Let's Be Friends - gx_argoX12 (2024)

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Rating:
  • Teen And Up Audiences
Archive Warning:
  • Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Category:
  • F/F
Fandom:
  • K-On!
Relationships:
  • Akiyama Mio/Tainaka Ritsu
  • Hirasawa Yui/Nakano Azusa
Characters:
  • Tainaka Ritsu
  • Akiyama Mio
  • Hirasawa Yui
  • Nakano Azusa
Additional Tags:
  • Developing Relationship
  • Platonic Relationships
  • Romance
  • Fluff and Humor
  • Childhood Friends
  • Friends Trolling One Another
  • Shipper Mugi
  • Mugi is everyone's spirit animal
  • Platonic to romance
  • Companionable Snark
  • Friends Snarking at Each Other
Language:
English
Stats:
Published:
2024-05-17
Updated:
2024-05-17
Words:
68,891
Chapters:
9/?
Comments:
1
Bookmarks:
1
Hits:
40

Let's Be Friends

gx_argoX12

Summary:

Sometimes, all it takes is a change in perspective and reading in between the lines. Because when friends start getting this close, how platonic can it really be anymore?

A look at all the ship tease present in the anime, and what happens when they're further explored and taken to their logical conclusion. Heavily references events in the anime. Cross-post from ff.net

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

She was eight when she first decided she disliked someone.

It was only a few months into the new year, and already there were kids who had managed to make a reputation for themselves. Some were good, while others were not. And the teachers, in some bizarre twist of alien logic, thought that it would be a good idea to pair these students together. Something about hoping for the former to influence the latter. Mio thought the idea was ridiculous.

“Your hair is so pretty!”

“Wow, you're left handed? That’s so cool!”

It did not matter that she was being praised, nor that the words were said with excitement. Her table partner was messy, could not sit still and worst of all, loud; all the things her mama said were not things good girls did. Every time she opened her mouth it would cause other kids to stare at her, which terrified her to no end. Things got even worse when she found out that she lived close by. But when she had told her papa about it, all she got was a ruffling of her hair and a gentle chiding to be nice because the girl was probably just trying to be her friend.

Once again, Mio thought the idea was ridiculous.

She really wants to say that it is stupid, but her mama said that girls shouldn't use words like that.

So when the day came where the girl bounced towards her asking loudly if she wanted to go to the playground together, everything within Mio screamed no. Of course, because she is only eight and hopelessly shy, her answer came out as a garbled squeak. But the girl either did not hear or did not care, for Mio still ended up being dragged into a game with a bunch of kids she did not recognise.

Naturally, she lost badly.

She went home that day deciding that an idiot like Tainaka Ritsu would never, ever be someone she wanted as a friend.

Years later Ritsu would still be an idiot, but an idiot of a friend that Mio wanted back.

She was on the second floor of the main classroom block of the school, where most of the second year classrooms were. Just minutes ago she had charged up the flight of stairs, determined to try to settle things once and for all when she reached her destination.

Yet as she drew closer to her target, the fire in her drained away as quickly as it came. It was not because she felt out of place; she was herself a second year student, just one with the slight misfortune of having a classroom situated on the first floor. No, her unease was because of what she had come up here for.

She had come up here to see if Ritsu was in school.

It had been three days since she and Ritsu got into a shouting match in the clubroom. Three days since an unsuspecting friend had been dragged into the center of this stupid fight, one that caused a significant amount of trouble for everyone around them. Three days since their practice had stalled; the band paralyzed into inaction because of the loss of a crucial member, and an overwhelming amount of worry.

Damn it, Ritsu.

"Ritsu-senpai isn’t coming today either, is she?" Azusa sighed, shoulders sagging as she stared absently at her own teacup. She glanced around the table searching the eyes of all her seniors, but all came up empty. Hell, they weren't even making eye contact with one another. Azusa had to resist the urge to bury her head in her hands; the grim demeanour surrounding everyone wasn’t just wrong, it was becoming downright painful to watch.

The school festival was coming up, and they desperately needed their drummer back. There had to be something she could do. Yet, at the sight of her seniors, Azusa found herself at a loss. There was clearly something more to the fight than what little she had borne witness to that day. But she knew better than to pry, or try to brute force a resolution to it. After all, if even the one who knew the drummer the best was drawing a blank, what hope did she have at coming up with a suitable remedy?

Sawako simply sat in silence and sipped her tea as she mulled over the club’s situation. While things certainly did not excuse Ritsu’s irresponsibility, her heart did sink a little when she heard about what had triggered the situation. After all, the two girls at the center of it all were - or at least, had been - inseparable from the day she first met them.

Children being children, that’s what this was. Childish naivete coming into contact with reality, and the result of young minds facing the concept of change. For a duo as attached to the hip as these two were, it was only a matter of time before they had to grapple with the notion that their dynamic would change along with their age. It was merely one of the consequences of growing up. But, as she surveyed the despondent faces before her, she considered her response.

The adult in her; a jaded, tired and somewhat cynical one, wished to express that such disagreements were hardly the end of the world. It happened to the best of people, and that the solution lay with a combination of honesty, introspection and humility.

The teacher in her, who witnessed countless teens struggle as they came of age, noted that her sentiments would be hard to comprehend. Teaching ultimately required one to pitch knowledge at the listener’s level, and temper it with understanding towards their lack of experience. And far be it from her to dismiss their distress outright; after all, she had been a child once too.

"Well if that's the case, the solution is simple isn't it?" She intoned. The others turned to her, their eyes hopeful at the thought that their teacher could save the day.

"This happened because Mio was giving her the cold shoulder, right? So, all she needs to do is give Ritsu what she wants." She raised an arm and shot a pointed finger. "Mio! Become Ricchan's toy for a day!"

“Please return my faith in you, sensei.” Azusa deadpanned.

… Maybe she should have pitched it a little higher.

Mio, on the other hand, remained silent in her incredulity.

If only it were that simple. She just needs time to cool off. She'll be fine after that… that’s what always happens. Yet, something told her that this instance was not going to blow over as easily. Ritsu’s anger had been nothing like the fiery, loud fury that she was known for. It had been cold, caustic and outright venomous - things that she rarely ever heard from the drummer. Looking down at the empty seat before her, she felt the weight on her shoulders grow.

Just what was going through that idiot’s head?

"At this rate… what will happen to our concert?" Azusa asked feebly, hoping that perhaps stating the urgency of the matter would miraculously form a solution. It would be downright irresponsible and impossible to just call it off. We can't possibly tell the school committee that we can’t make the show because our drummer got mad.

The younger girl groaned. This was to be her first concert with her seniors, her chance to be a part of the magic that captivated her all those months ago. To have the opportunity wrenched from her by what seemed like a rather trivial and shallow fight just made her that much more frustrated .

Could the drummer not have put the issue aside for the moment so that they could proceed? But after further thought, she realized that it was not so simple. Any disturbance to a musician's mental state made it hard to concentrate and play well, if Yui's constant screw-ups during practice weren't already a clear indication of that.

While it was possible to shelve one's emotions aside to focus on the task at hand, Azusa realized that such a feat was usually only done by professionals; people whose livelihoods depended on their concentration during a concert. And her own parents have shared over the years that professional musicians weren't always able to pull it off. So, what more for a bunch of teenagers like us? Still, doesn't Ritsu-senpai care about our concert at all?

Mio looked at her fellow bandmates, all having gone silent at Azusa's question. The girl was right - the concert was a far more pressing matter that they needed to attend to. Making her decision, she rose from her seat with an air of finality. "Let's practice." They were wasting time at this point, and Ritsu was not coming either way.

"Eh? Without Ricchan?" Yui asked in slight disbelief.

"What other choice do we have?" Mio retorted, part of her daring Yui to think of a better idea. Said girl sank back into her seat, the sight of which made the bassist cringe with regret. Anger, confusion, and guilt swirled within her. Just how had things fallen apart so quickly? Where or when did things start going wrong? Was it at the moment she lost her cool; forgoing manners to openly unleash raw anger into her voice that fateful day? Or had it been brewing from the weeks prior, when she felt the first signs of a strange, alien shift in Ritsu’s mood? Was the idiot even aware of it herself? Or had it all been inevitable from the day Mio had been placed in a different class altogether?

One fact remained clear - whatever had set Ritsu off, it most certainly wasn’t Manabe Nodoka.

The flash of betrayal in Ritsu’s eyes when she finally let her temper flare had been all too telling. Then the drummer answered with a rage greater than her own, and all semblance of patience and propriety were thrown out the window. Glaring turned to shouting, and soon both were locked into an intense fight that neither could nor knew how to break.

Only the timid, desperate plea of their junior was able to dispel the haze of anger that had washed over them both. But it was too little, too late; the damage had been done, the lines drawn in the sand. With a final, disgruntled slam of the door, the drummer left; leaving a seething bassist and frightened band members in her wake. At that moment, Mio sorely wished she was the one to slam the door on her infuriating idiot of a friend.

But when Ritsu’s absence continued into the next day and the next still, Mio felt her anger transform into worry. Which was why she finally mustered up the nerve to set things right. While she maintained that the drummer had been an idiot, self-reflection told her that she was not completely without fault.

For she, of all people, would have known that her choice of words would hit her longtime friend where it hurt. And though she had practically shouted the sentiment to her face, deep down Mio knew well that she did indeed know what the hell was going on with Ritsu.

Stepping towards the back door of the classroom, Mio felt herself shudder. How would Ritsu react to her presence? Surely she could not just walk up to her and start talking about things, could she? And what should she use as an opening?

She does not get the chance to think further. "It's Mio-chan!" Yui chirped, happy to see her fellow bandmate.

"Ah! I wasn’t looking for Ritsu or anything…" Mugi and Yui looked at each other and smiled knowingly. They knew better.

"Ricchan is not in school today."

Ritsu suppressed a curse as she sneezed for the umpteenth time that day. It seemed that her body had decided to give up and shut down all its systems at once just to spite her. Her head would not stop spinning, her damn nose wouldn't stop itching, and she could barely move from her spot on the bed. Any attempts to clear her obstructed olfactories met with pitiful, abject failure.

She really had not expected to come down with a cold at this time of year, much less so badly. It was already the third day she was bedridden, and even then her fever had not disappeared. Some part of her wondered if her nose was beyond saving.

And right when our concert is around the corner. Come on immune cells! Where's your rapid healing when I need it? Sure sure, heal all my cuts and bruises in a day but cripple me over this?!

