Breakfast in the Akiyama household that morning was a quiet, reflective affair.
It was clear to the elder Akiyamas from the way Mio and Ritsu (who had apparently slept over unexpectedly) appeared that neither of them had slept well, but it was nothing like the happy, too much energy, that-was-great sort of vibe they might have expected the night after a rock concert.
Instead, both girls seemed subdued and a bit melancholy, as if something terrible had happened; but neither seemed willing to talk about it, and the adults made a silent decision not to pry too much right now. If Mio needed to talk to them about it, they trusted her, and knew she would.
Besides, it obviously wasn't anything too drastic - the only big news in the morning paper was about the Avatar somehow-or-other opening a new Spirit Portal in Republic City while working to quell the recent riots there, and there was no way they knew anyone who would be mixed up in that.
Not long after Mio and Ritsu had finished eating, they went out to where Ritsu had left her scooter, keeping their voices hushed as she pulled on her helmet and jacket.
"I just... I don't know, Ritsu. I don't have any idea what to do. He sounded so sad."
Ritsu finished tightening the strap of her helmet, turned, and gave her friend a hug. "I know. My heart still feels broken after reading that. I don't think even Mugi would be able to get us to the South Pole in time to do much, though. So let's get together and see if we can figure out something."
Mio returned the hug, then stepped back. "I... OK. I'd rather talk to everyone than just sit in my room worrying, anyway."
Ritsu got settled onto the seat of her Type 4, then leaned down and kicked the engine to life. "Exactly! I'll see you in a little bit - I want to go home and change before I start getting hold of everyone!"
Mio watched her friend drive off down the street, beeping her scooter's horn in farewell, then looked down at her shoes for a long moment before she looked up, took a deep breath, and turned back towards her front door.
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
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"More Than a Feeling"
"I'm back," said Ritsu, a little listlessly, as she kicked off her shoes in the foyer of her house.
For a moment there was no response; then her younger brother Satoshi leaned into the hallway from the living room, looking mildly surprised.
"Are you just getting in?" he asked, puzzled.
"Yeah," Ritsu replied, hanging up her jacket. "I slept over at Mio's last night. Mom knows, I emailed her."
"Oh," said Satoshi, shrugging, but before he could say anything else - if he was going to - Ritsu had crossed the foyer and dragged him into a hug. "Uh?"
He returned the embrace, puzzled; the Tainaka siblings weren't a contentious pair, but Ritsu was generally not really the huggy type, and Satoshi was at an age when it would have struck him as downright weird if she had been.
"What's that for?" he wondered when she finally released him, and then, blinking, he noticed the downcast look on her face. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"Oh... nothing, really," she said, sounding abstracted. "I just... got a lot on my mind. Brothers... and stuff." With a slightly wistful smile, she ruffled his hair; then, seeming to regain some of her usual bounce with an effort, she went on, "I'm gonna grab a shower, then I have some stuff I have to do," and headed off to her room.
"... OK," Satoshi said to the empty hall, now utterly confused.
Yui Hirasawa was stretched out on top of the covers of her bed, trying to write a song about the awesome time they'd had the night before, but not really getting anywhere with it. She was just about to call out and ask Ui if she had any idea what might rhyme with "comeback" when her gearPhone buzzed on her nightstand, breaking her concentration.
She was still sitting on the edge of her bed, frowning in thought at the message on the screen, when her door opened and Ui came in, a similar phone in her own hand and a look of dismay on her face.
"Sis, did you get a text from..." The younger Hirasawa trailed off as she saw the look on her sister's face. Without another word, Ui sat down next to her, and together they compared their identical messages:
Emergency meeting 2p today.
REAL emergency. Not a drill.
Yui and Ui looked up from the screens, their mystified faces almost as perfectly mirrored.
"What does it mean?" Ui wondered, but Yui only shook her head, baffled.
Jun Suzuki was the last to arrive, through no real fault of her own; as one of the most junior members of the Light Music Club, she'd felt obligated to bring some sort of an offering to this unusual meeting, and there had been a bit of a holdup in the line at Donut Dynasty. She hit the club room at 2:07, seven minutes late, but her planned apology died unuttered as she got a breath of the atmosphere in the room.
