After the scare they'd had over the surprise visitor to the café, Rikuo knew that it wasn't entirely safe to make a regular habit of going there in his free time. Every morning, he'd tell himself that it would be better to wait until tomorrow or the next day before going, take a different route there or back, maybe stop by a convenience store or a vending machine at some point to pick up a can of iced coffee, just so he wouldn't start thinking about having a hot cup of Nagi's special blend. And quite often, he followed through with his intentions. But there were some days when he found himself walking down the narrow steps to the café before he even realised where his feet were taking him -- and at that point, there was no point in turning around and going home again.
Yet when he opened the door on one particular cool, windy afternoon, he almost did turn around right then and there. Because the piano lid was open, and Sammy and Chie were sitting side by side on the bench in front of it, and when they both turned and looked straight at him his mouth went dry and his stomach twisted into a tight knot.
'Rikuo-kun! Rikuo-kun!' Chie waved at him with both hands, as excited to see him as she was to see any of the familiar faces at the café. 'We're playing the piano!'
'I-Is that so?' he stammered, quickly looking away from both of them to see who else was watching. Shimei was nowhere in sight -- Rikuo didn't keep track of the days when the foster-parent android had its regular maintenance checks, but it stood to reason that Chie wouldn't be on her own in the café otherwise -- and the only other person around was Nagi, behind the bar as usual. She gave him her customary smile of greeting, but the look in her eyes was more than a little uncertain.
Sammy looked even more uncertain, almost frightened, and started to slide away from Chie and off the piano bench. 'I wasn't -- '
'Listen to us play!' Chie interrupted, and whirled back around to face the piano. She lifted her hands high, with an exaggerated flourish that would have put even the most grandiose concert pianist to shame, and slammed her fingers down onto the keys. The jarring, discordant mass of notes that followed made Rikuo drop his schoolbag and hurry forward, half out of concern for the piano itself and half out of fear that Chie would fall off the bench if she continued to pound away at it.
'Please don't play so hard, Chie-chan!' Sammy said worriedly, trying to be heard over the noise. 'You might hurt the piano.'
'Sammy's right, Chie-chan,' Rikuo said, as he came up to them. He also had to raise his voice to make himself heard. 'It isn't good for the piano to play it like that.'
Chie let her hands crash the keys in a final wince-inducing chord, and looked up at Rikuo. 'How come?'
'Because....' Rikuo had to pause to figure out how best to explain it in a way that a little girl might understand. For a moment, he almost wished that Chie was still pretending to be a cat; it would have been a lot easier to keep playing along with her fantasy than to have this uncomfortable conversation. 'Because pianos have a lot of little parts inside them that might get broken if you don't play them carefully. And if the piano breaks, Nagi-san will have to have someone come and look at it, and they might have to take it away for a little while to fix it, and no one will be able to play it again until it's all better.'
Chie's eyes went wide, and to Rikuo's horror they started to fill with tears. 'Chie doesn't want the piano to go away!' she cried, her voice rising to a wail on the last word.
'Wait, I didn't mean -- ' Rikuo began desperately, but Chie didn't wait for him to finish before burying her face in Sammy's arm. Sammy immediately turned and held Chie close, and looked up at Rikuo with an expression that seemed to be apologetic -- and yet, to Rikuo's imagination, looked strangely reproachful.
At Chie's cry, Nagi had come out from behind the bar, and Rikuo backed up half a step as she strode over to the piano. She went down on one knee beside the bench and put a hand on Chie's shuddering back, trying to soothe the girl with a comforting touch.
'It's all right, Chie-chan,' she said gently. 'If anything did happen to it, I would get someone to come here and fix it. They wouldn't have to take the piano away to make it better.'
Chie moved her head just enough to peek out from around Sammy's side. 'Chie-chan didn't mean to hurt the piano,' she said in a tiny voice.
Nagi smiled. 'No, I know you didn't,' she replied. 'That old piano's had a lot more bumps and bruises in its time, and I don't think you hurt it at all. But Rikuo-kun's right that there are lots of little parts in the piano, and if you don't play it properly then the piano won't sound as nice. So be nice to the piano, okay?'