And what a rapid descent from good health it had been. The unnatural dizziness and feverish heat that rapidly intensified as she sat through her final lesson of the day, even as her mind replayed her confrontation with Mio over and over. The absolutely terrible walk home immediately after school, her entire body steadily getting covered in cold sweat with every step she took. The complete leaching of her strength as she arrived home, leaving her with barely enough energy to lift her own arms and change out of her uniform. Normalcy began to steadily feel like a distant dream. It wasn’t until she was jolted awake by the rush of worried voices did she realise that she had collapsed on the floor of her living room.

She practically begged the doctor for the fastest remedy he could provide. It wasn't just the fact that the concert was coming up, she also wanted the quickest ticket out of her own bodily-induced hell. The doctor had assured her mother that the prescription would have her right as rain in a few days, but right now Ritsu was seriously doubting it.

Then again, it probably had something to do with the fact that she had not been able to get proper sleep. Not when her own mind decided to mess with her.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

They were playing a game. A game with rules; ones that everyone on the playground knew. Everyone knew whose team they were on, and everyone knew what they were supposed to do.

So when she spotted someone from the other team messing with her friend, trying to drag her away from her spot and making something akin to panic fill her eyes; something in the little girl’s chest burned.

That was cheating. Blatant cheating. It could cost her team the game, and land her friend in trouble by their rules. Oh the cheater would pay once the dust settled, but nobody looked well upon someone who made them lose. To do so after all the effort it took to finally convince her friend to join their game today; in the young girl’s mind, such an act was tantamount to robbery.

They had to be stopped. After all, cheaters should be punished, shouldn’t they? And she certainly was not going to allow her friend to end up on the unwanted teammate list, or be scared into tears by the others getting mad.

So how did it end up like this?

"Mio-chan…?"

Said girl whimpered as she cradled her elbow, trying to soothe the skin from the shredding it received when it connected with the sandy ground. Behind her stood another girl, no older than she was, suffering a similar fate. While she herself stood before them both with her arms hanging frozen in mid-air; her outstretched limbs proving her guilt.

“Miko-chan wasn’t cheating!” The raven-haired girl yelled, her eyes brimming with angry tears. “She was just trying to help me!”

Help her? Then what had she seen? She was so sure-

“Oi Tainaka, what’s gotten into you?!”

“Yeah, what gives?!”

“S-someone should call the teacher, right?”

An uneasy silence fell upon them all, shattering the bubble of cheer that kicked off today’s game. She heard someone scamper towards the classrooms, which surely heralded the arrival of scoldings, angry phone calls and an ass-whooping once she got home.

But the little girl could not have cared less. Her mind had blanked, her thoughts frozen as she tried to process what had happened.

“Mio-chan, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-” A hand swung out wildly at her approach, connecting with its unintentional target; the face of a young, auburn-haired girl.

"You’re never sorry! You only say it because it gets you out of trouble!"

"But I - she -"

"GO AWAY!"

And suddenly, her stinging cheek didn't seem to hurt as much in comparison anymore.

Why was she remembering this?

It was just a stupid little childhood game, one that was childishly simple in execution. Someone would play the princess under the tyranny of any number of goons, and others would take on the mantle of knight to launch a rescue. Anyone on recess was entitled to play, and any role was up for the taking - with the only caveat that it was the princess who got to decide what showdown would take place to decide their fate.

Ritsu reveled in her times as a goon. Being part of the goon squad meant feints and misdirection and fake-outs. It meant trash talking and payback for any playground slights from the days prior. It meant the freedom to ham it all up however she wanted and play any character she liked; from the scheming mastermind to the villain’s second-in-command.

But the times that were burned into her memory were those of her joining the other side.

For the only time she ever bothered to play along as the righteous, upstanding, no-nonsense knight was when Mio joined the fray as a princess. With her fair skin and long, flowing hair; the girl was practically born for the role.

And so, as childhood logic dictated, that made Ritsu the de facto knight.

The grounds of the play area would always witness a new level of destruction on those particular days. For if being a goon brought out the cunning in Ritsu, then being a knight brought out the fire.

But of course; a fiery, motivated Ritsu wasn’t always a controlled one.

Hence, the event that was burned into her memory.

There was obviously no game to lose this time, no social standing at stake. And before everything blew up days ago, nothing was really out of the ordinary. Mio was still coming for practice and having tea with everyone in the clubroom. She was still talking to Ritsu. She was still afraid of ghost stories and creeped out by gross things. By all accounts the girl was behaving normally; the drummer even had the text threads on her phone and bumps on her head to prove that.

So why did it still feel like the girl was slipping away?

It wasn’t as if they’ve never had friends outside of one another. Mio had been a regular face among the studious and quiet elementary children among them, while Ritsu made her name amongst the more playful ones as a force to be reckoned with. Where the shyer children would flock around Mio like she was some bastion of introversion, the boisterous ones could always rely on Ritsu to match or surpass their enthusiasm.

And it did not end there. Mio’s athleticism blossomed in her middle school days, drawing the attention of their sporty peers and turning her into a favoured pick for inter-class sporting events. Ritsu’s own interest and flair with cooking garnered the interest of the homelier ones in their class; her skills eventually leading to a class victory for food sales during their school festival.

But at the end of the day, when all was said and done and the two withdrew from their various groups, they would always fall back in step with one another on the path home. Evenings were reserved for the dream that they shared - whether it be in the form of watching their favourite bands, playing covers of their favourite songs or writing out another jam that they could only dream of performing. They were meant for downtime from their classmates and acquaintances, for Mio to try a new recipe Ritsu had been thinking of, for Ritsu to listen as Mio fretted over chord progressions, for them to talk about everything and nothing - sometimes late into the night. The subsequent morning walks were meant for testing out a new camera trick, for passing another DVD over for later viewing, for Ritsu to make a new attempt at convincing Mio to please let her copy her homework. On other occasions the mornings were for them to set new sprinting records, because someone would inevitably miss their alarm. And no matter how much Mio insisted, the score for such a screw up was far closer to a tie between them than she thought.

Their connection was precious. This time together was their special thing. It has been for as long as Ritsu could remember.

So when it became apparent that Mio was starting to bow out from their walks more frequently, growing less willing to hang out after school, becoming more likely to turn down a direct request from her; well, it hurt.

Surely she had not been hallucinating the bassist’s diffused attention? Or imagining the weird, widening distance between them? Or dreaming up the fact that Mio was forgoing their evenings to spend time with someone else?

Was Manabe Nodoka really that interesting a person?

Ritsu cringed. The stream of thoughts sounded awful, even in her befuddled state of mind.

Mio was her own person. And damn it, Ritsu was not going to regress and make some wild claim over who her friend was allowed to hang out with. That sort of tantrum was reserved for children, for childish idiots whose only methods for emotional expression were hurling insults or pulling hair.

Plus, who was she kidding? The fault wasn't truly with Nodoka. The girl was a model student and honest to a fault. Much as it would be easy to paint the student council member as an interloper, it was Mio that was making the choice to turn her attention away.

The same Mio who has basically been a staple in her life since the days Ritsu first held a pencil in her hands. The one who has been there for every scraped knee, failed test, and hare-brained scheme; sometimes as an observer, and other times an actual partner-in-crime. The girl for whom Ritsu had in turn been there for; every first day, new place, and nerve-wracking presentation. The very one who still used pineapples as a battlecry for confidence when no one was looking.

So, no sh*t that it hurt.

The question thus, was this: why did it hurt this much?

"Mio, Mio! Check this out!"

"For goodness sake Ritsu, keep it down!"

Ritsu peered over the bassist's shoulder, shrugging off her friend's previous statement. The public library was quite empty right now, so Ritsu was sure that no one would be bothered anyway. As soon as her eyes fell on the pages before her, they began to sting in pain as they recognized the familiar, yet alien symbols printed on them; arranged in neat lines and seemingly mocking her inability to fully comprehend them.

"English?!" Ritsu stepped back, shielding her eyes from the abomination that she just had the misfortune of gazing upon. "Mio!” She whispered in mock-fear. “Reading such insane books! Are you trying to let such demonic words brainwash you?"

She received an eye-roll in return. "Mind you, these ‘demonic words’ I'm reading tell the story of a knight."

"Oh? What's his name then?"

Mio shifted the book towards her, showing her the cover of the paperback that had captured her attention, sighing exasperatedly as she did so. Ritsu resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at her. Summer was meant for fun, and they’d just finished their first ever training camp. They should be out celebrating this huge step for the band, not passing the time behind the pages of a book.

She’d said as much to Mio when the girl showed up at her door.

Mio simply folded her arms and gave her a look that instantly buried the point six feet under.

Well, she did promise Mio. Maybe she could settle for reading manga while they were there.

And thus, Ritsu followed.

"Uhhhh…. Mio.” She stared at the title before her. “How the hell do you even pronounce this?"

"Don Quixote."

"That can't be English." Ritsu deadpanned as her eyes narrowed, peering at the book suspiciously.

Mio put her finger to her chin. "You're right. It was originally a Spanish text, but got translated to English." She replied thoughtfully.

"Spanish?!" Aaand Mio was being smug now. The drummer refused to meet her gaze, actually sticking her tongue out this time. The bassist responded by holding her mocking gaze a little longer, clearly basking in the glory of having rendered Tainaka Ritsu speechless. Oh, she would have to get her back once they left this place.

"Well, he is more of a self-proclaimed knight with dreams of chivalry…" Mio chuckled lightly, finally relenting. “He’s odd, but his heart is in the right place.”

That brought a smile back to Ritsu. "Oh ho? Seems like you still have a soft spot for knights don’t you, princess Mio? Should the Great Knight Tainaka return for your sake?" She teased.

Seeing the smugness dissolve into embarrassment never got old.

"I-Idiot. That was just a game. In any case, I mean it that Don Quixote is odd; he’s not a real knight, and he thinks that the windmills are evil giants and that people need saving from them."

"What? So he's just some crazy person pretending he's a knight?"

"Yeah. Somewhat like you, Ritsu." Mio shot Ritsu the same smug grin she had earlier. This sent the drummer sputtering in outrage, and the bassist began to double over in muffled laughter, book temporarily forgotten.

Whatever thought was going to come next was cut off by a savage round of coughing. Ritsu reeled, the force of her coughs throwing her head into a spin. Figuring it was best to stop her thinking and let herself rest, she shut her eyes and hoped for sleep to come.

