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Always on Your Left

Chapter Text

The sun shone down from the sky, sending beams through the leaves of the trees. It was a beautiful summer morning, though at 7:00 AM most people were taking their free schedules as a chance to sleep in. There was nothing that said "summer" quite like sleeping in until the late morning, then lounging in the sunshine and eating ice cream or staying at the pool until the sun went down. 

The tranquility of the forest in the morning immediately shattered as a group of extremely loud middle and high schoolers barged through. They were running in a 3-man wide block to accommodate for the size of the forest trail, staying completely in step with each other and chanting to the beat.

What ragtag bunch of kids was this, teens of a wide range of age, physical fitness, and personality, out running at 7 in the morning? The marching band, of course. This was the first day of this season's band camp, and already the upperclassmen on the leadership team had decided to throw the newbies into the exercises at full force. You could tell which were new to the rigorous activity by looking at how out of breath some where, while others were completely light on their feet and could keep up the run all day. 

One such energized veteran marcher was a boy named Shiro. He was a senior this year, the baritone section leader and basically in charge of low brass as a whole. Everyone was suprised that he hadn't auditioned for drum major, but Shiro had insisted that he didn't want it. Playing and marching made him happy. Besides, without him the low brass would lose their loudest player. 

"Hey hey hey," Shiro shouted in time, starting up a new chant, "Even if we're aching-"

"Even if we're aching," the band echoed.

"Even if we can't breathe,"

"Even if we can't breathe,"

"We'll keep pushing onwards until we're done!"

"We'll keep pushing onwards until we're done!"

As the chant repeated itself, Shiro couldn't help but grin. Yes! This year's group seemed so motivated already. He was determined to help push them to be the best they could be. After all, if you can beat the pain, everything else about band became so much more enjoyable. Shiro resumed the chant with his head held high. 

Well, by Shiro's vision of "pain first, fun later," there were quite a few members who thought they wouldn't get to the 'fun' part for quite some time.

Cue Lance. Even in the tight formation, surrounded by his section and a few other friends, the alto sax player still felt like he was going to fall behind. It was his third year, and Lance still hated the run through the forest trail behind the school more than anything. Hell, Lance would rather do box drill than run, and that was saying a lot, as box drill was the basics exercise that was the most unanimously hated among the entire band. Even now, Lance shuddered at the thought of having to do it within the hour. 

"Hey, why aren't you chanting? You're supposed to be chanting." Lance was broken out of his thoughts by the higher pitched voice of a clarinet girl running next to him. He could almost place her name: Katherine? Katrina? Katie, he realized after a second. 

"Just thinking, sorry. Gotta love the chants that leave me with even less air than just running does though, right?" Lance had muttered that last part, but Katie must have heard him. 

"Aw, don't be like that! They're fun, and if we're loud enough we might even wake the neighbors. How funny would that be?" Good Lord, how much energy did this girl have? She was nearly bouncing as she ran while Lance was so sluggish he felt like he might trip over his own feet. She was not done talking, either. "I'm Pidge, by the way. In case you didn't know, since I was just in front ensemble last year. Synth got boring. I wanted to march."

"Pidge?" Lance echoed. He nearly tripped on a rock, and he tried to focus more on where he was running as he responded. "I thought your name was Katie."

"Oh, so you do know me!" Pidge's eyes shone with delight. "Yeah, Katie is my real name. One time at practice last year a pigeon decided to sit on a marimba during sectionals. I mimicked it and the guys couldn't stop laughing and called me 'Pigeon' the rest of practice. Which got shortened to Pidge. That stuck."

"I see," Lance laughed. He was starting to remember her more now. She had joined last year as a 7th grader, only interested because of her older brother, Matt, who was a senior then.  A front ensemble girl who was always bouncing off the wall, seemingly bored by the lack of exercise. Pidge didn't even like exercise, he remembered. She hated it, but evidently Pidge was willing to endure for the thrill of a challenge. Evidently Pidge had gotten so bored that she had abandoned her section and learned an entirely new instrument. Lance smiled. He could respect that. 

