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
© 2017 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
By the fourth day of their mountain retreat, the members of Hōkago Tea Time had established a pattern that defined their working days. In it, the five broke up their time between practicing their existing songs (and trying out new variations on them); developing several new ideas that had come along; free-form jamming with occasional forays into covers of popular songs; and general creative bull sessions, in which they could put down their instruments for a while, decompress, and let their imaginations wander. Interspersed with mealtimes and clubroom-style tea breaks, this program filled the days with industry that didn't feel like work, so that the members of the band finished each day feeling energized rather than drained.
They hadn't set out to devise this working regimen, nor deliberately arranged things so that their evenings would be free for recreation, enabling them to step away from the practice room altogether and just have some fun of a different kind—which enhanced the overall effect. None of this was by conscious design; but it developed that way all the same, and it worked beautifully.
A light rain had been falling for most of the day Tuesday, but that hadn't dampened (as it were) the band's spirits; it had only simplified the choice of what to do after dinner that evening.
They had all agreed early on that the house on Mount Weitang contained many wonders, but their opinions had diverged as to which was the best. Yui, possibly because of her Air Nomad roots, held the view that the tower in the northwest corner of the house was its best feature. Azusa preferred the (usually) sunny expanse of the great glazed main room, while Mio was enamored of (though simultaneously a bit intimidated by) the underwater bedroom in the basement. Mugi favored the balcony overlooking the living room, with its comfy reading chair.
And Ritsu... well, architecturally Ritsu's favorite thing about the house was its large and well-appointed kitchen, which was something of a wonderland to a culinarily-savvy individual like herself. She'd spent most of the last four days successively outdoing herself in the food-preparation department, leading her bandmates to lament that when at last they left Mount Weitang, they would a) weigh twice as much as they had when they arrived and b) never appreciate ordinary food again.
In terms of the equipment, however—although the Ramune machine was a very close second—her favorite thing was in the living room, and this evening, while the rain drummed lightly against the great windows, she and the other members of the band were all in there enjoying it.
As a dedicated video gamer of long standing, Ritsu had heard of the Future Industries GameCenter gaming system, of course. She had the issue of Electro-Entertainment Monthly with Ryo Sato and the first production GameCenter on the cover, and had read it over many times. She'd even seen one, on the display floor of the electronics shop in the Sakuragaoka Galleria. She could in no way afford such a machine, however, not on her allowance. All her stuff was at least two generations old. Ritsu was an inveterate scrounger of discount bins; she had a shelf above her computer at home that was full of games with the spines of their cases notched, for which she had paid an average of ¥2.50 apiece.
So to be confronted with this state-of-the-art system, with its cutting-edge graphics and its borderline-witchcraft multi-player display adapter (such that each player, viewing the giant screen from a slightly different angle, saw a unique point of view), felt a little like having accidentally wandered into the future. It was just as well she'd come up here to work; if she didn't have a more pressing engagement (and Mio to enforce her attendance to same), she'd just be in here 24-7, playing Super Fury Racing or Earth Rumble '91 or any of the other A-list titles ranked on the little stand behind the core machine.
Tonight, they were playing Western Empire, a nation-building simulator that cast each of its up-to-six players as the leader of one of the warring factions that had, in ancient times, eventually consolidated this part of the world into the Great Western Empire. They weren't bound to follow the actual history if they didn't want to, and in this instance, in the hour or so they had been playing, they so far hadn't; most notably, the only war that had broken out so far, in two in-game centuries of development, had been between Mugi and the computer-controlled nation standing in for the absent sixth live player. The dispatch with which she'd crushed the computer player for his impudence had gone some way toward persuading the others that avoiding war would be a worthwhile strategy to pursue, at least in the early going.
"Hey Mio," Ritsu asked. "Did you finish your trade with the Fire Archipelago yet?"
"Just about to," Mio replied. "It takes a while to unload that much fish."
"Getting anything good?"
"They're paying pretty well, but—oh! Yeah, he just gave me a bonus for timely delivery." Mio highlighted the object she'd just received and opened its description window, then went on, "I got an Ornate Sextant."
"Ooh!" said Mugi. "That sounds handy!"