But just as she sank back into her covers, a series of dull thumping floated from beyond her bedroom walls. The thumps were light, measured, and gentle; having an almost familiar, rhythmic feel to them. Whatever it was, it was nearing her room as the moments passed. The gears in Ritsu's mind began to turn again, trying to decipher that strangely recognizable rhythm. Eventually the thumps stopped right outside her door, and something in Ritsu's head instinctively clicked.

"Mio…?"

Said girl’s head peeked through the open door. "What are you, some psychic?" She retorted gently. It wasn't quite what she had intended to start with, but ingrained habits were hard to fight. Plus, she did feel genuinely surprised. And maybe, a little bit hopeful.

She sees a sheepish grin. "Heh. I know the sound of your footsteps, Mio." No hesitation, no venom. Just Ritsu. Mio let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. How strange, that mere moments ago she had been tense with worry, wondering how she should start the conversation. The debate in her head was still ongoing even as she pushed open the door. But with a single grin and line, the drummer had gone ahead and paved the way.

The small, relieved smile that tugged on Mio’s lips came easily, despite her nervousness.

Nonetheless, there was a lot to talk about, and the daunting task had just begun. Mio willed her heart to remain steady.

A couple steps ahead and a slight right, and Mio’s bag and bass slid off her shoulders to nestle against the wall. A few steps more, and she had crossed the table to come right by the side of the bed. Even in the relative darkness, she knew the layout of this room as well as her own. She took some comfort in going through the series of familiar motions.

A deep breath. “So, how are you feeling now?” Mio began gently.

Ritsu tried to soothe her rapidly drying throat. "Not that good. I still have a fever." Part of her felt relief at the sight of the bassist’s small smile, but the other was tingling with nervous energy.

How strange this whole situation was. This was hardly their first fight, and yet it had managed to touch a very raw nerve between them. Neither girl knew what to really make of it. The air between them slipped to another level of fragility.

"No wonder you didn't have enough strength to play the drums then…" Mio trailed off hesitantly. It was, after all, the elephant in the room. And her own nerves could only take her so far. Dimly, she hoped that the drummer would do as she always did, and bridge the gap in her stead.

For that was who Ritsu was. Brave, bold and all sorts of daring.

But Ritsu, it seemed, dared not to do so. Instead, she slipped under the covers, retreating into a pocket of warm, soothing darkness. "Ugh, and just right before the school concert too…" The girl grumbled behind her blanket, even as the stress ramped up. There was no mistaking the tremor in the bassist’s voice. But try as she might, Ritsu could not find the strength to meet the words Mio left hanging. Her behaviour had been terrible that day, regardless of what she felt about the matter. The streak of pain that crossed Mio’s eyes then said it all. Did she have any right to bring it up now?

"Don't worry about that. Just get better and it will all be fine.” How could it be? She had thrown words that her mother would have kicked her ass upside down for. She had abandoned the band when they needed her the most - not to mention the utter lack of practice she’s had thanks to being basically bedridden. She had scared Azusa to near tears.

On the other hand, Mio had to steady her breathing. If Ritsu wasn’t going to bridge the gap, then it was up to her to do so. She should have known better, that it was unfair of her to keep relying on the drummer like this. Their connection was precious, after all. She couldn’t always leave it to Ritsu to lay the groundwork and pave the way forward. If anything, the girl deserved her efforts and more.

After all, she owed much of her current self to the one who was hiding under the blankets. She was the one who first approached her all those years ago in elementary school, the one who broke through her barriers. She was the one who showed her a whole other side of life that she had firmly avoided, and stayed as a steadfast part of it. She was the first to throw in a vote of confidence for her, and placed one of her greatest loves in the shape of her Fender Japan ‘62 within her hands. She was the reason the shy, crybaby of a girl back then managed to come out of her shell.

If she couldn’t do this one little thing - bridge the gap and set things right - for her, then what sort of a friend was she?

She felt her breath catch in her throat. Alright, so it wasn’t a ‘little thing’; it was terrifying. But she knew she had to do it. Slowly, softly, Mio started, “Everyone's waiting for you."

Especially me.

"They aren't mad?"

"Of course not." And that was the truth. Mio leaned back and rested her head on the lump that was Ritsu, hoping that if anything, it would help them both relax. The drummer did not move away. Mio took that as a good sign.

The next words came out in a brittle whisper. "And you?"

She nudged the lump behind her. "No. Of course not." And that too, was the truth.

Because I’m sorry.

At first, she had deemed the whole situation to be unfair. The year had thrown her for a loop, taking her away from the group of friends she had grown to love. Leaving her new classroom on the ground floor, divested from the rest of her cohort as if her class had somehow been unworthy of the promotion to the upper floors of their building. Tossing her into a class that somehow had nary a single face that she recognised, placing her in the very uncomfortable situation of not having Ritsu nearby for the first time in her schooling life.

However, she was seventeen now and no longer a child. The looming adult world would not go easy on her, so it was up to her to grow and adapt. Thus, she had strode into her new homeroom at the beginning of the year determined to try to make the best of it, even as her hands trembled and heart pounded against her ribs. Still, she could not help how her hands turned clammy at the thought of not seeing anyone she knew. And when her limbs refused to move at the first thought of attempting to introduce herself to others, she cursed her inadequacy.

Thankfully, life decided to take pity on her at that moment in the form of one Manabe Nodoka.

And what a peaceful and reasonable person Nodoka was. The girl was a bastion of normalcy amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces. And it was a relief to not have to approach others and worry about their expectations or impressions of her. With Nodoka, things were straightforward.

Mio clutched onto that mercy like a lifeline.

It was refreshing to finally be able to interact with someone whom she can have focused, serious conversations with without worrying about strange tangents, hopeless declarations and sudden pranks. It was nice to have someone to share academic interests with, to not be the only bookish one in the room for once. So if the girl needed an extra pair of hands to manage class matters, or needed a sounding board for ideas, how could she not oblige?

And besides, it wasn’t as if Mio was only interested in her studies. If she needed a break from academics, there was always Ritsu. Whether it was ideas for a rhythm she had in her head, feedback for her lyrical flashes of inspiration, or just company; she could always count on the drummer to be around. The girl was only ever a text, call or walk away.

If things with Nodoka were straightforward, then things with Ritsu were easy.

But, like a child, Mio did not realise that such a sentiment could translate badly into convenience .

Which resulted in the ordeal she had to experience over the past three days.

The lack of a physical presence to ground her; the absence of a loud, energetic voice to spur her on. The lack of a foundation to support and accentuate her bass lines, robbing her sound of its backbone and richness. The cold emptiness of her walks to and from home, subjecting her to the full brunt of her thoughts. The lack of someone who saw her, knew her, and needed no additional explanation for whatever she had on her mind.

So, how could I stay angry at you, when I’ve treated you so poorly?

She turned her head, hoping to look the drummer in the eye. Seeing only a tuft of auburn hair where Ritsu's eyes should have been, Mio decided to sift through the maelstrom of her thoughts and start putting them into words the best way she knew how.

She leaned back, savouring the gentle warmth of her friend. "Y'know…"

"Yeah?"

"Without your drums backing me up, it’s been really lonely.” I missed you.

“And even though you rush the beat sometimes…” Flaws and all.

“In the end, I still love the energy and power of your playing.” You’re still important.

She waited, feeling the heat creep up her cheeks. She had never been great with speaking plainly about such things after all.

The lump under her head began to tremble, and when Mio turned her head again, she was greeted by a pair of teasing, amber eyes and a wide smile. Mio felt the familiar annoyance fill her mind as she watched her best friend break down into laughter at her heartfelt confession.

"Ugh! Ritsu!"

But Ritsu could not help it. She tossed herself from the bed, her joy and relief propelling her. “I’m all better now!” She cheered. It was times like these that made her glad that she had been friends with the lefty for this long, granting her the ability to translate Mio-speak. The words were melodramatic and cheesy for sure; but Ritsu could hear and feel the sentiment all the same.

And hell, she missed Mio. A lot.

But she could not afford to revel in her joy for very long, as her nose decided to forcefully remind her that her body was still out of commission. Not to mention that shooting up from her bed had caused her head to begin spinning again.

"You're not better! Go back to sleep, you still have a fever." Mio pushed Ritsu back down to the bed, pulling the covers over her now shivering body. Good grief. Mio chuckled lightly to herself. The drummer obediently laid back on the bed, grumbling in her discomfort.

She takes the time to smooth out the pillow and sheets, ensuring the girl is nestled properly within them. The bassist chuckled lightly at the sight of Ritsu snuggling deep into her bed. "Well, I probably should go home so that you can rest." But before Mio could even straighten her legs to rise, she felt a pair of hands grab hers.

"What? At least stay with me till I fall asleep. Pleeease Mio…." That nasal, begging whine warmed her heart, and only made her smile even more.

"Good grief."

Mio sat down again, her fingers still wrapped around the drummer's. The girl had her hand in a vice grip - as if she were afraid the lefty would up and disappear. She let out an amused huff, and began rubbing her thumb across the back of Ritsu’s hand. The skin there was smooth and unblemished, unlike the girl’s palms which were calloused and roughened from years of drumming. Mio felt a smile tug at her lips. It was very much like the girl herself; rough on one side but soft on the other.

The room fell into a relaxed silence, the two girls happy to enjoy their newly mended friendship. However, as the moments passed, Ritsu felt the growing need to get something off her chest.

"Mio, I'm really sorry… just. I'm sorry for everything." The jealousy, the harassing, the spite, the shouting…

Her hand gets a light squeeze. "Hey. I messed up too.” Mio began. “I’m sorry for making you feel left out. And for shouting at you.”

“But..”

“It's alright Ritsu, don't worry. Really." Mio cooed, giving the drummer a reassuring smile and tightening the hold around her hand.

Ritsu averted her eyes. “After all I did and said… you’d still forgive me?”

"Of course. Because you're my friend, Ritsu. It's as simple as that." Grey eyes stared straight into amber ones. Hesitation emanated from the latter pair. Mio sighed and shook her head. Bringing her legs up to the bed, Mio knelt next to Ritsu, sliding her arm between Ritsu and the bed. The auburn-haired girl raised an eyebrow and her eyes widened in alarm. Wait what? Then, very slowly and gently, Mio pulled the drummer up from the bed and enveloped her in a warm hug, burying her face into the girl’s neck.

"M-Mio…?"

