I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
Volume One: "Kick Out the Jams"
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Matt Wagner
© 2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Table of Contents
Shiro Shinobi Arena. The dream stage of the United Republic's professional benders... and also of its rock musicians. There are both better and bigger concert venues in Republic City. The Republic Opera House has vastly superior acoustics; Memorial Colosseum seats more than twice as many people. But for many a Republic-born rocker, there is no greater dream than to stand on that canvas-covered steel deck, under that ornately filigreed glass dome, and lay it down in the round.
Azalynn dv'Ir Natashkan sat crammed into one of the midfield loge boxes with a good many of her friends and watched, her heart bursting with pride, as five girls from Sakuragaoka lived that dream. Only a quarter of the way into their planned setlist on this sultry summer night, all five were drenched. Empty water bottles littered the stage, accumulating at the base of the drum riser. All the girls had long since cast off their blazers and untied their ties. Ritsu had discarded her shirt entirely and was out there in a grey sports bra turned black with sweat, her slim shoulders glinting under the lights as she hammered away; pausing occasionally to rake her sodden bangs out of her eyes, as she'd lost her headband somewhere along the way too.
It didn't seem to be getting any of them down, though. They just drank more water whenever they had a moment to get it on board and rocked on. The energy in the room - the reason why the Arena was so coveted a gig - wouldn't allow for anything else. They slammed to the end of "No, Thank You!" and paused for breath and further hydration; after knocking back a pint of water in one long, blissful pull, Yui turned her guitar around so it was slung on her back, dropped the empty bottle with the other dead soldiers, and sprang back to her mic at the front of the stage, which was at that moment more or less facing the box where Azalynn sat.
"Good evening, Republic City!" she cried, dismounting the mic with her left hand and raising her right fist (plectrum still gripped between her fingers) in salute. It was the first time she'd spoken since starting the show, at which time she'd said the name of the band and little else. "How's everybody doing tonight?"
She had to wait for a few moments and let the most thunderous of the cheers die down before her voice could compete with the crowd's, even amplified as it was. When they did, she went on with a broad, shining grin, "I'm Yui Hirasawa and we're Hōkago Tea Time! Before we go on, let me take a few seconds and introduce you to my best friends in the whole world!"
Steaming under the stage lights or not, Yui still got an arm around the tiny cat-eared girl to her left and gave her a half-hug, eliciting a rolled-eyes look of mixed exasperation, affection, and amusement as she declared, "On my left, playing rhythm guitar as though she was being paid for it, the relentless but adorable Azusa Nakano!"
After giving her fellow guitarist another squeeze, Yui turned her loose and bounded to the other side of the stage, announcing, "On my right - like a rock - the First Lady of Hōkago Tea Time, Mio Akiyama!" With a well-practiced move that raised a laugh from the crowd, long tall Mio extended her left hand and blocked Yui's forehead with her palm, forestalling her attempted hug, while playing a quick hammer-on riff with her right. Yui grinned and turned around, having evidently expected the block.
"Up in the back, on the Lowrey Holiday Deluxe organ - the nicest girl in music, Miss Tsumugi Kotobuki!" she cried, and the smiling blonde blasted off a few seconds of a Bach toccata. "Showoff!" Yui added gaily, then indicated the last of her bandmates and declared, "And to her left - still the best Keith Moon-type drummer in the world - Thunder Dragon herself, President-for-Life Ritsu Tainaka!"
She let them cheer while she bounced back to her spot front and center; then, panting slightly with her exertions, she plugged her mic back onto its stand, held up a hand for quiet, and said, "Thank you! Please. Time is short. And right now... " She paused, catching her breath, and brought Gīta around to her front again. "Right now... right now it's time to..." She gathered herself as the house fell almost silent, her eyes closed as if in concentration. Then, grinning fiercely, she opened them and roared,
"Kick out the jams, muthafu - "
Azalynn woke up, sat up, and briefly wondered what the hell she'd done.
Chapter Zero: Prologue
"Living the Dream"
The last part didn't follow immediately; before it there were a few seconds of near-complete disorientation, as she momentarily failed to recognize the room at all. The bed was in a corner, its side along one of the rectangular room's shorter walls, so from where she sat, Azalynn could see pretty much the whole room. It was daylight outside, but the blinds on the windows were drawn, so the room was fairly dim. Still, there was enough light for her to tell that it was not very big, but reasonably tidy. It had a bookcase and desk along the far wall and a low table in the middle of the room. The door looked to be around a small corner at the far end.
The bed in which Azalynn found herself was a double, and she was on the side nearer to the wall, the lower half of her still under a deliciously soft yellow duvet with cheerful orange stripes. At the foot of the bed stood a guitar on a stand, which wasn't an unusual sight for Azalynn in the morning, except it wasn't her guitar; it was a right-handed Cherry Burst Les Paul, about as different from her own silver lefty JS2000 as it was possible for an electric guitar to be without being one of those super-crazy heavy metal jobs.
Where have I seen you before? she thought to the guitar, and then - at the same instant that she realized she wasn't alone in the bed - she remembered.
And that was when she wondered, Dvhil nazhai, what have I done?
A moment later, the person next to her stirred, mumbled, and then emerged partially from beneath the duvet and blinked up at her. Yui Hirasawa, her face still slightly puffy with sleep, looked momentarily confused, but not alarmed or startled; then she seemed to put the pieces together, sat up, and - without further investigation - gave her a happy smile and a great big hug.
"Good morning, Rin-chan!" Yui declared cheerfully. "Did you sleep well?"
"Um... I think so?" Azalynn replied, still trying to get her brain to spin up. Out of reflex more than anything else, she yawned and stretched, feeling several vertebrae in her back and tail crick in a most satisfactory manner.
While she did so, she ran a quick personal diagnostic and found that she was still wearing most of her school uniform, less only the blazer and tie and her socks. Yui seemed to be wearing an oversized T-shirt, which Azalynn supposed served her for pajamas. She wasn't acting like anything unusual had happened, either. So that was a relief.
"How did I get here?" Azalynn wondered, rubbing her face with both hands. Looking through her fingers at Yui, she added wryly, "Am I a werewolf?"
Yui blinked at her, looking surprised, and after a moment's thought replied, "Well, you have a tail, but it's the wrong kind."
"What? Aah!" Azalynn blurted, turning her head to look over her shoulder. Sure enough, that appendage had made its way out of hiding during the stretch. A moment's inattention... it crashed belatedly into her forebrain that she was supposed to be undercover, which was why Yui thought her name was Rin. But -
Yui didn't look dismayed to discover that "Rin-chan" had a tail; in fact, she seemed rather pleased now that she was over being surprised.
"Are you spirit-kin, like Azu-nyan?" she wondered, tilting her head inquisitively.
"Uh, not... well... something like that," Azalynn replied lamely.
She had only the tourist-brochure understanding of the local spirit continuum and how it interacted with the physical world; it was a topic she'd been promising herself she would explore soon, but that had taken second place to her investigation of the band, and she hadn't gotten around to it yet. She kicked herself mentally for leaving it out of her pre-mission prep. It would have saved her a lot of hassle if she had known that spirit hybrids were common enough in modern Dìqiú that regular people didn't give them much thought.
"As for how you got here," Yui went on unsinkably, "you really conked out last night!" She shrugged, smiling, and climbed out of bed. "I didn't have the heart to wake you up and send you home, and since we don't have school today anyway, I just let you sleep."
While Azalynn was mulling that over, Yui picked up her gearPhone from her nightstand and thumbed it open, clicking through the messages that had come in while she slept. "Oh!" she said. "Ritchan wants to know if we can meet her for lunch." She looked at her bedside clock. "I guess there's not a lot of point in having breakfast at 11:30."
"Uh... " Azalynn got carefully out of bed, picked up her glasses from the nightstand and put them on, then found her blazer hanging on Yui's desk chair, with her socks and tie stuffed in the side pocket. "Thanks, um... Yui-senpai..." (Might as well at least try to preserve what's left of my cover, she thought.) "... But I really shouldn't take up any more of your time, and..."
Yui looked confused, and possibly a little hurt. "Huh? But Ritchan specifically invited you. And anyway, we're friends now!" She looked slightly hesitant. "... Aren't we?"
Oh, good work, Azalynn, the Dantrovian grumbled to herself. Kick some puppies next?
On the outside, she smiled and said, "Well, OK, if you're really sure..."
"Yay!" said Yui, her momentary worry forgotten. She somehow managed to combine bounding over to give her another hug with replying to Ritsu's text, then said, "Come on, let's get ready. We've got a spare toothbrush you can have, and you can borrow some of my clothes if you want instead of spending the day in that wrinkly uniform." She was about to go on when her phone pinged with another incoming message; she checked it and frowned in puzzlement. "'Bring Gīta'? Hmm." Then she shrugged and said cheerfully, "OK!"
On the way to the tearoom where Ritsu had decreed their lunch date, Azalynn pieced together the rest of the previous evening from the various memory fragments that bobbed to the surface. She hadn't been drinking or anything - she'd never particularly had a taste for intoxicants, except in the contexts of certain religious observances - but she'd gone most of the previous two weeks without much sleep, so intent had she become on her mission, and it had caught up with her in a very big way at the worst possible time.
She'd been hanging out with Yui's younger sister Ui, who was her classmate at school, when Yui and her friends from the Light Music Club turned up. Ui, as was her habit, had served an enormous dinner for everybody, after which there had been games, and then... well, Azalynn wasn't entirely sure what "and then". Her own fault for ignoring the warning signs. She remembered sitting down on Yui's bed - they were playing a board game on her table, because her room was bigger than Ui's - and then... nothing.
Between paying off two weeks of catnaps and the inevitable food coma that one of Ui's epic feeds tended to entail, she must've crashed on a mythological scale. Whenever the evening finally came to an end for everyone else, rather than try to send her home, or at least to the couch, Yui had evidently found it more expedient to just shove her under the duvet and climb in after her. As they entered the tearoom, Azalynn wondered whether she'd let any other parts of her cover slip during the really blurry part between dinner and blackout.
The sly, mildly suspicious look on Ritsu Tainaka's face when they arrived at the round corner booth she'd staked out made Azalynn suspect she might've... as did the fact that the entire rest of the Asami Sato Girls' Academy Light Music Club was with her. As she and Yui approached the table, Azalynn sized up their expressions. Mio had that long-suffering look she got when she was humoring Ritsu about something. Azusa looked, if anything, more suspicious than Ritsu, but not at all sly; she was clearly taking the matter, whatever the matter was, very seriously. And Mugi looked intensely interested, as if whatever was about to happen were a fascinating matter of very great importance.
Nobody said anything of great moment when they arrived, though; they just budged over to make room. The booth was a little snug with six of them crammed into it (particularly since three of them had guitars, and one a giant 76-key synthesizer, all in gig bags), but no one seemed to mind (except possibly Azusa, who inevitably ended up more or less perched in Yui's lap like an oversized ventriloquist's dummy). The others all greeted Azalynn as a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance, and the conversation over lunch was light and cheerful. Yui (not particularly to Azalynn's surprise) didn't seem to pick up on the slight undercurrent of tension among her bandmates at all, chattering happily about this and that throughout the meal.
The tempo changed slightly as they left the tearoom. Evidently still under the impression that they were all headed for a standard Saturday's hanging out, Yui started to suggest that they go and see what was playing at the mover theater down by the music store when Ritsu interrupted her:
"That might be an idea for later, Yui, but right now we've got important club business to attend to."
Yui blinked. "On Saturday?"
Ritsu nodded decisively. "I'm calling a special meeting based on important information I've just received," she said. Fixing Yui with a portentous look, she added gravely, "It may affect the very future of the Light Music Club itself."
Yui gave her a wide-eyed look. "Ohhh," she said, nodding.
Mio rolled her eyes. "Can we just get on with it, please?" she said.
With another nod, Ritsu turned in the direction of the school. "Let's continue this in the clubroom," she said. "You too, Miura," she added as Azalynn tried to slip away. "This involves you."
"Um..." Azalynn glanced around and saw that she'd probably have to go through one of them to escape. (Mugi was looking positively gleeful about the prospect, in fact.) She sighed and said resignedly, "... OK, Tainaka-senpai."
The after-hours guard at Sato Academy didn't have a problem admitting the Light Music Club to the school and giving them the spare key to their clubroom; they were all quite well-known to him by this point, and if they wanted to visit the room on a Saturday and take an underclassman up as their guest, they were entirely within their rights to do so. The six walked in a pregnant silence through the eerily quiet, empty corridors and up the stairs to the third floor.
Azalynn had been to the Light Music Club's clubroom (officially the "Music Preparation Room") once before, but only for a few moments. She'd been too concerned about the possible consequences of prolonged contact with the subjects of her observation to stay very long. Now, well, she doubted there was any point in continuing to worry about that, so she stood quietly while the others set up and took it all in.
It was a nice place to be, reminding her pleasantly of the practice room the Art of Noise had used in old Alden Hall at WPI on Earth. At the far end, there were four school desks pushed together to make a conference table. Between it and the end by the door, a padded bench divided the space, facing toward the area where the band was now rigging out around Ritsu's yellow drum kit, which was semi-permanently set up in the corner.
While she got her guitar out of its bag and configured her amp, Yui kept shooting curious glances at "Rin-chan", as though expecting her to provide some enlightenment as to what Ritsu was on about; but Azalynn stayed quiet, replying to each look with a search-me shrug. She was fairly sure by this point that she did know what Ritsu was on about, but there was still a chance that she'd be able to weasel out of it if she tried hard enough. There was no point in giving up before the end of the game.
Once they were all squared away, Ritsu slouched into the end of the bench and called for everyone's attention. The others gathered around, looking either expectant or just confused, depending on whether they were Yui.
"So. I called this meeting because I have reason to believe that we have a closet musician lurking in our midst," said Ritsu, lounging insouciantly with her right arm draped over the back of the bench. "Specifically... " With a sudden burst of energy, she raised her left hand and pointed it at Azalynn, looking her straight in the eye, and declared, "You, Miss Rin Miura, if that really is your name."
Azalynn blinked, but before she could say anything, Mio had clouted Ritsu on top of the head and growled, "Don't oversell it."
"Owww," Ritsu complained, rubbing her head with the hand that had been doing the accusing point. "Do you mind, Mio? I'm gettin' my president on here. Anyway. I'm pretty sure you've been holding out on us, Miura," she said with a cocky little grin. "You gave yourself away talking with Ui-chan last night. You know way too much stuff about guitars. Heck, you know more about them than Yui."
"Uh, Ritsu-senpai, that part's not exactly an achievement," Azusa put in. "You know more about guitars than Yui-senpai, and you can't even play guitar."
"Hey!" Yui protested.
"Well, OK, point taken," conceded Ritsu.
Yui folded her arms and looked away, pouting. "You guys are mean."
"Anyway!" Ritsu repeated. "My point is, as the president of the Sato Academy Light Music Club, I have the right to lay claim to any skilled musician in the student body who isn't a member of one of the other music clubs."
"No you don't!" objected Mio.
"Dang it, Mio, you're screwin' up my groove here," Ritsu stage-muttered urgently. "She didn't know that..."
Mio folded her arms and scowled. "Just make your point already."
Ritsu sighed and gave Azalynn a shrug, as if to ask, You see what I gotta work with here? Even under the circumstances, Azalynn found herself not quite successfully suppressing a giggle.
"Anyway," she said for the third time, "you may consider this a formal request from an upperclassman and the president of one of Sato Academy's most prestigious after-school clubs." Mio made a faint growling noise, but did not interject further, and after a moment's pause to see if she was going to get hit again, Ritsu grinned at Azalynn and said, "Show us what you got, new kid."
Azalynn blinked. "Uh... I can't!" she said after a moment's not-entirely-faked panic. "There's no guitar here I can use - I'm left-handed."
"Oh," said Ritsu, looking disappointed. Then, brightening, she said, "Hang on, what have I got here?" She lifted her right arm from behind the bench, revealing that she was holding a gig bag by the shoulder strap. Hoisting it over the bench's back into her lap, she unzipped it and took out a white guitar, then drew back in elaborately faked surprise.
"Why it's an electric guitar!" she declared. "I'm no expert, but I believe it may be a Fender Stratocaster. And," she added with a wicked grin as she turned it over in her hands and got to her feet, "it just so happens to be left-handed!" With a grinning wink, she turned it over in her hands and offered it grandly to Azalynn, remarking, "What were the odds?"
Azalynn gazed at her and the guitar for a long moment, then sighed in defeat, her shoulders sagging, and accepted it. "... Crud."
"Where did you get that?!" Mio demanded, sotto voce.
"Borrowed it from the Jazz Club," Ritsu replied casually.
"When did you have time - oh, forget it," said Mio as Azalynn ducked into the white Strat's strap and adjusted it.
The guitar's weight was unfamiliar, but the shape fit her expectations well enough; her own guitar wasn't a Strat, but had pretty plainly evolved from the type. She looked around, slightly at a loss, and Azusa switched off her amp, unplugged her own guitar, and handed the patch cable to her. With an absent thank-you, Azalynn took it, looped it through her strap out of sheer habit (an automatic move that did not go unnoticed by those around her), and plugged it in, then nodded at her to turn the amp back on.
"Well... I play a little," she admitted.
She intended to sandbag. She really did. She was just going to play a slightly hesitant little rock riff, maybe some basic Bo Diddley chuntering - meandering around a little, hitting some wrong notes, screwing up the timekeeping a bit. The Strat's D string was winceworthily out of tune, but she pretended she either didn't notice or didn't know what to do about it, to reinforce further the impression of semicompetence: the idea that she was a guitarist, but not a terribly good one - certainly nobody they would want to poach for their club when they already had two of the best guitarists in their age group (indeed, one of the best guitarists, full stop) Azalynn had ever heard. Then the whole thing would blow over, they'd have a good laugh, and she could make a run for it.
That was the plan.
Except that when she was a bar or two into it, Ritsu scampered behind her drum kit and started following her along on the hi-hat, and then Mio picked it up, tossing in little accents at the right places more or less by instinct, and then they were jamming...
... and then Azalynn wasn't fumbling around with a Bo Diddley backbeat any more, she was playing the Trojan-horse intro to the Art of Noise's standard cover of the Crush of Love's "Summer Song" and she was getting more and more into it and compensating automatically for the wonky tuning of the D string and then the break came and her guitar and Mio's bass started having a dialogue and it was just click like when she and Moose did that it was like they were telepathically linked or something
and bang Ritsu was throwing down the "intro's over, now we are totally committed to rocking this thing my homeys" riff and Yui jumped in on the rhythm line because they had all listened to this cut on The Art of Noise Beyond Thunderdome about 20,000 times apiece by this point and they'd re-covered it themselves and they all knew it by heart and Mugi had invented her own keyboard line for it because the original didn't have one and the five of them were flying now and Azalynn didn't even know or care who she was or who she was supposed to be or anything nobody ever believed her when she said this (she supposed particularly because it was coming from her) but this kind of thing really truly was better than sex and that was no reflection on sex in any way
and Azusa was standing there with her face utterly blank with shock, her expression so completely null that it was almost like she didn't have a face at all, but her hands on autopilot, following along with what Yui was doing even though her Mustang wasn't plugged into an amp
and Azalynn and Yui were throwing the solo back and forth and dvhil nazhai or'zal that Les Paul sounded sexy Azalynn had never understood how some people could claim that only one or the other was the Right Thing honestly why limit your world like that preferring to play one or the other was one thing but the sound
and then they were breaking it down and Ritsu was driving them home in a storm of hanging toms and shimmery splash cymbal and Yui was bending that last long note down just the way Joe Graf did it and the song...
... was over.
Azalynn and the band stood for a few moments in the sudden, startling silence, panting for breath, their faces stippled with sweat despite the coolness of the room, and no one spoke. Then Azalynn raised her head to see what the others were doing... and found that they were all staring at her in astonishment.
"That. Was. Amazing," said Mio, sounding like someone had just belted her across the face with a fish, and she was surprised to discover that she had enjoyed it.
Ritsu got up from her stool, walked slowly around her drum kit, and then reached out and hesitantly prodded Azalynn's shoulder with her drumsticks, pushing her several degrees off vertical and then letting her swing back.
"Is this real?" she asked in a hollow voice.
"Who are you?" Azusa whispered. Then she looked more closely and her face went pale. "No. Wait."
