Azusa Nakano was a bad person.
She had to assume this, because in the midst of this most dark and difficult of times for the Light Music Club, it suddenly dawned on her that she had never felt more happy or fulfilled in her entire life.
The thought first occurred to her as she and her fellow members of Hōkago Tea Time began one of the first all-up play-throughs of their new song, late on Friday afternoon. True to Mio-senpai's proposal, the five of them had worked like coal miners to write and arrange their newest song, working long into the night on both Wednesday and Thursday. As was their usual pattern, Mugi-senpai wrote most of the music and Mio most of the lyrics, but the process of arrangement and development had been a lot more collaborative than was usual.
On the one hand, that meant the resulting song was even more of a distillation of the current state of Hōkago Tea Time than it would otherwise have been; but on the other, it meant that the work was (in a way) even harder, because the constant input from everyone in the band meant that the song evolved almost faster than band members could master their parts. This early play-through, for instance, fell apart midway through - and to Azusa's distinct mortification, it happened to be her fault, as she mistakenly threw the chorus where they'd just decided to put a bridge and blew Yui-senpai's concentration apart. When that happened, Mio stopped singing and held up a hand, calling the performance to a halt.
"Damn," said Azusa, so caught up in her annoyance with herself that she didn't noticed the raised eyebrows of her bandmates as they all glanced in surprised amusement at each other. "I'm sorry, you guys, that was my fault."
"Aw, don't be mad at yourself, Azu-nyan," Yui said, smiling. "We're still learning."
"Yep," Ritsu agreed. "It's rehearsal. That's... why we do it."
With a nod, Mugi agreed, "Exactly right." Then, with a glance at the wall clock, she went on, "Before we wrap up for the evening, why don't we take it one more time?"
Ritsu nodded. "I'm game," she said. "It'd be better to end on a better note, so to speak."
"I agree," said Mio. "I think we should take this one as an instrumental, though. I need to save my voice. I still feel fine," she qualified, "but I don't want to push it, and we still have a lot of practicing to do tomorrow."
"Yeah, you don't want to end up like Yui before the school festival last year," said Ritsu.
"That wasn't much fun," Yui agreed. "Well, the festival was. But my throat hurt for a week!"
"On the other hand, if you do blow your voice out, maybe Yui can complete the circle and show everyone her panties after we play the song," Ritsu added, causing Mio to hurl her plectrum at her. Ritsu parried it with one of her sticks, poking her tongue out cheerfully; Mio rolled her eyes and got another out of her pocket.
"Mine aren't as interesting as Mio-chan's," Yui said with a blithe smile. "They don't have stripes or anything."
"CAN WE PLEASE JUST PLAY THE SONG," said Mio.
"Of course we can," Ritsu replied with a courtly drumstick gesture. "You had but to ask, milady. Ready, Azusa? One, two, one two three and!"
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
and Matt Wagner
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Love Has No Brakes"
"Much better," said Mugi with a satisfied smile. Shutting down her Triton, she gathered up her things, then went on, "I think that's coming along very well indeed. When shall we meet back here tomorrow?"
"Uh... I dunno, ten o'clock?" Ritsu suggested. "We can take a couple hours to make final adjustments before lunch, then we've got the rest of the day to polish it up. Sound good?"
Mugi nodded. "That works for me. I'll see you all then."
"OK, have a good time, Mugi-chan!" said Yui. "Happy birthday!"
The others all concurred with her birthday greetings; Mugi thanked them all graciously, and then, still with the same serenely beaming smile she'd had on pretty much all day, she departed.
Ritsu stood at the window and watched her leave the school grounds, then turned and walked around the bench, where Mio had sat down to rummage in her school bag.
"I really wanna take that bait," she declared. Wobbling theatrically on her feet, she wailed, "But I need a naaaaap," then pitched forward in a perfectly executed pro-wrestling flop, sprawling across the bench to bury her face in Mio's shirt front.
"Hey!" Mio cried indignantly. Yui and Azusa glanced at each other in bemusement; Azusa was slightly embarrassed, but, not entirely to her surprise, Yui appeared simply puzzled.
Probably just wondering how Ritsu-senpai can breathe, thought Azusa irreverently.
"Mio, go spy on Mugi for me, I can't move," Ritsu mumbled.
"I can't move either, at the moment," Mio replied dryly, her momentary shock past. "Also, I think I told you to leave Mugi alone."
Ritsu sighed. "You're no fun."