"So anyway," Pidge tried to continue, "This year-"

"Hey!" They jumped at the interruption. "That doesn't sound like chanting, you two!" Shiro had yelled back at them, but he didn't sound angry. His eyes still glimmered with a light energy. "You can, however, turn your personal conversations into a chant and make things more fun." The senior grinned, returning his focus to the run with a hum.

Lance blanched at the suggestion. His conversation. As a chant. Projected to everyone in the band. He knew Shiro was most likely just teasing him, but what kind of-

"HEY HEY HEY!" Lance nearly jumped out of his shoes when Pidge projected more sound than a body so tiny should ever be able to. "WE'RE MAKING NEW FRIENDS IN THE WARM-UP BLOCK!"

"We're meeting new friends in the warm-up block!"

No. She was not. Was Pidge seriously making an actual chant? Lance couldn't believe his ears. But then, this was one of the most hyperactive people he'd ever met...

"WE DON'T LISTEN TO SHIRO WHEN HE TELLS US NOT TO TALK!"

"We don't listen to Shiro when he tells us not to talk!" 

Lance started laughing so hard that he almost went into a coughing fit. Shiro turned his head and childishly stuck a tongue out at Pidge, who returned the gesture. Way to keep up a strong leadership persona. Shiro always strived to seem serious, but on the inside he was really quite the six year old. Band was something that managed to bring out both sides of Shiro's personality. Nothing else had been able to recently. Because... because...

Shiro shook his head madly. No. Don't think about it. Don't break down. You're a leader now, Shiro. You have to stay strong. They all are. Even as he tried to go back to pretending everything was fine, his right arm started to ache, betraying him. It was absorbing the heat of the sun, rising to abnormal heat levels because it was made of-

"Alright, we're nearly done, keep it up!" Shiro encouraged the band instead of thinking. Thinking could come later, when he was all alone in his home; when he wouldn't worry anyone by crying. Here, he had to be strong. He had to. 

The band crossed through a line of cones that were set up on both ends of the school parking lot that meant no cars could pass through because it was the practice field. There were bus parking spot lines, but also white yard lines with numbers in the front and hashes down the middle like an actual football field. The blacktop was a convenient practice field because they could chalk all of the new sets they learned and then the rain would eventually wash them away. 

"Alright, great job, everyone!" At Shiro's words signaling completion, the band broke out of formation, panting. "Grab a quick drink, and let's be back on the field in 60 seconds for the stretch routines."

The band kids were instantly running again, brass towards backfield and the treeline, where their bags and water jugs were, and woodwinds towards the frontfield sidewalk. There was a time when the entire band was backfield, but the flutes kept complaining about grass in their keys or something. No one was really sure. Long story short, the two halves of the horn line kept their things seperate, which caused mass chaos whenever the director shouted for a Gush and Go after a set and people ran every which way, trying not to get trampled. 

Shiro made it to his water jug before any of the others, opening the lid and chugging as much as he could in a few seconds. God, that was nice. Didn't help the scorching heat radiating from his arm, though. Shiro flinched, finally bringing his gaze down to his hand. His metal hand. 

"Hey, you alright?" Shiro started a bit as a soft voice sounded next to him. He turned to find a dark skinned boy next to him, bending over to pick up his tuba. 

"I'm... I'm fine, Hunk," Shiro replied, forcing a smile. The junior tuba player was one of the sweetest people Shiro had ever met. He always brought baked goods and goodie bags on competition days, and he gave very comforting hugs whenever anyone seemed down. "You don't have to worry about me. I was just thinking that I probably should have covered my arm before the run."

"Yeah," Hunk agreed, frowning. He scanned Shiro's face, which had contorted into a smile that seemed forced. Hunk didn't press, though. Shiro losing his arm had been tough, and it was bound to bring up dark memories for the entire band. They were all doing a great job of keeping the mood light, though, and Shiro seemed determined not to ruin that. 

Seeming to sense Hunk's thoughts, Shiro sighed. "I don't know what to say," Shiro admitted. "I don't want to hurt anyone, but we can't just pretend that... that never happened." Shiro clenched his metal fist. 