Azalynn sighed, then took off her glasses, put them in the top pocket of the bib overalls she'd borrowed from Yui, reached up, and let her wiry silver hair out of the pigtails she'd wrestled it into, using her fingers to rake it back into its normal jagged, backswept mop configuration.
"Uh... hi," she said. "I guess I should reintroduce myself. My name isn't really Rin Miura and I'm not from Sanirajak. I'm, um... Azalynn. I play in a band called the Art of Noise."
The five members of Hōkago Tea Time stood and just stared at her for several seconds.
Then Mugi beamed and said, "I'll make some tea."
The Profound Musings and Astonishing Insights of Jun Suzuki
Xinqisi, Wuyue 13, 291 ASC
Class 1-2 got a new student today. I know, it's a weird time for it, but there you go.
Her name's Rin and I guess she's from someplace up north - she's got that dark-brown thing they've got going on up there. No blue eyes, though! Kind of disappointing, they're just brown. She's got grey hair, though. Never seen that on somebody our age before.
She sits behind Ui, so naturally she's already fully plugged into the Class 1-2 social scene - Ambassador Hirasawa spent all morning making sure she was fully briefed about everything that was going on. By itself, that doesn't really say anything about the new girl's personality, since Ui could make friends with an ice wraith if you gave her a whole morning to work on it, but she sat with us at lunch and she seems nice.
I think she might be kind of weird, though. She asked about the Light Music Club, said she'd heard their demo somewhere (I didn't know they had one!) and was hoping to hear them play live. Well, you can imagine Ui was off to the races at that, her sister's #1 fangirl and all. Even Azusa isn't as enthusiastic about the Light Music Club as Ui is, and she's in it.
Anyway, being interested in the Light Music Club doesn't automatically make you a weirdo, but it's a pretty good start! :D I'm interested to see if she's still as impressed when she sees whatever bizarre outfits Ms. Yamanaka puts them in for their next concert. I should show her my pictures of them all handing out flyers in those animal costumes last month, see what she makes of that. Ui would probably never forgive me if I did that, though.
They are a really good band, I have to admit that. But... I dunno. I kinda doubt anything in Rin-chan's life has prepared her for how strange that bunch is. I guess we'll find out. It should be interesting, either way!
"Once in a Lifetime"
Two months into her time with the Light Music Club, Azusa Nakano was finally getting used to a few of the things she'd found most unexpected about the organization when she joined it. She was, for instance, more or less resigned to the fact that she had to beat the upperclassmen with a stick (metaphorically speaking, though now that she thought about it, it might be both worthwhile and fulfilling to try it literally) to get any work out of them. She was also no longer surprised when Yui-senpai appeared out of nowhere and molested her. Irritated, yes, particularly when she was trying to get something else done when it happened, but no longer surprised. And, perhaps most troubling, she didn't worry any more that they'd all get in trouble for hanging around in the music prep room not preparing any music.
(It hadn't occurred to her yet that they were preparing music by having their daily tea-and-cake parties; that was an advanced insight that would take a few more weeks to arrive.)
Her regular lunch dates, Ui Hirasawa and Jun Suzuki, had noticed her slowly relaxing as the term went on, and though they hadn't been gauche enough to call her on it, that didn't stop them from exchanging private little smiles whenever the club came up in conversation and Azusa didn't launch into a new rant about what slackers Ui's sister and the others were. Jun, for one, agreed with her about that, but she was still pleased to see it bothering her tightly-wound friend a bit less. For her part, she had long since concluded that the Light Music Club was what it was, and you tampered with it at your peril; which was why she was content to remain in the Jazz Club, even though she was more of a rock 'n roll girl at heart herself. There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between is Hōkago Tea Time...
At lunch on that particular Monday, though, it struck both Ui and Jun that Azusa seemed inordinately preoccupied. As the three of them sat around Azusa's desk and ate their bentō, she was deep in thought about something, contributing only the occasional absent grunt or nod to the conversation.
"So I was thinking that after school today we should try out that new restaurant that just opened downtown," said Jun.
"Mm," said Azusa.
"And then maybe go back to the music store and pick up that amp I was looking at the other day," Jun went on.
"OK," said Azusa.
"I can't afford it, though, so we'll have to rob a bank on the way there," added Jun matter-of-factly.
Azusa nodded without looking up from her lunch. "Sure, that sounds good," she agreed.
"... Uh-huh, that's what I thought," said Jun. "Ui, do you..." She trailed off as she saw that Ui wasn't really listening either. She was looking out the window, in a mildly spacey fashion Jun would more readily have associated with Ui's scatterbrained elder sister. Jun watched her for a few moments, then said,
"OK, ladies. What's going on?"
Ui blinked, coming back from wherever she'd gone, and turned to Jun, her cheeks reddening slightly. "Uh!"
"Seriously, what's with you two today?" Jun wondered. Then she looked around, her expression taking on a new layer of puzzlement, and added, "And where's Rin?"
Ui and Azusa glanced across the desk at each other, both of them looking slightly uneasy. "Well, uh... " said Ui.
"She's kind of... " Azusa added.
"Right behind you," a low voice purred, and then arms encircled Azusa from behind, hugging her tight as a cheek pressed warmly against hers.
"Nya!" she yelped involuntarily, her fingers stiffening into claws, as her normally-dormant feline ears (a legacy of her cat-spirit grandmother) sprang up out of her hair.
"Wow, Yui's right," the coppery-skinned, grey-haired girl Jun still knew as Rin Miura observed as she snuggled her classmate. "This is completely awesome, even with the back of your chair in the way."
"Oh, for the love of - not you too!" Azusa complained, though both Jun and Ui couldn't help but notice that she'd relaxed almost immediately into a posture that implied considerably more contentment than her words.
"Aw, don't be like that, Azu-nyan," said Rin, but she relented after a moment more, turning her loose after one last squeeze. While Azusa grumpily reassembled her dignity, Rin rounded the desk to its unoccupied side and pulled up a chair. "Sorry I'm late, I had to deal with some stuff in the office."
Jun eyed her narrowly, one eyebrow rising. "You're awfully chipper today. And what happened to your glasses?"
Rin gave her a cheery grin. "I don't need 'em any more."
Jun's skeptical look could've cut glass. "That was fast," she said dryly.
"Well, they were only for disguise purposes anyway," said Rin casually. "Anybody want one of these tako-san sausages? They're awful good."
"Disguise... what?" Jun shook her head. "Seriously, what is going on?"
"Well, y'see," said Rin.
In the staff room, Sawako Yamanaka was wondering more or less the same thing. Sitting at her desk with her laptop open in front of her, she munched thoughtfully on a sandwich while paging through her email.
Her inbox was stuffed with messages from all her old friends from her own Light Music Club days. They'd all come in since nine o'clock that morning, and they all said basically the same thing.
At first she thought they were some kind of joke, but as she worked her way through the sandwich and the inbox together, she realized that the messages were for real. It wouldn't be entirely out of character for her old bandmates to get together and pull a prank on her, of course, but... not like this. They'd never joke about this, particularly Christina.
Finishing her lunch, she sat thinking for a few silent minutes; then, her face grim, she set to composing a reply. It didn't take her long; just a few concisely written sentences, making her position as plain as possible without quite straying into offensive bluntness. Once she'd finished, she hesitated for a long moment, her cursor hovering over the "send" button.
Sighing, Sawako clicked the button, then shut her laptop, rose from her chair, and turned to leave the staff room. Afternoon classes would be starting soon, and she had work to do.
Ui and Azalynn left the school together at day's end without ever really discussing it, simply because they'd walked most of the way home together almost every day since "Rin" had appeared. Most of the time it took them to walk to the place where their courses diverged passed in a pensive silence.
Finally, just before she wouldn't turned off the main street toward her lodgings, Azalynn broke it, saying tentatively,
"Ui... you have every right to be mad at me, but... "
Ui stopped, blinking, and turned to give her a puzzled look. "Mad? Why would I be mad at you?" she asked.
"Well... I did kind of... lie to you a bunch," said Azalynn awkwardly. "And you've been pretty distant since you found out. Which is perfectly understandable. But I want you to know, I wasn't just using you to get to your sister," she added, hurrying to get the point made. "It was a complete coincidence that I ended up sitting by you, and everything else just sort of... happened. But I know how it looks and I can't blame you for being upset."
Ui stood looking at her in visibly baffled silence for a moment; then, to Azalynn's surprise, she laughed and hugged her.
"I'm not upset," she said. "Are you kidding? It's such an honor for someone like you to be so interested in Big Sis and her band! I'm just... still working on taking it on board, I guess." Then, releasing her, Ui fixed her with a mock-stern expression and added, "It was mean of you to lie to me, though. You should've just told me what you were doing. I could've helped!"
"I wasn't sure you'd be able to keep it from Yui," Azalynn admitted. "And I certainly didn't want to put you in a position where you'd have to lie to her."
Ui smiled again. "Well, I guess I can appreciate that," she said. "There's an art to managing what Big Sis does and doesn't know, though, and over the years, I've gotten pretty good at it," she added with a wink.
Azalynn laughed and made a faux airbender's salute to her. "Your kung fu is best, Master Ui," she said. "I won't make that mistake again."
"See that you don't!" said Ui importantly, and then they both broke up giggling.
"Do you want to come over for dinner?" Ui asked when they'd finished. "We're having okonomiyaki."
"Oooh, tempting," said Azalynn. "But I think I'd better get home. Ein's probably feeling a little neglected as it is."
Ui raised an eyebrow. "Who's Ein?"
Azalynn grinned. "My technical support," she said. "You want to meet him?"
Ui's eyes widened, a hint of a blush coming into her face. "Uh... 'him' as in... ?"
Azalynn's grin widened and became a bit sly. "It's not what you're thinkiiing," she sang, waggling a chiding finger. "Who knew sweet little Ui had such a scandalous mind?"
"I do not!" Ui protested, her slightly raised color becoming a full-on flush.
Afternoon tea was starting to wind down in the Light Music clubroom when the door opened and Sawako entered, half an hour late and without any of her usual bounce or bluster. Without a word - just a disconsolate little groan - she slumped into the empty seat at the end of the table opposite Azusa, put her face in one hand, and held out the other for a cup of tea.
"What's wrong, Sawa-chan?" Yui asked her as Mugi provided the silently requested item.
Sawako didn't answer until after she'd had her first sip of tea; then, sitting back with a sigh, she put the cup and saucer down on the table, raised her eyes to the ceiling, and asked in a slightly weary voice,
"Yui-chan, have you ever done something you were absolutely convinced was the right thing, only to feel as if you'd betrayed some vital part of yourself in the process?"
Yui looked completely stumped. "Uh... no?" she replied.
Sawako sighed deeply and turned jaded eyes to her young student. "Good. I can't recommend it as a life experience," she said.
"Sounds serious," said Ritsu, all jest absent from her voice for once.
"Is there any way we can help?" Mugi inquired, sliding her a plate with a slice of Baumkuchen on it.
"Not unless you can alter the flow of time so that things happen in a different order," said Sawako dryly.
Mugi gave every appearance of serious consideration. "Hmm," she said.
"What happened?" asked Mio.
"I don't want to talk about it," Sawako replied, a hint of that daunting edge it sometimes had creeping into her voice.
Mio seemed prepared to take the hint, but Ritsu wasn't; leaning forward in her seat, she put her elbows on the table and declared, "Of course you do. Why else would you have come in here and started?" Then, leaning her chair back on its hind legs with her hands behind her head, she put her feet up on the table and declared grandly, "Dr. Tainaka is here to listen to your problems. Tell me about your mother."
"... What does my mother have to do with it?" asked Sawako skeptically.
Ritsu shrugged her shoulders. "You tell me, she's your mother," she replied equably.
"Don't make me get up and come over there just to smack you, Ritsu," said Mio. Then, addressing the teacher, she added, "She does have a point, though. Something's obviously bothering you, and if we knew what it was, we might be able to help."
"Confidentially, of course," Mugi assured her.
"Absolutely," Azusa agreed. "Your secrets are our secrets, Yamanaka-sensei."
"That's right!" Ritsu cried, dropping her chair back into a normal sitting position and striking the table with a flattened hand. "What happens in the Light Music Club stays in the Light Music Club!"
Sawako wavered, torn between the special bond she had with these five students and her Academic Dignity; but the latter was completely swamped by the former as Yui, tears in her eyes, reached and took her hand, declaring in an emotion-choked squeak, "You don't have to face this alone, Squad Member Sawa-chan!"
The teacher gave her a dubious look that couldn't quite hide a smile, then sighed again and said, "All right, all right. I've been getting swamped all day with emails from my old bandmates."
"The other girls from Death Devil?" asked Mio.
"That's right. It seems Future Industries wants to use one of our old songs in an advertising campaign."
"Really, which one?" Azusa asked.
"'Hikari'," Sawako told her.
"Oh, I know that one," said Yui, nodding. She hummed a bit of the verse, the fingers of her left hand miming the fingering.
"That's the one," said Sawako, another hint of a smile stealing onto her face. "It seems the company's coming out with a new sports Satomobile by that name, and they want to use the song to promote it."
"Why is that depressing news?" Mio wondered. "I'd think you would be excited."
"Yeah, 'specially since there's probably some money in it," Ritsu agreed.
"Well... I would be if that was all there was to it," Sawako allowed. "But they don't just want to license the old recording. The others are telling me they actually want to put the band back together and use it as part of the campaign. An all-new recording for a single release, a proper B-side, live events... maybe even a whole album and a tour."
The five girls stared at her for several seconds, then all broke into congratulations and applause at once, briefly filling the clubroom with a happy noise before their teacher could wave them to silence.
"I told them no," she said.
"Whaaaaat?" Ritsu burst out. "Are you nuts, Sawa-chan?! This is your break! After five years in hibernation, Death Devil is about to hit the big time!"
Azusa surprised them all slightly by jumping right in, declaring flatly, "Ritsu-senpai's right, Yamanaka-sensei. This is an amazing opportunity. Once in a lifetime."
"Less than once," Mio agreed, nodding. "A lot of bands never get that call."
"Believe me, I know," Sawako told her. "That's why we broke up, after all... because it never came, and some of us couldn't afford to wait around for it."
"But now that it's here, you're just going to walk away from it?" Yui asked. "Why?"
"Because it's too late!" Sawako said plaintively. "Don't you understand? I'm an adult now. I could no more go running off to rejoin my old band now than I could go back to high school."
Ritsu gave a dismissive snort. "What, because Old Man Horigome laughed at you when you put 'musician' on your life plans questionnaire? This is the perfect chance to make him eat his words," she said with a sharkish grin. "In fact, I would say it's a moral imperative."
"It's not that simple, Ritchan," said Sawako. "I have a job, I have... responsibilities. To the school, to my students - not least you five." She shook her head. "I want to do it. You have no idea how much I want to. But I can't. It wouldn't be right."
The six of them sat in downcast silence for a few seconds, absorbed in gloomy contemplation...
... and then, out of the blue, Mugi said:
"What if you could?"
Korra put her head into the sun parlor and found Corwin Ravenhair by himself, fiddling around with something on the DesignDesk station.
"Hey," she said.
Corwin looked up and smiled. "Hey."
"You appear to have been abandoned," Korra observed.
"Yep," Corwin agreed. "To be fair," he added, "I could've gone with, but I'm pretty demonstrably useless at ladies' fashion shopping, so..." He shrugged. "Better to stay behind and preserve the honor of the regiment, I think."
Korra chuckled. "You can't be any worse at it than Lhakpa," she said, crossing to sit down at the desk.
"Probably not, but she enjoys sucking at it a lot more than I do," Corwin replied. "Whatcha got there?"
Korra held up the object in her hand, turning it so it caught the afternoon light: an optical disc of what, to Corwin, was an unfamiliar size. It was little bit smaller in diameter than the ancient MultiDisc form factor he was used to, and the spindle hole in the middle was square with slightly radiused corners, putting him in mind of old Earth Kingdom coins.
"Something Karana gave me when I stopped by the arena earlier," she said. "It's a demo disc for a band some of the girls over at Sato Academy in Sakuragaoka have. Apparently it found its way to Karana by way of the pop club up at Piandao - you know how musicians like to network," she added with a grin. "She said they're big fans of Kate's, and were hoping they could get it to her via me."
Corwin grinned. "I like a band that's not afraid to dream big," he said. "Have you listened to it yet?"
"Nope, I just got back," said Korra. "Shall we?"
"Sure, I'm just killing time anyway," Corwin replied, putting the DesignDesk in sleep mode. Korra turned her chair around and scooted over to the long table, switched on the portable stereo standing at one end of it, and stuck the disc into the Lightdisc slot.
There was no sound for a second or two; then the clatter and thump of a mic being plugged in, and the unmistakable rustle and jangle of an idle but restless band. Footsteps receded from the mic, the fidgety noises stopped, and there was a moment of silence.
"Uh, hello out there!" said a high-pitched, slightly breathy voice. "We're Hōkago Tea Time. ... You probably knew that already. Oh! Unless you found this disc on the train or something and it isn't marked. That could happen!" Her voice became slightly muffled as the speaker turned away from the mic. "You guys, we should do that! Make some copies and just leave them lying around for people to find - "
"Yui, we're recording," another voice said, with a note of long-suffering, fond exasperation in it that made both Corwin and Korra giggle.
"Oh! Right! Sorry! We're Hōkago Tea Time - "
"You said that already," a third voice interjected.
" - um, and, we hope you like our songs. This one's called 'Rice Is a Side Dish'!"
The third voice counted them in - "One, two, three, four!" - to the tapping of a hi-hat (so Corwin guessed its owner was the drummer), and they were off.
Korra and Corwin listened to the first three tracks without speaking, nodding their heads to the beat. The band was a little rough, as might be expected from what was evidently a high school music club, but they had a lot of energy and their talent was evident. They sounded like a four-piece - guitar, bass, drums, and a keyboard - and it appeared they had two singers. The girl with the high voice ("Yui", evidently) sang most of the leads, but one of the others - Corwin thought she was the one who had said "we're recording" - took over for the second track. Most of their lyrics were in Kokugo.
"They're pretty good," Korra observed partway into the fourth track, which Yui, who also did most of the talking, had introduced as "My Love Is a Stapler". (This had confused Korra for a few moments, until she parsed enough of the lyrics to determine that it was a metaphor based on the idea of "my love" as in "for you", and not actually a declaration that the singer was in love with a stapler.)
Corwin nodded. "Their lead singer has a really cute voice," he said. "I can see where some people would find it kind of annoying, but I like her style. She's got a certain... je ne sais quoi."
"I know exactly what you mean," said Korra in a slightly affected deadpan, and they both broke up snickering at the old injoke. "The other one sounds more grown-up," she added as the band's second vocalist took over the lead for the next verse.
"Yeah," Corwin agreed. "She kind of changes their whole sound. That's pretty cool." He nodded through the second chorus, the fingers of his own right hand unconsciously miming bass fingerings. "Yeah," he repeated. "I think Kate will dig this." He turned a thoughtful look to Korra. "Was there a picture with the disc?"
Korra rolled her eyes. "Boys, that's all you ever think about."
"I'm just curious!" Corwin insisted, reddening. Giggling, Korra reached up and shoved his shoulder, causing his stool to swivel him through a full 360° turn.
The fifth track was unmistakably a rock arrangement of the girls' school song: all but obligatory for school bands, and nicely accomplished in this case. It sounded like all four of them had vocal parts in that one, and Corwin found himself wondering idly which of the unfamiliar voices was whose.
The demo's sixth and final track was a straight-up rock anthem with an insanely catchy hook, and got them both nodding along again.
"This is the peppiest song I've ever heard about the agony of unrequited love," Corwin observed midway through the second chorus.
"I know, right?" Korra agreed.
They listened silently through the rest of the song. When it finished, there were a few extemporaneous remarks from band members before the recording abruptly cut off with a click. Corwin and Korra sat looking at the LD player for a couple of seconds, then turned to each other.
"Not bad at all," Corwin pronounced. "Ship it! Shame there's only six tracks."
"Well, it is an off-the-cuff demo," Korra said. She reached to remove the disc from the player, considered for a second, and then hit PLAY again instead.
"Makes me want to start a band," Corwin said after the first track was underway again.
"Yeah, me too," Korra agreed. She put her feet up and leaned back, hands behind her head, to regard the ceiling thoughtfully. "I wonder where my old guitar ever ended up..."