"Idiot, you're not the only one who feels they need to atone for something, alright? So don't keep blaming yourself." Mio muttered. She wrapped her arms tightly around Ritsu, nearly crushing the girl against herself. Gingerly, Ritsu returned the hug, allowing herself to enjoy the lefty’s warmth. The girl responded by stroking her back and nuzzling her neck, and Ritsu felt her shoulders tingle as she returned the favour. Dimly, she noted the faint scent of lavender from Mio. It was a familiar scent, one that eased the tension in her shoulders.

The two sat in silence taking in each other’s warmth, and letting their actions speak for them.

Bit by bit, Ritsu's body began to relax and her eyelids began to droop; her conscience eased and her mind gradually being put to peace.

After what felt like hours, Mio gently lowered the drummer back onto the bed, her heart stinging a little at the loss of contact. Clasping Ritsu's hand in both of hers once more, she gave Ritsu a soft smile. Ritsu drowsily raised her free hand and placed it on Mio's cheek as she gave a sleepy and somewhat lopsided smile.

"Thank you… my princess." Ritsu whispered, reciting her lines from that game all those years ago.

"You won't have to do anything more," Mio answered as she moved one hand to Ritsu's head and patted her gently. Ritsu leaned in, eyelids becoming heavier as the minutes passed. "Just be a good knight." And at long last, Mio was able to see the small, hopeful smile on Ritsu's face as exhaustion finally managed to claim her and make her drift into unconsciousness.

"I promise Mio. I promise." She pulled their clasped hands next to her head as her eyes began to close, and the grip on her hand tightened in answer. As her body sank back into the bed and the welcoming darkness of restful sleep engulfed her mind, Ritsu grinned as she felt something soft and warm grazing her forehead.

Chapter 2

Chapter Text

Cold… was all Ritsu could properly focus on as she groggily locked the door behind her. Her blazer did help to stave off most of the chilly air, but it was another matter entirely when the wind picked up. This was the kind of spring weather that Ritsu disliked; it was not cold enough to warrant extra layers, but it was still frigid enough to make one squirm.

Standing at her doorstep she stared blankly at the road ahead, her mind trying to break out of its sleepy state. She dropped her gaze to observe her abdomen, which was protected from the elements by means of a single layer of white fabric that was her blouse, with the edges of her blazer flanking it. It's cold… but whatever. Buttoning up is too troublesome. Once the hazy fog in her head lifted, she began her morning routine as she made her way to school.

"Top of the mornin' Mio!" Ritsu chirped as she rounded the last bend and saw an all-too-familiar looking frame leaning against the concrete wall. Said person had her arms folded and a less than amused look in her eyes.

"You're kinda late you know…" Grey eyes darted up and locked with amber ones, accompanied by a loud groan as Mio ran her hand through her hair exasperatedly.

"Not late enough to get us in trouble, so why are you worried hmm? Ohoho… were you feeling lonely and thought you'd be stood up? Or did you miss me that much, my princess?"

She gets her answer in the form of a fist.

The pair began to make their way to school, via the same path they took almost every single day. Glancing over, Ritsu snickered at the bassist's still red cheeks and less than subtle scowl. But in an act of wisdom the girl held her tongue, deciding to spare the taller girl for now… or at least until the top of her head stopped throbbing. The drummer sighed, it was probably a miracle that most of her intelligence – she is the Great Tainaka Ritsu after all – remained intact despite all the abuse her head had taken over the years. Then again it was less abuse and more "asking for it", since Mio only hit that hard when thoroughly overwhelmed. Which, thanks to Ritsu's addiction to teasing, happened quite regularly.

While the drummer nursed her aching skull, Mio continued on in huffed silence, arms crossed over her chest and face locked in a frown; wanting more than ever to forget what Ritsu had said. Try as she might, but she just could not make the blush go away; the blood in her body was determined to remain pooled in her cheeks. The more she scowled in irritation, the more blood rushed to her face as her mind turned into a broken record.

Or did you miss me that much, my princess?

It was the start of a new school year. It would be her first day as a third year student. Now finally 18, she should be acting like a senior and be focused on the year ahead, determined to take it down. Yet, she shuddered at the thought. A new year meant changes; a new class, a new environment to adapt to once more. The thought of last year’s separation potentially happening again sent a chill down her spine.

Not to mention all the events that another school year would bring. We need to prep for all our upcoming concerts. Then there's college entrance exams… And… The grey eyes once again darted towards the pair of amber ones, which were currently staring at the spring sky, unfocused and unaware.

The image of amber, infused with a feverish glaze flashed through Mio's mind. Brittle, hushed voices echoed in her ears, and the feeling of trembles and warmth danced across the skin of her hands and back. She felt the softness of invisible bedding on her knees, the weight of an invisible pair of arms over her shoulders; all while keenly aware of the chilled breeze across her weightless palm. A tingling itch spread across her still flushed cheeks, and her stomach began to coil slightly as bottled emotions roiled around her head.

Why can't I just forget?

It had been an unconscious move, Mio reasoned; an action taken in the heat of the moment. She was just trying to ease her friend was she not? That's right; she was merely trying to show her concern and affirm her friend’s place in her life. That's what friends did. It was nothing, it should be nothing. That was how it should be.

And yet, it wasn't.

"Hey Mio, did you watch the news last night? They say it's gonna be a very windy spring this time." The tempest in the bassist's head paused to process the sudden input.

"Well, it isn't going to be that bad right? Then again, you don't do well with cold winds."

The drummer shook her head. "After that winter? Hell no. Spring should be about warmth and sunshine; cold drafts have no place here!"

"Yes, yes…"

"And it makes it so hard to sleep at night… it's all dark and quiet and suddenly the window pane starts banging and voices start creeping in…"

Mio felt her knees begin to tremble. Her mind found itself in a shadowy, abandoned room. The walls were yellowed; unidentifiable stains smearing themselves over the old, pale wallpaper. Termite infested planks boarded up the murky holes on the wall. Her heels scraped across the rickety flooring, the wood creaking ominously under her weight. Panic builds in her chest as she hears the tiny sound of scuttling rodents.

A bang, and she spies a small window at the far end of the wall. Erie shafts of silver shine through the dusty glass, showing nothing but a blanket of illuminated nothingness outside.

The glass begins to rattle. Her breath hitches, and her eyes widened as she felt her throat pushing up to her mouth. The rattling got louder, and her heart raced even faster as a shadow began to materialize beyond the glass. The pounding in her ears intensifies. The shadow twists and turns like black smog; smashing itself on the dulled glass, red eyes glowing and hungry to enter in.

"Nononononono… there's nothing there, it's nothing, it's nothing…" Mio slammed her eyes shut, clamping her hands over her ears and tears forming at the corner of her eyes as she tried to push back the imagery. Her feet were now glued to the pavement, and her knees were trembling in fear as the pressure in her chest became unbearable. Her entire torso shivered and trembled as the formless terror outside the glass began to seep through, swirling towards her…

Until she heard a very familiar snort.

The frightening image crumbled away, replaced by a clear spring sky. Chirping and the noise of traffic replaced the thunderous rush in her ears, and when Mio finally cracked her eyes open, they fell on a girl who was bent over gasping for air. The wave of terror vanished completely as her mind re-oriented itself, and a different, boiling pressure built up rapidly.

"WHAT THE HELL RITSU!" Mio gladly let her instinct take over, bringing down the almighty wrath of her fist on to the head of her idiot friend for the second time that morning. Around them, students and salarymen alike continued with their morning commute and small talk, giving the pair of Sakura High students nothing more than just a nonchalant, if not irritated glance.

"Te-te-te… damn… that one really hurt…" The drummer clutched her head. Mio crossed her arms and stormed ahead of her victim, too frustrated to even say anything to Ritsu. She hated having her fears exploited for kicks; especially since Ritsu was aware of how vivid her imagination could be. Her temper flared hotly as she recalled all the times where the drummer had tried to help her “get over her fears”. Those attempts did little more than make her feel more scared, and more often than not only served to give Ritsu a good laugh, much to Mio's chagrin.

Irrational or not, fear was fear. It would always be a terrible experience; who in their right mind would enjoy the idea of feeling vulnerable and scared all the time? Saying that it was fun simply because her reactions were 'cute' merely painted Ritsu as a sad*st in Mio's eyes. An apologetic, but unrepentant sad*st. Mio's eyebrows knitted into a scowl as she stormed on, wondering why on earth she bothered.

Her raging temper was brought to a halt when a small, calm voice rang through her mind. But she is important to me anyway. Mio's frown eased a little, and the grip on the strap of her bass casing loosened slightly. It's not like I would completely lose my sleep. Her footsteps began to lose their power, and her strides became smaller. Besides, she doesn't have any malicious intent. She sighed, and the tension in her muscles faded. Any normal person would have just stopped talking to her, but I always still do. I can’t imagine not having her around. Her scowl disappeared. Yet, the pressure in her chest only intensified as she was confronted by the next line of thought.

Why? Mio came to a complete stop, her eyes fixed on the ground as the question bounced around her head. Somehow, the answer that Ritsu was her friend seemed inadequate all of a sudden.

Then the memory flashed in her mind’s eye, and she flinched.

"Mio?" Ritsu asked hesitantly. She had spent the last several minutes trailing behind the silently fuming bassist; her attempts to apologise or get her attention falling on deaf ears. Ah man, I think I may have taken it a little too far. But she usually doesn't get this mad… The taller girl turned around and stared at the drummer; the rage had more or less subsided thanks to her new train of thought, but her glare was still rife with unspoken irritation.

"Look Mio, um, I'm sorry ok? I'm sorry, I went a little overboard."

Mio sighed another time and raised her hand; tired from having to process the amount of things appearing in her head. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to simply just let things return to normal, just so she would have one less thing to have to ponder about. "Just forget it."

"… Are you feeling alright?"

"Yeah, just tired. Bad sleep." Mio lied, but still gave Ritsu a small smile as she pushed her thoughts back to her mental shelf. I'll just enjoy the morning walk. Think about this later. The drummer held Mio's gaze for a while, before deciding to return with a smile of her own. The pair fell back in stride once again as they continued the walk to school, easing back into casual conversation. Mio gladly let Ritsu's nonsensical comments occupy her mind; they were a welcome relief and sense of familiarity as she strolled past the cherry blossom trees. For now, her world was back to normal.

Of course, it was only normal for Mio. For Ritsu, everything for the past few months was odd. Mainly because Mio was a terrible liar.

Something has pushed the girl off kilter. There would be times she would accept the drummer’s presence with little fanfare; chuckling at an arm thrown around her shoulder or returning a playful shoulder bump with one of her own. At others, any contact would cause her to freeze or even jump away. At her worst, the girl could veer between being clingy to being completely untouchable within the same day.