"You'd have more credibility if you weren't saying that directly into my sternum," Mio pointed out.
"It's nice here," Ritsu replied. Then, drawing a deep breath, she pushed herself upright and, with a new burst of energy, declared, "Anyway, she's probably just going to a love hotel with Sawa-chan, big whoop. Who wants to go to the ribs place?" Making a covetous claw gesture with her hands, she added, "Riiiiibs."
"I thought you were too tired to move," Mio remarked, getting to her feet.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," Ritsu replied, and then climbed up into the piggyback position. "So this is what it's like to be tall!" she declared, locking arms and legs around her friend. "Not bad!" Then, with an imperious point toward the door, she declared, "Light Music Club - hasshin! To the ribs place!"
Mio shook her head resignedly, but couldn't keep a little smile off her face as she hefted Ritsu a little more securely onto her back, hooking her arms under the drummer's legs.
As the four (well, three) walked downtown, Mio's longer strides built up a little bit of a lead in spite of her burden. Yui ambled happily along behind, content to let the rhythm section have their own space so long as she could keep them in sight. Presently she turned to make some remark to Azusa - and found, to her slight surprise, that her kōhai was lagging a little behind her, with a face that could best be compared not to a thundercloud, but just the ordinary rainy kind.
"What's wrong, Azu-nyan?" she asked, concerned. "Are you feeling OK? Are you tired?" With a grin, she added, "Want me to carry you like Mio-chan's carrying Ritchan?"
"What? Oh, n-no, thanks, Yui-senpai, that won't be necessary," said Azusa, blushing scarlet. "I'm all right."
"Then what's that face for?" Yui persisted, dropping back to take her hand. The way she did it was so natural, so devoid of ostentation, that Azusa didn't immediately realize she'd done it, and when she did, she didn't pull away. Instead, she sighed and said in a low voice,
"I must be a terrible person."
Yui's look of bafflement was near-total. "Huh? What would make you say something like that? You're not a terrible person, you're awesome."
"It's nice of you to say that, senpai, but... well... I just realized when we were rehearsing that I..." She hesitated, as if psyching herself up to confess a crime, and then stopped walking, looked Yui in the eye, and told her, "I love it. I love what we're doing right now. It's what I hoped being in the Light Music Club would be like. Working so hard with you four, not just performing but really making the music... the whole process... the focus... it's everything I wanted when I joined. It makes me really happy." Then, lowering her eyes to the sidewalk, she went miserably on, "And then I remember why we're doing it. And I hate myself for loving it so much."
"Awww, Azu-nyan," said Yui, and then - right there on the sidewalk, about halfway between corners - she drew the younger girl into a hug. It wasn't one of Yui's usual hugs, which tended to be delivered at a run and from odd angles, invariably with a huge grin and almost always with a high-pitched cry of her name. This was gentler, more deliberate - almost maternal. That wasn't really right either, but it was a gesture of such caring warmth that Azusa could think of no other comparison off the top of her head.
"You shouldn't hate yourself for being happy," Yui went on. "No one else will. It'll make Kate-chan-sensei and her family feel better knowing that some good came out of all this somehow."
Azusa saw the sense in her senpai's words, but even so, she couldn't let go of her guilty feeling that easily. "But... we're doing the right thing, but it's for the wrong reasons."
"Nn-nn," Yui disagreed, shaking her head and hugging her tighter. "We're doing it for exactly the right reasons. It's the reasons for our reasons that are wrong, and we can't control that. Mom always says, 'You have to fly with the wind you've got, not the wind you want.'"
For a few seconds, Azusa had no response to that. Partly that was because she didn't want to risk ending this amazing, surprising moment prematurely, but mostly, she was taking on board how amazing it was. She had already learned, a short while ago, that Yui-senpai really was a serious musician, on top of her natural talent. Now she was finding that - in spite of her usual air of cheerful flightiness - she was able to be serious, full stop.
Serious, and yet still unsinkable, because it wasn't a grave or somber seriousness, like she had worryingly flirted with earlier in the week. As she relaxed her embrace and leaned back slightly to meet Azusa's eyes, Yui was smiling, her eyes bright.
"Cheer up, Azu-nyan," she said. "That's why we're doing this, after all," and all at once Azusa realized that by "this" Yui meant more than simply Hōkago Tea Time's current project; she meant, more or less, "being Hōkago Tea Time."
"Senpai," she said, and for a brief instant Azusa had the utterly crazy idea that one of them might be about to kiss the other. She wasn't sure which one was about to take that action. It might even have been her.