Virtually every school day, the five members of the Sato Academy Light Music Club convened in their clubroom on the third floor of the main building as soon after the final bell of the day as they could manage. On an average of three days out of five, their faculty advisor, Ms. Sawako Yamanaka, joined them there a short while later, after she'd finished up the last of her duties in the staff room.
Today, that took her a little longer than usual, because today was not a normal Friday. She wasn't just tidying up her desk for the weekend this time. Rather, she was squaring it away for the comfort and convenience of the new person whose desk it would be come Monday. She wouldn't be back herself - not for at least the rest of the term, and possibly not at all, depending on how things worked out.
It struck Sawako, as she finished putting everything away, how little effort it had taken to make her place ready for someone else to take over. Now, granted, she hadn't been at the Academy all that long - it was only her third year as a member of the faculty - so her desk hadn't had time to accumulate the wealth of small items and personal touches that some of her more senior colleagues' stations had. She had nothing else beyond that, either - no extensive personal library on a bookshelf elsewhere in the staff room, like old Mr. Horigome, the literature teacher, who had been a well-established faculty member when Sawako herself was a student at Sato Academy, some years before.
Still, she felt a little bit melancholy about it as she shouldered her laptop computer bag, placed her chair in the kneewell just so, and left the desk as she had found it, two and a bit years before. She paused in the doorway, considering the empty room, and then sighed, closed the door, and went up the stairs to the Light Music Club's domain. The big main music room was where she, a music teacher, had spent most of her professional time, but the little room across the hall where the Light Music Club held court was where her heart belonged.
The five club members looked up from their tea at the sound of the door, smiling in welcome. As always, club president Ritsu Tainaka was the first to speak, declaring grandly from her chair around the club's improvised conference table,
"Welcome!" She gestured to the empty chair at the end of the four-desk conglomeration, where blonde and kindly Tsumugi Kotobuki was already arranging things in a neat place setting. "Your place is prepared," Ritsu went on. "Miss Kotobuki, what do you have for our conquering heroine today?"
"Well," said Mugi, happily playing along, "naturally, for an occasion like today's, I broke out our special reserve spring tea, the TGY Oolong. And for dessert, we have this lovely wildberry cheesecake!"
Sawako sat down, bowed her head over the teacup Mugi was placing, and breathed the scent of the tea, then sighed.
"Spirits, I'll miss this," she said.
"Before too much longer, you'll be rolling in desserts," Ritsu pointed out.
Mio Akiyama chuckled. "You guys should put that on your tour rider," she suggested. "'Dressing room must have tea and an assortment of no fewer than a dozen cakes.'"
"'At least two of which must be montblancs!'" Ritsu added eagerly.
Yui Hirasawa blinked, then dug into the pocket of her blazer for her gearPhone to make a note. "That's a great idea, Mio-chan! I have to remember that for when we're on tour."
"We won't need to demand tea and cakes from the tour organizers, though," Azusa Nakano pointed out pragmatically. "We'll have Mugi-senpai with us."
"Hmm, that's true," said Yui. "Although she might get tired of making our tea herself once we're all world-famous," she added thoughtfully.
Mugi smiled and poured her bandmate another cup of the Oolong. "Don't be silly," she chided Yui cheerfully. "We wouldn't be Hōkago Tea Time without tea."
"Are we still going to be called that once we've all graduated?" Azusa wondered.
"We'll always be Hōkago Tea Time!" Yui insisted.
"I don't see why not," Ritsu agreed, then added with a wink, "It's just a question of how long after school."
"I guess you have a point," Azusa agreed, nodding, and then she and the others trailed off as they became aware that their erstwhile faculty advisor was making an odd, hard-to-categorize noise. They weren't sure whether it was giggling or sobbing; as they all turned to look, they realized it was both, as she was observing their byplay with a tearful smile.
"I'll miss this even more," said Sawako, sniffling.
"Awww, Sawa-chan, why'd you have to go and do that?" Ritsu demanded, her golden eyes filling with tears as well. "Now Mio's gonna start crying like a baby."
"Shut up!" Mio snapped with a sob-laugh of her own, dashing unproductively at her own eyes - and the six of them were off, none of them sure whether to laugh or cry and all of them making a creditable stab at doing both at once.
Once they were done with that, they finished their tea and cheesecake, and then the band geared up and played one last little show for their departing advisor. With the hour growing late and the shadows lengthening, they all knew they should be getting on home, but a strange, magnetic reluctance to let the afternoon end permeated the air, holding them all back.
Finally, Sawako broke the spell, saying with forced nonchalance, "Well, I suppose I had best be off. The next few days are likely to be fairly busy."
"Yeah, I suppose you should," Ritsu agreed, equally unconvincingly. "Oh, hey, before you go, though, we have a couple of things for you."
"Just some little stuff," Yui agreed.
Ritsu zipped open her school bag and took out a flat, wrapped parcel, which she handed to the surprised-looking teacher with a smile. "Here's a little something to remember us by."
"This is a good-luck charm I had blessed at the Fire Sages temple near Yui-senpai's house," Azusa said, placing a small, carved item on a cord atop the package.
"And here's some of the special reserve tea that you can make at home," Mugi chimed in, adding a neatly wrapped box to the pile.
"And some of your favorite chocolates!" Yui added.
"And last but not least, something to say 'thank you' for all the work you did on our stage presence," said Mio without a trace of irony - and then, while Sawako stood there blinking bemusedly with her hands full of swag, the tallest of the club members leaned forward and deftly placed a set of cosplay cat ears on the teacher's head.
"We double elkdog dare you to wear them on stage," Ritsu declared with a wicked little grin.
Sawako stared at her for a second; then, her face settling into a sly little grin of its own, she replied in her husky heavy-metal voice, "I think that can be arranged."
All six were still giggling, their earlier dismay cast aside, as the girls showed Sawako out; they stood at the top of the stairs and waved as she paused on the landing, then went back into the clubroom while she went on her way.
She was crossing the lobby, heading for the exit with all the determination of an explorer at the start of a new expedition, when a familiar figure in a shapeless beige cardigan appeared from off to the side and beckoned to her.
"Ms. Yamanaka," said the school's middle-aged literature teacher.
Sawako stopped and gave him a cordial nod. "Mr. Horigome," she replied.
Horigome stood and regarded her in silence for a moment. He had been the Light Music Club's advisor in Sawako's student days, and so something of a personal nemesis. He was the only one of her colleagues here who had known about her past before the news broke earlier in the week, and though he had never blown her cover, she had never entirely felt at ease around him. The memory of all the scoldings he'd given her and her bandmates (unsurprisingly, Death Devil's music was not to his taste) was too vivid. He was the one who had rejected their life plans questionnaires with their hopeful and optimistic career choice of "musician", remarking that they had better learn to be realistic if they wanted to get anywhere in life.
Now, after looking thoughtfully at her for a few seconds, Horigome said gravely, "I'm glad I caught you. There's something I feel I need to say to you before you leave."
"... Yes?" Sawako replied, bracing herself for who even knew what.
Horigome kept his lugubrious gaze on her for another second or two, then cracked a wry little smile, bowed to her, and said, "I stand corrected, Ms. Yamanaka." Then, just to boost her already considerable shock into the stratosphere, he threw the horns and added, "Death Devil rules."
Sawako stared at him in utter disbelief for several seconds; then, feeling fresh tears come to her eyes, she returned the bow (unable to match the salute because her hands were full) and said haltingly, "I... you... don't know what that means to me."
Horigome chuckled. "I can guess," he said. "Good luck, Sawako. I'll be watching out for news of your success."
Up in their clubroom, the five members of the Light Music Club stood clustered together by one of the windows and watched as their once(-and-future?) faculty advisor walked away. She paused at the gate to the school grounds, looking back, and then squared her shoulders and went on her way, disappearing up the street.
"There she goes, off into rock 'n roll history," said Ritsu with an air of great satisfaction. "Our little Sawa-chan's grown up and left us."
"I wonder if we'll ever see her again," Yui mused wistfully, looking on the verge of tears again.
"Of course we will, senpai," said Azusa. "She already invited us to their first show, whenever it is."
"Besides," Mugi added cheerfully, "that cheesecake she just ate was full of nano-trackers. By now they'll have spread throughout her body, so wherever she goes, my satellite network will find her."
"Oh, well, that's convenient," said Yui.
"That's our Mugi-chan," Ritsu agreed, nodding, and the others all made absent-minded sounds of agreement as well.
There was a short pause.
"... Wait, what?" said Mio.
Mugi beamed. "Kidding!" she declared.
For the second Saturday in a row, Yui Hirasawa awoke to a text message from Ritsu.
She was alone this time, which she found obscurely disappointing. With a yawn, she rolled onto her left side and snagged her gearPhone from the bedside stand, thumbing it open.
TO HTT Group Alias
Special meeting this afternoon @2
in the clubroom. No instruments
required, just bring yourselves.
"Huh? Another special meeting?" Yui wondered aloud. Then, shrugging inwardly, she sent back "ok c u there", put her phone down, and went to ready herself for the day.
She was running late when she got to school, having gotten distracted by the particularly yummy lunch Ui had served that day. Naturally, that meant she'd also missed the traffic light at every crosswalk along the way and had to stop for the train at the light rail station, so even running flat-out when she was able to, she couldn't make up much time. She was out of breath and sweaty when she got to the second-floor landing - and, to her surprise, heard music coming from up above.
They're playing? Yui thought. That's weird. Ritchan said we didn't need our instruments. Then, with a smile, she raised a hand to her gig bag's shoulder strap and remarked to herself, Good thing I brought Gīta anyway!
By the time she got to the top of the stairs, though, she'd realized that the sound was coming from the main music room, not the Light Music Club's room - and that whoever was in there playing, it wasn't her bandmates. The drumming couldn't possibly be Ritchan's, and there were two guitars, one of them in the midst of a high, wailing solo. In fact, it sounded like...
She burst into the room to find her bandmates all clustered just inside the door; arms windmilling, she tried to halt her headlong dash before she ran Azusa down, but then tripped over her own feet, converting the inadvertent charge into a particularly fierce hug-from-behind instead. Her kōhai didn't seem to find that in any way surprising; she just braced her feet to keep from being knocked over, and looked back over her shoulder with an Oh, it's you sort of face just as the Art of Noise dove into the last chorus.
Ooh and I try
I try to reason why
Don't you know I can't go on this way?
Baby please don't walk away
There is this place
Where I toss away my pride
So you can see that I'm the one
To take you to a higher place this time!
Disentangling herself from Azusa, Yui stood panting in the sudden silence that followed the last cry of Azalynn's guitar, acutely conscious of the nine pairs of eyes that were all regarding her.
"See what happens when you're late, senpai?" quipped Azusa dryly.
"I'm sorry!" Yui blurted, bowing so furiously with her gig bag still on her back that she whacked herself in the back of the head with Gīta's neck.
Ritsu grinned. "It's OK, we were only a couple minutes ahead of you. They'd already started playing when we got here!"
Azalynn ducked out of the strap of her guitar and stood it against her amp. "Sorry, we couldn't resist," she said. "So hey, guys! Let me introduce you." She put a hand on the shoulder of the slim, blue-haired young man next to her, leaning in as if about to snap an arm's length self-portrait, and said, "This fine-looking piece of precision engineering here is my rhythm guitarist partner in crime, Miki Kaoru! Look all you want, girls, but don't touch, he's Kaitlyn's!" she warned with a wink.
A couple of the Hōkago Tea Time girls blushed at that, but Yui's attention was entirely focused not on the musician, but the instrument he held.
"Ritchan, Ritchan!" she said, tugging at the sleeve of Ritsu's sweatshirt. "Look! It's Gīta - a blue Gīta!"
"Huh, yeah, so it is," Ritsu agreed, looking more closely. Sure enough, the guitar Miki held was a Gibson Les Paul, very similar to Yui's own beloved axe, but in a rich and mellow shade of blue instead of Gīta's Heritage Cherry Sunburst finish.
"I thought you played a Rickenbacker 620," said Azusa.
Miki grinned. "I do - just not always."
"Back here on the drums, Dorothy Wayneright," Azalynn went on. With a quiet little smile, Dorothy rose from behind her kit and gave an oddly formal little bow, like a karateka at the start of a sparring match, which didn't really go with her industrial-safety-sign tank top and red headband. "And on the bass guitar -" Azalynn continued; she turned to the black-haired young man who stood next to the drum kit, then recoiled in feigned surprise and blurted, " - Who are you?!"
The bassist grinned and raised a hand. "Hi," he said. "I'm just filling in until Moose gets here - Hoffman's a long way from Zipang. I'm Kate's brother, my name's Corwin Ravenhair."
"Oh! I've heard of you!" said Ritsu. "I didn't know you were a musician, though."
"Well, whether I am kind of depends on who you ask," said Corwin, "but I was in a band in high school..." He put a hand behind his head, his grin becoming a little sheepish. "Even if it wasn't quite as successful as my big sister's."
"And this," said Azalynn, darting over to the woman standing among the little cluster of keyboards and effects racks, "is Kaitlyn, of course."
"I'm pleased to meet all of you at last," said Kate with a smiling bow. "Azalynn's told me so much about you."
"I..." Mio fumbled for words for a few moments, her face almost crimson. "It's... amazing to meet all of you," she finally managed, bowing deeply in return. "But... I..."
Azusa could see that her senpai wasn't going to be able to get it out, so it fell to her to say what they were all thinking:
"But why are you here?"
"I heard your demo," Kate replied, still smiling.
"No, I know that," said Azusa, shaking her head. "That's not what I mean. I mean... don't you have stuff to do?"
"Would you excuse us for a second?" said Ritsu pleasantly; then, snagging the younger musician in a headlock, she half-turned them both away from the Art of Noise and said in a stage mutter, "Cool it with that! What are you trying to do, talk them into leaving?"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," Azusa squeaked, her cat ears springing up.
Kate laughed cheerfully. "It's a fair question," she said. "But as a matter of fact, this is the stuff I have to do, for the moment. Starting Monday, I'm going to be your school's new music teacher, at least for the rest of this term."
Ritsu turned back to face her, neglecting to release Azusa and so dragging her along in the process. "Come again?" she asked, and then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw that, while Mio and Yui were both still looking starstruck, Mugi had that look. The one she got when she was Up To Something and reasonably sure it was about to pay off. Turning further (still dragging Azusa along), Ritsu rounded on her blonde bandmate and demanded, "What did you do, Mugi."
Mugi's blue eyes went wide with perfectly unconvincing innocence. "Me? Nothing! Whyever do you ask?"
That seemed to break the spell on the others. All of them crowded around Mugi, all firing questions at her at once. While they interrogated her, she just stood silently smiling, as if basking in the attention.
Azalynn leaned over and murmured to Kate, "See? What did I tell you? Adorable."
"Mm-hmm," Kate agreed, and stood there smiling while the five girls hashed it all out.
Mugi let her bandmates get the worst of their curiosity out of their systems, then held up a placating hand and said gently, "Now, now, now, now, now, now, now..."
Yui's eyes went wide. "Seven times!" she murmured in astonishment.
"I couldn't possibly have had anything to do with this," Mugi pointed out patiently.
"Yeah... you're right, Mugi," said Ritsu after a moment's reflection. "I mean, just because Sawa-chan-sensei happened to have the opportunity of a lifetime handed to her..."
"At almost the exact moment we found out that Rin-chan was really Azalynn from the Art of Noise..." Mio added.
"And just in time for the school year out in the 'big universe' to end," Yui chipped in.
"Wait, seriously?" said Ritsu, momentarily derailed.
Yui nodded vigorously. "Uh-huh!"
"How do you know things like that, senpai?" Azusa wondered.
Yui shrugged. "I dunno, I'm good with time differences and stuff," she said.
"OK, well, yeah, and that," Ritsu went on, shaking her head in faintly distracted wonderment.
"And the Board of Regents just happened to hire the lead singer of that same band in Yamanaka-sensei's place," Mio said.
"You're right, there's absolutely no reason why we should suspect the girl whose father owns half of the prefecture of having had a hand in any of that," Ritsu concluded with elaborately faked dignity. Bowing deeply to Mugi with her hands at her sides, she said, "Please forgive my boorish assumption, Kotobuki-ojōsama."
"You are forgiven," said Mugi magnanimously.
The five looked at each other for a long moment, and then all burst out in fits of giggles before breaking their huddle and turning to the Art of Noise.
"So, well, uh... gosh," said Mio. "Welcome to Sato Academy."
"I'll go and make some tea," said Mugi cheerfully, and she went across to the Light Music clubroom to do just that.
While she was about that, the other members of Hōkago Tea Time mingled with the Art of Noise. To her surprise, Mio found herself - usually the first member of the band to want to hide in any given social situation - being hidden behind instead. She turned and gave her best friend a can-I-help-you-with-something? eyebrow, asking, "Problem?"
"Huh? Noooo," Ritsu replied unconvincingly. "It's just..." She nodded toward the drum kit and its operator. "That's Dorothy Wayneright over there. She's the third or fourth best drummer, like... ever."
"Who's ahead of me?" Dorothy inquired, and Ritsu jumped and squeaked in a way Mio found very gratifying.
"She heard me!" Ritsu said unnecessarily.
Mio rolled her eyes. "Oh, good grief," she said. "Of course she heard you."
Ritsu peeked out from behind her friend; Dorothy, seated behind her drum kit, tilted her head curiously.
"Uh... well..." Ritsu emerged from behind Mio, hands behind head, trying hard to seem casual and failing completely. "Keith Moon... and Gene Krupa... and maybe Luke Yamada."
"Hmm," said Dorothy thoughtfully; then she nodded and said, "Acceptable," adding with a little smile, "Five points for saying Krupa instead of Buddy Rich."
Ritsu grinned, her hesitancy banished instantly now that she had shop to talk. "Nah, Krupa's the man," she said. "Rich is too damn perfect." Stepping closer, she went on, "I gotta admit, I'm a little surprised."
"About what?" Dorothy wondered.
"I expected your kit to be a lot bigger," Ritsu said. "Except for your floor tom, it's basically the same as mine."
"You thought I would have one of those giant prog-rock rigs with a thousand toms and every cymbal ever invented?" Dorothy wondered, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, yeah!" said Ritsu. "I would if I had your budget."
Dorothy shook her head. "They'd just get in your way," she said. "Let me show you something..."
While Ritsu conferred with Dorothy, Azusa quizzed Miki about matters guitarly. Mio stood and watched for a moment, then turned to see that Yui - her arms around Azalynn from behind - was chatting breezily with Kaitlyn as if they'd been friends for years. Mio was not a naturally jealous sort of person, but she could never suppress a little surge of envy whenever she saw Yui exercising that particular one of her talents - that fearless ability to be totally at ease with anybody, anywhere, at any time, given even half a chance.
It was a talent Mio considered completely alien to her own makeup - a deficit she felt particularly acutely right now, as she wavered on the edge of slipping into wallflower mode in the face of one of her favorite bands of all time. Turning, she saw Kaitlyn's brother standing there regarding her with a thoughtful expression on his face, and felt her own face go hot with embarrassment. That happened whenever she realized anyone was looking at her, but the effect seemed particularly acute when the person doing the looking was, well, someone like that...
Look at the size of his hands, she thought irrelevantly, and then she suddenly noticed something.
"... You're a lefty too!" she blurted, then reddened even more when she realized she'd said it out loud.
Corwin grinned. "Yep," he replied. "We all are in my generation of the family, for some reason. Genetics - go figure." He nodded toward Kaitlyn. "Kate's so left-handed she can't even use righty scissors."
"I've been there," Mio agreed ruefully. "And..." She trailed off as she took a closer look at his guitar, now that she was over her initial paralysis. Her grey eyes went wide as she regarded it. "... Is that a Gibson Thunderbird?!"
"Yes it is," Corwin confirmed.
"Wow," said Mio, her awkwardness now completely forgotten. She stepped closer, regarding it as one might a golden idol. "I didn't know they even made a left-handed T-bird."
"I know, right?" Corwin agreed cheerfully. "I'm standing in the music store, looking over the extensive selection of two lefty P-Basses and thinking, Wow, decisions, decisions... arrest-my-ass red or bile green?"
Mio laughed. "Oh, spirits, that yellowy green. I think I may have passed on exactly the guitar you're talking about five or six times in the last two years!"
