Shiro Shinobi Arena. The dream stage of the United Republic's professional benders... and also of its rock musicians. There are both better and bigger concert venues in Republic City. The Republic Opera House has vastly superior acoustics; Memorial Colosseum seats more than twice as many people. But for many a Republic-born rocker, there is no greater dream than to stand on that canvas-covered steel deck, under that ornately filigreed glass dome, and lay it down in the round.
Azalynn dv'Ir Natashkan sat crammed into one of the midfield loge boxes with a good many of her friends and watched, her heart bursting with pride, as five girls from Sakuragaoka lived that dream. Only a quarter of the way into their planned setlist on this sultry summer night, all five were drenched. Empty water bottles littered the stage, accumulating at the base of the drum riser. All the girls had long since cast off their blazers and untied their ties. Ritsu had discarded her shirt entirely and was out there in a grey sports bra turned black with sweat, her slim shoulders glinting under the lights as she hammered away; pausing occasionally to rake her sodden bangs out of her eyes, as she'd lost her headband somewhere along the way too.
It didn't seem to be getting any of them down, though. They just drank more water whenever they had a moment to get it on board and rocked on. The energy in the room - the reason why the Arena was so coveted a gig - wouldn't allow for anything else. They slammed to the end of "No, Thank You!" and paused for breath and further hydration; after knocking back a pint of water in one long, blissful pull, Yui turned her guitar around so it was slung on her back, dropped the empty bottle with the other dead soldiers, and sprang back to her mic at the front of the stage, which was at that moment more or less facing the box where Azalynn sat.
"Good evening, Republic City!" she cried, dismounting the mic with her left hand and raising her right fist (plectrum still gripped between her fingers) in salute. It was the first time she'd spoken since starting the show, at which time she'd said the name of the band and little else. "How's everybody doing tonight?"
She had to wait for a few moments and let the most thunderous of the cheers die down before her voice could compete with the crowd's, even amplified as it was. When they did, she went on with a broad, shining grin, "I'm Yui Hirasawa and we're Hōkago Tea Time! Before we go on, let me take a few seconds and introduce you to my best friends in the whole world!"
Steaming under the stage lights or not, Yui still got an arm around the tiny cat-eared girl to her left and gave her a half-hug, eliciting a rolled-eyes look of mixed exasperation, affection, and amusement as she declared, "On my left, playing rhythm guitar as though she was being paid for it, the relentless but adorable Azusa Nakano!"
After giving her fellow guitarist another squeeze, Yui turned her loose and bounded to the other side of the stage, announcing, "On my right - like a rock - the First Lady of Hōkago Tea Time, Mio Akiyama!" With a well-practiced move that raised a laugh from the crowd, long tall Mio extended her left hand and blocked Yui's forehead with her palm, forestalling her attempted hug, while playing a quick hammer-on riff with her right. Yui grinned and turned around, having evidently expected the block.
"Up in the back, on the Lowrey Holiday Deluxe organ - the nicest girl in music, Miss Tsumugi Kotobuki!" she cried, and the smiling blonde blasted off a few seconds of a Bach toccata. "Showoff!" Yui added gaily, then indicated the last of her bandmates and declared, "And to her left - still the best Keith Moon-type drummer in the world - Thunder Dragon herself, President-for-Life Ritsu Tainaka!"
She let them cheer while she bounced back to her spot front and center; then, panting slightly with her exertions, she plugged her mic back onto its stand, held up a hand for quiet, and said, "Thank you! Please. Time is short. And right now... " She paused, catching her breath, and brought Gīta around to her front again. "Right now... right now it's time to..." She gathered herself as the house fell almost silent, her eyes closed as if in concentration. Then, grinning fiercely, she opened them and roared,
"Kick out the jams, muthafu - "
Azalynn woke up, sat up, and briefly wondered what the hell she'd done.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
© 2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Chapter Zero: Prologue
"Living the Dream"
The last part didn't follow immediately; before it there were a few seconds of near-complete disorientation, as she momentarily failed to recognize the room at all. The bed was in a corner, its side along one of the rectangular room's shorter walls, so from where she sat, Azalynn could see pretty much the whole room. It was daylight outside, but the blinds on the windows were drawn, so the room was fairly dim. Still, there was enough light for her to tell that it was not very big, but reasonably tidy. It had a bookcase and desk along the far wall and a low table in the middle of the room. The door looked to be around a small corner at the far end.