"Hey, you're doing great," Hunk insisted, clapping a hand on Shiro's shoulder. "We're all coping in our own ways. Now chin up; most of the band is already back on the field!" Hunk sent Shiro one last encouraging smile, then jogged back out to join the rest of the band for stretches. 

"Can I even stretch this?" Shiro wondered, muttering under his breath. He eyed his prosthetic arm with a grimace. No, probably not. There weren't any muscles to stretch, after all. Maybe just his shoulder? Experimentally, he stuck his arms behind his back, trying to pop something. 

Without realizing it, Shiro ended up with his arms at an awkward angle. With a jolt, he realized. It was just like, like...

Shiro shook his head violently as the memories came rushing back. No. No no no nononono-

----

Hot. Why was it so hot? It was the beginning of November, for God's sake. They had been on the way back from semi-state, they had just learned that they had made state finals... And then something had happened. The heat was searing, and Shiro couldn't stand it anymore. What was happening?

Shiro opened his eyes to fire. It was all around him, the heat pressing on his lungs. Or was that the bus seat that had collapsed on his chest? He was pinned. He couldn't get up. 

"...elp..." Shiro tried to call out, but he submitted to a bout of coughing as smoke filled his lungs. "H... help!"

"Shiro!" Shiro nearly weeped with relief as a tall, white haired figure came into view. 

"M-Mr. Alfor," Shiro stuttered, crying, "I c-can't move. The seat, it's... I can't -"

"Shh, it's alright, I'll get you out, I promise," the band director's voice was deceptively calm, given the situation. "The bus could collapse at any moment, so we have to move quickly. Can you try shifting a bit to your left?"

Shiro did as Alfor asked, and with more strength than he would have thought possible, Alfor lifted up the seat from Shiro's chest. 

"Okay, kiddo, you have to roll out now!" 

Shiro tried, he really did, but pain screamed at him. His arm. Alfor and Shiro's eyes widened in equal dispair as they found his right arm still pinned down by a part of the seat that had literally melted into the floor.

"Mr. Alfor, my arm, I can't move it, I c-can't-" Shiro cried, tears making it even harder to see in the smoky environment. 

"Shhh, it's alright, Shiro, it's alright." Alfor pat his head, though Shiro could now see him visibly shaking. "We'll... we'll have to pull as hard as we can, alright? I know it hurts."

Shiro's lip trembled, but he nodded. Alfor grabbed his left arm with both hands. "Try to push out with your legs, and I'll pull, alright?" Another nod. "Okay. Okay." Alfor took a deep breath, and Shiro could see that for all of his brave words, he was terrified. "On three, okay? One, two, three!" 

Pain. So much pain. Shiro screamed as he felt bones and muscle compress. Was the inside of his arm supposed to feel all shattered and smushed like that? No, most definetly not. After a good minute of tugging, and screaming, and dear Lord, the pain - Shiro's arm was free.

"Okay, Shiro, we need to move." Alfor pulled the junior to his feet, wincing as the boy's arm flopped limply at his side. It was obviously out of commission. Even more concerning was the boy's breathing and seeming inability to stay on his feet. There was too much smoke in his lungs. 

"I..." Shiro swayed on his feet, and had Alfor not caught him he would have been back on the ground. "I... I don't think I can walk."

"Sure you can. Left foot, right foot. Just focus, start on your left."

"On my left?" Shiro asked weakly, cracking a small smile. "Like I'm marching or something?"

"Yeah," Alfor insisted. "Pretend this is a really hard, hot practice. You wouldn't let a bit of exhaustion keep you from marching, would you?"

"N-no," Shiro confirmed, determined. He took a deep breath, steadying himself. "Alright. I'm ready."

Together, Shiro and Alfor took a few trembling steps forward. Left, right. Left, right. Their pace was steady, but nowhere near fast enough. The emergency exit seemed so far away. It's alright, Shiro thought, we can make it. They had to. 

The two were almost to the emergency exit. They were so close. Just a few more steps. All of a sudden, the bus started to groan. Alfor's eyes lit up with horror. It was going to collapse. 

"I'm sorry, kiddo," Alfor whispered. It took a second for Shiro's mind to process what his director was planning, but once he did, he blanched. 