"Yup, and then I thought, Hang on, they put the pickguard on the wrong side of that T-bird, and here we are!" Corwin went on. He held the instrument an inch or two toward her. "Want to try it?"
Mio blinked, on the verge of diving for her shell again, then said, "Uh... really?"
"Sure. I've heard you play, you can handle it. Heck, you're better'n I am," said Corwin. He ducked out of the strap and handed the T-bird over; Mio turned it around and settled the strap over her own shoulder, flicking her long black hair out of the way with a practiced, effortless grace that was completely at odds with her hesitant demeanor. (She didn't see the little smile Corwin gave as he noticed it.) Lacking a pick, she dug a five-fen piece out of her pocket and laid down the opening few bars of "Fuwa Fuwa Time" with that instead.
By the time Mugi got back to report that the tea was ready, a jam session was in progress. Yui had hauled out Gīta and plugged in on the amp that Azalynn had been using, and she and Mio were sharing the stand mic that had been Azalynn's as well as they traded off the verses and harmonized the choruses. Miki was playing the part that was usually Azusa's, while its normal proprietor stood and watched with an expression of rapt attention, her cat ears rigidly upright. Ritsu was at Dorothy's drums, thundering happily away, while Dorothy observed with a quiet little smile. Kaitlyn, at her keyboards, was improvising an organ part not too unlike what Mugi herself would've played.
Mugi stood next to Azalynn and listened, her own smile not too unlike Dorothy's, as Yui ripped out a blazing, inspired rendition of her usual guitar solo, skipped the rap, and dove headlong into the final chorus.
Aa, Kami-sama, onegai
Ichido dake no
Miracle time kudasai
Moshi sunnari hanasereba sono ato wa
Dō ni ka naru yo ne!
"Y'know what, I think it worked," said Azalynn, and the two shared a high five.
"I love it when a plan comes together," said Mugi with an air of great satisfaction.
Fuwa fuwa time!
Fuwa fuwa time!
Fuwa fuwa time!
Fuwa fuwa time!
Fuwa fuwa time!
Fuwa fuwa time!
Chapter Three and a Half
"Got the Time"
To mark the end of their new faculty advisor's first week at the Academy, the girls of the Light Music Club's coterminous rock band, Hōkago Tea Time, debuted a brand new song at their after-school meeting that Friday. They had played it before, of course, both jointly and severally - Mugi and Mio had finished writing it not long before Ms. Yamanaka left - but this was the song's first performance in front of an audience.
Given that the audience in question consisted of four out of five regular members of the Art of Noise (one of the greatest bands in the "big universe", in the estimation of Hōkago Tea Time) and Kate-sensei's brother, who was filling in for their absent regular bassist, the girls could be forgiven for being slightly daunted by the prospect; but the only one who seemed to be as they tuned up and got ready was Mio. Yui wasn't bothered because nothing bothered Yui; she was socially fearless, evidently incapable of anxiety in any interpersonal context. Ritsu was no slouch in that department herself, and Mugi's serene acceptance of life's strange currents insulated her from such phenomena pretty effectively too. Under normal circumstances, Mio might have expected Azusa, the band's youngest member, to be at least a little nervous, but she was so pleased that they had played every day this week that her happiness in her work overrode any concerns she might've had.
So it appeared that it was only Mio who regarded the five slightly older people sitting expectantly around the clubroom's conference table with something a bit like dread as Ritsu said, "Are we ready? All righty then. One, two, three!" and set them in motion.
The song, like all of HTT's the elder musicians had heard to date, was powerfully, even relentlessly chipper, to an extent that would probably have been annoyingly poppy if it hadn't had some serious rock musicianship backing it up: It was, rather circularly, about how much fun it was to be in an after-school band. Meta-songs about the greatness of rock 'n roll were no new thing, of course; that was one of the holy trinity of rock song themes, the others being love (or at least sex) and fighting the system.
When they finished, there was a brief silence; before anyone else could say or do anything, Ritsu inquired, "Mio, yo. Are you feeling all right?"
Mio gave her bandmate a look that she probably meant to be curious, but came across more as startled. "Huh? What do you mean?"
"It's just that you don't really seem to be into it today," Ritsu said, tapping pensively at the back of her own neck with her drumsticks.
"No, no, I'm fine," Mio assured her unconvincingly. "I'm... maybe I'm just a little tired, is all. It's been a pretty busy week!" she added with an awkward laugh.
Yui and Azusa glanced in puzzlement at each other, then at Mugi, but if the blonde keyboardist had any insight into the rhythm section's odd conversation, she kept her own counsel about it.
"Well," said Kaitlyn diplomatically as she rose from her seat, "we have been working you pretty hard. Now that we've all got a sense of each other's abilities, though, we should be able to get into more of a groove. The hard part's basically over. No critique today," she added with a smile. "I think your new song has a lot of potential, and we can dig into it more next week. For now, take the weekend off and get some rest. I don't want to work you so hard my first week here that you regret my coming," she added wryly.
"That will never happen, sensei," Azusa assured her earnestly as she returned her Mustang to its padded bag.
The five Light Music Club girls left the school together in the gathering dusk, as was their custom, and stayed that way as far as they could before their different courses home started to diverge. Mugi left them first, at the light rail station not far from school; then Azusa and Yui peeled off down a side street, to split up a bit farther on.
Once she and Mio were alone together, Ritsu asked, "Are you really OK? I didn't mean to put you on the spot in front of everyone, but... well, your playing on the new song was pretty weak. You were kinda phoning it in."
"I'm fine," said Mio, just a little sharply. Then, seeing the faintly hurt look on her best friend's face, she sighed and relented slightly. "Sorry. I just... it's all been a lot to take on board, you know? I'm enjoying it, and I think it'll be good for us as a band, but... it's a big change."
Ritsu nodded. "Yeah, I hear ya." They arrived at her house then, and she asked, "You want to come in for dinner?"
Mio shook her head. "No thanks," she said. "I think I'll just head home. I might write some more lyrics tonight."
"OK, well... I guess I'll seeya Monday, then. Later..."
Mio bade her best friend goodnight, then continued on toward her house. She was about halfway there when her gearPhone chimed with an incoming message. She sighed, assuming it was one of Ritsu's habitual weird evening texts, and considered leaving it be until she got home, but the unacknowledged message itch got the better of her and she pulled the phone out to check.
From: "Corwin Ravenhair" <cvr3!scm.co.ur>
To: "Mio Akiyama" <akiyama_mio!sato.ac.ur>
Subject: Tomorrow morning?
Date: Friday Liu 11 19:17:32 ASC
If you have a little time tomorrow morning, would you be amenable to meeting up someplace? I have to be on the noon train back to Republic City, but there's something I'd like to talk with you about before I leave town, if you can swing it. Sorry for the short notice, but it just came up tonight.
Mio spent a moment wondering how in the world he knew her email address, until it occurred to her that it was patently easy to figure out (every student's email address at Sato Academy was in the same standard format). Then, reading it again, she wondered what in the world he could want to discuss with her that was so urgent he had to try and shoehorn it into his last morning in Sakuragaoka.
Maybe he'll ask you to run away with him, Mio, said the mocking voice of her inner Ritsu, and she blushed involuntarily even though she was 99.97 percent certain it could be no such thing. In conversations over the course of the week, it had come out that Kate's brother was happily married - and the father of a baby girl who would be three months old in a few days, although, inconveniently for purposes of silencing her inner Ritsu, that baby girl's mother was technically speaking someone other than his wife. Still, they all were reportedly happy with the arrangement, and Mio found it very hard to credit the notion that, even if he were looking for something else on the side, he would seek it out at a high school. He just... wasn't that type of guy.
Finally, after realizing that she'd been standing on a street corner two blocks from her house thinking about this for several minutes, Mio recalled herself to the here and now, thumbing in a message suggesting that they meet for breakfast at the crêpe place near the music store she and the other band members frequented, downtown. By the time she reached her home, she had confirmation that he thought that a fine idea and would see her there at eight.
Corwin was waiting in the corner booth at Master Crêpe when Mio arrived, looking a bit nervous - possibly even furtive. For his part, he was the picture of unconcern, raising a hand in cheerful greeting as she entered the restaurant. Approaching the booth, Mio noticed that he had his bass with him, propped up on the booth bench next to him in its hard travel case, and a duffel bag.
"Morning, Mio. Thanks for coming," he said as she took a seat opposite him. "Sorry again for the short notice."
"It's no problem," Mio replied, and then, a little hesitantly, "So... what did you... want to talk to me about?"
"Food first," said Corwin with a twinkling grin. "Then business."
He kept the conversation light and casual through breakfast, and Mio was surprised to realize that, rather than ratchet up the suspense and make her even more tense, as she'd been expecting, it had the effect of putting her at ease. She'd noticed that before, over the course of the week, going right back to their very first meeting on the previous Saturday - there was something oddly soothing about Kaitlyn's brother. The good-natured warmth he displayed, perhaps, or the uncomplicated straightforwardness of him. He was kind of like Ritsu in the latter regard, only without Ritsu's constant need to needle and tease, and so more inherently restful to be with.
When they'd finished eating, Corwin paid the bill (without making it seem like a date thing) and rose, gathering up his luggage. "It's a nice day today," he said. "Why don't we go to the park?"
They found a vacant bench in one corner of the city's pleasant downtown park, where they could have a little privacy but still be out in public, in view of the various other citizens who were out enjoying the day. Mio recognized that for what it was - another quiet little effort to put her at ease. It hadn't escaped his notice that what he was doing, asking a high-school girl to spend some time alone with him, could be misconstrued pretty easily if one were of a mind to.
Once there, he got down to brass tacks, saying, "OK. Unlike Ritsu, I didn't want to call you on this right in front of everybody, but you were a little off yesterday. I think I know why, though, and so before I leave town, I thought maybe I'd try to help you with it a little."
Mio blinked at him. "You do?"
Corwin nodded. "Mm-hmm. I've heard you play in concert, both on the original demo Kate got from Korra, and in the Student Council's videos of this year's freshman welcome show and last year's school festival." At the mention of the festival show, Mio glanced away, a furious blush building at the bridge of her nose. She hadn't realized that he'd seen that video, though she supposed it stood to reason. Maybe she'd just been in denial. Either way, she couldn't quite bring herself to look at him for a few seconds now that she knew he'd seen it.
"And the thing is," he went on, as if unaware of her discomfiture, "in all of those recordings, you sound totally different than you did yesterday. Totally different... and a lot better," he added with an apologetic look.
Mio sighed. "I know," she said. "It's just... I'm a very... timid person sometimes. I mean, you saw how I looked last week before you talked to me. One of my favorite bands showed up out of the blue to jam with us and I almost went and hid. I've always been like that. Shy. Nervous. When I was little I could barely bring myself to talk to anyone I didn't know, which was basically everybody."
Corwin chuckled, not in a malicious way, but rather as if he'd realized something pleasing. "That explains why Ritsu is your best friend, then," he said, and to her puzzled look, he explained, "It would take a human cannonball like her to make friends with someone like that in elementary school."
Mio couldn't help it; she had to laugh at that. Then, sobering, she went on, "I'm not as bad as I used to be back then, but... I'm still pretty shy. And so when I'm playing... sometimes I can lose myself in the performance, but others..." She shook her head. "That's why I decided to play bass when Ritsu talked me into taking up music with her. Because nobody notices the bass player."
"I hate to break it to you, Mio, but a person would have to be pretty damn dense not to notice you on stage," said Corwin with a little grin. Then, at her astonished look, he reddened slightly and said, "... Because you're tall. And stuff. Look, never mind that part," he went on, waving it aside. "My point is, you've got to stop thinking of yourself as 'just the bassist'. Because there's really no such thing, and because even if there was you wouldn't be it."
Mio still looked somewhere between startled and skeptical; sighing at himself, Corwin plowed on, "I mean, look at it this way: When you get self-conscious and you try to demote yourself to that 'doonk, doonk, doonk' business, you're doing a disservice to your bandmates by not being as awesome as you know you can be. And Mugi's too nice to ever call you on it, but when you sandbag those great bass parts she writes for you, it has to hurt. It could even be argued that you're shortchanging your audience."
She opened her mouth to tell him that if he was trying to reduce the pressure she felt, he was doing the opposite, but before she could speak, he raised a finger and said, "But. But. Most importantly. You're limiting yourself. You're cutting yourself off from 80, 90 percent of the fun - which is the payoff, the whole point of working as hard as I know you have to be as good a musician as you are."
Mio was almost too embarrassed by the compliment to respond; when she did, it was to say haltingly, "I just... I don't want to be a... a spectacle." Ruefully, she added, "Like I was at the school festival show last year."
"That was an accident," Corwin told her, "and sometimes accidents happen. Not just on stage, in life. It sucks, but the best thing's usually just to grit your teeth and get on with it. But as far as things you do on purpose go, you don't have to jump around and show off to be a great bassist. Have you ever watched the Who in concert with Ritsu?"
"Not in person," Mio said, unsure where he was heading with that, "but she has a bunch of their videos."
"Well, get her to show you one sometime. The clips from their 1978 Shepperton Film Studio concert on The Kids Are Alright would be perfect. Watch their bass player, a man named John Entwistle. Watch him and listen out for his part, and you'll see what I mean. On stage, he's almost retiring. Compared to the other three maniacs, he barely even moves. Daltrey's throwing his mic around, Pete's jumping all over the place - hell, Keith Moon puts on more of a show than Entwistle does, and he's stuck behind the drum kit."
Corwin grinned. "But if you listen to what he's playing, the man is going berserk. His live parts are always way more intricate than he plays in the studio versions of the same songs." Chuckling, he went on, "I bet you anything Mugi knows that, and it's Entwistle's live style she's thinking of when she writes you those amazing bass lines. He trained as a lead guitarist, you know, but then he decided to play bass because he liked the sound better. But he still played like a lead guitarist, especially live. Mugi knows you've got the chops to do that too, and she's trying to give you the stage to do it on." His little grin returning, he asked rhetorically, "Why not take her up on it?"
He waited for her to say something, but when she only sat regarding him in pensive silence, he smiled less wryly and told her, "You're good, Mio. You really, really are. You love what you do, and you have fun doing it. So why not let everyone else see that?" Switching back to the wry grin, he added, "Or at least hear it?"
"I... I'll think about it," Mio promised, still red-faced. "I'll try."
"That's all I can ask," Corwin said. His wristwatch gave a soft, musical chime; glancing at it, he sighed and added, "I have to go. Train to catch. But you've got my email address now, right? I'll send you my voice number too, just in case." Rising to his feet, he shouldered his duffel bag and continued, "Moose should be here middle of the week, and I'm sure he'll have his own advice for you, but if you want to talk some more about this - or, heck, anything else - I've got the time."
"I'll do that," Mio said, standing; then she bowed, like a student martial artist to her master, and said in what he recognized as a "dojo" voice, "Thank you, Corwin-sensei."
"I'm only two years older than you, y'know," he said wryly, and startled her once more by drawing her into a warm, friendly, secure-feeling hug. "If your school was coed, I'd have been a senior last year."
Mio stiffened for a moment in shock, and then surprised herself slightly by relaxing and returning the embrace. There wasn't a subtext in it, for all that Ritsu would have tried to add one if she'd been present to see it; it was just... nice.
"OK, fine," she said. "Corwin-senpai."
"I'll accept that, Mio-chan," he replied with a laugh, then released her. "Take care of yourself. I'll probably see you sometime over summer vacation."
Mio went with him to the train station to see him off. Once his train had departed, she went to Ritsu's to commence research. Ritsu was a bit confused as to why her best friend was suddenly rocking up at lunchtime on a Saturday and demanding to be shown ancient videos of the original Who lineup in concert, but she didn't require a lot of persuading to watch them again. Besides, she always enjoyed it when Mio got that fierce light in her grey eyes and forgot about her long-established custom of trying to disappear.
For the whole afternoon, Mio and Ritsu lay side by side, face-down on the latter's bed, with their chins propped on their hands and Ritsu's laptop open in front of them. They watched concert footage that Ritsu scrounged first out of her extensive personal collection, and then off the lightningweb via the "big universe" gateway in Republic City. They listened to studio tracks, comparing them with the live versions, and Mio discovered that Corwin was right; it was like there were two John Entwistles. One who sounded like Mio did when she was trying to be invisible; and one who sounded worthy of the nickname "Thunderfingers".
Finally, not long before suppertime, they ran out of research material, and Mio rolled onto her back and lay with a forearm across her brow for a while, digesting. Ritsu sat up, folding her legs under her, and regarded her friend with a curious look, but didn't press; she sensed that Mio was on the trail of something Big, maybe as big as her own discovery of the drums. She didn't know where the notion had come from, but she could feel the importance of the moment, and it silenced even her inherent need to crack wise and poke fun.
At length, Mio lowered her arm, letting it flop to the mattress by her side, and turned her head to look Ritsu in the eye.
"Can you call a special meeting for tomorrow afternoon? I want to try something before we see Kate-sensei again on Monday."
Ritsu grinned. "I can do that," she agreed.
"Wow, Mio-senpai," said Azusa, breaking the silence that fell after they finished playing through "Cagayake! Girls" again. "That was amazing."
"It sure was!" Yui agreed. "Where did you get the idea to play it like that?"
Mio, still a bit flushed from the exertion of her revised performance, smiled. "That's how Mugi wrote it," she said, with a gracious nod to the composer, who beamed cheerfully behind her keyboard. "I just... finally figured out what I needed to start playing it right."
"I'm so pleased," said Mugi. The others were expecting her to propose a celebratory tea break at that point; but instead, what she said, after adjusting her Triton's settings a little, was, "Shall we try another?"
"Sure, what the heck," said Ritsu with a grin. "We've got the time."
One thing it didn't take the girls of the Light Music Club long to realize was different about their new faculty advisor was that she didn't sneak up on them the way the old one had.
Sawako Yamanaka had possessed the uncanny ability to just appear, such that the first indication any of the club members had that she had arrived in their midst was when she suddenly dropped into the conversation. Not always in the clubroom at school, either - she'd done it several times during off-campus discussions, including one memorable occasion when they'd all suddenly realized she was at the table with them during dinner at Yui's house.
On the first Monday of her time at Sato Academy, they had all been unconsciously expecting Kaitlyn to do a similar thing, just sort of materializing at the clubroom conference table in the middle of after-school tea. Indeed, since she was evidently some sort of ninja or something (if you believed the press accounts of her various adventures), it would have been less weird than when Sawa-chan did it. But no. She just came in the door at a quarter past three, like a normal person. So far she'd done that every day.
Ritsu found it faintly disappointing, but only faintly, because Kaitlyn-sensei (virtually nobody in the school called her by her last name, which the Kokugo-trained tongue found rather challenging) had proven to be good times in other ways. She took the music aspect of the Light Music Club a lot more seriously than Sawa-chan had, for one thing, but not in a grouchy, bossy way like Azusa did. Rather than badgermole them to practice like their kōhai often did, Kate would set them playful little musical challenges, or show them new tricks - always accentuating the fun aspect of making music rather than treating it as work, even when it was work.
Today, as she began her second week at the school, she arrived at her usual time, took her place at the end of the table, and received her cup of tea and slice of cake (today's offering was a deliriously frothy strawberry cream affair that had Yui floating slightly above the cushion of her chair with delight). The chitchat flowed as ever, covering mainly matters that were only peripherally musical, as the five at the table ate their cake and drank their tea.
After finishing her cake and complimenting Mugi on its excellence, Kate asked, "So where's Azusa today?"
"Her class drew after-school cleanup duty for all the year-1 classrooms," said Mio. "She probably won't be here until four."
"Hmm." Kaitlyn took a sip of her tea. "OK, I guess Stupid Guitar Tricks will have to wait," she mused. "In that case..." She rose and walked around the table, pausing behind Mio to regard the item standing against the wall, then turned back to the girls and asked, "Do you ever use this?"
"What, that old organ?" Ritsu asked.
"No, we've never used it," said Mio, shaking her head.
"I just use the Hammond mode on my keyboard," Mugi agreed.
"I'm not even sure it works," Yui added. "It's been here forever. It's in the old pictures of Sawa-chan's band when they were students here, but they didn't use it either."
With a thoughtful sound, Kaitlyn brushed dust from the console organ's cover, then opened it to regard the single manual and colorful control buttons. "Hmm... looks a lot like an old Lowrey Genie," she said, then regarded the badge mounted above the main control panel. "'Future Industries Sato-Phonic'. I guess that's the local equivalent."