To anyone else, nothing looked out of the ordinary. Mio had always been a skittish and sensitive girl; shifts in her willingness to be near the source of a lot of her ire was nothing strange.

But Ritsu knew better. She drove her hands into her pockets, trying to make sense of it all. She sifted through her memory of the past few months, hoping to find an answer. Did she anger her friend? No, she would have told me by now. Maybe she lost something of Mio's? That would not warrant this… awkwardness.

The drummer groaned, running her hands through her hair in frustration. Just what was making things so weird between them? it all seemed to start just after her little period of illness last year, but nothing out of the ordinary had happened back then. We just talked and hugged a little! It was completely normal! Ritsu's footsteps began to slow down as the gears in her head began to turn.

Right?

A distance away, a petite, twin-tailed girl locked the doors to her home. She patted her pockets and schoolbag to check that her essential items were all in their right places. Raising her hands to her head, she smoothed down whatever stray locks of hair she had, letting out an annoyed groan at the few stubborn strands that refused to conform to gravity. Hefting her guitar onto her right shoulder, she set off for Sakura High.

For the girl, it was her first day of school as a second year student. Now that she was a year older and had one more year of experience under her belt, it was time to grow up. Anticipation built in her chest as she took her usual path to school, and she felt a small bubble of excitement rise to her head. A new year meant a clean slate, and she was determined to start it right; firstly by bringing back her old, more disciplined self.

The past year had been fun and rich with experiences, something Azusa could not deny. She had managed to meet and be a part of a group of very interesting – but lazy – seniors. She was able to be part of a – somewhat – proper band, something she was not quite expecting to do in high school. Yet, despite all the enjoyment last year, Azusa still could not quite get over the fact that her seniors still weren't as serious as they should be. Simply put, their attitude towards music still left a lot to be desired.

However, what truly vexed her was the fact that of all people, she too was beginning to follow in their footsteps.

For her, the guitar started out as a hobby; her initial interest sparked by her parents' heavy involvement in music. Through her years of learning and making mistakes, she developed a deep-seated love and respect for the guitar; she warmly recalled the many late nights spent being mesmerized by the alluring sound of strings plucked to a jazz beat. She also revelled in playing around with distortions, though she never really liked them too heavy; feeling that too much distortion interfered with the purity of the note far more than she would have liked.

It was because of the amazing properties of music, that she would take practice so seriously. And now, watching herself back-slide and unable to make any visible progress with her skills thanks to her increasingly laidback attitude really irked her to no end.

Yet, she could not blame her seniors. Sure, she called them out on it numerous times, but she could not bring herself to outright blame them for their influence on her. Mostly because Azusa knew that some small part of her did enjoy the lax environment; that deep inside herself, she found their antics to be endearing. That same part of her also did not want these to ever end, despite being keenly aware of the reality awaiting her.

"I'll be alone soon…" She muttered to herself. She felt her chest tense up and her stomach constrict slightly. Invasive images of a lone, petite girl sitting in an empty room with a single cup of tea burned through her head. It was crushing, suffocating; her hands instinctively rose to grip a heart she could not reach as she felt her lungs tighten. Alone. Gone. No more… No… She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts, but to little effect.

She knew that she should not let her thoughts take her over to such an extent. But her mind was a creature of habit. Azusa's hands began to clench into tight fists as she tried to ignore the gaping feelings of loneliness that still plagued her. She had to fight it, for only kids allowed their emotions to grip them like that. Only kids would hide in fear; but not her, not this time. Azusa inhaled slowly, taking longer and deeper breaths as she forced her body to calm down. Her parents were right; it was never good for one to think too much.

"Azuuuusa!" Azusa nearly collapsed as she was thrown forward; an unknown weight smashing into her back. Her mind was jolted out of its rut.

"Ugh, Ritsu-senpai get off me…" The small girl groaned; she could trust her own senior to be so noisy in the morning.

"Aw, I'm just saying good morning. Why so mean little kitty?" The drummer gave a sly smile.

Azusa could only give her best cold stare in return. Ignoring her club president, she turned to Mio and gave a warm, proper greeting before continuing the walk to school together with them. Yet, as they passed through the streets, Azusa began to notice that something was a little off.

Her two seniors were conversing as per usual, but there was something different about the atmosphere between them. For one, Mio was not being provoked as often, and Ritsu's comments seemed a little more reserved. Furthermore, the two seemed to be standing a little further apart from one another and for a moment Azusa was sure that she saw Mio lean away from Ritsu when the latter tried to get closer.

Something wasn't quite right at all. Then again, Azusa mused, she was probably just thinking too much.

Arriving to see Yui of all people to be first in the music room, doing an admittedly ridiculous looking windmill strumming technique was certainly a pleasant surprise for Azusa. The younger girl was filled with a curious hope as she asked for the reason behind her early presence.

"Eheheh, I actually set my alarm an hour early by accident..." Yui answered sheepishly; all-too-aware that her reason was anything but valid and promising.

Completely expected… Azusa sighed as the final embers of her hope were extinguished. Still, she could not help but be amazed by Yui, even if it was somewhat begrudgingly so at times. When Azusa first met her, all she could say regarding Yui was that she was a grade-A airhead with a major in being an annoying cuddle-bug and had a penchant for tagging others – sentient or not – with embarrassing monikers. She seemed childish and a little flippant; someone whom Azusa respected only because she was a senior and was disappointingly unlike the serious musician she thought she witnessed on stage.

She just could not bring herself to acknowledge her as a proper musician; if you decided to pick up the guitar, the least you could do was to be serious about it and learn it thoroughly!

Yet, her rather condescending thoughts fell apart when she managed to properly observe her practice with the guitar for the first time; her parents always said that you could tell how a person was like by the way they handle their interests when no one was really looking. For someone who probably only learnt of the guitar's existence a year ago, she certainly showed a high level of skill; and what she lacked in theory she made up with a rate of learning that could only be described as otherworldly.

What was seemingly careless, child-like behaviour revealed itself to be a very warming and simple form of dedication. The airhead turned out to be a humble, carefree person who did her best to pursue the skill in her own, workaround way; a result of being keenly aware of her weakness in dealing with esoteric information like music theory. Furthermore, someone had to bring some good-old-fashioned cheer into their otherwise mostly empty home; Hirasawa Ui had more than enough to bear on her own and Yui understood that.

Perhaps I'm making my standards too high, being so quick to judge. That was all Azusa could conclude back then.

Now, her annoyance had transformed into an envious curiosity; she found in herself a strange desire to better know this unwitting prodigy that was her fellow guitarist. She did want to get to know the rest of her quirky seniors as well, but Yui much more so. There was something very interesting and influential about her; to the point that Azusa would find her thoughts and everyday judgments based around Yui, and that she would find it strangely off whenever she was not around.

Maybe it was that infectious determination of hers, or that sheepish smile whenever she knew she made a mistake. Perhaps it was her quiet dedication to the people around her, or that never-ending cheerfulness that she had no qualms sharing. Or it was that admittedly amusing and cute love for sweets. It could even be those annoying hugs that she allowed herself to secretly enjoy.

Azusa reasoned that it was because she had never met someone like Yui before; after all, humans are always interested in new things.

Not that she would ever let anyone know any of that.

"Hehehe… You haven't seemed to grow much at all, Azusa-chan…" Ritsu teased slyly, lips curled into a grin as she inspected Azusa closely with a finger on her chin. Azusa's arms immediately flew to protect her dignity.

"You're the last person I want to hear that from!" She retorted, outrage clear on her face while she reflexively fought against Yui's cuddles; her mock frown the only mask to her own bubbling amusem*nt as she noted the scent of strawberry jam and silently enjoyed that welcoming warmth around her shoulders. A warmth that she always felt was directed solely at her, a warmth that she had grown accustomed to in the short span of a year.

Yeah, she was definitely not letting anyone know that.

Azusa could feel her shoulders sagging as she read through the guidebook, line after line; letting out an aggravated sigh at the impulsiveness of her fellow guitarist.

Yesterday had begun rather normally, with the usual dilly-dallying before practice started. Then, upon discovering that their storeroom had turned into a room full of personal junk, practice was skipped over in favour of doing some proper cleaning. Azusa would have protested if not for the fact that there was truly a ridiculous amount of nonsense within that tiny space. Ritsu and Yui, on the other hand, protested almost instantly. But reason won out for once, and thus the five girls began the mundane task of cleaning and sorting.

No surprise that most of this stuff belongs to Yui-senpai… Azusa recalled herself thinking as she moved box after box of rather useless trinkets out of the storeroom for the others to sort through. Absently, she noted the various states of casual dress her seniors were in.

Ritsu had ditched her blazer and, because she could, untied her blue ribbon and released her topmost button, letting her collar hang open. She proceeded to roll up her sleeves, revealing a surprisingly toned pair of forearms. Then again, Azusa told herself, it shouldn’t be; with how hard she hit her drums, building such muscle tone was only natural. The younger girl surmised it was no different from how guitarists built up callouses over time. Still, despite the roughness that such a trait might imply, the drummer’s overall frame was still slender and trim - exuding an aura of femininity that ran counter to how she carried herself.

Yui and Mugi remained in their full uniforms, but with how much they were moving around their usually immaculate blazers and skirts were building up creases with every box carried. And while such a sight made sense for Yui - careless as she was - it was less fitting for the demure blonde girl. Mugi arrived to the clubroom every day without so much of a hair out of place and took painstaking efforts to keep her appearance proper even through their practices. Seeing her so uncaring of her uniform getting rumpled was an uncommon sight for sure.

But in Azusa’s opinion, the one with the greatest change in appearance was Mio. The bassist had her hair tied up in a rare ponytail as she ploughed through the mountain of items. Azusa could not help but stare a little; surprised that a mere change in hairstyle could result in such a change in the bassist’s demeanour and silhouette. It seemed that no matter what state she was in she had the capacity to look good. Her motherly sighing at the things she sorted through only added to it.

Through it all, the fact that a certain pair of friends were behaving a tad bit erratically did not go unnoticed by the younger girl or the smiling keyboardist.

"Hey Ritsu, isn't this yours?" Mio piped up, holding a small book in her hands. The pages were worn and slightly tattered, and the cover sported numerous pressure marks. Ritsu immediately recognized it as one of the books that she used as a snare when practicing at home.