The place was filled with cloudy afternoon light and a strange sense of tension, and looking from the face of one schoolmate to another, she could see no hint as to why. Akiyama-senpai and Tainaka-senpai looked like they'd received some kind of really bad news, while the others - even Manabe-senpai, who in Jun's experience never looked like she didn't know what was going on - all looked concerned and/or just as confused as Jun was.
"... What?" Jun said, in lieu of her apology, as she shut the door behind her.
"There's been a... problem," Ritsu said slowly. "With Kaitlyn-sensei's trip to the South Pole." Glancing at the tall figure next to her, she added in a startlingly gentle voice, "You want to take this, Mio, or should I... ?"
Mio shook her head, getting an unusually steely look on her face. "No, I'll do it." She looked down at the club room table for a moment, gathering her thoughts, and then explained, "Last night when I got home from the show, I got an email from Kaitlyn-sensei's brother."
Oh did you now, Jun thought automatically, and then immediately chided herself for it; fortunately, nothing had come out of her mouth, or even crossed her face. Tainaka-senpai wouldn't be pulling that face if it was anything as funny as that, anyway.
"I'd emailed him earlier in the day, after I read about the problem in the South Pole that happened Thursday night," Mio went on, sounding almost as if she were explaining the matter to herself as much as anyone else in the room. "Just... wanted to see if he and Kaitlyn-sensei and everybody was safe. He said they were, and they were going to hole up someplace for a day or two while Avatar Korra looked into the problem, and I shouldn't worry. So... I didn't."
"... OK," said Jun after a moment's pause.
"His email from last night... I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to send it," Mio said after gathering her thoughts for a few seconds. "In fact I know he didn't, because at the end he tried to erase it... but he must have hit the wrong button. I - wait. You and Ui-chan never met him, did you?"
"Nope," said Jun, shaking her head; Ui silently followed suit.
"Nor did I," Nodoka added.
"Then you don't know - he has a daughter. A baby girl, just a few months old."
"Oh, well, yeah, I knew that," Jun said.
Mugi looked slightly puzzled. "You did?"
"I must've mentioned it at some point," Azusa said, looking mildly embarrassed, and then, hurriedly, "Anyway, please go on, Mio-senpai."
"Well..." Mio hesitated again, selecting words, and then looked up and said, "I don't know many of the details... and I don't really understand some of the ones I do know. But it looks as if Corwin-senpai's daughter was... taken last night. Kidnapped. By her uncle, I think - I guess? His brother-in-law?"
"Wait, I thought he wasn't married to the baby's mother," said Yui, almost involuntarily.
"Oh that doesn't matter right now, Yui!" Ritsu snapped, before Mio could react.
Yui blinked, too startled by the rebuke to even be properly upset by it, and there was a brittle silence.
Ritsu sighed, hanging her head. "I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. But the details are really... not important. Right now."
"... Yeah," Yui agreed slowly, nodding, as the real shock value of what Mio had said before started to sink in. "You're right, Ricchan."
"Kidnapped?" Azusa blurted.
"That's terrible," Ui breathed, unconsciously taking her sister's hand.
"Why would anyone do a thing like that?" Mugi wondered.
"I don't know," Mio said with a shake of her head. "Corwin-senpai's email... doesn't make a lot of sense to me. He says a lot of things that I don't have any background information for. Reading between the lines, it seems like something that's been going on for a while. That his... that Anthy's brother - Anthy, that's her name, the little girl's mother..." She trailed off, losing the thread of it entirely, and then sat heavily down in what was normally Ritsu's chair at the table, unable to stop herself from crying any longer.
As the rest of the Light Music Club crowded around to offer what comfort they could, Jun hesitated awkwardly, then put the box from Donut Dynasty on the table and said, "Um... I brought donuts?"
Twenty minutes later, the healing power of pastry products had restored something like equilibrium, if not any particular good cheer, to the music prep room - aided in its mission by the restorative properties of what Mugi considered the most soothing blend available in her peerless arsenal of teas.
"So I guess the question is," Ritsu said pragmatically once they'd all had a chance to collect themselves, "how can we help?"
"Have you tried to reply to the message, Mio?" asked Nodoka.