The four girls got up and gathered around behind her as Kate pulled out the organ's bench and seated herself at the console, then switched on the main power. The speaker came online with a thump, and then the faint hum of energized but idle electronics. She fiddled around with it for a few moments, toggling switches and watching the status lights, then played a short segment of Bach's "Dorian" Toccata. The sound of the organ was not really suited for a piece as large as that - it was only a household console organ, after all, not a church or concert instrument - but it was nevertheless impressive to her audience.
"Well, I guess it works," she said. "Good sound, too. I love these old transistor organs. Nothing else sounds quite like them." She turned to look back over her shoulder at the club members. "You really ought to think about using it sometimes. It's a shame to just let it sit here gathering dust, and besides, it could expand your horizons."
Ritsu scratched her head. "How can it do that? I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm glad it still works, but... we don't really need it. Mugi's keyboard does just as good an organ voice, and it can sound like all that other stuff."
Kate regarded her for a moment, then smiled the little smile that the members of Hōkago Tea Time had already learned meant, "Oh, you think so, eh?" Without further comment, she turned back to the console, scanned the controls, found the switch she wanted, and toggled it, then pressed a key. The organ sounded a note as before, except that instead of a constant, sustained tone, it was pulsing now, as if Kate were rapidly tapping the key instead of holding it down.
"... OK, that's cool," Ritsu admitted, but Kate released the key and remarked (as if to herself),
"Hmm. Too slow. Hang on."
Then, rising, she turned off the organ and, to the girls' surprised, pulled it away from the wall. She turned it 90 degrees, so that its back faced the table, and then took a small sonic screwdriver from her pocket and started removing the back cover.
"Umm... what are you doing?" Mio wondered.
Kate looked up from her work with a smile. "Something my dad told me when he first started teaching me what I would need to know to be a safe space traveler. He says he heard it from his first captain when he was in Starfleet, ages ago - 'You have to learn why things work on a starship.'" Returning to work, she went on, "I believe in a similar philosophy for music."
While her students thought that over, Kate finished taking the back off the organ, switched her screwdriver to flashlight mode, and took stock of the internals. It looked a lot like an old Lowrey organ in here, too, all dusty boards of old-fashioned electronic components. Her practiced eye took only a few moments to dope out which of the boards must control the system she wanted, and few more to zero in on the item she needed.
"See this?" she said, moving aside so the girls could look into the cabinet. "This board is where the 'repeat' function I was just using comes from. And this," she added, pointing to a tiny knob mounted next to one of the big capacitors on said board, "is a thing called a potentiometer. It's similar to the volume and tone knobs on your guitars, only in this case, what it does is..."
She reached inside and turned the little knob a bit, considered, then tweaked it just a little more before withdrawing her hand. She put the back on the organ again, securing only the screws in the four corners, and pushed it back into its place, then turned it on again and pressed a key. The pulsing note sounded once more, only this time the pulse was faster - Ritsu's drummer's ear judged it to be around 120 beats per minute, as opposed to the 90-odd it was doing before. The four glanced at each other, smiles breaking out, as they all realized what their teacher had done.
"It controls the speed of the repeat function!" said Mugi, delight in her voice.
"That's amazing!" Mio declared.
"I never knew you could do something like that," Ritsu said. "I always figured something like this would be just... you know, like an amp."
"'No User Serviceable Parts Inside,'" said Yui in her furrowed-brow Serious Business voice, nodding firmly.
"Yeah, exactly," Ritsu agreed.
"Actually, there are some fun things you can do inside of most amps, too, but that's an advanced class," said Kate. Satisfied, she shut off the organ again, pulled it away from the wall, and finished re-securing the back, then returned it once more to its place and sat down at it again. "And now, ladies, if you'll take your battle stations, I'll show you what one of these old things can do for you."
The four shared an eager glance, then scrambled to their places. Kate let them get situated - Mio and Yui cabled up and ready, Mugi at her keyboard, Ritsu behind her drums - then turned the organ's volume up a little and began, with the accelerated repeat function still switched on, to play a sharp, choppily arpeggiated, constantly shifting riff.
Ritsu recognized it instantly, Mio only a half-second behind her, and Mugi just a couple of bars later - in plenty of time to switch her Triton to its piano voice and join Mio in throwing down the appropriate part at the appropriate moment.
Yui was still a little confused as Ritsu came hurtling in with even more than her usual manic energy, but she got the idea when Mio, still laying down her intricately flourished bassline, stepped to her stand mic and started singing:
Out here in the fields
I fought for my meals
I get my back into my living
I don't need to fight
To prove I'm right
I don't need to be forgiven, no no no, no no
By the time Mio finished the verse, Yui was fully on board, almost quivering with anticipation. She might not be quite so enormous a fan of the Who as Ritsu and Mio were, but she did love a chance to rock Pete Townshend style. She slammed into the line with gusto, windmilling it up properly with a huge grin on her face.
Azusa arrived just in time to see her, still with that same broad grin, step to the mic and declare,
Don't raise your eye
It's only teenage wasteland...
and then leap in the air and throw down a power chord as Ritsu drove Mio into the second verse with a thunderous fill.
Sally take my hand
We'll travel south crossland
Put out the fire, and don't look past my shoulder
The exodus is here
The happy ones are near
Let's get together before we get much older
Azusa skirted the band, eyeing them a bit warily, and took a seat on the bench to observe the rest of the song. As she did, she cast a glance behind her at Kaitlyn-sensei's back, where she sat hunched over the old console organ, pounding out that frenetic arpeggio line that drove the whole song. That was also not something Yamanaka-sensei had ever done. She'd once claimed that she was "letting you girls have your space" by declining to jam with them, but Azusa had always suspected that her real reasons were a combination of a metalist's disdain for their usual pop-punk style and simple laziness. (The latter would fit with the rest of the club culture, after all.)
Come to that, she had to admit it freaked her out a little bit to come into the prep room and find her senpai actually playing, rather than just sitting around. She wondered if that meant it was already too late for her to get back her edge - and then suddenly realized that sitting on the bench watching them certainly wasn't going to get her anywhere in regards to that goal, now was it? Jumping up, she scrambled to get plugged in and join them before they ran out of song.
Azusa wasn't a violinist, so she couldn't jump in and help them finish the song in the canonical manner, but she did a creditable job improvising a similar finale on her guitar (to Yui's visible delight), and they were all flushed and pleased with themselves as Ritsu brought them to a crashing halt.
"Oh yeah!" said Ritsu. "That was awesome!"
"Sorry, you guys, I was a little out of tune," Azusa apologized.
"Who cares, you were amazing!" Yui told her. She took off Gīta and stood it against Ritsu's bass drum, then declared, "Phew! That was intense!" and threw her arms around her young colleague from behind. "I need to recharge my Azu-nyan battery," she added, nuzzling Azusa's cheek.
"Senpaiii," Azusa grumbled, but - as ever - did nothing to free herself. "Jeeez."
"See?" said Kate. She shut off the organ, rose from her seat, and came around the bench, smiling at them. "Not so useless."
Ritsu got up from her stool, stuck her drumsticks in the pocket of her blazer, and bowed to Kaitlyn, her hands making a firebender's salute. "I stand corrected, Kaitlyn-sensei," she said formally.
"So what is the rest of your band doing while we're all in school, Kaitlyn-sensei?" Azusa asked once they were all reconvened around the table.
"Well," said Kate, "Miki's still doing his regular work - he's a consulting engineer, so all he really needs is an Internet connection and a quiet place to sit."
Mugi giggled and remarked, "He's got a daytime job, he's doin' all right."
"Exactly," Kate agreed with a smile. "As for Azalynn, when she's not here, she and Ein are looking for a studio in town we can use. We have some ideas for a new album."
"Wow, really?" asked Mio. "That's amazing." She sighed, resting her chin in her hand, and said glumly, "Sometimes I really envy grown-ups."
Kate chuckled. "If you're good girls and eat all your vegetables, maybe we'll let you use it too," she said.
"Why is Azalynn still here, by the way?" Ritsu wondered. "Not that I mind or anything, but it's not like she needs to stay undercover now that the rest of you are here."
"Mm," Azusa agreed. "She isn't wearing her disguise any more, but she still comes to class every day."
"I think she's just having too much fun to stop coming," said Kate, shrugging.
"You might be right," Azusa mused. "I mean, she even stayed for cleanup duty today." She smiled indulgently. "She really got into it, too. When I left to come up here, she and Ui and Jun were waxing the floor in our classroom. That's not on the usual chore list, but they did it anyway."
"How much work was Jun-chan actually doing when you left?" Ritsu asked with a skeptical grin.
"Well, she was more sort of supervising by that point," Azusa conceded.
"I bet waxing the floor was Ui-chan's idea," said Mugi.
"That's my little sister!" Yui agreed cheerfully.
"Um... do you know when Moose, I mean Mr. MacEchearn will get here?" Mio asked.
"I can pretty much guarantee you that he'll tell you to call him Moose," Kate said with a grin. "In fact, if you do call him Mr. MacEchearn, I predict a 95% probability that he'll tell you that's his father. Anyway, I just heard from him a few hours ago. He arrived in Saikyō this morning and caught the midday train. He should be here sometime Wednesday. He's looking forward to meeting you."
"Oh... uh... well, I'm looking forward to meeting him, too," said Mio diffidently, going a little red. "Although... I do have to admit I kind of miss your brother, sensei."
Ritsu leaned forward, wide-eyed, and leaned her head against clasped hands. "Oh, what's this?" she said eagerly. "Can it be? Has shy little Mio-chan met an older man who holds the key that will finally unlock the fortress of her heart?" she declaimed dramatically, hand to chest. Then, with a sly grin, she added, "You do know he's married, right?"
"I didn't mean it like that!" Mio barked, rising to her feet and clonking Ritsu on the top of her head.
"You killed me, Mio. I am dead," Ritsu whimpered, slumping in her chair.
"Then maybe I'll finally get a little peace," Mio grumbled, returning to her seat.
"Squad Member Ritchan!" Yui cried plaintively, shaking Ritsu's limp form by the shoulder.
"Uh, what about Dorothy, sensei?" Azusa inquired, anxious to steer the conversation in less potentially violent directions.
Kate winked at her - I see what you did there! - and replied, "She has a job too - she's driving a taxicab."
Ritsu came back to life, straightened up, and tilted her head quizzically. "Seriously?" she said. "Weird."
Kate shrugged. "She likes being a cab driver. She says it's a good way to meet people and find out what's going on in town."
"I'm amazed she knows her way around the city well enough to do that kind of work," Yui mused. "She's only been here a little more than a week. I've lived here all my life and I still don't know where most of the stuff is."
"Well, you don't have a positronic brain," Mio pointed out.
"How do you know?" Yui inquired smugly. "Have you ever seen my brain?"
Ritsu made a smothered sort of snarfing noise, knowing that if she said what had popped into her head out loud, Mio would clobber her; the look her best friend shot across the table at her suggested that she was considering it anyway, but before either of them could get any farther with that, Azusa said flatly,
"No way, Yui-senpai. You cannot possibly be a robot. Who would build such a thing? For what purpose?"
Grinning, Yui got to her feet, crossed behind Ritsu's back to the end of the table, and leaned down behind Azusa's chair to embrace her again.
At that precise moment, the door opened and Azalynn bounced in, followed closely by Ui and Jun, just in time for them all to hear Yui declare cheerfully, "I'm a love machine!"
The three stopped in the doorway, blinking, as Ritsu and Mio both dissolved into laughter, Kate diplomatically suppressed a similar reaction, Azusa grumbled ineffectually, and Mugi sat with her hands clasped beneath her chin, taking in the tableau with undisguised delight.
"... I'll come in again," said Jun, and then she turned and went back out into the hall.
"Isn't modern technology wonderful, Azusa-chan?" Mugi asked with a happy smile.
"I Believe I'll Dust My Broom"
Kaitlyn arrived at the Light Music clubroom after school to find Yui there alone. She was sitting on the bench facing Ritsu's vacant drum kit, her face set in a frown of concentration, tinkering around with the riff from the new song Mugi had unveiled after Stupid Guitar Tricks the day before. At the sound of the door, she looked up, then stopped playing and smiled brightly.
"Oh, Kate-chan-sensei!" she said. "Hello!"
"Afternoon, Yui-chan," said Kate. She paused inside the door and looked around. "Just you today?"
"The others will be here in a little while," Yui explained. "Azu-nyan and Mio-chan had to go to the music store and get some new strings and stuff, and Ritchan and Mugi-chan tagged along, but I decided to stay and work on this riff."
Kate smiled, but didn't respond directly; if she remarked on her student's diligence at this point, it would just feel patronizing (even though Yui herself would almost certainly not take it as such). Instead, she said, "Well, if you feel like taking a break, Miki has something he'd like to show you."
Yui tilted her head inquisitively as the blue-haired young man who played rhythm guitar in Kate's band entered behind her, one hand raised in friendly greeting, the other holding a hardshell guitar case.
"Miki-sensei!" said Yui, rising to her feet.
Miki grinned. "You don't have to call me sensei, I'm not a teacher," he said.
"Sure you are! Everyone in the Art of Noise is a teacher when it comes to us," said Yui with a smile. "What's up?" Noting the case, she asked, "Did you bring your blue Gīta again?"
"Not this time," Miki told her, crossing to put the case down on the table. "Come and have a look."
"OK!" Yui got up and unslung Gīta from her shoulder, placing it carefully on the bench's padded seat. "You just wait right there," she told it, and then went to join Miki and Kaitlyn by the table as the young man unlatched his guitar case.
"Kate and I were talking last night about something you told her during Stupid Guitar Tricks yesterday, about how you can't play any guitar other than Gīta," Miki said. "I think this might be able to help you with that."
"Well, it's not that I can't," Yui qualified, looking a little awkward at having to contradict an esteemed teacher-figure. "I just don't want to." Reddening slightly with a silly little smile, she added, "Gīta's all that I need..."
Miki smiled. "I can understand that. He's a beautiful instrument," he added, without a hint of the faintly mocking indulgence most people showed when they followed along with Yui's habit of personifying her guitar, "and I know the two of you work well together. But there are certain styles of music a Les Paul isn't really suited to, and if you want to expand your musical horizons to include them, you're going to have to give some other guitars a try."
"Like what?" Yui wondered.
"Well, like this," Miki replied, swinging open the lid of his case.
"Ooooh," Yui breathed at the sight of what lay within. "It's so pretty."
The guitar in Miki's case wasn't a solid-body electric, like Gīta or Azu-nyan's Muttan; in the general shape and thickness of its body, it looked like an acoustic, but its body was made of some shiny silver metal rather than wood, and instead of the usual hole in the soundboard, it had a stylized metal grille covering most of the top.
"Is that a speaker?" Yui asked. "Like some kind of built-in amp?"
"Well, kind of, now that you mention it," said Miki. He lifted the instrument out of the case and showed it to her. "This is called a resonator guitar. Specifically, this one's a Dobro."
"Doughboy?" Yui wondered.
"Dobro," Miki told her. "Short for 'Dopyera Brothers', after the company that originally made them." He struck one of the strings with the ball of his thumb, producing a surprisingly loud note with a distinct metallic tang to it, then muted the string. "They were invented on Earth back in the early 20th century - about 500 years ago, before electric amplification. There's a metal cone under here," he said, tapping the speaker-like grille, "and a thing like a metal spider on top of it, which is attached to this saddle under the strings here. It makes the guitar louder than a normal acoustic without needing an amp."
"Ohhh," said Yui. Then, with a thoughtful frown, she went on, "But we do have amps now. So..."
Miki nodded. "So now it's mainly about the special sound. With a Dobro, you can play stuff that just doesn't sound right any other way. For instance..." He hopped up on the end of the table, balancing the guitar on his leg, and took an object from a compartment inside the case next to him. This proved to be a short length of what looked like brass pipe or tubing, which he fitted onto the pinky finger of his left hand.
"Now for this," he explained, "you need to have the guitar in what's called an open tuning. In this case, I'm using open D, which means if you play all the strings without fingering anything, you get a D chord." He demonstrated. Standing off to one side, Kate smiled privately at the look of dawning delight that came onto Yui's face.
"When you're tuned up like this and you have the right tools," Miki went on, waggling his brass-encased pinky, "you can play things like this."
Yui's eyes were wide with amazement as Miki played the opening riff, and widened further when he started singing. She'd never heard him sing before, except mixed into the backing vocals on Art of Noise tracks, and his singing voice was surprisingly different from his speaking voice, particularly when he sang in this unfamiliar style. It was raw and a little bit angry-sounding, with a faintly raspy, growly undercurrent that seemed at odds with his clean-cut, cheerful image.
I'm gettin' up soon in the mornin'
I believe I'll dust my broom
Said I'm gettin' up soon in the mornin'
I believe I'll dust my broom
I quit the best gal I'm lovin'
Now my friends can get my room
I'm gonna write a letter
Telephone every town I know
Said I'm gonna write me a letter
Telephone every town I know
If I don't find her in Mississippi
She'll be in West Memphis, I know
Eyes closed, head nodding to the beat, Miki threw down a couple of increasingly complicated variations on the opening riff as a sort of solo, then let rip with a third verse.
I believe my time ain't long
Said I believe
I believe my time ain't long
I ain't gonna leave my baby
And break up my happy home
Then he wrapped up the song with what Kate sometimes jokingly referred to as "the ANSI Standard Blues Outro", struck a final chord, and muted the strings, looking up to see how his student was taking the lesson.
"That was awesome!" said Yui. "I've never heard music like that before."
"It's a style called 'delta blues', because it originated around a river delta on Earth - at around the same time these guitars were invented," Miki explained, lifting the Dobro slightly for emphasis. "Now, don't get me wrong - you can play the blues on an electric guitar. Even slide blues like this song, if you get the tuning right... but it's never going to sound like it does on a resonator. That's really my point. There are all kinds of tools for all kinds of jobs, in music as in everything else."
"I know playing another guitar kind of feels like you're cheating on Gīta," Kate added with a smiling wink, making Yui blink and blush slightly, "but in music it's all about giving yourself permission to experiment. To really grow as a musician, you've got to try new things. Maybe they work and maybe they don't, but either way, you've got to try them."
Yui nodded, her face taking on a slightly preoccupied look. "To grow as a musician," she mused, as if mulling it over.
Kate made thoughtful eye contact with Miki, who smiled and nodded faintly, then said, "I don't know if anyone's ever told you this in so many words before, Yui, but you have a genuine gift, and I don't want to pressure you, but I do want to encourage you to make the most of it."
"I what?" asked Yui, sounding honestly taken aback. "No I don't! I'm nothing special. Not like you guys."
"Azalynn told me that you'd never even held a guitar before you bought Gīta, not much more than a year ago," Kate countered. "Is that right?"
"Uh..." Yui counted backward in her head from the current date, then nodded. "I guess it is."
"And within six months you were playing lead guitar at the club's school festival show," said Miki. Then he added with a wry little grin, "Speaking as a recovering child prodigy, that sounds pretty gifted to me."
"But..." Yui touched her index fingertips together, looking embarrassed. "I'm not very smart, and I'm bad at sports, and Azu-nyan says I'm really lazy and I never practice..."
"Has Azusa ever seen how much you practice at home?" Kate asked.
"Well... no, I don't think so," Yui admitted, sounding as if she'd just realized it.
"Well, maybe you should fix that sometime," Miki said with a little grin. Hopping down from the table, he put away the slide and then returned the Dobro to its case. "In the meantime..." He closed the case and latched it, then turned to Yui with his hand resting on top of it. "Would you like to give this a try?"
"Huh?" asked Yui.
"Take it home for a little while," Miki said. "Get acquainted, see how you like it."
"Are... are you sure?" Yui wondered, looking hesitant again. "It looks really expensive..."
"Oh, that's just because it's shiny," Miki assured her with an easy grin.
It was a slow and rainy Saturday afternoon, and between one thing and another, not much was going on. Yui had been practicing for an hour or so, indifferent to the passing of time, when something Miki had said on Wednesday afternoon rattled at random through her head. She stopped playing and sat a while in uffish thought, then set her borrowed Dobro aside, picked up her gearPhone from her bedside stand, and texted,
TO Azu-nyan <3
Hey, you want to come over and practice
together for a while? I've got something
new I want to show you.
