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
© 2019 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Who Do You Love"
Councilman Sokka Memorial Amphitheatre, the concert venue in Republic City Park, was packed and ringing to a very different sort of music than it normally boasted on this Friday night. Ten thousand of the city's more discerning rock enthusiasts had come out, on relatively short notice, to take advantage of a rare opportunity to see one of the hottest bands of the "big universe" play in their very own town.
This was the final show of the Art of Noise's three-week "microtour" of the cities of the old Western Empire, and despite having been dropped with virtually no fanfare, the buzz—and the crowds—had built up steadily as the musicians traveled from town to town. The tour's designer seemed to have taken this into account, for on its first few dates, they were booked into relatively small rooms, but the venue sizes increased along with the demand so that by tonight, at the largest venue on the tour, they had drawn that tour's biggest audience yet.
Part of the buzz came from the Art's supporting band, a locally-grown all-girl group hailing from Sakuragaoka, down the coast from Republic City. They began the microtour as complete unknowns outside their hometown, but by a few days into the tour, the word had starting going around that they were not the sort of opening act one simply endures to get to the headliners. What was more, the Art seemed to know it too, because the local girls didn't just play a few songs and then leave in the customary manner. After priming the audience with their high-energy opening set, they stayed right there on stage, collaborating with the senior band in an unusual fashion that was part clinic, part jam session, and part battle of the bands. Not for nothing, the word on the lightningweb said, was this miniature tour called When Bands Collide.
Waiting in the wings for her cue to bound on stage and introduce herself and the rest of the Art, Azalynn dv'Ir Natashkan watched Hōkago Tea Time slam to the end of their set. The venue was different, and so was the setlist, but the vibe out there was so much like a dream she'd once had, shortly after meeting these girls, that she felt a strange sense of unreality settling over her as she watched them lay it down.
It had to be the biggest crowd these five had ever played in front of—probably greater by two orders of magnitude to any they'd seen before embarking on this tour—but it didn't seem to be bothering them in the slightest. No more did the heat of this sultry summer night, which had pushed them to abandon their blazers and ties after the first song. Yui, of course, was working the crowd like everyone out there was a personal friend of long standing, but Azalynn was pleased to see that even Mio, who was sometimes almost paralytically shy, seemed to be into it.
They closed out "Cagayake! Girls" with an evolved flourish that hadn't been there at the start of the tour, then paused to hydrate. As they did, Azalynn noticed a conspiratorial glance make the rounds out there. She, in turn, glanced at Kate, who grinned, raising her eyebrows, to show that she'd noticed it too. Ordinarily, Yui would introduce Azalynn at this point and the main part of the show would begin, but it looked like the members of Hōkago Tea Time had something different planned for this show's handover.
"Thank you!" Yui cried, bounding back to the front of the stage. "You've been amazing tonight, Republic City! It's almost time for us to bring on the main event—" She paused for a renewed wave of cheers, then continued in a lower voice that hushed the crowd, "—but right now..."
Azalynn felt a chill race up her spine. This was in the dream too, she realized, and she nearly held her breath as she watched Yui go on,
"Right now... right now it's time to..."
Behind her, Ritsu started hammering her drums, playing a driving intro line no one had heard from this group so far on the tour, and with huge grins, Yui and Mio leaned to their stand mics and roared together,
"Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!"
Azusa Nakano slept late the next day, and not just by her own relatively conservative standards. She woke to find the band's suite at the Phoenix House completely deserted. The only sign of the other occupants was a note on the living room table, informing her that they would be touristing it up downtown this afternoon, and she should give them a call when she wanted to meet up with them.
"Spirits," she muttered to herself as she padded, blinking, into the bathroom to sort herself out for the day. "Even Yui-senpai is gone. Jun will never let me hear the end of this if she finds out..."
Still, she reflected as she dressed after showering, she had a good reason for it. Beyond last night's show representing the greatest single outlay of performance energy any of them had ever made, she alone among her bandmates had been working on a massive side project for the past four weeks—weeks that had already been a whirlwind of activity that made that first school festival seem like a study hall in comparison.
