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
© 2016 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Just What I Needed"
Ritsu Tainaka pushed open the door to the Light Music clubroom, dropped her school bag off to the left just inside, and then wobbled theatrically toward the middle of the room, declaring,
"Clear the bench! I need to fall down."
Underclass members Jun Suzuki and Ui Hirasawa scrambled off the padded bench just in time to avoid having their senpai collapse into their laps, as Ritsu hurled herself face-down onto the bench without regard to its availability. This made an unexpectedly woody thonk, after which she lay there motionless for several seconds before observing in a muffled voice,
"... Ow, my head."
"Idiot," said Mio Akiyama with fond exasperation. "It's padded, but not that well."
"Yeah, I keep forgetting that," Ritsu agreed, sitting up and rubbing her forehead ruefully.
"We should get a mattress in here for moments like that," Yui Hirasawa mused, only half-jokingly.
Ritsu perked up with a slightly evil smile. "Ooh, yeah. Actually, I can think of all kinds of situations where that would be handy as heck."
"Somehow I don't think the administration would be OK with most of them, senpai," Jun remarked.
"What are you implying, Suzuki?" Ritsu demanded mock-indignantly, but Jun was not one to be cowed; she just gave her senior back an insouciant little smirk and said nothing.
Ritsu let it drop, leaned back on the bench, and tipped her head back, regarding the conference table upside-down. "So how do you think you did, everybody? I don't think I bombed too badly, but that math test was murder."
At the table, Yui tilted her head quizzically. "Really? I didn't think that one was too bad. The one I had trouble with was Geography."
"Yui, we live in a world that has like five countries," Ritsu observed. "How can you have trouble with Geography." Then, before anyone could answer her rhetorical question, she giggled and said, "I just sounded like the mover trailer guy. 'In a world that has like five countries, one girl has trouble with Geography.'"
"Must've been at the top of the stack when she learned minor-key transposition," said Jun nonchalantly.
"Jun-chan!" Ui objected.
"What?" Jun replied. Off to one side, Azusa Nakano giggled a little guiltily, while Yui just smiled and shrugged as if to say, It's a fair cop.
"Actually, senpai, the Water Tribes aren't the same country," Azusa pointed out once she'd recovered her composure.
"Really?" Ritsu said. "Oh. Well, crap, got that one wrong, then." Shrugging, she went on, "Oh well! Anyway, where the heck is Mugi?"
"I saw her and Manabe-senpai in the office on my way here," said Ui.
"The office? Hm. I wonder what that's about," said Mio.
"It's that room where the principal is, but that's not important right now," said Ritsu matter-of-factly.
Mio was still eyeing her skeptically (and possibly gauging the range between them) when Tsumugi Kotobuki and Nodoka arrived.
"I'm terribly sorry I'm late, everyone," said Mugi as she entered.
"Mugi-chan!" said Yui cheerfully. "What did you need at the office?"
"Nodoka was helping me with a little administrative matter," Mugi explained. "And now that it's taken care of, there's someone I'd like you all to meet." Turning back to the door, she added, "Sumire-chan? Come on in and meet the club."
After a moment's hesitation, a girl none of the others recognized stepped into the doorway. The first thing that struck them about her was that she bore a striking resemblance to Mugi: blue-eyed, fair-skinned, with very similar long blonde hair. She was a little shorter, petite and fine-boned, with more angular facial features, and she wore the uniform of a different school, in the sailor style as opposed to the blazer-and-tie format favored by Sato Academy.
"Um... pardon the intrusion," said the new arrival in a pleasant, slightly hushed voice. "It's very nice to meet you all. My name is Sumire."
Yui sprang up from the table and bounded around the bench to take a closer look, eyes wide with amazement. "Mugi-chan! You never told us you have a little sister!"
"Er, well, I'm not... not really..." Sumire began, then trailed bashfully off, her face going red.
Mugi put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and said, "Sumire is Mr. and Mrs. Saitō's daughter. They're my parents' butler and housekeeper, respectively. They've been with my family since before either of us was born, so she basically is my little sister as far as I'm concerned." With a smiling wink, she added, "When our parents aren't around, anyway. They can get a bit hung up on the details sometimes. But they're not here now! Let me introduce you, Sumire-chan."
After making introductions, Mugi got down to business, and the other members of the Light Music Club discovered to their amusement that Mugi and Sumire, as a team, were even more efficient about putting together tea service for a group. Watching them in action, Ritsu caught Mio's eye and gave her a little smile, which the bassist returned; silent communication between two very old friends, encompassing an entire conversation about what an interesting insight it was into their enigmatic friend that she had learned to work a table alongside the butler's daughter.