The bed in which Azalynn found herself was a double, and she was on the side nearer to the wall, the lower half of her still under a deliciously soft yellow duvet with cheerful orange stripes. At the foot of the bed stood a guitar on a stand, which wasn't an unusual sight for Azalynn in the morning, except it wasn't her guitar; it was a right-handed Cherry Burst Les Paul, about as different from her own silver lefty JS2000 as it was possible for an electric guitar to be without being one of those super-crazy heavy metal jobs.
Where have I seen you before? she thought to the guitar, and then - at the same instant that she realized she wasn't alone in the bed - she remembered.
And that was when she wondered, Dvhil nazhai, what have I done?
A moment later, the person next to her stirred, mumbled, and then emerged partially from beneath the duvet and blinked up at her. Yui Hirasawa, her face still slightly puffy with sleep, looked momentarily confused, but not alarmed or startled; then she seemed to put the pieces together, sat up, and - without further investigation - gave her a happy smile and a great big hug.
"Good morning, Rin-chan!" Yui declared cheerfully. "Did you sleep well?"
"Um... I think so?" Azalynn replied, still trying to get her brain to spin up. Out of reflex more than anything else, she yawned and stretched, feeling several vertebrae in her back and tail crick in a most satisfactory manner.
While she did so, she ran a quick personal diagnostic and found that she was still wearing most of her school uniform, less only the blazer and tie and her socks. Yui seemed to be wearing an oversized T-shirt, which Azalynn supposed served her for pajamas. She wasn't acting like anything unusual had happened, either. So that was a relief.
"How did I get here?" Azalynn wondered, rubbing her face with both hands. Looking through her fingers at Yui, she added wryly, "Am I a werewolf?"
Yui blinked at her, looking surprised, and after a moment's thought replied, "Well, you have a tail, but it's the wrong kind."
"What? Aah!" Azalynn blurted, turning her head to look over her shoulder. Sure enough, that appendage had made its way out of hiding during the stretch. A moment's inattention... it crashed belatedly into her forebrain that she was supposed to be undercover, which was why Yui thought her name was Rin. But -
Yui didn't look dismayed to discover that "Rin-chan" had a tail; in fact, she seemed rather pleased now that she was over being surprised.
"Are you spirit-kin, like Azu-nyan?" she wondered, tilting her head inquisitively.
"Uh, not... well... something like that," Azalynn replied lamely.
She had only the tourist-brochure understanding of the local spirit continuum and how it interacted with the physical world; it was a topic she'd been promising herself she would explore soon, but that had taken second place to her investigation of the band, and she hadn't gotten around to it yet. She kicked herself mentally for leaving it out of her pre-mission prep. It would have saved her a lot of hassle if she had known that spirit hybrids were common enough in modern Dìqiú that regular people didn't give them much thought.
"As for how you got here," Yui went on unsinkably, "you really conked out last night!" She shrugged, smiling, and climbed out of bed. "I didn't have the heart to wake you up and send you home, and since we don't have school today anyway, I just let you sleep."
While Azalynn was mulling that over, Yui picked up her gearPhone from her nightstand and thumbed it open, clicking through the messages that had come in while she slept. "Oh!" she said. "Ricchan wants to know if we can meet her for lunch." She looked at her bedside clock. "I guess there's not a lot of point in having breakfast at 11:30."
"Uh... " Azalynn got carefully out of bed, picked up her glasses from the nightstand and put them on, then found her blazer hanging on Yui's desk chair, with her socks and tie stuffed in the side pocket. "Thanks, um... Yui-senpai..." (Might as well at least try to preserve what's left of my cover, she thought.) "... But I really shouldn't take up any more of your time, and..."
Yui looked confused, and possibly a little hurt. "Huh? But Ricchan specifically invited you. And anyway, we're friends now!" She looked slightly hesitant. "... Aren't we?"
Oh, good work, Azalynn, the Dantrovian grumbled to herself. Kick some puppies next?
On the outside, she smiled and said, "Well, OK, if you're really sure..."