"Yeah, totally!" Ritsu agreed; then, leaning toward Mio with a sly smile, she asked, "So who are you going to invite to your ornate sex tent?"
Mio's face went bright red. "Sextant. Sextant! It's a navigation instrument, it gives plus three speed and accuracy to sea routes. Not a—what even is what you said?!"
Ritsu shrugged. "I dunno, I figured it was, you know how in the Earth Kingdom there's that big desert with the sandbender nomads and stuff? It seemed like the kind of thing they would have. Sounds pretty high-end, too."
"Maybe there's a progression," Mugi said.
"Hey, yeah!" said Ritsu, nodding. "Shabby sex tent; common sex tent; ornate sex tent."
"Will you please stop saying that?!" Mio demanded, covering her face with the hand not holding the controller.
"Desert people don't have many resources," Azusa mused. "It would be pretty wasteful to have a special tent just for that."
"Hmm, yeah," Ritsu said. "It'd be a definite luxury item."
"It could be a way of showing off," Mugi suggested. "Anyone who visited your camp would know you were someone important if you had your own sex tent."
"Especially an ornate one!" Yui agreed.
"Your people are nomads, Yui, do they have anything like that?" wondered Ritsu.
Yui looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "Well, when we all go on camping trips with Tobu, Mom and Dad have their own yurt."
"You're not helping, Yui," Mio mumbled from behind her hand.
"I guess not," Yui agreed with an equable shrug, then paused for just exactly the right amount of time before adding, "It's not ornate, anyway," and broke them all—even Mio—up laughing.
The weather was back to something like perfect the next day, so without really discussing it, the five decided to take a break after lunch and put some of the afternoon sunshine to good use in the lake behind the house.
The water was crystal clear, but not as cold as the mountain setting suggested; something to do with geothermal activity, Ritsu gathered, though the details escaped her. It didn't really matter, anyway; what mattered was that it was clean, fresh water and—apart from some fish—they had it all to themselves. With a pier extending right out into the lake from the dining room, they could just go outside and plop straight into the sheltered waters of the corner between that pier and the house, or go around the south end to the little beachy cove next to the drive—all the comforts of the seaside without the salt, the crowds, or the seaweed.
The others soon learned that getting into a splash fight with Yui would be a big mistake. This was because any watery assault mounted upon her would be almost instantly repaid by Niri, and a full-grown polar bear dog's forepaws, as it turned out, could throw an awful lot of water. After nearly getting herself drowned, Ritsu thought better of the sport and decided to find some other way of amusing herself. Or at least a less well-defended victim.
Looking around, she spied Mio out by the end of the dock, keeping station and admiring the waterfall as it cascaded down the Second Brother and into the deepest part of the lake, a quarter-mile or so distant. The spray was throwing up a rainbow in the early-afternoon sunshine, shimmering against the blue sky and grey stone of the backdrop.
Grinning, Ritsu climbed up onto the dock, then backed up to get the best possible start and sprinted clean out to the end. With a loud "Woohooo!" she leaped as far out as she could go, employing a form for long-jumping she vaguely remembered from a time they'd done it in gym class. The effort carried her well past Mio's position and out into the farther reaches of the lake, where she cannonballed into the water with a titanic splash.
At which point she learned, just a bit too late, one of the other features of Lake Weitang, to wit: it's not unusually warm everywhere. The shock of suddenly plummeting into 50-degree mountain runoff nearly took her breath away; gasping, she popped to the surface and made for the house as fast as limbs suddenly shocked and stiffened with the cold could carry her, which wasn't very fast.
Fortunately, another thing that polar bear dogs are very good at is rescuing people from cold water.
"You idiot," said Mio as Mugi handed Ritsu a steaming cup of tea.
"Too cold to dispute point," Ritsu whispered, extending one hand from the blanket they'd rolled her in to accept the tea.
"Don't die, Squad Member Ritchan!" Yui pleaded.
"Maybe someone should put up a sign," Azusa mused.
"She'd just have ignored it," Mio grumbled.
"I just wanted to make a big splash," Ritsu whined plaintively.
"Now, now, now, now," Mugi put in. "You'll be just fine once you get that nice hot Yuyan Blend into you."
"I hope so," Yui said, big-eyed with concern.