Once they were all squared away and enjoying tea and cake, Ui swung automatically into her social-ambassador role and asked, "So you go to Central High, Sumire?"
"Well...not any more, I guess," said Sumire. "We've just been down in the office... Manabe-senpai helped us work out the transfer paperwork. I'll be starting here after the summer break."
"Oh! Well hey, that's convenient," said Ritsu, grinning. "Interested in joining a club? We've got cake."
"Don't you think that's being a bit pushy, Ritsu-senpai?" asked Azusa. "We only just met her."
"Well... I'm not sure yet, but I have heard a lot about your club from Miss—uh... from Mugi," Sumire replied.
"And you still wanted to meet us?" Mio inquired dryly. "You're certainly brave."
"Aw, Mio, why you got to do me that way?" said Ritsu in a hurt tone of voice.
Sumire giggled, the byplay going a little way toward breaking the ice. "She told me your meetings are always a lot of fun, and that you've gotten a few new members my own age recently."
"Yep, that'd be us," said Jun, nodding toward Ui. "Well, and Azusa, but she's already made the varsity team. Hey, why don't you hang out with us some over break? The big kids are going on their swanky summer retreat, and we can kick back and get to know each other without them looking over our shoulders," she added with a wink.
"That sounds like fun," Ui agreed.
"You guys aren't coming with us?" asked Yui, sounding surprised.
"Nah, the invite was for you guys," Jun said. "We don't even know Mio's boyfriend."
"He's not my boyfriend!" Mio protested, blushing.
"I'm sure Corwin-senpai wouldn't mind if you guys came too," Azusa put in, diplomatically deflecting the conversation before Ritsu could take the opportunity to put her oar in as well.
"We might come up for an afternoon sometime next week," said Nodoka, "but we have a few things of our own to take care of in town."
"'We'?" said Ritsu, her golden eyes glinting mischievously. "So you're admitting you're part of the gang now, Nodoka?"
"I don't recall denying it," Nodoka replied calmly. "It's just that I have a lot of other responsibilities. Unlike certain slackers in Class 2-1," she added archly, shooting a pointed glance at Yui.
"You're so cold, Nodoka-chan," said Yui, pouting, but neither of them could hold the tableau for long, and presently their laughter opened the way for the whole room to join them.
The train carrying Hōkago Tea Time arrived in Republic City a little before lunchtime. Having been assured that they wouldn't need to take their heavier equipment with them, they had tried to pack light, but still ended up with quite a lot of stuff to wrangle—particularly Mugi, whose instrument was borderline "heavy equipment" in itself.
"OK, you guys give Mugi a hand," said Ritsu, whose usual drums had remained behind in the clubroom. "Azusa and I will go out and find our ride. We'll meet up outside."
"What kind of ride do you suppose Corwin-senpai arranged for us?" Azusa wondered as she followed the club president toward the bronze doors leading out to the station plaza. "His note was pretty vague."
"Well, even without our amps and whatnot, we've still got a lot of stuff, so it's probably a van or the like," Ritsu replied. "Hopefully we'll be able to stop off and get some sandwiches or something on the way up. From the sound of it, it's probably a long ride up to... oh."
Azusa nearly ran into the back of her senpai as Ritsu stopped dead in her tracks, and in mid-sentence, just outside the door; then, detouring around her, she was starting to ask what the problem was when she saw, and was momentarily rendered speechless herself, her cat ears springing involuntarily up in surprise.
Out in the middle of the brick-paved plaza in front of the station stood not a van, but rather the unmistakable shaggy shape of a sky bison—not the same one, Azusa realized after a moment's dumbfounded pause, as the one she'd met a few weeks ago at Yui-senpai's house. The pattern of stripes on this one was subtly different. Nor was the woman standing alongside the bison, holding up a hand-lettered sign reading HŌKAGO TEA TIME, Yui's Air Nomad mother, Tsering Hirasawa. In fact, it was obvious at first glance that she wasn't an Air Nomad at all...
... she was Avatar Korra.
"Uh... what?" said Ritsu to no one in particular, as if requesting an explanation of the universe itself.
"Hi!" said Korra cheerfully. "You must be Ritsu..." She considered for a moment, head tilted thoughtfully, then went on, "... and Azusa, am I right? I'm Korra."
"Um... yeah," said Ritsu.
"We... we know who you are," added Azusa slowly, her face mostly blank with disbelief.
"This is Mogi," Korra went on, patting the bison's side.
"Ghromph, said Mogi with a nod.
