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
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Roll With the Changes"
Ritsu Tainaka woke up, sat up, and briefly wondered where the hell she was.
Technically, one answer to that question was "nowhere", since, as she recalled after a few moments' total disorientation, she was aboard a starliner in hyperspace, and thus did not presently exist anywhere in the ordinary physical universe.
This was a disquieting thought to someone who had been born and raised in a world still accustomed to regarding itself as alone in its peculiar cosmos. I mean, sure, she knew about the "big universe", everyone with an education in Dìqiú had read about the Veil Nexus gates, and Zipang, and so on. If you wanted to get particular about it, this wasn't even Ritsu's first trip outside, since she'd once tagged along with Mio and her parents on a trip to visit Mio's uncle, who lived in Saikyō. That was in... what... the third grade? What was her cousin's name? Yuki? Something like that. She was about the same age, nice kid, a little weird. Ritsu couldn't remember much about her other than her large collection of model tanks, which, she reflected, she would consider much cooler now than she had as a little kid.
Shaking her head to clear it, Ritsu switched on the tiny nightlight built into the headboard of her bunk and looked around the double stateroom. Mio's bunk was empty, the covers rumpled and thrown back. Ritsu wondered whether she'd gone to the bathroom—pardon, the head—but then saw the little lamp by the door was green, showing that the cubicle was vacant and ready for use.
Ritsu yawned and picked up her phone from the bedside stand. Three-thirty-six in the morning, Galactic Standard Time, which she'd set the phone to during passenger orientation. It wouldn't work as a phone out here, but she'd brought it anyway to use as a watch and camera until she could score some hardware that worked at their destination. What time was it back in Sakuragaoka? Only an hour off, but she couldn't remember in which direction. Still the middle of the dang night, anyway.
She turned off the nightlight, lay back down, and stared at the ceiling for a while, hoping that she'd either go back to sleep, or Mio would come back from wherever she'd gone. When ten minutes had gone by and neither of those things showed any sign of happening, she got up with a muted grumble, fumbled her way into shorts and a not-entirely-disreputable T-shirt, found her slippers, and went out into the corridor.
The lights were low out here, in keeping with the line's custom of simulating nighttime at the traditionally appropriate hours in the passenger areas of its ships. No one else was about, which was not entirely surprising. Ritsu wandered up the hall, resisting a random urge to pause outside the door to Yui and Azusa's cabin and listen.
Pervert, she chided herself, blushing slightly, as she continued along the corridor. They'd never be awake at this hour. And the doors are soundproof anyway.
She glanced into the nook where the vending machines were, but there was no one in there, so there was only one logical place where Mio could be. One deck up and three frames forward, she entered the second-class passengers' observation lounge.
As she had the one other time she'd visited this compartment before, shortly after the voyage began, Ritsu had to stop inside the door and just take in the view for a moment. As befit its name, the lounge was built with huge, sloping, panoramic windows taking up most of its forward wall, curving around to the sides of the compartment, giving an almost unobstructed view of the ship's tapered prow and what lay beyond. At the moment, this was the whirling blue-white chaos of hyperspace, which, to a first-time space traveler like Ritsu, was simultaneously awe-inspiring and faintly terrifying.
As she pulled her focus back from the view of hyperspace to the room itself, Ritsu saw a single figure sitting on one of the couches at the front, gazing out. Even in silhouette, with only her head and shoulders not hidden by the back of the sofa, Ritsu recognized Mio Akiyama immediately. With a faint I-thought-so smile, she walked around one end of the couch and sat down at the end.
Mio was jarred out of her reverie by suddenly being joined on the couch, but it passed immediately as she saw that the person who'd joined her was Ritsu and not some random fellow passenger.
"Oh... hey, Ritsu," she said, sounding distracted.
"Hey," Ritsu replied. "What's up?"
Mio shrugged. "Woke up, couldn't get back to sleep."
"Yeah, same," Ritsu agreed, nodding. Conversational mojo exhausted, they sat and stared in silence at the swirling unreality for a while.
Then, out of nowhere, Mio observed, "Hyperspace is scary... but it's also really beautiful."