"No. No no no no -"

"We can't both get out at this pace." Alfor's eyes brimmed with tears. "Tell my daughter I'm sorry, okay?"

Before Shiro had a chance to protest, Alfor summoned all of the strength he could muster and threw Shiro though the emergency door. He hit the ground hard, the slope and gravity causing him to tumble quite a distance from the wreck.

As soon as Shiro regained his balance, he shot up, to sitting, shouting, "Mr. Alfor -"

Shiro's breath caught in his throat as the bus fell into itself and erupted into a final ball of flame. The fire cackled, tendrils swarming the vehicle as if eating it up. No way could anyone survive that. 

"N-no..." Shiro muttered. He collapsed in on himself, clutching his ruined arm to his chest. "No!"

There were voices calling, screaming. There were hands on him everywhere. There were flashing red and blue lights and sirens and a rush of people, but Shiro didn't see any of it. He only knew his own screams. Alfor hadn't made it out because of him. Because of him. 

"No!" Shiro's screams continued into the night. The emergency services had arrived, but they were too late. Much, much too late. In one horrifying moment, the entire band's lives had changed forever. 

Chapter Text

"... -iro. Hey, Shiro!"

The senior's eyes snapped open to find a mustached redhead looming over him, looking concerned. "Are you all right, my boy? You suddenly fell against the tree. You gave the band quite a scare." Oh no. Had Shiro caused a commotion?

"I'm fine, Coran," Shiro muttered, sitting up groggily. He shifted his gaze over to the practice field, where the band was standing in the warm-up block. Everyone was looking at him with concern. "It was... It was just a memory."

Coran still looked worried. As assistant director, he had been there that night. He remembered vividly the sea of shaken children, seperated into sections and each section leader taking head counts. The flutes were all there. And the clarinets. And the saxophones. All of high brass was accounted for, too. However, when he got to the low brass...

"Shiro is missing."

Those dreadful words. A feeling of terror rippled down Coran's spine as the baritone section leader repeated those words, more frantically this time. "Shiro is missing!"

"Everything will be all right," came a strong voice. Alfor. The director clasped the baritone section leader's shoulder, and when he turned back to face Coran, fire illuminated the determination in his eyes. Alfor took a steeling breath. "I'm going back in."

"Alfor, no." Coran grabbed his arm. He knew it was selfish. He knew that Shiro needed help. But in that moment, all Coran could think of was the worst possible outcome: that his best friend would go into that death trap and neither he or Shiro would make it out alive. 

"Coran." He looked into those bright blue eyes, so full of fire, and Coran started to shake. Alfor gave him a quick smile. "I'll get him out of there. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. You know that."

Alfor made to turn around, then seemed to rethink. After a moment, he doubled back to crush Coran in a hug. "But... this is just in case." The words were muttered next to Coran's ear, barely audible, but to him it may well have been as loud as the roar of a lion. He couldn't say that. He couldn't. That would make the possibility... too real. 

Alfor pulled away from the hug, giving a confident smile. "I'll be right back."

Coran could only watch helplessly as his best friend spirited back towards the burning bus. He kept his eyes on Alfor for as long as he could. As long as Coran could see him, he was safe. It wouldn't last. It couldn't. Coran's heart stopped as Alfor climbed through the emergency exit door, out of sight. 

The minutes trudged by painfully. Every second seemed to last hours. Minutes were days. The band kids clung tight to each other, shaking and crying and just praying that everything would be alright. This was supposed to be a night of celebration. The band had made state finals for the first time in years. The bus was alight with singing and laughter and smiles - and now everything was crashing down around them. And they were powerless to do anything about it. 

After three minutes - the longest three minutes of their lives, they could see a figure thrown from the back of the bus. It tumbled down the slope, and as it stumbled to a halt, the low brass screamed its name in relief. "Shiro!" 

Coran was moving before his brain even had the chance to process the decision. He raced to the boy's side, terrified to see the way his arm fell limp at his side. The more pressing emotion was still full-fledged terror. Where was Alfor? Coran's question was answered as the boy screamed the director's name, full of fright and despair. Coran whipped his gaze back to the bus -

And it collapsed. 

