Chapter 1: #1: Vow! (誓い!)
Musical instruments are not supposed to have a gender or name. They are the tools of a musician, crafted to provide the richest sound from the depths of their body. To ascribe sentience to them is the realm of a dreamer, a child, a soul that sees music more as a friend than a job. I slept peacefully on the shelves of the music store owned by the Kotobuki company until she came into my life. Her ruffled brown hair adorned with a simple yellow hair clip, that look of wonder in her eyes as she saw my sculpted form. She was dressed in the uniform of Sakuragaoka High School, an all-girls’ academy in the area. Up until the moment she met me, she had never touched an instrument in her life. I thought I was out of her price range. Yet that day’s meeting was what drew us together. I had been given a name. Gitah.
The plastic film didn’t leave my body until several days after I had settled into what would become my first home. My life was not a pleasant one. My strings became rusted, my body dragged through rain and extreme heat, even forced into the clothes of a human. I had no arms, only a neck and a body, so the frilly dress draped over my body did not serve any purpose. If I could not display my strings, what good am I as a guitar? Yet, she trusted me to sleep beside her in her bed at night. Underneath those covers, I lost track of my own identity. The warmth of her body holding close to my polished wooden frame, her fingers plucking at my strings with no melody, only the sounds of dreams. I stopped being Gitah and became Gitah Hirasawa. Not just an instrument, but a member of her family, her second little sister. Her lover.
I was not the only one of my kind. Elizabeth and Mustang, my fellow guitars, were quieter than I. Triton, the keyboard and Mellow Yellow the drum kit spoke to me as well. Mellow Yellow was a strange character. Though made of many parts, his soul spoke as one. Yui’s youthful exuberance had rubbed off on me, filling every pluck of the strings with a noise that told the world “I am Gitah, and this is my song!” Elizabeth only started speaking once her master had given her a name, but she revealed a pure pure heart as sweet as sugar and stars. A deep voiced bass carrying such a personality? Mustang’s sentience only awoke towards the end of the first phase of my career, but though he was strict and musically oriented, unaware that he could be more than an instrument, he revealed a well of emotion that put me to shame. Triton’s worldliness and experience hovered over me like fireflies in the summer, waiting to be caught so their light could be spread across the classroom. Together, the five of us were Houkago Tea Time.
Yui was playing her dream melody on me one night. Her fingers ran up and down my neck, her chest pressed against my body and her legs had become tangled up in my strap. In body and mind, we had become one. Her eyes were fluttering open and closed rapidly, going through an experience that can only be vaguely recounted the next morning. I did not sleep, only rested, and was able to remember it all. I have heard from Mustang that her master has had a similar experience, seeing things that aren’t there and witnessing them bleeding into reality. This was the first time Yui had an experience this vivid since her childhood days.
Blackness as far as the eye could see. The sky and ground blended together onto the space in which my master found herself. Multicolored red beads bounced around, their plastic clinking providing the only sound in the dream space besides Yui’s careful footsteps. Her shadow, trailing behind her, had become bright red. In her dreams, she adorned herself in an outfit created whole cloth out of her dormant imagination; an outfit in neither hers nor Lady Sawako’s wardrobe in the world outside the dream space. It was a bright orange red dress, adorned with a strap of multicolored beads across her shoulder. Her yellow hair clip had been replaced with a butterfly. I was a part of her body as well. Dangling from her ear on a string of multicolored beads, a brightly painted totem of myself swung in the nonexistent wind.
“Gitah?” Yui asked inquisitively, “Where are we?”
I do not know, master. This is your imagination. Yui walked forward into the black. Suspended at her eye level in the black were four perfectly square mirrors arranged in a square themselves. Beneath them was a larger mirror, the size of all four combined. Yui’s image fragmented when she approached the mirrors. Her lower body was preserved in the reflection, but from her chest upward, she split into four parts.
Yui looked into the reflective glass quizzically. She stared at the upper right mirror and took a deep breath. A small cloud of condensation formed on the mirror’s surface. She took her finger and drew the shape of a tea cup, followed by three lines representing steam rising from the freshly prepared drink. She stepped back and admired her work. The emblem of the light music club, of Houkago Tea Time, had been inscribed, in however temporary a medium. Yui nodded in approval, shaking me back and forth on her right ear. She stepped back, and the symbol in the condensation began to shine in bright red.
Light radiated outward, enveloping the mirrors in its brilliant glow. Yui put her hands over her eyes, sliding apart her fingers in the hopes that it would soon be over. In place of the five mirrors, there was one, a full body mirror, reflecting the whole of Yui’s form. Looking into it, it was as if the exposure had been turned up on her body. She titled her head in that childlike manner that defines her so well, and placed her hand to the mirror’s surface. Her reflection did the same. Then her reflection began to warp, twisting within the glass boundary. Yui was perplexed, watching this spectacle in wide eyed wonderment.
Where once a perfect reflection of her had stood there was now, in the same clothes, a new reflection. Her hair was bright red, her eyes the same blazing color. Instead of Yui’s smile, she was grinning. Yui moved her hand across the mirror’s surface, and her red-haired doppelganger did the same. The two of them pressed their faces to the glass. Eye to eye they met. A feeling of warmth and coldness from the glass washed over Yui’s face. In one blink, the entire dream space disappeared.
My master awoke.
Her alarm clock was ringing beside her bed. She slammed down on it and retreated under the covers. I lay in the corner of her small room, watching her turning in her sleep. A photo album from her high school and college days rested on the bedside table, and various musical sheets were scattered about the room. Of the four bedrooms in the apartment, this one was the most cluttered. Yui tumbled out of bed, knocking a storm of music sheets into the air. She walked out of the room and out into the apartment.
Three years had passed since that day of cinematic scale. The four of Houkago Tea Time, now living together in a apartment paid for by Tsumugi’s father, did not have many classes left to attend, and dedicated their free time to music and sweets. The room might have been different, but the feeling in it was the same. Yui stepped onto the carpet, feeling the warm sensation against her toes, and called out to Tsumugi, who was preparing tea in the kitchen. It was 8 AM. Mio and Ritsu were nowhere to be seen, though Triton, Mellow Yellow and Elizabeth rested, as I did, quietly in their masters’ bedrooms.
“Good morning, Yui.”
“Mornin’, Mugi. I need some sweets before I get going.”
“They’re almost done. I’m waiting until Mio and Ritsu get back from renting out that self storage for us.”
“We have a self storage?” Yui jolted up on the counter. “I thought you said you didn’t want to rely on your family’s money.”
“I don’t. This is going to cost a bit, but it’ll be worth it. We haven’t been able to practice very much lately. The landlady doesn’t want us to disturb the other tenants.”
“So we’re going to lock Gitah and the others away in a self storage? You’re too cruel, Mugi...to treat Triton that way...”
“No, no, Yui, we’re going to be using it as a stage. I’ve heard the acoustics are pretty good, and it’s far enough out of the way. It’ll be just like old times. I’ll even bring the tea so we can energize in between sessions.”
“That works!” Yui said.
The door clicked open. Mio and Ritsu walked in. Ritsu’s hairband was askew, and Mio looked like she had just woken up. It was early enough in the morning that neither of them had settled down for the day yet. It was said, among Mio’s fan club, that even when she has bed hair, Mio is still one of the most beautiful students in the prefecture. They sat down at the table with Yui, waiting for their morning tea. Ritsu was impatient. She reached into her bag and opened her drum sticks. They were the only part of Mellow Yellow that did not speak to me when the instruments conversed. The soul of those drumsticks, like my and Elizabeth’s picks, rested in the hands of our masters.
Tap-a-tap. Tap-a-tap. Tap-a-tap.
The tapping of the drumsticks echoed through the apartment, causing the tea leaves to ripple in their cup.
“Ritsu!” Mio exclaimed, “It’s too early for that!”
Mio raised her hand and lightly smacked Ritsu across her forehead. In its place, a large, pink bump appeared. Ritsu shrugged it off and begrudgingly put away her beloved drum sticks. Tsumugi took a seat at the table with the rest of the girls. Yui snatched shoveled more rice into her bowl than her allotted share, hoping the others wouldn’t notice.
“How did the self storage go?” asked Tsumugi.
“It’s ours for the next month,” Ritsu said, “I think I recognized the shop owner. Remember that concert we did for the flower viewing? That gave me an idea.”
“Will this turn out like your other ideas?” asked Mio, playing off Ritsu with split second timing.
“Remember YuiAzu? I was thinking we could go for something like that. They’re holding another one of those talent contests around here, right?”
“Ritsu, the sweets are going to be gone soon,” said Yui sleepily.
“We can do rakugo! Mio and I work better as a manzai group, so I was thinking that we’d let Yui do it! She may even win!”
“Yui can learn things quickly,” Tsumugi said, “When do we need to enter by?”
“Shouldn’t we consider Yui in this?” Mio interjected.
“Next week!” Ritsu pulled out the flier. “The talent show’s a week after that, and it might be enough to cover the cost of renting out the self storage. It’s crazy! That’s why it might work!”
Yui scooped up a large portion of rice from her bowl, and looked out the windowsill. A black cat with white tufts in its ears, reclining in the sunlight, had wandered away and found itself looking around the gardens of the apartment. Yui’s eyes become opened and alert for the first time that day. She blushed intensely and stared down at the kitten, which was now licking its paws beneath the shade of a tree.
“Azu-nyan...” Yui whispered.
“What is it?” Mio asked.
The feline leaped out of the way, removing himself from the girls’ line of sight, and scampered back to whence he came. Ritsu and Tsumugi started eating their breakfast. The morning would be over soon.
The next day, the sun was starting to rise over the gray buildings of the city. Houkago Tea Time, their instruments in tow, were walking towards the self storage. A soundproof, foolproof place of solitude where their instrumental skills could be honed to perfection. Yui was excited about it for the novelty, but I had reason to question her excitement. Storage is not a place of things people want to remember. It’s of things they want to forget. Yui had assured me that we would not be abandoned, but I spent a not insignificant amount of years in storage. My doubts were resurfacing.
“Did you bring cake, Mugi?” Yui asked.
“Only what we had at home,” Tsumugi said, “There’s enough for one afternoon, and we could always go to the convenience store if we run out. Does anyone know this area?”
“Satoshi and I went here all the time,” Ritsu said, “That’s how I knew about the storage.”
“There won’t be any cameras?” Mio asked nervously.
“Why would there be cameras?” Ritsu replied, swinging around a lamppost. “Oh. I see,” a devilish smirk crossed her face.
Ritsu ducked down and flipped up Mio’s skirt. She had thought ahead and worn spats underneath her skirt on this day. She’d been doing so for years, ever since the incident that Elizabeth told me left a mark on her master’s personality. It helped her be more confident on stage, but only on the condition nobody ever saw her panties again. On an unrelated note, sales of blue and white striped rice bowls rose considerably after that event, for reasons the bowl industry had yet to figure out.
The air around the self storage facility was still, smelling of iron and dust that circled in and out of the compounds. We passed through the front desk, giving our names. As soon as the clerk saw Tsumugi’s eyebrows, he hastened his speed and granted us entry. It was a small place, the size of a garage meant for one car, and only we had the key. The clerk waved goodbye to us, informing my master and her friends that it was theirs, free to do whatever they wanted.
“Come with me, let’s go!” Ritsu said excitedly.
“I don’t want to go in there,” Mio said, “It’s dark. What if there’s something left over from the people who used it before us?”
“That’s not possible,” Tsumugi chimed in, “Customers are required to clear these out entirely before loaning them to someone else.”
“There could be cake!” Yui exclaimed, “Ritsu, be my guidepost!”
The door of the storage room swung open with a loud crash. Yui clicked on the lights, saying “click!” as she did so. The walls were covered in iron, and the floor was concrete. For the price, it wasn’t very elegant. The wooden floors and comfortable, air conditioned classroom of Sakuragaoka High seemed like a distant memory. Mio knocked on one of the walls. It rattled and echoed with a metallic clonk. She turned her head and gave Ritsu a stern look.
“This is it?” she said, “We’re paying for this as a practice space? The acoustics aren’t very good. Mugi, doesn’t your family have a recording studio we could borrow?”
“I’m sorry, Mio,” Tsumugi said, bowing in repentance, “I promised my parents that I wouldn’t take advantage of their funds once I obtained my degree. My dream is here with you girls. This is something we have to do together.”
“Mugi...” Yui said, clinging tightly to her side, “That’s so Mugi-like.”
“Alright, then let’s practice!” Ritsu said, taking her spot in Mellow Yellow’s seat.
Space was tight. Ritsu took up most of the back space, and Tsumugi required an adequate amount of space for Triton as well. Once the amplifiers had been set up and the area checked to see if anyone else was around, Yui and Mio stood side by side at the front of the storage shed. Elizabeth and I were clutched tightly in their hands. Though the cold winds stung and the storage building lacked any form of air conditioning, when Yui’s hands wrapped around mine, sliding into the spots where the oils from her hand had rubbed across my neck, I felt a familiar warmth. The guitar pick was ready to glide across my strings. It had been so long.
“We oughta warm up on something familiar,” said Ritsu, “Before we start writing something new, we should be able to play old stuff. I’m thinking ‘Ashita ga Arusa’.”
“The tune is infectious,” replied Tsumugi.
“Ritsu, when you said ‘old stuff’, I thought you meant our old stuff. ‘Fuwa Fuwa Time’ is our signature sound. ‘Ashita ga Arusa’ has lyrics that are a bad omen.”
“We’ve covered ‘Tsubasa wo Kudasai’ before, what about this? It’s inspirational!” Ritsu replied, “In-spi-ra-tion-al! There’s always tomorrow for people who keep dreaming!”
“The singer doesn’t accomplish his dreams in the end,” Mio said.
Yui, glad to have a song to play, was already plucking out the melody of the 60s song on my body. The song had played on the radio a fortnight ago, and she was playing it as if from memory. Without microphones, Houkago Tea Time had no words, only music. Their bodies instinctively moved to the beat of the song. Ritsu’s punctuated strikes, Tsumugi’s graceful fingers and Mio and Yui’s controlled picks, meeting with mine and Elizabeth’s strings, coalesced into an imperfect harmony. Except for Tsumugi, none of them had formal training, and their skill was hardly professional level yet. That did not tarnish its beauty.
The session lasted until sunset, as long as a meeting of the light music club in its halcyon days. Feeling confident in their skills once again, Houkago Tea Time walked towards the apartment they called home. The streets were becoming dyed in a brilliant shade of orange, making the red flowers appear the color of flames. The first star had appeared by the time the girls reached the apartment. Yui set me down in our bedroom again. My strings were covered in dirt and my body had a smudge of frosting on it, but a trace of vibration still echoed throughout my body. I silently thanked my master and listened to Houkago Tea Time’s conversation from afar.
“You’d think we’d be at the Budokan by now,” Ritsu said, reclining on one of the chairs and removing her headband.
“Ritsu, the school festivals were our Budokan,” Yui said cheerfully, sipping her green tea. “We’re famous.”
“Yui, I was only president of the club for three years,” Ritsu said, “Do you know how quick three years is in music? Even Azusa and Ui and Jun have graduated, another generation taking their place! We’re like three or four generations removed from the current Sakuragaoka!”
“The cassette tape is proof of our legacy,” said Tsumugi, inching closer to Mio on the couch.
“We’re still Houkago Tea Time,” said Mio.
“Our goals should grow with us! Budokan! Budokan!” Ritsu said. “We’re still only a local band. At best.”
“Fame isn’t important,” Yui said, looking into the open doorway to Mio’s room, eying the stuffed bunny on Mio’s bedside table, a gift from her childhood, “It’s about fun. Though I do like my name in lights.”
“Yui, surprisingly, is right,” Mio said. “We all have sacrifices to make, but if we have fun doing it...”
“Like flashing the audience,” Ritsu smirked.
Mio hit her over the head, “Quiet.”
“Can we still dream?” Ritsu asked.
“Of course,” Tsumugi smiled.
“Members of Houkago Tea Time!” Yui said, standing up on her chair, which now rocked uneasily under her weight, “Mostly for Ritsu, but also for fun, we’ll make a pinky promise!”
Yui opened a drawer in the kitchen and revealed the keychains the group had purchased on their trip to Kyoto those many years ago. Ke. I. O. N. The Bu was still in Azusa’s possession. With the keychains wrapped around their arms, they stood around the heated table. Yui interlocked with Mio, who interlocked with Ritsu, who interlocked with Tsumugi, who locked back with Yui. The keychains jangled in the air. The girls could feel each other’s warmth spreading into their bodies.
“We’ll make it to the Budokan!” they spoke in unison.
“We’ll become famous!” Yui interjected.
“Playing at the Budokan is enough,” Mio said, “All those people...”
“Fame is awesome too, is it still too late to add that?” Ritsu said.
“Wine, women, and song,” said Tsumugi.
“Women?” asked the others.
“Pinky promise, if you lie you must swallow one thousand needles,” spoke Houkago Tea Time.
The pinky promise was more binding than any legal contract. Even I respected it, though I lacked the arms to truly appreciate what it meant to hold hands. Their energy restored, the girls spent the rest of the night watching whatever prime time variety shows they could find, enjoying them without thinking.
This apartment, minus the bedrooms, was about as large as the club room of Sakuragaoka. In that moment, when laughter filled the air, it felt like it too. The sun eventually set. I saw my master walk into her bedroom. She stroked my neck before climbing into her bed. The sounds my body made weren’t pretty, but her touch was ecstasy.
“Gitah, she’s treating you like a human,” I heard Elizabeth’s thoughts from a few rooms down, “Don’t grow too attached now.”
“With proper maintenance, G-man here could last for a long time,” said Mellow Yellow, “You’ve all got it good, friends. You get caressed and massaged and what do I get? Beaten on by sticks. You guys can’t appreciate the stuff I put up with for this band.”
“You’re a drum kit, you’re supposed to be hit,” said Elizabeth.
“Gitah is unique among us instruments,” said Triton, “Tell me, my friends, what do you think our chances of making it to the Budokan are? To be there is as much an honor for us as it is our masters.”
“We’ll totally make it!” said Mellow Yellow.
“It could happen,” said Elizabeth.
“If that is what Yui wishes for, then I wish for it too,” I replied.
Did she overhear? Yui walked over to me and picked me out of my stand, turning on the lamp beside her bed. She grabbed her pick and held me close to her body. She cast a glance to the mirror. I saw my body, a few dust flakes falling off into the darkness, reflected back at me. Yui began strumming, playing one of two songs. “Gitah ni Kubittake” or “Oh My Gitah!”. I hadn’t told the other instruments, but they knew. Yui had written these songs specifically to me, about me. How could I return her feelings when I couldn’t convey my thoughts through any language but music?
“If we’re going to go to the Budokan, we need to get practicing,” Yui said, “Gitah, you and me will stay up all night if we have to!”
All night? Could Yui last that long? She was a very heavy sleeper, and probably wouldn’t make it past midnight. She played her songs on my body, trying her best not to disturb her friends the next room over.
“Good night,” Yui said, her energy worn out.
She placed me on her mattress, and pulled up the sheets. It had been so long since she offered this. Her body, my body, the warmth of the covers, blended together to counteract the sharp winds from earlier that day. The radio from the apartment next door crackled. Something about a weather warning for the next day. The ceiling fan spun above us, and the air conditioner hummed in the distance. I could stay like this forever. Her second little sister. Her lover. I could only watch while, beside me, Yui fell into a deep slumber.
Chapter 2: #2: Invitation! (招待状!)
Yui rubbed her eyes and walked out of her bedroom. The living room furniture was left in the same state as the night before, but outside the windows, the world wasn’t. A thick layer of white, as if someone had frosted the streets like a cake, slowly blew past. The apartment felt noticeably chillier than it had the night before. It was only eight o’clock. Yui reached for the light switch, hoping for a better view of the goings on. The radio could be heard from Ritsu’s room.
“A low lying fog is sweeping the city today. Temperatures will be colder than usual, so bring a sweater. People are advised to stick close together, as visibility has been significantly reduced. Weather reports are uncertain on when the fog will lift, as the cloud system is still hovering over Kyoto. Now, in other news, the...”
“It’s amazing...” Yui said, pressing her face to the glass, “Everyone, wake up!”
“Yui’s up early?” asked Mio as she roused from her slumber and walked into the room, still dressed in her bunny pajamas.
“Geez, it’s cold,” said Ritsu, following right behind. Ritsu had yet to slide her headband on, letting her naturally wild hair throw itself in all directions, “What time is it?”
“Good morning, everyone,” said Tsumugi in a singsong voice, looking ready for the day despite such short notice. Triton’s master does not follow the same rules as us.
“It’s fog!” Yui exclaimed, “I’ve never seen fog like this. It’s like our apartment is floating on the clouds.”
This is what they call “Fluffy Fluffy Time.”
“Guess we’ll have to cancel storage practice,” Ritsu said. “Hey, Mio, what’s wrong?”
Mio was burying her head in the couch. She had covered her head with a pillow, ignoring what Ritsu was saying. Ritsu yanked the pillow off and looked at her friend. Mio’s face was pale, as white as the clouds outside. Ritsu laid her hand on Mio’s shoulder. She was shivering, and her pupils had shrunk.
“Are you cold?” Ritsu asked.
“I’m scared...” Mio said, “I can’t see anything. What if there’s someone out there and they tap me on the shoulder and then...” she let out a small whimper, “I can’t hear anything, I can’t see anything...”
“Mio, it’s our apartment, there’s nothing out there we don’t already know,” Ritsu said, “When’s this fog supposed to clear?”
“They don’t know,” said Tsumugi.
“Relax, Mio, I’ll be with you,” Ritsu said, “Friends?”
“Friends...” Mio said, sitting up and embracing Ritsu far too tightly.
With the fog’s cold arms embracing our apartment, time became disoriented. We couldn’t disturb the neighbors, and the fog prevented us from going anywhere. Tsumugi was the one to jump start the members of Houkago Tea Time from their doldrums by returning to an old pastime, their third favorite thing after music and tea. Photography. She pulled out a camera from within the kitchen drawer, and pointed it at Mio and Ritsu. Though the morning fog had dimmed the apartment, her face was blushing bright red.
“Stay like that,” Tsumugi said, “This is a shutter chance! I’m not letting it get away.”
Mio placed her hands further up Ritsu’s arms. Her pajama pants slid against the couch, moving her lips closer to Ritsu’s face. Ritsu, unbalanced, felt her hands move up Mio’s shirt and onto her chest. Ritsu felt her fingers squeeze against the fabric of Mio’s pajamas and into the pillowy skin beneath. The warm feeling that had been on her face ceased.
“Mio,” Ritsu said, “What are you eating?”
“You can stop touching...” Mio said, shaking. She turned to Tsumugi, “Hurry up and take the picture already!”
Click. The light flashed before Mio and Ritsu’s eyes, capturing them at a moment of awkward passion.
“Mugi, let me see the camera,” Yui said.
Yui ran to the fridge and pulled out a box. She opened it up, revealing a slice of strawberry cake from the night before. The apartment tenants were shocked. That an uneaten piece of strawberry cake could still exist defied all logic. Yui zoomed out the camera’s eye, hoping to capture every swerve in the frosting and some of the condensation dripping off the thawing strawberry. She salivated at the thought, a little nagging voice in her brain wanting to forgo the photography session and eat the cake.
“Closer...closer...” Yui said, zooming in.
The camera’s lens impacted itself against the frosting at the edge of the cake. Splort.
“Oops,” Yui said, shrinking back, “Sorry, Mugi.” Tears were starting to well up in her eyes. She knew that any camera Tsumugi owned wouldn’t come cheap.
“It’s okay,” Tsumugi said, never losing her smile, “I’ll wipe if off. It’s only a little frosting.”
Tsumugi reached into the frosting that the camera had left an imprint in, scooping some of it onto her finger.
“Do you want to help me clean it up?”
Yui obliged, sucking on Tsumugi’s finger with gusto.
Hours passed, and the fog did not lift. The camera had been abandoned on the kitchen counter when lunchtime rolled around. Yui indulged in a large bowl of rice. She looked out the window, wondering if the cat from yesterday would stop by again. The smooth sound of an engine was heard outside. The mail truck had arrived. Houkago Tea Time looked amongst themselves uncertainly, trying to mentally decide who would be the one to walk out into the fog and retrieve the day’s mail.
Mio was right out.
Ritsu, wanting to stay by Mio’s side until the fog cleared, was also right out.
Tsumugi, wanting to watch Ritsu stay by Mio’s side and hopefully join in herself, was furthermore right out.
“Yui!” spoke the three, as if one mind.
“But I don’t want to,” Yui said, “What if I get lost?”
“The apartment’s right where you left it,” Ritsu said.
“Be brave, Yui,” Mio reassured her.
Yui bundled up in her scarf and mittens, opening the door of the apartment. As it closed behind her, she was even more impressed with the fog from outside than she was from in. The sun, beginning its descent across the sky at this time, filtered through the clouds, creating rainbow colored halations before Yui’s eyes. Carefully, she descended the steps of the apartment complex. She could feel the water droplets pounding against her jacket, walking through the constant drizzle to reach the mailbox at the street’s edge. She looked back to the apartment window to see if her friends were looking for her, but by this point, the apartment was out of sight.
Yui reached the apartment mailboxes. She opened the girls’ mailbox, hearing its familiar squeak. There wasn’t much in the mailbox. It was near the end of the week, and anything important would have arrived earlier. Yui couldn’t make out who the envelopes were from, and decided to check when she returned to the apartment. The walk back was the same as the walk out, only with Yui being extra careful not to drop the mail or slip on the steps. She took the stairs slowly, and hugged the wall like a chimp until she could see the plate of apartment room 202.
Yui walked back inside, took off her shoes and coat, and set the mail on the kitchen counter. Yui slumped onto the recliner. Mio, knowing that Yui wouldn’t read the mail after a weathering that experience, took it upon herself to sort through the postal contents. Insurance offer. Junk mail. A letter addressed to Houkago Tea Time from Pony Canyon. Another insurance offer.
“Mugi!” Mio shouted, “I thought you weren’t using your family’s connections anymore. What’s this doing here?” Mio showed the envelope to Tsumugi, close enough for her to see the shininess in the ink.
“The Kotobuki Company deals with music stores, record labels are outside our scope. I haven’t suggested anything like this to father lately...” said Tsumugi, tilting her head.
“Record label?” said Yui and Ritsu, turning their heads, their eyes sparkling.
“I’ll tell Ui!” shouted my master.
“I’ll tell Sawa!” added Ritsu.
“Can we open the letter first?” Mio retaliated.
The point of the letter opener slid into the top of the envelope. Mio pulled out the folded paper and started reading. The letter looked official, bearing the watermark of Pony Canyon’s offices.
“Dear Houkago Tea Time,
“I am Masaka Yumeno from Pony Canyon’s publicity department. We’re always interested in finding the latest bands and singers and giving them a chance to appear on stages outside of Japan. One of our interns was at your university’s jazz festival a few days ago when he heard the students talking about you. Your sound is impressive. It’s familiar and comforting, but well crafted. Your talent is imperfect, but with studio support, you could be fine tuned to take Japan in a few years. That is why we would like to make a proposal.
“Amateur Night at the Budokan is coming up soon, on April 2nd, and we would like to have you and another band perform under our sponsorship. The details need to be finalized, so please have a representative from your band call us in order to clarify the arrangements, if there’s anything you would need or if you wish to decline our offer. Though this letter is addressed to the four of you, we have heard there are more members of your band? Please get in touch with them if you can. This is a once in a lifetime chance, so please send us a response as soon as possible.
“Signed, Masaka Yumeno
“Pony Canyon Marketing Executive.”
“I was hoping it would be someone bigger, like Geneon,” Ritsu said.
“Lantis would be nice too,” said Yui.
“Perhaps Victor Entertainment...” said Tsumugi, “Victor. It’s a nice name.”
“That’s not what’s important right now,” Mio said, “Do you understand what this means? Our dreams have returned on white wings! We don’t need to go to the Budokan, the Budokan is coming to us. That makes me think of a song. White wings, filled with sugar dreams and rainbow halations...I need to get writing.”
“To Pony Canyon?” asked Ritsu.
“No,” Mio said, “I don’t know the first thing about business! I meant new song lyrics. How long do we have?”
“April 2nd,” Tsumugi said, “Three months. Leave it all to me, girls.”
I was resting in my master’s bed, and only overheard the conversation from underneath the covers. Elation was in the air. It’s the dream of every instrument to be played at such a venue, and we would be getting that chance. The voices of my companions could be heard from the neighboring bedrooms.
“Nice going, Gitah!” said Mellow Yellow, “Your resell value’s going to shoot way up, man!”
“We’re getting resold? We’re not good enough?” said Elizabeth nervously, “That’s what happened to Lady Sawako’s guitar, isn’t it? I don’t want to go back there. It’s dark and our entire history will be forgotten and Mio’s scent is still on me, there’s no way she’d really do that, is there...”
“Calm down, Elizabeth,” Triton interrupted, “We are not going to be sold off like a common garage band instrument. We may be a little rusty, but our masters need us now, more than ever.”
“Tokyo, the city of lights,” I said wistfully, “If we can sell out there, the world will become ours. Do you really think we can do it? ‘Fuwa Fuwa Time’ might be getting kind of old for the audience, so we need to reinvent ourselves...”
“You’re as panicky as Elizabeth,” Mellow Yellow laughed, “Relax, man, it ain’t gonna get easier from here.”
“I can hear our masters talking,” said Elizabeth, “They’re saying something about Mustang’s master.”
“Mustang? So he’s still got it going on?” said Mellow Yellow, “That newcomer put most of us to shame. I bet he’s forgotten all about us.”
“At the jazz festival, Yui told me that she heard his voice,” I said, “It strummed of yearning and crossroads. I think his master is in a rough spot. When her schooling finishes, she wants to rejoin us, but she’s been given the chance to make her own sound, be the front of her own generation. There’s no place that really fits for her.”
“That’s deep, man,” said Mellow Yellow, “Oh, Ritsu’s comin’ in! Gotta go!”
“My seventy six keys tremble with excitement,” said Triton, “Best of luck, Gitah.”
“We’re really not getting sold? Just making sure...” said Elizabeth.
“No,” said I, Triton and Mellow Yellow at the same time.
The next day came, and the fog had not lifted. Mio continued to cling to Ritsu’s side, or to anyone’s side who could give her a warm body. Elizabeth was jittery inside her bag, being jerked around with the constant force of a woman frightened. Ritsu was using a flashlight to guide us towards the storage shed. Compared to only a few days ago, there was a renewed sense of enthusiasm among the girls of Houkago Tea Time. Yui skipped down the sidewalk, singing a tune that she made up.
“Gitah and I~/Gitah and I~/Going to the Budokan/Now we’re gonna play/Maybe eat some cake/and then sleep the rest of the day.”
“Yui, those lyrics barely rhyme,” Ritsu said, “What are you going to do if we run into a bear?”
“There are bears out here?” Mio said, gripping Ritsu.
“The only bears are in the zoo,” Tsumugi reassured her.
“Something else then,” Yui said, leaping behind Mio.
Yui looked at Ritsu’s flashlight. It was a cheap one, cased in yellow plastic, with a light that didn’t increase the group’s visibility that far beyond their eye’s natural line of vision. The light had the word “PEACE” stamped across it in bold black letters. Yui covered her mouth with her hands as she giggled like a chipmunk. Ritsu and Mio turned their heads.
“What’s so funny?” Mio asked, laughing herself.
“That flashlight reminds me of Nodoka,” Yui said.
“It’s got big lenses and you couldn’t do anything without it?” Ritsu quipped. “Ow.”
Right on cue, Mio’s hand met with Ritsu’s forehead. Her hands were gloved and her aim was off, so Ritsu only ended up with a small bump on her cheek.
“That wasn’t funny,” Mio insisted.
“It’s a chairman light!” Yui said.
“No, it’s a flash...oh,” said Ritsu.
“I think it was charming,” said Tsumugi, latching onto Yui’s back. “This is a good way to make sure we don’t get lost. Jii always told me to do this on the mansion grounds during foggy days. When you form a train with the people close to you, bonds of friendship strengthen.”
“We’re a train!” Yui said, “The Houkago Tea Time Express, now departing from our apartment!”
Mio had been stifling her laughter for the past few minutes. Her glove didn’t do much to muffle the sound, and she couldn’t hold it in for much longer. She broke out in raucous laughter that could be heard across the street, causing some people to look out of their windows and wonder who that girl was. Ritsu turned around and, with her free hand, wrapped her arm around Mio.
“See, there’s nothing to be scared of,” Ritsu smiled.
“Ritsu,” Mio said, trying to break through the laughter, her voice switching to a decidedly serious tone, “Don’t let go.”
The train arrived at its station once again. I was unpacked with my companions, and the door to the storage shed was closed. It took on a different air today. Where yesterday we saw a small, cramped room with no air conditioning and bad acoustics, today we saw the “garage” in garage band, the place from which dreams are born and dreamers reside. I could sense it in my master’s fingers. Though this room was smaller than the stage at Sakuragaoka on which she had performed, in her head, it was now larger than the Budokan itself. An open air stadium that could hold the world if she so desired. She closed her eyes for a moment, reflecting on that possibility.
“We’re aiming for the best of the old and the best of the new,” said Mio, “On my count, ‘Fuwa Fuwa Time’. One two three!”
There was something different about Mio now. She was eternally uncertain, about the band’s future and her own. That she was always in the spotlight did not help her shyness. Now her future was assured. She was performing under a dim fluorescent light that showed her only the faces of her friends. If she screwed up, no one but those she trusted would see it. As Elizabeth described it to me, this was the inner Mio. Burning with passion about music, plucking the strings of her bass with her left hand, letting the guitar’s body vibrate in turn with her. Her heart went boom, and the vibrations of youth shot forth from it. Behind the closed door of the storage shed, only there, had the true Mio awakened.
“Wow, I’m impressed,” Ritsu said, “You sung those lyrics with...with passion. They’re totally sappy, but wow. I never knew rabbits could be so hardcore. Sawa would be pleased.”
“What’s hardcore?” Yui asked.
“Yui...” said the rest of the group, giving a collective sigh.
“I want each of us to have a new song written by the time we reach the Budokan,” Mio said, “Yui and I have provided the majority of our output and Mugi’s helped out a bit...”
Tsumugi smiled. The light reflected off her cheeks.
“...but Ritsu, you need to step it up,” the inner Mio said aloud, “You’re a musician too, let’s see what you can do. Just because you’re a drummer doesn’t mean you can slack off. We can collaborate on the melody, but I want to see some lyrics that will make the crowd get out of their seats. Ritsu Tainaka, show me your soul!”
The inner Mio retreated back into her shell as Tsumugi opened the door of the storage shed. Ritsu blinked, trying to make sure what she saw was real. It was as if the early days of the band had returned to the days before Azusa joined. Ritsu smiled as she packed her drum sticks into her bag.
“A challenge?” Ritsu said, “You’ve got it.”
Ritsu had become accustomed to her comfortable apartment life. Mio was there for support, Tsumugi provided the food and Yui kept the place from becoming dull. She knew the Toyosato area and had found the apartments, but nobody expected her to do anything. Since Mio’s challenge had been issued, Ritsu was going to do something she hadn’t done since high school. Pull an all nighter. She sat the desk in her bedroom and opened the drawer, pulling out a ballpoint pen and several slightly creased sheets of notebook paper.
“Ball pen...” Ritsu said, “Nah, Mio wouldn’t like that. What would everyone else do in this situation?”
Mio’s lyrics were the ones most associated with Houkago Tea Time. They were sugary, often in more than one sense of the word. Such things went over well with the Sakuragaoka crowd, but now that the audience was wider, she was trying to take herself in new directions. Imitating her best friend would only make the inner Mio more stern. Ritsu made a single pen stroke across the paper and turned her mind in another direction.