"Hey!" Ritsu's voice called from the corner, jolting her out of her microsecond reverie. "Are you guys coming or what?"
"Be right there!" Yui called back; then she winked and said in a more personal tone of voice, "C'mon, Azu-nyan - let's fly with the wind we've got!"
Before Azusa could ask her what she meant by that, Yui had - in a feat of agility that startled her young kōhai, accustomed as she was to the elder girl occasionally having trouble getting things like escalators and curbs entirely right - ducked and swept her up into a piggyback of her own, then set off running to catch up with the rhythm section before the light changed.
"Good morning, all," said Mugi cheerfully as she entered the club room. "I hope I haven't kept you waiting long."
"Nah, we just got here ourselves," Yui replied, looking up from tuning Gīta. "Jun-chan bought us donuts again!" she added, indicating the box on the table.
"Oh, how thoughtful," Mugi declared, beaming. She put her bag down on the bench, went to select a donut, and then turned the beam fully on Jun. "Thank you so much, Jun-chan."
"Oh, uh, gosh, it was nothin'," Jun mumbled, going suddenly red-faced. Ui giggled, but Azusa couldn't find it in her heart to make fun of her classmate's discomfiture. She knew full well how oddly intimidating it could feel to be on the receiving end of Mugi-senpai's undivided goodwill.
Emerging from the storeroom with a fresh pair of drumsticks, Ritsu declared (a bit unnecessarily), "Hey, Mugi's here." As she took her seat behind her drum kit, she added with a casual grin, "How was Sawa-chan?"
Over by the window, Mio snorted violently, spattering the glass with the water she'd just been trying to drink; spluttering, she turned and shot Ritsu a look that, by rights, ought to have hit hard enough to knock her off her stool. That set off the junior varsity, Yui, and even Azusa (despite her flaming blush), and when Nodoka entered a moment later, most of the room was still giggling helplessly.
"Well, it looks like today's off to a positive start," she observed.
"I should say so," Mugi replied with a serene smile, taking her place behind her keyboard, and that set everyone off again.
Nodoka, an eyebrow arched, waited them out, then said, "I just wanted to remind you all - I've cleared you to be in here all day as part of an Official Club Activity, but it's still a Saturday, so the building's locking up at seven. Do you think you can be done by then?"
Ritsu looked at the clock on her phone. "That's eight and a half hours from now," she said, then added wryly, "The heck with done, if we play straight through, we might be dead by then."
"Yes, well, try not to do that," Nodoka said, and then added with a perfect deadpan, "You wouldn't believe the amount of paperwork students working themselves to death generates, especially if it's for extracurriculars."
"We'll keep that in mind," Mio promised, wiping up the window with a towel.
"OK, then, I'll let you get to it," said Nodoka.
"We'll get going too, big sis," Ui put in. "If you need anything, give me a call."
"You guys can stay if you want," Ritsu said. "I feel kinda bad, I mean, I talked you into joining the club and now..."
"It's OK, Tainaka-senpai," Jun assured her. "This is really important for your band. The best thing we can do right now is just stay outta your way."
"Besides - we've got a few things of our own to take care of," said Ui with a grin.
"Well, OK, but - you're gonna be there tomorrow, right?" Ritsu persisted. "It's not just from us, it's the whole club."
"Of course we will," Jun assured her, then added with a wink, "We're the kōhai, it's our job to carry the stuff."
"Let's all have dinner together tonight, once we're done," Yui suggested. They arranged that it would be so, and then Ui, Jun, and Nodoka departed, and Hōkago Tea Time got to work.
Despite Ritsu's dire prediction, they pushed straight through, with only a brief pause to eat their bagged lunches and quick, tactical tea breaks over the course of the afternoon. Mio, who had the lead vocal duties for the new song, tended her voice carefully, aided by Mugi's expertise with warm beverages. Much of the afternoon's practice was instrumental, to save wear and tear, but they had to do a few runs with all the vocals in place to make sure they had everything right.
At six-thirty, weary but energized, they powered to the end of a full-dress rehearsal, then stood breathing hard in the almost-startling silence that ensued, glancing around at each other. None of the five had to say a word; all of them knew, and knew that the others knew, that they had it. They had taken the essence of what their band was now, how far it had come, and what they felt they owed to their teachers past and present; their solidarity in the face of the fates' sudden hostility to one of their circle; their stiff-backed defiance of the gloom and despair it might have brought; all of that, and distilled it into a single song. They had prepared a four-minute thesis, The Present State and Future Prospects of Hōkago Tea Time, and then honed and polished it until it gleamed.