A few seconds later, her phone vibrated and the reply appeared on screen:
FROM Azu-nyan <3
Who are you and how did you get
Pouting slightly, Yui texted back, Aw, don't be like that! After another short delay, the response appeared,
Fine, I'll be there in a bit.
Yui sent back, Yay! <3 and returned to work. Some time later, she heard the doorbell, then the sound of Ui answering the door. With a grin, she set the Dobro aside again and scampered down to the landing halfway down the stairs. From there, she could see Ui taking Azusa's coat and umbrella while the latter exchanged her shoes for house slippers.
"Azu-nyan!" she called happily. "Come on up!"
"Go ahead," said Ui, smiling. "I'll bring you up some tea in a little while."
"Uh... OK," said Azusa, feeling a trifle awkward. She'd only visited the Hirasawa household a couple of times before, and both of those times she'd actually been here to see Ui, who was, after all, her classmate. It felt a little odd to be going up to Yui-senpai's room. As she climbed the stairs, she wondered what Yui had really invited her over for. Surely it wasn't really to practice - Yui never practiced - but she couldn't figure what else it might be. Maybe she wanted help planning some kind of surprise for one of the other girls in the band?
Yui led the way into her bedroom, humming cheerfully, and then climbed up and sat down at the head end of her bed with her legs folded under her, gesturing to the foot as she did so.
"Have a seat," she said, and then - looking more businesslike than Azusa thought she'd ever seen her - Yui picked up the gleaming metal acoustic guitar that had been lying on her bed and settled it on her knee.
"... What is that, senpai?" Azusa wondered. She leaned her gig bag against the wall, then climbed up and settled herself at the other end of the bed.
Yui beamed. "This is Dō-chan!" she said, and struck an open chord on the guitar, which was startlingly loud for an unamplified instrument. "He's a special kind of acoustic guitar. Miki-sensei introduced us the other day, while you and the others were at the music store with Mio-chan."
Azusa glanced behind her at Yui's Les Paul, which was propped on its Hercules stand at the end of the bed, then asked, "I thought you couldn't play any guitar but Gīta."
"So did I, but Kate-chan-sensei said I should try to grow as a musician," said Yui, so seriously it (perversely) almost made Azusa want to laugh. "So I've been practicing with Dō-chan on my own for the last couple of days." She gestured to a clutter of books and sheets of paper that were spread out on the side of the bed by the wall.
"Even a Monkey Can Play the Blues," Azusa read speculatively from the cover of one. "Um... Yui-senpai... have you been doing this instead of studying for your history test next week?"
"Sort of, but it's OK, it's not until Wednesday," said Yui blithely. As she spoke, she was fitting a length of brass pipe over the little finger of her left hand. "Anyway, I want you to tell me what you think of this. I need to know if it's any good before I try it on the others."
"Uh... OK," said Azusa. "But why are you asking me?"
Yui looked mystified by the question. "Because you know so much more about music than I do," she said, as if it were self-evident, and then added with a perfectly sincere smile, "And I know that if it stinks, you won't lie just to make me feel better, 'cause you're my Azu-nyan."
Red-faced, Azusa mumbled inaudible gratitude and sat with her fists on her knees, unable to look directly at Yui. The elder guitarist didn't seem to notice. Instead, she composed herself, then took a breath and began to play.
Azusa Nakano's Journal
PRIVATE! KEEP OUT!
A while ago I wrote, "I can't decide if Yui-senpai is a genius or an idiot." I couldn't figure it out. She has perfect pitch and she always plays so well, but I never saw her or the others practice unless I yelled at them, and she gave me that weird nickname, and she's always getting in my space.
Well... I just came back from spending most of the afternoon and evening with her. Just us, our guitars, and the music. I haven't practiced that hard since I was ten. And... I think I understand now.
I was asking the wrong question. She's not a genius OR an idiot. She's... Yui-senpai. She does everything she does all the way to the hilt, no multitasking, no half measures. Whether it's playing her guitar... or learning a whole new form of music... or loafing around the clubroom with the girls... or loving the world... or hugging me. Whatever she's doing is the ONLY THING she's doing, and she's doing it with her ENTIRE BEING for as long as it takes.
I can't believe I didn't see it before now. I've been so wrapped up in wishing she would be a better senpai that I've been the world's worst kōhai. It's not for her to change to suit my tastes, it's for me to learn to take her as she is.
That said, it was awfully nice to get in that much practice. I hope it's not the last time we do that.
And I can't wait to see the look on Ritsu-senpai's face when Yui-senpai shows them what she's learned on Monday...
"Make Some Noise"
Azusa arrived first, her nerves jangling with excitement. Not only was this the first time she had ever been invited to a faculty member's home, it was coming hot on the heels of one of the best days' practice she'd ever had, and she was keyed up at the prospect of a second one right in a row.
She stopped in front of the house, double-checking the address on her phone; this was the place, all right. A nondescript modern two-story on a pleasant residential street, far enough from the city center to be quiet and with a decent amount of space between the houses, but not so far as to be hard to reach, particularly as this block was just off one of the main streetcar lines. It had taken Azusa no more than fifteen minutes to get here from her own home.
Now she hesitated on the sidewalk out front, wondering whether she should go and ring the bell or wait for the others to arrive. A moment later, that decision was taken out of her hands as Mio appeared, walking up from the opposite direction. Like Azusa, she was dressed in civvies and carrying her instrument on her back, and like Azusa she looked excited. Spotting her young colleague, she raised a hand in greeting and quickened her pace.
"Good morning, Mio-senpai," said Azusa brightly as Mio reached her.
"Good morning, Azusa-chan," Mio replied. "Are you the first one here?"
"Looks like it," said Azusa; then she admitted sheepishly, "I couldn't decide whether to go inside or wait for everyone -"
"Aaaazu-nyaaan!" a voice cried from behind her, and Mio noticed with interest that - although she braced herself slightly for impact - Azusa didn't go as visibly tense as she usually did when she heard that cry. To the bassist's mild surprise, she actually smiled and turned a bit to her left, adjusting her stance so that Yui wouldn't collide with Muttan as she crashed into her beloved kōhai.
"It's been so looong," Yui said happily, rubbing her cheek against Azusa's.
Azusa rolled her eyes, but still with a smile, as she replied, "You just saw me yesterday, Yui-senpai."
"I knoooow," Yui said. "All those empty hours in betweeeen..."
Azusa snorted and - to Mio's mounting amazement - petted Yui on the head. "Now you're just being silly."
"I can't help it," Yui agreed matter-of-factly, releasing her at last. "Yesterday was so much fun!"
"It was fun," Azusa said. "I see you brought Gīta today," she added, glancing at Yui's gig bag.
"Uh-huh!" Yui said, nodding. "I think he was starting to get a little jealous yesterday."
"Right," said Azusa.
"Jealous of what?" Mio asked.
"Oh, you'll find out," said Yui coyly. Then, looking around, she wondered, "Where's Ritchan, Mio-chan? I thought she'd be with you."
"She said she had a surprise for us," Mio said, shrugging. "I have no idea what she was talking abou -"
The high peep of a vehicle horn from the street interrupted her, and she and the two guitarists turned to see a figure on a bright yellow Future Industries motorscooter pulling up to their location. While they watched, the rider steered into the house's driveway, stopped not far from the entryway, shut down, climbed off, and set the scooter's center stand. Then, with a satisfied sound, she turned toward them, flipped her goggles up onto her helmet (which matched her scooter's paint job), and pulled it off, shaking out her light brown hair.
"... Ritsu?!" Mio blurted as she, Yui, and Azusa gathered around.
"What ho, ladies!" said Ritsu cheerily, hanging her helmet on one of the scooter's handlebars. "Phew! Too hot today to have this on if I'm not moving," she added, then unzipped her leather jacket and flopped it back off her shoulders.
"You have a scooter, Ritsu-senpai?" Azusa inquired, realizing as she did it that it was kind of a stupid question.
"Wow!" said Yui. "That's so cool, Ritchan!"
Ritsu's grin widened. "I know, right?" she said.
"When did you get that?!" Mio demanded.
"Just now!" Ritsu replied. Placing a proprietary hand on top of the scooter's headlight fairing, she went on, "It's brand new. Well, to me, anyway. It's actually a 275 model, but it's not like they ever change these things."
Mio walked slowly around the vehicle, taking in the dings and scratches in its finish that she hadn't noticed the first time. Now that she looked more closely, she could see that it did show its age, but it looked as if it had been well-maintained by its previous owner; the tires were practically new, and everything was clean and looked, as far as her inexperienced eye could tell, in good working order.
"Where did you get it?" Azusa wondered.
"Eh, I found it sitting outside the noodle place on Fourth," Ritsu replied casually, rummaging in her school bag on the cargo rack behind the seat. "Some mook left the key in it, so I figured it was fate." She looked up from her work, saw all three of her friends staring at her, and rolled her eyes. "My uncle gave it to me, jeez." Withdrawing her signature hairband from the bag, she scraped her bangs out of her eyes with it, settled it in place, and asked them, "C'mon, do you seriously think I would steal a scooter?"
"It's hard to know what you wouldn't do sometimes," Mio said, eyeing her narrowly.
"Are you guys going to stand around out here all day, or were you thinking of coming in at some point?" asked Azalynn mischievously from the house's front door. "Nice bike, by the way."
"Heh, sorry, sorry," said Ritsu, hands behind head, as they all started heading for the door. "And thanks."
Holding the door for them, Azalynn looked over the group, then tilted her head inquisitively and asked, "Where's Mugi-chan?"
"She told me she'd be a little late," Ritsu replied, taking her jacket the rest of the way off in the entryway. "Something about she already had a lunch date." She knelt to unlace one of her boots, then noticed that all other sounds of conversation had ceased. Looking up, she saw that her bandmates and Azalynn were all staring at her. "... What."
"Mugi-chan has a lunch date and you didn't think it was important enough to mention it until someone asked you?" said Azalynn. "Are you feeling all right, Ritchan?"
Ritsu thought for a second, then stood up, her golden eyes wide with shock. "Holy dogcow, you're right!" she said, slapping her forehead. "I got distracted by scooter get!"
Mio folded her arms. "I refuse to believe that's even a sentence."
"Well, it's got a verb in it," Ritsu replied, pulling her jacket back on. "Come on, you guys, we've got to investigate! I only hope it's not too laaaacccckkk."
Mio finished pulling her back by the shirt collar and released her to slump, coughing, to the foyer floor. "Leave Mugi alone," she said flatly.
"you could've just said 'stop', mio..." rasped Ritsu, feeling at her throat.
"Right, that would've worked," Mio agreed sarcastically.
"Oh, come on, Mio-chan, aren't you even a little bit curious?" asked Yui as they all started taking off their shoes.
"Of course I am," Mio said. "But I respect Mugi's private life, too. If she wants us to know about... whatever's going on... she'll tell us."
"Awwww, but," Yui whined.
"I always kind of assumed we were Mugi-senpai's private life," Azusa mused as the four of them followed Azalynn into the house.
"You don't suppose she's got a boyfriend?" Yui said, then looked puzzled as all the others (including Azalynn) poorly concealed snickers. "Huh? Why is that funny?"
"When you're older, Yui," said Ritsu with a fond smile.
"Hmph," said Yui, pouting. "Don't treat me like a child, I..." She trailed off, a look of delight spreading onto her face, as they entered the house's living room, which took up virtually all of the ground floor apart from the entryway and kitchen. "Corgi!" she cried, dashing into the room, and then she fell to her knees and embraced a furiously wagging dog of that very kind. "Whoooo's a good doggie?" she wanted to know.
"I see you've met Ein," said Kaitlyn, smiling, from halfway down the stairs that ran along one side of the room.
"Your dog is called Ein, Kate-sensei?" Azusa wondered.
"Well, he's not really my dog," Kate allowed.
"It's short for Einstein," said Azalynn happily as she joined Yui in making much of the corgi. "'Cause he's the smartest dog in the universe! Aren't you, Einy? Yes you are!"
"Really?" asked Yui. "Are you a smart doggie?"
"Watch!" Azalynn said. "Einy! What's the cube root of a hundred and twenty-five?"
"Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!" the dog replied.
"Yup, he's better at math than Yui," Ritsu observed, making Mio (who had once conducted an epic algebra cram session for Yui's benefit) snort a little guiltily.
Just then, the sliding glass door at the back of the room opened and Moose MacEchearn entered, wearing an immense apron emblazoned with the slogan "HIGH GRAVITY CHEF" and holding a pair of grill tongs. "Ah, good, you're here," he said. "We're just about ready to get started."
Before anyone could reply, Sergei the tiger prowled around him into the room, and Yui's delight in the occasion reached a level that had theretofore been purely theoretical.
An epic barbecue later, most of Hōkago Tea Time and all of the Art of Noise were lounging around the living room - on couches or chairs or just the floor - basking in repletion.
"That was amazing," Yui observed rapturously from somewhere in a contentedly dozing heap of corgi, tiger, and Azusa.
"It sure was," Ritsu agreed, stretched out full-length on one of the couches with her head in Mio's lap. "My compliments to the chef."
"Thank you kindly," said Moose.
"Why, in this entire huge room, do you feel the need to lie right there?" Mio wondered, though in the mildest possible tone.
"Is there some reason why I shouldn't?" Ritsu replied blithely.
On one of the other sofas, Kate and Miki glanced at each other with identical private smiles - Adorable! - and then turned to the business at hand. "Not to drag business into pleasure," said Kate dryly, "but part of the reason I invited you girls over today was for a bit of the former. Ritchan, did Mugi-chan give any indication of when she thought she'd get here?"
"About two o'clock, I think?" Ritsu said, and a moment later the doorbell rang. Blinking awake, Azusa surfaced from the tiger pile at the sound.
"I'll get it," said Dorothy, who was the only person in the room not fighting off food coma. She returned a minute later with Mugi in tow.
"Hey, Mugi," said Ritsu, raising a hand in greeting without getting up. "You missed a boss barbecue."
"I'm very sorry," said Mugi, reddening a little, as she bowed contritely to Kaitlyn. "I had a prior engagement."
"It's all right, no worries," said Kate, smiling. "Now that you're here, though, I have a couple of announcements. First: Azalynn's search didn't turn up any studio that was really suitable for our needs, anywhere close enough to the city to be worth renting."
"Aw," said all five members of Hōkago Tea Time sadly.
"So," said Miki cheerfully, "we're building our own. It should be ready for us to take possession around the middle of July."
Mio raised her head off the back of the couch she was sitting on to look at him. "You're just... building your own recording studio? In a place you're only visiting for a while?"
"It's the surest way to get one that meets all our requirements," said Dorothy.
Mio let her head fall back against the cushion. "I really envy adults," she said.
"Second," Kate went on, "I'm leaving town for a couple of days, starting after school on Wednesday - going down to the South Pole to spend the last day of the Glacier Spirits Festival and my brother Corwin's birthday with him and his family. I should be back in plenty of time for school on Monday. If anything comes up while I'm gone, Mr. Horigome says he'll help you out however he can." She smiled a little slyly. "I expect you can look after yourselves for a couple of days."
"Oh," said Mugi, looking disappointed.
"What's wrong, Mugi-chan?" Yui wondered.
"Oh... nothing," said Mugi unconvincingly. "It's just... if you're not going to be around on Friday, you'll miss my surprise."
"What surprise?" Miki asked.
"Well..." Mugi walked to the middle of the room and knelt by the coffee table, then rummaged in the big, festive summer handbag she carried and spread a row of brightly colored paper slips out upon it. "I just came from having lunch with Sawako - Miss Yamanaka," she clarifed, going a little bit red again.
"I'm glad you cleared up which Sawako you meant, we know so many of them," said Ritsu. "Ow," she added in an almost conversational tone as Mio rapped the crown of her head with a knuckle.
"No fair, you got to see Sawa-chan without us?" Yui burst out.
"We met at my father's company's tearoom," Mugi explained apologetically. "It isn't really suitable for large gatherings."
"How is she doing, Mugi-senpai?" Azusa asked.
Mugi smiled. "They're all working very hard - they were quite out of practice, as you might imagine, and it's taking a lot of effort for them to get back to where they were. But," she added, her smile becoming a little mischievous, "they're almost ready to try a few small, experimental shows. The first one is Friday evening, at the Livehouse club, downtown." She indicated the items she'd placed on the table. "She gave me tickets for all of us and asked me to let you all know."
Ritsu bounced up from the couch, nearly clocking Mio's chin with her head before she thought, at the last moment, to duck. "No way! Miss Kawakami's place, where we played last New Year's? Sweet!" She picked up one of the tickets and grinned, throwing the horns with her free hand. "Death Devil in concert!"
"Wow, so soon?" Azusa remarked, crawling to the table and picking up a ticket as well. "That's brave of them."
"We should all be sure and go to show our support," said Mio.
"Absolutely," Yui agreed.
"She gave me twelve tickets, because she thought Ui-chan and Jun-chan might want to go too," Mugi said. "But we didn't know you would be out of town, Kate-sensei," she added sadly.
"Well, I'm sorry to miss it," said Kaitlyn, "but Friday's my brother's birthday, so I'm afraid that takes precedence. I'm sure Sawako will understand. And there must be someone you can give my ticket to," she added.
"We could invite Nodoka-chan," Yui mused.
Mio snickered. "I'm not sure Death Devil would really be Nodoka's cup of tea," she said. "I think you forget sometimes that she's a normal person, Yui," she added indulgently.
"Don't you believe it," Yui replied, grinning. "She only seems that way at school." Drawing herself up importantly, she intoned with a didactic air, "Not only is Nodoka-chan stranger than you suppose, she's stranger than you can suppose, Mio-chan."
"I'm... skeptical," said Mio.
"You'll learn," Yui replied with sublime self-assurance.
"By the way," said Mugi, "whose yellow scooter is that outside?"
"Hi!" said Ritsu, putting up a hand. "Why?" She blinked as a sudden, frightening thought struck her. "Oh no, did something happen to it?"
"What? No, not at all," said Mugi. "I was just admiring it on my way in. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that it's the same color as your drums, Ritchan."
Ritsu slumped with relief, then grinned, folding her hands behind her head. "Well, not so coincidental," she admitted. "Uncle Toshi's had that scooter for pretty much my whole life. I got my drums used, but I picked that particular set mostly because they were that color."
"Who knew Ritsu had such a sentimental heart?" Mio inquired rhetorically.
"Hey!" Ritsu cried, rounding on her. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Now, now, now, now," said Mugi soothingly.
"Hmm, only four," Yui noted.
"Right!" said Kate, rising. "Speaking of drums," she added, nodding toward Dorothy's rig in the corner of the room, "this place isn't a proper studio, but it's only two in the afternoon and I have an acoustic damper if the neighbors complain." She grinned. "What do you say we make some noise?"
As the others all scrambled for their instruments, Mugi added cheerfully, "And then I brought cake!"
"It's Only Rock 'n Roll"
A sunny Tuesday, and the Light Music Club members were just sitting down to their afternoon tea when there was a knock at the door; a moment later it opened and Azalynn put her head in.
"'Scuse us!" she said with a cheery smile. "May we come in?"
"C'mon in, everybody's welcome," said Ritsu with an expansive gesture. Then, as Azalynn entered the clubroom with Ui behind her, the club president added conversationally, "Have I mentioned that it's kind of weird you're still pretending you're an underclassman?"
"Don't you want me for your kōhai any more, Ritsu-senpai?" asked Azalynn with a wide-eyed, innocent look, causing Mio to come perilously close to snorting tea.
"Oh, hi, Ui!" said Yui brightly as she noticed that her sister had come in with Azalynn. "What's up?"
"Um... well... I don't want to intrude on your meeting - you must be really busy..." said Ui a bit hesitantly.
Not long before, Azusa would've stifled the bark of laughter that remark caused to well up inside her, but now she just let it out, startling both Mio and Ritsu slightly.
"We always have time for you, Ui-chan," said Mugi kindly. Rising from her seat, she gestured to it and said, "Sit down, I'll get you some tea."
Ui reddened a little. "Oh... no, thank you, Mugi-senpai, I... I won't take up a lot of the club's time. I just wondered... if I could ask for a little advice."
"Please," said Mugi firmly. "I insist."
Ui regarded the blonde for a moment, considering the look in her deep blue eyes, and then, almost meekly, took her seat.
