to be said. Benton wished the rehearsal would never end, but eventually the last chord came. The sound died away, and Ray held them all in position for several more seconds, totally still. Only when he finally lowered his hands did the orchestra relax, seeming to take a collective breath as they did so.

“Okay. See you tomorrow,” was all Ray said. The players began to move away, but Benton once again found his exit blocked by Ray Kowalski. Ray’s slight breathlessness mirrored Benton’s own and the two men stood looking at each other for a moment before Ray spoke.

“So. Do you think you can work with me?”

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