"Yay!" said Yui, her momentary worry forgotten. She somehow managed to combine bounding over to give her another hug with replying to Ritsu's text, then said, "Come on, let's get ready. We've got a spare toothbrush you can have, and you can borrow some of my clothes if you want instead of spending the day in that wrinkly uniform." She was about to go on when her phone pinged with another incoming message; she checked it and frowned in puzzlement. "'Bring Gīta'? Hmm." Then she shrugged and said cheerfully, "OK!"
On the way to the tearoom where Ritsu had decreed their lunch date, Azalynn pieced together the rest of the previous evening from the various memory fragments that bobbed to the surface. She hadn't been drinking or anything - she'd never particularly had a taste for intoxicants, except in the contexts of certain religious observances - but she'd gone most of the previous two weeks without much sleep, so intent had she become on her mission, and it had caught up with her in a very big way at the worst possible time.
She'd been hanging out with Yui's younger sister Ui, who was her classmate at school, when Yui and her friends from the Light Music Club turned up. Ui, as was her habit, had served an enormous dinner for everybody, after which there had been games, and then... well, Azalynn wasn't entirely sure what "and then". Her own fault for ignoring the warning signs. She remembered sitting down on Yui's bed - they were playing a board game on her table, because her room was bigger than Ui's - and then... nothing.
Between paying off two weeks of catnaps and the inevitable food coma that one of Ui's epic feeds tended to entail, she must've crashed on a mythological scale. Whenever the evening finally came to an end for everyone else, rather than try to send her home, or at least to the couch, Yui had evidently found it more expedient to just shove her under the duvet and climb in after her. As they entered the tearoom, Azalynn wondered whether she'd let any other parts of her cover slip during the really blurry part between dinner and blackout.
The sly, mildly suspicious look on Ritsu Tainaka's face when they arrived at the round corner booth she'd staked out made Azalynn suspect she might've... as did the fact that the entire rest of the Asami Sato Girls' Academy Light Music Club was with her. As she and Yui approached the table, Azalynn sized up their expressions. Mio had that long-suffering look she got when she was humoring Ritsu about something. Azusa looked, if anything, more suspicious than Ritsu, but not at all sly; she was clearly taking the matter, whatever the matter was, very seriously. And Mugi looked intensely interested, as if whatever was about to happen were a fascinating matter of very great importance.
Nobody said anything of great moment when they arrived, though; they just budged over to make room. The booth was a little snug with six of them crammed into it (particularly since three of them had guitars, and one a giant 76-key synthesizer, all in gig bags), but no one seemed to mind (except possibly Azusa, who inevitably ended up more or less perched in Yui's lap like an oversized ventriloquist's dummy). The others all greeted Azalynn as a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance, and the conversation over lunch was light and cheerful. Yui (not particularly to Azalynn's surprise) didn't seem to pick up on the slight undercurrent of tension among her bandmates at all, chattering happily about this and that throughout the meal.
The tempo changed slightly as they left the tearoom. Evidently still under the impression that they were all headed for a standard Saturday's hanging out, Yui started to suggest that they go and see what was playing at the mover theater down by the music store when Ritsu interrupted her:
"That might be an idea for later, Yui, but right now we've got important club business to attend to."
Yui blinked. "On Saturday?"
Ritsu nodded decisively. "I'm calling a special meeting based on important information I've just received," she said. Fixing Yui with a portentous look, she added gravely, "It may affect the very future of the Light Music Club itself."
Yui gave her a wide-eyed look. "Ohhh," she said, nodding.
Mio rolled her eyes. "Can we just get on with it, please?" she said.
With another nod, Ritsu turned in the direction of the school. "Let's continue this in the clubroom," she said. "You too, Miura," she added as Azalynn tried to slip away. "This involves you."
"Um..." Azalynn glanced around and saw that she'd probably have to go through one of them to escape. (Mugi was looking positively gleeful about the prospect, in fact.) She sighed and said resignedly, "... OK, Tainaka-senpai."
The after-hours guard at Sato Academy didn't have a problem admitting the Light Music Club to the school and giving them the spare key to their clubroom; they were all quite well-known to him by this point, and if they wanted to visit the room on a Saturday and take an underclassman up as their guest, they were entirely within their rights to do so. The six walked in a pregnant silence through the eerily quiet, empty corridors and up the stairs to the third floor.
Azalynn had been to the Light Music Club's clubroom (officially the "Music Preparation Room") once before, but only for a few moments. She'd been too concerned about the possible consequences of prolonged contact with the subjects of her observation to stay very long. Now, well, she doubted there was any point in continuing to worry about that, so she stood quietly while the others set up and took it all in.