Mio - red-eyed, but no longer weeping - shook her head. "I haven't dared," she admitted. "I'm sure he didn't mean to send it, and he might not even know he did, yet. I thought about it, but... it'd just be giving him something else to worry about."
"That's probably a good call," said Nodoka with a judicious nod.
"I'll try to reach Sawako tonight," Mugi said with a sudden, decisive energy. "She and the rest of Death Devil were supposed to be meeting with Minami Sato today..."
Ritsu snapped her fingers and pointed to her. "And she's tight with the Avatar, so she probably knows what's goin' on," she said. "Good thinking, Mugi."
"Shouldn't someone try to get in touch with Kaitlyn-sensei?" Jun wondered.
"I have tried," Ritsu said, holding up her phone. "So far, no soap. What time is it in the South Pole? Maybe she's not up yet."
Yui shook her head. "If they're in the capital, it's in the same time zone as Republic City. An hour ahead of us."
"Mm," said Ritsu, taking the information without further comment. Then, putting the phone away, she said glumly, "Other things on her mind, then."
"What if she never comes back?" asked Yui, her eyes widening with fresh dismay.
"Let's try not to panic," said Ui soothingly. "I'm sure she'll be back. The rest of the Art of Noise is still here in town, after all."
"Oh, jeez, I wonder if they know," said Ritsu, looking as if the thought had just occurred to her, but before she could go on, the sound of a phone ringing interrupted her.
The girls of the Light Music Club all looked at each other, most of them shaking their heads that's-not-mine, until Azusa realized it was hers and answered it.
"Hello? Oh, Azalynn, hi. Yes. I'm... we're all at school. In the club room. Um... well, Mio-senpai got an... yes. Right. That. Sorry? No, we're... we're OK. I mean, we're all shocked, and worried, but... yes. Is there anything more you can tell us right now? ... I see. All right. Thank you. Right. Bye."
Closing her phone, she looked up to see her bandmates and the others all gazing at her. She went slightly pink at the intensity of their scrutiny, her cat ears springing up, then composed herself and said (a little bit unnecessarily), "That was Azalynn. She didn't think we'd have heard about it yet and wanted to warn us. She says Kate-sensei will be back here on Monday, and there's nothing else they can tell us now that we don't already know."
Ritsu drew a slow breath, then let it out in a long sigh and said, "Right. OK. Here's what we do, then. Mugi, let's go with your idea - see if you can get ahold of Sawa-chan tonight, find out if she knows anything."
Mugi nodded. "Right."
"The rest of us..." Ritsu trailed off, no longer seeming quite so certain, then said, "I think we all need to... digest. Once Kate-chan-sensei is back with us, we'll have a better idea of what we can do for her. Right now we just have to try and make ourselves as ready as we can be to help once we're in a position where we can. Does that make sense?"
There was quiet concurrence from around the table. For a moment, nobody had anything to add.
"OK," Ritsu said after a few more seconds' consideration. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm gonna have another donut, and then I think I need to jam."
To the great relief of the Light Music Club, Kaitlyn was back in school on Monday, but it was clear from the very outset that all was not well. She didn't appear to be physically injured, and conducted her classes in her usual gentle, pleasant way, but she seemed a bit distracted - almost, though not quite, distant - and she wasn't inclined to socialize. While classes were happening, the best the girls of the club could do was try to make it as plain as they could, without abandoning discretion, that they wished to make available their support.
If they had hopes of regrouping after school and making a more concerted attempt, those hopes were dashed by the vagaries of the school day, as virtually every member of the club found herself tapped for one or another routine after-school chore. There was nothing for it but to play along when that happened, however appalling the timing; they could but turn to and try to get the various jobs done as quickly as possible.
So it was that Yui found herself alone in the club room, the sole member of the club not stuck on some form of after-school maintenance duty.
Completely at a loss, she roamed around the room for a while: gazing out the window at the rain, aimlessly touching things, moving items around on the table. She felt strange. Sad, of course, and worried, but more than that... she felt as if there were something inside her that wanted to come out, but she didn't have any idea what it was, or how she might do that.
Contrary to popular belief, Yui Hirasawa wasn't utterly naïve. She knew that the world was a real place with real consequences, and that sometimes bad things happened to people who had done nothing to deserve them. Most of her friends and schoolmates assumed that she was a complete innocent, unaware of such realities - sheltered from them by her inherently happy, optimistic personality and (those less kind might add) her limited attention span.