Now all that remained was to present it to the faculty.
"Yeah," said Ritsu, after letting it sink in for a few seconds. "We're ready."
Tired but content, the band met Ui, Jun, and Nodoka for dinner at the food stall down by the river, where - in recognition of the occasion - they all opted for chicken katsu over curry.
While they waited for their order, Ritsu imperfectly covered an enormous yawn with a hand, then sheepishly apologized as it set off a chain reaction down the counter and around the corner.
"Whoo, man," she said. "Azusa, I know you think we were all total slackers before you came along..."
"I never said that!" Azusa protested.
"About which you were not entirely wrong," Mio put in dryly.
"But we have put in some hard days' work before this," Ritsu went imperturbably on.
"It's true," Mio agreed, nodding. "I mean, we did have to come up with everything we knew when you joined us from scratch between the start of school last year and the fall festival..."
"And Yui-chan had to learn to sing and play the guitar, so it's not as if we were doing nothing," Mugi put in.
"Aw, shucks," said Yui, blushing.
"Even so," Ritsu said, "and this is really my point, we've never pushed ourselves this hard before. Everything Mio and Mugi just said is true, but we still had a few months to get all that done. This time, we've had, what - four days. And three of them, we've still had school to do." Smiling, she raised her glass of Orange Stuff and went on, "Whatever happens tomorrow, this is something we can be proud of. Kanpai!"
The food came as they were wrapping up the toast, and for a while there was no further conversation. Presently, though, Azusa paused between bites of her katsu to inquire,
"Speaking of which, what is happening tomorrow? Is there a plan?"
"Of course there's a plan," said a voice from above them, causing most of the club to jump and/or yelp. A moment later, Azalynn's head and shoulders swung down from the stall roof above them. "There's always a plan," she went on, grinning an inverted Cheshire-cat grin.
"Rin-chan!" Yui cried.
"Uh... how long have you been up there?" Ritsu wondered.
"Long enough," Azalynn replied, then flipped the rest of the way down from the roof, landing next to Ui. "Hey, Pops, can I get some of that katsu?"
"Comin' right up," said the stall's proprietor cheerfully.
"OK, so, here's the plan," said Azalynn, climbing onto the vacant stool at the end of the counter's long side. "Tomorrow, Miki's going to get Kate out of the house... somehow. Dynamite may be involved. Anyway, however he does it, they're going to go have lunch someplace, and then he'll talk her into checking on the progress of our new studio. And that's where you guys come in."
"The studio? Is it ready? I thought Kate-sensei said it'd be the middle of July," said Mio.
"Not even close," Azalynn said, "but it's private, and it's available. The soundproofing isn't in yet, but it's in a commercial district and all the offices around will be empty anyway. So what we're gonna do is, someone will be at the school at 10 tomorrow morning to help you move your gear. You'll need everything you'd take to a show. Head over to the studio, set up, get your sound check done, and grab some lunch - there's a decent noodle joint just down the street. Be back there and ready to rock at two; we'll bring Kate to you. Then..." She smiled. "Rock 'n roll does the rest."
Ritsu grinned. "Sounds like a plan, all right. OK, gang. Let's meet at the club room at 9:30, so we can pack up our gear and have it ready to go when our ride shows up. Good?"
When the Hirasawa sisters got home, they found their parents making ready to head out on another run in the morning. Ui, tired out from her busy day, said her goodnights and went off to have a bath before bed, but Yui stayed on for a while, helping her mother pack.
As they worked, Mrs. Hirasawa couldn't help but take note of her daughter's demeanor. Though obviously tired - and Tsering would could well believe it, knowing from Ui's accounts how hard she'd been working all week - Yui was in a buoyant mood, humming cheerfully while she bustled around the living room, fetching odds and ends and folding clothes. In spite of the hard work, and the rather dismaying reasons why she and the rest of her band had undertaken it, she'd been in a similar frame of mind every time her mother had seen her this week. It wasn't that the Air Nomad was accustomed to seeing her elder daughter in a gloomy mood - far from it! - but there was something slightly different about this, and after mulling it over for a few moments, she thought she recognized it.
Oh, my, she thought with a private little smile, and then, excusing herself for a moment, she went upstairs. In the master bedroom, Masato looked up from packing his own kit bag, then arched an eyebrow at the look on his wife's face.