Tsumugi had penned only a few compositions for the band, but compared to Mio, they had an almost poetic air to them. Maybe it was her upbringing, maybe it was Tsumugi herself. They used lots of kanji Ritsu had never even heard of, much less knew how to write, and focused primarily on the bonds of friendship and scenery. While imitating Mio would be impolite, imitating Tsumugi would be impossible.
“Yes?” said my master, standing behind Ritsu.
“Gwah! Yui, what are you doing in my room?” Ritsu asked.
Yui sat down on Ritsu’s bed. “I want to help you with Mio’s lyric thing. It sounds fun!”
“How is this fun? She’s really riding my ass about this,” Ritsu said.
“It’s fun because it’s fun!” Yui said, “It’ll be even more fun when you get to play it.”
Yui’s lyrics were the most personal. “U&I” had left a lasting impression on the school the day it was performed. Every other song Yui had written in the interim was about food or whatever else happened to cross her line of vision, but in a way that the listener, for a brief moment, became Yui. Was this what Mio meant when she said “Show me your soul”?
“I don’t know what to write about!” Ritsu said, “Does it have to rhyme or what? How do you and Mio do this so easily?”
“My pen touches the paper and words sort of roll out of my head,” Yui said.
Ritsu, besieged by writer’s block, took her pen and tapped it on the edge of her desk. Tap a tap. Tap a tap. Tap tap. A quick roll and a ding on the handle followed by another tap. Hit the floor with her foot and scratch the clip across the paper and follow with another tap. Now Ritsu wasn’t even thinking about the things she was doing, to a drummer such a thing goes unsaid. She’d already found a rhythm and cast a glance at the girl on her bed.
“Rit, I think you’ve got it, now what does this music tell you about Mellow Yellow’s soul?”
With her pen across the paper, she’d rather do it now than later, “Don’t stop me now ‘cause I’m on a roll!
“The soul of a drummer is the soul of the summer. Hot and sweat and wild!”
“Summer means vacation!” said my master with elation closing her eyes as she smiled.
“This is what I’ll write about, and this is what I’ll show! Just because I’m in the back doesn’t mean I’m gonna slack. Budokan, let’s and go!”
I could hear Tsumugi in the next room playing along with the melody Ritsu and Yui had discovered. Triton’s seventy six keys serenaded us well into the night. Ritsu’s creative spirit was fired up. She wrote not only “Drumming Shining My Life”, but enough songs for a mini album. Yui never left Ritsu’s bed, and ended up falling asleep on Ritsu’s bed. Ritsu cradled her head in her arms and, around three in the morning, her body gave out, sending her into slumber as well.
The next morning, the apartment was covered in residue from the fog. Everything had a glassy glean to it, the glaring glaze turning every surface into a slippery and reflective one. Light bounced across the windows, casting brief rainbows wherever it hit. Mio, being the first one up, as she was the only one who had fallen asleep at her usual time, was glad the sun was out.
She walked over to Ritsu’s room. The signboard with Ritsu’s name written in hiragana swayed back and forth as Mio pushed the door open. Her socks kept her silent as she moved closer and closer to Ritsu’s desk. A stack of papers with ink, some of it smudged and a few of the papers tucked under Ritsu’s arms, was scattered across her desk. Yui lay on Ritsu’s bed, drooling onto her pillow.
Mio picked up the lyrics sheet and skimmed it. It didn’t use any difficult kanji, but according to the lyrics, life was a game, one that Ritsu intended to win, or at least put up a fair fight in. Mio removed Ritsu’s headband, freeing her wild hair onto her eyes. She patted her friend on the head. Ritsu waved one of her hands in the air and wrapped it around Mio’s arm.
“Good job,” Mio said.
Mio walked into the kitchen and saw the calendar, decorated with photographs of the girls, hanging on the wall. She flipped the calendar ahead to April.
Mio said wistfully, “We’re almost there, girls. The day we’ve been waiting for.”
Chapter 3: #3: Train Station! (鉄道駅!)
The ides of March had passed. The last days of the month were upon them. Within the past month, Tsumugi had stopped by Pony Canyon to discuss the details of the group’s performance with Yumeno. Her eyebrows were once again met with respect and fear. The storage shed was filled with the sound of music as Houkago Tea Time sharpened their old songs and forged new ones. Even Mio had warmed up to playing “Ashita ga Arusa”, though she still thought of it as a bad omen. Two weeks ago, four train tickets arrived in the mail, taking the girls from Toyosato all the way to Tokyo. Excitement pounded in their hearts as they arrived at the train station, luggage and instruments in tow, to begin riding the railway to their dreams.
“Miss Yumeno mentioned a surprise when we got there,” Tsumugi said, “It’s a secret to everybody.”
Mio’s face was flushed. She was shaking as she looked down at her ticket. There were still two hours until the express departed for Tokyo. It was going to be a three hour trip from Toyosato to there, and another twenty minutes to reach the hotel near the Budokan. The calm before the storm of their debut. Ritsu slapped Mio on the back and wrapped her arm around her.
“Just think of it as a moving club room,” Ritsu said, “They might even have tea. Gonna need something to pass the time, though...”
“I bought this at the train station before we left,” Yui said, holding up a relatively thick book. “I liked the illustrations in it.”
“Manga Time Kirara?” asked Tsumugi.
“I dunno, four panels are kind of quick reading,” Ritsu said, “Maybe you should pick up something else. Or some snacks.”
“Snacks sounds good!” Yui said, her eyes sparkling.
If Mio was uneasy, then I had reason to be uneasier. Locked in an overhead compartment or the back of the train, unable to see the sunlight for so long. I thought once again of Lady Sawako’s guitar, stored away in the closet of the club room for months, until the day he was resold. Unable to voice my concern to my master, I hoped for the best on this journey.
It was early in the morning. The air was still crisp, and a light wind blew past the large cherry trees outside the station. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The vast expanse of blue looked down upon us, and the sun’s rays shot directly into the faces of the girls. They sought shade inside the main building, where it was air conditioned and only somewhat crowded. Yui was engrossed in Kirara, while Ritsu looked around for anybody who might recognize them.
“What are the odds a group of college girls would be recognized?” Mio asked. “What if they recognize me? Those stares...”
“Ritsu’s thinking that if Pony Canyon can notice us, maybe other people have noticed us,” Yui said, “There could be videos of us on Nico Nico Douga! You know, like all those people who use their screen names when they get famous.”
“Did any of you check for those videos?” Ritsu asked.
“We don’t have a computer,” Tsumugi said.
“Drat!” Ritsu shouted.
“Miss, you look cool,” said a young boy, tugging on Ritsu’s skirt, “Are you a musician?”
Ritsu turned around and bent to be on eye level with the young man. “That we are. The name is Houkago Tea Time. If you haven’t heard of us, you will soon. How’d you like an autograph?”
“Really?” asked the boy, “You’ll really become famous?”
“Don’t you want to be the one to say ‘I knew them before’?” Ritsu said with a Cheshire Cat-like grin.
The boy opened his notebook to a blank page. Ritsu reached into her bag and pulled out a pen, signing her name in both kanji and hiragana. She called the others over, telling them to sign as well.
“My name will mean nothing if you guys don’t sign with me,” Ritsu said, “Houkago Tea Time always sticks together!”
“Ritsu, I don’t think you asked our young fan for his name,” said Tsumugi.
“Takeru,” said the boy.
“Well, young Takeru, if Ritsu’s prediction comes true, I hope this will be a happy memory for you,” said Tsumugi, signing her name in an elegant font that Ritsu looked upon with a mixture of awe and spite.
“To...Takeru...” Mio said, reading aloud what she wrote with confidence, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A musician like you!” said Takeru, “You girls are funny.”
“Yui, get over here!” Ritsu shouted across the station.
Yui looked up from her seat and tucked Manga Time Kirara under her arm. She pulled out a pen and signed her name without looking at the paper, instead choosing to stare at the cloudless sky through the sun roof. Her signature was readable, but the edges of the strokes bled into the other three autographs. Thinking quickly, Yui wrote “Houkago Tea Time” above the jumbled mess of lines, hoping to make sense of her mistake.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Takeru, “Thanks, miss!”
Takeru ran off into the station to rejoin his family. Ritsu blew at the tip of her pen, spun it around in her fingers like a drum stick, and tucked it back into her bag. She placed her outstretched palm to her visible forehead and looked across the station.
“I wonder if there’s anyone else I can hand these out to,” Ritsu smirked, “I should’ve made business cards if I’d have known the station would be this full this early in the morning.”
Tsumugi stood beside Ritsu, doing the same thing. Her hand ruffled her bushy eyebrows. Compared to Ritsu, her surveying was passive and her eyes less glaring. “I wonder if there are any girls...” Tsumugi said, “Our music always was a hit with the female audience.”
“We didn’t have any other audience,” Mio retorted.
Ritsu didn’t notice until it was too late that there was someone standing behind her that wasn’t Mio. A force much taller, much more imposing, though the years had made it so the girls were now almost equal in height to her. Long, brown hair and red glasses, a friendly demeanor that hid the soul of a musician. Ritsu let out a small yelp and turned around.
“Ritsu, are you trying to force people into becoming your fans?” asked Sawako Yamanaka.
“Sawa!” exclaimed everyone but Ritsu.
“I wasn’t doing that!” Ritsu said, “That was...he reminded me of my little brother.”
“I heard the whole thing,” Sawako said, “That’s not important right now. I’m glad to see you girls again. I’ve been seeing it on the news. So you’re finally going to play at the Budokan?”
“Our dream is waiting at the Tokyo Station,” Ritsu said, “Still got another 90 minutes before we depart...wait, what are you doing here?”
“You think I wouldn’t say goodbye to my favorite students?” Sawako said, “Look at you, you’re so grown up now. Especially you, Mio,” she said, licking her lips, “I would love to take your measurements again.”
“No, you don’t need to, that’ll be fine,” Mio stammered, “Miss Yumeno said that costumes would be provided for us and...”
Sawako walked up to Mio and placed her hands on her shoulders. “Come with me to the girls’ toilet.”
Ritsu and Yui’s heads turned as Sawako dragged the whimpering Mio to the water closet. Tsumugi followed behind, making a quick excuse of needing to use the bathroom. From a distance, the zipping sound of a measuring tape was heard, then Mio’s moans that were either pleasure or discomfort, a hearty laugh from Sawako and Tsumugi going “Ooh...” at the proceedings.
“Sawa hasn’t changed at all,” said Yui.
“How did she know we were here?” Ritsu said, pacing around the train station.
Mio, holding Tsumugi’s hand for comfort, walked out of the bathroom. Sawako let the tape measure slide back inside. A wide smile crossed her face. Creases from the tape measure could be seen across Mio and Tsumugi’s clothes. The girls’ former teacher put her tape measure back on her belt and gave a thumbs-up.
“Nice body,” Sawako said in English, “Measured Mugi while I was in there. Yui, Ritsu, you look the same. I’ll whip up some new costumes for you and send them to Tokyo.”
“Overnight?” Yui asked.
“Sawa!” Ritsu said, “How are things going at Sakuragaoka? Does the light music club still exist? Do people still remember us? And how are the newbies, anyway? Come to think of it, we never found out who we were replacing, but you weren’t the club adviser then, so it’s not like asking you will help...”
“I’m still teaching,” Sawako said, “and yes, the light music club still exists. This year’s group is wonderful, but you set a pretty high standard. The cassette you left behind has almost become a rite of passage for new members. You’ve inspired the others to make their own cassettes too. Your history hasn’t been forgotten. There’s no way it could. Especially after the school festival.”
“Would you stop bringing that up!” Mio said from her chair, “I know that those panties are going to be associated with me forever...”
“I meant the one in your senior year,” Sawako said. “What did you think I was talking about?”
“This is all your fault, Ritsu!” Mio said, closing her eyes and running up to Ritsu, hitting her on the head yet again. A large lump appeared where Mio’s hand had struck. Ritsu ignored it and kept the conversation going.
“How about we get a bite to eat?” said Sawako.
The only thing nearby this station was a few vending machines. That was enough to satisfy Yui. Though the tea was canned and the benches by the station could hardly be called private, something about the situation felt genuine. Yui was nodding off, Ritsu was cracking jokes, Mio was responding to Ritsu’s jokes, and Tsumugi was keeping the refreshments coming while absorbing in the conversation as fast as she could. I felt like a young guitar again. Yet I was aware of that which was called nostalgia. If my master and her friends stayed trapped in the past, they could miss their train and their future. If only I had hands on this body.
The clock continued to tick. Half an hour passed. Sawako talked about her current crop of students. Ritsu brought up the storage shed, which caused Sawako to wax nostalgic. We were not aware that Death Devil had tried this before. Their music threatened to shake the storage facility, its decibel levels just barely coming under the limit for the walls. She then mentioned something about a miniature Stonehenge and the legends of an amplifier that went to 11. A similar legend has circulated around the instruments at the Kotobuki Company store, but with the legendary amp supposedly being in America, none can confirm or deny its existence.
“Have you ever considered music videos?” Sawako asked, “All the major artists are releasing them these days. Not just the mainstream ones either. Invest in a camera and a computer...”
“We don’t have a computer,” Ritsu said, “Our budget’s already going to the storage shed.”
“Then when you get one, look into it,” Sawako said, “Anyone can be a filmmaker these days. Your videos don’t even have to be flashy. Just have some nice costumes and some minimalist sets, and you’ll get an audience. I can help you with the costume part,” she winked.
“Please no,” Mio said quietly.
Ritsu tossed her soda can into a nearby garbage bin. The metallic container bounced off the edges and plunked in. Yui, feeling inspired, tried to do the same. She held back her arm and tossed the can overhead. It rebounded off the lip and fell onto the concrete.
“You make it look so easy, Rit,” Yui said.
“Aw, thanks,” Ritsu said, “But being a musician isn’t about discarding! It’s about bringing things together!”
“You’re really tense,” Sawako said.
That tension was relieved in an instant when the train’s horn could be heard off in the distance. It was one of the noisiest railways in the country; the surprise would be if they didn’t hear it. Ritsu raised her hand in the air, shouting “Woohoo!”. Houkago Tea Time gathered up their bags and waited with the other passengers for their journey to Tokyo. Yui looked as if she was staring out into the afternoon sunlight, her eyes reflecting the rays. Mio leaned in for a closer look. Tears were welling up in the corner of her eyes.
“Sawa, do we have to say goodbye again?” Yui asked.
“This isn’t an end, Yui, it’s a beginning,” said Sawako, wrapping herself around Yui’s shoulders, “It’s tradition for the mentor to see their young protege off. I never thought you guys would be the successors of Death Devil, but I’m proud you are.” Her eyes changed to a deadly serious look in an instant as she whispered in Yui’s ear, “Don’t try to play any of our songs if you don’t have the guts.”
Yui was no longer scared of leaving Sawako. She was now scared of choosing the wrong playlist.
The train stopped at the Shiga Toyosato Station. It was a white train that looked as though it had been in business for years. It was polished and upholstered and clean, but there were dents along the floor and bits of old adhesive stuck to the poles. The sounds of its wheels squeaking against the tracks made the girls cover their ears.
“Welcome to Toyosato Station in Shiga. Toyosato Station in Shiga,” said the female voice from the train, “All passengers, please get on board the train now and present your tickets. We will be departing in a few minutes. Again, all passengers...”
“Thanks for stoppin’ by to see us, Sawa,” said Ritsu, hugging her tightly, “We’ll let you know when we get there.”
“Don’t disappoint me,” Sawako said, “If you can make it at the Budokan, you can make it anywhere.”
Tsumugi, her eyes sparkling from seeing the female companionship, walked up to Sawako herself. “We’ll make many more great memories,” she said, “Thank you for guiding us all this way.”
Sawako shook Tsumugi’s hand and grasped her around the shoulder, “Keep supporting them for me. You’re a great kid, Mugi.”
Mio embraced Sawako the tightest of any of the girls. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t need to. Her whimpers and warm embrace told enough. Elizabeth swung from her back, always an improper swing away from accidentally hitting someone. Mio neither noticed nor cared.
“There, there,” Sawako said, patting her on the head, “Don’t think of the people on stage as being a lot of people. Think of them as people in their underwear. You’ll do fine on stage. Show them what Lefty Mio can do.”
“You mean it?” Mio said, looking up from Sawako’s chest.
“Why wouldn’t I?” she said. “You girls are precious to me.”
Mio walked over to Ritsu’s side and joined her in front of the train door. Tsumugi was beside them. This left only my master. A multitude of thoughts were swirling about inside her head. She embraced Sawako and shouted her name to the train station, catching the attention of several bystanders. I rested on the ground, watching Yui tie her fingers together, trying not to let go. She looked over her shoulder and saw me and her friends. The moment of departure was approaching, and the clock kept ticking down. Tokyo.
“You’ll really send us the cute outfits?” Yui asked.
“Yes,” Sawako responded.
“Sawa, be sure to tell the new students to watch us! We’re their seniors! Living history!” Yui said, putting more emphasis on each passing phrase.
“It’s time we made that history, Yui, hurry it up!” Ritsu shouted from the other side of the train door.
“Best of luck,” Sawako said.
“Best of luck,” Yui said, hugging her back.
Yui scooped me up onto her back and joined the rest of Houkago Tea Time, leaping across the train platform. The four joined hands and walked through the train cars, finding their seats. They were decent seats, located near the front of the train, with wide open windows that showed the hills and the cities that would soon be passing us by. The car was devoid of people except for the dream quartet. Had this also been orchestrated by Pony Canyon? It made the train car feel like a private room, lending an air of specialness to the proceedings. Today was not a day when people were traveling much. Those that were had a purpose.
Their tickets were collected and the train doors closed. A voice came over the loudspeaker. “We will be departing from Toyosato station, and arriving in Maibara in half an hour. Please stand up if there are people that need to sit, and make sure that all your belongings are with you before the train door closes. Thank you for traveling with Ohmi Railways and have a nice day.”
Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Tsumugi looked out the window as the train departed. They could see Sawako among the people, waving to them. She wiped her sleeve across her eyes. Her voice could not be heard over the train’s roar, but it looked like she was mouthing “Try your best!”. The wheels began to move. Sawako ran alongside the train as fast as she could, keeping step until the window where we sat was too far away. From a distance, we could see her bumping into someone of similar stature. Within moments, the train station was completely out of our sight.
“Look at this!” Yui said, opening up the pages of Kirara, “This series looks amazing!”
“What’s it about?” asked Tsumugi.
“Four cute girls with contrasting personalities who have adventures!” Yui said.
“Who’d want to read that? It’ll never catch on,” said Ritsu, staring out the window.
Sawako walked through the main building and out onto the street, ready to return to her apartment. She pulled out a notebook from her bag and began sketching out ideas for the girls’ costumes. She licked her lips with excitement. The pen touching the paper would one day turn into scissors cutting through the fabric, turning her ideas into reality. It had to be something cute, but classy. Not too stylized, and something that provided them enough movement for their instruments. Something that they would be remembered for wearing for years to come, parodied and homaged by media at the furthest end of Japan. This was going to be so much fun!
In the midst of all this fun, Sawako did not see where she was going, and bumped her shoulder into someone. The two of them dropped their glasses. They bent down to pick them up, and when their vision had been restored, Sawako saw the person she had least been expecting.
“Masako,” she said flatly, “Shiga’s several hours out of your way, what are you doing here?”
“It’s only fair to greet one’s rival before the big event,” said Masako Koike.
Lady Sawako’s guitar has told me a story that, until now, had no reason to be repeated. Back in Death Devil’s prime, they got into a friendly rivalry with another band. Bubble Angel was not all that different. They, too, painted their faces, wore elaborate costumes, and drew crowds when they performed. They were cute. The current Houkago Tea Time is a free spirited, natural cuteness. Bubble Angel’s was as fake as a demon mask, and, from Sawako’s perspective, nearly as terrifying.
As with Death Devil, the group eventually faded into fun memories, but Masako refused to let go. She assimilated herself into two more musical groups before, like Sawako, settling down and becoming a school teacher in Hokkaido. She was half a head taller and a little bustier. Her pince-nez glasses made her eyes look stern, even when she had a smile on her face. Her long, black hair blew wildly about. She refused to give into the wind.
“Rival?” Sawako said, “That was just a fun little thing we did in high school. We were young and stupid back then.”
“Yes, rival,” said Masako, “Those girls you were waving off...are they your light music club?”
“Houkago Tea Time, formerly the Sakuragaoka Light Music Club, but I’m not sure where you’re going with this...”
“I’m sure you’ve heard that there are two bands playing at the Budokan in a few days,” said Masako, walking over to Sawako, “The first is yours. The second is mine. Now we can conclude this through our students.”
“There’s no feud!” Sawako said, “The girls came into this through their own musical talent. I’ve trained Yui, sure, but the club room was always theirs. I used it like a second teachers’ lounge, not some sort of academy. I don’t know where you’re getting these ideas from.”
“Honestly, I’m surprised,” said Masako, pulling out a flier for the upcoming concert, “Death Devil was pretty metal for its day. Fight metal with metal, I thought. Yet here you go again, ignoring what I’ve been setting up.”
“I didn’t even know you still played music,” said a dumbfounded Sawako.
“Houkago Tea Time, really now. Everything from their lyrics to their name is so sugary sweet. I suppose today’s culture might appreciate that sort of thing, but I wanted to fight you fair. My girls are twice the Death Devil you ever were. I hope your band is the opening act. Soothing the audience’s mind will make it that much more surprising when Kitaku Free Time rocks them out of their seats,” said Masako.
“I’ll look forward to your girls, but I really must be going,” said Sawako, looking back at her sketches, “You used to be pretty cute yourself, and unless the Masako I know appears, have a good day and get going back to Hokkaido. I’m sure your students miss you.”
She tried to walk away from the train station as briskly as she could. Running into someone from your past was supposed to be pleasant, a chance to laugh and make the new generation who overheard it laugh with you. Bubble Angel was a good band. She might not have agreed with their style, but their music was elegantly crafted. Had that elegance in music also been an act?
Sawako felt the vibrations of her cell phone in her pocket. Masako Koike. How had she gotten this number? Sawako picked up the phone and prepared herself for another round of misguided taunting.
“This is my final message,” Masako said, “Whoever wins at the Budokan, no matter how light your music is, I want you to put up a fair fight. You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for something like thi-”
“Excuse me, there’s another call coming in,” said Sawako, changing the flow of the conversation, “Fair fight, got it. Later, Koike.”
She switched over to the other line. It didn’t list a name, but it was coming from the Budokan. Yui and company should still be on the train. She hadn’t even known about the show until a few days ago. There was silence on the line. The sound of phone static and her breath; someone else’s breath. The wind whistled past.
“Hello?” Sawako asked, uncertain.
“Is this Sawako Yamanaka, guitarist of Death Devil?” asked the feminine voice on the other end.
“Yes, who am I speaking to?” she replied.
Another period of silence. The voice on the other end spoke up in a staticy, distorted whisper.
“Masaka Yumeno. There’s something I’d like you to do for me.”
Sawako listened intently to Yumeno’s plans. She closed her phone and looked across the cloudless sky. A blue bird flew overhead, following the course of the railway. Bluebirds cannot fly at the speed of light, thought Sawako. But with one’s wings, there is no need for rails.
Chapter 4: #4: Reunion! (再会!)
The train that we had transferred to wouldn’t make any stops until it arrived in Tokyo. Compared to the leisurely pace of our ride to Haibara, this cast an air of heavy anticipation over the train car, which had now become crowded with people. The girls tried their best to keep their instrument cases out of peoples’ way, but with space suddenly being a precious commodity, some bumping of our bodies did occur. Sacrifices must be made for art.
Yui had finished reading through everything in Manga Time Kirara. News, fan letters, every single serialized manga, all of them absorbed into her brain. To the point that characters and stories were starting to blend together. Mio stretched her arm out and removed the book from Yui’s hands. There was a look of joy on my master’s face, her mind filled with punchlines.
“Yui, are you okay? Your eyes look strained,” Mio asked.
“I’ll be fine, Mio,” said Yui, “Just let me know when we get there.”
Houkago Tea Time knew many things about Yui Hirasawa. One of her strangest traits was that she could absorb talent and information at an incredible rate, without even really trying. Her limit was one thing at a time. So while her brain recounted the adventures of the characters in Kirara, Mio hoped that Yui would be able to reclaim her guitar playing skills before they went on stage. Though now that she had the book, the girls on the cover were so cute. She wanted to see if they had names and stories and things she could use for musical inspiration...
“No, I mustn’t!” Mio said, flipping the book over.
Compared to the cloudless Toyosato, the Tokyo weather was not something we were prepared for. The sun still shone brightly overhead, but strips of gray clouds had been laid across the sky, cross-hatching the heavens. A light rainstorm fell onto the sidewalk, creating slippery reflective puddles.
“It’s a sunshower,” Tsumugi said, smiling, “It’s so mysterious and romantic.”
“I heard that you can see a rainbow when this happens,” Ritsu said, “That would make a super awesome photo!”
“This isn’t good,” Mio said, twitching in her seat, “So many people in the station might see...”
“It’s only a little rain,” Ritsu said.
Mio replied “The rain isn’t the problem.”
She was wearing a white T-shirt. Tsumugi walked across the train aisle to Mio’s side. Her face was sparkling. A chance for skinship among girls was upon her. She took off her jacket and wrapped it around Mio’s shoulders. The two exchanged a glance that hinted at either a deep mutual friendship or Tsumugi’s idea that no one would ever again see Mio’s unmentionables unless it was her.
“Attention, all passengers,” came a voice over the loudspeaker, “We have arrived at Tokyo Station. Please gather your luggage and wait until the train has come to a complete stop. Thank you for traveling with us today, and enjoy your stay in beautiful Tokyo. The next train will be departing at...”
“We’re here!” Ritsu cheered, “Woohoo!”
“I’ve always wanted to see Tokyo up close,” Yui said.
“Our concert’s not until tomorrow, there’s plenty of time,” Tsumugi said, “Our surprise is here too.”
“How far ahead did Miss Yumeno plan?” Mio questioned, “This seems like a lot for a band performing for the first time.”
“It’s because it’s for the first time,” Tsumugi said, waving her finger in a singsong manner.
The train, now having come to a halt, opened its doors. Houkago Tea Time grabbed their instruments and luggage and departed from the train. A sea of people flowed through the station, hoping to get out of the underground tunnel and get started on what they had come here to do. At the foot of the stairs leading to the upper lobby, Yui saw someone waving a signboard. The mark of the band, a teacup with steam lines rising from it, had been drawn in thick black marker lines. It could only be for them.
Yui raced over to the sign, the others following her. Waving the sign was a face Yui had not expected to see. A girl, a head shorter than her, with black hair tied in two pigtails. She wore an innocent smile, but her eyes told a different story, one of longing. Two others were with her, equally unexpected. One had short hair the same color as Yui, but with a bustier figure and a chipper smile. The other looked bored. Her frizzy brown hair was in two puffballs on the side of her head. Her face changed instantly when she saw Mio, panting, running through the train station.
“Azu-nyan!” Yui said, embracing Azusa tightly.
“Yui!” Azusa returned the hug, “It’s been so long. We’re at the same school...I really thought I’d run into you more.”
“Sis,” Ui said, hugging her older sister on the back, “Were you expecting us?”
“So our juniors were the surprise? Mugi, did you know this?” Mio said.
“I knew it was a person,” Tsumugi said.
“Miss Yumeno knew that we couldn’t have Houkago Tea Time without Azusa here,” said Jun, “Though you’re my favorite,” she said, pointing at Mio.
“How long have you been here?” asked Ritsu, “Great to have ya back in the band, Azusa.”
“We only got here yesterday,” Azusa explained.
“Ui, Jun,” Azusa said, turning to her friends, “You know that I will be playing alongside my seniors for this concert, but I’d like to make you an offer for a collaboration. Houkago Tea Time and the next generation, on stage at the same time. A seven person band. Miss Yumeno already gave the approval for us, so...”
“Of course!” said Ui and Jun.
“Gitah’s little sister will help too,” said Ui, “Sis, isn’t this wonderful?”
“I get to play with Mio?” Jun shouted, drawing the attention of the crowds, “This is awesome!”
Yui head the clicking of a camera, and looked around to see who it was. Nobody in the group, or nearby, had their cell phones out. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a person with lime green hair ducking out of sight. They blended into the crowds. Yui tried to call out to them, but did not know their name.
The rain had lessened to the point where an umbrella wasn’t needed. Jun directed the group through the bustling city streets to the hotel that had been reserved for them a few miles away from the Budokan. The closer they got to the arena, the more Yui noticed posters had gone up, advertising their band and another. She stopped and let the group get ahead.
“Kitaku Free Ti...” Yui said, trying to make out the katakana from a distance.
“Yui, come on,” Mio said, “We’re almost there.”
“Almost there? Wait for me!” Yui ran, me on her back, to catch up with her friends.
“This is the place,” Jun said, letting them look up into the cloudy sky, “The Hotel Metropolitan Edmont. We’ve got two Japanese-style rooms in our name.”
“Isn’t that expensive?” Mio asked.
“Oh, it can’t be that bad,” said Tsumugi. “Only...” she leaned into Mio’s ear to whisper the amount.
“That’s ‘not that bad’?” Mio said.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Ui said, “Miss Yumeno assured us they’re covering all the costs. Let’s go get you settled in.”
The room that Yui and company would be staying in was refreshing in its simplicity, compared to the apartment. Tatami mats lined the floors, a low table for eating was in the living area and the baths were deep and refreshing. It felt like the home of a celebrity. Mio grabbed Ritsu by the collar, preventing her from running into the room.
“We’re not celebrities yet,” Mio said.
“I just wanted to practice a bit,” Ritsu replied.
Mio pulled Ritsu by the collar again, so that she was staring right into her eyes. With her other hand, Mio adjusted Ritsu’s headband, which had begun to slip off her forehead from the sweat and rain. As Ritsu’s forehead became visible once again, Mio smiled.
“I like the sound of that,” she said.
The band set up their instruments quickly. The view of the city from the window inspired awe and the knowledge that soon, in that stadium across the street, they would be there. Mio breathed a sigh of relief as she freed Elizabeth from her case. The room was air conditioned and the acoustics were much better than the cold steel of the storage shed. As I took a look at my surroundings, I saw the two newcomers to this merry band.
The first was a nicely designed Yamaha bass, held in the hands of the girl called Jun Suzuki. Shiro, he said his name was. He spoke with the same enthusiasm that Mellow Yellow had, but tinted with immaturity. He had been purchased shortly after I left Sakuragaoka. The other was a Stratocaster, named Sora, owned by Ui. My little sister. I wondered if Ui had the same dedication to her guitar that my master had to me. I’ve seen what her fingers can do. There is no reason to doubt her skill.
“What have you been up to all this time?” asked Mio.
“I guess it has been a while since the holidays,” Azusa said, “We performed at the Jazz Festival recently. Then there was that time Jun did this really cool bass solo in class. The teacher was impressed.”
“It’s a learning process,” Jun said, “You guys don’t know how awesome this is. The light music club really made my year, but I never thought I’d actually get to jam with you. Mio, do you know any good riffs?”
“A few,” Mio said, playing a short melody on her bass.
“Sawa told me something before she showed us off at the train station,” Ui said, “It’s funny. For at least a year after we left, Sakuragaoka still had a Mio Akiyama Fan Club. They knew people who knew me who knew Yui who knew you. Everyone chipped in for a birthday card. Did you get it?”
“They still have a chapter?” Mio said uncertainly, “Pretty persistent...”
“Look at it this way,” Ritsu said, tapping Mio on the shoulder with one of her drum sticks, “Soon we’ll all have fan clubs. The Mio Fan Club can go national! No, global! High school was just a warm up.”
“I don’t want that much attention,” Mio said, “No privacy, I won’t be able to go anywhere, even my interviews will have to be held in secret.”
“Houkago Tea Time always sticks together,” Tsumugi said, “We’ll be there to help you deal with your fans. Now, everyone, shall we begin practice?”
“What are we playing?” Azusa said, “Fuwa Fuwa Time?”
“Love that one, it’s your signature sound,” Jun chimed in.
“’Ashita ga Arusa’,” Ritsu said.
“Let’s go with that one,” Azusa said, overexcited at the prospect of playing anything, “I’ve been waiting for this for so long...you have no idea...I’m sorry, I can’t stop myself from crying.”
“It’s not complete yet,” Yui said, reaching into her bag pocket, “For old times’ sake, Azu-nyan?”
A black headband with black cat ears, decorated with white tufts in the middle. The exact same one. The fabric on the ears had become worn, and there were places where it had been stitched together, but these ears were packed with history and emotions running deep. Azusa accepted the cat ears from her senior, and placed them on her head. They fit well.
“Let’s rock, nya!” Azusa said, turning her hand into a cat’s paw.
“Ashita ga Arusa”, followed by “Fuwa Fuwa Time” and several new music pieces echoed out from the amplifiers and into the hotel room. Some were new pieces that Azusa, Ui and Jun had penned in the interim of three years. Others were pieces written by Houkago Tea Time, including Ritsu’s. A lot of it was improvisation at Jun’s suggestion, which Yui found fun. Until the sun began to set on the horizon, they played.
I, too, felt more alive than I had in months.
The starry skies sparkled overhead. When the afternoon clouds had gone away, the heavens extended out infinitely. On the balcony of the hotel room, the Hirasawa sisters stood side by side. Everyone else was either asleep or preoccupied with their own things. To be able to converse, as family, for the first time in many months was something they appreciated.
“Ui, did you ever think about playing music before I started?” Yui asked.
“I don’t think I did, sis,” Ui said, “There’s something otherworldly about it, isn’t there? These instruments are almost like art themselves, with their designs and their details, but it’s when we place our guitar picks to them that true art bursts out. ...Sis? Are you listening?”
“Something about art,” Yui said, smiling, “I never thought of it that way. When I play with Gitah, I feel happy. When everyone plays their instruments, they feel happy. When we play together, everyone else feels happy. Houkago Tea Time is about spreading that happiness to others.”
“Houkago Tea Time plus two,” Ui said.
“The ‘plus two’ isn’t needed,” Yui said, “You’re not honorary. You’re our friends. As much in the band as everyone else.”
“I love you, sis,” Ui said, embracing her sister.
“I love you too, Ui,” said my master, returning the hug.
They could see the Budokan off in the distance, spotlights shining on its round form. From here, it looked like a giant strawberry cake.
The sun peeked over the horizon, covering Tokyo in a warm white light. Yui slept in later than everyone else, but Ritsu made sure to wake her up. Tsumugi opened her cell phone to find a text message from Miss Yumeno. We had to be at the Budokan by 13:00 for rehearsal. The time was 10:34. We descended the elevator into the main lobby of the hotel, where breakfast was being served. The seven of us gathered at a large table. The instruments around us drew some stares, but nobody in the Tokyo area knew who we were.
“Strawberries for breakfast,” Yui said, “This hotel has everything!”
“It’s a complimentary breakfast, but don’t eat too much,” Mio said.
“I need energy for the stage!” Yui said.
“You always have energy,” Tsumugi said.
“Guys, there’s something we’ve been ignoring,” Azusa said, “We’re not the only ones who are performing today. Do you know anything about Kitaku Free Time? The only thing I’ve found out is that they’re an amateur pop metal band from Hokkaido. I don’t even know their members’ real names. Or stage names. You’d think this would be something we’d want to know.”
“Hokkaido?” Ritsu asked. “Man, and I thought we traveled far.”
“Hey, as long as we’re in Tokyo, how about we go sightseeing?” said Jun, standing up in her seat, “The Tokyo Dome is near here! Maybe Miss Yumeno can get us to play there next!”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Ui said, “Has anyone seen sis?”
Yui was preoccupied with the sweets at the breakfast table, trying to scoop as many as she could onto her plate. She returned, setting it down in front of her with a loud “clunk”. Jun and Mio exchanged uncertain looks.