This was not entirely true. She was an inherently happy and optimistic person, and she did tend to focus the bulk of her attention in very specific directions, rather than looking at the Big Picture; but both she and her younger sister had been raised to understand that the situation in which they lived their lives was not unique, and that it was better than many alternatives. Yui was already well aware that the world was not universally as safe and pleasant a place as her little city by the seaside; but it was not something she was in the habit of confronting so directly, and she found herself put off-balance by the intensity of it all, particularly without her friends or her sister at hand to distract her.
She thought about going and finding the others - joining them in whatever tasks they were doing, even though they hadn't been assigned to her, just so that she could be participating in something - when her eye fell upon the case of Miki-sensei's Dobro guitar. She hadn't really thought she would need a guitar at school today, under the circumstances, but she'd brought Dō-chan anyway, just in case; selecting him instead of her Les Paul because the Dobro's hard case was safer from the rain than Gīta's gig bag.
Tilting her head thoughtfully, Yui uncased the guitar, then sat down on the bench facing Ricchan's drum kit with it and started idly picking at the strings, tuning the instrument by ear to an open A configuration. That feeling she'd had before, of something trying to escape from within her, was stronger now, but where before she'd been at a loss for what to do about it, now it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. She fitted the brass slide over her pinky, strummed the open chord, and then things just sort of started... happening.
One floor down, a couple of the girls from the Academy's Occult Studies Club were passing by the base of the stairs when they heard the music coming from above.
It wasn't at all unusual to hear music from up there - the music room was up there, after all - but the type of music drifting down the stairs this afternoon was startlingly out of their experience, and they paused as one, glancing at each other with mirrored looks of surprise, at the sound of it.
With a nod of silent consensus, the pair glided up the stairs and eased up to the door of the Light Music Club room, listening intently. The door was slightly ajar, and through the opening, they could see Yui sitting on the bench with a gleaming metal guitar in her hands, her head nodding to the rhythm.
Again the surprised glance came, as - in a lower, fuller voice than they were accustomed to hearing in Yui's performances with the Light Music Club's band - she began to sing:
Went down to the cross road
Fell down on my knees
I went down to the cross road
Fell down on my knees
Well I asked the spirits, "Have mercy
Save me if you please"
You can run, you can run
Tell my friend poor Willie Brown
You can run, you can run now
Tell my friend poor Willie Brown
That I'm standin' at the cross road
I b'lieve I'm sinkin' down
With a third and final startled moment of eye contact, the girls from the Occult Club backed away from the door, turned, and flitted silently down the stairs, their faces deeply pensive.
By the time anyone else from the club made it to the room, Yui had long since finished "Cross Road Blues" and moved on to more general experimentation, and she put the guitar aside entirely when the others began to gather. By half-past three they were all present, waiting anxiously to see whether their faculty advisor would come, silently rehearsing what they would say when she did.
At a quarter to four the door opened, and the club members were halfway out of their seats before they realized that the person opening it was Nodoka.
"Oh, it's just you," said Ritsu, slumping back into her seat.
Nodoka arched an eyebrow, but otherwise let the remark pass, because she understood where it had come from. Instead, she said apologetically, "I'm sorry to be the bearer of disappointing news, but Hutchins-sensei went home."
"Aw - !" Ritsu declared, a sound of frustration that verged on a whine.
"She's probably still tired," said Azusa reasonably.
"That's true," Mio agreed. "With all the traveling she had to do, it would have been a long weekend even if..." She hesitated, then forged on, "... nothing had happened."
"Mm," said Mugi, nodding. "We can try again tomorrow."
The second day was, if anything, more frustrating than the first. This time there was no intrusion by the unknowing mechanisms of the school to disrupt the Light Music Club's plans; Kate simply didn't turn up after class.
"Well, I can't take this," Ritsu declared matter-of-factly when three-thirty came and went with no sign of their advisor. Rising, she went on, "Come on, Mio, let's go."
"And do what?" Mio wondered. "Drag her out of the staff room, if she's still there?"