Having brought all of that to something like completion on the day before the Republic City Park show, Azusa felt she had every right to be a bit tired. It would all be worth it, though.
If it had worked.
Azusa tied her sneakers, picked up her bag, made sure she had her key, and went downstairs. The lobby was quiet, nobody checking in or out just at the moment. As Azusa passed the front desk, the clerk on duty called out to her, "Oh, Miss Nakano, a telegram came for you this morning."
Trying to seem nonchalant, and not to look as if every particle of her being had been simultaneously hoping for and dreading that news, Azusa went to the desk and took the thin yellow envelope the clerk was holding out.
"Thank you," she said, pleased with herself at how calm she sounded, and she tucked the telegram into her bag as if it were no big deal and left the hotel.
She walked around for almost an hour with the unopened telegram in her bag, feeling vaguely silly about her hesitation, trying to reason with herself. It wasn't that big a deal, surely? Either it contained the news she hoped for, or it didn't. Even if it didn't, it was far from the end of the world. She could practically hear Ritsu-senpai chiding her about her habit of getting herself all worked up for no good reason. Just open the dang thing, that's what she would do. Rip off the bandage. Find out what's what.
Azusa sat down on a bench by a small park, took out the telegram, and looked at it for a few more minutes. Then, with quick, almost angry movements, she tore the end off the envelope, pulled out the form inside, and read it before she could change her mind again.
The message was short, clearly written, and completely unambiguous. Just like that, the uncertainty was gone.
She folded it up and put it away again, got out her GearPhone, and sent a text message. The response came back almost instantly. Azusa sat where she was for a few moments longer, regarding the little screen, then rose, pocketed the phone, and walked back toward the middle of downtown with a purposeful air.
Yui was waiting for her on the observation deck at the top of the Harmony Tower, a bean roll in each hand. She smiled brightly as she spotted her bandmate emerging from the elevator, hopping up and down and waving, as if the younger girl would have any trouble locating the only person in the place who had a polar bear dog with her.
"Azu-nyan!" Yui cried, hugging her. "You're finally up. You crashed really hard!" she declared. "We tried to wake you up rather than leave you behind all alone, but you wouldn't budge." Giving her a comically serious frown, she went on, "I think you've been working too hard. It's not good for your body."
Azusa chuckled. "You're probably right," she conceded. "But don't worry. The hard part is done now."
Yui looked puzzled by that cryptic remark, but she didn't press the issue until they were settled on one of the outward-facing benches overlooking the city. This afforded them at least some privacy (reinforced somewhat by Niri's massive presence, which tended to keep people from wandering too close to their corner of the deck).
Azusa ate her bean roll, which was the only lunch she'd had, before speaking. When she did, she seemed at first to be addressing her remarks to the city, rather than the person sitting next to her.
"It figures I would find you up here."
"I like being up high," Yui said, shrugging as she dusted the crumbs of her own vanished roll from her tights. "It's probably because of Mom."
Azusa nodded. "Mm. Do you remember the night when I came up the tower at Bellehaven and found you playing 'Romeo and Juliet'?"
"Of course," Yui replied.
"I... said something then," Azusa said slowly.
"Mm-hmm," agreed Yui, nodding.
"Well... the thing is, I meant that, I knew I meant it, but I wasn't sure how I meant it. You know?"
Yui nodded again. "I know," she said.
"So I've been thinking about it. A lot," Azusa went on. "Eventually, I figured that out, but that left me with a different problem: what I should do about the answer."
Now, for the first time, she turned her head and met Yui's eyes. She saw nothing there but interest, and a touch of concern for how difficult this obviously was for Azusa. No dismay, but no expectation either; letting the situation take its own shape, as she always did.
"Finally," said Azusa, "I realized that there were only two ways I could go. I could do what I usually do, and psychoanalyze myself about it forever..." A faint smile touched her face then, as she went on, "Or I could do what Yui would do."