“Can you really eat all that?” asked Mio.
We left the hotel and walked out onto the streets of Tokyo once again. For once, the weather conditions weren’t strange. A light, crisp breeze, a few clouds, a steady stream of sunlight, and a temperature that was neither too warm nor too cold. A wonderful day for a concert.
Shops that didn’t exist back at home, eateries that had expensive and tasty looking food and the Tokyo Dome, we made stops at all of them. We could only get a picture of ourselves outside Tokyo Dome City, because Pony Canyon wasn’t paying for that. It was early in the afternoon when we noticed people flocking in a certain direction. Those who form long lines for major events are the most dedicated, though those who preordered their tickets online could also have been among the crowds. We kept our distance.
“Fifteen minutes!” Ritsu said, “Hurry up!”
Keeping themselves under the shade, the girls ran across the block in quick spurts, hoping to blend into the crowds. Many of the people in the crowd looked the same as them. People dressed casually, with an air of excitement on their faces, ready to go to the arena for a special event that, after today, would be remembered only in video recordings and memories. Mio, whose wariness of her fans had heightened her senses unconsciously, pointed to two large, monochromatic clothes wearing groups that were sparring back and forth in the square.
One group donned white jackets with the gold and purple HTT star printed on the back. The other dressed in black and had a green hourglass shape with “KFT” printed in red letters akin to a digital clock. Representatives from each group (both scruffy, glasses-wearing female nerds) were debating their loyalty.
“HTT is the better of the two,” said the one, “Mio’s moe moe kyun is enough cuteness to overpower whatever KFT brings. Just because you dress in black doesn’t mean you have a point to make. It makes you look stupid!”
“That’s just like you HTT fans, so naive,” said the other, “Just because you’re near Kyoto, that doesn’t mean you’re good. Such an overrated little band, all of its fans haven’t even grown up! Get back to me when you learn what reality is like.”
“Reality? You’re rejecting reality just as much! What visual kei band did you take your design cues from? Your music is so loud that I can barely hear the words!”
“Your words are so insipid that I can’t even focus on the music!”
“Both of you, please,” said a girl dressed in the colors of neither side, “This is the first major label concert for both of them. Trying to smear the other side will only make both of you look stupid.”
“She started it!” the fangirls replied, pointing at each other.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jun whispered to her friends, “These people are giving me the creeps.”
The group of seven walked to the back entrance, where a security guard let them in without problem. A blast of cool air swept past the girls, sending a shiver down their spines. The offices and backstage areas of the Nippon Budokan were huge in size and emptiness. Posters from past events, musical and martial arts in nature, hung along the walls, commemorating the arena’s long history. The girls were partway down the hall when Tsumugi’s cell phone beeped to notify her of a text message.
“It’s from Miss Yumeno,” she said.
“Dear Houkago Tea Time plus two,
“Congratulations on dodging the crowds and getting here early. Please report to the green room for further instruction. We would like you to socialize with Kitaku Free Time before the concert begins. Have fun~!
“Why a text message?” Jun asked, “You’d think she’d at least have the courtesy to meet us face to face.”
Getting to the green room involved navigating the labyrinthine corridors of the Budokan. The offices of the employees were passed by, along with storage for props and costumes, lighting and parts of the stage. There were also several classrooms dedicated to schooling the next generation of kids in martial arts.
“How nostalgic,” Yui said, “Remember the time I wore that maid outfit Sawa gave me to class?”
“You did what?” Jun said.
“It’s a funny story,” Ui said.
I remember that day as well. When the downpour threatened to destroy my body and my soul. For as much as my master is a klutz, she’s protective of me. We stopped to pause at a map several times, but eventually made it to the green room. A plate of food and drinks had been laid out for us by Miss Yumeno. There were also two large couches in the room, and another surprise.
“Ton!” Azusa said, “I thought I left you back at home.”
“He’s growing up, just like you, Azu-nyan,” Yui said.
“I’ve been taking good care of him! I mean, we have!” Azusa said, “I’m still not sure what he’s doing here.”
In a tank that looked as clean as the last time I saw him, Ton the soft shelled turtle, now a mite bigger and just as slow moving, was swimming about his aquarium, ignorant of the goings on outside his tank. As long as the water was warm and he was fed, he was content. I hadn’t seen that turtle in years, but I suspected he would live as long as the band did, perhaps longer.
“So many sweets...” Yui said, leaning over the table.
“Didn’t we just have breakfast? How can you be hungry again?” Mio asked.
“You know me, Mio, I have a second stomach for sweets,” my master said, salivating, “Now, what to eat first?”
“Yui, perhaps we should wait until the other band gets here,” Tsumugi said, “We’re both guests of the Budokan, so it’s only polite...”
“Alright, but when they get here, I’m digging in,” Yui said, pouting.
“What time is it, anyhow? I wanna see this Kitaku Something or Other,” Ritsu said, “They must be at least as good as us!”
“12:51,” said Ui, glancing down at her watch.
The door to the green room opened. A blast of cold wind from the outside blew past. The sound of a bell could be heard ringing from the front of the arena as the crowds moved forward. The lights dimmed, and then turned back on. When the room brightened, Mio was hiding herself behind Ritsu. A single footstep was heard, and Kitaku Free Time appeared, shadowed.
Their leader stepped forward. She was Yui’s height, with wild, spiky, deep red hair. She was dressed in a gothic lolita look that the rest of her band followed suit on. A guitar was strapped around her back. Her eyes flared with passion, shooting straight through Yui’s heart. She snickered.
The bassist was next. Her hair went down to her shoulders, but had a small strand coming from the top. It was light blue in color. Her top was low enough to expose some of her cleavage and the edges of her bra, while her skirt was short enough to reveal her black and blue striped panties.
The drummer had golden yellow hair and a boyish figure. Her eyes were in a pronounced squint. We weren’t sure if they were open at all, much less how she could see. Despite this, she was wearing the frilliest and most traditional of the dresses, resembling a princess more than a drummer.
The last two entered together, keeping a sizable distance from the rest of the band. The first had pronounced bangs and a doe-eyed expression. Her hair was shocking pink. A deep blush was across her face. Her figure was well proportioned, but her clothes hid this. The one with her had turquoise hair tied in twin tails. She wore a headband with a pair of dog ears, one of which was flopped over. Standing next to the drummer and keyboardist, they looked like ersatz versions of another group of singers. She, like the leader, carried a guitar across her back.
The five of them stood in formation. Yui, Mio, Ritsu, Tsumugi and Azusa stood opposite their performers from the other band. Ui and Jun kept their distance, whispering to themselves their observations about this group. The leader of Kitaku Free Time was the first to speak. Her voice was low-pitched for a girl, but cute in a husky sort of way.
“So this is the band Yamanaka trained,” she said, “I’ve been waiting for this. Guitarist, what is your name?”
“Yui Hirasawa,” she said. “and who are you?”
She replied, “Yorozu Hyakkoku.”
Chapter 5: #5: Mirror Image! (鏡像!)
The first thing Houkago Tea Time noticed were the hair colors. Shades of black and brown and red and blonde existed in this world, but none of them looked as saturated and bold as the members of Kitaku Free Time.
“Excuse me,” Tsumugi said, “What dye do you use?”
“Dye?” scoffed the blue haired bassist, “Listen, miss eyebrows, this is my natural hair color.”
“Perhaps the rest of you should introduce yourselves before you start putting us down,” Ritsu said.
“Very well,” said the guitarist, “There’s no need for me to do it again.”
The blue haired one spun around quickly, briefly flashing her panties. “A nice body and a burning heart, on bass, Michi Yokokawa.”
The girl in the frilly dress bowed, causing her spiky hair to flop back and forth, “The rhythmic Yamato Nadeshiko, on drums, Ran Fujii.”
“Is the boasting really necessary?” asked the pink-haired girl, “This isn’t a battlefield, it’s a green room.”
“Hurry it up, Miura,” said Yorozu.
“Trying my best every day, on keyboard, Tsugumi Miura,” she said.
Azusa’s opposite, the dog-eared girl, removed her instrument case from her back and set it on the ground, freeing her body from its strain. She gave a cheerful “wan!” before her introduction. “The cute little junior, on rhythm guitar, Asada Kikuchi, wan!”
“The black hole rotating in deep space, we are Kitaku Free Time!” said Yorozu, clenching her fist and grinning madly, “Now, who are the rest of you fine young entertainers?”
“Ritsu Tainaka, drums and mood maker,” said Ritsu, shaking Ran’s hand casually.
“Azusa Nakano, rhythm guitar,” she said, bowing.
“Tsumugi Kotobuki, keyboard,” said the independent rich girl, hoping to shake Tsugumi’s hand.
“Kotobuki?” said Yorozu, “Well, would you look at that. The daughter of the big man himself. Wouldn’t be surprised if they bought their way here.”
“Would you kindly shut up?” said Jun.
“M-Mio Akiyama,” said Mio, presenting herself before Michi, “Bass guitar. I’m looking forward to working with you for tonight’s concert.”
Yorozu grabbed a handful of sweets from the table and took her seat on the couch. Yui’s eyes crossed paths with her counterpart’s guitar case. My master hoped that Yorozu’s instrument was as cute as I was. “Cute” was the last word I would use to describe the feeling emanating from that case.
“Yamanaka’s trainees look like total amateurs,” said Michi.
“You know Sawa?” said Yui, shocked.
“Indirectly,” Ran explained, taking out a clipboard from her bag, “We were trained in music under Masako Koike. Or, rather, she sought us out. We’re what the Americans would call a garage band.”
“Who’s Masako Koike?” asked Mio, “Sawa never told us anything about that.”
“I know,” Azusa said, “She had a cult following for a few years before vanishing off the map. She was the guitarist and vocalist for Bubble Angel. It’s an idol pop group, so the music was nothing special. She just had a lot of charisma. Fans of Death Devil and Bubble Angel tend to not get along, though those grudges have mostly faded.”
“Who are you two?” said Asada, tilting her head at Ui and Jun.
“Oh, yeah, the plus two,” said Yorozu, “A group doesn’t need more than five. Things get stupid after that.”
“Ui Hirasawa, third guitar. That’s my older sister at the snack table,” said Ui.
“Older sister?” said the members of Kitaku Free Time in unison.
Yui was pouring herself a cup of tea. Cake crumbs were around her mouth, and an assortment of other sweets were on her plate. She turned to Ui and smiled. “You won’t believe how much stuff they’ve got up here!” she said, “It’s delicious!”
“Jun Suzuki, second bass,” said Jun, being careful not to extend her hand, “Intimidate Mio again, and you’ll have to answer not just to me, but her entire fan club. Our motto is ‘Mio is my wife’!”
“Oh, that is a riot,” said Michi, “Fan clubs? Wife? This isn’t high school anymore. Once you go beyond this stage, it’s all about image. Image is everything to KFT. What motif are you going for, schoolgirls?”
“We don’t really have one,” Tsumugi said, “It’s whatever Sawa dressed us in at the time. Shouldn’t a band be more about the people in it?”
“People can be replaced. Talent can’t. I see you haven’t learned that yet,” said Ran.
13:00 struck. People continued to camp outside the Budokan. The intercom crackled, a female voice, sounding like a whisper that had the volume turned up as high as it could go, spoke to us. Tsumugi and Yorozu had the most immediate reactions to the voice, though it captivated everyone in the green room. The speaker in the corner of the room was looked up to, like a bell at a shrine.
“Hello, girls. Are all of you here?”
“Who is that?” whispered Ritsu, “Sounds suspicious.”
“Yumeno, you crafty queen,” said Yorozu, “Hey, Tsugumi, Asada, focus. This is big news.”
“It’s Miss Yumeno’s voice!” said Tsumugi.
“Masaka?” said Mio.
“Yes, it’s me, Akiyama,” said the loudspeaker. “The real thing.”
“Does anyone know what this Yumeno looks like?” asked Asada.
A feeling swept over the green room, making it feel very monochromatic. The twelve gathered musicians retreated into their heads, thinking back on the past three months. Even when they went to Pony Canyon’s offices, they had only spoken with a secretary of Miss Yumeno’s, hearing her voice through a loudspeaker. They had no idea what she looked like. Yet, she had been the one getting everything set for this day, so they had no choice but to be grateful to her.
“What is it, boss?” asked Tsugumi.
“A representative of mine will be along shortly. We’ve been processing your ideas for the theatrics, and there’s some really great stuff in there. We want to take you to the prop department to make sure everything’s in order.”
“We get to see more of the Budokan?” said Yui.
“That’s awesome!” said Ritsu, wrapping her arm around Yui, and pulling Mio in with her as well, “Let’s get a backstage photo before we leave!”
“High schoolers,” said Ran, “So undignified.”
Asada only looked at them wistfully and gave a deep, girlish sigh. She put her dog ears back into her bag.
The crowds were starting to file into the Budokan for the pre-show events. Merchandise was to be bought and sold, prizes were to be given, and the war of the fans would continue until both sides walked away in a furious, empty draw. Unknown to both the HTT and KFT fans, two figures were sneaking around towards the backstage entrance. They were dressed casually, with sunglasses. They also had hair the color of marker ink.
One of them was slightly shorter, with orange hair tied into a single ponytail. The other had short sky blue puffy hair that went out in whatever direction it pleased. The orange haired girl thumbed through her pockets and produced two passes. She handed one of them to puffy haired girl. They walked up to the back entrance of the Budokan, passing by the employee parking lot. The orange haired girl pressed the button near the door, sending a buzz to the security office.
“Nippon Budokan, who is this?” asked a voice.
“We’ve got backstage passes,” said the orange haired girl, flashing them towards the camera.
“Don’t remember handing out any of those,” said security, “How’d you obtain those?”
“Won them in a radio contest in Hokkaido,” said the puffy one, “They’re signed by one of your partners. Does the name Yumeno sound at all familiar?”
“Masaka?” said the security guard.
“Yes, the real deal,” said the ponytail girl in a smooth mezzo-soprano voice, “There’s someone in there I want to see.”
“Can’t say no to some young fans,” said security, “Welcome inside, girls.”
The door opened. The orange haired girl pulled on the handle and waited for her partner to duck inside. Against the backdrop of humming vending machines, they pulled off the sunglasses and caught their breath.
“We need to find Asada,” said the puffy haired one, “She could do so much if she was with my jazz. Those Kitaku Free Time girls are a bad influence. They might corrupt her. They might have already! I’m such a bad friend.”
“If you compromise yourself, you compromise the mission,” said the orange haired girl, “We’re not here to rescue Asada. I don’t think she wants to be. This is about ideologies.”
“Say, did you see the signs on the way in?” said the puffy haired one, “Houkago Bee Time, I think they’re called. They look so cool!”
“Tea Time,” the orange haired girl said, “Kokoro, we might get arrested. Don’t get distracted!”
“But...” Kokoro said.
“Shh! Someone’s coming,” said the orange haired girl, “In there!”
They ducked into an empty classroom. Miss Yumeno’s assistant walked past, twirling his pen in his fingers while looking over his clipboard. Behind him was the girls of Houkago Tea Time. Tsumugi led the way, with Mio and Ritsu exchanging friendly barbs. Yui was walking beside Azusa, and Jun and Ui behind them. They were so wrapped up in their own conversation they never cared to look into the classroom. The lights were dim, anyway. There was no way there could be people in there. Though Kokoro kept peeking through the slat in the not totally closed door.
“That was them!” she said, “They looked weird. Their hair colors were black and brown. I wonder if they’re dyeing them.”
“That’s the first thing you noticed?” asked the orange haired girl.
“They were...smiling,” said Kokoro, “and laughing.”
“That’s strange,” said the orange haired girl, kicking against a desk to right herself, “How can they create art if they’re not hiding some suffering beneath the surface? Life is suffering. Art is suffering. Life is art. That’s just the way it is.”
“Someone’s coming!” said Kokoro.
Michi and Yorozu walked the past the door. Though they were side by side, each was on opposite ends of the hallway, not saying a word. The air around them was thick and humid, as if a simple glance could spark a bolt of lightning between their eyes. Ran was following behind them, walking at a slow pace. She was flipping through a stack of papers. Kokoro saw her reach into the breast pocket of her dress, producing a pair of blue-framed glasses. She peered down at the fine print and continued walking, never once looking up at the decorations from events past around her.
Asada and Tsugumi were the last in the line. Asada briskly walked by, trying to keep pace with her seniors. She saw a crack of darkness in the hallway and veered off towards the classroom door, pushing it open further. Classrooms had a nostalgic feeling for her. They were a safe haven, a place where she was among equals. With another graduation approaching, Tsugumi wondered if she’d ever sit down in one again. She’d enjoy it if her last time doing so could be at a place of cultural importance.
“Is someone here?” she asked.
“Quiet!” said the orange haired girl.
“That voice,” Tsugumi said, “Yoroko?”
The orange haired girl stood up and walked over to the door. She placed her arms across Tsugumi’s shoulders. Kokoro stood behind her and waved.
“Don’t tell anyone we’re here,” said Yoroko, “You’re not one of the people I’d want to see hurt by this. Though I wasn’t planning on another band being here.”
“Were they nice?” asked Kokoro.
“Houkago Tea Time seem like very nice people,” said Tsugumi, “I really have to get going. Yorozu wants me to move the props onto the stage, so...”
“They have people to do those things here, she doesn’t have to keep you working,” said Yoroko.
“Keeping me working...is what I need more than anything else...” said Tsugumi slowly, “Goodbye, Kokoro.”
“Later, Tsugu!” said Kokoro.
A small signboard posted beside the door read “prop department”. The assistant opened it up, revealing stacks of objects left over from shows past. Yui looked up at it in amazement. Lights of all sorts, old scripts, decorations that had once been used in the main lobby, everything that spoke of show business was there. She extended her hand out towards one of the boxes, but the assistant stopped her, reprimanding her with a wave of his finger.
“It looks very gothic,” said Ritsu, “I wonder if there’s a Rosetta Stone in here somewhere.”
“Ah, how nostalgic,” said Tsumugi, “To ‘die’ beneath the languages of the world is romantic, don’t you think?”
“I have no clue what they’re talking about,” said Ran, “Buried under a Rosetta Stone, really?”
“Here’s the list of what you wanted for the show, Miss Hyakkoku,” said the assistant, handing a copy of an order form over to Yorozu, “The model of Stonehenge is a bit difficult to manage, so we have it set up on the stage. The rotating platform is doable, but we’re curious if it will affect your sound. Why do you want rabbits on stage?”
“This is all part of our image! Image!” said Yorozu, “Good work getting everything, boy.”
“Stonehenge,” Yui said, picturing herself posing in front of the monument.
“Now, Miss Kotobuki,” said the assistant, “Your list is surprisingly easy to manage.”
“We’ve never had elaborate set pieces when we perform, and I wanted to give the audience the authentic Houkago Tea Time experience,” Tsumugi said, “though, you did get the special speakers I ordered?”
A cart rolled by with a heavy amplifier that came up to Yui’s waist. She leaned over the edge of the box and looked at the dial.
“What’s the loudest volume a speaker can go to?” Yui asked.
“Most go up to 10,” said the assistant.
“These go to 11,” said Tsumugi, “It’s one higher.”
“Those are a fluke!” said Michi.
With their props gathered, the girls walked back through the Budokan’s backstage, passing by the classroom, which was now completely empty. The door to the green room opened, and everyone flopped down on the couches. Calm silence swept over the green room. 14:00 had struck. The concert was to begin in two hours.
Azusa walked over to Ton’s tank. She opened up his food container and let the crumbs fall in, waiting for him to move. He was sleeping now, but in a few hours, perhaps. She was content to watch him sleep. Though he was in a room unfamiliar, with loud noises constantly coming from outside, the little guy endured. Life was easy for him. Azusa pressed her hands against the tank, letting the condensation fall onto her hands, when she felt the presence of someone over her shoulder.
Asada Kikuchi, now in her dog ears again, was beside her.
“Mi-mi-mi-mi-mi...” Azusa stuttered.
“Can I see?” asked Asada, “He looks cute.”
Asada, her long turquoise hair drooping off the sides of her ears like a curious puppy, bent down on her knees to stare into the tank. The water was sparkling clear, letting her see through to the poster behind it. Ton suddenly woke up and looked at his surroundings. He slowly swam through the water, chomping on his food as he did so. After circling around the tank, leaving trails of water behind him, he came to eye level with Asada. Turtles cannot give expressions, so I cannot say what he was feeling at that moment, but his gaze with Asada held for a good ten seconds. Each was mystified by the other.
“We used to have a pet back at our school,” said Asada, “Buster, a pet rabbit. Yorozu got her for me on a shopping trip.”
“So you wouldn’t be lonely when everyone graduated?” Azusa questioned.
“So that I could have someone to talk to,” Asada said, “They let me into the band, but honestly, I hadn’t picked up a guitar until they needed me. I added something to their sound...but nothing to their image. In my third year of high school they finally let me play and be noticed. Buster was my only friend this whole time. She’s seen my practice and my doggy ears. I just wish she could’ve been here at Budokan.”
“Why not? I’m sure Miss Yumeno could have arranged for it,” Azusa said.
“You can’t bring things to a concert that have passed away,” Asada said somberly, “Ton will grow up to be big and strong. He’ll see many things. Who knows what kind of world he’ll be living in, able to tell his little turtles about the amazing things he’s seen?”
“Kikuchi, I didn’t know,” Azusa said, “I’m sorry about that, I...”
Michi walked up behind Asada and yanked her dog ears off her head. She grabbed her hand strongly.
“That we get to know the other band was a suggestion, not an order,” said Michi, “and get those stupid dog ears off your head. Elegant space gothic lolita does not blend with dog ears.”
“Maybe they’re dog aliens?” said Asada, “Of a gothic lolita nature?”
“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” said Michi, “Get back to our side of the green room. We’re deciding on the playlist for tonight.”
“Ooh, that sounds like fun,” said Asada flatly.
“Yui,” Azusa said, looking over at HTT’s couch, “We need to start thinking about our playlist too.”
“Leave that to Mio,” Yui said, “I wouldn’t want to waste the Budokan people’s generosity.”
Azusa was delighted to get a chance to work with any of her seniors again, though she greeted the idea of Mio making the playlist with a hesitant “yes”. Every band has their style, reflective of who they are and what they want to be. In the case of Houkago Tea Time, songs were either about school supplies or food. There was the occasional ditty about the weather. That fog three months ago had inspired a song all its own.
Then there was the godly song. “Tenshi ni Fureta yo”. It wasn’t their signature sound, but to Azusa, it held a significance that all the treasures of the world couldn’t compare to. She looked wistfully down at her Bu strap as she remembered graduation day those many years ago. After a tearful goodbye, her friends had written a song just for her. Graduation only happens once, but it was Azusa’s favorite song, so she was uncertain if she should even request it be on the playlist. Would that be rude?
“How about debuting some new stuff at the Budokan? Lots of bands do that,” said Jun, “I’ve got a few pieces that me, Ui and Azu made during our senior year. The freshmen loved this one, but this one’s my personal favorite. Of course, there’s the Mio Fan Club anthem, but that’s a niche piece.”
“They have an anthem?” asked Mio, her spirit rapidly deflated.
At KFT’s table, Ran Fujii reached behind her ear and pulled out a pen. She pressed down on it, releasing the tip.
“We go on stage at 15:30, and will have the stage for an hour’s time,” Tsugumi could see that, behind that stare, a maelstrom of numbers were arranging themselves in Ran’s brain, “The average length of a song is three to four minutes, so we can fit in an album’s worth, but only the best of the album. We’re not screwing this up.”
“What about-” said Asada before she was cut off.
“That’s not ‘the best of the album’,” said Ran, adjusting her glasses.
“I’m the only junior in the band, so to have at least one of my own songs played would be fair,” said Asada, “I know it’s not in line with our image, but, but that’s okay! Even if it’s only for one song, that new sound could make the crowds love us. It’s a gamble, but we may never get to come back here.”
“Asada, go talk to Tsugumi instead,” said Ran, “This is between the three of us.”
Asada scooted over on the couch until she was close to her pink-haired friend. She snuggled close to Tsugumi, who hugged her back. Asada let out a small “wan”.
That static noise that signaled a message blasted out of the loudspeaker. Miss Yumeno’s voice informed us that we were going to have another visitor. Was it makeup? Lighting? It turns out it was winners of a contest in Hokkaido, from some radio contest, to hang out with the bands before the show. Mio turned to Tsumugi.
“Did you hear anything about this?” she asked.
“This was never brought up in our meetings,” said Tsumugi, “but I trust Miss Yumeno knows what she’s doing.”
Knock knock. Knock knock.
“I’ll get it!” Ui said. “This is no problem.”
“Awesome, my first fan,” Jun said, watching over Ui’s shoulder, “Welcome to the green room!”
Ui and Yoroko were at eye level with each other, as were Jun and Kokoro. They saw themselves reflected in the other’s eyes. Yoroko flinched. Once she’d recovered from the shock, she walked into the room and turned off the lights. The door slammed shut. Members of both bands chatted amongst themselves, trying to figure out what was going on. The sound of footsteps was heard, followed by the clanking of bowls and plates. Kokoro flipped the light switch again. Yoroko was standing on the snack table, looking down at Kitaku Free Time.
“Good afternoon, sis,” said Yoroko.
“Sis?” asked the members of Houkago Tea Time.
“You never told us you had a sister,” said Michi.
“She looks like a sukeban. Such an uncultured person is not worth our time,” said Ran.
“Yeah, she’s my little sister Yoroko,” said Yorozu petulantly, “Go back to your gang and stop trying to steal my spotlight!”
“Kokoro!” said Asada, waving, “How’s it going? I was hoping I’d see you around here.”
“Asa, we can talk in a few,” said Kokoro, “There’s got to be some place more private than this.”
“Explain or I’ll call security,” said Yorozu.
“You’re not fit to go on stage, sis. Not the way you are now. Sadly, there’s no way to get you to listen to me unless I take something dear to you,” Yoroko said, stepping down from the table.
“You’re going to take Asada?” interjected Yui.
“If only it was that simple,” said Yoroko, “I’m here for your Les Paul.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” seethed Yorozu.
Yoroko looked around the room. She saw the instrument bags stacked up in the corner. Behind the black fabric, they all looked the same. She decided she’d grab the one on top of the pile and hope for the best. Yoroko tossed the large, mildly heavy bag onto her back and dashed back to the green room entrance. She taunted her sister before exiting.
“Got your guitar!” she said, giving Yorozu the red eye.
“Get back here, sukeban!” shouted Yorozu, following her into the hallway.
“Now’s our chance,” said Kokoro to Asada.
“I’m getting you out of here too,” said Asada to Ton. She grabbed on the bottom of his cart and pulled him out of the green room’s other door.
“Ton!” Azusa shouted, “We have to get him back.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Jun, following behind Azusa.
In the corner of the room, Yui was looking over the pile of instruments. She checked the name tags several times over. With tears in her eyes, she turned towards the gathered musicians.
“I’ll help you, sis,” said Ui, “They went that way.”
“We have to get Azusa back here, she’s our friend” said Ritsu, “Mio, you’re coming with me.”
“We have to get Asada in here, our sound’s incomplete!” said Michi, “Ran, let’s go.”
Ran, Michi, Ritsu and Mio took the door Ton had left through. Tsugumi and Tsumugi were the last to leave. Tsumugi nodded to her fellow keyboardist. They followed the sisters. Tsugumi wanted to talk to Yorozu. Tsumugi wished to help a friend.
Yoroko carried me on her back with a forlorn hope to somewhere unknown.
Chapter 6: #6: Gender! (性別!)
In Shakespeare’s time, a chorus explained how stories ended before they began. Where are such choruses in life, but in retrospect? None of them could say.
By the time Ritsu, Mio, Ran and Michi were out in the white hallways of the Budokan, Azusa and Ton were already out of sight. The girls of Houkago Tea Time stuck to their side of the hallway, and Kitaku Free Time’s did likewise. Employees passed by them in the hallways, waving hello as they ran towards nowhere in particular. The Budokan was a big place, and four girls and a turtle could be anywhere.
Ritsu pulled out her cell phone and checked the clock.
“What time do we need to be back by?” she asked.
Mio’s cell phone started buzzing. She picked it up and saw a text message from Miss Yumeno.
There was nothing else to the message. Looking at the “to” space, Mio could see the same message had been sent to everyone, including Yoroko and Kokoro. She and Ritsu continued down the hallway. They saw someone duck into the costume department. She had only witnessed it out of the corner of her eye, but one of them was carrying a large case. She and Ritsu turned into the costume department. The door behind them slammed shut, covering the room in darkness.
“That can’t be good,” Ritsu said.
Ritsu felt her knee brush up against something soft - Mio’s hair. She had crouched down the ground, covering her ears and cowering in fear. Mio was muttering something under her breath that Ritsu couldn’t make out.
“What’s the matter, scared? It’s just a little darkness. Your eyes will adjust,” taunted Michi.
“Of course I’m scared!” Mio blurted out.
“Michi, we finally have an audience with the uncultured schoolgirls,” said Ran Fujii, “Lights, please.”
Click. The rows of lights up above turned on, illuminating the girls in their florescence. Michi’s hair looked even stranger under this lighting, like a bolt of fabric draped across her head. Mio and Ritsu took in the scope of where they were. Costumes for a countless number of performances were here.
“Don’t even bother, everything is cataloged and organized,” said Ran, “School uniform, school swimsuits, maid outfits, police outfits, several types of animal costumes, underpants in assorted colors, striped, solid and polka-dot, dresses in every style imaginable, cheerleader outfits, kimonos, dogis and one prisoner outfit.”
“You don’t even work here,” Ritsu said.
“If everything isn’t organized, the concert cannot be a success,” said Ran, “You are deficient, Tainaka, and that is why you are destined to fail on that stage this afternoon.”
“I’m not deficient, I was the club president, and am still the leader of this band,” Ritsu countered.
“Why would the leader be on the drums?” laughed Michi, holding her hand to her mouth, “Take them away, and nobody would notice or care. The leader is supposed to be on an instrument that people are aware of. You’re talking to the leader of Kitaku Free Time.”
“Hey, wait, I haven’t even seen you take out your drum sticks, Fujii,” Ritsu said, reaching into her pocket and producing her own, “We’re here to play music, so show me whatcha got.”
Ran reached into her jacket pocket and produced a small bag. Her drum sticks were drawn. She held them between her fingers like a pair of fragile chopsticks. Her eyes spoke of total control. Her drum sticks, Ritsu noticed, barely had any wear on them. No signs of dust or greasy fingerprints. They looked barely used.
“Do not think that because I have not played today, it means I cannot,” said Ran, “Our music is elegant, so my drumming must be elegant.”
“How do you make drumming elegant?” Mio asked, “Especially with what you play? Metal doesn’t really suggest ‘Yamato Nadeshiko’.”
“Multitasking and rhythmic beats that fade into the background are what make our sound,” said Ran, “They call me ‘The Human Metronome.’ Keeping time to the second. Tell me, Tainaka, how do you play that yellow monster?”
Ritsu pondered. There was no doubt she had been playing on her Hipgig for the past months in preparation for today. Music was something she did. To think further about how she did it, she felt, would render it lifeless. Ran was pushing her buttons, so Ritsu replied with the first thing that came to mind.
“I don’t know!”
“Just the response I expected,” said Ran.
“Amateur,” said Michi, each word rebounding like a mallet off a xylophone, “Aimless. Worthless.”
“I’ve been studying your band’s videos, Tainaka,” Ran said, licking the tip of her pen, “You’re too fast and unfocused. I don’t know how you ever expect to reach professional level when you’re making such imperfections.”
“And you’re perfect?” Ritsu asked.
“I’m much closer to it than you are,” said Ran, “not just in musical elegance, but social elegance as well. Tomboys aren’t the in thing among the audiences you’re aiming for. Give into your inner femininity. I say this as advice not from me, but from Miss Koike.”
“I don’t want to hear that from someone who has hair like that,” Ritsu said.
She would have continued her argument, but something caught Ritsu’s eye, briefly reverting her to her friendly self from the other night. Amongst the costumes was something that triggered a deep feeling of nostalgia. It was a costume designed with Elizabethan England in mind. Beside it was a similar costume, one meant to be worn by a male. Similar outfits for a nurse and a friar were stored alongside them. Mio’s face turned red.
“How cute,” she said.
“You are my Romio,” said Ritsu, “We’ll go through everything together.”
“Romeo and Juliet were stupid teenagers, stop comparing yourself to them,” said Michi.
“What, it’s just a play we performed in,” Ritsu said, “I was Juliet and...the point is, it was Yui’s idea.”
“I could already tell that Hirasawa had some stupid ideas,” said Michi, “Male clothes are always so restrictive. As long as you have a body like this, it should be used.”
“You want to become a model?” asked Mio.
“That’s not what I meant,” said Michi, “Let me see what you’re wearing beneath that skirt, Akiyama.”
Michi reached towards the edges of Mio’s skirt. With a forceful shove, she revealed that Mio was wearing a pair of blue and white striped panties. The wind died down and the skirt fell back into place. Michi raised the edge of her skirt and showed off her own panties, making sure to flash them from every angle.
“Do you know the difference between you and I?” asked Michi.
“Stop showing yourself like that, it’s embarrassing,” Mio said, shielding her eyes.
“Fashion does not stop,” said Michi, “Without Sawako around, you’re dressing like a college bum. Don’t tell me those are the infamous Mio’s panties.”
“They’re not the same pair,” Mio said nervously, “b-but they’re filled with memories. They’re not the most pleasant memories, but they’re important. That was my first time performing on stage in front of so many people. Today will be the same. I thought it would be nostalgic to wear these.”
“It’s been a long time since then,” said Michi, “Not only are they out of date, they make you look like a high schooler. This, from someone about to ascend into the professional world?”
“Listen, fashion isn’t something I know much about, but what are you trying to do?” Mio asked, “That outfit doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. It looks impractical. What if your fingers get caught in the lace while you’re trying to play? We’re both left-handed, so I know it can be tough.”
“I’m trying to let those fanboys know that I’m the one who keeps this band afloat,” said Michi, “At the center of every album cover, at the front of the band at every concert, and for what? They all think Yorozu is the one to be admired. She’s just a little runaway. I have the confidence of a wildfire. I went into this for art! The art of fashion, the art of music, the elegant art!”
“Again with the elegance?” Ritsu said.
“I’ve heard about you, Akiyama,” Michi sneered, “Don’t think I wasn’t watching you back in the green room. You may have hit the big time, but you’re still as scared of going on stage as ever. You try and call yourself an entertainer?”
“Even in her brief foray into dramatic acting, she still fails,” said Ran, “A potential beauty like her playing Romeo?”
“She’s twice the Romeo you’ll ever be,” said Ritsu.
“You as Juliet? That’s priceless,” said Ran.
“Alright, miss elegant, stop messing with my friend,” Ritsu said, “Mio’s accomplished more than you have. She’s been Houkago Tea Time’s best songwriter since our first year. You know our signature sound? She’s the one who wrote it! It’s poetic compared to what you’re going to be playing.”
Michi walked over to Mio and ran her finger up Mio’s neck. She brushed her other hand into the back of Mio’s hair, ruffling it and twirling it between her fingers. Mio was shivering on the spot. Ritsu got between Michi and her friend, staying to Mio’s side. Michi lowered the shoulder of her dress a notch.
“Your signature sound is about going to sleep with a stuffed rabbit,” said Michi, “We had a rabbit once. Yorozu got it to please the runt. The thing ended up dying on her. What good is a rabbit? All it does is breed, look cute and die. Better to go that way than become a has been.”
“Ritsu, let me handle this,” Mio said, fighting back her tears, “I know the subjects of my songs are cute. Almost too cute; but I put everything I had into them. I care about this band. Ritsu may have forced me into it, but I can see now that her intentions were good. I’ve learned things and seen things here that only happen once. Just because our image isn’t to your liking doesn’t mean you have to be so mean to us.”