"Well..." Ritsu hesitated, as if considering it, then sat back down with a heavy sigh. "I guess not. It's just..." She gestured to the room in general. "I thought we had a pretty good thing going here. And I know we could help! You remember when Sawa-chan was all upset and wouldn't tell us why?"
"That's more or less how Kate-chan-sensei got here in the first place," Yui observed glumly.
"That's what I mean!" Ritsu said.
"This problem's a lot bigger," Mio pointed out. Then, looking downcast, she added quietly, "Maybe too big for the likes of us. I mean... we're just kids."
"So were we," said a voice from the door, and the club members turned to see Azalynn regarding them with an unfamiliarly somber expression.
"Rin-chan!" Yui cried, running to hug her. "We don't know what to do..."
"It's OK," Azalynn said, sounding more grown-up than any of them could ever remember hearing her. Smiling a little wanly, she returned the embrace, then half-led, half-dragged Yui back to the table and hopped up on the end of it.
"It's not OK, it's terrible," Mio objected.
"Well, no, you're right," Azalynn acknowledged. "I mean it's OK that you don't know what to do. It's not your fault; this is unfamiliar territory for you. That's why I'm here. I should've let you know sooner, but... Kate isn't avoiding you, specifically. She's just avoiding. It's a... a reaction she has to things like what's happened. I've seen it a couple of different times now. She's tough - one of the toughest people I know - but when she's suffered a bad enough shock, she sort of... withdraws. Hides. Not physically - if she has commitments, she sees to them - but within herself. It's a coping mechanism. Not a very healthy one," she acknowledged before anyone could say so, "and she knows that, but... well, it's in her nature. If she gets hit hard enough, she can't help it."
"If this has happened before, she must have some way back," Mugi reasoned.
"Yeah, does she eventually come out of it on her own, or what?" asked Ritsu.
Azalynn shook her head. "No... not usually. The three times I know of that it's happened, someone basically had to go and get her. The first time... well." In spite of the situation, and her grave mood, she smiled a bit nostalgically. "Let me tell you a story..."
After telling them how - and the barest outline of why - she had originally caused the Art of Noise to be formed, Azalynn left them to consider her words. This they did for a silent quarter-hour or more, all of them together, yet each alone with her own thoughts, until finally Azusa said what they were all thinking:
"Well... I think we have to face facts. There's nothing we can do about... about what's actually happened. That's a matter for the police, or the Avatar, or... well, just about anybody other than us, really."
Ritsu sighed. "Yeah. Agreed. I hate it, but... you're right. And based on what Mugi heard from Sawa-chan, that's already happening, which is like the only bright spot in this thing so far." She paused for a moment, thinking, then hit the table with the flat of her hand and declared, "All right, I have a new plan."
"You do?" asked Yui, puzzled.
"I do," Ritsu replied. "And it is... uh, we go home and try to think of a new plan."
"That's so crazy it just might work," Mio deadpanned.
Unlike most of the others, Mugi didn't leave the school immediately. Instead, upon leaving the club room, she went down to the administrative area on the ground floor and prowled around a bit - not to check the teachers' room, but rather to look into the office of the student council.
As she had hoped, Nodoka was still there, at the desk that formed the head of the council's conference table, working on who knew what.
"Pardon the intrusion," said Mugi automatically as she knocked on the jamb of the open door.
"Hm? Oh, Mugi, come in," said Nodoka, looking up. "Any sign of Hutchins-sensei today?"
"I'm afraid not," Mugi said, shaking her head sadly. "We're trying to come up with a plan. In the meantime, though, I have an administrative matter I hope you can help me with."
Nodoka cocked her head curiously. "Oh?"
Ui and Jun went to 10GIÄ and browsed the equipment for a while, then decided to hit the ice cream place at the other end of the same shopping arcade. It was a fine late afternoon, a much nicer day than the one before, and there was a warm, pleasant breeze as they ate their sundaes and considered recent events.
"I've been thinking about the last time we were here," Jun remarked. "When Tainaka-senpai said we should start our own band?"
"Mm-hmm," Ui said, nodding, to show that she remembered the conversation in question. (Technically, all Ritsu had said was that the two of them could start their own band, but Ui chose not to split that hair just at present.)
"Well... I dunno, she might be right," Jun said. "What do you think?"