"Ah, thanks." Ritsu instinctively reached over to grab the book, her fingertips brushing against Mio’s. The bassist dropped the book as if her skin had been burned.

"J-just bring it home." Mio croaked. The drummer sighed, turning away with a frown on her face.

What's going on? Was all Azusa could remember thinking. Mugi's teasing smile did not help either. Surely it wasn't that she was thinking too much then?

The younger girl sighed as her thoughts returned to the present, where her brown-haired senior was kneeling before a tank, face squished against the cool glass as she observed the newest addition to their clubroom.

I swear this was just too impulsive. It's most probably going to be a burden on us. Azusa sighed as her eyes followed the tiny creature in the tank as it swam to and fro effortlessly. The little critter turned its head; its cute, beady eyes seemingly locking with hers. The younger guitarist smiled a bit, at least the turtle was somewhat cute.

It's a soft shelled pig-nosed turtle! She remembered Yui correcting her in excitement. The creature – named Ton-chan now – was a gift to Azusa from her seniors using the money from selling their teacher's old, but surprisingly valuable guitar. It had been intended to keep Azusa company due to the absence of new juniors.

Azusa knew that the arrival of Ton-chan had the good intentions of her seniors – well mostly from Yui – riding on it; even though she did reckon it to be unnecessary. The turtle would never be able to play an instrument or even speak, and it required additional commitment and attention.

She could not deny the fact that without new juniors, she was setting herself up to become very lonely once her seniors graduated. And that gradually, her seniors would be less and less able to come for practice. She was too aware that she was digging herself into a trench.

And yet, for the sake of the present, she didn't care.

"Y'know Yui-senpai. You're going to have to care for it a lot, and the water temperature must always be regulated and the water itself changed regularly… And it will need to be fed every day…" Azusa said as she studied the guidebook in her hands with a small frown; it really required a fair bit to care for this turtle.

"Ah, I can bring food for it if we run out; I do keep a Chinese Pond Turtle, an Asian Yellow Pond Turtle and a Stinkpot at home. So no worries!" Mugi offered with a warm smile.

Is Mugi-senpai an expert on everything? Azusa could only stare at the blonde in silent wonder. She made a mental note to talk to Mugi a little more when she had the chance. Well, I guess then Ton-chan won't be too hard to keep. Besides – the younger girl turned back to the tank as Yui continued her whispering to the reptile – it's the thought that counts right? The junior suppressed a grateful smile.

The peaceful air was soon shattered by a vehement cry.

"I'm sick of this!"

Four pairs of eyes turned to the source of the noise; Ritsu sat on the ground with tears in her eyes, watching the screen of the laptop before her.

"I'm sick of the drums!"

Chapter 3

Chapter Text

What? Mio's mind felt like sludge as her brain's processes ground to a screeching halt. She's… what? Sick? Of the drums? Mio could never have imagined such a sentiment to be uttered by Ritsu.

Said drummer still sat on the wooden parquet floor, tears of frustration flowing down her cheeks as she turned away from the screen before her, sniffling. Ritsu almost never cried; she barely allowed herself to shed a tear even when she received any painful injury, and usually only knew how to flare up when the circ*mstances pushed her over the edge.

But to cry over the drums? The concept was only vaguely plausible in Mio's mind. Not that her mind was in top processing condition currently; most of it was still trying to get past the idea that Tainaka Ritsu was sick of drumming. And the fact that she was shedding tears.

Those tears look real. But this is Ritsu we're talking about… A part of her still could not believe what was happening before her eyes. Another part of her ached badly as she felt her chest constrict; very shaken from seeing her friend in such a state. Even if the tears were for dramatic effect – Ritsu surely had the ability to conjure tears when she needed them – what could have possibly driven her to proclaim that she was tired of the one thing that she loved so much?

Loved more than Mio herself, she mused. What?! Now isn't the time for this! Mio suppressed a tired groan. She needed to get to the bottom of this.

"What do you mean sick of the drums?" She asked hesitantly.

"Sorry!" Ritsu raised her hand in defense, "The phrase 'sick of' may be a bit strong. But-!" Her outstretched arm moved to point at the laptop screen. "Look at this!" She finished in a growl.

It was a recording of all the concerts the Light Music Club had performed in since their first year, kept by the student council as a record of all the activities that their particular club had participated in. The video provided a wide shot of all the band members as they stood on stage amidst an excitedly murmuring crowd of students. However, given the camera’s position at the back of the auditorium, the four members all looked positively tiny on screen.

"Oh, it's our culture fest concert as first years!" Mugi exclaimed in excitement, nostalgia washing over her.

"Oh, so that's when I saw Mio-senpai's-"

"Ugh please, no!"

"That's not the point!" Ritsu retorted. "Look at the drums closely."

Five pairs of eyes trained onto the instrument in question on the screen. The familiar shape of the percussion instrument was visible against the backdrop of the maroon curtains, but most of it was shrouded in shadow or blocked by the others. As a result, they could just barely make out where Ritsu was. In contrast, everyone else was well-illuminated and very obviously noticeable.

"Wow, the drums are really quite hard to see from the front…" Mugi quickly pointed out.

Ritsu sighed. "And that's not the only time. Look!" As Ritsu went through the individual videos of all their performances, the crux of the issue became apparent; while all the others were able to have their several minutes of glory on stage – Mio's incident even skyrocketing her fame to outrageous proportions – Ritsu was the only one who had been consistently left in the shadows, with nothing alluding to her existence except for the crash of the cymbals, the rumble of her kicks or the glint of her uncovered forehead.

Needless to say, this left the loud-mouthed, larger-than-life drummer seriously annoyed.

It's not that she wanted her own fan club – the thought of masses of faceless girls drooling after her or worshipping her in secret was mildly disturbing. If she had a choice, then that was a burden that she would gladly leave for others to bear; she did not need to have the experience of being stalked, like what had happened to Mio.

However, being in the shadows to the point where many did not even know that she was the drummer of Houkago Tea Time? That was what had really pissed her off.

Ritsu rested her cheek atop her palm, ignoring the faint murmurs surrounding her as Sawako wrote her name on the blackboard and introduced herself as the homeroom teacher for Class 3-2. The whispered sighs of admiration for the older woman's beauty were old news and pretty much jokes for the drummer, having already seen past Sawako's facade and knowing her to be an adult child with an 'interesting' taste in clothing and an even more interesting taste in music.

Ritsu calmly awaited the day where her true nature would be revealed to the world. That, in Ritsu's eyes, would truly be an awesome show to behold. Even better if she could be the one at its helm!

But for now, the drummer had to deal with the mundane task of self-introduction. The awesome tales of Tainaka Ritsu, The Great Revealer of Secrets, would have to be put on hold.

"Uh… H-Hi… My name is Akiyama Mio…" Came the faint, all-too-familiar voice from behind the short-haired girl; predictably laced with uncertainty and embarrassment. Ritsu swore that even if she were blinded, bound and gagged, she would be able to know just who that voice belonged to. Mio, in response, had pointed out that that particular sentiment made no sense. Not that Ritsu really cared; it made sense to her and that was enough. The surrounding murmurs intensified.

"Wow…"

"It's her! Akiyama-san!"

"The bassist? In our class?"

"Heheh… so cute."

Ritsu duly ignored them all.

She was happy that she and Mio could finally be in the same class again. Yes, she was currently bored out of her mind, but just mere moments ago her mind was still reeling in excitement at being able to be in the same room as her best friend once more.

Even better was the fact that for now, Mio seemed to have reverted back to her old self; the weird air surrounding them was no longer as thick. For the first time in a while, Ritsu could finally have a proper conversation with the girl without the bassist's answers sounding forced or even distant; a refreshing change from that god-awful awkwardness that was the morning walk just a few hours ago.

"Excuse me Tainaka-san, it's your turn now." Sawako chided gently, bringing the drummer out of her reverie. She was mildly surprised that her few short thoughts had lasted for so long. Sighing, she eased herself out of the chair and slipped her hands into her pockets as she rose.

"Well, since you've already said my name I guess you can skip over right?" Ritsu chirped with a playful grin across her face. Murmurs turned into light snickers.

"Come on now, Tainaka-san." Sawako urged, her voice still tender and soft; but Ritsu noticed the slight glint in her eye. She suppressed a terrified squeak.

"W-well. I'm Tainaka Ritsu. Nice to meet you all." The drummer felt no need to say anything further than that and promptly sat down, preferring to retreat into the safety of her seat and hopefully away from the eyes of death. Her mind slowly eased itself into a cycle of bored musings; the drummer paying little heed to the monotonous introductions of her surrounding classmates. Her previous train of thought was forcefully shelved away.

It was far too tiring to think about it.

Lunch break rolled by soon enough. Third year lessons were predictably uninteresting, but at least they were not outright boring. Ritsu considered it an achievement that she hadn't fallen asleep yet.

"Hello, Tainaka-san right?" Ritsu turned her head, her eyes falling on a girl with rather flamboyant pigtails. The drummer struggled to recall her name.

"Uh yes?"

"Just wondering, are you the drummer from the Light Music Club, because you really look like her!"

After scouting around, Ritsu realized to her chagrin that really, many people did not know that she was the drummer from Houkago Tea Time. Even the few acquaintances that had been her classmates from prior years showed spotty track records with their memories. It really did not help that Ritsu barely made any friends during her first and second year besides her fellow bandmates; it meant that almost no one was aware.

I can't tell if this is due to a lack of common sense, or that people really don't give a sh*t… Ritsu groaned. And now, after checking the videos, Ritsu understood why she had been left out of the loop. It was so unfair.

Her earliest reason to become a drummer had been because they just looked so damn cool on stage, wildly smashing about with so much power, yet were able to miraculously create a steady beat. They were like wild, powerful, untamed beasts, but within that wildness they held absolute power over the mood and speed of the song. Furthermore, drummers were always the ones who got the love of the fans besides the lead guitarist. They were the ones who would receive due admiration and recognition; it was the kind of skill that made it obvious whether you were good or not. They were the ones – despite not having a tone – who would always be within the audiences' attention; for could you really ignore the existence of a loud, pulsing drum beat?

Of course, her love for the instrument now had better, deeper dimensions to it; but Ritsu never forgot what had sparked her love for it in the first place.

And knowing that the one thing that had kept her loving the instrument was the one thing that was never granted to her, Ritsu felt that she had every reason to be pissed. Even if it was just slightly misplaced and a little petty of her to do so.