Ritsu laughed. "Ha! It's 'the moon is beautiful tonight' for the interstellar generation."
Mio nodded, still looking out the window. "Mm."
Ritsu eyed her. "Uh... this is the part where you bash me on the head and yell 'I didn't mean it like that!'"
"Mm," Mio repeated. Then, still not looking at her, she said as if thinking aloud, "What if I did?"
"... Come again?" said Ritsu.
"What if I did mean it like that?" said Mio.
After some moments' consideration, the most trenchant reply Ritsu could think of was, "Uhhhh..."
Mio got up and slowly walked a few steps toward the window, still speaking as if lost in thought. "Because if I did mean it like that, that'd be a pretty big deal, right? I mean, that would change everything. That'd take the last 11 years and just... turn them on their head. Nothing would ever be the same again."
With that, she abruptly turned, making eye contact with Ritsu for the first time, and said, "Right?"
Ritsu stared blankly at her for a few seconds... then smiled.
"Same old Mio," she said, then sprang from the couch and hugged her. "Always got to take the long way around."
"Wait. You sound like—you knew?!"
"Sure," Ritsu replied. "How dumb d'you think I am? For example, deny it all you want, it's obvious 'Winter Days' is about me." Leaning back, she pulled the elastic she wore for sleeping out of her hair and let her bangs fall over her eyes. "Do you really like the way I look with my hair down? I think it looks goofy."
Mio shoved her to arms' length and stared indignantly into her face. "You—I—why didn't you say anything?!"
Ritsu's face reddened. "What, you think you're the only shy person in the universe?" she replied.
"Well, no, but... you're the least shy person I know, apart from maybe Yui!"
"Yeah, well... not about this," Ritsu said, her blush deepening. "Besides, y'know, I... thought I might be wrong. You're always telling me I don't know how to read the room. And if I was, and I brought it up... jeez. I'd just die." Then, putting her fists on her hips, she went on, "And it's not like I haven't been giving you any signals, for cripes' sake! I've been flirting with you for years at this point and you're always just, 'Ugh. Idiot.'"
"I thought you were joking!" Mio protested. "Like always! In fact, how do I know you're not messing with me right now?"
"Well, it's a fair question," Ritsu conceded.
Mio scowled. "I knew it—" she began, but before she could go on, Ritsu darted forward, pulled down her head, and kissed her.
"—Hmmph!" said Mio, her grey eyes going wide with shock.
She blinked hard a couple of times, trying to dispel the illusion, but it kept happening. Presently, satisfied that she was properly engaged, Ritsu let go of her head and put her arms around Mio's neck instead, pressing herself nearer. With her conscious mind paralyzed by bewilderment, Mio's instincts took over, closing her own arms around Ritsu's back, and her eyes fluttered shut as she leaned into the kiss.
This went on for either six hours or 30 seconds, depending on which chronometer you went by, until at last Ritsu pulled herself back, disengaging with an audible puah! sound, and looked Mio in the face.
"There," the drummer said, a little breathlessly. "Did that feel like I was messing with you? 'Cause if it did, I dunno what to tell you."
Mio's eyes blinked open again, meeting Ritsu's in the gloom of the nightlit lounge, and saw in them a mix of fierce determination, embarrassment, and more than a trace of fear. Her own, she was sure, were still mostly confounded, shading more and more toward reciprocal embarrassment as what had just happened worked its way slowly through the gears inside her head.
"Wh—th—I," she stammered, raising a hand to touch fingertips to her lips. "That... that was my first kiss," she finally said, sounding as much amazed as anything else.
"So? You figure it wasn't mine?" Ritsu replied, sounding vaguely annoyed.
"... What's going to happen to us?" Mio wondered, her voice small.
"Nothing! Everything! I dunno!" said Ritsu. "Did you like it? If you didn't, I'll get the heck outta here and we can pretend it never happened. If you did..." The look of mingled irritation and embarrassment on her face faded away, replaced by her familiar cocky grin, and she chuckled. "Then it looks like everybody in Hōkago Tea Time is gay. What were the odds of that?"
Mio blinked at her again, the puzzlement and dismay swept off her own face by bemusement.