"I think we'd need more members," Ui said wryly, "but yeah, that sounds like it could be a lot of fun." She looked thoughtful through a bite of ice cream, then mused, "I wonder if we could convince Nodoka-chan to join us."
Jun coughed, sputtering for a second, and then plied her napkin before asking incredulously, "Did you just call Manabe-senpai 'Nodoka-chan'?"
Ui blushed, looking surprised. "Oops," she said, then grinned a little sheepishly and said, "She hasn't always been junior class president, you know. She's been my big sis's best friend since kindergarten, I've known her my whole life. I think I learned most of what I know about being responsible from her."
"Well, I suppose one of you had to," said Jun dryly. "Anyway, that'd be cool, but she doesn't play an instrument, so we'll still need a new member or two. Maybe we should do some recruiting during the school festival this fall and hope that Yui-senpai and the others don't scare everybody off again."
"Don't be mean," Ui chided her.
"Dude, the animal costumes," Jun persisted remorselessly. "There are girls in our class who still have nightmares." Her mind jumping back to the previous track, she added, "Oh yeah, we'll need a name, too. I'm assuming you're not gonna go for The Jun Suzuki Project," she added with a smirk.
"I was thinking maybe The Ui Hirasawa Rhythm All-Stars," Ui countered, grinning.
"The Western Empire Ballet Company," said Jun.
"Student Drivers," Ui replied.
"Orangebender," Jun declared.
"Ooh, that one's not bad," said Ui.
"What? Seriously? It's lame. I was trying for lame. ... Hmm! Trying For Lame."
"That actually is lame. What about The Above Average?"
"The Junior Varsity."
"That's a little bit on the nose, don't you think?" Ui wondered.
Jun eyed her. "Oh, and 'Student Drivers' wasn't? I know! Media Blackout!"
"Void Where Prohibited..."
Unlike her younger sister, Yui went straight home. Having accepted an invitation to join her for dinner, Azusa spent most of the silent walk worrying about her senpai's mood, which seemed not to have changed much since Saturday. It was so odd to see Yui in any mood other than bouncy and bubbly, and so unsettling. Azusa recalled ruefully how many times, over the first month or so of their friendship, she'd wished the elder guitarist would take things more seriously.
I take it all back, she thought plaintively to whatever spirits were punishing her hubris now. Yui-senpai wasn't built to take things this seriously. I just... I just want to see her smile again.
A moment later - to her considerable, grateful surprise - she got her wish. As they came around the corner onto the street where the Hirasawas' pleasant house stood, tall and narrow, on its little lot wedged into the space next to the Fire Nation temple, Yui suddenly looked up from her pensive silence, blinking; and then her face broke into a look of utter delight, her eyes going big and sparkling.
"Tobu!" she cried, throwing her arms wide, and she broke into a run. Azusa, puzzled, looked to see what she was talking about...
... and stopped walking as if she'd collided with a lamppost, her jaw dropping.
"What," she said.
Not noticing that her kōhai had fallen behind, Yui darted up the street with her arms outstretched like airplane wings, then sprang into the air and embraced the figure standing in the driveway of her house with all her might.
Or, well, part of the figure standing there, anyway. Given that said figure was an Air Nomad sky bison, about the size of one of Sakuragaoka's streetcars, she could really do little better than glom onto one of his massive forelimbs. That seemed good enough for the bison, though; he made a pleasant rumbling sound, ducked his great head, and gave her a gentle nuzzle, the delicacy of the gesture all out of proportion to the vastness of the animal.
Azusa advanced on autopilot, the complete incongruity of the scene rendering her mind all but blank. By the time Yui had finished greeting the bison, she was standing only a couple of paces away, regarding the scene with complete incredulity.
"Azu-nyan!" Yui declared happily, brushing bison fur from her uniform as she disengaged herself. "Come meet Tobu. Tobu, this is Azu-nyan!"
"Uh... hi," said Azusa.
"Gromph," said Tobu agreeably.
"... Senpai, why is there a sky bison in your yard?" asked Azusa, her voice flat.
"He's too big to go in the house, silly," Yui replied cheerfully.
"... Ask a stupid question," Azusa remarked, mostly to herself.