"Hi," Ritsu replied automatically.
"Wow," Azusa said.
"Corwin asked me to make sure you guy got up to Mount Weitang," Korra explained. "Are the others still inside?"
Ritsu blinked, pulling herself out of her reverie, and grinned. "Yeah, they're just dealing with baggage claim and stuff. Mogi, huh? Oh man, I have to be the one to make this introduction." Turning, she saw the others emerging from the station, pushing a luggage cart piled with all their things, instrument bags on their backs. "Hey guys, check it out!"
Ritsu wasn't sure whether Mio blanched at the sight of the bison or the Avatar, but either way, she went almost entirely colorless, freezing alongside the luggage cart as though she thought that by keeping completely still, she might avoid their notice. Mugi looked faintly startled, but recovered her composure so quickly she might as well not have lost it, bowing politely.
And Yui, completely unconcerned, bounded over and offered the sky bison an apple from the snack pocket on the front of her backpack, then greeted his human companion as though she'd known her for years.
"It's great to finally meet you all," Korra said, tactfully ignoring the fact that two of them hadn't actually dared to address her yet. "Let's get your stuff aboard and get a move on!"
Still grinning broadly, Ritsu beckoned Mugi over to the bison and said, "Let me introduce you to our ride. Mugi, Mogi. Mogi, Mugi," barely getting it out before dissolving into giggles.
"It's lovely to meet you, too," said Mugi without missing a beat, offering the bison a polite bow of his own.
"Are you enjoying yourself, Ritsu?" asked Mio, somewhere beyond deadpan thanks to the lingering shock.
"Immensely," Ritsu managed to reply.
Underneath the giggling, Ritsu was actually a little worried that the ride up to the mountain might be too much for Mio, between being in such close proximity to someone as famous as Avatar Korra and the whole open-air flying thing; but she found almost as soon as they got underway that she needn't have worried. If anything, being in the air seemed to agree with her. She showed no physical fear once they were airborne, and indeed was so captivated by the experience that she soon lost her social fear as well, stationing herself at one of the front corners of the saddle and enthusing to their pilot about the view of the city, sprawling out far below them.
Ritsu had also half-feared that Yui, who was notoriously prone to motion sickness in cars and on buses, would react poorly to flight, but that, too, seemed to be an unfounded fear. Indeed, she seemed to have the best air legs of any of them, which Ritsu realized, after she thought about it for a few seconds, really stood to reason.
Their youngest member, on the other hand, didn't seem to be taking very well to the experience; she was crouching in the lee of the low-wall-like pommel at the front of the saddle platform, head down, eyes tightly shut. Ritsu was just thinking that, as club president, she ought to go over there and give her a little pep talk, when Yui beat her to it. Noticing her kōhai's discomfort, she went forward, knelt behind her, and gathered her up in an embrace.
Azusa was a bit startled to be hugged abruptly from behind, but only because she'd already been so tense before it happened. Her muted yelp was mostly lost in the slipstream as Yui leaned in and murmured gently,
"Don't be scared, Azu-nyan. Nothing's going to happen to you."
"I'm not scared," Azusa protested automatically, knowing it was a lie, knowing Yui would recognize it for one by the way Azusa's hands seized her forearm where it crossed her chest.
"It's OK," Yui went on, as if Azusa hadn't said anything. "No one knows quite what to expect the first time. But you're totally safe here. And you're missing an amazing view. Look—even Mio-chan's enjoying the flight."
Azusa cracked open one eye and looked. Mio was, indeed, obviously having a ball, a few feet off to their left, leaning out to take it all in. Slowly, almost unwillingly, Azusa opened her eyes fully and raised her head, looking over the pommel and past Korra to the view beyond.
"Oh wow," she murmured. They were sweeping over the eastern outskirts of Republic City now, and before them were spread out the great peaks of the mountain range that bounded most of the city on its landward sides. These were spectacularly dramatic, tall and jagged in a way that the lesser mountains near Sakuragaoka were not, some of them snow-capped even in July. The sky up here seemed bigger, too, somehow, its blue deeper.
"See?" said Yui cheerfully. She rose slowly to her feet, helping her kōhai up along with her, and Azusa braced her hands on the top of the pommel wall and leaned forward a little for a better look. Yui had to release her before she could do that, but stayed very close behind her, her own hands resting just outboard of Azusa's, looking over her shoulder.
A short way behind them, sitting amid the bags and gear, Ritsu and Mugi glanced at each other, amusement on the former's face, a serene little smile on the latter's.