Then, as if her voice belonged to someone else, she heard herself say wryly, "Well, we do come from an all-girl school."
The two of them stood there for a few seconds, looking blankly at each other. Then the corner of Ritsu's mouth twitched; she snickered; Mio did the same; and they were falling back into each other's arms again, helpless with laughter this time.
A few minutes later, when they'd calmed down, they were back on the couch—sitting much closer together this time—looking out at hyperspace again.
"So..." said Ritsu.
"So," Mio agreed.
"You and me."
"Me and you."
"We're a thing now?"
"Huh. How 'bout that."
"How 'bout it."
They sat for a while longer, hand in hand, watching the space-time continuum go by.
"I guess I should stop hitting you," said Mio out of the blue.
"Well, I mean... it was funny when we were kids, but if we're... in a relationship now... it feels kind of abusive."
Ritsu grinned. "Eh, I don't mind. I got a pretty hard head." Shooting Mio a sly look, she added, "I oughta by now, you've been toughening it up for me since kindergarten."
Mio reached across herself and bonked Ritsu gently on the head with her free hand. "Dummy."
Smiling happily, Ritsu leaned against her, head on her shoulder. "See, now, that's my Mio."
A few hours later, at breakfast in the second-class dining room, as Ritsu yawned for the third time in two minutes and Mio regarded her wiffle-fruit waffle with a certain bleary detachment, Azusa Nakano asked,
"Are you guys OK? You both seem pretty out of it."
"Huh?" said Mio, blinking back to full wakefulness with a visible effort. "Oh, yeah. I'm fine, Azusa."
"Yeah, everything's... great," Ritsu agreed, nodding. "All systems goaaawwwwhhhhnnn," she added, the last vowel trailing off into another yawn. "... Sorry," she said. "Didn't sleep real well last night, I guess."
"And kept Mio-chan awake in the process, hm?" asked Tsumugi Kotobuki with a mischievous smile.
Ritsu and Mio glanced at each other, went simultaneously red, and looked away.
"Whyyyy would you say something like thaaat?" said Ritsu in a sort of weird falsetto, which it took Azusa a moment to realize was the worst attempt at forced nonchalance she'd ever heard.
"Seriouslyyyy, don't make it weeeeird, Mugi," Mio agreed, and Azusa was forced to concede that hers was even worse.
Feeling her own face getting a little red, Azusa looked to her left to see Yui Hirasawa's reaction. If pressed, she would have had to admit she was expecting her girlfriend to be baffled, missing the whole subtext, because even now that they were a couple, she instinctively expected Yui to be so perfectly naïve that these things went straight past her.
Instead, she saw that Yui's face wore a smile similar to Mugi's (although not quite as... well, sinister wasn't really right, but there was a definite je ne sais quoi to the blonde's smile that wasn't there in Yui's), and a moment later, the guitarist said cheerfully,
"Wow, you guys are as obvious as a weaselmonkey on cactus juice."
Then, while everyone else at the table stared at her surprise, she picked up the communal can of Reddi-Wip and sprayed an extra dollop on her own waffle, then offered it to Ritsu and said, "Congratulations!"
"Uh... thanks?" said Ritsu, not sure whether she was tendering it for the sentiment or the condiment.
"You... don't seem surprised," Mio said.
"We're not," said Mugi unconcernedly, spreading jam on a slice of buttered toast.
"Totally not," Yui agreed, forking a triangle of waffle into Azusa's mouth.
"Mn-nn," concurred Azusa, nodding.
"It seems entirely fitting," Mugi added, pouring herself some fresh tea, "that Ricchan, who's always in such a rush, would be the last to arrive."
Yui nodded sagely. "It has a certain symmetry to it, wouldn't you say, Kotobuki-ojōsama?" she asked in her most pompous voice, rolling the r in symmetry to within an inch of its life.
"Quite so, Hirasawa-sensei, quite so," Mugi agreed. "More tea?"
"Why, thank you, Kotobuki-ojōsama, that's very kind of you," said Yui, presenting her teacup on its saucer to be refilled, then lifting it with the proper pinky-out grip and sipping in a most refined way. "One does enjoy this Irish breakfast blend," she observed. "It's busy, but never precocious."