Chie sniffled, and nodded. 'Okay.'
Nagi sat back on her heels. 'Maybe Rikuo-kun could show you how to be nice to the piano,' she said, and gave Rikuo a smile that was just as cheerful as the one she had given to Chie. Perhaps even more cheerful. 'He knows a lot about playing, right?'
Rikuo swallowed. His mouth had gone dry again.
Nagi got to her feet, and brushed off her apron. 'I'll have one Evlend for you, coming right up,' she said to Rikuo, still with the same cheerful smile, and headed back toward the bar.
'Uh...thanks,' Rikuo managed to say. Chie had mostly stopped sniffling, but she was still clinging to Sammy and looking up at him with mournful eyes, and Sammy's expression had returned to the nervous sort of reluctance that Rikuo always associated with their meetings in the café.
Conscious of Nagi's watchful gaze, even from behind the bar, Rikuo grabbed the nearest chair and pulled it over to the side of the bench. As he started to sit down in the chair, Chie wiggled out of Sammy's grasp and caught hold of his sleeve.
'Not there!' she said, almost pleading. 'Sit here, sit here!' She patted the empty space next to her on the padded bench.
'I will take the chair, Ma -- er, Rikuo-san,' Sammy said, catching the forbidden word just in time, and tried to slide off the bench on the other side. Chie, however, was too quick, and all but threw herself onto Sammy to prevent the android from getting up.
'You stay here, too, Sammy-chan!' she said, firm and insistent.
With Nagi's eyes on them, they had no hope of refusing. There was just enough space on the piano bench for Rikuo to perch on the edge, and so Sammy slid over a little to allow him to settle into place, making sure to leave enough room so that Chie wouldn't be completely squashed between them.
For a fleeting moment, staring down at the row of black and white keys, Rikuo felt strangely lost. Yet Chie's small body was a warm presence at his side, and her warmth brought the ghost of a memory to the surface of his mind -- piano duet, four hands, long slender fingers -- and with it came another warm, familiar feeling that made the knot in his stomach start to dissolve.
Maybe Rikuo-kun could show you how to be nice to the piano.
Maybe he could.
He turned just enough so that he could look down at Chie. 'I started playing when I was about your age,' he said. 'I had a piano teacher -- she was a very pretty lady, but she had the longest fingers I've ever seen. Scaaaaary long fingers.' He waggled his own fingers at Chie in mock-menace, and she let out a giggly shriek and briefly hid her face in Sammy's arm again. 'But her long fingers made her very good at playing the piano.'
With the instinct borne of many years of training and countless hours at the piano bench, he sat up a little straighter. 'One of the first things she taught me was how to play a scale,' he continued. 'Just five notes to start, with the right hand, like this.' It was a little awkward to angle his right arm and hand into position to rest his thumb on middle C, but once his hand was in place he played a simple five-note scale, making sure to hit each note cleanly so that Chie could watch his fingers move.
As each finger played its key, Chie followed along with rapt attention, her head bobbing faintly in time with the notes. Almost before he reached the last note, she was patting his wrist eagerly, as if trying to push his hand out of the way.
'Chie-chan wants to play a scale, too!' she said, looking up at him.
'All right, all right, just a moment.' Rikuo gently guided her hand into place above the keyboard. 'Here,' he said, 'this is middle C. Wait, wait, not yet' -- he had to catch her hand before she slammed her fingers down onto the keys -- 'now, you start with your thumb, right here, and play each note like I did, one finger at a time, nice and slow and easy.' When he was sure that she would follow his instructions, he let go, still keeping his hand close to hers, and chanted along slowly as Chie hit each note. 'Up, up....'
'...up, up, up!' Chie joined in with the chanting as she pressed down on the keys. When her little finger reached the top note, she beamed at Rikuo. 'I did it, Rikuo-kun! I played a scale, just like you!'
Rikuo smiled, though the back of his throat felt oddly raw and itchy. How long had it been since he had felt even half that excited about anything to do with playing music? 'That's very good, Chie-chan,' he said. 'Can you play those same notes back down now? Just like you went up.'