Shiro's screams of anguish echoed through the night, and Coran wrapped his arms around him, trying to comfort both the boy and himself. This wasn't happening. This wasn't happening. 

Why hadn't he gone with Alfor? You had to make sure the rest of the band stayed safe, the logical part of him argued, but his heart couldn't agree. If only he had been there...

The emergency services had arrived. They examined Shiro, looking immensely worried.

"Not only has the boy inhaled a dangerous amount of smoke, his arm is mutilated to extreme levels. The muscles, bones, and nerves are so damaged that it likely won't ever function again." The doctor sighed, looking Shiro straight in the eyes. "We'll have to amputate it."

Despite all of the pain he was in, Shiro laid noiselessly in the ambulance cot, a despair in his eyes. He covered his face with his functioning arm, and had he not been so close, Coran would not have heard the teen's muttered words. 

"It's what I deserve. A reminder of what happened when I couldn't move fast enough."

Coran's heart dropped. Shiro blamed himself. He wasn't to blame. Coran opened his mouth to say so, but no words came. He was trembling.

The emergency services officer shone a flashlight into his eyes, frowning. "Sir, you're in shock. Please get into the ambulance. You can accompany us to the hospital and act as this boy's guardian until his parents arrive."

"B-but," Coran muttered, "What about the other kids...?" 

"The bus driver and police officers will stay with them. I promise, they're in good hands." The doctor had then ushered them into the ambulance, and they had driven away to safety. 

Back in the present, Coran looked at Shiro with fondness. This boy had been through so much, and he still did the best he could to lead the band with a smile. How could one high school boy be so strong? On that note, though...

"I don't think collapsing was entirely the memory's fault," Coran stated, smiling in sympathy. "Hunk said you forgot to cover your arm on the run and it was overheating you. Why don't you sit here in the shade for a while, okay?"

Shiro wanted to protest, but a wave of dizziness overtook him. Maybe he should sit out. Guilt racked his body, and he hung his head. Shiro was going to miss a whole morning of progress because he forgot to wear a stupid long sleeve shirt. Or a really long glove. 

"It's okay, Shiro!" Shiro's head jerked up as someone called his name. Hunk. The tuba flashed him a smile, giving him a thumbs up. "It's not like you need to relearn all of these exercises anyway. You're already, like, the best marcher in the band." The band echoed in agreement.

Appreciation washed over him. They didn't think any less of Shiro because of his handicap. If anything, they thought more of him. He turned away before any of his friends could see the tears that threatened to spill from his eyes. 

Coran, however, was sharp enough to notice. He smiled, letting the warmth fill him. What a great bunch of kids. A family, that's what they were. A family that would hold strong through thick and thin, who would always have each other's backs, no matter what. 

Across the field, Lance smiled. Shiro was immensely cool. If Lance had gone through something so extreme, no way would be be able to come back the next season. He would have moped at home and let his best friend Hunk tell him stories about everything he'd missed. That would be the easy thing to do. But Shiro was doing his best to propel the band forward, even through tragedy. He was a hero. 

"Hey! Lance!" He jumped a bit as his section leader, a senior alto girl and the worst perfectionist he'd ever met, snapped at him. "We're starting 8's and 8's. Pay attention!"

"Sorry, Sarah," Lance tried, but her line had already stepped off. Great. He cleared his head as his line began marking time into the step-off. It was fine. He just had to focus on the exercise from here on out. No more distractions. 

"5, 6, 7, 8," the center of the line started, then the entire line stepped out on one, yelling "SNAP!" as they brought their horns up to playing position. 

8's and 8's was a simple enough exercise. March forward for 8 counts, close and mark time for 8 counts, and repeat until you reached the 50 yard line. Horns snap up on the step-off, horns snap down to set position on the close. Simple. 

Lance poured his heart into the exercise, determined to make up for not paying attention earlier. It was a mindset he was familiar with, unfortunately. Every year, Lance was pegged as the jokester, the one that never took anything seriously. Never tried hard enough. But they were wrong. Lance tired so hard to get better. He always had. But it felt like he would always be the band's weakest link. 