Yui tilted her head curiously. "What I would do?"
Azusa nodded. "I could close my eyes... take a deep breath... and jump."
And with that, and no further explanation, she leaned in and kissed the elder girl.
In her head, it felt like it lasted for half an hour, but was only a few seconds out in the real world. At its end, she sat back, studying the look on Yui's face carefully, trying to read her reaction as her own heart pounded.
For a moment, Yui's face remained completely blank with surprise. Then, slowly, another expression started to spread over it, pushing the shock aside and erasing it...
... in favor of a look of pure, unalloyed delight.
"Azu-nyan!" she cried, and lunged forward to wrap the younger girl in an embrace so fierce it carried them both clean off the bench and onto the observation deck floor.
"Yui-senpai!" Azusa sputtered, one hand grabbing ineffectively for the bench, as everyone on that side of the deck who hadn't already noticed them turned to stare.
Meanwhile, at an elegant restaurant in the financial district, no one noticed the up-and-coming rock star and the zaibatsu heiress having a quiet lunch at one of the corner tables. Everyone knew they were there, of course; but no one noticed them. It wasn't the kind of restaurant where such people are noticed. That was how it could attract and retain such a clientele in the first place.
"You know," said Sawako casually, "I can't help but feel a bit one-upped. I mean, here my band is finally hitting the big time in Dìqiú, and then you five skip right past that step and go straight to the big universe." She sighed mock-philosophically. "I suppose it's the destiny of great teachers to be surpassed by their best students."
Mugi chuckled, regarding her with a skeptical air. "I wouldn't call what we're going there to do 'hitting the big time,' exactly," she said.
"You say that, but once you get out there, I don't think you'll be able to help it," Sawako replied. "Particularly not in the company you'll be keeping. How even you managed to arrange all this, I'll never know."
"Would you believe me if I told you it really started with Ritchan?" asked Mugi with a mischievous smile.
Now it was Sawako's turn to chuckle as she said, "I might."
"Well, she was the one who decided to send our demo to Avatar Korra," said Mugi. "Everything else has followed from there."
Sawako nodded. "What does your father think of you going on this adventure?" she wondered.
"He sees it as an opportunity, unsurprisingly," Mugi reported, sounding unconcerned. "A chance for me to network with some of the key people out there. To present the Kotobuki Group in the best possible light, of course," she added in a gently pointed parody of what she called her father's "tycoon voice".
"And possibly make an... advantageous alliance?" Sawako suggested with a sly lift of one eyebrow.
Mugi shook her head, smiling. "I'm sure he's long since given up on that idea. Mother, possibly not so much, but she'll figure it out eventually."
Sawako laughed, quietly, to avoid disturbing the other diners. Then, becoming serious (albeit still with a sentimental smile), she said, "I'll miss you while you're gone, Tsumugi."
"I'll miss you, too, Sawako," Mugi replied, and then continued in exactly the same pleasantly matter-of-fact tone, "But you'll probably be too busy to miss me all that much. I've left strict instructions for Minami and Ryō to make sure of that."
Sawako blinked, her smile taking on an overcast of puzzlement. "... What?"
Mugi grinned. "Kidding!"
Hōkago Tea Time reconvened for dinner at a noodle place Kate had recommended in the Little Water Tribe neighborhood. It was the first place Yui had been to where no one was surprised, or even a little taken aback, by the arrival of a person with a polar bear dog. In fact, the proprietor and the waitstaff recognized Niri and greeted her as a familiar guest, a phenomenon which made more sense once the girls noticed the autographed photo of Korra on the wall.
Mio and Ritsu were the last to arrive, sporting International Dangerball League shirts and bubbling over with news of the match they'd spent most of the afternoon watching. The recap took them through the appetizers and most of the way into the main course, and it wasn't until they were waiting for dessert that Azusa had an opportunity to get everyone's attention.
"You guys... I have some news," she said. "Really important news."