The following was related to me by Michi’s bass and Sakuranbo, Ran’s drum kit.
Michi’s mind drifted to thoughts of her own first year of high school. She glanced at the sailor uniform hanging on the racks. It was a deep forest green, the same as that of her uniform at Matsugaoka High. She and Ran had been friends since elementary school, with Michi coming up with wild ideas, and Ran finding a way to make those ideas happen. Michi had also helped Ran become more personable, instead of being the weird “paper girl” who was constantly writing. They were more than friends, almost to “class S” levels, the rumors said.
That was when she entered. Masako Koike. She was still young, but being in three bands in a row had worn her out. It was time to, instead of forcing herself into the role of guitarist once more, to find new talent and train them. She didn’t have to say it was to humiliate Sawako. If that was left out of the equation, she’d look altruistic. Ran and Michi were sitting in the corner of the library, looking out onto the city before them, when they were approached by Masako.
“I’d like you to join a band,” she said.
Michi knew she could get her charisma out in front of a million or more, and took up the offer without hesitation. Ran hid her face behind her book, saying that it was a roulette that likely wouldn’t pay off. Michi told her that once she became a musician, people would be willing to listen to what she had to say. Their goals of finding an audience were identical, and as friends, they’d continue to help each other towards it. The two of them made a pinky promise with Masako on that day. They did not expect that the place they would be practicing at would be the home of a student they had never met. That student was Yorozu Hyakkoku.
“What do you know about us?” said Michi, “I can see it in your lyrics, Akiyama. You spend all your time drinking tea and eating cake and going to movies when you’re supposed to be studying...”
“I think you made that last one up,” Mio interjected.
“You don’t know troubles! Your lyrics are so nice that...it hurts,” Michi said, “I don’t know if it’s the good kind of hurt, if there is such a thing. Mio Akiyama, why do you not show me your soul?”
“I don’t totally understand myself,” Mio said, “I don’t even deserve all this attention I’m getting from my fan club.”
“You have a fan club?” said Michi in shock, “That’s it. Why is everything nice happening to you?”
“I didn’t ask for a fan club,” Mio replied, “It sort of happened. When I tripped...and showed the audience...my pa-pa-pa...”
“Panties?” said Michi, “You succeed by accident at something I’ve been trying to perfect for years? Akiyama, you are too good to be true. You must love having an army of servants to do whatever you ask. There are rumors about Sakuragaoka, but I never imagined they were a bunch of perverts.”
“That’s not helping your case, Michi,” said Ran, adjusting her glasses.
“Army? They’re not an army of anything,” Mio said, “I didn’t ask for them. Ritsu has more to do with my fan club than I do. I would have preferred to sit in the club room and practice without so many people staring at me, but...but they care. Not because of the panties, but because of...other reasons. I still don’t know what they are.”
“I don’t either,” said Michi, “You’re a coward. That’s not anything worthy of respect.”
“Michi was consistently the least popular member of Kitaku Free Time in school-wide polls,” said Ran.
“You didn’t have to tell them that!” said Michi, turning towards her friend, and then back to Mio, “This isn’t a game, Akiyama, it’s a fight. You’ve got it better than anyone could ever have it. Fans before you get out of high school, popularity earned by accident. Most people never get that. You’ve had the world placed at your feet, and you decide to ignore it? Where’s your desires? Nobody ever held their position at the top by being passive!”
“Would you back off already?” Ritsu said, standing in front of Mio.
“My fan club has done nothing wrong, please, leave them out of this,” Mio said.
“We have gotten sidetracked,” said Ran, “We were supposed to be looking for Asada. We’ve spent so long in here, who knows where she could be by now?”
“Azusa!” said Mio and Ritsu together.
Ritsu turned around and started pulling on the door handle. It refused to budge. She tried pushing. It also didn’t budge. Light could be seen beneath the door and voices heard outside, but none of them seemed to notice. Ritsu began furiously pounding on the door, hoping to get someone’s attention.
“It only opens from the outside,” said Ran.
“Great. We can’t find Azusa, and we’re trapped,” said Ritsu.
There came a creaking sound. The handle clicked and pulled itself down, opening up into the hallway. The sound of a hand slapping against the metal door was heard. Ritsu grabbed Mio by the hand and pulled her out into the hallway. Ran and Michi followed behind. The door slammed shut behind them.
“Wonder who opened that,” said Michi.
“Michi, you might want to look at this,” said Ran.
A torn off piece of white paper had been posted to the door. The message on it was typed, but a signature had been written below. Ran pushed her glasses up to the bridge of her nose and examined the note, reading it aloud.
“Do not worry about friends and turtles. We are doing all that we can to ensure this concert goes as planned. On white wings and black wings, you have flown here, but you have yet to engage in that which you are are most passionate. Return to the green room quickly.
“Most passionate?” said Ran.
“Ain’t it obvious?” asked Michi, “She wants us to have a musical duel.”
“I thought it would have something to do with cake,” Mio said timidly.
“What are you up to, Yumeno?” Ritsu said.
The four walked back to the now empty green room. Two amplifiers and the girls’ instruments had been prepared. This was the first time Mio and Ritsu noticed how identical Kitaku Free Time was, even if their dress and genre belied that. Michi also used a Fender bass, but hers was painted in ivory white. Ran’s Yamaha Hipgig was the exact same kind as Ritsu’s, only with the cherry wood color chosen instead of Mellow Yellow’s mellow yellow. After checking that everything was plugged in, the girls stood opposite each other.
“How much can we accomplish with a bassist and a drummer?” asked Mio.
“So what if the rest of the band isn’t here? We’re all going to be going solo sooner or later,” said Michi.
Ran covered her mouth with her free hand, and lowered her head. Her other hand placed the drumsticks onto the kit. She stood up and prepared to walk back to her seat to finalize the playlist, but Michi stopped her. She took a deep breath.
“I didn’t mean you, Ran,” she said with an air of desperation, “After all I’ve done for you, what makes you think I’d abandon you? Even if I get a solo career while Yorozu falls into obscurity, of course I’ll take you with me. You can be my drummer. My only drummer. I’ll let you in on every major decision. Having someone micromanage me might not be such a bad idea, knowing all the stupid fun things I’ll be getting into. I’m sorry! Don’t walk away because of a comment like that.”
Ran turned her nose at Michi, but took her seat at the drum kit once more. Mio clutched Elizabeth in her hands. Though the instruments she was facing in this impromptu battle were the same, they felt different. In the hands of Michi, that Fender gave off the aura of a geyser. Beautiful when dormant, but if provoked, it could release a fury that was dangerous, yet stunning, in an instant. Ran’s Hipgig felt like it was waiting to release the noise and fury of a drum, but had been keeping it hidden for so long it had forgotten what it was.
“We shall let the opposition select the song,” said Ran, “In the interest of fairness. We shall consider it a challenge.”
“You first, Akiyama,” said Michi, bending over and revealing her cleavage.
“Your favorite song?” Mio asked quizzically, “I’m sorry, I don’t really know what you play.”
“It’s your defeat. Ran, we’re going with ‘Tsuki to Suppon’. The one that’s heavy on the bass,” said Michi.
“Very well,” said Ran, pulling out her music sheets.
Michi grabbed onto the microphone and played the opening bars of her song. It started off slow, with Ran’s punctuated beats sounding like footsteps walking through a deserted church. A tap of the snare every few beats sent a chill down Mio’s spine. The song’s tempo picked up, and Michi’s bass work began to get more intense. Soon she was overpowering the drums and the rest of the room to a complex, medium tempo tune that screeched as though it came from the depths of the Sanzu river itself. Then came the lyrics.
Mio had a tough time discerning the lyrics over the music, but when she could, they repeated themes and motifs that Houkago Tea Time would never touch. Desire, something bitter yet sweet, tempting yet must be resisted. Hell, a warm place, but a painful place. Heaven, cold but distant. The protagonist of the song, as far as Ritsu could tell, was a person looking over the edge of a cliff. The sky had grayed before them, and a city was only a speck in the distance. They weren’t even sure how they got out here.
I am uncertain whether what happened next was because of Mio or Elizabeth. It always happens when both of them are present. Which one is the initiator mystifies the other instruments. When the inner Mio gets passionate with her music, the world changes. It never changes for more than 90 seconds at a time. Costumes are adorned, choreography is followed as if it was known by heart, and the settings of school and home dissolve, replaced by fantastic landscapes of the imagination. It happened for the first time at the infamous school festival. Pensiero visione.
Elizabeth’s opposite and equal could also invoke Pensiero visione, and did. The imagery in “Tsuki to Suppon” came to life, sending Mio, Ritsu, Michi and Ran into a world unknown. Ran and Michi were both dressed in elegant, yet tattered gray dresses, with Michi’s torn off at the sleeves and knees to be shorter. They played dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. Waves splashed on the cliff. Elizabeth could swear she saw an octopus surface from beneath the waves, lashing about its tentacles before returning to the depths once more. The song ended, and Pensiero visione faded away.
“Wow,” said Mio, impressed, but scared. “I wasn’t expecting that out of a garage band.”
“It’s not what instruments you have, it’s what you do with them,” said Michi, “I believe it is our turn now. We’d like you to play the oldest song in your set.”
“How do you define ‘oldest’?” asked Ran.
“Oldest is oldest,” said Michi, “It’s an easy concept to understand.”
“You wonder why Yorozu has such a hard time with you,” said Ran under her breath.
Mio and Ritsu whispered amongst themselves. Was “oldest” the first song they wrote and performed, in which case it was Fuwa Fuwa Time? Was it the oldest chronologically? The oldest in style? After less than a minute of thought, Ritsu raised her hand and excitedly proclaimed their song.
“’Ashita ga Arusa’, and a one and a two.”
“You’re playing a silly little love song from the 60s?” asked Michi, “How appropriate for a bunch of amateur schoolgirls. The singer doesn’t accomplish his dreams in the end.”
“Ritsu chose this song for us,” Mio said, “So maybe the singer can’t find success today, but he never gives up. It’s inspirational.”
“Then show me what you’ve got,” Ran said with a wink.
A tap and a tap and a tap tap tap. Ritsu alternated between the lower drums and the upper drums with her feet, tapping on the cymbals and snare to establish a beat. Mio moved her left hand deftly across Elizabeth’s body. My bass companion isn’t as prone to expressing her emotions as I, but to be played with passion, even if it’s imperfect, for the purpose of entertainment; that is what every instrument desires. Mio and Ritsu’s voices, be they too slow or too uneven, blended into a synchronous harmony, each covering for the other’s faults. They exchanged friendly glances at each other, making sure the other was doing okay.
Pensiero visione took hold. The setting changed to a sunny day at Toyosato Station. Mio was sitting on the bench playing her bass, while Ritsu leaned on the wall of the building, gazing at her from afar, with her drum sticks at the ready. Except for the four, the station was devoid of people. HTT posters, mostly of Mio, had been plastered to the walls. Mio took a deep breath. She grabbed the microphone and began to sing confidently.
Ran and Michi were taken aback. Michi’s expression was fearful, while Ran’s had changed to admiration. The medium tempo and the upbeat melody of the Pensiero visione flowed through their bodies, even without lyrics. Mio smiled.
90 seconds were all she had. 90 seconds were all she needed.
Chapter 7: #7: Something! (何物!)
“There’s a strong wind blowing from the northeast. The weather should be warming up within the next three days, so until then...” Click. The radio faded into silence.
Nodoka Manabe had always had an eye for leadership. When she came to Sakuragaoka, she aimed for the student council to make peoples’ lives better. Friends were made and approvals were offered, including the formation of the light music club. Nodoka only stopped by the classroom occasionally, always feeling like she was reading sentences of a much larger story that had been playing out in her absence. The same feeling was there when Yui and her friends stopped by the office asking for an air conditioner. She wished she could tell Yui more about what she did, and hear more of Yui’s stories.
After going their separate ways, Nodoka attended a different college, and had now obtained a low level position at TBS Broadcasting. She was expected to move up the corporate ladder in a few years, but she had to put in a lot of hard work before that happened. She turned off the radio broadcast and prepared for her lunch break. It was a nice day to eat outside.
“I’m heading out for lunch, Tomatsu,” she said to her project manager, cleaning up her desk, “Be back soon, sir.”
“See you later, Manabe,” said a male voice from the distance.
Nodoka walked through the halls of the third floor, waving to her coworkers along the way. She loosened a button on her shirt and her jacket. It felt good to be free of the workplace restrictions. She entered the elevator and hummed along with the muzak, flipping through today’s papers. There were notices of shows to be broadcast, potential customers to meet with, budgets to budget and upcoming events all being handed to her at once.
The elevator reached the first floor. She had taken no more than a step out onto the floor when the voice of a secretary came over the intercom.
“Nodoka Manabe, there’s a visitor outside the building who would like to see you. A Mai Ueda.”
“Who knows I’m working here?” Nodoka asked to herself.
She cleared through the crowds, making her way to the front of the building. After double checking that everything was in her briefcase, she looked around the hectic afternoon office, trying to find the person who had called her. It quickly became clear who that was. If only by her hair color alone, she was a mirage in the crowd, standing out, but fading into the background at the same time. Employees ignored her. Whether it was not to provoke her or if she really was that unworthy of mention was not known.
Mai Ueda had a medium length parted haircut that clashed with the rest of her wardrobe. She wore an unbuttoned vest over a wrinkled T shirt, and a pair of jeans with mismatched leg lengths, the one on the right being longer. Her hair was lime green, and her face sported a constant scowl. She wore no spectacles.
Nodoka bowed to her.
“Good afternoon, Ueda.”
Mai replied, expression unchanged. “I’m not here for formalities, Manabe. There are things going down tonight that you should be aware of. You know the Budokan?”
“Yes. It’s within driving distance,” said Nodoka.
“I dunno if you’ve heard, but there are some people there who are very important to you. Saw these girls at Tokyo Station the other day,” said Mai, reaching into her breast pocket.
She produced a glossy photo, somewhat blurry, of Yui hugging Azusa shortly after getting off the train. The rest of Houkago Tea Time was gathered around her, smiling and laughing. Nodoka took the photo and held it closer. It had been several years, but that expression was unmistakable.
“That’s Yui, and Ui and the others,” Nodoka said, surprised, “What relation do you have to them? What do you want from me? Who are you?”
“I’m just a freeter that happened to be passing by,” Mai said, sitting down on a nearby bench and spreading her arms, “Your friends and mine are turning that place into a palace of depression. Whoever comes out of it alive will redefine music for the future.”
“I think this one of our collaborations with Pony Canyon, but there’s no way external factors like us can influence this,” Nodoka said, “I haven’t seen Yui in years. Do you think she still remembers me?”
“Listen, Manabe!” said Mai, her voice raising in volume and tone in a second, “It’s that kind of thinking that made Yorozu abandon me.”
Mai Ueda had been Yorozu’s friend since childhood, but when high school came around, Mai saw the world as a vast, beautiful place. One that she didn’t want to be weighed down by the school in exploring. By her second year, she was known as the president of the going home club. When career paths were to be chosen in their senior year, Mai’s dream of “freelancer” and other such jobs for hire infuriated Yorozu, who had formed her band by that point, considering her goal of reaching Budokan more feasible than making a living off of others. They stopped talking soon after that.
“Send your voice to Hirasawa,” said Mai, pleading angrily, “You may not understand, Manabe, but you’re the trump card. You’re starting to spread your wings. Mine have already been clipped.”
Nodoka nodded uncertainly. “Supporting Yui’s musical aspirations is something the breadth of a single mail cannot hold. I’d have done it earlier if I knew.”
“You’re a good kid, Manabe,” said Mai, smiling, her voice at its normal pitch.
She started walking away from the TBS building. Mai was only a few steps away when Nodoka called out to her over the northeastern wind.
“How did you find me?” Nodoka asked.
“Some of it is intuition. What’s happening now has all happened before. For the rest, I was sent by someone. Here, take her card. You can do more with it than I ever could.”
Nodoka held the scratched card between her fingers. The sun shining overhead caused the ink to reflect iridescently, calling attention to the name at the bottom.
Nodoka read aloud, “Masaka Yumeno.”
Tsumugi Kotobuki had a home that none of the other members of the light music club had seen, except for Sawako. Looking upon it was comparable to seeing one of the wonders of the world, leaving commoners struggling to find the proper phrasing to describe it. Compared to an ornate mansion of such size, navigating the Budokan felt like a walk from her bedroom to the kitchen for breakfast. While the size was smaller, the atmosphere was grander and more imposing, even to a girl from the upper social strata. Very few parts of the Budokan were meant for relaxing. If you weren’t doing your job, you might as well not be here.
“Yui! Ui!” Tsumugi called out, “Are you around here?”
“Yorozu,” said Tsugumi in a hushed voice, walking behind her fellow keyboardist, “Yorozu, if you can hear me. Yoroko, if you can hear me too, that would be nice. Please answer.”
They had gone away from the green room, and were now reaching the inner layer of the Budokan. The areas where the gears that kept the well oiled machine running were stored away from public eyes. The walls were made of cold concrete, and lights dimly flickered up above. The edges of the doors leading to the rooms were showing signs of age, with paint flaking off and rust starting to appear. The people behind the desks did not pay the girls any mind, focusing intently on their accounting jobs.
“I don’t like this place,” said Tsugumi under her breath, “What if someone catches me? What if I’m thrown out?”
“They wouldn’t throw you out,” said Tsumugi, “We’re their guests for this evening. Take it easy.”
Tsumugi walked up behind Tsugumi and placed her hands on her shoulders. Her hands briefly swept past the long, wild pink hair, tangling some of it between her fingers. Tsugumi was shaking. Her body was hot, even though the temperatures in the cavern-like accounting area were colder than the rest of the arena. Thinking quickly, Tsumugi removed her jacket and placed it around Tsugumi’s shoulders. Her shaking slowed a bit. Tsugumi looked up at Tsumugi piteously.
“Are you cold?” Tsumugi asked.
“N-no, but I feel a little better,” said Tsugumi, “You didn’t have to do that. Now I’ll have to return this to you before I start moving the props on stage, and if I take too long with that, Yorozu will say I’m disrupting the band’s harmony. It’s not worth the trouble.”
“Helping out my friends is always something I’ll do,” said Tsumugi.
“Friend? We only met a few hours ago,” said Tsugumi.
“Friendship isn’t like a business deal. It’s formed instantly without any stipulations,” said Tsumugi, “Raise your head...what did you say your name was?”
“Tsugumi Miura,” she whispered.
The two continued walking through the offices of the inner Budokan. They rounded the corner, and came across a room that did not have the lights on. The faint silhouette of a human figure and the blue glow of a computer screen could be seen from within. A faint humming noise sounded from the computer. Voices could be heard from inside, but they were in a distorted whisper. Tsugumi held her body against the wall while Tsumugi leaned over the edge of the wall, trying to make out the conversation. When her head was fully into the room, the conversation appeared to have stopped entirely.
“How will this help us find Yoroko?” asked Tsugumi.
“The computers in this building have data on everything,” Tsumugi said. She looked at the nameplate, just barely visible underneath the computer’s light, “Takagaki’s office. I think he’s one of my father’s contacts. We’ve sponsored events at this venue many times.”
“Don’t do that,” said Tsugumi, “This is illegal. You’ve already got everything you could possibly want. Don’t sacrifice it for Yorozu or me. Miss Yumeno’s already taken pity on us; we don’t need more pity.”
“I wasn’t going to do that,” said Tsumugi, “I think Takagaki’s on his lunch break now. How about we wait here until he gets back?”
“You have enough clout to convince an employee of the Budokan to do what you want?” said Tsugumi in shock.
“That is one way you could put it,” said Tsumugi.
The stare that Tsumugi gave Tsugumi as a demonstration sent the pink-haired musician into a crouching position. She grabbed the edges of the jacket and wrapped them around her body. Lady Tsumugi’s stare was similar to her house, from a commoner’s point of view. Both were intimidating and icy, the very presence of them warning people who couldn’t handle it to step away. Tsumugi stopped looking at Tsugumi when she saw the effect it was having on her traveling companion.
“Please don’t take me away again,” Tsugumi was whispering to herself, “I’ll work hard, I promise.”
“Come here. I noticed something in the darkness,” said Tsumugi, going to one of the large light switches that covered this part of the Budokan. The lights gave off a visible hum as they turned on, as they supplied the only light this part of the building would get. The wooden furniture, set against the concrete backdrop of Takagaki’s office, became clear. On a round table on the opposite side of his desk, two chairs had been set out.
A paper plate with plastic wrap on it, covering a strawberry cake that already had one slice cut out of it, was on the center of the table. A pot of tea, sitting on a hot plate, was beside it. Two clean paper cups had been set out, along with some white paper plates. A humid peace of paper was between the refreshments. The message on it had been typed, the only sign of personalization a signature near the bottom.
“Takagaki won’t be returning until after your concert has already begun, but you must make sure you have a full stomach before going out onto the stage. Some tea and cake, don’t worry about the price tag, have been provided. Every swan was once an ugly duckling, but black swans and white swans only differ by their plumage. Please make sure you are back in the green room by 15:21.
The tea was room temperature and a little too sweet. The cake was fresh, but the icing had been smudged by the plastic wrap. The atmosphere was quiet. Tsumugi ate the cake and tea in a ladylike manner, taking small bites and drinking small sips, even if her utensils were paper and plastic. Tsugumi hesitated to even touch hers. She snuck a large bite of cake into her mouth when she thought Tsumugi wasn’t looking, and swallowed it the moment she looked back.
“Does it taste delicious?” Tsumugi asked.
“I’m not hungry,” said Tsugumi, pushing the plate away.
“We’re going on stage soon, you should have a lot of energy,” said Tsumugi. “That large stage and bright lights and cheering crowds. It’s a lot to take in.”
Tsugumi lowered her head. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Why do you get everything? I don’t deserve to be here, and Yorozu knows that. To earn enough to make a living would be alright, but this? This is too much. I’m not ready to be a star!”
“You shouldn’t say such a thing,” said Tsumugi, “You can tell me everything. I promise I won’t pass judgment on you.”
“O-okay,” said Tsugumi, “It began when my father’s company went bankrupt.”
The following tale has been related to me by Tsugumi’s keyboard. She was uncertain about sharing it.
The Miura family had a small music studio in Hidaka, specializing in pianos and other classical music. Orchestras from around the area sent their students there for training. Mr. Miura ran the store, and Mrs. Miura taught a wide variety of instruments and compositions. They lived on the floor above the store, with their daughter, Tsugumi. Nothing fascinated her more than the piano. With its elegant design and alternately whimsical and poignant sound, it captivated her.
When she was old enough to comprehend the majesty of the piano, her mother started giving her lessons. She learned what the pedals were for and how to traverse the scales. The lessons would have continued further, but with the rise of technology, it became difficult for a small store to maintain business. The Miura family moved to a small apartment. Tsugumi, not even out of elementary school, became estranged from music.
She was walking through a nearby shopping district one spring day when she walked into a music store, feeling nostalgic. This shop, like many across the nation, was owned by the Kotobuki Company. There was a keyboard displayed in the front window. It had 88 keys, each one seeking a finger to push it down and create music. Tsugumi entered the store and asked if she could try out the model that was in the window. Her fingers were ballerinas dancing across the stage. She played a simple tune; her talent had lay dormant, but not been dissolved.
“Would you like to play it in a band?” asked a voice behind her.
It was Masako Koike. She offered to pay for the cost of the keyboard. Tsugumi didn’t want an act of generosity that would cost this much, but knowing her music might let her escape her impoverished life, she accepted. Masako was surprised that no help was needed to push the keyboard into the back of the delivery truck. Tsugumi could lift it by herself. She did not know she had this strength, but Masako told her to embrace it.
Masako agreed to let Tsugumi attend Matsugaoka High, where the rest of her bandmates attended, as long as she stayed in the band. Tsugumi met the only other member of the band when she went to the house in the suburbs where they would be practicing. It was there she met Yorozu Hyakkoku.
“Yorozu said my keyboard skills were good, but I could never reveal too much about myself,” said Tsugumi, “They had things I hadn’t seen since childhood. I was from a different world than they were. There’s a burden of my parents’ that I bear on my shoulders. If Kitaku Free Time is a success, I can become independent and repay them.”
“Tsugumi, I can relate to you, more than you know,” said Tsumugi, “It’s been like that ever since I attended high school. I was expected to follow the rules of my household, even when I wasn’t there. What was common to me was rare for anyone else. I felt lonely at first. No siblings to confide in, and everyone around me was only familiar with my world.”
“How did you become...normal? I need to raise myself up, but you had to lower yourself. Wasn’t that degrading?” asked Tsugumi.
“I opened myself up to the others. They didn’t reject me,” Tsumugi said, “It looks like your friends might not have been as open to that, but you’ve all stuck together, all this time. There must be something holding you together.”
“I’m an errand girl, I’m not supposed to question things. Ran can handle paperwork better than my father ever could. Michi’s costumes are incredible. Asada was always trying new things. She’s been my closest companion. Yorozu...she’s a dreamer. Go big or don’t go at all is her mantra. She’s unrestrained by money or reason. How can someone like that accept what someone lower than a commoner has to say?” Tsugumi reflected.
“All you need is more self confidence,” said Tsumugi, “I know just the thing. Skinship.”
“Skinship?” asked Tsugumi.
“The bonds that can’t be touched can be formed by touching. A light touch works best. Whether it’s a retort or a hug or a massage. The light music club was never light on the skinship,” said Tsumugi.
“I don’t know, this sounds weird,” said Tsugumi.
“Watching it was fun, but I’d like to try doing it. Our body types are very similar, so it’ll be like getting acquainted with myself,” said Tsumugi.
“Are you sure this will build self confidence?” said Tsugumi.
“I’d want to share a bath, but there’s no bathing facilities here. This will have to do,” said Tsumugi with a smile.
She rubbed her hands together and blew on them, making sure they were warm. Tsumugi touched her hands to Tsugumi’s cheeks. The warmth transferred between their skin. Tsugumi blushed, heating up her cheeks. Tsumugi leaned in and nuzzled her cheeks against her friend’s. She made soft purring noises the whole time, while Tsugumi was stuttering, rapidly fluctuating between thanking her and telling her to stop.
“I can smell the cake. It’s sweet,” said Tsumugi.
She moved her fingers down from Tsugumi’s cheeks and onto her shoulders. She slid her hands underneath the jacket, rubbing Tsugumi’s shoulders with a steady motion. Tsugumi opened her mouth and let out a squeal, the feeling of warmth in her body overpowering the dry coldness of the accounting cave.
“What is this feeling?” asked Tsugumi to herself, “This is different from when Michi wanted my measurements. It’s not distant or seeing me as a living mannequin. I can hear my heart beating. Or is that Kotobuki’s heartbeat?”
“The most beautiful skinship,” said Tsumugi, lowering her hands onto Tsugumi’s, “is that between women.”
Tsumugi moved her hands up Tsugumi’s arms, sliding around until she cupped her chest. Even through the elaborate, frilly clothing of Kitaku Free Time, the contours of Tsugumi’s body could be felt. It was like kneading dough. Tsumugi chose not to say there for too long, moving down to rub Tsugumi’s stomach. Tsugumi was heating up, so Tsumugi stopped and stood to the side, witnessing the poor girl collapsing in her chair from the shock and sensation.
“Are you feeling any better?” asked Tsumugi.
“I’ll let you know once my head stops spinning,” said Tsugumi.
“From one keyboardist to another. How many keys are on yours?” asked Tsumugi cheerfully.
“88,” said Tsugumi.
“I only have 76,” said Tsumugi. “Whoever purchased yours must have strong belief in your talent.”
“I play the keyboard because it reminds me of my family,” said Tsugumi, “When I was young, there was a song that dad always used to play on the piano. It wasn’t anything that would win me a competition, but at my birthday and whenever mom finished with her lessons, he would always play that song.”
“Do you remember the name of it?” asked Tsumugi.
“‘Ashita ga Arusa’,” said Tsugumi.
“That’s the one we’re playing,” said Tsumugi. “Do you want to sing?”
“We don’t have our keyboards. It would be wrong to play without them,” insisted Tsugumi.
Tsumugi said, “The keyboard isn’t what makes you who you are. That’s all up to you. Don’t be shy. Sing.”
The second verse of the song called to mind a rainy day. The ponytail girl with the sailor uniform is walking through the rain, home from school. The singer has an umbrella to offer, and wants to offer it to her. There are a number of mitigating factors. Does she know who he is? If he saw through her uniform on this heavy day, colored in shades of gray, would she brand him a pervert? The umbrella never holds more than the singer, for he has spent too long wondering what to do. Yet, he looks up at the sky beyond his umbrella, and a ray of sunshine breaks through the clouds. He’ll get another chance when tomorrow comes.
“Your voice is incredible,” said Tsumugi. “Why aren’t you leading more songs?”
“I can’t,” said Tsugumi.
“Now we’ll try for some musical skinship,” Tsumugi said, “Start from that verse. I want to try harmonizing with you.”
The words were simple, the tune without instrumentation, but the voices of the two girls bounced across the walls, being heard by the treasurers and the employees for some distance. When the verse ended, Tsugumi felt as though her head had cleared. A natural, broad smile crossed her face.
“There’s a musician inside you waiting to be free,” said Tsumugi, “The Kotobuki company is willing to help you in any way we can. Kitaku Free Time doesn’t know the treasure they have.”
“I don’t understand,” said Tsugumi, tears welling up again, “You’re a socialite. You’re supposed to be living in a fairy tale castle having everything done for you. Yet you’re willing to go against your family to help out people like me, who music should have abandoned long ago. You can’t be human. Are you an angel?”
Tsumugi grabbed Tsugumi by the hand and led her out of the accounting cave. She checked her watch. It was almost time for them to reconvene in the green room, and she had a few choice words to say to the members of Kitaku Free Time. They did not run into the Hirasawa or Hyakkoku sisters during their walk across the Budokan, but their search had not been a failure. Something of much greater importance had been found.
Nodoka’s lunch break was close to being over. She looked up at the tall, glass-paneled building, every floor looking identical. Not much longer before she would have to get back to work organizing files and managing budgets. She felt tiny in comparison. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. After all these years, Yui’s number was still in there. She typed in a simple message and pressed the send key. Once the little animation had finished, Nodoka closed her cell phone and looked over her shoulder.
“I did it,” Nodoka said happily, “Yui’s going to...Ueda?”
The streets of Tokyo were busy. The sun beat down overhead. A cold northeastern wind blew across the April sky, ruffling Nodoka’s hair and sending her glasses askew. Mai Ueda was no longer there.
Chapter 8: #8: Dogs and Cats! (犬猫!)
Azusa had always been sensitive to the sun. After every training camp, her body was a deep shade of tan, contrasting her pale skin where the sun’s rays hadn’t reached. This cosmetic change was nothing compared to that day, when the sun had played tricks with Azusa’s mind. In her second year of high school, just before the realization she would inherit the light music club set in, the world became a place full of uncertainties.
Her midsummer dreams all involved her seniors in the light music club stopping by to see her, in increasingly improbable ways, and ended with her waking up but a second later, sometimes in a place where an earlier dream had taken her. Reality and her mind overlapped to a degree that, several years later, still leaves her confused when she looked back on it. That same feeling had been in the back of Azusa’s mind ever since she arrived in Tokyo.
It shouldn’t be difficult to catch up to a heavy cart carrying a heavy aquarium holding a medium pound turtle. Yet Asada and Kokoro pushed it with all their strength, dodging people in the hallways, heading towards the closest exit. Azusa and Jun ran close behind. Ton was many things; the light music club’s mascot, Azusa’s beloved pet and an honored guest of the Budokan. She had to get him back before the show went on.
“Get back here with Ton!” Azusa shouted across the hallway.
“Don’t think you can outrun us!” said Jun.
Asada and Kokoro took a sharp right turn into an open hallway. The sound of cart’s wheels stopped. Azusa and Jun turned the corner, and saw the room they had turned into. There was a rug in the front of the room that had slowed the cart’s movement. This was a room that deserved to be stopped in. From the lowest part of the wall to the highest, on every corner, was a framed poster or photograph of a martial arts team or a group of musicians that had performed here, autographed by the people in question. Medals and records hung behind the glass, with plaques below them marking the date of performance. Asada and Kokoro were looking upward, mouth agape, at the sheer number of picture frames.
“What is this?” asked Kokoro.
“This is history,” said Asada in shock, “It’s incredible. If we were to be immortalized here...”
“You’re already here, aren’t you?” said Kokoro.
Azusa and Jun caught up to the two. Azusa put her hands on the edge of the cart, reclaiming Ton for herself.
“Hey! Why did you kidnap a turtle? That’s rude!” Azusa said.
“Who’s the sky blue haired girl?” asked Jun. “One of Yoroko’s friends?”
Kokoro turned around. Her puffy hair balls shook about, accentuating her smile.
“Kokoro Kashima, heya!” she said.
“Jun Suzuki,” Jun said uneasily, feeling obligated to return such a cheerful greeting.
“What are you doing with Ton? You can’t kidnap someone else’s pet,” Azusa said.
“Remember what I told you about Buster?” Asada said, touching one of the picture frames, “Show business isn’t a place for pets. Sure, you have time for him now, but about when you become famous? Even if you have people working under you, he’ll know that you’re not his owner. He’ll be lonely. I’d rather he live with me, before things get worse.”
“Why would I stop paying attention to Ton? He’s a turtle, he can take care of himself pretty well,” Azusa said.
“You’re reunited with your friends. Ton’s role as a surrogate is done. He can be a surrogate to me now,” said Asada.
“What ‘surrogate’ nonsense?” Azusa said, “Ton’s as much a part of Houkago Tea Time as anyone else. I’m not the only one who cares for him. Yui and Mio and Ritsu and Mugi, all of them want him to grow up healthy. You can’t take him away because of something that is not true.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Kokoro said, “I want to see Michi out here.”
“There are more effective ways to do that,” Jun said, dumfounded.
“Suzuki, I have my reasons. Did you know that I used to be in the jazz club at Matsugaoka High?” Kokoro said.
“Wait, Matsugaoka?” Azusa interjected.
Matsugaoka High School, an all girls’ school in Hidaka, emphasizes education and hard work. Statuettes of ants and grasshoppers adorn the school building. It was the closest place for Kitaku Free Time to attend. This came at a serious disadvantage to Masako Koike most of all. The school did not allocate much of its budget towards the arts, music in particular. A light music club was an impossibility, deemed as something that would waste students’ time. This forced Masako to go outside of the school in establishing the band that would let her face Sawako on stage.
“A musician from Matsugaoka High. So they do exist,” Jun said.
“Jazz was one of the few music clubs allowed,” said Kokoro, “but then there was her. Michi Yokokawa. She thinks playing that music so loud you can barely make out the individual notes is worthy of praise? I can play the bass much better than she could. So, Roko and I came all the way out here so I can teach her who the real queen of the bass is.”
“You guys are weird,” said Jun flatly.
“All the grays on that dress and that hairstyle,” Azusa said, “It’s like I’m looking at Mi-”
Couture had never been Masako’s strength. She was a businesswoman and a guitarist first. This confused Sawako, who considered music a hobby more than a career, a chance to dress up in cool clothes and play music with her friends. Friends were friends no matter what they were wearing, though taking their measurements could be considered a precursor to Tsumugi’s idea of skinship.
“I like the twintails,” said Asada, shuffling her feet, “You do too. It’s who I am.”
Jun chimed in. “Sawa would probably add a leek to complete the Vo-”
Calls were coming in from TV stations across Japan to Pony Canyon. If either of the stars hit it big tonight, they wanted an exclusive interview with either HTT or KFT. If everyone’s vying for the same thing, and all of them are bound to repeat what the interview says in some form, how exclusive is it?
“I need to get these out again,” said Asada, reaching into a pocket inside her dress.
The dog ears that she had been wearing back in the green room once more sat atop her head. She held her hand like a paw and let out a cheerful “wan”.