Lance started counting louder, snapping his saxaphone down as hard as he could on the first close. Not this year. This year was going to be different. He refused to drag the band down any more. 

 

xxxxxx

 

"Alright, team, bring it in!" At the end of the 2 hour block, Coran's voice called from on top of the podium. The entire band ran to him, and Lance leaned into Hunk, exhausted. Maybe he had gone a little too ham in his effort to be better? Lance shook the thought. No such thing as going too ham. There were kids every year who were praised for working themselves to the point of throwing up, then going right back on the field without a moment's rest. Maybe in that sense, Lance hadn't yet worked hard enough. 

Alright, enough depressing thoughts of overwork. Lance had done all he could for now. Time to focus on better things. 

Lance turned to the mob of flutes next to him, grinning when he spotted the one he was looking for. Allura. She was the flute section leader, a beautiful senior with dark skin and bright blue eyes and her hair - well, it used to be dark. She had dyed it in remembrance of Alfor - her father - and now waves of white cascaded down her back. 

"Hey gorgeous," Lance tried, "You wanna sit with me and my friends at lunch today? We could -"

"Lance," Allura sighed, exasperated, "really, I don't have time." She walked away to the other side of the podium, and a few of the younger flutes snickered. Lance tried to swallow back the hurt. Okay. Whatever.  That stung a bit, but it was nothing new. Lance sighed.

He'd been complimenting Allura for years, never really expecting to go out with her or anything. He just wanted her to open up to him. Maybe become friends.  So far, that hadn't happened. If Allura was determined to hate him forever, fine. He found his way back to Hunk before the meeting started and tried to put that moment behind him. 

"Good hustle this morning," Coran started his speech, smiling. "We'll take a five minute break so you can reapply sunscreen and grab your drill sets, and then we'll start the 2 hour drill block." At that, kids began to grin. After a long month of waiting, they were finally going to start learning the show. Rumors had been going around that the drill writers had gone all-out with the complex formations this year. Good. A challenge would be fun. 

"Oh, before I forget..." the band quited its murmurs and returned their attention back to Coran. He was still smiling, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Later today, most likely during final block, a... a new director is coming in."

Oh.

The band exchanged glances, the reason for Coran's fake smile now evident. He didn't want Mr. Alfor to be replaced. But... there wasn't much of a choice, was there? They had to have a director, and Coran didn't have the certifications necessary to fill the role. A new person was going to come in and take Alfor's place, as if he had never existed. 

Lance shook his head. No. No matter who came in, they weren't going to forget Mr. Alfor that easily. He had connected them all. Made them a family. And there was nothing, no-one, who could change that. Nothing could tear the band apart because there was nothing worse than what they had already been through.

That's what they thought, anyway. And oh, they couldn't have been more wrong.

Chapter Text

"Man, you just can't catch a break with Allura, can you?"

Lance and Hunk sat at a crowded cafeteria table, sack lunches in hand. As Lance let out a sigh of defeat, Hunk pat his shoulder in earnest. "There, there. There's tons of girls you could flirt on instead."

Lance huffed, crossing his arms and glaring at his best friend. "Hunk, Hunk. Buddy, you know there's no better girl for me out there. I've known Allura for years; she brings out the best in me. There's nothing about me she finds attractive, though."

"Sounds like quite the dilemma you've got there." Lance nearly jumped out of his shoes as a short girl materialized across from him. Pidge. She slammed her lunch down and hopped into the seat, grinning. "Who cares about romance, man? Just have fun getting all of your energy drained for three weeks like the rest of us."

"Dios, you scared me," Lance muttered, earning a snort from Hunk. He glanced over the 8th grade girl, then around the cafeteria at other kids in her year who all seemed to be in their own circles of friends. "Don't you have other friends you'd rather sit with?"

Pidge shrugged. She took a bite of an apple an proceeded to answer with her mouth full, "I dunno. I only ever talked to pit last year... and this year I'd rather... not."

Lance got what she meant. The pit percussion kids were their own breed. The marimbas were the only sane ones, it seemed like. "But still," he pressed, "you don't have any 8th grade friends you'd rather hang out with?"