After a half-hour or so spent listlessly flipping through TV channels and/or her many back issues of Modern Drummer magazine, Ritsu found herself out in the back yard of her house with Mio, the two of them dressed in their PE tracksuits and engaged in a pastime that - for all that their bandmates had rarely if ever seen them at it - was actually a far older feature of their friendship than music.
"... got to be something else we can try," Ritsu said, catching Mio's shinai on her forearm and turning it aside.
"Ritsu, it's only been a couple of days," Mio said. She feinted to the left, then backed and half-turned to avoid a mimed punch that would've been a firebending strike in a real fight. "We just have to be patient."
"I know, I know," said Ritsu, ducking her friend's counterstrike. "I just - nice one! - I'm just worried we'll run out of time. I mean counting this one, there's only three weeks left in the term, and we're going to be tied up with finals for most of the last one." She backpedaled a little too hard to avoid the follow-up, slipped on the grass, and fell to her back, but scrambled back to her feet before Mio could capitalize. "And then it's summer vacation, and who knows what happens then? She might go home. She probably has to go home before fall term starts."
"Is this about what Kaitlyn-sensei needs at this point," Mio wondered, "or what we stand to lose if she leaves?"
Ritsu scowled, crossed up her next attempt, and judo-threw her, though she failed to dislodge Mio's grip on her weapon. "Come on, Mio, you know me better than that. I'm thinking of us, sure, but only because I'd have to anyway. I just..." She sighed, shoulders slumping, and disengaged as Mio got back to her feet, holding up her hands. Meeting her friend's eyes, she went on, "I just don't want it to end like this, you know?"
Mio looked her in the eye for a moment, then nodded, echoing her sigh.
"Yeah," she said, putting her free hand on Ritsu's shoulder. "I know."
Azusa's bemusement at the presence of a sky bison in Yui's yard was not so much dispelled as replaced by meeting her parents. On the one hand, it made total sense that an Air Nomad and her Air Acolyte husband would have a sky bison instead of, say, a car.
On the other hand, Yui's mother was an Air Nomad?!
Admittedly, Tsering Hirasawa didn't look much like the popular conception of an Air Nomad. She had long medium brown hair (the slightly lighter shade sported by the younger of her two daughters) and generally, apart from her red-and-gold robes and the blue arrow tattoos on her forehead and hands, looked like anybody else you might see in Sakuragaoka, a town where most everyone had some mix of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom genetics (tending to lean more toward the former than the latter).
Her husband, Masato, was even more typically local, and at the moment he looked the part a little more convincingly, since he was dressed not in an Air Acolyte's standard garb, but rather the many-pocketed jumpsuit of a Nomad Air technician.
"Oh!" said Jun when she and Ui arrived a few minutes later. "So that's why you're never home."
"Jun!" said Azusa, scandalized, though of course it was the first thing she'd thought as well.
"What?" Jun asked innocently.
Mr. and Mrs. Hirasawa laughed. "You must be Jun-chan," said the latter.
"No inside voice," the former agreed with a winking nod. "Right, Ui?"
"Dad!" Ui protested, going scarlet.
"I'm actually from Sakuragaoka," Mr. Hirasawa explained over dinner. "Born and raised here. Tsering and I met in college."
"Air Nomads go to college?" Jun wondered.
"If we want to," said Mrs. Hirasawa. "We're nowhere near as insular a society as we were in Avatar Aang's day - a hard lesson painfully learned," she added with a slightly somber smile. She shook it off quickly, though, brightening to something like her daughters' usual level of cheer, as she went on, "I even thought about leaving the order when Masato asked me to marry him, but he wouldn't have it."
"What kind of person would put such a bird in a cage?" asked Mr. Hirasawa rhetorically, grinning. "Instead, I became a flight engineer, so that I can follow wherever she goes."
At the other end of the table, Jun and Azusa glanced at each other in bemusement, then discreetly checked to see whether Ui and/or Yui were in any way embarrassed by their parents' lovey-dovey display. It appeared not; indeed, both girls looked more cheerful than they had since the weekend.
What a family, thought Azusa, and from the look on Jun's face, she was fairly sure the other girl was thinking the same thing - on the inside, for once.
Instead, she asked, "So... why do Ui and Yui live here, then? Why aren't they... y'know... off nomading with you two?"