"What?" he asked.
"Dear... have you noticed that Yui's been humming a lot this week?"
Masato raised the other eyebrow. "Well... now that you mention it." Shrugging, he went back to his work. "She is a musician," he pointed out. "And didn't she say the girls are working on a new song this week?"
Tsering crossed the room, put a hand on his shoulder so that he'd look up to meet her eyes, and said patiently, "No, sweetie. There's humming... and then there is humming."
The look Masato gave her back was none the wiser for a moment; then the light came on and he nodded. "Ahh." With a thoughtful frown, he added seriously, "Maybe she's irradiated."
Tsering rolled her eyes with an exasperated little sigh. "No, you fool -"
Masato grinned. "Got you," he said, gently tweaking his wife's nose.
"Oh, you infuriating man," she said, swatting at his shoulder.
"Ow! Hey!" Masato protested, pretending to cower. "Non-violence, woman! We're Air Nomads!"
Unable to stop herself giggling, she swatted him again, then said, "Kidding aside, what do you think we should do?"
Masato shrugged. "She's sixteen and a half, Tsering. If she is in love, it wouldn't exactly be the biggest surprise in the world. Besides, she's a smart girl. She won't do anything crazy."
"All the same... I'd better talk with her," said Tsering. "I know better than to leave it to you," she added wryly, swatting him once more.
"The Apsara Lama would be very disappointed in your constant recourse to violence," said Masato piously.
"Oh, pack your socks," Tsering replied mock-dismissively, then leaned to kiss him before heading back downstairs. There, she found Yui in the kitchen, taking stock of the fridge.
"It's a bit late for a snack," she observed. "Besides, didn't you just come from dinner?"
"Oh, I'm not looking for something to eat right now," Yui semi-lied with a cheery smile. "Just checking out the prospects for breakfast. We're not really going to have time for Ui to make anything really elaborate. Looks like we've got everything we need for pancakes, though." She shut the refrigerator and turned to head back to the living room. "Do you need any more help?"
"I think I've just about got it," Tsering replied, following her out. "You should probably get ready for bed. I gather you've got a pretty big day tomorrow."
"Yeah, that's true. I'm not really tired... well, I am tired, but I'm not really sleepy yet," Yui corrected herself. "I might read for a little while."
"That sounds like a plan," said Tsering; then, after a moment's hesitation, she said, "Yui..."
"Hm?" Yui replied, giving her a curious look. "What is it?"
After contemplating her daughter for a moment, Tsering crossed the room and hugged her, saying, "I'm just realizing how much you and your sister are growing up, that's all." Leaning back slightly with Yui's shoulders in her hands, she asked seriously, "Do you think maybe it's time you and I had a little... talk?"
Yui smiled serenely and shook her head. "Nah, it's OK, Mom. Ui already explained all that to me when we had it in school last year."
Tsering blinked, both at the answer and at the completely, happily matter-of-fact way it was delivered. "Ah," she said. "Well, I... ah."
"But thanks for offering," Yui went on. "Besides, I don't even know any boys. Except for Ritchan's little brother, and he's... well... Ritchan's little brother," she said, as if that explained everything - which, Tsering supposed after a moment's reflection, it probably did.
Hmm, well, in that case - oh, unless... hmm, she thought, and then, with a mental shrug, she hugged Yui again and said, "All right, then, carry on. But if you find you do want to talk sometime, you know you can bring anything to me, right?"
"Sure," said Yui, with the plain good cheer of someone who had nothing weighing on her mind that required any kind of confidential understanding.
"All right," Tsering repeated, at a bit of a loss. Then, chuckling inwardly at herself - What were you expecting? - she kissed Yui on the forehead and told her, "Good night, sweetheart. Good luck tomorrow. Your father and I are very proud of what you and your friends are doing."
"Thanks, Mom," said Yui. She trotted to the stairs, then turned, smiling broadly, and said, "Have a good flight! G'night!" before heading upstairs. Tsering heard her pause to wish the same to her father, then continue on up to the third floor, go into her room, and shut the door.
"How'd that go?" Masato wondered as his wife came back upstairs and into the bedroom. "Get anywhere? She didn't seem upset, at least."
"I'm not sure she even knew what I was on about," Tsering admitted wryly.
"Haha, that's my girl," said Masato cheerily, zipping up his flight bag. "See, you worry too much. Whatever's going on, she's obviously got a handle on it. What do you say we get some shut-eye? It's a long flight to Chameleon Bay."