“Asa-wan, that’s the name they gave you, isn’t it?” said Kokoro.
“Azusa, your turn,” said Jun, “Yui would be proud of you.”
Azusa reached into her own pocket and produced her cat ears. She wondered if wearing them would be disrespectful to the great musicians on the wall. She let out her “nyan”, feeling embarrassed to be doing such a thing in front of a person she barely knew.
“Ah, the cat girl. What games do you with that?” asked Asada, genuinely curious.
“Games?” Azusa said.
“When you’re not practicing. I’ve heard things about Hirasawa’s level of skill. She must be working you guys until blood rushes to your head. She’s that good,” said Asada.
“I think it’s the other way around,” said Azusa, “We don’t spend much time practicing at all. These cat ears were their idea.”
“Your band sounds awesome! They haven’t lost that jewel of innocence,” said Asada dreamily.
“You’re saying some weird things. What happened in Kitaku Free Time?” asked Azusa.
“It’s a long story,” said Asada.
Asada’s guitar relayed the story to me in the green room shortly after everyone split.
Asada and Kokoro had been part of Yoroko’s girl gang ever since their third year of middle school. No one crossed paths with them, and their vandalism, though petty, had made it into at least one newspaper article. Their graffiti had great artistic style, but it lacked content to make it a step above “petty”.
When the time came for them to attend Matsugaoka High, there were rumors about a hardcore metal band that sought to oppose the lack of funding for arts programs at the school. They went by the name Kitaku Free Time, hastily decided upon by the president of the going home club herself. Yoroko urged her friends to avoid it, and Kokoro was already enrolling the jazz club, but Asada’s curiosity had been piqued. She wanted to hear them play. They were a rebellious group, like her gang. Their leader must be an amazing person.
As chance would have it, they were playing an unannounced concert on the rooftop a few days later. Asada sneaked away from her friends and watched them. Their tunes were unpolished, their lyrics chaotic and their demeanor energetic, but it was the atmosphere that left Asada feeling uneasy. A lost soul could be heard beneath the melodies, wanting to be liberated. This wasn’t an act. They needed to learn how to have fun.
The sunlight reflecting through the clouds cast the band in silhouette. Asada wasn’t sure if she had been noticed at all, having been hiding in the shadows like she was used to. She opened the door leading back into the school building when she heard a voice calling out to her, the voice of Yorozu Hyakkoku.
“Hey, you!” she said, “What are you doing up here?”
“I wanted to join your band!” said Asada loudly.
“Should we let her?” said Michi, “Miss Koike told us we need exactly four members. Exactly.”
“The budget would have to be rebalanced if we added another body,” said Ran, ruffling her hair.
“She’s very energetic,” said Tsugumi timidly.
“Tell ya what. Screw what Masako says,” Yorozu walked up to Asada and extended her hand, “Five is a much better number than four. What’s your name?”
“Asada Kikuchi!” she exclaimed.
That was the greatest day of her life.
She had never picked up a guitar until that day. Masako did make sure that Asada had enough talent to support the band’s foundation, but she’d quickly abandon her guitar to try and take them on nature trails or to festivals or anything that wouldn’t involve acting so Spartan. One of her ideas was putting on dog ears and becoming “Asa-wan”, the cute little puppy for the group to coddle with. It worked to some extent, but it meant that she was left out of major decisions, and became friends with Tsugumi in the meanwhile.
“If there’s anyone who needs to be saved, it’s Yorozu,” said Asada, sounding increasingly emotional, “Her imagination is boundless. Every performance is watched by millions of people, every song opens the heavens, every instrument a gift given from the gods themselves! If she used it for spreading joy instead of satisfying her quest for fame, Hokkaido would be a much better place!”
“That’s just like a dog, loyal to their master to a fault,” quipped Jun, “It’s an admirable goal, but this Yorozu doesn’t sound admirable, she sounds delusional.”
“Just like a cat to scratch at everything and only care about itself,” replied Kokoro.
“I care about Yui more than anyone,” said Azusa.
“You think that will get you by? The world beyond the Budokan is not all bright and wonderful. Friends will grow apart. You all come from different worlds. Different people will care about you and in time, you’ll lose contact. If you spend so much time getting invested, it’ll be even more tragic when it’s yanked away,” said Kokoro.
“You’re just as bad as them!” said Jun, “Doesn’t everything you said apply to you too?”
“We come from the same world,” said Asada, “Outcasts. Misfits. If it weren’t for music, we’d have never gotten out of there, and would probably be working at some cheap restaurant right now. For as much as I want to alleviate Kitaku Free Time’s anger at the world, I think that’s the only thing holding us together. Beyond tonight, we could fade into obscurity once more, and it’s back to square one. They need a loyal dog like me.”
That feeling returned to Azusa. She stared straight on at Asada, and her vision began to get blurry. In the blink of an eye, the glossy coloration of Asada’s hair began to wash away like watercolor paint, the turquoise giving way to black. She stood out against the white wall, like a silhouette in a two tone painting, or a distorted mirror. Azusa shook her head in confusion, and with another blink, the feeling subsided. Asada’s hair looked the same color it always had.
“What song did you first hear your friends playing?” Azusa asked, “Mine was ‘Fuwa Fuwa Time’. It’s their signature sound.”
“‘Tsuki to Suppon’,” said Asada, “The moon and a snapping turtle. Both are round, but different. The moon is beautiful, eternal, unreachable. A turtle is ugly, mortal and painful. The moon’s also associated with the rabbit, you know. Up there pounding rice cakes. Yet the rabbit is already gone while the turtle lives for another day. Why isn’t the elegant moon being the one to triumph?”
“Slow and steady wins the race,” Azusa said, “You can tell that. Sure, Houkago Tea Time’s music is important, but that was never Yui’s goal. It was a club. Clubs are formed as a chance to meet people. It could be the jazz club or the occult club or any other kind of club, but when any of them part, it’s sad. We have memories that are more than playing music. Stealing Ton won’t give you some of those memories. They aren’t your own. You have to make new ones.”
“Right,” said Kokoro, placing her hand on Asada’s shoulder, “I’ve got a much better idea. Yoroko, you and I haven’t been using our talents correctly. You can play, I can play and if you give Yoroko something to do, she’ll get it done.”
“That doesn’t mean she’ll get it done well,” said Asada.
“Challenging Michi by myself won’t accomplish anything. I need more people to challenge her! So you, me and Yoroko will form a jazz ensemble and we’ll free form her until she recognizes our talent and leaves Kitaku Free Time in shame. There’s no way this plan could go wrong,” said Kokoro.
“I don’t want to fight Michi,” said Asada.
“Don’t want to?” said Kokoro, confused, “You’ve heard the rumors about KFT. You’re in with them. I heard they’re so cheap they forced their treasurer to play drums. They picked a poor girl off the streets and worked her to the point of exhaustion. The lead singer and the bassist hate each other. Why do you continue to play with these horrible people? You might have already become corrupted. You’re our companion, Asada, I don’t want to see you fall into darkness.”
“Forming a group to prove your superiority to someone doesn’t count as falling into darkness?” asked Asada.
Jun gave a quick glance at Ton’s tank, making sure the little guy was okay. Now that his world inside the aquarium was at peace, he had been swimming about, trying to figure out where the sudden burst of bright light had come from. He was thankful he wasn’t swimming about in a bucket.
“Kashima, do you love or hate Yokokawa? If you’re going this far for her, it sounds like you’re forming a fan club. Creating jazz covers of her songs isn’t going to annoy her. It might even flatter her. I know about this. I was in the Mio fan club,” said Jun, “the only member of the club who got a chance to play with Mio.”
“The difference between you and me, Suzuki, is that I have my own thoughts,” said Kokoro, “Fan clubs are a waste of time. You’re hinging on the words of a person who’d rather you go away and considers you creepy. I bet you’d be honored to use her toilet stall, never mind actually meet her. It’s disgusting. The only person whose rules you should live by is your own.”
“We’re not a bunch of freaks. Mio isn’t some deity like you’re exaggerating. She’s someone we admire. Beautiful and modest and talented and with friends who would never abandon her. I’m one of those friends. Sure, she’s shy, but if everyone could have her modesty and her ambition, the world would be a better place. The Mio Fan Club will always have a chapter in my heart,” said Jun, surprising Azusa with her eloquence.
“Can we have Ton back?” Azusa asked.
Something in Asada broke. She looked at the turtle and realized that she had taken a creature who had done nothing wrong into her hands for the wrong reasons. Ton had the same importance to Azusa as Buster did to her. He was a gift from her seniors and a lifelong companion. Asada had done many things as one of Kokoro and Yoroko’s companions, but they never tried to hurt someone’s feelings, even unintentionally. She retreated into her mind, reacting to the outside world with cursory responses.
“Sure,” said Asada, her eyes blanking out, “There’s no place for animals in Kitaku Free Time.”
“Let’s go back to the green room,” said Azusa.
She and Jun pushed the cart along, watching Ton drift upon the small waves. Asada, still wearing her dog ears, and Kokoro followed close behind. They passed by the equipment room, which held parts yet unused and parts worn down from too much use. Standing out among these electronics was an old news ticker, resting askew between some lights and an amplifier. Its cable vanished into the darkness. Azusa heard a faint electronic humming and saw a message begin to scroll across the ticker.
“A bird trapped in a gilded cage plays a magnificent song. If the heart is prepared, you can communicate with each other as the birds do. Not in loud calls, but in small chirps. Even a blade of grass can become a whistle. You have until 15:21. May all of you find success. Masaka Yumeno.”
“Who is this Yumeno person?” asked Kokoro.
“She’s a wonderful person, or so Yorozu has told me,” Asada said.
“What was she talking about with the birds?” Jun questioned.
Asada reached into her breast pocket once more. She produced a scale model of Mustang, except with his neck replaced by multicolored beads. It could be called a totem of him. The same thing my master had worn in the dreamspace. That such a thing could exist in the waking world is preposterous, but there it was. A small loop was on the bottom of the guitar body, allowing it to be worn as a ring. Did such things exist for the rest of us? Why had they been made at all?
“Miss Yumeno gave me this the day before we got to the train station,” said Asada, tired and detached, “How about a final deal, Azu-nyan?”
“Only my friends can call me that,” Azusa said.
“Right now, with this tiny Mustang, we shall play our songs. Whoever wins gets to keep Ton.”
“Are you serious about this?” asked Jun.
“Don’t worry,” Azusa whispered in Jun’s ear, “I’ve been playing guitar for so long she won’t be able to match me. Ton’s not going anywhere.” She turned back to Asada. “I never thought I’d get to face a fellow Mustang user. Sure, I accept.”
Using a guitar pick that was difficult to see between her fingers, Asada started to play a series of riffs. She was trying for a melody, but there were pauses where pauses were probably not intended to be, and she alternated between slow and fast, seemingly at random. The sound of the miniature Mustang was the strangest guitar Azusa had ever heard. The lowest notes were above the highest notes on a normal size guitar, making it sound like someone was scratching against a metal wall with nails.
Asada said drearily, “Your turn, Nakano.”
Azusa took the ring in hand. She looked at the beaded neck and the strings, each one hair thin. The craftsmanship on it was amazing. She placed the ring around her right hand’s middle finger. It fit perfectly. In an instant, it felt as if a spark of electricity was running through Azusa’s body, warming up her heart. The sensation spread up to her head and down to her toes. She looked down and, though all that was around her was the cold backstage air, she felt as though she was holding her Mustang between her fingers.
“Azusa, you look really pumped. Is the thing that cool?” asked Jun.
“Air guitar,” Azusa said, “Kikuchi, this song was passed down to me from my seniors. ‘Ashita ga Arusa’.”
Azusa visualized herself in the song. The singer promises himself that today will be the day he says how much this girl means to him. He follows behind her as she walks down the street. If she catches him, would she think he’s a stalker? He keeps a respectful distance until a street corner is reached, and the girl turns towards her destination, out of sight. Another missed opportunity. Yet the singer knows that there will be many more street corners. His chance will come one day.
“Nakano, you...” said Kokoro, trying to take it all in, “You made that song your own. How are you capable of doing that?”
“I’ve been with music since I was young,” Azusa said, “A lot of it jazz. Tell me, Kashima, what does jazz mean to you?”
“It means I’m not a part of the going home club,” said Kokoro. “Who cares if they made it to the Budokan? Where’s their school spirit? At least I’m trying to look like an upstanding citizen.”
“That’s all it is? Jazz is a beautiful thing. It’s full of emotion and freedom of expression. It’s never the same thing twice. Houkago Tea Time might not show it, but the spirit of jazz is within us. Looking elegant and putting on a show are minor when the music you write expresses so much more. Jazz isn’t a tool of revenge,” said Azusa, “What will revenge do for you? If you get into a musical duel with Yokokawa, if either of you wins, you’re just going to want to face the other again. You’re both so stubborn that neither of you would agree to disagree. At that point, it wouldn’t even be about the music anymore. Did you hear what I played just now? That was a jazz heart in a light music body. That was music!”
Asada’s eyes once more began sparkling.
The marketplace for goods from both bands was in full swing. If it could bear the band’s logo, no matter how overpriced it was, it would be sold. The fangirls from the HTT and KFT groups had met once again in the center of the hall. The HTT girl had on her person a glowstick purchased at a nearby stall. The KFT girl was holding a paper fan, the five band members’ faces printed on it, in front of her face. Their followers surrounded them on all sides.
“You don’t care about the band or their music,” said the HTT girl, “They only got here because their swag sold so much.”
“What’s there about your band to like?” said the KFT woman, “I can barely tell the bassist and the rhythm guitarist apart. It all blends into one sentimental pile of sludge.”
They locked glances with each other. This would only inspire more people to flock to the vendor stalls, purchasing more and more branded goods until the only people in the hall who weren’t adorned in team colors were the ones dashing in from backstage. Yoroko cut across the far end of the hallway, making her way candidly into a few pictures. Her sister, and the Hirasawa sisters, followed close behind. If only they’d noticed.
Chapter 9: #9: Sisters! (姉妹!)
Yoroko had stolen the wrong Les Paul. She carried me out of the green room and across the Budokan, trying to get as far away from the arena as possible. It was easy to follow someone with a giant guitar on her back, so the sisters were close behind. Yoroko’s intention had been to take her sister’s guitar, which was the same make as I, the only difference being our coloration. It was an extreme way to get a private audience with Yorozu, but it was the only option she could think of. Yui and Ui were never meant to get involved in this.
“Do you know how much that cost?” said Yorozu, her anger just barely concealed.
“I think she’s heading towards the midway,” Ui said.
“Ui, can we get something to eat? I need to recharge soon,” Yui said, catching her breath.
Running long distances had never been something Yui was good at.
“Why are you following me, Hirasawa?” asked Yorozu.
“We’ll explain when we get there,” said Ui.
The midway had been established not far from the Budokan. Stalls selling refreshments and trinkets of all kinds were lined up, hoping to get some money off people there for the concerts. With the Amateur Night concert about an hour away from starting, the number of people at the booths had started to thin. Yoroko decided to stop at one of the empty booths and set me down. The empty booth was close to a goldfish scooping station. The water still had the little fishes swimming about, trying to get whatever morsels fell into their shallow home.
Two food stands stood opposite each other. One was selling fried oysters, the other fried octopus. A large octopus pot had been set out on the octopus stand, boiling the tentacled creatures to be served later. The oyster stand had been getting better sales during the afternoon, but the octopus stand was said to have a better flavor, if a little sour. The scent of seafood from both stands mingled in the air, making Yoroko hungry. She hadn’t gotten anything to eat since breakfast. Even those goldfish were starting to look tasty now.
“Sis is going to do whatever I say when she sees I have her precious guitar...” Yoroko turned over the name tag tied around the bottom of the guitar bag, “...that belongs to Yui Hirasawa?” Yoroko sighed deeply. “That Hirasawa girl, I’ve heard good things about her. Maybe I can still use this.”
Yorozu, Yui and Ui saw the top of the guitar bag sticking out from the booth. Yorozu charged ahead as fast as she could, sliding across the concrete. She peeked into the stand, and glared down at her younger sister. Her red eyes burned with a small flame of anger that could grow at any minute.
“Give me back the guitar,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but I will be going on that stage tonight. Hand it over. Now.”
“Check for yourself sis,” Yoroko said slyly.
Yorozu lifted up the bag and saw the name tag. Yui and Ui arrived at that moment. Yui leaned against the fried oyster stand for a moment, catching her breath. Once the aroma had recharged her senses, she held out her hand at Yorozu.
“Unhand Gitah!” she said.
“Who’s Gitah?” asked Yorozu.
“It’s my sister’s guitar. The one you’re holding,” said Ui.
Yorozu examined the name tag. “So it is. I suppose you want me to give this back to you?”
Yui nodded happily.
“What makes you think you’re worthy of owning it? This is an expensive guitar. You’d probably do something stupid like dress it up and forget to take off the plastic wrap. How childish,” said Yorozu.
Yui had a stunned expression on her face. “Actually, yes.”
“She’s not a child. Sis is in the prime of her youth,” said Ui.
“Then tell me, how did a lazy glutton like her come to own such a fine instrument? Sakuragaoka isn’t some rich girls’ school. Did she shoplift it?” Yorozu taunted.
“Eh?” Yui said, maintaining the same expression. “Mugi bought it for me.”
“Should have known Kotobuki was making this easier than you girls deserved,” said Yorozu, crossing her arms.
Yoroko walked around the booth and sat on the edge of the goldfish pond. “Sis, why are you continuing to do this? I just wanted to talk to you. The Hirasawa family didn’t do anything to you that allows you to go off like this.”
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand, Yoroko,” said Yorozu.
Being close to Yoroko for so long had given me a window into her mind. She had been whispering things. Stories from a time long since past.
The Hyakkoku sisters had been close friends ever since they were young. Their parents were always home, both of them working comfortable jobs that allowed it. Yoroko enjoyed watching the bluebirds outside the window, wanting to be able to go as high into the sky as they could and sing. Yorozu overheard this. She was a dreamer, and promised Yoroko that one day she would be able to fly and sing like the bluebirds could in a home of her own.
Yorozu continued to talk about this as she grew older, but with her having to work hard to keep her all around average grades at their average level, the chance of making Yoroko happy was growing slimmer. Her first year of high school began. She checked every club, including the occult club, for something that could help Yoroko, even indirectly. Unfortunately, Matsugaoka’s limited arts program left her without options. She sat outside the school and started clacking two flat, smooth rocks together like a castanet.
“This counts as an instrument, right?” Yorozu asked herself. “Yoroko, I’m sorry.”
A silhouetted figure, her glasses sparkling in the afternoon sunlight, looked down at her. Yoroko had seen her before. She was the newest teacher at Matsugaoka. Her past as a bubblegum pop singer was well known to the school. She had used it to get herself a job here. She was proud of it, and was one of the biggest supporters of increasing funding to the arts program, though that fight was going nowhere. Masako Koike had been searching for students to mold into a metal band, and this girl, the issues of the world starting to pierce her skin, was ripe with potential.
“Hyakkoku, was it? I’d like you to be the guitarist for a band I’m creating,” said Masako.
“The school won’t allow that,” said Yorozu.
“Who said anything about the school? If you’ve got a garage, you can make a band.”
“I’ve got a garage!” said Yorozu, standing up excitedly.
Masako stopped by Yorozu’s house the next day. Her garage was only a step above a storage shed, but many great bands got their start in garages. Within a few days, Masako had purchased a new Les Paul for Yorozu, promising to teach her everything that Sawako could do. Yorozu spent every day practicing until it looked like she was playing well, and the search for the rest of the band began. Masako said that she would handle it, so as to leave Yorozu more time to practice. Tsugumi joined secondly, with Ran and Michi being inducted in tandem.
With Kitaku Free Time established, Yorozu kept everything about it a secret from her younger sister. This was to make Yoroko happy. The surprise would be much less if Yoroko found out now. She had to come up with a variety of excuses to keep Yoroko out of the garage while still promoting the band. During a rooftop gig, she let in Asada, wanting to appeal to the first years. Asada did not know anything about keeping the band a secret, and told Yoroko.
That brings us to now.
“You’ve changed, sis,” said Yoroko. “You’re wasting so much time on this. I can’t even recognize you anymore.”
“I’ve been making sacrifices for you, Yoroko,” said Yorozu, “You’ll see. One of these days, we’ll release a thousand bluebirds out into the audience, the last one to land in the palm of your hand. Our stage will be a giant golden cage. Then I’ll use the money from this sold out concert to buy you a house that would put anything the Kotobuki family owns to shame. I’m not doing any of this for me. None of it!”
“That’s the problem,” said Yoroko, “You’re not doing anything. You talk big, but everyone else does all the work. Have you even told Miura ‘thank you’ for all that she’s done? She’s so timid that she’s not sure if you’re exploiting her or grateful. If you weren’t the face of the band, they’d gladly get rid of you.”
“Ui, I’m feeling a little sick,” said Yui.
“Is it the seafood? Maybe you need to lie down,” Ui said.
Yorozu opened the bag and took me out. She held my neck with her right hand as she reached into her pocket with her left, producing her guitar pick. Her arms were cold and shaking. “Kitaku Free Time would be nowhere without me,” said Yorozu, “I provide them with dreams! People told us we couldn’t make it to the Budokan, but look at us now.”
“Sis, you didn’t actually do anything,” said Yoroko coldly, “Dreaming is only half of it. You’re not even aware of what your pipe dreams have been doing to our bonds. I’ve barely seen you since high school began. I want to see my sister again. Even if it means I have to destroy your dream, I’ll get mine back.”
“My dream isn’t a fool’s errand,” said Yorozu. She turned to Yui. “Hirasawa, I’ll show all of you what I can do. Even if I have to use your guitar to do it. I wrote this song on my own. ‘Yaoyorozu Yorokobi’!”
Compared to the rest of Kitaku Free Time’s output, this song was light on the metal and heavy on the pop. Yorozu took inspiration from some notes Masako left behind, notes from her days in Bubble Angel. She wrote the song to Yoroko. Unfortunately, the bond between the sisters had become strained to the point that Yoroko never knew. This was the first time she was hearing it.
It was not how Yorozu had intended it to be heard. The song lacked its complexity without the other four backing it up, and the way she moved the guitar pick across my body was not how Yui played. Her fingers hesitated before strumming across me, making me wonder if every note would be the last. Her pitch was all over the place, and she played the wrong notes several times. Normally, she would try and pass these off as improvisation, but instead, it left the song an off key version of itself.
The lyrics were beautiful. The imagery of those bluebirds from their childhood and her love for her sister were there, not very far beneath the poetry. Yorozu sung it so softly, in a tiny whisper, that it looked to Yoroko and the Hirasawa sisters that she was mouthing the words to something unknown. She only made it through the first verse before cutting to the last. The bottom of her eyes were watery, holding back tears.
“‘Yaoyorozu Yorokobi’?” asked Yoroko, “You were being honest...”
“What did you think?” said Yorozu through her teeth.
“It wasn’t very good,” said Yui casually.
“I like you, Hirasawa,” said Yoroko, “Wish I had you as a big sister.”
“Two little sisters?” said Yui, blushing at the thought.
“She’s like this with everything. You should see how she was when she became a second year student,” said Ui.
“This girl? Seriously? There is no way a sweets-eating crazy girl is a better guitarist than me,” said Yorozu, “It’s your...‘Gitah’, so I want to see you play. You’re not taking Yoroko away from me.”
“I have no intention to,” said Yui, grabbing onto me with her warm hand, “Oh, Gitah, I’m so happy to have you back. You got to see a lot of the Budokan, though. Was it fun?”
“Is everyone in your band like this?” asked Yorozu, arching her eyebrow.
“Actually, yes,” said Ui.
“What song you got, Hirasawa?” said Yorozu.
My master had been concerned with eating sweets all day to the point that she had nearly forgotten there was going to be a concert. So she went with whatever song came to mind. As it turns out, it was the one everyone had been playing throughout the day.
“‘Ashita ga Arusa’,” Yui said.
“Really? That? I thought the genius Yui Hirasawa would pick something more complex. Do as you please,” said Yorozu.
Yui’s fingers began plucking across me by instinct. This was a wonderful feeling. Yui sang the lyrics of the penultimate verse as her hands caressed my body. Her voice was surprisingly high pitched without any modification, which surprised Yoroko most of all.
The singer, having already failed to call the phone number of the girl of his dreams (this was before e-mails became a ubiquitous part of life), has decided to stop by the cafe where she works. Today, he has it set. He’s going to confess. All it takes is to say “I love you”, and he can become the person he wants to be. The problem is that he’s never been to a cafe before, and is overwhelmed by the atmosphere. What if everyone sees him confess and he messes it up again? Or even worse, what if he gets it right? He ends up ordering a drink and a light meal from the girl and walks away, but continues to reassure himself.
“So the rumors were true,” said Yorozu, “Yui Hirasawa can do things without thinking that most people put all their effort into.”
“This was too sudden. I’m still kind of winded,” Yui said, putting her hand behind her head and sticking out her tongue.
“Do you plan to tour outside of Japan?” asked Yorozu, walking up to Yui like an old friend.
“People know about us outside Japan?” said Yui, her energy peaking once more.
“Your audience is made up of more than nerds. Ran’s told me all about the ticket sales for tonight. Nerds are still a large part of it, but you’ve got that appeal that could make you go global. Do you plan on taking your entire song list with you? Culture is a tricky business. Songs that everyone is humming here can be unknown in the rest of the world,” said Yorozu, twirling her deep red hair.
“Good feelings feel good. Houkago Tea Time’s music is sweet and moe moe kyun~!” Yui said as she made a heart shape with her hands, bringing it close to her chest, “You don’t know if you don’t try.”
“That song you were playing, ‘Ashita ga Arusa’. It’s made it to America before you will. Not in the original Japanese,” said Yorozu.
“Thank you Ritsu!” Yui said giddily.
“Let me finish. In 2001, a guy named Johnny Cymbal covered the song. The melody’s infectious, but the lyrics. They’ve been completely rewritten. The singer is already in a relationship with the girl of his dreams. Only it’s a relationship that’s going nowhere. She’s teasing him. Leading him along. Not even his friends can save him. His ‘tomorrow’ has already arrived, and it’s eternally the worst day of his life. It’s called ‘Uso no Katamari’. ‘A Pack of Lies’,” Yorozu finished, enjoying every last syllable.
“That poor singer. Even the Ulfuls cover is more hopeful,” said Yui, her face turning blue.
“That’s what’s going to happen to you and your friends, Hirasawa. If you try to remain as you are in this fantasy, you’ll destroy your public image. If you follow the corporate world, they’ll destroy your image. Now you see why Kitaku Free Time values its elegance. You have to care about yourself before you even think of spreading happiness to everyone else. Are you prepared to sacrifice that much of yourself?” asked Yorozu.
“That’s mean,” said Ui.
“That is pretty low,” added Yoroko, “Just when I thought I had you back, you turn around and crush this girl's spirit.”
“I’m not crushing it, I’m being realistic,” said Yorozu.
“What reality is that? People may not be perfect, but to say that there isn’t kindness in this world...” said Ui, standing in front of her sister, “How can you be so cynical?”
Yorozu looked around the empty midway. She saw something stuck underneath the octopus pot, and went to pull it out. It was a piece of paper, slightly damp and smelling of the creatures it had been idling near. She pulled hard, trying not to rip it in the process. Yorozu stopped, switching to a gentle coaxing. This freed the paper. It had become creased where the pot had been laying on it. It bore a message written in a professional font.
“Migratory birds are always seeking warmer climates, so that they can continue onto the next generation. Remember that you have to be back at the green room by 15:21, no matter where you were beforehand.
“How did that get out here?” asked Yorozu. “You heard her, Hirasawa. Let’s get go...Hirasawa?”
Yui was standing still. I was strapped around her neck, glistening in the sunlight. Yui’s bangs blocked her eyes, until a light breeze blew past and revealed them. She was no longer crying. Tear lines were visible on her eyes, but had started to dry in the afternoon sun. Her head had become clear. The only sound that the both of us could hear was her heartbeat, louder than the crowds in the distance, louder than the splashing of the goldfish, louder than the birds flying overhead.
“Hyakkoku, you know a lot about my sister. Did you know this?” asked Ui.
“She’s not doing anything,” said Yorozu.
“It only looks that way. She’s doing something, and she’s doing it to her best. My sister may not be a jack of all trades, but when something motivates her, miracles happen,” said Ui.
“Yorozu Hyakkoku,” said Yui, “Your music was incomplete because you’ve been playing alone. I have not. We may be separated by distance, but the bonds of Houkago Tea Time will never fade. Every melody needs a countermelody to oppose it, a flair to enhance it, a foundation to support it and a friend to stand beside it.”
Yui felt something buzzing in her pocket. She opened her cell phone and saw that she had a new text message. It had been sent only a few minutes ago. The name and address were one Yui had not seen in a while. The mail’s brevity gave rise to emotions beyond its scope.
“Yui and company, I heard you’re performing at the Budokan tonight. Best of luck! I’ll be watching you from afar. You will always be my best friend. Nodoka Manabe.”
Yui’s stone faced expression turned into a wide smile. The beating of her heart grew louder. She placed her hand over me and looked at Yorozu straight on.
“Mio, Ritsu, Mugi, Azu-nyan, Ui, Jun, Nodoka,” Yui said, strumming a note for every name, “Thank you. Your voices have reached me!”
She began to play the last verse of “Ashita ga Arusa”. It repeated the mantra that had guided the singer thus far. There was always tomorrow. Yui was still young, and still dreaming. If Yorozu could understand that, someday, she might have a chance to reunite with the ones she loved too. Yui played the song’s title once more to finish it. In those final lines, she was harmonizing across a great distance. Mio and Ritsu back in the green room, Tsumugi singing a capella in the tucked away office, Azusa playing on the tiny Mustang in the hallway; all of their voices became one.
Yui’s guitar playing was at its best. Perfect pitch, perfect tuning and a perfect melody, all played without her thinking. That, you see, was the key to Yui’s success. If she started thinking, her mind would return to thoughts of cake and sleep and coddling me like a pet. In this state of mind, nothing was impossible. She played another riff across my body, bringing the song to a close. Carrying a heavy guitar like myself across her body in the afternoon sun had taken its toll on her. Yui fell to her knees onto the concrete.
“Ui...water...” she said.
“We have to get her back inside,” said Ui.
“I’ll help,” offered Yoroko, “Sorry I took your Gitah.”
“It’s okay,” said Yui weakly, “You didn’t mean to.”
Ui took me off her sister’s shoulders and tucked me back inside my bag. She carried me on her back and walked back to her older sister, lifting her up and supporting her shoulders. Yoroko did the same. Like a four legged creature, the three girls walked in step back towards the arena. It was 15:15.
“I lost,” said Yorozu, sitting between the seafood booths, “I actually lost.”
She followed after her sister and the Hirasawa siblings, maintaining a steady distance. She didn’t want to be seen by Yoroko. She’d invested this much time, gotten this close to her dream, and she hadn’t made Yoroko happy at all. That girl from Houkago Tea Time had the courage to be a better big sister and musician in front of her, and act like it was nothing. She wondered how the rest of the band would react to this.
The audiences were starting to file into the seats into the Budokan arena. Small groups and fan clubs for the respective band members were close together, but the seating for the warring factions was mixed overall. There were plenty of people in the audience who liked both bands, but they were outnumbered by the loud minority. The largest group, by far, was the Mio Akiyama Fan Club, containing both new inductees and students who had been in it during her high school days. Mio herself was not aware of this, but had a feeling in the back of her mind that it might happen.
The emcee took to the stage. It was one of the Budokan’s employees, a young woman with short hair and a charismatic voice. “Welcome to the Nippon Budokan, everybody! Now, who here is a fan of Houkago Tea Time from Toyosato?” Half the crowd cheered. “Who’s a fan of Kitaku Free Time from Hidaka?” The other half of the crowd cheered. “You’re all really energetic. Alright, everyone, we’ll have our first band on in a few minutes, but let’s get you started with the soulful music of MAGIC PARTY! Cheer really loud, everyone!”
The warmup act ascended to the stage while the wayward girls and the pig nosed turtle returned to the green room. Music could be heard from within, being played by two drum kits and two bass guitars.
“Is there any water left?” asked Ui frantically.
“It’s so cool in here...” Yui could be heard saying.
“What were you doing?” asked Mio worriedly.
“Did you guys get mail from Nodoka too?” asked Ritsu.
The door closed just as two stagehands, carting a large plate of glass, strolled past. The glass was warm to the touch, as if it had been freshly pressed. Its surface was smooth and reflective, and if one looked into a spot where two panes had been laid crooked, it would be like seeing one’s face reflected into infinity.
Its destination was the uppermost level of the arena, where the people were tiny and the powerful lights were within touching distance. The further up and further back one sat, to the band below, the spectators became a black faceless mass, with only their glowstick to identify them if they were lucky. Though the seats are cheap, those who can get them for the big events appreciate it. They’ve always been distant observers.
The time was 15:21.
Chapter 10: #10: Ultimatum! (最後通牒!)
Nine minutes to showtime. Yui was in the corner, drinking Tsumugi’s tea, recovering from her full strength performance out on the midway. Once again, the two bands had grouped in opposite corners of the green room. This time, Yoroko and Kokoro were with us. Their backstage passes were still valid, and since Ton and myself had been returned, the people of the Budokan were willing to overlook it for now. The air was thick with tension.
“I’m going to take a nap,” Yui said, “Wake me up when we head out.”
“What were you doing out there?” Mio asked.
“She was showing Hyakkoku what she and Gitah could do,” said Ui, “She said something about ‘your voices have reached me’.”
“What song? It must have been something really complex,” said Azusa.
“‘Ashita ga Arusa’,” replied Ui.
“You went with that one too?” asked Azusa.
“We’ve been practicing it so much,” said Mio.
“I told you guys, this song is gonna rock the stage!” Ritsu said, “Aren’t you glad I’m the president?”
“Hey, Mugi?” asked Jun, “You okay?”
Tsumugi’s eyes were closed. Her eyebrows were twitching up and down, as if in thought. Yui, lying back on the couch, was mesmerized by them, taking her mind off her leaden joints. She looked across the green room at the pink haired keyboardist. Tsugumi was writing something in a notebook, not being looked at by anyone. Asada moved across the couch, trying to get closer to her, but Kokoro shot her a wicked stare.
Tsumugi stood up and walked across the imaginary line between the couches that divided the waiting area. She approached Ran. The golden haired girl had removed her glasses, revealing her eyes once again. Her stare was no longer distant, instead looking inward, taking in the posters and advertisements lying around the room. Tsumugi tapped her on the shoulder, snapping her out of her trance. Ran’s face fell stoic once more.
“Excuse me. Are you the leader of Kitaku Free Time?” asked Tsumugi cordially.
“No,” replied Ran, “Just the treasurer. Why, did you think I was?”
“The drummer in our band is the leader, so I figured it might be the same for you,” said Tsumugi, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” said Ran, blushing. “Thanks for noticing me.”
Michi, running her hands through her hair, sat down beside Tsumugi, and leaned over in what was supposed to be a seductive pose. It was the only way she knew how to negotiate, lacking the confidence to try anything else. Tsumugi did not react. Normally, she would be receptive to a girl wanting to talk intimately with her, but there was nothing cute about what Michi was attempting. It was tacky and desperate.
“Kotobuki, what are you trying to do? If you’re lookin’ for the leader, that’s me,” said Michi.
“I thought the leader was Yorozu,” said Tsugumi quietly.
“No, it’s not, Miura. A leader is someone who does something. She hasn’t even told us why we’re in this stupid band,” said Michi with a scowl.
“I don’t think you’ve been treating your instruments or your musicians properly,” said Tsumugi, unfazed, “Tsugumi and I had a talk over tea and cake, and she told me she has been feeling unappreciated. Her voice is fantastic, so perhaps you could give her a lead part in a song? It could lead to more people looking at you.”