It was a nice place to be, reminding her pleasantly of the practice room the Art of Noise had used in old Alden Hall at WPI on Earth. At the far end, there were four school desks pushed together to make a conference table. Between it and the end by the door, a padded bench divided the space, facing toward the area where the band was now rigging out around Ritsu's yellow drum kit, which was semi-permanently set up in the corner.
While she got her guitar out of its bag and configured her amp, Yui kept shooting curious glances at "Rin-chan", as though expecting her to provide some enlightenment as to what Ritsu was on about; but Azalynn stayed quiet, replying to each look with a search-me shrug. She was fairly sure by this point that she did know what Ritsu was on about, but there was still a chance that she'd be able to weasel out of it if she tried hard enough. There was no point in giving up before the end of the game.
Once they were all squared away, Ritsu slouched into the end of the bench and called for everyone's attention. The others gathered around, looking either expectant or just confused, depending on whether they were Yui.
"So. I called this meeting because I have reason to believe that we have a closet musician lurking in our midst," said Ritsu, lounging insouciantly with her right arm draped over the back of the bench. "Specifically... " With a sudden burst of energy, she raised her left hand and pointed it at Azalynn, looking her straight in the eye, and declared, "You, Miss Rin Miura, if that really is your name."
Azalynn blinked, but before she could say anything, Mio had clouted Ritsu on top of the head and growled, "Don't oversell it."
"Owww," Ritsu complained, rubbing her head with the hand that had been doing the accusing point. "Do you mind, Mio? I'm gettin' my president on here. Anyway. I'm pretty sure you've been holding out on us, Miura," she said with a cocky little grin. "You gave yourself away talking with Ui-chan last night. You know way too much stuff about guitars. Heck, you know more about them than Yui."
"Uh, Ritsu-senpai, that part's not exactly an achievement," Azusa put in. "You know more about guitars than Yui-senpai, and you can't even play guitar."
"Hey!" Yui protested.
"Well, OK, point taken," conceded Ritsu.
Yui folded her arms and looked away, pouting. "You guys are mean."
"Anyway!" Ritsu repeated. "My point is, as the president of the Sato Academy Light Music Club, I have the right to lay claim to any skilled musician in the student body who isn't a member of one of the other music clubs."
"No you don't!" objected Mio.
"Dang it, Mio, you're screwin' up my groove here," Ritsu stage-muttered urgently. "She didn't know that..."
Mio folded her arms and scowled. "Just make your point already."
Ritsu sighed and gave Azalynn a shrug, as if to ask, You see what I gotta work with here? Even under the circumstances, Azalynn found herself not quite successfully suppressing a giggle.
"Anyway," she said for the third time, "you may consider this a formal request from an upperclassman and the president of one of Sato Academy's most prestigious after-school clubs." Mio made a faint growling noise, but did not interject further, and after a moment's pause to see if she was going to get hit again, Ritsu grinned at Azalynn and said, "Show us what you got, new kid."
Azalynn blinked. "Uh... I can't!" she said after a moment's not-entirely-faked panic. "There's no guitar here I can use - I'm left-handed."
"Oh," said Ritsu, looking disappointed. Then, brightening, she said, "Hang on, what have I got here?" She lifted her right arm from behind the bench, revealing that she was holding a gig bag by the shoulder strap. Hoisting it over the bench's back into her lap, she unzipped it and took out a white guitar, then drew back in elaborately faked surprise.
"Why it's an electric guitar!" she declared. "I'm no expert, but I believe it may be a Fender Stratocaster. And," she added with a wicked grin as she turned it over in her hands and got to her feet, "it just so happens to be left-handed!" With a grinning wink, she turned it over in her hands and offered it grandly to Azalynn, remarking, "What were the odds?"
Azalynn gazed at her and the guitar for a long moment, then sighed in defeat, her shoulders sagging, and accepted it. "... Crud."
"Where did you get that?!" Mio demanded, sotto voce.
"Borrowed it from the Jazz Club," Ritsu replied casually.
"When did you have time - oh, forget it," said Mio as Azalynn ducked into the white Strat's strap and adjusted it.
