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Countermelody! (たいせんりつ!)

Chapter Text

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, 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.

“A cat!”

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.