"OK, you're just being mean now, stop that," said Azusa. "Seriously, you two, surprised or not, congratulations on making it official."
"We never actually said we did that," Mio pointed out.
"Yeah, you guys are totally assuming," Ritsu agreed.
"Oh? Are you saying we're wrong?" said Mugi.
Mio and Ritsu looked at each other for a moment, their mirrored looks of bemusement making Yui giggle; then, blushing, they grinned and faced their bandmates again, taking each other's nearer hands and resting them on the table.
"No, you're totally not wrong," Ritsu admitted, her other hand going sheepishly behind her head.
"Well, Mugi is, about what kept us awake," Mio said, her blush deepening.
"Yeah, OK, that was totally wrong," Ritsu agreed.
"We were just talking," Mio insisted.
"There's a lot that goes into suddenly switching gears in a relationship like that," said Ritsu.
"You guys should all know that already," Mio pointed out. "So... we talked. A lot."
"And made out a bit," Ritsu conceded.
"Ritsu," said Mio.
"Well we did! Sorry."
Mio palmed her face with her free hand—but, Azusa and Yui noticed with a shared little smile, didn't let go of Ritsu's with the other.
"We don't want any details," Azusa informed them.
"Well, Mugi-chan might," Yui said.
"I'm fine for now," said Mugi serenely.
Ritsu laughed. "OK, OK," she said. "Control yourselves, you animals. You're gonna give Mio a complex."
"Your ears are just as red as mine," Mio muttered, unable to keep a slightly goofy smile off her face.
After two more days of idyllic loafing, the Princess Leeanna arrived in the B'hava'el system. Just before noon, the regular shuttle from Babylon 6 to Port Jeradar on Jeraddo arrived, dropping off another batch of students bound for the Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute.
The Friday before the start of the fall term at DSM was traditionally reserved for the arrival of new students, so the bulk of those arriving were freshmen, but among those debarking in this batch were the five newly-transferred juniors who constituted Hōkago Tea Time. Still a bit bedazzled by the experience of passing through Customs and Immigration aboard the great IPO station orbiting Bajor, they picked up their instruments, dragged their rolling suitcases out of the station, and paused, blinking in the midday sunshine, while the first-years streamed onto the buses waiting to take them up to campus.
Standing off to one side was the party that had preceded them to this moon to await them. Kaitlyn Hutchins and Avatar Korra didn't have the traditional sign announcing who they were there to meet, partly because they were the only people meeting anybody from that shuttle run apart from the DSM buses, but mostly because the full-grown tiger and giant polar bear dog who were with them made any other identification unnecessary.
"Niri!" Yui cried delightedly as the polar bear dog gamboled over to greet her. She dropped her suitcase and threw her arms around the animal's enormous neck, giggling with glee as she was lifted completely off the ground.
"Ladies," said Kaitlyn with a smile. "Welcome to Jeraddo!"
"The rest of your stuff is already here," Korra put in. "C'mon and see your new digs. Oh, here, let Niri carry your bags," she said, and she helped them lash the suitcases to the panniers on the polar bear dog's harness.
"Oh my, is that a saddle?" Mugi wondered.
"Sure is," Korra confirmed, then added with a grin, "It doesn't make that much difference on terrain like this, but back home in the South Pole, Niri's a lot better at running on snow than I am." Turning the grin to Yui, she said, "Want to try it?"
"Sure!" Yui agreed, nodding eagerly.
"Up you get, then," said Korra, showing her the best way to get into the saddle. "Ever ridden an animal before?"
"Sky bison plenty of times, but I'm usually not driving," Yui admitted.
"Heh, well, it's kind of like that, only on the ground. The reins are really just for making... suggestions," Korra said with a wink. "Niri usually knows where she's trying to go better than I do, anyway."
"Ha, this is like a joke I saw in a movie one time," Ritsu said. "I need a horse!"
Mio supplied the straight line without hesitation: "We don't have horses. Only cats and dogs."
"Then give me one of those big enough to ride!" Ritsu declared, and everyone laughed.