Chie nodded and looked back down at the keyboard. Her face screwed up in concentration, the very tip of her tongue poking out of one corner of her mouth, as she played the same five notes with deliberate care. Rikuo nodded along as she moved down the keys, and on the last note he clapped twice in approval. 'Very good,' he said again. 'That's how you play a scale.'
'I played a scale!' Chie whirled around, grabbing Sammy's sleeve and tugging on it excitedly. 'I played a scale, Sammy-chan, I played a scale!' Before Sammy could form a full smile or say a word of praise, Chie swung back and latched onto Rikuo's arm. 'Show Sammy-chan how to do it now!' she demanded. 'Show Sammy-chan how to play a scale!'
Rikuo hesitated, his fingers hovering just above the keys, but Chie looked so intent that the thought of disappointing her was enough to overcome any reluctance that might have held him back. 'Sammy's fingers are a little longer than yours, so let's try something a bit different, okay?'
Sammy blinked, startled, but one hand automatically moved to hover just to the right of the group of five keys that Chie had played. Waiting, Rikuo thought, in a sudden burst of discomfort, for a command. 'What...what should I do?'
'Like this.' He set his thumb on middle C again, and began to play up the eight notes of the full C major scale. 'Slide the thumb under right here...and then keep going up with all five fingers.' He paused at the top C. 'And when you go back down, you cross your middle finger over -- ' He slowed down at the crossover point, turning his wrist ever-so-slightly so that Sammy could watch how his fingers moved. ' -- and finish on the middle C again.'
He held his breath as Sammy's thumb touched the first white key, and didn't let go of it as the android copied his movements with careful precision, playing up and down the scale.
Chie watched Sammy's hand move, mouthing up...up...up and down...down...down as each note rang out, and on the final note she clapped her hands so enthusiastically that both Rikuo and Sammy reached out to keep her from toppling backwards off the bench. 'Sammy-chan played a scale! Sammy-chan played a scale!' she cheered.
Rikuo finally remembered to let out the breath he had been holding. 'That's right,' he said, more than a little relieved.
Sammy's smile appeared to be equal parts embarrassed and pleased at their praise. 'You played these all the time. Every day.'
This news was so interesting that Chie abruptly stopped clapping, and gave Rikuo a puzzled frown. 'Every day? Why do you play them every day?'
'I have to warm up my hands before I play.' Rikuo held up his hands, flexing his fingers several times. 'Stretch the muscles, make sure my fingers are strong. I even used to practice playing scales with a 10-yen coin on my wrists, to train myself to keep them steady while I played.'
'Will Chie-chan have strong fingers, too, from playing scales?' Chie asked, her eyes lighting up with hopeful interest.
'It'll help,' Rikuo replied truthfully. 'It's not the only thing you should do, but it's important when you're learning how to play.'
Chie considered this for a moment, then nodded decisively. 'Chie-chan will do it every day,' she said. 'And Chie-chan will make sure Sammy-chan does it every day, too, when she comes here.'
Rikuo shook his head a little. 'I don't know that you need to do that. It should be Sammy's choice to play -- ' And then he stopped, amazed at the words that were coming out of his mouth.
Sammy's choice. Sammy's choice to play.
Sammy, perhaps sensing his shock at his own choice of words, spoke up quietly to fill the silence. 'I would like to try it, when I'm here.' A careful, tentative smile. 'Because it's what you do, Rikuo-san. It's part of how you play.'
Rikuo opened his mouth, then shut it again. He was within his right to order Sammy not to play again, and Sammy would obey him if he gave that order. But the thought of doing so seemed to him to be more cruel and selfish -- in human terms -- than even Masaki's father had been. It wasn't a road that he wanted to go down.
Not here, certainly. And not now.
'I...guess it's all right, while you're here,' he said at last, with a weak smile.
'Of course it is.' Nagi's voice carried across the room, and Rikuo turned to hear the click of china as she placed a steaming cup on a tray. 'We're all here to enjoy ourselves, aren't we?' She gave the three of them -- him, Sammy, and Chie -- the same bright smile as before. 'Now, how about that Evlend, Rikuo-kun? This one's on the house.'