As planned, the Light Music Club gathered promptly at 9:30 to start organizing and preparing their gear. By ten o'clock, they were well along; Ritsu and Mio were just finishing up the job of packing the former's drum kit into its compact travel mode when there came a knock at the club room door.
"I got it," said Jun, and then, "Oh, uh... hello."
"Hi," said the black-haired young man opening the door had revealed. "You must be Jun? Miki sent me. I'm -"
"Corwin!" Mio cried, caught somewhere between delighted and aghast.
Kaitlyn's brother looked like a man who had had a hard week, and was expecting a succession of others, but his smile was real as he replied, "Hey, Mio. I'm still alive."
Before she could come up with a response to that, he drew a deep breath and seemed to shake himself, brightening with an exercise of will, and stepped into the room, saying, "Let me introduce you to your beautiful and talented road crew for the day."
Two girls, both of them looking to be about the same age as the Light Music Club's "original four", entered the room behind him. One was tall and thin, with short dark hair, and - somewhat to the club girls' surprise - she wore the robes and tattoos of a master Air Nomad, very similar to those Yui's mother had been sporting when Jun and Azusa had met her the other day. The other, dressed in a white and blue sailor outfit that looked like a school uniform (but not one from any school any of the club members knew), was petite and pale, with long silver hair and eyes of a remarkable aqua green.
"This is Nyima," said Corwin, indicating the Air Nomad, "and Iona."
"Hi," said Nyima cheerfully, making the airbender salute to the room. "It's nice to meet you guys at last. We're all big fans of your demo on Air Temple Island."
Mio blushed to her eyebrows. "Really?"
"Would this face lie to you?" Nyima replied, grinning.
"It's nice to meet you," said Iona in a soft, almost diffident voice, bowing slightly in what the local girls interpreted as the fashion of a Kyoshi Islander.
"Right," said Corwin, after further greetings and introductions had everyone properly acquainted. "Let's get your stuff down to the van, shall we?"
There wasn't much opportunity for conversation during the moving operations themselves, but with so many hands pitching in, the work went quickly. Several members of the Light Music Club noticed that the silver-haired girl, Iona - though tiny and delicate in appearance, second in that department only to Azusa - was as strong as a muledeer, uncomplainingly lugging loads that rivaled those Mugi was famous for tackling. Wiry Nyima was no slouch in that department either, and in the end, the members of Hōkago Tea Time had to do very little of the really heavy work, leaving them able to save their energy for the afternoon's performance.
Azalynn hadn't been kidding about the studio not being finished. At a quick glance, the untrained eye wouldn't have been convinced it had been started; past the outer door, it was just a set of empty rooms and hallways, framed and drywalled, but with the plastered joints yet to be sanded and no paint to be seen anywhere. The main recording room had its outer door installed, but inside, the area where the control booth was going to be was demarcated only by lines painted on the bare subfloor. Lighting was provided by a couple of work lamps on tripods, which weren't all that different from stage lights once Ui and Azusa had moved them around a little.
"The acoustics aren't going to be great in here, but at least we've got power," Ritsu mused as she helped Mugi set up her keyboard.
"It'll do for an emergency," Mugi agreed, nodding.
Mio finished setting up her amp, then went out to what would be the outer office to get her bass. As she did, she met Corwin coming in with a bunch of coiled patch cables looped over his arm.
"Mio - can I talk to you for a second?" he asked quietly.
"Sure," she replied, and he followed her out to the skeletal lobby. Once they were out of earshot of the others (who were mostly pretending to be preoccupied with their setup anyway), he said,
"I'm sorry about that email. I tried to delete it without sending it; didn't realize I'd managed to mess it up until the next day. I thought about following up, but at that point I figured it would just be piling on, since you didn't reply to the first one."
"I didn't know what to say," Mio admitted. "And I thought you probably had enough on your mind." Putting a hand on his arm, she went on, "I'm so sorry. I wish there was something we could do to help. We all do. What happened to your family... it's terrible."
"You're doing it right now," Corwin replied, his smile sad and a bit weary, but genuine. "Kate's taken it hard - Azalynn presumably told you - and this... this is just what she needs. Knowing that she's someplace where people care so much about her - that'll be one load off my mind while I go and do what I can to deal with... everything." He sighed, rubbing a hand down his face.
"Anyway," he said, before she could find any words of her own. "I'll be leaving Dìqiú for a while - heading out in the morning. I'm not sure when I'll be back. Utena, Anthy, and I... we've all got things we have to do outside. In the meantime, you remember the house we were building, in the mountains outside Republic City?"