Since when was it too much to ask for just a few minutes of glory on stage? Was it really not fair for someone like her to want some recognition for the work she had put into learning this skill? Ritsu felt like the punch-line of some cosmic joke; all those years spent honing her craft and such was the result of her pursuit.

"So… what do you want to do?" Mio asked apprehensively, glancing at the drummer's back as she squatted in the corner. Her eyes traced the gentle slant of Ritsu's shoulders; they rounded around the curves of her waist and below as she held her gaze. She noted that the mop of hair was still a little tousled underneath the bright plastic hair band.

The sniffling paused, the drummer's face still obscured by her hands. "I want to change instruments." Was the soft, muffled reply.

Mio's brain momentarily froze. Change? CHANGE?! She could feel her brain cells temporarily shorting out at the mere implication of that word.

Why? Was it me? Was my avoidance of her the reason for this? I-is she threatening to leave the club? A myriad of questions flickered past her mind; a gripping, expanding veil of fear and frustration accompanying each one. Something is wrong, and i-if I'm the cause… Mio wanted more than ever to simply curl into a ball and hide.

Her mouth decided otherwise. "B-but you can't do that! Who will play the drums then?" Mio shot Ritsu with the obvious. Her lips quivered and her voice wavered slightly; Mio felt her emotions slip through, yet no one seemed to notice.

The sniffling stopped abruptly. Ritsu remained motionless where she was, her face still buried in her palms. Then, she craned her head slowly, revealing a puffed up pair of cheeks and stubborn frown upon a pair of tightly shut eyes, refusing to utter anything other than a deflated puff of air.

Mio fought the instinctive urge to hit her over the head. Complaining, whining, and when asked for a solution? She didn't even bother to think that far. Just how irresponsible can she get? Still that explains nothing regarding the cause… Stifling a groan, she rested her forehead on her palm. There was really far too much to think about.

"Eh? If that's the case Ricchan, do you want to try the guitar?" Yui piped up.

For Yui, the issue was relatively easy. The captain – well, being the captain – was probably just a little bored and needed to try something new. After all, simply doing something else after getting tired of one thing always helped to get her spirits up; homework was no exception to this tried and true practice.

Not that it was right to skip over homework, but people will get bored won't they? And boredom was a no-no in the world of Hirasawa Yui. Besides, she found it to be an interesting idea; just how would someone like dear old Ricchan fare in guitar playing? And would she herself be able to play the drums with that energetic flair like her? What would Mugi-chan look like holding a bass? This was truly something worth investigating.

However, as the guitarist watched her club president pull on the strap to her Gibson, she mulled over what the auburn-haired girl had complained about.

She's behind us all the time. And it looks like no one can actually see her from the video. Is she…? Yui barely had time to continue processing when Ritsu began showing off her poses with the guitar. Part of Yui felt rather sad – it was her own guitar, and Gitah should rightfully be hers to use only; Mio had taught her when she first got Gitah that the instrument was something very personal and fragile, not to be shared lightly and needed to be well cared for. The lead guitarist took those words very seriously, and guarded her instrument religiously like it was her own child.

Yui couldn't really care less if she had taken those words a little too literally. Care was care, and her care had kept her precious Gitah free from the harms of scratches and stains. So, seeing Gitah in the hands of another was a little unnatural and somewhat weird.

Yet, she just could not ignore just how much the image fit her captain so well.

"Hey hey, so how do I go about this, sensei?" Ritsu stood before Yui, eagerly awaiting coaching as she held the rather alien instrument in her hands.

"Ah! Hold down the strings with your left hand and strum with your right." Yui answered almost too eagerly. Azusa rolled her eyes; Yui really got excited far too easily. It was a troublesome trait of hers.

"Sorry, I already know that much." Ritsu deadpanned. Yui recoiled in defeated shock; then what was she to teach her captain then? Where could she begin? Was her investigation destined to fall apart right here?

Azusa chuckled as she moved a stand over at her senior. Well no surprise that Yui can't teach; looks like I'll have to step in this time. The year's just started, so it should be fine. After all, she is cute when she's happy like that…

Azusa firmly pushed that thought into the pits of her mind.

Wasn't she the one who avoided the guitar because it was too complicated on the fingers? Really, how fickle… Mio had retreated to the table, back to her cup of still warm tea, deciding to consume the refreshing beverage as she waited for her best friend's latest zany scheme to tide over.

The slightly bitter liquid washed over her tongue in controlled waves, bringing a cascade of relaxing pleasure over her head and body, causing her to exhale the pent up air in her lungs; her elbows quickly brought themselves to rest over the tabletop, her back slouched on to the backrest ever so slightly as she felt her shoulders fall into a comfortable slump. She closed her eyes, letting the peaceful aura of nothingness surround her.

The bassist heard a rustle; and she found herself gazing into a pair of blue eyes when she opened her own. The gentle features of Mugi gazed back at her, her soft blue eyes seemingly looking past her own rather tired, steely-grey ones. A tiny smile graced her lips.

Mugi was definitely observing and scrutinizing her. She may not have had a piercing stare, but she was definitely holding an influential gaze as she kept her eyes locked with those of Mio's. An eyebrow was raised slightly; an air of concerned curiosity emanated from her. Mio could feel her cheeks heat up.

As the bassist struggled to give an answer, Ritsu was starting to feel rather exhausted.

"Stick out your left hand more, Ricchan! It'll be easier!"

"Ah, curl your fingers, senpai."

"Hold the pick loosely, and let your arm become like jelly…"

"You're still pressing down on the wrong strings senpai, it's these for the E chord."

"Ricchan, relax and be one with the guitar..."

The drummer could feel the strain from sitting as straight as a board. Her fingertips hurt; no, they stung badly as she felt the metal strings dig and bite into her skin. She felt the muscles in her wrist grow increasingly tense, and an annoying pain began to spread from the shuddering joint as she struggled to keep her fingers in place.

Part of her felt dumb as she strummed the thin strings uselessly, producing nothing more than a series of choked clacking from the clash of plastic on steel. She continued her struggle, trying to force her suddenly sluggish and fattened fingers to stop touching the open strings. How hard could it be to press the strings that needed to be pressed, and not touch those that didn’t need to be?!

Apparently, pretty damned hard.

The muscles in her fingers and wrist screamed in agony from the strain. The guitar, seemingly sensing her rising ire, gave way; and some notes were beginning to emerge. Still, there was no clear, melodious chord produced.

Looks like I was right about the guitar. And these two make it look so easy. Kudos to them. Ritsu slowly began to uncurl her stiffened fingers from the neck of the guitar.

"Well not bad for a first timer. Let's move on to the next chord then." Azusa chirped. Ritsu promptly stood up, bowed, and returned the guitar to its rightful owner.

"Heh the guitar is really a lot harder than it looks… You guys have my respect." The drummer gave a sheepish grin.

Needless to say, the rest of practice flew out of the window.

It was probably the effect of the sun's rays.

It should not be physically possible for hair to shine and glisten like that, but Ritsu reminded herself that that was exactly what she had witnessed on the hallway.

There was a flash of supple, porcelain skin, unblemished and untouched by the harmful substances in the air as she locked eyes with the woman in question. The click-clack of white designer heels on a wooden flooring resonated in her head. Soft locks flowed behind her head like a billowing cape of tinted copper strands; a healthy sheen forming an almost visible glow around them. A pair of steel rimmed glasses sat quaintly on the bridge of her nose, the only darker contrast to her otherwise light, smooth facial complexion. The pair of soft brown eyes gazed warmly at Ritsu as she gave the drummer a warm, sing-song greeting.

"Hi Sawa…." Was all the girl could articulate before the image of a stunning, radiant beauty. She stared. And stared some more. Her thoughts had long since been frozen in place. She noted vaguely that her mouth was hanging wide open from being stopped mid-sentence.

And just a moment later, the walking show-stealer of a teacher left her field of vision.

Sawa-chan is shining.

As the day wore on, Ritsu found herself increasingly intrigued and bothered by what she had seen. Such radiance, such that it was almost bleeding off of her; just how was that possible? And knowing Sawako she had to be plotting something. Why else would she shamelessly – in Ritsu's eyes at least – show off like that? Was this another one of her grand plans to boost her popularity? And just what exactly had she done to be able to achieve this? That was what intrigued her.

The part that bothered her was the fact that her brain decided to link the event to someone else.

The brown locks were now jet black, and dark as the night. They still shone, but instead of a vibrant copper glow, there was an elegant, glossy black sheen on the lengthened strands. The glasses disappeared, and brown eyes were transformed into a deep, stormy grey; Ritsu felt like she was staring into a hurricane. Yet, they still held the same soft gaze and were framed by smooth, fair skin.

It was no secret that Mio was pretty. That was something that Ritsu had come to terms with over the many years spent by her side. The fact that the girl had a strong, dedicated fan club was further proof that this was an objective fact.

That a girl as popular as her spent so much time at Ritsu’s side had always been a point of contention among some. The drummer was neither blind nor deaf to the nastier comments about her behind her back. Hanger-on, vulgar, parasite; she’s heard it all. But for Ritsu, any opposition with a face could be ignored; or if needed, dealt with.

But when the face was that of the very same girl Ritsu shared her growing years with, that complicated matters. She can’t just deal with the lefty the way she would an idiot, nor dismiss and cut her out of her life. And with Mio behaving erratically and clamming up, whatever understanding that the drummer had of her was now unusable. Things were once again, similar to the incident with Nodoka, uncertain; and now she was left to navigate these strange waters between them with little to no guidance.

The girl groaned. Things were already bad enough from the entire issue with her drums. This problem with Mio just made everything feel worse. As she pondered and mulled, a single thought brought her mind to a halt.

Was Mio afraid of her?

That sent a bolt of fear lancing through her chest. Getting scared by her was one thing, but Mio had never, ever been scared of her. But if it were true, and something has happened to make the lefty actually become terrified of her…

The drummer smacked her head on her desk. She knew what Mio did to things she feared.

Absently, she remembered that she was due to leave her seat. The rest of the band were surely gathering at Yui’s desk for lunch by now. Joining them was necessary for two reasons: firstly because she had no lunch of her own this day, and second because not doing so would likely worsen the situation between herself and Mio. It was bad enough that she had to go through yet another one of those mother-of-all-awkward walks with Mio this morning.

Of course, in her current state that corner of the classroom was the last place she would want to approach.