Before long, the view got even more amazing. Once they cleared the sprawl of the city and got up into the mountains proper, Korra, unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile, encouraged Mogi to "Give them the tour." The bison obligingly made a long banking turn as he delved higher into the craggy peaks, ultimately offering a perfect view of the Three Brothers and the meadow valley that lay between them. The girls gasped and oohed with delight at the view, particularly when they saw what stood on the shore of the lake at the valley's head.
"Azu-nyan, look," Yui cried, almost squeaking with excitement as they entered the mountain valley. "It's a castle!"
Azusa did look, what remained of her earlier fears swept away entirely by the beautiful view. "Well, sort of... but it's got all that glass. It's... I'm not really sure what it's like. I've never seen anything quite like it."
"Oh, wow," Mio said, leaning a bit forward against the saddle to get a better look. "He said it was a house on the lake, but I didn't expect anything like this."
As Mogi began to descend, they could all see that it was indeed a house on a lake, but that was a lot like saying the Phoenix House Hotel was a large red building.
"The holos didn't do it justice," Azusa agreed, her eyes wide.
The lake was a deep blue that glinted in the sunlight, one edge rippling and splashing as the waterfall off the mountain flowed into it. The meadow beyond the rocky shore was covered in lush grass and bursts of color from the flowers that grew there.
The house really did look a bit like a castle, Mio thought, with that big tower coming off one side, but Azusa was right about the glass that made up most of one side, too. It was a beautiful building—really almost a mansion—but something about the way the wide blue roofs and creamy walls combined with the glazed areas made it welcoming, rather than imposing.
Ritsu turned, leaning back against the side of the sky bison's saddle, and grinned lazily. "Well, gang, I guess Mio having a sugar daddy has officially paid off! Ow!"
Mio, blushing furiously, hunched over a bit after giving Ritsu her ritual donk on the head, trying and largely failing to make herself disappear. "We're still up high enough that I'm pretty sure you'd hit the ground before the Avatar could catch you, Ritsu."
Korra, who had managed keep a straight face through all this only through a titanic effort of will, suddenly spoke up, making Mio jump. "Actually, I probably could still get her down safely if you tossed her off from here, but I might be willing to arrange a water landing for a suitable bribe."
That got everyone, even Mio, giggling, and the sound of their laughter trailed behind them as Mogi started his final approach. As they drew closer to the house, the girls all noticed another sky bison grazing sedately on the lawn. A moment after that, they saw that someone was coming out of the front door to greet them: a person dressed in the distinctive garb of an Air Nomad.
As Mogi settled down gracefully, they recognized her as Nyima, who had helped them with their gear for their surprise show at the Art's new studio. "Hello, ladies! It's nice to see all of you again." Walking to Mogi's side, she helped those who wanted a hand down, then gestured to the house.
"Welcome to Bellehaven. We've been getting a few things ready for you."
Mio looked around, a bit confused. "We?"
Smiling, Nyima opened the door to usher them inside. "I've been taking care of picking up essentials and stocking the pantry, but I asked for a hand with the final preparations."
Inside, there were, in fact, two more women waiting for them. One was a tall woman in something that looked almost like an elaborate maid uniform, with a long white apron over a deep red blouse and long matching skirt, and a strange metal collar arrangement that almost looked like an armored gorget. The other was another airbender, this one shorter than Nyima and perhaps three or four years older, though she also bore a master's set of tattoos.
"Good afternoon," the uniformed one said pleasantly as she offered a formal curtsy, "I am Yamato—I've heard so much about you from Admiral Ravenhair! It's a pleasure to meet you all at last."
"Admiral?" Ritsu wondered quietly to Mio, who shrugged with a search-me expression.
The other woman grinned a bit mischievously as she looked at the group. "And I've met one of you before, though I bet you don't recognize me."
That left the girls looking at each other with confusion, and after a round of shrugs the airbender laughed. "Well, it's been a long time, Yui—I used to read you stories when your parents made their summer visits to Air Temple Island."
She cleared her throat, drawing herself up, and then began to recite, "'Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who lived on the moon...'"
That seemed to spark something for Yui, at least, and her confusion turned to a look of surprise, and then a somewhat happier astonishment.
"Master Ikki?" Yui asked, as if she didn't quite believe what she was saying. "Um... you used to be old, though," she added hesitantly.
Ikki laughed, then winked at the girls. "I got better!" Then, completely failing to explain further, she turned a beaming smile on the others, while Korra smacked her forehead into one hand. "So! Let's give you girls the grand tour!"
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
"Just What I Needed"
Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Matt Wagner
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
E P U (colour) 2016