"You kidding? I'm stuck with those morons every day all year round at school; my friend circle has to widen itself or I think I'll go insane." Pidge laughed at herself at that, then took another couple bites of her apple. Huge bites, Lance noticed. By the time she went to speak again a moment later, it was nearly gone. "Besides, I thought we established in the warm-up block that we were becoming friends. We put it in a chant, remember?" Pidge extended her hand with a mischievous grin. 

Lance stared at her for a second, then started to laugh. "Right. I guess you can't take back what you scream loud enough for the whole band to hear." He shook Pidge's extended hand, even though it seemed a bit silly. "Friends."

"Friends," Pidge agreed, grinning before tightening her grip. Lance felt like his hand was going to break. Fire raced through the limb, and it felt like it was compressing in on itself. Ouch ouch ouch ouch- "I read somewhere that strong handshakes make good first impressions," the frighteningly strong little girl explained after a second. 

"Not if you squish all the bones in my hand," Lance whined. Pidge laughed and let go, smirking as Lance shook out his hand. He glared at her jokingly. "Jeez, with a grip like that, you're better off in low brass with Hunk."

"Nuh uh. Too heavy," Pidge protested, earning a laugh from their tuba companion. "Hey, important question: grape or strawberry jelly on a peanut butter sandwich?"

"What?" That was quite the subject change. 

"Come on Lance, it's important. The way you answer this will determine if I can trust you or not."

"Uhh, alright. I guess grape, then?"

"What?" Suddenly Pidge's voice was full of disbelief. She had jolted forward so quickly that her glasses had shifted slightly down her face. "What is wrong with you? Strawberry is so much better! Grape is way too sweet and totally ruins the sandwich! What kind of a monster are you?"

Lance couldn't help but laugh as the tiny demon rambled on and on about the superiority of strawberry jelly. This is why marching band was so great. You met the randomest, weirdest people and became instant friends with them. Well, instant friends with most of them...

All too soon, lunch came to its close. Their half hour of rest was over. Now it was time for sectionals, where the different sections split off to work on music individually. Hunk and Pidge bore Lance farewell before heading off to the low brass and clarinets, respectively. Lance, meanwhile...

Lance grabbed his saxophone from where it had been lined in the back hallway with a sigh. He really hadn't been looking forward to sectionals. Private time with people who hated him, horray. He shook his head, trying to be rid of the thought. This year, Lance was going to do everything he could to get the rest of the saxophones to like him. He just had to try harder, is all. 

With that thought, Lance steeled his resolve and made his way back to the band room. At his arrival, Sarah looked up from the warm-up packet with a frown, and Lance's confidence faltered. Did he do something wrong? Already?

"You're the last one here," a cold voice answered for him. "Sarah said we had to wait on you." Lance spun around to find a black-haired tenor sax glaring accusedly at him. 

Lance's back bristled in annoyance. Keith. His second year, and he was already bossing people around as if he knew everything? Terrible case of sophomore syndrome if Lance ever saw one. Just because he was better than Lance at playing... and marching... and everything...

Lance hung his head in embarrassment. Maybe it was best just to shut up and get into gear before he could lower his reputation even more among the first years. He mumbled an apology and hurried into his spot in the arc. 

Keith stared at Lance with worry. Had he come across as harsh? He hadn't meant to. Keith sighed, fiddling with his neckstrap. Somehow, whenever he tried to talk to Lance, things went wrong. He didn't express an emotion correctly. He said something that apparently came off as condescending without meaning to. After enough interactions like that, Lance seemed to want nothing to do with Keith. At that thought, the tenor sighed. Lance had every right to that at this point, didn't he?

"All right, listen up!" Sarah's voice snapped the saxaphone section to attention. "Coran wants us to start memorizing music for the opening sets today! I'll be giving you your parts based on the blind auditions you did with Coran before the break started."

"First altos!" Sarah put a packet on her own stand, then gave some to the other senior, the second junior, and two sophomores. Lance felt his heart drop. No. Surely she had just forgotten to grab a packet. Surely -

"Second altos!" Lance cringed as a packet was plopped on his stand. The others were given to the middle schoolers, as there were no freshmen in the section. 