"Yes," Mio replied, nodding. He'd shown her and the others holos of what the place was going to look like on his previous visit, and they had all agreed that it was spectacular.
"It's finished - mostly empty just at the moment, but finished. If you guys want... if you're looking for someplace to have your summer training camp this year, we'd be happy to let you use it. We're not going to be there, and it seems a shame to just let the place stand empty when someone could be enjoying it."
Mio's grey eyes went wide. "Are you serious?" Before he could answer, she shook her head and said, "No, sorry. Of course you're serious. Senpai, that would be... amazing." With a wry little smile, she added, "Ritsu's been agitating for a trip to the mountains this year ever since last year."
Corwin chuckled. "Well, that works out fine, then," he said. "I'll set it up before I go - make sure there'll be some furniture and... you know, supplies and stuff in there for you. Kate and Nyima can take care of transportation. Stay as long as you like."
"I... wow. That's..." Falling back on long-ingrained custom, she squared herself up as if in a dojo and bowed. "Thank you very much, Corwin-senpai. I don't know how we can repay your kindness."
"You're very welcome, Mio-chan," he replied with only-partly-mock gravity. Then, cracking his tired smile again, he said, "I'd take a hug."
And so he got one.
Elsewhere, having just finished lunch, Miki said as casually as he possibly could, "While we're out anyway, why don't we swing by and see how the studio's coming along? You haven't seen it since they started putting walls up..."
Kate was about to demur, but as she drew breath to do so, they rounded the corner and she saw the rest of the Art of Noise loitering conspicuously at the downtown streetcar stop. Pausing, she eyed them all dubiously, then turned to Miki and said,
"This... this is a setup."
Miki nodded cheerfully. "Yes, yes it is," he replied. "And we're not letting you out of it."
Kate gave him her hardest stare, but it didn't faze him in the slightest, and she remarked to herself - not for the first time - that it was terribly inconvenient in many ways to have not one but two lovers whom she couldn't manage to intimidate in any way, at any time.
Sighing, she said, "Fine," and let him lead her toward the approaching streetcar.
The others said nothing, just clustered around in a supportive little knot, as they rode downtown, then made their way from the closest stop to the office building where their new studio was under construction. Entering the lobby, Kate appeared to take no notice of the moving van, generic in the livery of one of the local rent-a-truck companies, parked farther up the block.
She was a little surprised that they actually were coming to the studio; having discerned that it was some kind of setup, she had been expecting them to drag her off for ice cream or some other standard pick-me-up kind of activity. If they were going to ask her to jam - another possibility - surely it would've been better to do that at home, where, at the moment, the facilities were a lot better.
As they got off the elevator, her ears caught the faint but unmistakable low hum of amplifiers. Miki led the way down the hall, opened the door into the main studio room, and bowed her through...
... and there was Hōkago Tea Time, arranged the way they set themselves up for live shows: Mugi on the audience's left and Ritsu on the right in the back, and then Mio, Yui, and Azusa ranged from left to right in front. The five girls were dressed in their school uniforms (their performance costumes of choice since the end of the Yamanaka era). The harsh glare of the two work lamps they were using as stage lights made them look even more serious than they actually were - and at the moment, they didn't really need the help.
No one said a word, and Kate had just time to notice the little group of bystanders over in the area that would eventually be the control booth before Azusa - without a count-in from Ritsu or any audible cue at all - began to lay down a sharp, staccato opening riff.
Two bars later, Mio joined her for its first repetition; then Mugi came in on the second and Ritsu on the third, before Yui wound up and launched them into the main body of the song, laying her new riff over top of the original while it continued hammering along underneath.
As Mio stepped to the one stand mic they'd set up between her station and Yui's and began to sing, the part of Kate's mind that always analyzed music she was hearing realized that it recognized the rhythm of the foundational riff: It was the hook from the band's very first (and still their signature) song, "Fuwa Fuwa Time". Same pattern, different notes and intonation, transforming it from the grinning face of a pop-rock theme to the stiffened spine of a driving, defiant anthem.
It had lyrics to match; like almost all of their songs', they were mostly in Kokugo, which was close enough to Japanese for Kate, fluent in that language from childhood, to not so much translate them in her head as just instinctively perceive their Anglo-Standard meaning. This, Kate knew, was the work of Mio at her most serious - no romantic musings or sparkly metaphors here, but a bald declaration of... not even hope, but intent, an intent emphasized by a strategic sprinkling of Standard words. We're not doing anything as passive as hoping for a bright future, Mio seemed to be saying; we're going to have one, if we have to grab the universe by the scruff of the neck and shake one out of it.