"See, Mio? At least Yui cares about me," Ritsu whimpered, sipping tea.
"I was really looking forward to Ritchan's yakitori tonight," Yui went on, causing all of them—Ritsu included—to burst out laughing.
True to Mugi's prediction, Ritsu recovered quickly with some hot tea in her system. Dried off and changed, she repaired to the kitchen to complete the warming process "by slaving over a hot grill." She and her bandmates were just sitting down to dinner when the telephone on the kitchen wall, by the archway to the dining room, rang.
"Who even knows this number?" Ritsu wondered rhetorically. She put a platter of yakitori skewers down on the table, then went to answer it. "Hello, Mount Weitang Hypothermia Research Center." At the sound of the voice at the other end, she grinned. "Oh, hey, Kate-sensei, what's up? Uh huh. Yup. Oh, totally. Sure, whenever you'd like. That sounds great! See you then."
Still grinning, she hung the phone back on its cradle and turned to the others, who were all regarding her curiously. "She'll be back in Dìqiú tomorrow," she reported. "Wanted to know if it was OK if she and the rest of the Art came up to check in with us on Friday."
"Oh, good," said Mio. "We should be able to have one of our new songs reasonably presentable by then."
Mugi nodded. "I think so."
"As long as we keep at it," agreed Azusa.
"You know, you don't actually have to nag us to work up here," Ritsu pointed out wryly as she took her seat.
"It's just habit," Azusa replied nonchalantly, scooping rice.
"I wonder what Ui-chan and the others are up to back in town," Yui mused. "We should let them know when Kate-chan-sensei is coming up. They might want to come too."
"Good idea," Ritsu agreed. "Why don't you call Ui after dinner and fill her in? They'll need to figure out some way to get up here, so they'll probably want to coordinate with Kate-sensei beforehand."
"Sure, I can do that," said Yui, nodding.
Azusa was mildly surprised to find herself alone when she woke in the night. She hadn't specifically set out to room with Yui-senpai on this retreat—the house was certainly big enough for them each to have a separate place to sleep if they wanted—but Yui had a tendency to find her way into Azusa's space even in her sleep, on campouts like this. On an overnight school trip earlier in the term, she'd even made her way past a locked hotel room door—not specifically locked to keep her out, but one equipped with an automatic lock, all the same—and professed no knowledge of how she'd done it when interrogated later. Azusa had assumed it was some kind of Air Nomad ninja thing, like that scary-looking obstacle-course running Ui sometimes did in PE class.
At any rate, she wasn't here now, and Azusa felt a faint sense of... was that disappointment?... to find it so as she woke. Shrugging it off, she consulted the lumious dial of the clock on the bedside stand and saw that it was a little past midnight. With a yawn, she got out of bed and went down the hall to the bathroom.
She was on her way back, past the open window looking out onto the deck that doubled as the roof of the single-story west wing, when a soft sound of music reached her ears. Pausing, she went to the window and listened. Yes, it was definitely music—an acoustic guitar, faint but perfectly clear, drifting across the night air from the direction of the tower. Curiosity piqued, Azusa went back to her room for her slippers, then went out the side door, across the deck, and into the practice room, then climbed the spiral stairs to the top.
She found Yui up there, sitting on the floor of the open pavilion with Avatar Korra's dog curled up behind her, humming to herself and playing a lesisurely tune on that Dobro guitar Miki-sensei had loaned her. It took a few moments for Azusa to recognize the melody, which Yui was repeating in a sort of circular variation.
At about the time she did, Yui seemed to notice she had an audience; she paused, half-turning to look back over the bulk of Niri's hindquarters. There wasn't a lot of light up here—the only real source of illumination was the distant column of light that marked Republic City's new Spirit Portal—but Azusa's eyes didn't need a lot of ambient light to pick up general details these days. She could easily make out Yui's expression changing to a bright smile when she recognized her visitor.
"Azu-nyan!" she said, keeping her voice down. "I'm sorry, did I wake you? I tried to play as quietly as I could..."
"No, of course not," Azusa replied, her own voice hushed as well. "From all the way over here? I was already up, I just heard you playing. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"Come have a seat," said Yui, patting the parquet of the pavilion floor beside her. "I was just thinking about some things and couldn't sleep, so I came up here to look at the city and stuff."