"None of woman born may resist Mugi's hospitality," said Ritsu sagely. She tipped her chair back, hands behind head, and waited until Ui had been provided with a cup of tea and a cupcake, then went on, "So what can we do for you?"
"Well... um... I'm not sure if you know this, but, since Big Sis started playing the guitar last year, and I saw how much she loved it, I've kind of wanted to try it myself," Ui explained. "I mentioned it to Jun-chan back at the beginning of the term... she's in the Jazz Club, and she fixed it with one of her senpai so that I could borrow one of their spare guitars for a while, so I could try it out and decide if it was really something I wanted to do."
"Don't you play keyboard too, Ui?" asked Azusa.
"Not very much," Ui replied modestly. "I took some lessons when I was little, but I haven't really kept up with it. But..." She hesitated, then got a determined look in her eye and said decisively, "I like playing the guitar too. And I have some money saved up, so I want to buy my own." Her statement made, she became a little hesitant again as she went on, "So... I was hoping... maybe you could give me some advice on what to look for."
Yui gave her younger sister a puzzled, faintly hurt look. "Why didn't you just ask me?" she wondered.
"Yui, you don't know anything about guitar shopping, you just bought the first guitar you saw," Ritsu pointed out.
"One that's way too heavy for you and has a neck that's too big for your hands, so that now you have a hard time playing any normal guitar," Azusa added.
"And it would've cost 3000 yuan if Mugi hadn't intervened," Mio chipped in.
Yui pouted. "You guys just don't get it. Gīta and I were meant to be together. We're soul mates."
"Well, look, be that as it may," Azalynn put in, "maybe you can meet in the middle. You guys can give Ui-chan some practical advice, and then Yui can..." she made a vague gesture. "Consult the spirits."
"Ooo, I'm like a rock 'n roll miko," said Yui with a wide-eyed nod. "I like that. I think I just found my next stage costume!"
"Oh, good grief," said Mio fondly.
"Right then," said Ritsu decisively, banging her chair's front legs down and rising to her feet. "Club field trip!" She pointed grandly to the clubroom door. "To the music store!"
Ui blinked. "Wh-what? No, no - I don't want to cut into your time like that, surely you have things to..."
"Hey, part of the Light Music Club's purpose is to promote a love of music in the whole student body, not just the club membership," Ritsu said. "Mostly we do that by performing, but there's nothing that says we can't do it in a more hands-on way."
"Well... are you sure?"
"Sure I'm sure! Let's get a move on, people! Time's wasting!"
On the way downstairs, they ran into Jun, who was prowling the second-floor hall looking for Ui, and Kaitlyn, who was just coming out of the staffroom after finishing up her paperwork for the day. Both of them were cheerfully swept up on the club's trajectory, the latter as their advisor and the former just in the name of hospitality.
When the group arrived in the lobby, there was a dark-haired, bespectacled girl in the blue tie of a second-year student changing her shoes at one of the lockers, getting ready to leave for the day. At the sight of her, Yui grinned and seized her arm in a hug with a cry of "Nodoka-chan! Come to the music store with us!"
Nodoka Manabe blinked behind her glasses and gave her childhood best friend a puzzled look. "Uh, why? I'm not a club member."
"Because it'll be fun!" Yui said. "And we haven't hung out together in ages. And after we'll all go get ice cream!"
"Uh... OK," said Nodoka, shrugging. She had nothing really pressing on that afternoon, and besides, Yui was right - they hadn't hung out in a while.
As the little crowd of them walked downtown, Nodoka reflected on just how long it had been. Certainly they hadn't spent nearly as much time together in high school as they had previously. Before she started high school and joined the Light Music Club, Yui hadn't had any close friends besides her sister and Nodoka. She had always been friendly and outgoing, and well-liked by her classmates, but she was too scattered, too unfocused, to form any really strong bonds besides the one she'd found, more or less by cosmic accident, with Nodoka in kindergarten.
Looking at her now, surrounded by her bandmates, her sister, Jun (who had been drawn into the club's orbit by both Azusa and Ui), and the visitors from the "big universe", Nodoka felt a surge of pride tempered with a little bit of wistfulness.
Yui really doesn't need me any more, she thought, and it made her happy and sad at the same time. The happiness won out as she reminded herself, But she still wants me around. Yui's faddish turn of mind, it seemed, did not extend to the things she truly, deeply loved; she hadn't lost interest in music, for example, and showed no sign of ever doing so. The thought that she herself was also in that category gave Nodoka a pleasant feeling of... of accomplishment, almost. Like in delivering Yui through the haze of middle school to this happier, more purposeful future, without being forgotten in the process, she had achieved a victory.
As she completed that train of thought, she came back from her reverie and noticed that Mio wasn't taking part in the chatter and banter of the rest of the group; instead, she was giving Nodoka a speculative little smile, as though she'd read it all on her face as she was mulling it over. Nodoka smiled back, reddening a little as if caught doing something embarrassing, and the moment passed as the group entered the shopping arcade where the Light Music Club's music shop of choice was located.
Upon entering 10GIÄ, the ten of them trooped straight to the basement, which was where the instruments lived (the ground floor being taken up mostly by records and sheet music). While a couple of members of staff looked on with indulgent smiles, the gang of them prowled the Wall of Guitars and discussed Ui's many options.
Ever the practical one, Mio asked a few probing questions about the budget the younger girl had to work with. This was well-defined, Ui being a careful and meticulous sort: she had ¥500 to spend on the instrument itself, and another 50 for incidentals.
Azusa took over then, gauging Ui's size relative to her own and discussing how that could affect her choices.
"Your hands are bigger than mine, and your reach is longer," she noted, "so you don't necessarily have to go with a short-scale guitar like Muttan; but you're not so big that you'd have a hard time with one either, if that's what you decide to go with."
"Yeah, you don't have man hands like Mio," said Ritsu, and then, "Ow."
"You thought Gīta was a little too big for you when you tried him out," Yui pointed out.
"Well, Gīta's technically too big for you, senpai, and your hands are bigger than Ui's," said Azusa.
"Unlike certain other parts," Ritsu muttered, and then (as Mugi, Azalynn, and Jun all snickered), "Ow."
"I've never heard of this Fang brand before," Azalynn remarked, "but they look a lot like Ibanezes."
"What kind of guitar have you been borrowing from the Jazz Club, Ui-chan?" Kate asked.
"It's a copy of a Stratocaster," Ui said. "Made by this same company, as a matter of fact," she added, indicating one of the Fang guitars Azalynn had noticed earlier.
"Do you like it?"
"It... well, it's not very well-made," Ui admitted, sounding reluctant to speak ill of the school's equipment. "Only two of the pickups work, and it's hard to keep in tune. I do like the shape, though. It's comfortable."
"Well, if you like a so-so copy well enough that you're sure you want to be a guitarist, then maybe that's a place to start," said Kate.
"And you're not exactly stuck for choices," said Jun wryly, indicating the good quarter of the wall that was covered in Strats and Strat clones.
Ui stood regarding the rainbow of different finishes available, her expression deeply thoughtful. Then she turned to Yui and asked, "What about you, Big Sis? What do you think?"
Yui stood next to Ui and considered the wall with her for a few moments, then turned a cheery smile to her sister and said, "Pick the one you love!"
That's not going to help, Mio said to herself; but a moment later, Ui's pensive expression cleared, and, with a smile, she reached decisively to the wall and took down one of the Stratocasters. It helped! Mio thought.
"Hmm," said Yui, her face taking on her Serious Look, as she leaned in over Ui's shoulder to consider her choice. "Can I?" Looking puzzled, Ui handed her elder sister the guitar. It was a brand new item, its chrome parts gleaming; the body was painted a rich minty green color that Azusa, a Fender owner herself, remembered was called Surf Green, and the fingerboard was the same pale maple as the rest of the neck.
Still frowning thoughtfully, Yui turned it over in her hands, examining the back cover and neckplate with every sign of critical concentration, then ran her hand gently up the neck and scrutinized the headstock before brightening and handing it back.
"OK, this one's for real," she said happily. She pointed to the Fender logo near the tuning machines and explained, "You can always tell the bad knockoffs because they say 'Made on Zipang' here. People from Zipang never say 'on Zipang', they say 'in Zipang', because they think of it as their country first and a planet second."
There was a momentary silence.
"Sometimes, Yui, it truly amazes me what you do and do not know," said Nodoka.
Yui put a hand behind her head and smiled bashfully, blushing. "Aw, shucks. Thanks, Nodoka-chan."
"I don't think that was a compliment, senpai," said Jun.
"Actually, it kind of was," Nodoka said.
"Excuse me," said Ui to one of the hovering staff members. "I'd like to try out this guitar, please."
Half an hour later, they left 10GIÄ in a happily chattering little flock, all gathered in a congratulatory way around Ui, who carried a brand new gig bag on her back. Full of good cheer, they adjourned to the ice cream parlor at the other end of the shopping arcade to celebrate.
"So," said Ritsu once all their orders had arrived. "How long before you two finally join the club?"
Jun coughed, nearly spitting a mouthful of her root beer float over Azusa, and had to spend a little while getting everything squared away respiration-wise.
"Wouldn't we just get in the way?" Ui wondered.
"Yeah, I mean..." Jun gave one last hack to clear her airway and tried again. "You five are already an amazing band. You don't need a couple of beginners cluttering up the place..."
"Hey, whoa there," said Ritsu, spreading her hands. "I'm not asking you to join the band, totally different thing." She paused, scratching her head sheepishly. "Wow, that sounded way less elitist in my head. Lemme try again. See, the thing is, I've been thinking about this lately, and... well, the Light Music Club and Hōkago Tea Time don't have to be the same thing."
Mugi nodded, catching her drift. "When Sawako was a student, there were quite a few people in the club who weren't members of Death Devil. We know one of them - Miss Kawakami, who manages the Livehouse."
Ritsu gave her a sidelong glance. "So she's 'Sawako' to you now?" she inquired. "Verrrry interesting."
Mugi gave her back a cheery little smile and said nothing, so after a moment, Ritsu returned to the topic at hand: "Remember what I said before we left the clubroom? The Light Music Club should be open to everybody who loves rock. We've been assuming that the club was the same thing as our band, because for the first year it was, and this year we only got one recruit, who fit right into the lineup," she added with a grin at Azusa, "but it ain't necessarily so."
"It can't be so indefinitely," Mio agreed, "or it'll disband again when we graduate. I don't want to see that happen."
"Heck, you guys could start your own band," Ritsu said.
"Just the two of us? What would we play?" Jun wondered.
"Well, you could take up drumming," Ritsu suggested; then she grinned a little evilly and added, "You wouldn't be very good at first, but that would just make you guys a more convincing Red Triangles cover band."
Mio snorted, rolling her eyes, as Mugi, Azalynn, and the Hirasawa sisters giggled.
"You should join too, Nodoka-chan," Yui put in.
"I'm a little bit busy being on the Student Council," said Nodoka dryly. "Besides, you know the only musical instrument I can play is the tambourine."
"We could teach you to sing," Mugi suggested. "I'll bet you would have a lovely singing voice."
"I'll... think about it," Nodoka said.
"So whadya say?" Ritsu persisted. "You know if you stay in the Jazz Club, the upperclassmen are just gonna keep you down for another year and a half. We don't operate like that in the Light Music Club! Equal opportunities for all!"
"Says the girl who was just encouraging me to reinvent myself as the next Megumi Red," replied Jun, deadpan.
"It was only a suggestion!" said Ritsu. "Anyway, c'mon. We've got the best clubroom atmosphere in the school. You know it. I know it..."
"Wouldn't we upset that balance?" Ui wondered.
"Yeah, I don't wanna mess up your feng shui," Jun agreed, only half-sarcastically.
"Well, why not give it a try for a few days?" Mugi said. "If you're uncomfortable, you don't have to stay."
"Yeah!" said Yui. "Let's try!"
"What do you means 'let's'?" Mio asked her. "You're already in the club."
"I meant all of us together," Yui said. "To see if it works."
"Maybe we should check with our faculty advisor," Azusa suggested, and they all turned to see Kate at the end of the table, contemplating them all with an affectionate little smile.
"Membership matters are entirely up to the club's own discretion," she said.
"Well..." Jun looked at Ui, who looked back at her, and they both shrugged slightly. "OK, we'll try it. Just... you know, for the rest of the week."
"Yay!" cried Yui, leaning over and doing her best to hug both of them (but mostly only getting Ui). "What about you, Nodoka-chan?"
"I told you, I'm really busy already," Nodoka said, but then, after seeing the change in Yui's face that presaged an epic pout, she added, "But I'll see if I can't stop by for a visit now and then."
"You won't regret it," said Ritsu with a grin. "And please don't suspect for a moment that you keep getting the best cuts of the cakes because I'm trying to bribe you or anything."
"Perish the thought," said Nodoka dryly.
"Oh, that reminds me," said Mugi, and, digging in her school bag, she came up with the extra tickets to the Death Devil show on Friday. After explaining what they were for, she offered one to each of what Ritsu dubbed the "provisional members". Nodoka surprised Mio a little by accepting hers cheerfully - even eagerly.
"Well, ladies," said Kate as they all left the ice cream parlor, "I'm going straight from school to the airport after classes are over tomorrow, so for practical purposes, I'm afraid this is goodbye for now. I don't want to hear about any wild parties in the clubroom with your new members while I'm gone," she added with a wink.
"Oh, don't worry, Kate-chan-sensei," said Ritsu airily. "You won't... hear about any..."
"Have a good time in Nanisivik, sensei," Azusa put in.
"Yes, enjoy the festival," said Mugi. "I've been to the winter solstice festival in the North once before, but never to the South Pole's. I'm told it's quite something, especially on the third night."
"Um... say hello to Corwin for me," said Mio, blushing a little. She glanced sharply at Ritsu, as if daring her to say anything, but for once - to her surprise - her best friend had no remark to offer; just a little smile that was completely without challenge or sarcasm.
"I'll do that," Kate promised. "I'll see you all next week. Oh - Ritsu, could I speak to you for a moment before I go, please?"
Ritsu blinked, glancing curiously at the others, then said, "Uh, sure. I'll catch up, you guys."
Once the others were out of earshot, Kate said, "I just wanted to say I was pleased by what you said about the club - your thoughts about what it's really for. That's a step, and a risk, a lot of people with such a solid group dynamic already in place wouldn't be willing to take." She smiled. "You're all maturing as musicians... and as friends. It makes me feel good. Like I'm making a difference. And it reminds me... of older times."
"Eh heh heh... oh, stop," said Ritsu, red-faced, her hands behind her head. "I'm just makin' it up as I go along... we all are."
"I know," said Kate with a knowing wink. "But that's rock 'n roll." She clapped the younger musician on the shoulder. "Rock on, Ritchan. I'll see you all next week."
"See you," said Ritsu. "Have a good time."
As she walked away, heading back toward the school, she made it as far as the next corner before she was surrounded by all the others, clamoring to know what Kate had said to her.
"She said..." Ritsu paused, then grinned. "She said 'Rock on.'"
"OK, provisional members," said Ritsu cheerfully while Mugi cleared away the tea things. "Time for a little orientation. Miss Akiyama, the dossier, if you please."
"What am I now, your secretary?" Mio muttered as she opened the club's photo album and placed it on the table in front of Ritsu, but turned so that would be upside-down from the president's seat. On the other side of the table, Ui, Jun, and Nodoka crowded together to get a better look.
"As you will have seen on your tickets," Ritsu told them, "the band we're all going to see tonight is called 'Death Devil'. Its four members are all alumnae, not only of this school, but of our very own Light Music Club."
"Uh... we know that, senpai," said Jun, giving Ritsu a slightly skeptical look.
Ignoring the younger student's interruption with a faintly magnificent aplomb, Ritsu tapped a finger against the photo album page on the observers' left, which had four mid-size photos arranged in a grid upon it. Each was a head-and-shoulders portrait of a young woman dressed and made up in a more or less timeless hard-rock style, such that it was hard to tell just how old the pictures were.
"Sawako Yamanaka," said Ritsu, indicating the girl at the viewers' top left. "Codename: Catherine. Lead guitarist, lead vocalist. Until recently, she was a teacher at this school and the Light Music Club's faculty advisor. She's also a talented seamstress, but her taste is..."
"Questionable," Mio supplied dryly.
Ritsu nodded. "Moving on: Norimi Kawaguchi, codename Christina. By all accounts, not so much the band's rhythm guitarist as another lead guitarist. Apparently they're very lucky in Death Devil in that they have two visionaries," she added wryly, making Azusa stifle a giggle. "I'm not actually sure what these two's real names are," she went on, indicating the other two pics. "This one's codename is Della, she's on bass, and this is the drummer, codename Jane."
"What's with the big-universe codenames?" Jun wondered.
Ritsu shrugged. "Apparently it was a thing they did in the Light Music Club back in those days," she said. She considered the blank space on the facing page, where, if the empty corner tabs were any guide, one larger photo had been mounted. "I'm not sure what happened to the pic of them all together that used to be over here, but anyway. They're a speed-metal band. Went through kind of a weird phase their junior year, but their later work was a little less crazy. I assume what we'll be hearing tonight is more like that." She frowned, looking around. "What the heck is keeping Yui?"
As if summoned by her name, Yui popped through the door at almost that exact moment, brandishing a shopping bag and declaring, "We're back!"
"Where did you go, Yui-chan?" Mugi wondered.
"Rin-chan found a place down by the music store that does custom T-shirts!" said Yui cheerfully as she trotted across the room, followed closely by Azalynn. When she reached the others, Yui upended her shopping bag, spilling its contents across the table: black T-shirts, each folded into a little bundle. Mugi picked one up and held it by the shoulders, letting it unfold, to reveal that it was emblazoned with Death Devil's heavily stylized Standard logotype.
"Oh wow!" said Ui, picking one up herself. She turned it around to examine the logo. On the back, in fairly basic plain text, it said
"Where'd you get their logo?" Azusa wondered.
"I found this in the album!" Yui replied, and with a grin, she flourished the missing photo - which, in addition to the four band members, featured their giant, hand-painted stage sign, on which the same stylized logo was emblazoned in letters a foot and a half high.
"That's where that went," said Ritsu, taking back the photo. "Nice thought, by the way," she added with a wink for Azalynn. "I don't think they ever had merch back in the day, so these are probably the only Death Devil shirts around! They'll be able to spot us in the crowd for sure."
"One hundred percent Yui's idea!" Azalynn said, grinning, and everyone applauded.
"Oh gosh, thanks," said Yui, blushing, with a sheepish smile and a V-sign. "You're too kind."
"I got them for the rest of the Art too," Azalynn added, holding up her own bag. "Speaking of which, I'd better get home and distribute them."
"Right!" Ritsu got to her feet, stuffing her own Death Devil T-shirt into her schoolbag. "The rest of you, get home and change out of your uniforms. We'll meet at 5:30 at the address on your tickets. Any questions?"
"No ma'am!" said Mugi with an enthusiastic salute.
"Dismissed!" Ritsu declared. "Mio, I'll pick you up at twenty past."
"What?" said Mio warily.
"Comeback of the Year"
True to her word, Ritsu turned up chez Akiyama at 5:20 on the dot, beeping the horn of her scooter cheerfully. There was a slightly-too-long pause, after which Mio came hesitantly outside. She was dressed - as Ritsu had expected - pretty conservatively, in just regular jeans and sneakers with her new Death Devil shirt on top, and at the sight of her ride, she blanched slightly.
"You're not serious," she said.
"C'mon, Mio, it's perfectly safe," Ritsu assured her. "I mean it can only go 65 miles an hour."
"That's about 64 faster than I want anything you're driving to go while I'm on it!" Mio rejoined.
Ritsu rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, give me a little credit. Even if I didn't care what happens to you, and I do, I don't wanna get hurt either, y'know. Besides, if I wrecked it, my uncle would be devastated. I wouldn't do that to him." She indicated a black skullcap helmet, similar in style to her yellow one, fixed by its strap to the cargo rack behind the seat. "Now put that on and let's go already, we're gonna be late."
Mio gave her a deeply dubious look, but picked up the helmet, puzzled out its retention system, and put it on, then climbed tentatively onto the back of the seat behind Ritsu. There was just room on the floorboards for her feet.