The guitar's weight was unfamiliar, but the shape fit her expectations well enough; her own guitar wasn't a Strat, but had pretty plainly evolved from the type. She looked around, slightly at a loss, and Azusa switched off her amp, unplugged her own guitar, and handed the patch cable to her. With an absent thank-you, Azalynn took it, looped it through her strap out of sheer habit (an automatic move that did not go unnoticed by those around her), and plugged it in, then nodded at her to turn the amp back on.
"Well... I play a little," she admitted.
She intended to sandbag. She really did. She was just going to play a slightly hesitant little rock riff, maybe some basic Bo Diddley chuntering - meandering around a little, hitting some wrong notes, screwing up the timekeeping a bit. The Strat's D string was winceworthily out of tune, but she pretended she either didn't notice or didn't know what to do about it, to reinforce further the impression of semicompetence: the idea that she was a guitarist, but not a terribly good one - certainly nobody they would want to poach for their club when they already had two of the best guitarists in their age group (indeed, one of the best guitarists, full stop) Azalynn had ever heard. Then the whole thing would blow over, they'd have a good laugh, and she could make a run for it.
That was the plan.
Except that when she was a bar or two into it, Ritsu scampered behind her drum kit and started following her along on the hi-hat, and then Mio picked it up, tossing in little accents at the right places more or less by instinct, and then they were jamming...
... and then Azalynn wasn't fumbling around with a Bo Diddley backbeat any more, she was playing the Trojan-horse intro to the Art of Noise's standard cover of the Crush of Love's "Summer Song" and she was getting more and more into it and compensating automatically for the wonky tuning of the D string and then the break came and her guitar and Mio's bass started having a dialogue and it was just click like when she and Moose did that it was like they were telepathically linked or something
and bang Ritsu was throwing down the "intro's over, now we are totally committed to rocking this thing my homeys" riff and Yui jumped in on the rhythm line because they had all listened to this cut on The Art of Noise Beyond Thunderdome about 20,000 times apiece by this point and they'd re-covered it themselves and they all knew it by heart and Mugi had invented her own keyboard line for it because the original didn't have one and the five of them were flying now and Azalynn didn't even know or care who she was or who she was supposed to be or anything nobody ever believed her when she said this (she supposed particularly because it was coming from her) but this kind of thing really truly was better than sex and that was no reflection on sex in any way
and Azusa was standing there with her face utterly blank with shock, her expression so completely null that it was almost like she didn't have a face at all, but her hands on autopilot, following along with what Yui was doing even though her Mustang wasn't plugged into an amp
and Azalynn and Yui were throwing the solo back and forth and dvhil nazhai or'zal that Les Paul sounded sexy Azalynn had never understood how some people could claim that only one or the other was the Right Thing honestly why limit your world like that preferring to play one or the other was one thing but the sound
and then they were breaking it down and Ritsu was driving them home in a storm of hanging toms and shimmery splash cymbal and Yui was bending that last long note down just the way Joe Graf did it and the song...
... was over.
Azalynn and the band stood for a few moments in the sudden, startling silence, panting for breath, their faces stippled with sweat despite the coolness of the room, and no one spoke. Then Azalynn raised her head to see what the others were doing... and found that they were all staring at her in astonishment.
"That. Was. Amazing," said Mio, sounding like someone had just belted her across the face with a fish, and she was surprised to discover that she had enjoyed it.
Ritsu got up from her stool, walked slowly around her drum kit, and then reached out and hesitantly prodded Azalynn's shoulder with her drumsticks, pushing her several degrees off vertical and then letting her swing back.
"Is this real?" she asked in a hollow voice.
"Who are you?" Azusa whispered. Then she looked more closely and her face went pale. "No. Wait."
Azalynn sighed, then took off her glasses, put them in the top pocket of the bib overalls she'd borrowed from Yui, reached up, and let her wiry silver hair out of the pigtails she'd wrestled it into, using her fingers to rake it back into its normal jagged, backswept mop configuration.
"Uh... hi," she said. "I guess I should reintroduce myself. My name isn't really Rin Miura and I'm not from Sanirajak. I'm, um... Azalynn. I play in a band called the Art of Noise."
The five members of Hōkago Tea Time stood and just stared at her for several seconds.
Then Mugi beamed and said, "I'll make some tea."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
Chapter Zero: Prologue
"Living the Dream"
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
E P U (colour) 2014