“Kotobuki...you don’t have to,” said Tsugumi.
“You heard her, you don’t have to,” said Michi, “She’s got nowhere else to go. As long as she’s grateful we gave her a chance at all, what reason do you have to interfere in the private business of another band? Go back to your tea and cakes, ya gilded-caged bird.”
“That’s not the Michi I know. You always told me that there’s beauty in everyone, like an oyster. Then why are you only willing to stand up for Ran and ignore me and Tsugumi?” asked Asada. “What makes us different?”
“Tsugumi doesn’t want it, and you don’t need it,” said Michi.
“But she needs it and I want it,” said Asada. “How little do we mean to you?”
“That will be enough,” said Tsumugi, standing up. “I didn’t think it would come to this.”
Tsugumi covered her eyes. Tsumugi pushed aside her long hair, making her eyes and forehead, and her large eyebrows, become clearly visible. She slowly opened her eyes and stared directly at Michi. The members of Houkago Tea Time could only watch from behind, not knowing what depths Tsumugi’s eyes had gone to. Michi’s face became still, her eyes widening in fright.
“Please give Tsugumi and Asada their due on stage this evening. If you do not, the Kotobuki company will refrain from sponsoring any future events you will be performing at,” that was what her eyes told. She didn’t actually speak a word.
“I’m not scared. You’re using your parents’ names to ride your way to the top. All you’re doing is being a mouthpiece for your father,” said Michi.
“I say this not on behalf of my father, but as Tsumugi Kotobuki. Let’s all be friendly, okay?” said Tsumugi. She tilted her head after the “okay”, as if to say “this is final.” The persuasive glare vanished from her eyes.
“You win,” said Michi defiantly, a small shiver running down her spine.
Yorozu snapped out of her silent furor, getting out of her chair. She moved closer to her little sister, and was about to say something when there came a knock at the door. Another of Miss Yumeno’s assistants walked in, a clipboard in his hand. He looked like he was rushed for time.
“You’re all here, good,” he said, “KFT, you’re going on stage in five minutes. We’ve got the lights all set up, and your platform is being hoisted into position. See you in the arena.”
The moment the door closed, Michi smiled at Ran, and grabbed Tsugumi and Asada by the hands. The door to the dressing room was nearby.
“Let’s go! I’ve got to get you girls dressed,” she said.
“Is this...skinship?” asked Tsugumi.
“You mean these aren’t your stage outfits?” asked Mio.
“This is casual. For an elegant performance, we need elegant clothing,” said Michi, “You hurry it up too, Hyakkoku.”
Once all five members of Kitaku Free Time were inside the dressing room, Tsumugi placed her ear to the wall. The sounds of skinship were echoing from within. Michi got herself dressed much quicker than her outfit’s complexity suggested, and went to work on the others. Yorozu’s voice only entered the commotion once, yelling “I can’t hear myself think!” Tsugumi and Asada were making sounds of struggling, while Ran’s voice spoke of pleasure. The door swung open as Kitaku Free Time presented themselves before the green room.
“The theme of today’s stage is ‘Cosmic Alice’,” said Michi with pride. She was wearing a white and blue dress with a metallic sheen and tubular rings on the shoulders, arms and legs. Her hair had been pushed back with a silver headband.
“This is weird,” said Tsugumi, wearing a top hat with neon rings. The rest of her outfit consisted of a suit jacket and a skirt that went down to her knees, decorated primarily in pink. It was made of the same material as Michi’s outfit.
Ran had donned pair of puffy pants that gave it a ribbed look. Her shirt was the same in puffiness and segmented design. Both of them were in yellow. A fake pipe was positioned in her breast pocket. “If you do not trust our fashion consultant, who do you trust?” she said.
Asada was wearing a sleek, skintight dress, primarily silver, that covered her body, from her shoulders to her legs. Glowing lines around the chest, and the turquoise torso, made her look like a bunny girl. She did have a pair of mylar rabbit ears, but swapped them out for her dog ones when Michi wasn’t looking. “I’m sorry, Buster,” she whispered.
Yorozu was in a frilly red dress with patches of the same reflective material that made up the rest of the outfits. A majestic red crown, also with neon rings, sat atop her head. She glanced over at Michi with disdain. “What are you trying to imply with the Red Queen?”
“You guys look awesome!” Yui said.
“So...bold...” said Mio.
“Girls, it’s showtime,” said the assistant, peeking his head back in through the door, “Houkago Tea Time, backstage pass winners, if you want to watch the concert, we’ll be setting up a monitor in here. Anyone you know out there?”
“My sister,” muttered Yoroko.
MAGIC PARTY cleared off the stage. The lights dimmed. A large mirror was projected onto the back of the stage from high above. A single spotlight focused on the emcee. Tension was high, and the audience had already started a chant. “Ki-ta-ku! Ki-ta-ku!” There was a smaller section chanting “Yo-ro-zu”, but they could not be heard above the roar of several thousand more.
“They came here all the way from Hokkaido, so let me hear you scream!” shouted the emcee.
Spotlights shone on a platform located near the top of the arena. On mechanical cables it slowly lowered itself onto the stage waiting below. The mirror’s projection was replaced by a tunnel of stars, and with a Victorian style room decorated in shades of black and red, with furniture much larger than the band, when they landed.
“The wormhole to a forgotten tomorrow!” shouted Yorozu into the microphone, “We are Kitaku Free Time! Prepare to enter a world where everything you know has been replaced by chaos! This is our Cosmic Alice! We know you all came here to hear it, so we’ll begin with our signature sound! Begin! ‘Zoku Zoku Road’!”
There is a phenomenon known as cryptomnesia, the repeating of old ideas that seem new to you at the time. To Mio and Elizabeth back in the green room, this was cryptomnesia in action. The song’s lyrics were different in every way imaginable, as they were about walking beyond a dead end road and running into something unknown to man or god. The song’s melody, however, though it was lower in pitch and arranged slightly different, was “Fuwa Fuwa Time”. Mio hoped that she wasn’t the only one to notice. The crowd, caught up in the frenzy, did not care.
“They’re hardcore,” said Yui.
“Wait, Yui knows what hardcore is? I never thought I’d see the day,” said Ritsu.
“They remind me of Sawa,” said Yui, her eyes fixed to the monitor, “but they look cute.”
“Koike’s had some influence on their music. The question is how much,” said Azusa.
This was the first time they had seen all of Kitaku Free Time’s instruments together. Tsugumi’s Triton had twelve keys more than the Triton I knew, but otherwise, aside from the color. they were of the same brand name as my group. Yoroko’s Les Paul was black and gold, Michi’s Fender white, Ran’s Hipgig cherry red and Asada’s Mustang bronze. The feelings from that summer day once more returned to Azusa’s head.
“Alright, you geeks! Next up is ‘Tsuki to Suppon’. Let’s rock!” said Yorozu.
The projection on the back of the screen changed to a turtle with the parts of a cow, save for the shell. A bright silver light above the stage shone down on the girls, turning the spotlight into moonlight. During the course of the song, the light passed over their bodies, going from full to half to crescent to eclipse, and repeating the cycle in tune with the music. When played with a full band, the song had a certain kind of power, like it was inflicting a mass Pensiero visione on the audience. This was not something the cameras could capture, but memories of the concert would bring it to mind for the attendees years from now.
“Out of the way, Hyakkoku, I’m taking over,” whispered Michi, low enough that a nearby microphone would not pick it up. She swung around and grabbed a microphone, speaking with a wide grin before Yorozu could get a word in. “Our journey through a never-ending maze brings us to a moment of peace. This is ‘Stone Henge’!”
This song was more of a ballad about people who had fought for something unknown. It was also the only song thus far with audience participation, something that Ritsu took note of. As the song reached its highest point, the stone monument that we had seen in the prop room started to descend, planting itself behind Ran and her drum kit. Upside down. The monument, shaped like a pi symbol, had been suspended by its legs instead of the way it was supposed to be. Yorozu turned around and saw the monument descending incorrectly. Her expression changed from her on stage persona to a vacant stare.
The monument crashed on the stage. Yorozu turned her head back and forth quickly. Having no time, she tried to save face, speaking as fast as her mouth could move into the microphone. Her words blurred together, the audience just barely able to parse it. “I-in a world of chaos, where the things of beauty are turned upside down! O humanity, be amazed and despaired! In this new world, I will become the queen!”
The crowd cheered. “They bought it,” said Ran.
“Keep singing,” said Asada.
The song came to a close. Next on their playlist was “Game 108”, followed by “Alicetronic”. Asada got to perform the lead vocals for “Summer Night”, a song whose name betrayed its lyrics. Tsugumi got a chance to display her keyboard finesse in “A Mouse’s Chattering”, something she had written in her free time. Kitaku Free Time’s on stage persona was controlled and elegant, but also twisted and decayed. As we watched the performance, the songs reaching decibels that our music could only dream of, Houkago Tea Time began to discuss among themselves.
“Some of these lyrics are confusing,” said Yui.
“I don’t know if the lyrics are the point. The melodies are a lot more honest,” said Ui.
“Is this supposed to be rebellious? It looks like a video game,” said Jun.
Mio was looking over our playlist for tonight. “I wonder why Miss Yumeno scheduled us alongside them,” Mio said, “We don’t appeal to the same audiences at all. Did any of you leave our music sheets lying around?”
“Look alive, you two!” said Ritsu, moving closer to Kokoro and Yoroko, “Live concerts have something no studio performance can replicate. The sweat of the audience, the sweat of the performers, the sound projected out into a room ten times the size of a school auditorium! It’s an experience!”
“It’s an excuse to get your money. Michi will sell anything if she can paint the band’s logo on it. It’s all junk anyway,” said Kokoro.
“Money’s a part of it,” said Ritsu, “but it’s not all of it. This is about the music. Once this concert ends, you can never relive it. You can replicate it, but going back to this moment will be impossible. It is because it is.”
Yoroko looked up at the clock. “I’m gonna use the toilet.”
She walked out into the hallway, letting the door swing freely behind her.
The camera zoomed in on the stage. Yorozu placed her hand out, ordering the band to stop. She approached the microphone and took a deep breath. A single strum of her guitar segued her into her monologue. “I know that you have come here to listen to us say that the world is full of lies and you can’t even trust yourself. That’s our music and our style, but there’s more to us than that.”
“What are you doing? This isn’t part of the program,” whispered Michi.
“We wouldn’t have made it here if it weren’t for the people who are close to our hearts. I’d like to thank Masako Koike, who gave me the stuff to get here, and to my little sister, Yoroko. There’s so many of you out there, perhaps one of you is her. For the first time, at the Budokan, this is ‘Yaoyorozu Yorokobi’.”
The images that had been projected behind the band for the duration of the performance faded away, replaced by a single spotlight over Yoroko. On her own Les Paul, her music and her intentions were coming through clearly and honestly. The feeling of her guitar still could not be described as “cute”, but he was a fellow instrument. The members of Kitaku Free Time uneasily joined in the chorus. Asada and Tsugumi sang the loudest, while Ran was trying to enunciate the words and not really singing them. Michi was moving her lips, spouting only gibberish.
By the second verse, everyone but Michi had started to sing in harmony. The crowd, which had once been waving glowsticks and banners in the air, was strangely motionless. The wide space of the Budokan magnified their voices, and Yorozu’s inner voice, to tenfold their power. The second verse finished, and the bridge came up. Michi, playing her bass without looking down, glanced over at Yorozu. Beneath the hot spotlights of the black stage, her swaying red hair, the sweat and tears running down her cheeks, she looked earnest. Something in Michi tripped and sparked.
The reprise of the chorus swelled, and Michi joined in, lending her voice at its full power. The melody was different from everything she had composed, but that wasn’t a bad thing. Her fingers were moving in directions they had never moved before. The lyrics were sappy, but that didn’t make them less true. If she replaced a couple of the words, it could fit as well for her and Ran. She shouted the final words into the microphone, holding out the last syllable until the other four had stopped. The last of her voice escaped into the microphone and shot out through the amps. Everyone was looking at her.
“You’re really into it, Michi,” said Yorozu. “Good job!”
“Thanks...Hya...I mean, Yorozu,” said Michi.
Yui was standing up from her chair and applauding. Unlike Mio, she was not even aware of what cryptomnesia was, much less how to recognize it. The energy from Yorozu’s performance could be felt even through the monitor. The door swung back open as Yoroko walked in, adjusting her pants. She looked confusedly at the members of Houkago Tea Time and asked.
“What did I miss?”
Kitaku Free Time finished their performance, and the evening’s intermission begun. Once the fifteen minutes were up, it would be time for my master and my friends to take to the stage and begin our road to stardom. Yorozu and her friends entered the green room. They were sweaty and exhausted, but happy. The thrill of performing on stage, the encouraging cheers of the crowds, seeing everything they’d waited for become a reality; these feelings lingered.
“Thank you for letting me perform,” said Tsugumi.
“It’s nothing,” said Michi, trying to not sound honest, “Really, let it be nothing.”
Yorozu looked around the room and saw her sister reclining on the couch, grabbing the last of the sweets from the snack table. She ran over and hugged her tightly. Yoroko kicked her legs against the ground, trying to escape from the grip.
“Did you see us?” said Yorozu, smiling.
“Yes,” said Yoroko, “Why are you still hugging me?”
“What did you think of ‘Yaoyorozu Yorokobi’? The full chorus version is much better, wasn’t it? You’re my only little sister, everything about this band has been for you, so you can be happy,” Yorozu said, barely stopping to catch her breath.
“When did you play that song?” asked Yoroko.
“Eh?” said Yorozu, making the same expression as Yui did when confused.
Kokoro took a sip from her can of tea, and wiped the residue off her lips. “She was using the toilet.”
“Yoroko,” said Yorozu pitifully.
“It was a beautiful song,” Ui said.
“She’s a better little sister than you!” said Yorozu, pushing herself away.
“Yeah, well Yui’s a better big sister than you!” said Yoroko.
“Both of you, stop fighting,” said Tsugumi. “Please. We’re making fools of ourselves in front of our guests.”
Michi, looking up at Yorozu from her chair while tuning her bass, asked, “What do you mean all this is for your little sister? I thought this was to raise awareness for the arts program.”
Yorozu heard something buzzing in her dress’ pocket. Her cell phone was vibrating and flashing wildly, informing her a call was coming in. According to the screen, it was from Masako Koike. Yorozu answered the call and set it to speaker. The five of Kitaku Free Time gathered around the tiny phone, listening to Masako’s voice. We could only watch from a distance.
“How’d it go, girls?” she asked.
“Not like I hoped,” said Yorozu.
“It had some unexpected elements, but I enjoyed it,” said Ran, smiling.
“I gave Tsugumi a singing part. Kotobuki said her voice was good, and...it was. She could go solo. How come you never told us?” said Michi.
“Don’t forget me, wan,” said Asada.
“Whose voice was that? The roadie?” said Masako.
Asada dropped her cute puppy dog act in an instant and vocally stung at Masako through the speaker. “Roadie? I’m the rhythm guitarist and cute little junior, Asada Kikuchi!”
“I don’t remember saying you were in the band. We are supposed to have exactly four people. Things get stupid after that,” said Masako.
Michi slammed her palm over the speaker. “You’ve been telling her that Asada’s a roadie? But she’s been playing with us for years!” said Michi.
“It was the only way to get around Masako’s rules. I put my position in the band on the line for this,” said Yorozu back.
“That’s arbitrary. What is the purpose of this band?” asked Ran.
“To make Yoroko happy,” said Yorozu quietly.
“It’s so we can raise awareness for the arts program,” said Michi, “So the kids in our alma mater won’t have to create garage bands.”
“So I can reconnect with music,” said Tsugumi.
“I just want all of you to have fun,” said Asada.
“You’re all wrong,” said Masako. Silence quickly fell over the room. Yoroko and Kokoro leaned in to listen to the phone conversation themselves. “I formed this band for only one purpose. To show Sawako that I’m not a gimmicky musician. Tonight’s performance was so metal that she’ll have to acknowledge me now. Thank you for making my dream come true, girls.” She hung up.
“Sawa?” said Houkago Tea Time simultaneously.
“I just want to be left alone,” said Asada.
Asada left the room, heading up to the highest level of the Budokan.
“We were tricked,” said Michi.
“Asada!” Yorozu called out, “Wait!”
I knew from my brief time performing with her where this burst of compassion had come from. Asada was to Yorozu what Buster was to Asada. With the guitarist spending much of her time preparing for a day that might never come, she wanted someone younger than her around to remind her of what she was fighting for. Asada’s air of melancholy and cheerfulness reminded her of the Yoroko she once knew.
The rest of Kitaku Free Time followed, including Yoroko and Kokoro. Asada was their friend too.
Yui and Ui looked at each other and nodded.
“I don’t want to see another band break up,” Yui said, “it’s not their time.”
“Sisters shouldn’t hate each other,” said Ui.
“Yui,” said Azusa, “You’re such a noble person.”
“We’re going with you,” said Ritsu, “Houkago Tea Time always sticks together.”
The seven of us followed the seven of them to the highest floor of the Budokan. Asada entered the first unlocked storage room she could find. It was a large, cold, empty room with a plate of glass hanging from the ceiling. We went inside after her, and the doors slammed shut.
Chapter 11: #11: Oneself! (自分自身!)
We were trapped. The double doors to this unused room only opened from the outside. There were no windows, and even if there were, we were on the highest floor of the building. The room had no lights except for a row of seven hanging lamps overhead, which swung for a moment from the doors’ gusts, then stopped. Azusa groped along the wall until she came upon a lever. Her sweaty hand pushed the switch downward, activating the pulleys in the overhead. The plate of glass, itself as wide as the room, descended, isolating the two bands on opposite sides of the room. The rusty lever became stuck in its lowered position.
The Budokan had become a palace of depression.
“We’re going to miss the concert,” said Ritsu in a hushed voice.
“That’s not what’s important right now,” said Mio, pulling on the double door, “We’re stuck in a room with no food for what could be a long time. It’s dark. Ritsu, hold me.”
“I said I wanted to be left alone,” spat out Asada on the opposite side of the glass, “I’m not a roadie.”
“I told you, you should have joined with me,” said Kokoro.
“Okay, so I lied, but it was with good intentions,” Yorozu said, “I’m going to need you to trust me.”
“How are we going to get out of here?” asked Jun. “Maybe we can slide something under the door?”
“We don’t have anything to write on,” said Azusa.
Yui was leaning back against the glass, humming the tune of “Ichigo Parfait ga Tomaranai”. She stretched her arms over her head and embraced the small amount of warmth coming from the light above. “If you think of it as a secret base, it’s not so bad. This place is roomy.”
“You like taking it easy, don’t you sis?” said Ui.
“You guys try this too,” Yui said.
“Hirasawa, there is no way that could be comfortable,” said Michi.
“I wonder if Miss Yumeno planned this too,” said Ran.
“This isn’t planned. I’m supposed to be feeling sorry for myself and I’m surrounded by the very people who betrayed me. I deserve to be trapped in this room,” said Asada.
“Don’t talk like that,” said Tsugumi, “Kotobuki and the others are with us as well. Do you think they deserve it too?”
“They’ve been nice to me. Everyone who’s nice to me ends up hurt,” said Asada.
“That kind of attitude isn’t going to get us out of here at all!” said Ritsu.
“What kind of person are you, Yui Hirasawa?” said Yorozu, pressing her face against the glass.
“I’m me,” said Yui.
Yorozu backed off, placing one hand against the glass. Yui looked back and stood up, placing her opposite hand against Yorozu’s. On one side of the glass, Yui saw Yorozu scowling at her. On the other side, Yorozu saw Yui smiling, treating the glass like a game.
“Why do you not hate me, Hirasawa? I’m a terrible big sister, I can’t play the guitar, and my own bandmates can’t even stand me. I should be everything you aren’t, everything you don’t want to be. Yet, this whole time,” she started choking up, “the only thing you’ve shown me is friendship.”
“You’re not like me at all, but I can’t hate you, Yorozu,” Yui said, “It would be like hating myself. You are kinda different, but when I look at you, I see more the same. You’re kind of selfish and dreaming of becoming a star without having a plan, but you do care. You want your own little sister to be happy, and you let Asada into the band just because you liked her. When I heard you performing tonight, you guys sounded great. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but the music was awesome! You know a lot of things, so I think having you as a friend would be really cool.”
“Hirasawa...” said Yoroko.
“Don’t worry, Yoroko,” said Ui, “From one little sister to another. Yorozu might not have seen you a lot, but that’s because she wanted it to be a surprise. You came all the way out here to see your older sister. You wouldn’t have done that if you didn’t care, right?”
“The person I came out here to see wasn’t my sister,” insisted Yoroko, looking at Ui on the opposite side of the glass, “Koike’s corrupted her. She turned her into an ‘elegant’, defiled person for her personal agenda. My sister might be somewhere in there, but I think I’ve already lost her.”
“Yoroko, the song I wrote for you wasn’t elegant or twisted or anything like that. I don’t know what I can do about you missing it, but I’d go against Koike’s wishes ten thousand times if it meant you could be like those bluebirds one day,” said Yorozu. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you this until now.”
Further down the glass plate, Ran and Michi were standing opposite Mio and Ritsu. Michi removed the headband from her Cosmic Alice outfit and handed it over to Ran. “I think it suits you better,” she said, “You’re always looking down at something. If your hair gets in your way, that would be bothersome, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh wow,” said Ritsu, looking at the golden-haired drummer, “That looks really good on you. Like you’re studying for exams or something.”
“Interesting how we give off completely different impressions from the same thing,” said Ran, “You may be an amateur still, but I admire you, Tainaka. Your tomboyish demeanor makes you look more courageous than I ever have. No one wants to talk to a paper girl like me, but you’re out making your own future, no matter what anyone says.”
“Tomboyish? I’m still a girl,” said Ritsu, “but you’re not that bad yourself, Fujii. Mio would probably like it if I worked as hard as you did.”
“You might want to say that when Akiyama isn’t cowering in the corner,” said Ran.
Ritsu looked over to the crouching Mio, covering her ears. She tapped her on the shoulder and pointed up at the lights above. “We can’t see very far, but you’re not alone,” said Ritsu.
“You really are two sides of the same coin,” said Ran.
“Ye-yes,” stuttered Mio.
“Akiyama, I can see how you got that fan club,” said Michi.
“Because she fla-” Ritsu said, Mio covering up her mouth.
“You’ve still got that innocence in you. I saw it during our challenge. You can make even the sappiest lyrics sound hardcore. Your genre of music may not be my thing, but I can see the appeal in it. You’re a good kid, Akiyama,” said Michi.
“I accept your apologies,” Mio said, “I know I’m not perfect. You’ve got a lot more self esteem than I ever will. I don’t know if that’s the right way to use it, but look at me. I can’t be alone in a dark room or swimming in the ocean for too long or even look at the cover of a horror movie. You can do all of those things.”
“Fearlessness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” said Michi, placing her hand against Mio’s on the glass, “If I’d known what Masako really made our band for, I never would’ve joined. You know restraint. That fan club of yours is never going to go your head. Just playing music makes you happy. That’s really something.”
“I like your fashion sense,” said Mio, “It’d be better to be able to decide those things on my own instead of having Sawa force me into it.”
“Yamanaka does what to you?” asked Michi.
“That’s for another day,” Mio said, putting her hand behind her head. “If we can even see today.”
“I’m already working on a plan,” said Ran and Ritsu at the same time.
Tsugumi and Tsumugi were harmonizing with each other on the opposite sides of the mirror. It made the time seem much shorter, and Tsumugi knew that it was what Tsugumi would have wanted. Every moment she got to spend with music got her closer to realizing her worth as a musician had not faded over time.
The two keyboardists stood up. The light was starting to play tricks with their eyes, casting a large amount of faint reflections and mirror images onto the smooth glass. Tsumugi could see herself reflected in the glass, and in Tsugumi’s eyes. The reflection of herself was laid over Tsugumi. It was amazing how well the profiles matched up. On the other side of the glass, Tsugumi saw the opposite. The eyebrows were the only thing that set them apart.
“Did you enjoy singing before a crowd?” asked Tsumugi.
“I was kind of nervous. I didn’t know if they would accept me,” said Tsugumi, “but they did. By the end of the performance they were chanting my name.”
“They do chant a lot of things, don’t they?” said Tsumugi.
“I didn’t feel like a nobody. I felt like a somebody. You really do have clout. To use it on behalf of me...that’s a little much, isn’t it?” she said.
“Hardly,” said Tsumugi, “There are many things about the world outside my home I still don’t know about. The business world is my home ground, so if I didn’t help you out where I could, you wouldn’t be able to help out where you could. Did you say you learned that talent from your father and mother?”
“Yeah. If we ever get out of here, I’ll have to let them know. The music’s probably not what they were expecting, though,” said Tsugumi.
“I’m impressed,” said Tsumugi.
“That I’m going to tell my parents about a metal band?” asked Tsugumi.
“That your parents taught you that much. You were so young, you could have become anything. No expectations other than to be young. Social pressure has always been on me since a young age, so I was going to learn the piano regardless. You learned it by choice. Yet, our musical talent is equal. This world is shining, isn’t it?” said Tsumugi.
Tsugumi blushed brightly. “Thank you. You’ve been so much help to me too. Should I follow in your example and try to get Kitaku Free Time to learn a thing or two more about music?”
“Maybe. You, too, have a new world to learn about. If you try to teach, you may miss out on learning something. Your friends can teach you about so much more. I can promise you that when you go back home, Hokkaido will look like a new world to your eyes. Don’t waste that chance,” said Tsumugi.
“Does that chance involve skinship?” asked Tsugumi.
“That is nice,” said Tsumugi, “Say, are there any hot springs near your home?”
Tsugumi would learn another thing from her companion in music that evening. The second trick of Tsumugi Kotobuki’s eyes. Mugi-Vision, which amplifies the romantic tension between two girls. She had not intended to learn it and Tsumugi had not intended to teach it.
Jun’s energy had not fizzled out, despite the events of the past few hours. Kokoro, on the other hand, was sitting on the floor with her legs crossed and a stern look on her face. She could see Jun through the plate glass, trying to mimic Azusa’s air guitar performance. Figuring out how to choke a guitar made of air was proving difficult.
“You’re looking energetic for being stuck in a cold room like this. The acoustics are terrible,” said Kokoro.
“Acoustics? As long as I have an audience with Mio, I’ll always feel warm,” said Jun. “Isn’t that Yokokawa down there? She’s only a few meters away, why not talk to her? Challenge her with a glove slap or something. The longer you wait for it, the more it’s gonna eat at ya.”
“I don’t want to. You heard what Koike said on the phone. She’s using them as a way to revenge your Sawako for something petty and stupid. Michi feels betrayed right now. Imagine how she’d feel if I came up to her wanting to do the same thing Koike did. Asada was right. I’m the one who’s fallen into darkness,” said Kokoro. “Figures I’d end up here.”
“What you were doing was kind of stupid,” said Jun.
“Three years of being in the jazz club, and I waste it on a stupid grudge. Maybe I should find something else to do. Clearly the musical world isn’t asking for a person like me,” said Kokoro, running her finger down the mirror.
“Let me ask you something. What do you feel towards Michi now? Like, right now?” asked Jun.
“It’s not like I like her. KFT was always more popular than the jazz club. They were cool. They were counterculture. She took away my audience. I can’t hate her, though. We’re both bassists, and we’ve both been trying to be successful in spite of obstacles greater than ourselves. Is this sympathy? What am I supposed to do with sympathy? There’s only supposed to be anger here. Actually thinking about it...I must have looked pathetic,” said Jun.
“You can still challenge her, just change the rules,” said Jun, “no losses and no wins. You and her engage in a little friendly competition. I don’t know much about you, but it looks like you’ve been waiting in the dark for so long Michi doesn’t even know who you are. So why not make your first impression with her a good one?”
“Suzuki, you’d better be right about this, or I’ll turn my grudge on you,” said Kokoro, glaring at Jun from across the mirror.
Kokoro walked out of the spotlight’s circular range and vanished into the darkness. Jun paid attention to her footsteps, seeing her walk behind Asada and Yoroko. She quickly waved to Tsugumi before placing one foot into the light near Michi and Ran. Her puffy hair swayed about on her head as she took a deep breath and approached her rival.
“Yokokawa!” shouted Kokoro.
“Who are you?” asked Michi. “One of Asada’s friends?”
“Yes. I am Kokoro Kashima, and I don’t know if I like you or hate you, but as a fellow bassist, I would love to play with you. Maybe against you. ‘Versus’ can mean as enemies and as friends, right? Your home honed skills against what Matsugaoka’s only music club can offer. What do you say?”
“Kokoro, what are you doing?” asked Yoroko.
“Sure, kid,” said Michi, grabbing Kokoro’s hands, “I’ve been looking for another bassist. If you’re good enough, maybe you could be my understudy.”
“Understudy?” said Kokoro, her eyes glittering.
“This must be pleasant. Miss Kashima is the first fan of yours I’ve ever documented,” said Ran, adjusting her headband.
“How many fans do you need to start a club?” asked Michi.
“Three,” said Ran.
“If you’re even half as good as Asada is, I think I’m going to like you,” said Michi.
“Don’t let this fan club go to your head,” said Mio.
“If we do get out of here, we can still play the anthem?” asked Jun, “I saw a lot of your fans in the crowd tonight. Not just from Toyosato either.”
“They’re really persistent,” Mio said.
“You have an anthem?” said Kokoro and Michi simultaneously.
Asada had removed her dog ears, leaving them lying on the ground near her. Azusa, however, had placed her cat ears on her head. Azusa was still wearing the ring that resembled Mustang around her finger. She showed it to Asada. The light bulb’s glare reflected off the glossy surface of the ring, causing a glint of light to shine into both their eyes.
“Where did this come from?” Azusa asked, “It’s really well made.”
“I don’t know,” said Asada, “You can keep it if you want. Miss Yumeno won’t mind if a roadie like me gives away something meant for a star.”
“Will you stop being so down on yourself? It’s not about what Koike thinks,” said Azusa, “You’re playing music because you want to. In your performance tonight you were honest and earnest and smiling. If you want to be in Kitaku Free Time, then be in it! That’s your decision to make.”
“I never belonged in Kitaku Free Time. Yet they’ve changed me so much that I don’t belong in Yoroko’s gang either. Where in the world is there for me to go?” said Asada.
“Asada, I know where you’re coming from,” said Azusa, moving closer to the glass, “this isn’t an ‘either or’ thing. If you can’t decide which world you belong in, then bring those worlds together. Yorozu likes you and she likes her little sister. She might even like Kokoro if she comes around. The more people there are in a band, the more voices and instruments harmonizing, things become greater than the sum of their parts.”
“Kitaku Free Time plus three?” asked Asada solemnly.
“It’s not ‘plus three’! You’d be part of the band too. During my first year in Houkago Tea Time, we recorded a song called ‘Let’s Go!’ that we tried releasing individually. Each of us had our own strengths that we brought to the song, but when everything came together, the song’s true form showed. That’s how music is. No matter how much you try to do on your own, you always need to have someone backing you up. Someone to cover for your mistakes and provide you with support,” said Azusa. “You have to keep on trying.”
“I’ve been trying at that for so long. Nobody’s responded to Asa-wan. Eventually, won’t I get too old for that? Life’s too short for me to be spinning my wheels. Guess I’m a roadie because Yorozu never saw me as an actual musician. It’s been fun,” said Asada.
“So you’re going to give up on your dream? Nobody’s going to suffer from that besides you. It’s clear that this band isn’t just a hobby for you. It’s part of who you are. To resign yourself to doing something at less than your greatest strength is not the way things should be. There’s always tomorrow for those who are young and dreaming!” said Azusa.
“Who said that?” said Asada, cheering up a little bit.
“Kyu Sakamoto, but I heard it from Ritsu,” said Azusa, “If you keep going, someday you might tell it to someone. As long as you’re inspired and motivated, you shouldn’t give up on your dream. No matter what the world gives you. The bonds of friendship are eternal.”
“I said it before, didn’t I?” said Yorozu, walking up behind Asada, “It doesn’t matter what Masako says. There’s always a spot for you in our lineup.”
“It would feel kind of dull without you around,” said Michi.
“You were my first friend after all those years. Don’t leave,” said Tsugumi.
“Thank you for your help, Azusa,” said Ran across the glass.
“While we’re still in here, I have a question,” said Yui, “How did you guys decide on your name? I would’ve gone with Yui Hirasawa and Her Happy Friends, but nobody really liked that one.”
Yorozu opened up her cell phone and scrolled through her pictures. A girl with green hair appeared on the screen, posing with Yorozu near the statue outside Matsugaoka High. The two of them were in their uniforms, the green haired girl’s jacket left unbuttoned.
“The person who gave us this name isn’t speaking with me anymore,” said Yorozu, “Hirasawa, do you have any friends outside the band?”
“Sure, there’s Nodoka,” said Yui, “I think she’s working at a TV station now. That must be a lot of fun.”
“That name does sound familiar,” said Yorozu, “I used to have a friend like her once. Mai Ueda. She was the one who pushed me towards music, so I could make Yoroko happy. She’d been friends with us for so many years. When I told her we’d started a band outside of the school clubs, she joked that it was our club, and the name stuck. The more I stuck with the band, the less I saw her, and every time I checked back, she was still trying to be a freelancer. If I hadn’t insulted her about that, she might have been able to be here for our first concert.”
Yorozu showed the picture to Yui.
“I think I might have seen her at the train station,” Yui said. “That green hair.”
“Might have?” asked Yorozu, “Yui, your Nodoka, I want you to treasure that relationship. Time and distance may keep you apart, but if their voices can keep reaching you as you’ve said, then you can change this world. That’s why you play your music, isn’t it?”
“People like your music too,” said Yui. “It’s very...um...cath...Ui, what’s the word I’m looking for?”
“Cathartic,” Ui said, “It lets the audience know they’re not alone in their problems with the world.”
“Thanks,” said Yorozu.
“Okay, we’ve spent far too long on the niceties. We need to get out of here,” said Jun, standing up and pointing at the double doors.
“Ritsu, I’m going to need your assistance for this,” said Ran. “Are you familiar with Morse code?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna try!” said Ritsu.
Ran tapped on her side of the door, spelling out the message “H-E-L-P”. Ritsu tried to repeat the series of taps all in one go, but found it difficult. Ran sighed and repeated it one letter a time. Ritsu tapped along, making sure the message would be heard by the employees outside the door.
“That’s all I’ve got,” said Ran.
She rejoined her band mates. The seven of them held close together, attempting to remain warm. The sun had started to lower on the horizon outside, and the storage room was beginning to feel a little colder. The seven of Houkago Tea Time did the same. As their body heat spread outward, it recalled nostalgic feelings. The night before our final school festival, when everyone was wrapped up in sleeping bags inside the club room, nervous and yet excited.
“When I look at you this way, your face looks familiar and kind,” said Yui, her eyelids becoming heavy. “Yorozu, have I seen you before?”
“So that was you,” said Yorozu, “I’ve seen you before, in a dream. You were smiling there, too. You’re always smiling, Hirasawa. Even in situations like this. Why? Are you trying to hide something behind that smile?”
“I don’t know,” said Yui, “if something is on my mind, I say it. If there’s something I want to do, I do it.”
“That means eating sweets, doesn’t it, sis?” said Ui.
“Sometimes,” said Yui, “but sometimes, it’s about you guys or Gitah or wondering why Mugi’s eyebrows look like that.”
“You sound very silly, but very honest,” said Yorozu, “The you I saw on the midway was like a different person. Is that the real you?”
“What does it matter if there’s a real Yui or not?” said Ritsu.
“She’s someone important to us, and we’ll support her no matter who she is,” said Azusa.
“I still have a lot to learn,” said Yorozu.