The others regarded her curiously. "What is it, Azusa?" Mio wondered.
"Yeah, why so serious?" asked Ritsu.
Yui looked the most surprised of all. "Are you sure you want to do it like this, Azu-nyan?" she asked, trying to keep her voice down but only really managing an obvious stage whisper.
Azusa gave her a puzzled look. "What? Oh. No, not about that," she said, as if distracted. "We'll get to that later. This is about our trip. You know how Manabe-senpai and the School Board made that arrangement with the school we're going to, so that we could go into the same grades we're already in?"
"Right," Ritsu agreed, visibly wondering where she was heading. Smirking, she added, "Good thing, too. If we had to take that placement test Kate-chan-sensei told us about, Yui would probably have to study so hard she'd forget how to talk."
Yui folded her arms, eyes closed in huffy dismissal. "I'm not even going to dignify that with a revision," she said.
"Rebuttal," Mugi put in helpfully.
"Or that," Yui added, then opened one eye and gave Ritsu a goofy grin, which sent them all off giggling.
Azusa waited patiently for them all to have it out of their systems, then said without further preliminaries, "I took the test anyway."
"You did?" asked Mio in surprise. "Why?"
"For that matter, when?" Ritsu asked. "When the heck did you have time to study for something like that with everything we've been doin' for the last month?"
"I'll bet," said Mugi with a knowing smile, "that's what you and Miki-sensei were really doing most of those afternoons."
"About half of them," Azusa confirmed.
Ritsu gave her young bandmate an impressed look. "Huh! OK. Why didn't you say anything? We'd all have helped if you'd have told us."
"Maybe she didn't mention it because she's seen how you help people study, Ritsu," Mio said.
"So cold," Ritsu complained.
"I didn't want to tell any of you about it until I knew whether it was going to work," Azusa said. Rummaging in her bag, she got out the telegram she'd received that morning, took it out of its envelope, and smoothed it on the table in front of her, turning it so the others could see. "As for why I did it... this is why."
The four older girls leaned in over the table to get a closer look at the telegram. It was a message from the Dean of Students at the Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute—the Big Universe school they had all determined to follow Kate-sensei to this fall—and it read,
YOUR COMPREHENSIVE GRADE LEVEL PLACEMENT SCORE: 1440 / 1600
THIS SCORE QUALIFIES YOU FOR PLACEMENT: GRADUATING CLASS 2412; MATRICULATION DETAILS WHEN YOU ARRIVE JERADDO
C. MONTAIGNE ED.D
Ritsu looked confused. "What's the big deal? Aren't you already in the Class of 2412?"
Azusa opened her mouth to explain, but Yui beat her to it. "They do four years of high school there, and the school year starts at a different time," she said. "So that means..."
"Yes," Azusa said. "I tested into the same grade you four are in. When we get to DSM, we'll all be juniors." Hesitantly, she added, "Technically... I'm not your kōhai any more."
"How wonderful!" said Mugi, clapping her hands.
"Yay!" Yui cried, grabbing her up in another hug (with slightly less knockback). "You're amazing, Azu-nyan!"
"Congratulations," said Mio. "You must've worked really hard, I'm impressed."
"Totally!" Ritsu agreed. "This is gonna be cool. And it might keep Yui out of jail until you turn 16!" she added with a grin.
"Ritsu..." said Mio, facepalming, while Mugi giggled.
Azusa blinked across the table at the three of them. "You... how did you... I only just..."
"We're often the last people to realize these things about ourselves," Mugi said sagely, and then the desserts arrived.
The minitour was finished, but Hōkago Tea Time had one more show to play, this one on familiar ground. Geared up and ready, the five waited behind a closed curtain, listening to the hubbub of the audience gathering outside. After a month of unfamiliar stages, this one felt like an old friend.
"It's like coming home," Mio murmured to Mugi, who smiled.
"It is home," she said. "Our first home, anyway."
Nodding agreement, Yui turned to Azusa. "What do you think, Azu-nyan? Ready to show the home crowd what we've learned?"