"They could if they wanted to," said Mrs. Hirasawa, "but when they weren't born airbenders, we decided that we'd leave it up to them, and when they reached school age, they both chose the settled life."
"So we bought the house next door to my mother's, and here we are," Mr. Hirasawa added, beaming.
Azusa blinked, then turned to Yui. "The nice old lady next door is your actual grandmother?"
"Of course," Yui said. "You've heard me call her Granny tons of times."
"I thought you were just... being Yui," Azusa admitted.
"You're so mean to me, Azu-nyan," Yui said, pouting.
"I didn't mean it like that!"
Jun headed home after dinner, but Azusa stayed on; after a quick check-in for parental permission, she and Yui retired to the latter's room and jammed until the hour grew too late to be making that much noise, then changed for bed.
They'd been lying quietly in the dark for a few minutes, Yui in her bed, Azusa bedrolled on the floor beside, when Yui startled her kōhai slightly by climbing down and crawling in next to her.
"Um, Yui-senpai, what are you doing?" she wondered.
"I just had an idea," Yui replied, and Azusa felt her cat ears standing up with a combination of intrigue and faint alarm.
"... And what might that be?" she asked, not entirely certain she wanted to know the answer.
"I know what we need to do," said Yui.
"... Do you?"
"Yes," Yui said positively, and then she explained...
... and Azusa realized that she was absolutely right. The idea had been forming in her own head, unnoticed yet by her conscious mind, and now it sprang into the light: That was exactly what they needed to do.
"I've got it," every single member of Hōkago Tea Time blurted almost as one when they reconvened the next afternoon.
They crosstalked fruitlessly for several seconds, until finally Ritsu raised her voice above all the others, declaring, "All right, all right, settle down, one at a time!" They all halted, giving her an expectant look. "OK." She looked from one face to another, seeing the same eager, I-have-to-share-this look on all of them, and chose the one directly across from her to start: "Mio. Whaddaya got for me?"
"I've been thinking about what Azalynn told us yesterday, about how the Art of Noise got started," said Mio. "I think we should do something similar."
Ritsu tilted her head quizzically. "What, trick Kate-chan-sensei into joining our band? How would that even work?"
Mio shook her head. "No, not that part. But - well, that's just it, we're a band. That's the whole reason Kate-sensei came here. So we should play for her. But more than that," she went on, raising a hand, before Ritsu could argue (if she was going to) that the idea didn't go far enough. "We shouldn't just play for her, she's already heard what we could do before she came here. We need to show her what we've learned from her, in just the short time she's been working with us, and we need to do it soon. Probably this weekend would be best."
"That was my idea!" Yui agreed, nodding excitedly.
"And mine!" said Azusa.
"You mean... ?" Ritsu asked.
"Exactly!" Mugi chimed in. "We write a new song."
"One that takes what we can do to a whole new level," Yui enthused.
"A level we couldn't have reached this early if we hadn't met her," Mio confirmed.
"So... let me get this straight," said Ritsu, leaning thoughtfully back in her chair. "You're saying that... with the start of final exams less than two weeks away... we drop everything we should be doing and throw ourselves into an all-out musical effort instead. We - the five of us - write, arrange, and rehearse a whole new song, and not just any song but the biggest, most challenging one we've done so far, in... what, like four days?"
Mio nodded. "That's right."
"You, Mio Akiyama, are suggesting that we slack off on studying at a critical juncture in our school careers to go and do rock stuff."
Folding her arms, Mio looked her best friend straight in the eye and replied flatly, "Yes."
While the others all stared expectantly at her, Ritsu reclined in thought for a moment, her chair balancing on its hind legs; then she abruptly withdrew her feet from the table so that it toppled forward into its normal stance again, springing upright as it did so.
"What? You seriously thought I was gonna pass on that?" she asked, grinning. "What are we waiting for, ladies? Mugi, you better put on a pot of the strong stuff. We've got work to do!"
Mugi saluted army-fashion, a huge grin spreading across her face. "Yes, ma'am, Madam President!"
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
"More Than a Feeling"
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
"Cross Road Blues" by
Yui's performance inspired by
Oliver Jüchems on YouTube
E P U (colour) 2015