Azusa made her way around the bulk of Niri and lowered herself into the spot Yui had indicated. She made no sarcastic remark about Yui's having had too may thoughts to get to sleep; once upon a time, perhaps, she might have, but she had lately come to appreciate that Yui Hirasawa was a much deeper file than she appeared at first glance.
Instead, she said, "Was that 'Romeo and Juliet' you were playing?"
Yui nodded. "Mm-hmm. I've been thinking about covering it at a show sometime. It's a good song for showing what Dō-chan can do," she added, patting the Dobro's gleaming metal flank.
"That sounds like fun," Azusa agreed. "I'm sure Mugi-senpai would be able to figure out the piano part."
"That's what I was thinking," Yui said.
They fell silent after that, just gazing off toward the glow of the Spirit Portal. After a little while, Yui played the opening line from the old Dire Straits song once more, then asked thoughtfully,
"Doesn't it make you think of Mio-chan and Ritchan?"
"Huh?" Azusa wondered, jarred out of her own thoughts.
"The song," Yui said. "I always think of them when I hear it. 'Finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade, says something like, 'You and me, babe, how about it?'" She chuckled. "That's so Ritchan."
"I... guess, yeah," said Azusa, grateful to the darkness for hiding the furious blush she felt developing. "I mean... not exactly, their parents aren't feuding or anything, but..."
"Well, no, that's true," said Yui. She followed the guitar line around again, then sang softly,
I can't do the talk
Like the talk on the TV
And I can't do a love song
Like the way it's meant to be
I can't do everything
But I'll do anything for you
I can't do anything
'Cept be in love with you
She didn't go on with the verse beyond that point, lapsing back into humming as she spun out a couple more variations of the guitar line. Beside her, Azusa looked off into the night for a few seconds more, then said without being entirely aware of it,
"... Neither can I."
With a surprised blink, Yui stopped playing, then turned and looked at her. Azusa felt Yui's wide eyes on her and came back from the distance, but didn't look back.
"Did... I say that out loud?" she wondered, sounding no more than mildly curious.
"Uh-huh," Yui replied, nodding.
"Oh," said Azusa. "Hmm."
Then, rising, she said, "I should probably get back to bed. I know I'm going to be awake at seven regardless. Good night, Yui-senpai."
"Good night, Azu-nyan," Yui replied.
She watched the younger guitarist walk to the stairs in silence, then quietly called her name just before she would've started to descend.
A bright, uncomplicated smile. "Thanks. That makes me happy."
"It makes me... confused," Azusa replied honestly.
Yui nodded, still smiling. "That's OK. I'm happy just knowing. G'night."
"... Night," Azusa said, and then took herself off to bed, where—to her retrospective surprise, come morning—she fell immediately into a peaceful sleep.
At breakfast the next morning, after serving the waffles, Ritsu abruptly declared, "So listen, I've been thinking."
"Really?" Mio wondered automatically. "What was it like?"
"You didn't hurt yourself, did you, senpai?" Azusa put in.
"With friends like these," said Ritsu with a resigned sigh. "Are you done? OK. This is serious. We all know that Kate-sensei's going to have to go back to the Big Universe for good pretty soon—right? Her deal at Sato Academy was only to finish out the term in Sawa-chan's place, then she's got to go back to her own stuff. The school year out there starts in the fall. Right, Yui?"
"Right," said Yui.
"So I've been thinking—I don't know about you guys, maybe I shouldn't speak for you, but I'm not ready for this thing to be over. We've learned so much in the time she's been here, and I think she's still got a lot to teach us. And I think we've still got something to offer her, too. I wouldn't feel right about it with... you know, everything else that's happened recently. It'd be like leaving before the end of the mover. You know?"
"I... well, I agree with everything you said, Ritsu-senpai, but what can we do about it?" Azusa wondered. "We can't force her to stay."
"No," Mio agreed, then added wryly, "And it's not like we can go with her when she goes."
"Ah," said Ritsu with an upraised finger, "but—"
"What if we could?" she and Mugi said together, then glanced at each other and grinned conspiratorially.
"Um... what?" said Mio.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
"Romeo and Juliet" by
E P U (colour) 2017