Azusa nodded. "You bet."
"You look good in that blue tie, kiddo," Ritsu put in. "Ready, everybody? Let's rock 'n roll. Hit it, Yui."
By the time the curtain opened, Yui was already playing the opening to HTT's version of "Smoke on the Water". They had all agreed that, cover or not, this song—polished at every date on the minitour—was the perfect way to introduce their schoolmates to the new dimension their sound had taken on under the Art of Noise's tutelage. Mio's power, Yui's energy, Mugi's exuberance, Ritsu's hard-won approximation of precision, Azusa's fresh second-frontwoman confidence: it was all here, front and center, impossible to deny or ignore.
They didn't neglect the standards, of course—Yui doubted they would ever play a show and not do "Fuwa Fuwa Time", and they could never have gotten away with playing Sato Academy without "U&I"—but the new material was the centerpiece, wrapped up with another cover, "Romeo and Juliet", as an encore.
The clapping and stomping did not abate after the band left the stage for the second time, but they had something else planned besides a second encore. When they went back out, they took six more girls with them, finally answering the question of what all that other equipment on the stage was for.
Yui savored the buzz their re-entrance created. Audience reactions were among her favorite things about performing, and she could read this home crowd almost effortlessly. They all knew Ui and Jun, of course, but who were the three blondes, and—is that Manabe-senpai?!
"Thank you, everybody!" Yui declared as she bounded back to her stand mic. "It's great to see you all again! I hope you all had a good summer. Ours was amazing!" That got a laugh; everyone in the room knew very well what Sakuragaoka's suddenly-most-famous daughters had been up to.
"We have to go soon," Yui went on, "but before we do, I want to introduce you the Light Music Club's new band! They'll be taking over for us while we're away this fall, and I know you're gonna love them!" Jostling her childhood best friend with an arm around her shoulders, she cried, "Take it away, Nodoka-chan!" and then left her to it.
Nodoka gave Yui a slightly sardonic glance as she withdrew to the side of the stage, then straightened her glasses and said dryly, "Thank you, Yui." Then, composing herself, she addressed the crowd: "Hello, everyone. My name is Nodoka."
"We know who you are!" yelled someone from the back, drawing another laugh.
Smiling patiently, Nodoka waited them out, then went on as if no one had interrupted, "And we are Frame Shift!"
Evening was gathering outside the school windows by the time the Light Music Club left the long-emptied school. Even with eleven of them, plus a polar bear dog to haul the freight and the club's new faculty advisor to supervise, it took a while to get all of Hōkago Tea Time's stuff onto a truck, and all the rest of that equipment back upstairs to the clubroom, after which Mugi and Sumire insisted on one last round of tea.
"After all," Sumire pointed out practically, "it'll be a while before we have the whole club all together again."
That gave the occasion a properly sentimental tone. Toasts of tea were drunk to the upperclasswomen, to the Original Four and their upstart fifth, to the new kids and the wandering blondes, to Manabe-senpai's patience and the prospect of a club that actually filed all its paperwork correctly and on time, to the continued success of Death Devil, to adventures in the Big Universe, to Miku-chan-sensei and Kate-chan-sensei and a galaxy that is not only stranger than you suppose, but stranger than you can suppose.
And then, as the last rays of the setting sun bathed the streets in orange, Hōkago Tea Time took their leave at the school gates with many hugs and a few tears and promises to keep in touch. Miku and the members of Frame Shift stood by the gates and watched the five of them (and Niri) walk off toward the train station, carrying their instruments on their backs, the two guitarists hand in hand and singing an old Dire Straits song while Ritsu kept time on whatever street furniture they were passing.
"I told you she was sleeping with one of the senpai," Jun remarked.
"Jun!" said Ui.
"What?" Jun asked, while all the others laughed.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
"Who Do You Love"
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
and featuring characters from Kantai Collection created by
Miku Hatsune appears courtesy of Crypton Future Media/piapro
E P U (colour) 2019