Yui had remembered seeing Yorozu in a dream, even if that dream was many months ago. She had remembered it incorrectly. The Yorozu seen through the mirror was not kind, but perhaps Yui had seen beyond the surface of the mirror. Even when the unpleasant things are reflected at her, the mirror cannot show a pack of lies.
We heard the sound of someone clicking a key into the left side of the doors. A feminine voice from outside called out to us. It wasn’t distorted, only echoing through the Budokan towards us. “Are you girls alright?” It was Miss Yumeno.
The doors opened, letting the sun’s afternoon light in. Yui was unprepared for something this bright, and instinctively closed her eyes. The world went black, and then white, and she fell into a deep slumber.
Chapter 12: Final Chapter: Budokan! (最終章: 武道館!)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Gitah? Where are we?” asked Yui, standing in the middle of the vast blackness.
I do not know, master. There are many feelings in this space. Your presence is only a small part. Faint sounds could be heard off in the distance.
I was held around Yui’s neck by my strap, my neck being held strong against her chest. Any direction that Yui walked in would take her forward, so she started walking straight ahead. A sensation, like a warm wind, blew past us. It stung Yui’s eyes, and for the briefest of moments, removed her clothing. As the tail end of the wind blew past us, Yui’s body felt warm and clothed again. When she opened her eyes, the world around her had become a wonderland of sound and color.
Yui was humming a familiar tune to herself, and the musical notes of that tune, flapping around like prismatic birds, came out of her mouth. She looked down to see that she was now in a white dress, with a pair of white and black striped stockings, along with a single glove. Two silhouettes appeared in the distance. When Yui got closer, she saw that they were Mio and Ritsu, each of them wearing a black dress. Mio’s outfit was accentuated with turquoise stockings and a single glove as well. She had a small top hat and a cane with her for some reason. Ritsu’s drum sticks and Elizabeth were with them.
“Yui, there you are,” said Ritsu, wrapping her arm around Yui’s shoulder.
“There’s more beyond,” Mio said.
The scenery around us transformed once again, taking the three of us into a forest awash in blues and blacks and greens. The moon, like a disco ball, hovered above us. The forest felt humid, and warm, like a fire was nearby. The feeling of Pensiero visione wrapped around us. Mio set down her cane and picked up a bouquet of roses. She looked at Yui and Ritsu, signaling that they needed to hold onto her shoulders. A column of flame enveloped us.
“We’re still practicing, so we may suddenly go off pitch,” said a chorus of voices, sounding from a far off source and yet right near us.
Our outfits had changed once again. Mio and Ritsu were in brighly colored stockings and dresses with one sleeve hanging off the shoulder, and Yui was in a causal T shirt and jeans. Mio felt around her head and noticed that the top hat had been replaced by a red bow. The floor beneath us was soft and spongy, every step through it felt as though we might sink into the floor. The walls were decorated with something creamy and white, and strawberries like precious gemstones were distributed throughout.
“We must be inside a giant cake!” exclaimed Yui.
She was correct.
The three of us followed through the already hollowed out path, arriving in a small room on the opposite end of the cake. A small “table” coated with frosting had been set up, and two strawberries had been stuck into the floor, to be used as chairs. The air appeared to be sparkling before us. Sitting on the strawberry on the right was Tsumugi. She was in a sailor’s cap, skirt, a black jacket and a blue and white striped T shirt with a red heart on the chest.
“Yui, Ritsu, welcome! Hello again, Mio,” she said cheerily.
“Again?” Mio asked.
“I was talking with you a few minutes ago. She was wearing a bow like yours. Oh, that’s cute, your outfit matches with Ritsu’s,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Tsumugi joined our group. Off in the distance, the chorus of voices echoed once again.
“Release the passionate, precious heartbeat, and sing!”
The next burst of wind that came our way was cold, and the landscape laid out before us much more barren and unforgiving than either of the previous two. Large, white letters - H, T and T - dropped from the sky, falling into random places like meteorites across the white expanse. A single red H was among them. We walked through the strange terrain, wondering who had sent those letters. Were they following us? There would not be much time to reflect, because the letters crumbled into dust, staining the ground a shade of concrete gray. We looked up above, and the sky began to change.
It was overcast as far as the eye could see, nothing but gray clouds streaking past us. The clouds kept moving, and we felt that same cold wind on our backs. Looking down, all of us were in our old Sakuragaoka uniforms. Ritsu chose to unbutton hers, so as not to be restrained against the wind. The exception was Mio, who the wind had donned in a purple hoodie, the hood of which was currently up. A voice called out to us from against the wind.
“Everyone! If you have the time...”, shouted Azusa’s voice.
A white door, not attached to anything, sprouted up from the cold ground. Mio opened it up and went inside. On a simple wooden desk in a simple wooden chair was Azusa. She was looking over an old diary, pointing and laughing at peaceful memories from the past. When she saw us approach her, she smiled. Yui noticed that the picture she had given to Azusa shortly after her graduation ceremony was hanging out of the diary’s back pages.
“Why are you still in those uniforms? You’ll be graduating soon,” she said.
“Azu-nyan, you won’t be able to go with us,” said Yui.
“Even if I lag behind, I’m sure I’ll catch up. We’re a team,” said Azusa, placing her hand on the diary.
Tsumugi, Mio, Ritsu and Yui placed their hands over Azusa’s. The amount of clouds started to spread out until what little light there was became blocked, casting the small room into darkness. We closed our eyes, awaiting our next destination as the chorus of voices was heard yet again.
“I want to hold on...just a little longer...”
I found myself rocking back and forth, once again becoming the totem of myself hanging from Yui’s ear. To my side, I could see the other members of Houkago Tea Time with their instruments. Elizabeth hung off the end of a multicolored beaded necklace being worn by Mio. Mellow Yellow’s snares had become a pair of earrings that Ritsu wore; she also carried a compact mirror in her hand, black with multicolored spheres, that held another part of the drum kit. Tsumugi was wearing a white scrunchie with a miniature sculpted version of Triton atop it. He looked comfortable, and much more vibrant than usual. Azusa’s Mustang ring was around her finger. Aside from Yui’s red dress, everyone else was in white. We walked in tandem.
Ui and Jun, both wearing their uniforms from their previous middle school, were waiting for us. Ui clasped a notebook and Jun a set of sheet music. They waved and started walking beside us through the darkness.
“Sis, you guys look so cool,” Ui said.
“Are you ever going to stop talking about them?” asked Jun.
“All of you are like a family to me,” said Yui, “Look! Up ahead!”
A multicolored ball bounced across the black, rolling to a stop in front of a mirror the size of a large wall, one large enough to accommodate the seven of us. We approached the mirror. Kitaku Free Time stared back at us. Yui placed her hand to the mirror and looked at Yorozu. She was smiling. Yui and Yorozu moved their hands in sync across the mirror. Yui flicked her earring of me, and Yorozu did the same with her own. Yorozu started to speak. Not in her own, deep voice, but in Yui’s voice.
“Yui,” she said, “Yui!”
Yui felt like someone was tugging at her cheeks.
“Yui, are you awake?” asked Ritsu, “We can’t go on without you.”
Yui opened her eyes. The world above her was fuzzy. She could make out a bright light and a rotating ceiling fan, and the faces of her friends. Her sister and the members of Houkago Tea Time were standing in a circle, looking down at her. The scent of sweets and tea drifted through the room. Her vision started to clear. She was in the green room again. The tick tock of the clock sounded louder than ever.
“Yumeno...” Yui said, groping around the top of the couch, pulling herself up.
“You were sleeping pretty heavily,” said Tsumugi, “I thought the scent of sweets would wake you up.”
“Masaka?” Yui asked.
“Yes, you were really dreaming,” said Mio, “What was it about?”
“We still dragged you all the way back here,” said Jun. “Thanks for the help, Ui.”
“This sort of thing happened all the time at home,” Ui said, “Don’t mind.”
Yui sat up and stretched her arms, letting out a loud yawn. She heard a voice from the distance. It was too far away to tell if it was a radio or the PA system for the Budokan, but the speaker was enthused. “That’s our group from Hokkaido with the encore performance of their new song, ‘Kimi ga Kureta Yume’. Let’s hear another round of applause!” said the emcee.
“We’ve still got a few minutes. I’m so excited, I’m finally headlining an act,” said Azusa. “I’m glad you’re here to see it, Ton.”
Yui walked over to Ton’s tank. Right now, he was resting at the bottom of his aquarium, sleeping soundly on the rocks. Bubbles and his food supply danced in the water. When Ton saw Yui’s face near the tank, he momentarily woke up and titled his head in her direction. He darted around his tank once, floated near Yui, and then retreated to the bottom once more to continue his rest. Yui smiled brightly.
“Is our playlist ready?” asked Jun, hanging around Mio in a little sister like fashion.
“We’re going to need to showcase everyone’s talents,” Mio said, laying out the piece of paper with song names on it, “Yui and I will handle most of the vocals together, but I promise everyone will get something.”
“Are we doing ‘Fuwa Fuwa Time’?” asked Jun.
“It’s our signature sound,” Mio said, “‘Ashita ga Arusa’ is in there too. Yui, would you be up for a sisters’ duet of ‘U&I’?”
“Mio, that song’s so personal, you don’t need to put it on the rotation,” Ui said, blushing.
“It’s because it’s personal that I’m putting it there. We want to give the crowd our best material. That’s why I’m including Ritsu’s ‘Drumming Shining My Life’,” Mio said.
“Aw, Mio,” said Ritsu, “I only wrote that one because you lit a fire under me.”
“It makes great use of the drum line,” said Mio, “now, Mugi, how does ‘Humming Bird’ sound for you? Would you prefer something faster paced?”
“Do we have enough room for both? Slower music is what I know, but an uptempo piece would show the world that I can have fun,” said Tsumugi.
“Which one of those describes you more?” asked Azusa.
“Both of them,” said Tsumugi, “I’m me.”
“That’s why you’re the best, Mugi,” said Yui.
“We’ll include one of the songs our juniors wrote and...the Mio Fan Club anthem,” said Mio, expressing the last one with a heavy aura of wariness.
“You rock!” said Jun.
Yui was reclining on one of the chairs, tuning me for the performance. She looked at the monitor linked up to a live feed of the stage. The band that had gone on before them was nowhere to be seen, only the emcee entertaining the crowd during intermission. Yui turned to Azusa, looking at her with a curious stare.
“The band before us...what are they like?” Yui asked.
“Everyone’s been so busy with their own stuff we haven’t really had time to get to know each other,” said Azusa, “I hope there’s an afterparty. They share the same dreams as us. We can support each other, maybe learn a thing or two. Is there any reason you asked?”
“Nope,” said Yui.
There was a knock at the door. One of the assistants, carrying a clipboard, walked into the room. Behind him were two more employees, carrying a large box. “Five minutes to showtime, girls,” he said, “also, a package arrived for you. From a miss Sawako Yamanaka. Tainaka, Kotobuki, your instruments are waiting beneath the stage. The crowds are going wild. See you in a few.”
“Sawa’s outfits!” Yui said, “Hurry, open it!”
Ritsu ripped open the packaging, revealing the cute dresses Sawako had prepared for us. Though their sizes and styles varied, all seven of them were simple white dresses. Tsumugi helped us move the box into the changing room. Among friends, the members of Houkago Tea Time removed their casual outfits and changed into the dresses for their first major performance. The dresses were of a comfortable material, and designed to make sitting comfortable for Tsumugi and Ritsu and standing comfortable for the rest of us. Nothing would get in the way or cause them to feel constrained on stage.
“You look really cute, Azusa,” said Ui.
“Everyone looks really good,” said Azusa.
“Look at this,” said Tsumugi, thumbing through the bottom of the box, “does anyone have any water?”
A collection of temporary tattoos rested at the bottom of the box, along with a few hair clips. Tsumugi took the white, heart shaped hair clip and attached it, styling the rest of her hair in the mirror to draw attention to it. It drew contrast with her eyebrows, yet worked with them. Ui and Jun each took two small clips shaped like the outlines of stars and clipped them in as well. Ui’s were on the front and Jun’s were on the side.
“This is pretty cool,” said Ritsu, applying a small stream of water to place the white heart tattoo on her left knee.
“I feel like I’m visiting an amusement park,” said Yui, looking over the white heart placed on her left hand. “Can we still go to an amusement park while we’re here?”
“Did anyone remember suggesting tattoos?” Mio said, having applied her white heart just above her right hand.
“Yui, a little help please?” asked Azusa, reaching around to place her white heart on the middle of her back.
Yui wet her finger and ran it over the tattoo. Once she was certain the ink had been applied, she continued running the cold, wet digit over Azusa’s back, enjoying the feeling of her soft skin. “Okay, you can stop now,” said Azusa, “that tickles.”
There was a second set of tattoos hiding at the bottom of the box. With these, a note had been included. It was handwritten by Sawako, sealed inside a red envelope. Azusa, still feeling water dripping off her back, opened the letter and read it aloud. The girls could hear Sawako’s voice in their heads, overlapping with Azusa’s.
“I remember when you were all in your first year, and now you’re about to become stars known the world over. I’m proud of you all, as a teacher and as a friend. Whatever happens after tonight, I want you to remember that music is about creating happiness, for yourself and for the people around you. You can visit any time; you girls will always be like family to me. I hope you enjoy the outfits I’ve prepared for tonight’s performance. Now go out there and show them what you’re made of!
What defined the second set of tattoos was their personalization. Yui applied hers to her cheek. It was shaped like a red outline of me, with a heart shaped hole in the middle of her body and her name, written in English, beginning at the edge of the guitar and spreading across her face. Yui looked at it in the mirror from every angle. I felt as though I was on her cheek, taking in her body heat, even though my body was resting on its stand out in the green room.
Mio’s, applied to her right shoulder, was much the same. A blue outline of Elizabeth with a heart on the lower body and her name written across. Ritsu’s, a yellow drum kit, the heart in the center of the bass drum, was applied to her left knee. Mio turned to Ritsu, staring down at her knees.
“Why did you put them there? Nobody’s going to see those behind the drums,” she said.
“It’s because it looks cool,” Ritsu said. “You just want to look at my knees, don’t you?”
“Maybe,” Mio said, twiddling her fingers.
Tsumugi’s pink tattoo of her keyboard was applied just above her breasts. When questioned on this placement, she explained that it was closer to her heart. Her name, longer than the rest of theirs when spelled out, meant that the “G” had to situate itself atop the “U” and “I” to fit everything together.
Azusa applied her turquoise design, which looked very similar to Yui’s, on the upper part of her right arm. It looked upside down when viewed face on, something Azusa only realized after it had been applied. Yui ran her wet finger down Azusa’s arms. Tsumugi’s Mugi-Vision activated, delaying us for a few minutes more.
Ui’s and Jun’s were much simpler, but still very stylish. They were solid white stars with their names written inside them in their respective colors. Ui, her name inked in orange, had applied her star to the top of her right hand. Jun, her name in sky blue, put her star on her neck.
With everyone dressed for the performance, we walked back out into the green room. Sawako’s letter was left on the table. Yui checked her cell phone. There was a message from Nodoka marked as being sent earlier that day. “You will always be my best friend,” Yui said, reading it to herself. She turned towards the door. “Houkago Tea Time, let’s go!”
Yui strapped me around her neck, and a blast of cold air hit us as we walked out into the backstage halls of the arena. People were walking back and forth in all directions. It was crowded and noisy. The air felt alive with musical spirit. The assistant walked at a brisk pace. We stayed a distance behind his back, taking in the atmosphere backstage for the last time.
None of us needed to say a word. We exchanged glances and clasped hands, the warmth spreading through our bodies telling us all we need to know. Ritsu touched Mio on the shoulder, whispering something in her ear, trying to calm her down. She was shaking as much from excitement as from nervousness. Ui and Azusa hung close to Yui, and Tsumugi walked in front of us all. We turned a corner, and heard a small group of female voices talking, just out of sight.
“How did we do?” asked one.
“You won the crowd. We’d love to have you sign. This means you’ll have to move away from Hokkaido. Would you be okay with that?” asked a more authoritative voice.
“A new manager is all we need,” said another voice.
“If you could, return to the green room for some snacks, and enjoy the other band,” said the authoritative voice.
“We have a pretty good idea of what they’re like,” said a third voice, “they’re not that bad.”
A large mirror, rolling along on a trolley towards the props department, passed them by. Yui looked into the mirror to try and catch a glimpse of the other band. She though she saw the back of her own head, her hair looking deep red, as if filtered through colored glass. She heard the sound of another trolley rolling to her side. The discussion between the other band had fallen silent. Yui stood still for a moment. Mio’s voice called out to her.
“Only a little further,” she said.
A door was opened, taking us to a room lit very minimally. Overhead, we could see a set of vertical double doors ready to swing downward. Amplifiers and the heavier instruments had been set up on a platform. The assistant took his spot at the lever, waiting for his cue. The sounds of the emcee and the cheering crowd could be heard just above us. We moved into position.
Yui, Mio and Azusa stood in the front, where three microphones waited. Ui and Jun were in the second row, and Ritsu and Tsumugi in the back. I was reunited with my fellow instruments. Though we came from different makers, in this setting, we spoke as one voice. Yui played a single chord on me. The sensation of bliss spread throughout my wooden body.
“I hope I do good. We’ve been practicing for this night for so long. What if I mess up and everyone notices?” said Elizabeth, resting in Mio’s hands.
“If you do, we’ll be there to cover for you,” said Mellow Yellow, “Oh, man, this is going to be awesome! There’s tens of thousands of people out there! We’ve never played to an audience this size!”
“This is the path that our ancestors have gone down. Now it is our turn,” said Triton, “You have all done well.”
“I’m ready,” said Mustang.
“Are you ready, Yui?” I said.
Our masters could not hear us. Yet they cared for us. They gave us names and treated us with respect. Yui, I do not know if our meeting was destiny or happenstance, but I am glad we met. I am proud to have been your guitar, your second little sister, your lover. And your friend.
“What kind of future’s waiting for us beyond that stage?” asked Azusa.
“The future is a long way away. It’s the now that’s important,” said Tsumugi.
“I’m gonna be playing at the Budokan with the light music club. I never thought this would happen,” said Jun, speaking excitedly to herself at a rapid pace.
“All those people out there. There for us. There for me. Why are they there for me?” said Mio, about to retreat into a corner and cover her ears.
“Just write the character for ‘person’ on your hand and eat it,” said Ritsu.
“People are the last thing I’m trying to think about!” said Mio.
“Sis, who are you doing this for?” asked Ui.
“I don’t know. I like being with everyone, but everyone likes being with me. Maybe it’s for Sawa. Or Sakuragaoka. They’re all important to me,” said Yui.
“You’re doing it for everyone,” said Ui.
“Yes, that’s it! For everyone!” said Yui.
“Girls,” said the assistant, “It’s time.”
The platform beneath us shook, and the gears and pulleys began to move. The girls’ instruments shook around their bodies as the doors beneath the stage opened up. The platform ascended higher and higher, until it was level with the stage. The fans were shrouded by the darkness, only their glow sticks visible from where we stood.
A smoke machine let out a burst of steam. The stage went dark, focusing on the emcee ahead of us. In her chipper voice, she shouted into the microphone. She could sense the band’s presence, but acted as though she existed outside the night’s narrative.
“All the way from Toyosato in the Shiga prefecture! The never ending girls’ song, Houkago Tea Time! Let’s hear a loud round of applause!” said the emcee.
The spotlight focused on us, and we waved to the crowds. We hadn’t done anything, and they were applauding us. The feeling of a thousand local performances magnified. Looking upward, the arena’s round ceiling had created a world just for us.
Yui approached the microphone and took a deep breath. She shouted to the audience with all her might.
“We are Houkago Tea Time!”
They ascended to the stage and became stars.
To those who don’t give up, and aim to go beyond the sky, there is always tomorrow.
Thank you to Kakifly, Kyoto Animation, Takotuboya and Raccoon Factory. Without inspiring each other, I never would have been inspired, and this story never would have come to be.
Chapter 13: Side Story: Healing! (番外編: 癒し系!)
The following takes place between chapter 3 and 4.
The bullet train was passing through Nagoya, bringing us into the Aichi prefecture. Elizabeth and myself were resting in our cases in the compartment above. Mellow Yellow and Triton were in the back of the train, too far away to contact us. Through the slits in the storage compartment, we could hear our masters below. Mio and Tsumugi were discussing something in Mio’s notebook, while Ritsu was lying back on her seat, looking out the window and enjoying the scenery. These towns and landscapes were places we might never see again, yet they had a rich history.
Yui was wrapped up in Manga Time Kirara. An artist had published a new installment of a favorite series after being on hiatus for a long time. She quickly scanned the chapter, and then shut the book. She looked up at Ritsu.
“Ritsu, what do you think about dreams?” Yui asked.
“The ambition kind or the sleeping kind?” Ritsu asked.
“I’m not sure which one this is,” Yui said.
Ritsu rolled over on her seat and walked across the aisle of the train car. She sat down beside Yui. “What’s this about? You haven’t said much since we left the train station.”
“I just remembered,” Yui said.
“You can’t forget our dream! Going to the Budokan is why I formed this club!” Ritsu exclaimed.
“No, it’s definitely the sleeping kind of dream,” Yui said, “It was my first dream of the new year. This isn’t a dream like Mugi’s eyebrows being replaced with radishes or anything weird like that. It was different.”
“If that’s your definition of a normal dream...,” said Ritsu, her face sinking into a smirk. “Wait, this was in January? Why didn’t you tell us then?”
“I kinda forgot most of it,” Yui said. “But when I was reading that manga, something in it brought it back.”
“So what did you dream about?” asked Ritsu.
Yui reached into her bag and pulled out a CD. It was full of music Houkago Tea Time had recorded in college, with the band’s name hastily scribbled onto it in marker. It didn’t look or sound professional, but Mio had been shopping it around for some time before the landlady started telling the band to tone it down.
“I was walking through this black space, and Gitah was with me. Then there were these mirrors, and they were all really sparkly and clear and crystal like. I looked in the mirrors, and I saw myself. Only she wasn’t like me. She had this really bright red hair, like a superhero! She tried to tell me something, but it sounded really sad. Then it ended,” said Yui, who had been making gestures with her hands the whole time.
“That is kind of weird,” Ritsu said.
“Do you think it means something?” Yui said.
I wanted to unzip my case and roll down into her lap. This left me once again regretting my lack of arms. When Yui tried to express things only with words, they came out like that. The emotion was there, but it only made sense in Yui’s head. When she partnered up with me, my strings expressed her feelings as great as her words.
“Maybe that’s an inner Yui,” said Ritsu, speaking like an old man.
“There’s another me?” Yui said.
“Not an actual other you, but more like the you that’s really passionate about music. Gitah was there with you, so this dream has to have something to do with music,” Ritsu said, “Remember how Mio gets at practice?”
Yui remembered well. The image of Mio staring at Ritsu and saying “Show me your soul!”, a reversal from the pair’s usual dynamics, had lasted in her mind for the past few months. It was an amusing image. Without Azusa around, Mio had been the one keeping Houkago Tea Time on the path towards their dreams, as it had been in their first year.
“It’s something like that,” Ritsu said, “an inner you who’s really good at music, but forgets everything about school. There’s the you we see at school, the you we see in the club, the you at home, the you in your neighborhood. Everyone’s got different faces. Though you’re one of the few I’ve seen whose faces are nearly identical.”
“Is that a good thing?” Yui said, her eyes blanking.
“Well, you’re an honest person,” Ritsu said. “If there was an inner me, she’d probably be a bit weirder too. A little louder, a little more confident in her girlishness and her boyishness, a little cooler. The me I want to become. I’ve never met her in a dream, though. As president, I have so much to do when I’m awake that my mind doesn’t get a chance to wander. It’s pretty cool you can dream like that.”
Yui opened the pages of Kirara again, briefly looking at the next manga after the one she’d read. She thought about jumping ahead to the fan mail, but Ritsu’s discussion of dreams kept distracting her. “Why did the inner me look so sad?”
“Everyone’s got things that get them down,” Ritsu said.
“Like not being able to eat enough sweets or being afraid of what the light music club meant or being an errand girl or retaking tests,” said Yui, rattling off a quick list.
“I mean problems now,” said Ritsu, “I know you’ve been away from Ui and Azusa and the rest, but it’s okay to be sad about that. They’re not very far away, and they’ve been writing. Houkago Tea Time always sticks together.”
“The sadness that she had was a little different. I’ve never seen a face like hers before,” said Yui.
She thought back to the dream. Before she vanished, her doppelganger’s lips had mouthed out one sentence. “I want...” There was more, but the dream was so long ago that the memories of it had become fuzzy. Yui looked over at Ritsu and nodded. Ritsu stood up and began tapping her feet on the ground. Her feet moved to a natural rhythm, as if there was a set of drum pedals beneath her shoes. She was just as dedicated to the group’s dreams as Mio, even if she went about it in a different way.
“Hard to believe this is only the first leg of the journey,” Ritsu said, looking out the window, “There’s so much to see here I could get lost just wandering around. Maybe some of our fans are coming from here.” Ritsu tapped her fist into her palm. “That’s it! Yui, Mio, I’ve got a wonderful new idea!”
“We’re not adding another drum solo,” Mio said.
“It’s about our music. Lots of artists use their hometowns as inspiration. We’re going to give the crowd something entirely new, and we’re going to come up with it by today! There’s lots of stuff in Toyosato that would make for a good song. Like the Giant Kite Festival. They’re bright and bold and windy. Sawa would probably try to make them into clothes if she could,” said Ritsu.
“That’s actually a really good idea, but...” Mio said.
“I’m sorry,” said Tsumugi, “I’m afraid I can’t help you much with this. You see, my father’s always taken me to places that are either my family’s or friends of my family. I didn’t start seeing the city’s natural beauty until I met up with you girls. If you need some help with composing, though.”
“Why are you suggesting writing a song in the middle of a train?” Mio asked, “It’s noisy and crowded and we don’t have our instruments.”
“We don’t need our instruments,” Ritsu said, “Music is sound. I can try out the beat right here, and you guys can use your voices to build off that. Anything can be an instrument if you look at it the right way.”
Ritsu reached into her bag and pulled out her drum sticks. She began tapping on the poles, some of which had people clutching them. The clangy, metallic sound they produced was nothing like a drum, but it was still catchy. “I feel like the Blue Man Group,” Ritsu said, “This is kind of fun.”
Tsumugi started clapping her hands and stamping her feet. What had started from a tap ta tap was developing into something resembling a tune. It was somewhat slower paced and traditional sounding than most of Houkago Tea Time’s output, but that was nothing a little rearrangement couldn’t solve. Borrowing musical cues is something that instruments have done since time immemorial. “I’m using the Shiga Prefecture Song as our basis,” Ritsu said, “Mio, Yui, join in!”
Yui’s higher pitched voice and Mio’s slightly lower one joined together. They didn’t know the words, and only had a vague idea of what the tune was supposed to be, but when their voices blended together, they produced something that had brought Houkago Tea Time this far. They each made the other sound stronger. After making it through a verse, Ritsu sat down before she grabbed the attention of the rest of the passengers. She wiped the sweat off her forehead.
“We’re only on the first step,” Ritsu said, “Need to let my mind rest a bit first.”
“It was resting before!” Mio said.
“Mio,” Yui said, “What did you think of the dream?”
Mio looked across the aisle at Ritsu, kicking her feet back against the train seat. It wasn’t very comfortable, and they’d be sitting here for hours more, but the train rolled along smoothly, its speed barely felt. She was probably drifting off into a daydream of her own. Mio turned back to Yui, a rare look of certainty on her face. “What were you doing on New Years’, exactly?”
“There was the shrine visit and pictures and the sunrise. Then I blanked out and fell asleep on Mugi’s lap. It was a bit chilly, and Lake Biwa looked really beautiful,” Yui said.
“Yui, dreams are just your mind sorting through things. Stuff that happened to you during the day and things you’re thinking about, they all blend together into something only you can experience. I get a few of my song lyrics from my dreams, but I’ve never had one like yours,” Mio replied.
“So the other me just means I’m thinking about myself?” Yui said.
Mio got a nervous look on her face. “Yes,” she said.
Yui felt a slight pang of guilt. That’s how it had been ever since she joined the light music club. She was selfishly thinking of her own future when she joined, and her affinity for sweets often influenced the decisions of the rest of the band. Yet, the band had fared almost as well when Ui filled in for her, and they almost started their second school festival without her. Yui started shaking, wondering if she was someone holding the band back, and if her dream was the manifestation of that.
“Mio, the rest of you are my friends, and I’m an adult... I think. You don’t need to do everything for me,” Yui pleaded.
“Yui, you’re a valuable member of the band. We all have our selfish moments,” Mio said, “Ritsu’s got a whole list of them by herself.”
“I heard that,” Ritsu said.
“That’s not all there is to you, though. ‘U&I’ is the least selfish thing you ever did, and that made our history. I’m sure if someone had splashed you with water, your dream might have had you on the beach or something. You don’t need to treat it like it’s an absolute thing. Dreams can be read in many different ways.”
“Have you ever had any strange dreams?” Yui asked.
Mio froze. Her face momentarily turned blue, and she looked up to the overhead compartments. Elizabeth knew exactly what she was going to say.
“Rice bowls,” Mio said.
“You mean ‘Gohan wa Okazu’?” said Yui.
“No, just rice bowls. Staring at me,” Mio said.
Yui wondered what sort of environment could create the dream space she had found herself in. The lavish, orchestral music of the New Years’, Beethoven’s Ninth in particular, had created a mood that did not gel with the bright dress and neon totem of me that swung from her ear.
“Alright, we’ve got the tune, now we need the lyrics,” Ritsu said, “Maybe a title too.” She positioned herself between Mio and Tsumugi, grabbing both of them by their shoulders.
“We should go with the title first,” Tsumugi said, “the name of a song can make a large impression on the listener.”
“Huh, I do it the other way around,” Mio said, “Write the lyrics and then pick an important sounding section to be the title.”
It was decided by Houkago Tea Time that this would be a collaboration. Mio would write up the first draft, then pass it around to Tsumugi, then Ritsu, then Yui. Each would add a verse, detailing the things they loved about Toyosato. It appeared we were going with Mio’s approach to lyric writing.
Mio covertly wrote hers down, shielding her paper with her arms. She presented the lyrics, written somewhat hastily, to the rest of us. They focused on the beautiful scenery, reading like a greeting card. Ritsu pointed at the last line of the verse. It mentioned something about birds flying overhead in unison.
“I saw it on New Years’,” Mio said, “It was a group of Japanese Robins.”
“I like that,” Ritsu said, “It’s good for a song to have an idea to return to.”
“Don’t forget who taught you that,” Mio said.
“I know, I know,” Ritsu laughed.
Ritsu’s verse took the more upbeat part of the song and claimed it as its own. Her verse focused on the people in the town. It didn’t name any names, but a lot of the people it alluded to were Ritsu’s neighbors and people who had helped us on our journey to stardom. Mio blushed when she saw one line that very well could have alluded to her. Ritsu, sly as she was, offered no comment.
“Your turn, Mugi,” Ritsu said, sliding the paper.
Even Tsumugi’s writing was dignified. She looked like a diplomat compared to her band mates, but a few of their lower class qualities had slipped in. She drew a few cute doodles around her lyrics and added a heart next to her name. Her verse, upon inspection, focused on our school life. Even though her college was a high class all girls’ university, having her closest friends come along made it feel like something she had control over, no matter what her family wanted her to do. The birds were there yet again.
“I look forward to seeing what you’ll write, Yui,” said Tsumugi.
My master took hold of the paper and thought about everything she liked back at home. It turned out to be a surprisingly well written verse about the festivals and local events and their food. The last part surprised no one.
Tsumugi told Mio and Ritsu to enjoy talking amongst themselves, and took a seat beside my master. Yui, at first distracted by her eyebrows, looked downward at her eyes. She had only spent so much time alone with Tsumugi over the years, and wondered why now, of all times, this chance had come again.
“I heard about your dream,” Tsumugi said. “The part you don’t understand is the red-haired you, yes?”
Yui nodded her head.
“I think she might be a real person,” said Tsumugi, “Someone trying to contact you through your dreams.”
“I never considered that,” Yui said. “She looked like she was crying.”
“There’s someone out there very much like you, only their life, at some point, changed. They’re probably already passed the breaking point, but if you saw them in a dream, you might be meeting them soon. I can help you stop their tears,” Tsumugi said.
“There’s a lot of people in Japan,” Yui said, glancing out the window. The bullet train sped past a dirt path leading to a suburban neighborhood. Some kids could be seen riding by on their bikes. “What is the chance there’s another person out there just like me, but not? How come we’ve never heard of them?”
“If something’s making her cry, it’s probably coming from within,” said Tsumugi.
“Mio’s felt like that sometimes. So has Ritsu. Have you?” Yui asked.
“There’s a lot of my world that I’ve given up to be with you girls,” said Tsumugi, “but in return, I got something better. You’re there to help me when I’m feeling uncertain or lonely or there’s something I don’t know. The person in your dream met you alone, the only place where she can show that.”
“Are there lots of people like that outside of Toyosato?” Yui said.
“Probably. That’s why it’s up to us to make their sadness fly away,” Tsumugi said, “You’ve seen what happened with Mio’s fan club. Our music doesn’t just heal, it inspires people. Those people can inspire other people, and the world becomes a brighter place because of it. If we do become rich and famous, what do you want to do?”
“I think I’d give some of the money to mom and dad for their trips, maybe some to Sawa. As long as I have my sweets, I don’t think there’s much in the rich world for me. It’s too big and scary,” said Yui.
Tsumugi smiled. Behind her lips, there was a lot being said to Yui. For most of Tsumugi’s life, her problems had been trivial, and taken care of by those around her. Yet, there was something in her that didn’t want that. Ritsu had gone away from Satoshi, Mio had to stand in front of more people than she’d ever faced, and Yui, though she felt she hadn’t changed much, had started taking some responsibility for herself. Yet Tsumugi had given up her entire lifestyle to make it this far. She carried a weight on her shoulders that none of the members of Houkago Tea Time could get the depth of.
“Let’s begin composing,” said Tsumugi, “The basic melody is nice, but what sort of style are we going for?”
“Something like ‘Fuwa Fuwa Time’,” said Mio, “Pop rock with a bit of a jazz flavor to it.”
“Maybe we could add a little more rock this time,” Ritsu said.
“That much more rock would throw everything off balance,” said Mio.
“We can do each verse in a different style,” said Tsumugi, “It would be a little bit more complex than the rest of our numbers, but the audience would appreciate it when we changed styles so quickly. It would demonstrate how far we’ve come.”
“I want some words in the middle,” Yui said, “That always feels fun. It makes me remember the stage.”
“You were a tree, you didn’t have any dialogue,” said Ritsu.
“Most of it was in my head,” Yui said.
Each of the verses played on the strengths of our instruments. One covered the guitar line, another the bass, another Ritsu’s drum solo, and the last Tsumugi’s keyboard. Any one of these parts could be played individually and still produce something of nice quality, but when their harmonies overlapped, they sounded almost at professional level. The paper we were writing the song down on was filled with scribbles, rendering most of it difficult to read.
“I was thinking something,” Yui said. “Maybe we should include a verse for Azu-nyan?”
That name again. During summer vacations and holidays, Houkago Tea Time had been going out of their way to see Azusa at least once, but after that, it was right back to separation. An uneasy feeling started creeping through their bodies. They were going to the Budokan, achieving their dream at last, but they were no longer the complete Houkago Tea Time. Azusa had added something to the band, both instrumentally and emotionally. She was someone for them to rally around, to make sure they left a proper legacy for.
“We’ll do it!” said Mio, Ritsu and Tsumugi at the same time.
This last verse was done as a collaboration. The meter had to be perfect, and every line had to be infused with meaning. The lyrics reflected the world they saw outside the train car. They were leaving Toyosato for now, but the memories it had given them would never fade away. Every town was under the same sky, making similar memories for people every day, and as long as one is living, that should be appreciated. A “~nya!” was stuck onto the last line, finishing off the song. It felt out of place, but it was so Yui that it was worth keeping in.