"Hang onto me if you wanna," said Ritsu, and then, in a slightly stifled voice, "not that tight though i do still require air"
They started off, and - again, as Ritsu had expected - Mio was as stiff as a board on the pillion, which wasn't making her own job any easier. She put up with it for a couple of extremely trying corners, then turned her head slightly and remarked,
"Mio, I don't want to seem overly critical here, but if we crash right now it's gonna be because you're not letting me steer."
"I feel like we're going to fall over!" Mio objected.
"We're not, though, that's how you turn corners on a bike. Just relax, OK? We're not gonna die. I promise. People do this every day." She brought the scooter to a halt, then added cheerfully, "See? I even stopped at the red light, just like a normal person."
".. You promise we won't die?" said Mio quietly.
"I'd give you a pinky on it, but I'm driving," Ritsu replied with a wry little smile. She didn't have time or space to turn around and look, but she would have bet she knew the expression that was on Mio's face now. The power of cute compels you! she thought, then applied the throttle and pulled away from the now-green signal.
By the time they reached the Livehouse, Mio had started to relax a bit; if she wasn't helping with the cornering yet, she was at least not hindering it any more, and her arms around Ritsu's waist were no longer locked in a rigid death grip. Given another few minutes, Ritsu suspected she might even have started enjoying it. She wasn't pale or shaky as she climbed off, anyway.
"Mio-chan! You're so lucky!" Yui declared, jumping up and down. "You got to ride with Ritchan first!"
"I guess that stands to reason, though," Azusa deadpanned, causing Jun to snicker and punch her in the shoulder.
Ritsu seemed not to notice as she knelt to chain her scooter to the lamppost. Then, straightening, she dusted at the knees of her tights and took Mio's helmet back from her, securing it along with her own on the cargo rack.
"So!" she declared. "Are we all here? Mio, Mugi, Yui, Azusa, Jun-chan, oh great spirits there's two of Yui," she said, tracing a finger down the row.
"That's Ui-chan," Mugi told her cheerfully.
"I've never seen her with her hair down before," Ritsu observed. "That's terrifying." Then, as Ui blushed a bit bashfully, Ritsu added, "Where's Nodoka?"
Yui pointed across the street. "Here she comes!" Waving with both hands, she called, "Nodoka-chan! Over here!"
The others turned to look, and Ritsu's jaw was not the only one to drop. Apart from Mio, they'd all made at least a little bit of an effort to rock their looks up a little; the Hirasawa sisters were sporting a matching ripped-denim-and-bangles look, while Azusa had topped her Death Devil shirt and frilled skirt combo with a black leather waistcoat that made her look like a tiny, adorable biker. Jun was wearing just this side of too much eye makeup and black lipstick to go with her black leather jeans, cat-ear hoodie, and elbow pads, evidently having conflated the rocker look with goth skater style in her head, and Ritsu had gone for a "black lederhosen/stripey tights" effect born of a similar mental style collision. Mugi had evidently completely lost the plot and selected a jumper dress in a cheerful shade of yellow, which went... oddly with her band shirt and 20-eyelet Doc Martens. It was all a bit of a muddle, enthusiastic but confused.
Nodoka, though... Nodoka had gone for a very specific look, and with her usual unruffled, methodical competence, had nailed it, teaming a more conservatively scaled pair of Docs with tights featuring a cheery cartoon-skulls-and-pink-crossbones motif, a pink leather microskirt that might actually have been an extremely ambitious belt, and a three-quarter-sleeved black leather racing jacket with the Future Industries F1 logo sprawling across the back and down both sleeves. She'd gone exactly as far as she needed to with the makeup, swapped her usual red half-frame glasses for a pair of heavy-black-framed industrial safety jobs, and done something to her dark brown hair that put auburn streaks in it and made it a bit spikey.
She looked like she had just arrived from some other planet, and yet she was the only one of them who completely looked at home.
"Mio," said Ritsu, grabbing her best friend's shoulder without looking. "Mio where is my camera."
"How am I supposed to know that?" Mio wondered. "Besides, you have a gearPhone."
"Oh right," Ritsu said, and she dug that item out and immortalized the moment as Nodoka reached them, smiling pleasantly.
"Good evening, all," she said. "Are Azalynn and the others already here?"
"They're downstairs checking in," Mugi reported. "I love your outfit, Nodoka-chan," she added with a beaming smile.
"You don't think it's a little too much?" Nodoka wondered.
"It's perfect!" Yui assured her. "C'mon, let's go!"
As they all filed downstairs, Yui hung back to stay even with Mio, who was bringing up the rear with a faintly stunned look on her face.
"I told you," she said with a little grin.
"Yes you did," Mio conceded, shaking her head in wonder.
In the lobby, Miss Kawakami recognized the members of Hōkago Tea Time and their friends, all of whom had come to the band's show at the club the previous December. She welcomed them cheerfully and complimented them on their shirts, then drew Yui aside and asked her,
"Was that the Art of Noise that just came in before you?"
"Uh-huh!" said Yui happily. "Well, all but Kate-chan-sensei. She had to go to the South Pole."
Kawakami regarded her thoughtfully for a second, then shook her head with a grin and said, "I knew you girls were going places. Enjoy the show!"
Death Devil was on third, after another, younger metal band of Hōkago Tea Time's acquaintance (Death Bang Bang Chicken, who had been on the bill at the show they played on New Year's Eve) and a punk group called The Girl Gang (prompting Ritsu to complain jokingly that someone stole her idea, since that was what she had wanted to call their band).
After their sets, there was a brief intermission while things got rearranged on the tiny stage. Yui and Azalynn worked their way through the crowd to the bar (which was only selling soft drinks tonight, since it was a 14-plus show) and got refreshments for everyone, then made their way back and distributed them.
It was eight-thirty or so in the evening, and the room was packed to its legal capacity. Apart from the girls of the Light Music Club, everyone here seemed to be in their mid-twenties, about Sawa-chan's own age; Mio supposed they were mostly classmates and other contemporaries of the members of Death Devil. She thought she recognized a few of them from the photos of the much larger Light Music Club of that day that were in the old album in the clubroom.
Next to her, Yui tugged at Ritsu's sleeve and whispered, "Ritchan, Ritchan! Look! It's Mr. Horigome!"
Ritsu turned to look, as did the others immediately around Yui. Sure enough, there at the back, looking utterly out of place in his cardigan and slacks, was Mr. Horigome, the literature teacher at Sato Academy, who had been the Light Music Club's much-harassed faculty advisor in Death Devil's student days. He seemed to notice them noticing him, turned his head, and nodded with a smile, then returned his attention to the stage.
They didn't have much time to reflect on the teacher's presence, though, because at that moment the stage lights came up, and there was Death Devil.
They looked much like they had in the photo from their senior year - a little older, obviously, but with the same timeless hard-rocker style, ramped back somewhat from their full-on junior-year masks-and-craziness phase to a more mature, balanced presentation. Up front, "Catherine" Yamanaka was the most flamboyantly dressed of the lot, in a red leather bustier and tight, oddly angled, heavily fringed skirt (much longer on the right side than the left), with a many-buckled leather bracer on her left wrist and chunky, aggressive-looking boots. Her long brown hair was messier than it had ever been in her teaching days, with a vivid red streak dyed in it on the left side of her untidy center part -
- And, the girls of Hōkago Tea Time realized with a common surge of delight, she was wearing both the carved obsidian amulet Azusa had given her on her last day at Sato Academy, nestled on its cord in the hollow of her throat... and the cat-ears headband that was Mio's sardonic contribution, perched defiantly on her head.
Azalynn, regarding the scene with a thoughtful eye, noticed that she was wearing her glasses, too, something she hadn't done in most of the old pics of the band. As she stepped to the front of the stage, they caught the overhead lights, glinting in a way that obscured her eyes: an effect Azalynn had seen Kate take advantage of as well, from time to time.
The first new thing the girls learned about their old faculty advisor was that she was not the kind of rocker who bothered with the Big Stage Raps. Or indeed any stage raps. Evidently operating on the assumption that her audience knew what band they came to see, Catherine didn't even introduce them - just made sure her white Flying V's pickup selector was on the center setting and slammed bodily into the first song's opening riff.
Standing near the front, crammed into the middle of her little crowd of friends and not minding at all, Azusa Nakano took it all in with a technician's ear, unable to divorce her conscious mind entirely from the experience. While her body was having plenty of fun, jumping up and down and pumping a fist in the air, the part of her mind that was forever analyzing her own band's performance did the same with Death Devil's.
They were a little ragged, which wasn't really a surprise given that, however hard they had worked over the past 20 days, they hadn't played together on anything like a regular basis for several years before that. Their energy was astonishing, though, and so was their cohesion - particularly the rock-solid, almost visible linkage between the two guitarists. She had heard that there was an intense rivalry between the two back in their Light Music Club days, each constantly driving the other to improve or fall behind. There had been a time, not so long ago, when she'd wished for something like that between herself and Yui-senpai; she was over that now, but hearing the result in Death Devil's performance, she felt a little echo of it.
She would never have believed, based on her rather lazy, hedonistic clubroom persona, that Ms. Yamanaka was such a formidable guitarist. As a vocalist, she was really only OK - she lacked both Mio-senpai's power and Yui-senpai's charm - but she had great presence as a performer, and it made up for both deficits ably. Her body language on stage was utterly different from the slack she'd displayed in the clubroom or the poised, polite elegance of her "teacher" façade, and for the first time, Azusa had the impression that she was seeing the real person.
During Death Devil's fourth song, a new arrangement of "Hikari", Azusa was jarred out of her reverie by an elbow in her ribs; turning, she saw Ritsu-senpai grin at her, then tilt her head to the right with a knowing "check it!" sort of look. Azusa looked, saw what she was getting at, and had to smile. Right up front, Mugi-senpai was the only person in the room (well, besides Mr. Horigome, probably, but Azusa couldn't see him from where she was) who was standing still.
She wasn't doing so because she wasn't enjoying the show; far from it. Rather, Mugi was transfixed, standing stock-still between Yui and Mio, gazing raptly at the stage with an expression of utter, awestruck delight - as if what was happening up on stage was the most interesting, amazing, and gratifying thing that had ever happened, anywhere, ever.
One by one, Ritsu brought it to the others' attention; most of them smiled, or giggled, or both, and all watched with interest to see what Yui made of it. When her turn came, she looked, got a thoughtful expression for a second...
... and then, with a beaming smile, slipped around behind Mugi and gave her what she needed to complete the experience, namely a great big hug. (Behind them, Jun glanced in astonishment at Ui, who just shrugged. Big sister's not so naïve after all, eh?)
Only at the end of that fourth song, after the cheering had died down a little, did Sawako step to the mic and speak. When she did, her voice was a little husky, but not the affected growl she often adopted when in her heavy-metal persona. This was a more genuine sort of rasp, born partly from the exertion of singing and partly from the emotion of the occasion.
"I hope you'll forgive me if I break character a little bit tonight," she said with a wry little smile. "Those of you who remember us from the old days know that Catherine's not supposed to give a damn if you like her or not." That got a laugh from the older fans in the audience as she continued, "But Sawako... can't let the moment go by without thanking you all for coming. Particularly this little group in the front here," she added, causing a row of blushes as various audience members, who also recognized the younger musicians, cheered for them as well.
"This next song's going to be our last for tonight," Sawako went on. At the disappointed sound that drew from most of the crowd, she raised a hand and said, "Sorry, but we're old now, and we get tired," getting another laugh. "This is a song we just wrote a couple of weeks ago, when we first got back together. It's not really finished yet, but we figured we'd try it out on you. If you don't like it..." She paused, her smile becoming a little sly, and then drew herself to her full height and gave them the old Catherine heavy-metal fuck-you glare, the effect accentuated by the glint of the stage lights blanking out her eyes. "That's your tough luck," she growled, and the room erupted in cheers and whistling.
Their fifth and final song was, as advertised, unfinished, and it showed in the lack of polish and the places where things didn't quite seem to fit together yet; but it rocked, straight up, and Azusa didn't reckon there was a single person in the room who cared about its technical shortcomings. Even she didn't - noticed them, sure, didn't care, though - and if she didn't, she sincerely doubted anybody else here would.
As she listened, though, it occurred to Azusa that it seemed like there was something missing; not just that the song was unpolished, but that it seemed incomplete somehow. As if the arrangement were lacking a part that it otherwise should've had, like when she and the others rehearsed (still a thrilling new sensation!) and one of them hadn't arrived yet.
She put it out of her mind and just enjoyed the moment - hearing another group of serious musicians, as she had only just started to perceive herself and her bandmates as being, at a developing stage of their craft. People who only listened to bands that had already made it missed out on this stuff, and she supposed most of them didn't really know or care what they were missing, but to her, this was as enjoyable in its own way as hearing a group like the Art of Noise at the top of their game.
Death Devil finished the experimental number with a flourish, and then, as they had arrived, so they left - amid cheers and applause, without another word.
The Light Music Club and the Art of Noise hurried backstage, as much as anyone could hurry in such a packed house. By the time they arrived, Death Devil had finished shedding their makeup and costumes, albeit for street clothes that were not so terribly different - just a little more restrained. Once there, the members of the Art of Noise offered their congratulations on a triumphant comeback, then excused themselves and faded away, leaving the moment to the Light Music Club, past and present.
The current members pitched in to help their alumnae square away their equipment, a paramount responsibility of all musicians in the wake of a performance. Once that was taken care of - everything locked securely in Norimi Kawaguchi's van, which was parked out around back of the club - they all adjourned to the food stand down by the river, a Light Music Club haunt since time immemorial (or at least the 270s, which to Yui, at least, was the same thing).
There, over fried things and fruit juices, the band members brought their young successors cheerfully up to date on all the crazy things that had happened to them since they got caught up in the whirlwind that was their band being revived and promoted by one of the world's most powerful companies.
"And the amazing thing is," Norimi declared, "they're not actually pushing us to change our sound, or write new lyrics that are more about the car, or anything. They're totally giving us our heads!"
"We've changed our sound a little bit anyway," Della remarked with a wry grin, "but that's just because we're all grown-ups now and we don't feel like we have as much to prove."
"Except maybe Sawako," added Jane, laughing and elbowing her bandmate, who waved her off with a smile.
"I did notice that you seemed... calmer somehow, on stage," Mio put in thoughtfully. "More... settled. If that makes any sense."
"Mm-hmm, I know what you mean," Mugi agreed, nodding.
"I noticed it too," Nodoka concurred.
"Well... maybe I am, a bit," said Sawako thoughtfully. "This whole experience has been like a kind of dream. Maybe I'm afraid if I push it too hard I'll wake up. Or maybe it's like Della says and I've grown up a little."
"Kate-chan-sensei will be really pleased," Yui put in. "I wish she could've been there."
"So do I, but there'll be other shows," Sawako said. "And..." She hesitated, reddening a little, then went on, "It really meant a lot to me that you girls came to see us tonight. And wearing those shirts! I almost teared up right there on stage. That would've been terrible for my image," she added with an air of mock reproach, making them all laugh. "But seriously... thank you."
"Yeah, thanks a lot," Norimi agreed. "It's good to know the Light Music Club is still rockin' - and still looking to the future," she added with a wink for the "provisional members". "Hey, maybe when we're on tour you guys can come open for us sometimes."
"I'm... not sure our audiences would overlap that much," Ritsu temporized.
"Hey, rock is rock," said Della. "You might be surprised."
Norimi nodded. "Look at it like we do. We spent a year trying to appeal to a particular group of people, and then we realized - it's not worth worrying about exactly who will 'get' your music. You gotta play what you play and tell yourself, 'The right people will get this.'"
"Ooh, I like that," said Yui. "Azu-nyan, write that down!"
"I think I'll be able to remember it," Azusa assured her dryly. Then, stifling a yawn, she said, "I hate to say it, but I have to be getting home. Friday night or not, it's getting late, and my parents will be worried enough without me wandering around at all hours."
"I heard that," said Jun.
"We should get home too, Big Sis," Ui prompted her sister.
"Yeah, we should probably call it a night ourselves," Norimi agreed. "We're supposed to be back in Future City tomorrow for a photo shoot with the car. They say we're actually gonna meet the woman in charge."
"Wow, you mean - Minami Sato?" said Ritsu. At Norimi's nod, she added, "Tell her they need to make a better headlight kit for the 500 series. It's a great bike, but that stock headlight is pretty weak."
"Ritsu!" Mio said, faintly scandalized.
"What? It is! You'll see," Ritsu said.
Sawako laughed, and, to everyone's faint surprise, reached and ruffled Ritsu's hair, dislodging her yellow headband in the process. "I'll see what I can do, Ritchan," she promised. As everyone rose from the counter, she said once more, "Thank you again for coming. It made a special evening even more so to see all your smiling faces out there."
"We'll send you tickets to our first real show when we know when and where," Norimi promised. "Supposed to be in Republic City sometime this summer, hopefully while you guys are on vacation. Be careful heading home!"
"You too," said Mugi with a polite bow. Then, turning to Sawako, she asked, "Will you be back from Future City on Sunday?"
"I'm not sure," Sawako replied. "I'll call you tomorrow night and let you know. If not, maybe we can meet up sometime during the week."
"All right," Mugi agreed. "Have fun in Future City!"
They all went their separate ways from the food stall, with Death Devil making for the nearest member's apartment (as they all still technically lived in Sakuragaoka), the Hirasawas and Azusa heading straight home, Nodoka and Jun catching a bus, and Mugi taking the train. Mio and Ritsu walked back to the club, where Ritsu's yellow scooter awaited them.
"Did you notice how casual Mugi was with Sawa-chan?" Ritsu asked as she unchained her scooter.
"Mm," said Mio noncommittally.
"'Mm'?" Ritsu replied, glancing back over her shoulder with a sardonic look. "C'mon, I'm not saying anything about it. I just... noticed it. Would've been hard not to, especially after the way she looked while they were playing."
"I just don't think we should jump to any conclusions," Mio said. "Besides, it's really none of our business. Miss Yamanaka isn't a teacher at our school any more, so..."
"Right, right, and Mugi's 16 - heck, she'll be 17 in a week - so there's nothin' illegal about it or anything. That's not what I'm saying anyway." She bundled the chain and lock into the storage compartment under her seat, took out another object, and set about strapping said object to her helmet while Mio donned the spare one. "I just think it's..." She shrugged, reddening slightly. "Kinda nice. Whatever is going on," she qualified before Mio could remark. "That's all."
"Mm," Mio repeated. Then, looking inquisitive, she said, "What is that?"
"This?" Ritsu replied, indicating the device she was affixing to her helmet. "Well, I said my headlight was a little weak. This," she went on, switching on the device and revealing it to be a miner's lamp, "is insurance."
"Aagh!" said Mio, throwing up her hands. "Dammit, don't look at me with that thing on, I'm blind!"
"Sorry," Ritsu replied, turning and swinging herself into the saddle. "C'mon, let's get you home. It's getting late, we don't want Mommy and Daddy to worry about their little girl."
Mio growled, then stopped herself with an "Ah!" and said wryly, "You're just trying to make me forget you have a helmet on and try to bonk you on the head."
"Almost worked, didn't it," Ritsu said cheerfully as her friend climbed on behind her. "Let's see if you remember your lessons from this afternoon."
She did, in fact, remember her lessons. Maybe it was just the lateness of the hour, or the lingering satisfaction of the great night out they'd all just had, but Mio not only relaxed on the ride home, she was actually leaning into it by the time they arrived in front of her house. The thought, and the sensation, made Ritsu smile as they rounded the last corner and coasted up to the curb in front of the Akiyama house.
"So?" she asked as Mio climbed off and unfastened her borrowed helmet. "What do you think? Not so bad once you get used to it, right?"
"Not so bad," Mio admitted with a wry smile. "Good night, Ritsu."
"G'night," Ritsu said, and she was just about to fire up her scooter and head for home when a chiming noise caught both their attentions.
"Uh?" Mio wondered, digging in her pocket for her cellphone. "Who's sending me mail at this hour?"
to be continued in Volume Two:
"Don't Stop Believin'"
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
Volume One: "Kick Out the Jams"
Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Matt Wagner
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
Contains excerpts from
by Jack Blades and Neal Schon
"Fuwa Fuwa Time"
by Mio Akiyama and Tsumugi Kotobuki1
by Pete Townshend
"I Believe I'll Dust My Broom"
by Robert Johnson and Elmore James
E P U (colour) 2014