Mio's voice was at full power, unleashed completely without her usual self-consciousness, and when Yui joined her at the single mic for the bridges and choruses, she was using the newer, lower-range singing style she'd developed in the course of her studies of the Delta blues. The result was a vocal performance that did the song's lyrics, and the powerful, intricate instrumental work behind them, full justice, and Kate felt a chill race up her spine as they laid it down.
There was so much to take in, beyond the lyrics and their delivery, that a musician less technically skilled, or less deeply invested, would have missed a lot of the details, but Kate's ear caught them all - some to be remarked upon in the moment, others to be noticed later, upon mental review. The way Ritsu was making an especial effort to maintain a steady tempo, usually her greatest weakness as a drummer (she was, after all, very much of the Keith Moon clade); the carefully chosen voices Mugi was using for the complicated keyboard line; the way Yui and Azusa weren't playing their usual lead and rhythm roles so much as both playing lead guitar, one or the other in rhythm mode at any given moment, but neither pinned exclusively to the task; how Mio was giving her bass just as free a rein as her voice, laying down the full Thunderfingers experience, but never for a moment failing to drive the song's relentless beat.
The end result was a sound instantly recognizable as her students', and yet... not darker, exactly, because for all its serious tone and uncompromising delivery, it conveyed a powerfully, determinedly positive message. Sharper, perhaps. More grown-up, but without abandoning that youthful spark that was so much of what made Hōkago Tea Time what it was. It was the most ambitious thing she'd ever heard them play, and she would have bet any amount of money anyone cared to name that it had not existed when she'd left on her ill-starred trip to the South Pole the week before last.
As they dove into what Kate's instincts told her would be the last bridge/chorus, after Yui's brief but blazing guitar solo, her heart - cold and heavy as lead these past few days - blazed with it, hot with pride in these five girls for the effort they must have expended to make this happen, buoyed by the gratitude she felt at the knowledge that they had done it specifically for her benefit. Her eyes threatened to fill with tears, not for the first time lately, and this time she just let them come.
Every moment upon moment, they won't stop ending
But every time one ends, another always starts
So I believe in the future
Let's follow this road even if it isn't one
The places we go together are our road
This vow is etched in our hearts with the beat:
Yes, we go! Yes, we fly! Yes, we play!
Always and forever...
As the music reached a peak behind them, Yui stepped away from the mic and let Mio deliver the final line, in Standard, alone, her eyes locked on their teacher's as she did so:
Yes, we are singing now!
They rode out a last iteration of the melody, never letting up, and then wrapped it up with a thunderous, cutoff outro version of the opening. Unlike many of Hōkago Tea Time's numbers, this was not a song with a jam-session windout, where the members would break it down into little improvised solos and then shut it off. It kept making its one unrelenting statement until the very end, and slammed the door as suddenly as it had kicked it open in the first place.
In the ringing silence that followed, the five members the band stood - sweat-flecked, breathing hard - and watched with wide and nervous eyes for their sensei's reaction.
A little unexpectedly, that reaction was to burst into tears - but to do it with such a big and luminous smile on her face that no one could possibly mistake it for disappointment or grief - and applause at the same moment. With a jubilant cry, Yui turned Gīta around on her back and ran to engulf Kate in a hug, her patch cable trailing behind her in a way that reminded Mio randomly of the power cords on that silly giant robot show Ritsu had loved so much when they were kids. A moment later, Azusa followed her, and then the rest of the Art of Noise, Corwin and his friends, and the "junior varsity" all crowded around, clapping and cheering.
Eleven people was the smallest audience Hōkago Tea Time had ever played for outside of practice, but the applause that washed over the band from their hands was by far the sweetest they had ever tasted, and Mio felt her knees go a little weak with relief as she took Elizabass from her shoulder and stood her carefully by her amp.
"Welp," said Ritsu cheerfully, pausing to chug back most of a bottle of water, "I guess that worked!"
Mugi beamed. "I love it when things work."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
"Love Has No Brakes"
Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Matt Wagner
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
This episode of The Federation Lives Forever! is dedicated to
Valerie Kitty Starr
November 27, 1986 - June 29, 2015
Burning Bright Forever
E P U (colour) 2015