“Do you think she’ll hear it?” asked Yui.
“If it plays on some radio, or, hell, if we play it ourselves, I’m sure she will,” said Ritsu.
“Are you doing this because your dream suggested it?” asked Tsumugi.
“Maybe. Writing a new song is a lot of fun,” said Yui.
“We need to come up with a title,” Mio said.
The train sped along. It was almost out of the Aichi prefecture by now. The sadness within Yui over missing Azusa remained. She looked at the people on the train. A single middle aged man, reading a manga, silently turned another page, seemingly ignorant of the girls. A baseball team from Toyosato was chatting amongst themselves. A mother and her two children were talking about going to see a hero show once they got to Tokyo.
The countryside opened up before them. Concrete streets were replaced by wide open fields of grass and wires that stretched on for great distances. Yui saw Japanese Robins fly past the train window. They were hardly fast enough to keep up, and soon vanished from sight, but they kept flying towards the horizon, beating their wings in unison.
“Four Robins...” Yui said to herself.
“Can you say that again?” Ritsu said.
“Yonkomadori,” Yui repeated.
“Guess that magazine is still on her mind,” said Mio.
“I don’t know, I kind of like it. ‘Yo-n-ko-ma-do-ri’. It rolls off the tongue,” said Ritsu, writing the name down on the paper.
Yui picked up Manga Time Kirara once more, and let her mind be absorbed into the fictional worlds within. “Azusa, it’s a promise. I haven’t forgotten you,” Yui thought to herself.
The Edmont had been set aside for Ui, Azusa and Jun. Miss Yumeno had trusted them to not tell Yui and her friends that they would be arriving. Jun was toying around with the radio, trying to get stations exclusive to the Tokyo area, while Ui was preparing dinner with the same finesse as she had at home. Azusa was scanning through the newspaper, trying to find an article on anything relating to tomorrow night’s concert. There was very little to be found.
“You’re looking really tense. You should take a bath or something. It calms the muscles,” said Jun.
“It’s about sis, isn’t it?” said Ui, “I know how you feel.”
“What am I supposed to say when we meet again?” Azusa was thinking out loud.
“Say what you normally would. Time passes, but you’re still you,” Ui said.
“That Yumeno person sounded pretty resolute about finding Yui and the others,” said Jun.
Azusa put the paper down and looked at her guitar case. The Bu key chain her friends had purchased many years ago still swung fro the bag. She still had the picture they gave her the day of graduation. These mementos warmed her heart, and soon, her heart would be warmer still. “Yui, I never forgot you,” Azusa whispered. “It’s a promise.”
She walked back out into the main room and took a seat at the table.
That is as much as I know. Yet, at a different hotel, another set of events had already begun. My role as Gitah Hirasawa, storyteller, ends here, and I return to being an instrument. I am not the only Les Paul with a story to tell.
Chapter 14: Side Story: Bright Future! (番外編: 未来好転!)
I do not have a nickname. The way she holds me in her hands is different from the way most guitars are held. That is what I believe. For a high quality instrument such as myself to be used in a garage band is a strange experience, but I have come to find it comforting, in a way. This is my home, these are my performances. The sound would not be the same without me. Every night, from my stand, I look at her sleeping, and wonder what she’s thinking. My master, Yorozu Hyakkoku.
This Yumeno person had been kind enough to provide us with one rather large room in a hotel close to the Budokan. We were going to have to share some beds. Sleeping was not on Yorozu’s mind at the moment. She was holding me in her arms, playing the opening notes of “Zoku Zoku Road”. She saw herself in the large mirror inside the closet, and memories of that New Years’ returned. She had seen someone in the mirror. A brown haired girl with a perpetual smile and a face similar to hers.
“Who was that girl?” she asked to herself.
“Hyakkoku, we’re thinking about going out into the city for dinner. Do you want to come with?” asked Ran.
“Yumeno isn’t paying for this, so don’t go overboard,” said Michi.
“Can you wait a few minutes? There’s something I want to ask you about,” said Yorozu.
Asada, in the corner, unpacked her dog ears from her suitcase and placed them on her head. She walked over to the couch where my master was and sat down beside her. Tsugumi was carrying Ran’s drum kit and her own Triton in. No one else was strong enough to handle their weight by themselves.
“What is it, Yorozu?” asked Asada.
“It’s about dreams,” Yorozu said. “My first dream of the New Year.”
“It’s April,” said Ran.
“I know, but I didn’t think anything of that dream until now,” said Yorozu, “I was walking through this black room. All of a sudden I found myself in this outfit. It was bright and tacky and unlike anything Kitaku Free Time has ever worn. There was this storm of paper, and I found myself in front of some broken mirrors, then they became one bigger mirror. When I looked in that mirror, I saw... myself. Only she had brown hair and a smile. It was like I’d been turned into a chipmunk. She tried to ask me a question, but the dream ended before I could hear what it was.”
“Are you feeling okay?” asked Michi.
“That sounds really cool,” said Asada.
“Can you start over? I missed the first part,” said Tsugumi, putting down the instruments and taking a seat by Yorozu.
“I wouldn’t put any stock into it. Dreams are just your brain firing at random. If you try to find meaning in something like that, you’ll become too distracted from what’s really going on. We should get going before the restaurants get crowded,” said Ran.
“What if it’s more than that?” asked Yorozu, “Haven’t you ever dreamed about your band mates? We spend so much time together that it seems like something that would happen.”
It would appear Yorozu had hit a sensitive spot in Ran and Michi. Ran removed her glasses, wiping them off with the corner of her shirt. “You can say something like that had happened,” Ran said nervously.
Early in our third year of high school, the rest of the band convinced Ran to try out some of the other instruments. She was certain the drums were the only thing for her, keeping to her tidiness and reputation as The Human Metronome. She could play Tsugumi’s keyboard with great precision, but it didn’t sound anything like its owner. The majestic electronic piano had been reduced to a beeping science fiction computer with Ran at the helm. Michi offered to give her a hand at the bass.
Michi sat behind Ran on the desk in Yorozu’s garage, placing her hands over her friend’s. The sharp strings scraped across Ran’s fingers. A few drops of blood came out. Michi did not react, going to get some bandages from inside the house, but Ran was momentarily frozen. This sharp pain in her finger would distract her, cutting down on the amount of paperwork she’d be able to get done, never mind the drums. Michi applied the bandage. Ran declined from trying to play Yorozu’s guitar, and returned to her seat.
That night, she had a dream in her room. Michi approached her, dressed as a nurse. She hugged Ran, the fabric from her dress stopping the blood from flowing. Michi had always been there for her, doing things she couldn’t. Ran brushed off the dream as she had Yorozu’s, a random product of an unconscious mind, though she did act a little kinder towards Michi the next day.
“It’s not that I don’t dream,” Michi said, “It’s that they’re not very interesting. I end up forgetting most of them anyway. I can see why you’d remember yours, Hyakkoku. I don’t think Miss Koike knew what she was doing when she recruited you.”
After Kitaku Free Time’s first rooftop concert, news of our performance was starting to spread through Matsugaoka. None of it had been sanctioned by the school, but with Koike working from within, she made sure to schedule it during times when nothing was happening anyway. Michi had gone out of the way to give herself a flashy outfit that would draw attention to her like a peacock. Yet students all over the school were talking about Yorozu. Unlike Michi, Yorozu was barely aware of the audience, allowing her to blend into her performance. Michi had simply come on too strong.
This led to another dream. Michi found herself inside a glass case, with the words of the students flying around her. “Distracting”, “I don’t know if she’s in it for the music”, “Shouldn’t she be in the fashion club instead?”, “Her bass line needs more work”. Fragments of this dream remained with her, but she did not act on it. Doing so would only decrease her rating with the students further.
Tsugumi, ever the quiet observer, had noticed that both of them wanted spectacle, but in different ways. Michi’s spectacle was focused on the performers, while Yorozu’s was focused on the stage. Koike’s days in Bubble Angel had aspects of both, but each of them had taken something different from her stories. Michi’s dreams would change when she came upon an idea that would change Kitaku Free Time’s goal for when they got to college, for better or worse.
The night before their last rooftop concert, she designed similar outfits for all five members of the band that bore the KFT logo. They were simple compared to some of her past fashion work. Michi figured if everyone looked the same, she could pretend the applause was for her, or better yet, it might really be for her. The impression they left on the school was great, but it put another idea into Michi’s head. That logo was marketable. At that point, it became all about fashion and the logo, and she tried to raise sales to get the band to the Budokan. This might be what got us noticed by Miss Yumeno.
“I don’t think this is my brain firing at random,” said Yorozu, “If everything in there is something I have to sort through, then where did the other girl come from? What’s with the mirrors? I haven’t had anything like that happening. Especially not with how the weather’s been up in Hokkaido.”
“It’s symbolic of something,” Ran said.
“I think Ran and I are going to head down to the shops. You can meet us a little later,” said Michi.
Ran and Michi left the hotel room, whispering to each other all the while. Yorozu tried to play the opening bars of “Zoku Zoku Road” on my body again. Tsugumi, now shaking less, took a seat on the couch beside her. It was dark outside, and even at night, the streets of Tokyo were busy with people and light shows coming from every building. Compared to the suburbs back home, getting rest before the concert would be a difficult task.
“Do you know anything about the other band we’re playing with?” asked Asada, moving up onto the couch herself, “Houkago Tea Time. I think they started off as a school club in Toyosato, but beyond that, it’s hard to find any information. I know that Yamanaka worked with them, but Miss Yumeno hasn’t been giving us a lot to work with. I’m excited to meet them, wan.”
“If they’re playing with us, they’ve got be the most hardcore band around,” said Yorozu. “It’s not like anyone would schedule two completely opposite bands against each other.”
Tsugumi imagined a band covered in makeup and rubber costumes. They looked like monsters from another world. She was scared, but then she realized with the outfits Michi had created for them to wear, it made the entire thing seem like a hero show. Whether that was better or worse than the alternative, she didn’t think to speak up on. Ran would hear about it one way or another.
“About your dream...” said Tsugumi timidly, “Maybe it’s a vision of things to come.”
“That’s only in TV and comics,” said Yozoru.
“Not that kind of omen. A good one. I think it’s saying that we’re going to be successful,” she said.
“We have to be. The kinds of things I want to accomplish can’t be done on these small stages. I need to reach the widest audience possible,” she said.
“If you keep moving that fast, you might miss out on picking up some things,” said Asada, turning around so her legs were on top of the couch and her head was back near the floor, “Even the stuff Miss Koike’s taught you has come from a mix of other places. We could go to the country, to the city, maybe spend a little time abroad. We can do it together.”
The moment Asada decided upon her dog ears also had its genesis in a dream. At the same time the summer festival was taking place, Masako Koike arranged for a bus to bring her trainees to the ground where Bubble Angel’s musical style had been created. A land where the bright and bold dictated every style, and loyal fanbases flocked like birds. Akihabara, the land of the nerds.
Shortly before this, Masako had realized that Yorozu was the one with a drive that matched hers when she was young, and took her by the hand, leading her to a costume shop. Michi tailed behind them, keeping herself just out of range. Tsugumi, in her shyness, had hoped to avoid attention in a place where so many people were, but it was that same shyness that attracted her more attention. Ran saw a table with people selling doujinshi, and, when they said they could use some help, she accepted, after informing Michi of the plan.
This left Asada all alone in the middle of the street. The stimuli around her attacked her senses from every direction, leaving her overwhelmed as to which way she should go. She wandered into one store, only to be pushed out by the crowds. In another, she was the only one there, and the coldness and emptiness of being in a store surrounded by plastic figures left her feeling just as uneasy.
She was feeling hungry, and found herself going into a cafe to pass the time. She was unaware that it was a maid cafe, and today, the staff were dressed in dog ears. The customers were enjoying themselves, eating and talking in a happier mood than she had ever seen back at Matsugaoka. Asada ordered a meal to stay in this place longer. When one of the waitresses came by, she asked her where the dog ears had come from.
“It’s an anime tie-in. The manager got these from the Cospa shop down the street. Would you like to try them on, maybe get a picture?” Asada paid for the picture with her own money. She put the dog ears on, and, for a brief moment, felt like a brand new person. As soon as the picture was taken, Asada left the store, running as fast as her legs could carry her, running after Yorozu.
She had a dream that night about standing in the middle of a giant street, looking up at a TV on the side of the building. She saw Yorozu on that screen. Asada called out, asking “Are you having fun?” The television replied, and its light shone down upon Asada, inviting her in. She never told the others where she had found out about dog ears. It became a part of her that they accepted. Yorozu was the one who invited her in, after all.
“I suppose we would need to do it together,” said Yorozu on the couch, “None of the songs I’ve written are a solo.”
“Why is reaching the stage so quickly so important to you?” asked Tsugumi.
“There’s someone who I want to hear my music,” said Yorozu.
“Is it someone I know?” asked Asada.
“You’re a great junior, Asada, but there are some things that every person has to keep to themselves. This isn’t going to hurt me if I don’t tell you,” said Yorozu.
“It might hurt the person you’re doing it for, especially if they find out too late,” said Asada.
“We’ve made it this far, everything’s going to be fine,” said Yorozu.
Asada was touched. Usually Yorozu was ordering everyone around, trying to make things bigger and better than before, and pushing the band to their limits. For the first time in years, there was something she was willing to show restraint on.
“I’m going to the restaurant,” said Tsugumi, grabbing her jacket and heading out the door, “It would look bad if I was late.”
The door shut as Tsugumi slowly walked through the hallway. Asada and Yorozu were left alone in the room. Neither of them had been in this situation before. With almost everyone gone, the apartment was dark except for two table lamps. Yorozu’s tense expression calmed a bit. Asada remembered what Yoroko had told her a long time ago. It was when Asada entered her third year of high school, after the other members of Kitaku Free Time had graduated.
“There’s no one who knows Yorozu better than me. My sister is a space case, she doesn’t think of anyone but herself, and she’s probably going to do something stupid when she’s by herself. Without me keeping her in check, she wouldn’t have made it into this school. I want you to watch her for me. Maybe if you get to know the kind of person she is in the dark, you’ll get yourself out of this band before something bad happens. It’s your choice.”
Asada moved closer to Yorozu. “You know, I think that dream of yours might not be a dream at all. That girl you saw in there, I think she’s a real person. Simultaneous dreams are uncommon, but they’ve happened before.”
“A doppelganger? Even if she was real, who knows where she is now?” said Yorozu, “That someone like that could exist and still be happy about the world, and be an artist, is amazing. That person seemed too good to be real.”
“They’re probably thinking the same thing about you. Did you hear what they were trying to say?” asked Asada.
“It was something like ‘It’s not over. It’s only beginning.’ There’s nothing I can do with that!” said Yorozu. “You seem pretty interested in these dreams. Any reason?”
“Something like that,” said Asada.
Asada did not spend all of her time with Kitaku Free Time. She wished she could, but Kokoro and Yoroko were just as important to her. One day during winter break, when the leaves had been stripped from the trees and flakes of snow fell on the windowsill, Yoroko’s gang was going to walk around the town and look for spots to leave graffiti. Asada kept falling into daydreams during the course of events, seeing Ran and Michi on top of a snowbank, Tsugumi out in the middle of a field, and Yorozu hiding behind an alleyway. When she opened her eyes, they were no longer there.
“What would you do if I was no longer here?” Yorozu asked, “If I became a different person or pursued my own path. Yokokawa and Fujii seem alright as long as they have each other, and Miura’s father finally has a job again, but I’ve never seen you do that much outside of this band. You’re a strange little puppy.”
“I’ve never really thought about that. It’s not something I want to happen,” said Asada, “but I’d probably head back to Akiba. There’s a lot of opportunities there for me. A lot of artists draw inspiration from the people around them, you know. I’d draw inspiration from you and keep the memory of you going. I guess you’d stop calling me ‘Asa-wan’ and start calling me Hachi, wouldn’t you?”
“Am I really a person worth glorifying like that? I’ve been trying for that person for all these years, and if Miss Yumeno hadn’t stepped in, I’d still be trying every venue back at home until something worked. I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. I just don’t let it stop me, even if it means this band has to be worked until it bleeds,” said Yorozu diligently.
“You don’t show it, but I think you understand that this band should be fun. You do things flashy and impractically, but you always try to do them. You want to give the audience their best. Some people would resign themselves to whatever they can get, but you try to have it all. That’s kind of admirable,” said Asada, resting her head on Yorozu’s shoulders.
Yorozu looked at Asada beside her, and remembered back to the day of the rooftop concert. The day that the band went from four to five. Miss Koike, embracing her history in a passionate way, had the members of Kitaku Free Time dress up in the old outfits (or replicas thereof, after challenging Michi to do so) of Bubble Angel. They were white and gold, with fake wings and bared midriffs. On the right set of girls, they would look cute, but they clashed so fiercely with Kitaku Free Time’s image that the students were more confused than eager to come to the concert.
Except for Yorozu. Her wings, stitched with blue fabric, left her feeling extremely confident in herself. She went to the rooftop early in the morning while the rest of the band was covertly pasting fliers over the school. She looked out at the sunrise, cloaking her figure in silhouette. That was when she heard someone knocking. Thinking quickly, Yorozu hid behind the water tower. Yoroko’s gang had come to the rooftop to chat in private.
She overheard Kokoro talking about joining the jazz club. Yoroko was examining a list of clubs herself, trying to see which one fit her best. Asada, meanwhile, thought she heard someone else out here, and, her hand placed to her forehead, was looking around to try and find this other person.
“I can’t let Yoroko see me like this,” said Yorozu to herself.
“Hello? Who’s there?” asked Asada.
Yorozu peeked out from behind the water tower. One of her wings spread itself out from her back. Asada quickly turned her head, and saw the winged figure. Yorozu quickly returned to hiding. She heard the trio of girls leave, and set about finding the others once more. Asada, believing that there was something supernatural on the rooftop, returned when the concert was taking place, and became engrossed by the music, forgetting about her mission, and the reason Yoroko had sent her. There was something in the back of her mind, but Asada knew she had seen Yorozu from a distance before.
“I’m glad we left Hokkaido,” said Yorozu. “If we can make it here, we won’t ever have to return.”
“You’re willing to give up on your past that easily?” said Asada.
“My whole life has been struggling for something. Once we become successful here, things will be easy. I don’t see any reason to worry,” said Yorozu.
“I guess,” said Asada.
“Let’s get going. We can tune up tomorrow morning. The day we’ve been waiting for is almost here,” said Yorozu.
Yorozu and Asada left the couch. Yorozu set me back in my stand, placing me beside the rest of the band’s instruments. The lights clicked off, and the hotel fell into darkness.
The streets of Tokyo at night were bright and colorful, filled with advertisements that took up entire buildings and people of all stripes walking the streets. The members of Kitaku Free Time stood out, their hair colors looking even brighter under the heavy lights of the city. They saw the Tokyo Dome off in the distance, and came upon the Budokan. It seemed much bigger in person.
“We’ve never played to an audience this size before. This is going to be great,” said Michi.
“How much did Miss Yumeno spend on this, exactly?” asked Tsugumi timidly.
Ran took her notepad out of her pocket and wrote something down. She turned it around and showed Tsugumi.
“I’ve... never seen that many zeroes before,” said Tsugumi.
“Many parties have a stake in this. There’s a lot we have to do right,” said Ran.
Yorozu saw a pair of Japanese Robins fly overhead, landing on the highest part of the arena. “Good job, little birdies,” she said under her breath.
“Yorozu, you’re still a kid,” said Asada, smiling, “Our future looks bright.”
At a coffee shop not far from the Budokan, Kokoro and Yoroko were getting something to drink. Their backstage passes were sticking out of their pockets. Kokoro was stirring her coffee, as she had been for the past few minutes. Yoroko took a seat at the table, and looked out at the cold streets.
“You can’t keep secrets from family, sis,” said Yoroko.
“Shouldn’t we be seeing the sights?” asked Kokoro.
“We have a goal. This isn’t a vacation,” said Yoroko, “It’s weird seeing them without Koike.”
“Maybe they finally broke free?” asked Kokoro.
“There’s no way that’s possible. Koike doesn’t let go,” said Yoroko. “Why did I have to end up with such a gullible sister?”
“You know, for someone you don’t like, you went to a lot of trouble to follow her,” said Kokoro.
“Look who’s talking,” said Yoroko.
At that moment, a black-haired girl with twintails, along with a brown-haired girl with a ponytail and a brown-haired girl with a fluffy looking hairstyle walked down the street between the Budokan and the coffee shop. Asada turned her head, and momentarily locked eyes with the black-haired girl. Kokoro and Yoroko did the same with the ponytailed girl and the fluffy one. That second felt like a dream, a moment where the universe had found a turning point. In the blink of an eye, that trio had vanished into the darkness and the crowds once more.
Mai Ueda was walking down the street. A glossy picture was in her hand, and the wind was at her back. She’d finished the job she’d been assigned in this part of Tokyo, and had a long walk ahead of her before she reached her next destination. A flier for the concert two nights from now blew past her. She bent down to pick it up, and looked at the black and white photographs of the two bands. She flipped open her cell phone, considering sending a text to Yorozu, then stopped. This wasn’t her place.
She said, “The future looks bright.”
Chapter 15: Backing Melody! (うらせんりつ!)
A collection of shorts (one for every two chapters) showing the various goings-on during the story.
New Years’ Dreams (はつゆめ)
#1: Mio’s Dream (みおのゆめ)
Mio found herself in a wonderful place. The streets looked like piano keys, the buildings like giant instruments and the town square a giant drum. Everything was decorated in bright pastel colors. She skipped through the streets with Ritsu, every cobblestone making a whimsical noise. She reached the end of the street, and found the sidewalk vanishing. Down below, there was a crowd of thousands of people. Ritsu had strapped her drum to her back like a parachute. She handed Mio her guitar, telling her to ride it like a surfboard across the crowd. Mio hesitated, but Ritsu pushed her off the edge. Her guitar made the sound of a downward scale as she flailed through the sky. Ritsu deployed her parachute and landed on Mio’s shoulders. Mio woke up.
#2: Ritsu’s Dream (りつのゆめ)
Ritsu was standing in front of the Budokan, but the Budokan of her dreams had been changed. It was adorned with giant banners bearing the name of the band, and twin pillars of flame erupted from the stage within. Ritsu pulled out her keychain and pressed down on it. There was a beeping sound, followed by the appearance of Houkago Tea Time’s official tour bus. The other members of the band were inside, waiting for her. Mio was riding shotgun, with Yui and Tsumugi holding cans of silly string. Ritsu had decided it would be painted yellow. She drove the van into the stadium, leaping over the crowds and landing on stage. The van left skid marks in its wake. Ritsu rolled out Mellow Yellow and took her seat. She yelled out to the audience. “Let’s rock!” They cheered. Ritsu woke up, her fingers still drumming and her body sweating.
#3: Tsumugi’s Dream (つむぎのゆめ)
Tsumugi was walking about on a London street. What could be described as “humanoid ships” sailed past her, and inside each ship was a girl from all over the world. Tsugumi took a seat on a park bench and pulled out her keyboard. She began to play a simple tune. The wind blew past her and the flowers swayed, the whole world dancing in harmony. The girls in the water began a synchronized swimming show, the metal on their bodies not weighing them down. Tsugumi started to sing. The water rose and overflowed into the street. The ground rumbled beneath Tsumugi. Her bench was now floating in a giant teacup. She reached out for the sky, and then, woke up.
Touched by an Angel (てんしにふれたよ)
#1: Azusa Gets a Letter (あずさ, てがみをうけとる)
Ton had been living in Azusa’s dorm room for several years now. He had been growing bigger and faster, but he was still a turtle, and the world for him was large compared to Azusa’s perspective. Azusa bent down to his tank and tapped gently against the glass. He would swim up to her. One day, while bringing in a letter, Azusa reacted in such a way that she got on the phone immediately. Ton had never seen her this happy before. Months later, Azusa vanished from his sight. Then one night, the lights in the dorm room left darkened, a girl with a bag of pet supplies grabbed his tank. Ton felt his entire world move.
#2: Creatures of the World (せかいのどうぶつ)
This was strange. Ton found himself inside a train car with various animals in cages. A dog was in one of them, lying down and waiitng for the train to stop. Another was a rhinoceros. How the rhinoceros had gotten in here, Ton would never find out. In the cage next to him was a rabbit. He did not understand what a rabbit was, but the land bound creature treated him with a sense of uncertainty. The train came to a stop, and Ton found himself moving towards what had to be the largest castle he had ever seen. He was set in a comfortable room with plants and instruments. The temperature was the same as the club room he loved so much.
#3: Otohime and Urashima (おとひめとうらしま)
The man who had brought Ton here exited the room full of greens. The door behind him almost closed. He was talking with someone who had a quiet, yet authoritative voice. The sound was muffled by the glass and the water, but through the crack in the door, he could hear them talking.
“How did you even know Nakano had a pet turtle?” asked the man.
“Once you’ve read someone’s blog, a lot of things can be revealed. It’s all public,” said the woman. “When you save a turtle, a fantastic world opens up. Nakano will appreciate it.”
“That’s great, Miss Yumeno, but...” said the man, “but isn’t that story a bad omen? When the man leaves that world, everything he knows isn’t the same. He dies.”
“Yet if he was really gone, the fantasy must take on some traits of reality,” said Miss Yumeno.
Azusa would arrive later that evening. Ton was now content to relax, swimming once again.
Love is a Stapler (こいはほっちきす)
#1. Pensiero visione Dissolution
The green room returned to normal as Mio’s Pensiero visione stopped. Her fingers were still running under their own strength, and without backing from Ritsu, she began to play another tune. “Watashi no Koi wa Hotchkiss”, one of Houkago Tea Time’s most popular songs. She got about halfway through the second verse before Ran Fujii placed her arm on her shoulder.
“Mio Akiyama, tell me. How do you come up with your lyrics?” she asked.
“Me?” Mio said.
“I’ve never seen someone play a serenade to school supplies so beautifully,” Ran commented.
Michi did not say anything. The musical performance a few pages ago had left her silent, leaving Ran to socialize with Mio and Ritsu under her own will.
#2. Line of Sight, Line of Mind
“There’s no big secret. I just write based on whatever I see in front of me. In the classroom that was either sweets or school supplies,” said Mio nervously.
“You make it sound like a love song,” Ran said, “That takes talent, Akiyama.”
“Thanks?” Mio said, trying to avoid all the extra attention.
“In exchange, I can teach you and Ritsu a thing or two about rhythm,” said Ran.
“I don’t need to know anything about that, Fujii. I am rhythm!” said Ritsu.
Ran grabbed a stapler off one of the desks. She opened it and carefully placed the staples onto the table. Ran took her drum sticks in hand and began tap a tap a tapping on the top of the office supply. She then pressed down on the stapler with perfectly timed beats. Ritsu and Mio were surprised. She was doing it without thinking, making her look more robotic than human.
“That is why they call me The Human Metronome,” said Ran.
Michi snapped out of her shock.
#3. Boombox Overhead
“We’re in an arena, you need to do something with flash and flare and boom!” said Ritsu to the other drummer.
“What do you expect to happen when you walk out on that stage?” asked Michi.
Mio froze. “The crowds will be enormous.”
“It’ll be like a circus,” said Ran.
“A circus?” Michi replied.
Ran picked up a boombox lying in one of the closets. She took out KFT’s latest home cut single and placed it inside. A cross between a heavy metal tune and a whimsical pipe organ blared out. The boombox, on her head, didn’t fall. Ran Fujii also had perfect balance. Something even Michi was unaware of.
Super Mail Time (スーパーメールタイム)
Nodoka opened her cell phone. She scrolled through her list of contacts until she saw the number for Yui’s cell. She’d always wanted to talk to Yui, but work had been keeping her on her feet. She looked down at the blank cell phone screen. Nodoka punched in the opening line, “Yui and Company,” and then stopped. She wasn’t sure of what to put in next. Nodoka felt Mai’s hand on her shoulder, leaning over and looking at the email.
“I’ll help you out,” said Mai.
“Why are you looking inside the station?” Nodoka questioned.
“I’ll help you out on one condition,” said Mai.
The clock ticked in the background.
#2. Passing Through Freeter (とおりすがりのフリーター)
“I want something from your store,” Mai said, pointing to a T-shirt.
“It’s not that expensive,” Nodoka said, “Unless you’re looking for anime goods or something.”
“I spent most of my money getting here. I’ve been all over Japan. Maybe all over the world someday. That’s why I like T-shirts. They say ‘Hey, I’ve been there’, and keep me warm,” said Mai.
Nodoka repacked her lunch box and walked inside with Mai. The green haired girl, content to be in somewhere air conditioned, picked out her shirt and stuffed it in her bag. The two of them were standing outside on the pavement once more. Mai’s strange hair color had yet to draw anyone’s attention, which Nodoka did not mention.
“Condition fulfilled!” said Mai, giving a thumbs up.
“Should I mention you?” asked Nodoka. “I owe you a lot for this.”
“No, please, leave me out of this,” said Mai, “This is just a job I took up. A personal job, for you and me, but I don’t need credit. I don’t think Yorozu even remembers me.”
Nodoka typed in more of the message. “I heard you’re performing at the Budokan tonight.”
Mai was holding Miss Yumeno’s business card up to the sun, trying to see if she had hidden any computer chips or messages written in disappearing ink beneath the surface.
“Don’t forget to mention you’re her friend. Friends can hurt each other, but they should always recover. That’s where I screwed up,” said Mai.
“I’ll be watching you from afar,” said Nodoka, “There’s a camera crew and everything. Live at Budokan albums will benefit me and her.”
“You must have made an awesome president,” said Mai.
Nodoka finished typing. “You will always be my best friend.”
Song of Light Music (けいおんのうた)
#1. The Lost Songstress (まよいうたひめ)
Yoroko was running through the halls of the Budokan. The weight of me on her back was starting to become a problem. I didn’t fit through doors very easily, and with every swing against her body, I made a smooshing sound. She turned into a convention hall, packed with people dressed in identical robes, bearing the kanji for “waterway” on their back in blue. Another of their number, carrying a megaphone, asked Yoroko to get in the center of the picture and give a V sign. Confused, she did. A camera clicked and flashed. Yoroko waited until the glare had faded. She tried to run away, but was stopped by a girl with a calm disposition.
“Welcome to the Mio Akiyama Fan Club,” she said.
#2. A Mad Tea Party (きじるしのおちゃかい)
“The what now?” asked Yoroko.
“Houkago Tea Time’s bassist. Her fanbase is by far the largest of the entire club,” said the girl, “I’m Megumi Sogabe, founder of the original chapter of her fan club. Pleasant greetings.”
“You people are insane,” said Yoroko.
“Is that a bass on your back?” asked one of the club members.
“It’s a guitar, actually,” said Yoroko, trying to not let them read the name tag. If they knew she had swiped this from one of the bands here tonight, they would either react with deep admiration or deep scorn. Neither of those would end well.
“Are you going to play something for us? Maybe you know ‘Fuwa Fuwa Time’?” asked another club member, this time a male.
“I don’t know how to play music,” said Yoroko, “This is a...” she paused to think of an alibi, “replica. For display.”
“You’re so amazing,” exclaimed Megumi.
#3. New Legend (しんでんせつ)
“It’s people like you who give Houkago Tea Time their success,” said one of the fans.
“I have to get going,” said Yoroko, looking towards the exit.
“Look for us in the audience tonight” said Megumi, pulling out her blue glowstick.
“Kokoro was right about fan clubs. Their level of dedication is scary,” said Yoroko.
“Your kind words have reached us,” said a third female fan, “If in your heart you feel awed by our level of dedication, we will continue to do so. Mio is the kind of person who can change the world! Farewell, mysterious stranger.”
“The name is Yoroko!” she said.
Even to this day, the Mio Fan Club remembers the words of Yoroko. Show dedication, be kind and appreciate all music.
Day alternates with night
#1. In Her Dreams (ゆめのなかの)
Yui was sleeping peacefully in the corner of the green room. Everyone was gathered around her, trying to wake her up. Everyone but Azusa, that is. She was looking at the letter that Miss Yumeno had sent her months ago. She didn’t know anything about Yumeno other than that she was an employee at Pony Canyon, and had a strong presence at the Budokan, even if she was never seen in person. Azusa turned to the rest of the members of Houkago Tea Time.
“I’ve got some questions I want answered,” she said, “Let me know if Yui wakes up.”
Azusa walked out of the green room and into the hallway. The halls were empty, lit only by the fluorescent bulbs. Soundly, Azusa pushed on.
#2. Azusa, No Way! (まさかあずさ)
In the offices hidden from the public eye, where the top brass of the arena kept everything running smoothly, Azusa approached the door. She knocked twice. A voice asked who she was. Azusa recognized this voice as belonging to the very person she had come to seek. She stated her name. The door did not open, but a pair of hands came out from the window above it. Azusa turned her glance upward.
“Why did you call us here? I know what it’s like to be on stage, but today hasn’t brought that same feeling. If this concerns Yui or myself, I want to know,” said Azusa.
“You are smarter than you give yourself credit for,” answered the voice coming from the hands, “This is not something I can answer, though. I merely booked the concert because your fans wanted it. The meaning, that is something only you can answer.”
#3: Answer (こたえ)
“It’s my first time really playing with Yui and her friends in years,” Azusa said, “and we’re finally achieving our dream. Maybe that’s why it feels so unreal. What about Asada? She went against Koike, but will she be okay? I feel connected to her, almost as much as Yui. It’s strange.”
“I do not know who you are talking about. I merely book the bands. It is the job of others to make sure that things go as planned. The strings of destiny are pulled at by many people. What changes is if those people make that destiny a pleasant or an unpleasant one,” she said.
“Then who are you?” asked Azusa.
Azusa returned to her friends, those words on her mind.
This is our history
#1. Bonds (きずな)
Tsugumi, sitting on the train with the others as it rolled out of Hokkaido, recalled that day in Yorozu’s garage. Koike had left them to their own devices, something she had been doing with greater and greater frequency as of late. The practice session had just finished. Yorozu, taking a break from staring at the wall with her eyes darting back and forth, spoke up.
“Someday, this little house could become a museum. The place where we got our start! That day isn’t here yet, but we should do something to immortalize it,” she declared. “We’re not going to let all these supplies in here gather dust. They are also the tools of a musician.”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself way too much,” said Michi.
“I like it,” said Tsugumi.
“Me too!” Asada added.
“Paper disintegrates and paint cracks, but I trust Yorozu’s got a plan for that too,” said Ran.
“Of course! We’ll put it in the refrigerator!” said Yorozu, stepping up to get the paint.
The paper was sprawled out across the driveway. Everyone grabbed a brush and dipped it in the murky water. Splashes of paint met with the poster, creating something extraordinary. The five stepped back.
#2. Memories (きおく)
Yorozu had written, in large red letters, “ROCK THE STAGE!”, with a picture of her personal guitar. It appeared to be on fire.
Michi had drawn a crude self portrait surrounded by flowers. The word “crazy” had been written in tiny blue letters beneath.
Ran’s drawing was in close proximity to Michi’s. It resembled her bass drum, but with the kanji for “priceless” inside.
Tsugumi had produced a musical scale with the notes for “Zoku Zoku Road” written down by ear. She was proud of her work.
Asada had drawn a rabbit riding on top of a dog, with herself beside them. Her band mates looked at her in confusion.
#3. Shining (きらきら)
The large poster still hangs in Yorozu’s garage to this day. It has been preserved by Yoroko, who stumbled across it shortly before Kitaku Free Time received their letter. It was not the first thing she wanted to do. Yet Asada was her friend, and this band, as imperfect as it was, was her sister’s dream. As long as she didn’t tell anybody that she had done this, they wouldn’t have to know. The poster cost nothing to make. Most don’t know it exists. To them, it is their history.