"Tough luck," one of the sophomores whispered to him, her voice sympathetic and sincere. Her eyes sparkled with warmth. Was she trying to comfort him? Lance flashed a fake smile even as his heart felt about to shatter. 

"Nah, it's alright. They gotta have some powerful players on the bottom part, right? I'm where I need to be. " Dios, Lance hoped his grin looked sincere enough. The sophomore girl didn't look convinced, but she ended up turning back to her stand to look over the music. 

Lance let out a shaky sigh of relief. He couldn't afford to seem weak or incapable this season. This season, he was going to be better, remember? He was going to make do with whatever he got, and faltering was not an op-- Holy frick, were those 32nd-note runs?

Lance turned his full attention to the sheet music in front of him, his mouth agape. This was the most technical marching band piece he'd ever seen. Sure, as a woodwind, Lance was used to 16th-note runs any time his instrument was featured. But this? This was way too much. Who decided giving this music to high schoolers would be a good idea?

"Ooh, this looks fun!" Sarah chirped from the front, a gleam in her eyes that Lance had grown to hate over the years. It was the look that said, We are going to do this over and over until we sound absolutely perfect. Her motivation was great for a section leader or any marcher to have, of course, but Sarah was always such a drill sergeant about things...

"Alright, then, let's get to work!"


By the time sectionals came to a close, Lance felt beaten, dragged, and drained to within an inch of his life. His fingertips and lungs ached, and his tongue felt heavy. Not many of the other saxophones seemed to be struggling nearly as much as he did, though. 

Ensemble music out by the woods passed by usually enough; a newbie trumpet missed almost every cut-off, a clarinet squeaked once or twice; the drum major looked ready to slap the rack kid that kept hitting the bass drum a count early. You know, typical beginning-of-season band chaos. Lance thought he might have even played half decently. In between exercises, he snuck a glance at Sarah, and she wasn't glaring at him. Lance couldn't help the smile that pulled at the corners of his lips. That was better than nothing!

"Alright, kids, good work so far today," came the peppy voice of Coran after an hour and a half of ensemble music. Lance glanced at the clock on the wall; it read 3:15. Yes! Best part of the day it was time for... "Popsicle break starts now! Be ready on the field at 3:30 for final block!"

There were cheers from throughout the band as a staff member brought in a cooler full of popsicles. It was swarmed immediately, and soon every band member had a delicious, cold popsicle in hand. Lance found that Hunk and Pidge had situated themselves under the low brass tree, and he moved to join them. 

"So, how's your first day as a clarinet going?" Lance asked Pidge, ruffling her short hair. He already felt a strange brotherly connection to the little gremlin.

"Great!" Pidge exclaimed, her eyes alight. "Turns out, the clarinets are just as lazy as the front ensemble. Our section leader took a nap instead of teaching us things."

"What?" Hunk looked offended. "Tell her not to check out. Do lots of push-ups instead, like low brass do."

Lance tilted his head in confusion. "Isn't sectionals supposed to be about music, though?"

Pidge was laughing, and Hunk seemed about to shoot back a retort, but a dark exclamation from the sideline sent all conversation to a halt. 

"What sort of wimpy bullshit is this?"

There was a stunned silence. The entire band turned to find a tall, muscular man looming over Coran. He looked to be in his mid-forties, had a permanent scowl etched into his forehead, and he was dressed in dark purple from head to toe. 

"S-sir, the kids have been working hard all day, it's only a fifteen minute break -"

"Shut the hell up, Coran!" The man snapped. "If they can't handle nine hours of work, what'll they be like when they go on to DCI, huh?" Coran didn't answer, and for a few seconds, there was a sickening silence. "Well? Aren't you going to introduce me?"

Coran looked up at the band, and everyone was horrified to find him looking absolutely defeated. "Kids, this is... This is Zachary Archon. He's your new band director."

No one bothered to answer him. The new director glared menacingly at the crowd before him with a sneer. 

"Throw those popsicles away and set up page 1. Last section to set is running a lap."

And from that instant onward, the band found themselves in a living nightmare.