"Corwin's uncle is never going to live that movie down," Kaitlyn said fondly as the party proceeded up the street.
"Oh hey, they have a Celestial Pizza here?" said Azusa, pointing.
"Awesome!" Ritsu cried.
"That's the original Celestial Pizza," Kate said. "Well, almost. The original original was in Worcester, but they moved here along with the school. Same crew, though."
"Excellent," said Mio.
With Kate in the lead, they turned off the main drag and walked another couple of blocks, which was all it took to get out of Port Jeradar's business district and into the sparse residential district at the very edge of town. From here, they could see the sparkling sweep of Lake Jeradar, and on its far side, the white and red buildings of the DSM campus, with the Duelists' Castle commanding the vista from the top of its hill and a blue-white mountain range beyond.
"Wow," said Azusa.
"Well, here we are," said Kaitlyn, indicating the last house at the end of the street.
It was an ordinary-enough-looking dwelling, not much different from the third-century-modern house Kate had lived in during her stay in Sakuragaoka, though a little larger and in a slightly different, more angular style (none of them had enough knowledge of "big universe" architecture to recognize the Bauhaus aesthetic by name). Its three stories fit in well with the others on the street and the look of Port Jeradar generally.
By the front door was affixed a brass plate bearing the words:
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Music Faculty and Student Housing
"That name seems familiar," said Mio.
"Isn't he an Earth composer?" asked Azusa.
"That's right," said Mugi, nodding. "I played a few of his pieces, back when I had to do classical piano recitals for my parents."
"They told me I could call it whatever I liked," said Kate, shrugging, "so I went for the alliteration. Could just as easily have been Haydn House, but I get Handel's work stuck in my head more often," she added with a grin.
Inside, Handel House was as the outside had suggested, with clean lines, lots of open space, and an uncluttered, welcoming air. The kitchen wasn't as elaborate as the one at Kate's brother's palace by the mountain lake in Dìqiú, but Ritsu pronounced it satisfactory after a quick inspection, after which they all gathered in the living room to unload the baggage and receive a briefing.
"OK," said Kate. "First order of business: This place is an official DSM residence facility, so even though we're on this side of the lake, the house is considered part of the school. That means you're subject to the complete Student Conduct Code while you're here, including the parts that only apply on campus.
"I don't expect that's going to be a problem for anyone here," she added wryly, "but as your faculty advisor, I'm required to tell you. And now I have. Moving on! Your bedrooms are on the third floor. As the token old person, I claim the one on the second floor, so that I don't have to drag my agèd bones up and down so many stairs." That got a giggle, after which she continued, "Apportion yourselves as you see fit, I'm not your mom. Just keep the noise down after 9 PM. As previously noted, I'm old, and old people need lots of rest.
"Furthermore!" said Kate, raising a finger to stop a second wave of giggles. "We do have a rehearsal space here, but you'll also have a club room in Churchill Hall, and I encourage you to use it as much as possible. Living this far from the rest of campus, you might have a tendency to feel a little detached from the school community, and it's part of my job to minimize that problem as much as possible, so my hope is that you'll treat this place pretty much like you did your own homes back at Sato Academy, and spend as much time as possible on the main campus."
"Works for me, I can't wait to meet some new folks," said Ritsu. "Speaking of which, they have boys here, right?" Nudging her recently-acknowledged partner with an elbow, she said, "Think you're ready for that, Mio?"
"Shut up," said Mio, blushing. "I don't care about boys."
"Yes, Ritsu, they do have boys here," said Kaitlyn patiently. "And others, too. There are life forms at this school you've never even imagined."
"President Tiefeld and Dean Montaigne are a little concerned that you'll all have some culture shock to deal with, coming from a place as predominately human as Dìqiú," Korra put in, "but I showed them some of my snaps from my last trip to the Spirit World, so they know it's not as mundane a place as they were thinking," she added with a wink.
"And finally," said Kate. "The rest of the student body doesn't get in until tomorrow, and today the freshmen are going to have their hands full moving in, so we'll take it easy and get settled in ourselves for the rest of today, and tomorrow, while the rest of the upperclassmen are arriving, we'll head over and explore the campus. Sound good?"
