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.