"Sounds good to me," said Yui eagerly, to general agreement.
"Well, I guess my work here is done," said a grinning Korra. "Oh—almost. Here, Yui, this is for you." So saying, she dug a folded sheaf of documents out of a pocket and handed them over.
"Huh? What's this?" Yui wondered, unfolding the papers.
"It's the paperwork you'll need to have Niri on campus," Korra explained. "I know, kinda silly, but them's the rules." Nodding toward Kate and Sergei, she added, "Rules they originally had to make up for these two, back in the day."
"Some people just don't appreciate the finer things in life," said Kaitlyn, petting the tiger, who harrumphed in agreement.
"So," Korra went on, "those are her immunization records, a note from a vet that she's in good health, her certification of good behavior... basically, she won't eat anyone unless you tell her to," she said with a faint smirk. "And of course proof that she's not stolen, or an endangered species, or anything like that..."
Yui looked up from the topmost of the papers with wide eyes. "This has my name listed as her owner."
"Well, tempted as I am, I'm not going to enroll here," said Korra wryly. "And I think I would need dynamite to separate her from you at this point," she added, nodding toward the dog in question, who had gotten bored and was now lying with her massive head resting on Yui's feet, snoring gently. "I had a hard enough time just convincing her to come this far with Kate and me instead of on the liner with you guys. I think she only really agreed because it meant she got to hang with Serge."
"You..." Yui sniffled, her eyes misting. "Are you serious?"
Korra thwacked her on the shoulder in a friendly sort of way. "'Course I'm serious. I wouldn't do this kind of thing for just anybody," she admitted, "but I've seen the way you are with her, and I'm well aware that Niri knows her own mind."
"But... I mean... she's your spirit animal," Yui said, on the verge of bursting into tears. "Is that even allowed?"
Korra returned the hand to the younger girl's shoulder, gripping gently this time. "She's chosen you, Yui. Just as she chose me when she was a puppy. If I insisted, she'd stay with me, but we both know it wouldn't be fair. People—and spirits—have to go their own way." Then the Avatar grinned again and said, "Anyway, don't worry about me. I've got my eye on a pup from Niri's mom's latest litter. Or he's got his eye on me," she amended wryly.
"I... I don't know what to say," Yui said, then threw her arms around the Avatar and went into full-on blubber mode. "Thank you so much!"
"You're welcome, Yui," said Korra, returning the hug. "You two look after each other, OK? I know Niri will take good care of you."
"I'll—I'll take good care of her, too!" Yui promised, pulling herself away so she could bow properly.
"We all will," Azusa agreed, bending down to pet Niri's head. Looking up at Korra with a smile, she added, "If it takes a village to raise a child, I imagine it takes a whole band to look after a polar bear dog."
"Indeed," said Mugi, nodding with a bright smile.
"Heck yeah!" Ritsu agreed.
"Wow," said Mio.
"OK, I gotta jet," said Korra, bowing to them all with a waterbender's salute. "You guys behave yourselves. I'll stop in and check on you now and then."
They all showed her to the door together, showering her with further thanks and fond farewells, then adjourned back to the living room, where Mugi stretched out on one of the couches while Yui, still looking slightly stunned, curled up on the floor in front of that couch with Niri and Azusa.
"Well, Yui, I guess you've got a cat and a dog now," said Ritsu with a grin, reaching down and ruffling Azusa's feline spirit ears (which, it hadn't escaped any of her bandmates, had been out pretty much full-time since the end of the summer mini-tour).
"So inappropriate," Azusa complained, although she went pretty much boneless at the touch (admittedly, that probably had as much to do with being embraced from behind by Yui at the same moment).
"Right, I'm gonna get started on lunch," Ritsu went on. "Mio, you wanna give me a hand?"
"What are we having?" Mugi wondered.
"I think I saw the stuff for a nice Phoenix House stir fry in the fridge. That do you?"
"That sounds lovely."
"Well, then, comin' right up." She rubbed her hands together. Halfway to the kitchen, she called gleefully back over her shoulder, "This year is gonna be amazing, you guys!"
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
"Roll With the Changes"
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
E P U (colour) 2020