But if Mio is willing to keep up appearances, I should too as well. I'm not going to drag everyone into our issues again. She shuddered, remembering the sheer venom and contempt in her words back then. Her pride had proven itself able to conjure up serious levels of jealousy, and the resulting damage it was capable of dishing out had been nothing short of frightening. It was only the years of trust that she had built with Mio, alongside the good natures of her fellow bandmates, that saved the situation from total ruin.

Squaring her shoulders, Ritsu solidified her resolve.

They said that courage simply meant being willing to look at what you feared straight in the eye. Tainaka Ritsu was no coward, and Hell would freeze over before she allowed herself to stumble into becoming one. With a renewed surge of energy, she pushed herself out of the safety of her seat.

And marched out of the door of the classroom.

She'd go over eventually, but decided only to do so after having eased her mind with a quick trip to the restroom to drown her face in water.

"Bye guys, see you all tomorrow!"

"See you tomorrow senpai."

Azusa and Yui waved their goodbyes to their bandmates and began their daily trek home. Despite the fact that the Hirasawa home was located a fair distance away from the Nakano household, their residences were essentially located in the same district. Hence, Azusa almost always had the opportunity – and pleasure, not that anyone should know – of taking the same route as her senior.

Their walks home together were often filled with rather exhausting chatter; Yui chattering and Azusa getting exhausted. The older girl would engage her junior in small talk and eventually make an offhand comment or a childish statement, leaving the younger girl having to roll her eyes and correct her flatly for her ignorance. Every now and then, Yui would provide her interesting two cents on a particular event that had happened during the day, and Azusa would find herself stumped and speechless.

For someone whom she had regarded as an airhead merely a year ago, Yui sometimes showed a frightening amount of insight. Especially when it came to things regarding Azusa's behaviour, something that peeved the younger girl to no end.

What made it frightening was because the older girl often gave the impression that she was not paying particular attention to her surroundings. Still, whether it was true perceptiveness or a fluke was anyone's guess; the guitarist's thought process was often rather haphazard, and her carefree attitude made it hard to really pinpoint what really went through her mind. Regardless, it was certain that there were gears turning in the older girl's head.

And right now, the younger girl mused that the more serious gears were turning a lot; Yui had been silent ever since the pair splintered off from the group.

"Hey Azu-nyan…" Azusa glanced at her senior, acknowledging her. Yui had her finger on her chin, and her face was drawn into a light frown. Sensing a serious topic coming up, the younger girl ignored the use of that embarrassing nickname.

"Do you think Ricchan feels lonely?" Yui continued walking, letting her question hang in the air.

"Why would you think that?" Azusa asked, confused. If anyone told her that her president was indecisive, rash, prone to making decisions on a whim and always forgetting to think just a step further, then Azusa would agree without a doubt. That girl practically made 'on a wing and a prayer' her modus operandi; what with all the thoughtless plans she cooked up.

On second thought, I think that the last one fits Yui-senpai a lot more.

But lonely? With Mio hanging around her so much – actually more of Ritsu shadowing Mio so often – you'd think that loneliness was a far removed issue for her. Furthermore, she was regularly and confidently socializing with others; both in the club and in her classroom, so wouldn't feeling lonely be rather counter-intuitive?

Yui furrowed her eyebrows a bit more and clarified. "She's always behind us at our best moments, and always in the shadows during our performances. Won't she feel lonely, since she's left out all the time?"

Azusa blinked. And proceeded to give herself a light slap to her forehead. She had taken the word lonely a fair bit too literally, and in essence had missed the point of Yui's question. The younger girl chided herself for forgetting the day's events so quickly; how Ritsu had been adamant about trying the keyboard and wildly proclaiming to want to shine like their club advisor. How Mio had consistently worn that worried expression on her face throughout what little practice they had, and how she herself had since become absolutely sure that something was up when Mio visibly hesitated at Ritsu's seemingly forced call to go home together.

And of course, the drummer's less than subtle complaints over the video that started the entire string of events. Just how could she have overlooked such a blatant connection to Yui's question? Get your act together Nakano!

"You might be right Yui-senpai…" Azusa admitted. She began biting her lip, and her brows furrowed as she began to analyze the day's events in detail.

The older girl merely gave a hum in response.

"And Mio-chan's been all weird too…" The lead guitarist continued pondering.

"Maybe she's just worried for Ritsu-senpai?" The older girl shook her head.

"No." Yui's reply was firm, something rarely expected from the wishy-washy girl plagued by indecision at the most opportune times. Azusa could not hide her surprise at the certainty in her answer; her own eyes very obviously widening.

Yui continued with her answer. "I think they might be fighting again, Azu-nyan." Her answer stirred up her memories of all the strange interactions that she had witnessed between the two. It didn't really quite seem like they were fighting; they were still talking after all. But then again, it was rather plausible, since the two were clearly uncomfortable around each other.

Really, I have to start paying more attention to these things. All this while I've focused on my skills and our skills as a band; and in the end I neglected two people who always took care of me.

As Azusa went deeper into musing, Yui decided to cheerfully chirp up. "But don't worry Azu-nyan! I'll handle this, alright? It's my job as a senior! Ah, I have to go, see you tomorrow!" The older girl hoisted her guitar upwards and dashed across the crossing and into the opposite street; of course, not before stealing a quick – and admittedly comforting – hug from her still stunned junior.

Really, that senior of hers truly did show a frightening amount of insight. She silently thanked the older girl for trying to give her some cheer as she gazed at her senior's disappearing form while she jogged down the path, before breaking out into a small smile. That's her way of caring I guess; can't be helped can it? I just hope she doesn't do anything troublesome.

She really hoped that her dignity would be able to live to regret whatever idea Yui had in store.

"Why?" Was all Ritsu could utter in response.

"Like I said, Ricchan, is it because you feel lonely? You're always at the back, so I thought you'd be." Yui resolutely repeated her inquiry and reason.

She had woken up, come to school and went through the day as per the usual; even mustering the courage to force herself next to Mio for the class picture in an effort to test waters. The only thing that had been different was the absence of a morning walk with Mio. The bassist had dropped her a text saying that she was going to head to school earlier for class duties, and wouldn't be free to walk. Ritsu had spent a few seconds glaring at the text in betrayal, but decided to let it slide; she too needed some time alone to organize her thoughts.

She had been looking forward to practice actually. Nothing like a good old couple of subtly violent smashes to help ease off the lingering stress.

She certainly did not expect to be dragged into the clubroom the moment the bell rang and made to sit behind her drums which had been conveniently and embarrassingly placed in the centre of the room.

After having shifted through various arrangements of the individual members – under Sawako's professional eye – and wasting up to at least half an hour, they had finally settled on something that actually worked; namely, the original configuration of their positions. Ritsu resisted the urge to give herself a face-palm.

Once that had been settled, Yui pulled a mining helmet out of nowhere and put it on, deciding that the answer to Ritsu's problems with the drums was to literally give her a personal spotlight. To her face.

Naturally, that did not bode well for the drummer's eyes; it took minutes for her vision to return to normal, and another couple more for her eyes to stop stinging. Thankfully, the discomfort had managed to hide her elation at the fact that it was Mio who had stopped Yui from bleaching her eyes with pure wattage.

Somewhere in between, Azusa had stopped worrying for her dignity and had begun fearing for her president's safety.

And right now, Ritsu had to face what Yui had probably determined as the million dollar question.

Was she lonely?

Ritsu hadn't had a chance to even breathe a word about her side of the issue ever since she sat down. Of course, she did feel a tad bit lonelier, but that was for an entirely unrelated reason.

No Tainaka, do NOT look at Mio.

"Well I'm not really lonely…" However, Yui held her resolute gaze; unconvinced by her captain's answer.

For if the issue was truly a result of a fight or worse, then Yui would never let herself give up until a promising resolution had been reached. She could not simply leave her captain behind to suffer in silence while the rest moved on. Which was why she was pushing for all these things to happen today, why she had spent almost two hours crouched in a dark corner of her dining hall last night, playing mock drums made of her dinnerware. She needed to do something for Ricchan, and she had placed herself in her shoes to try and understand.

Her grand plan this particular afternoon was the result of that careful analysis and determination.

"Then how about this? We'll try to have more communication between us while we play. Like this." Her frown turned into a determined grin as she turned her back to the drummer, hands poised as if holding her guitar. Ritsu gulped.

Yui took a deep breath and started strumming. "Jakka jakka jan jan jakka jan JAKKA JAN!" Yui shot a glance back. Ritsu's heart froze.

Yui repeated the action, this time holding her gaze at the last part. The sudden eye contact scared Ritsu to no end.

What in all holy hell?

"There! Everyone, let's do this, and communicate with the lonely Ricchan behind us!" Yui rallied for the others. Azusa let out a sigh.

Just, what?

"Jakka jakka jan jan jakka jan JAKKA JAN!" Ritsu's heart stopped. Now everyone was doing it?!

"Jakka jakka jan jan jakka jan JAKKA JAN!" Her heart jumped again. Four pairs of eyes gazed at her; Azusa and Mio both wore a bored expression – the latter having a slight tinge to her cheeks – while Mugi and Yui gave her excited looks. Mio let out the next sigh.

"This is perfect isn't it?" Yui clenched her fist in victory. Surely this could help Ricchan with her predicament!

Mugi silently wished she had brought a camera to record the whole affair.

"Y'know Yui, this isn’t really what I’m looking for." Ritsu just wanted this to end, her brain was on the verge of shutting down on her from the sheer absurdity of it all.

Yui's frown returned. "You shouldn't do that Ricchan. Your troubles are ours as well. Don't keep it to yourself!"

" Like I said , I'm not troubled…" Ritsu felt her sanity wearing thinner.

"Let's overcome this together!"

"Wahhh! You got it all wrong!"

That… is her way of caring. Yeah. Azusa mused.

The five left school at their usual time. Of course, because of Yui's scheme, practice had once again been skipped over. However, Azusa held back her complaints; her two seniors and especially her president probably needed a good rest after the whole fiasco.

Having to explain something to someone who wasn't quite listening would surely be very tiring.

"And I brought all these for her too…" Yui whined as she lugged the large bag of random items. Every single one – the mining helmet, mini microphone, posters and others – had been exhausted in her grand plan to save her captain, but ultimately to no avail.

"Just forget it and bring them home Yui-senpai…" Azusa gave an exasperated sigh. She had just spent the past several minutes of their walk together carefully explaining to her just why her plan did not and would not have worked. So far, only the first half of the explanation was actually sinking in.

"Azu-nyan…" Yui whined again, but this time there was a distinct and deeper sadness to her tone; unlike her usually childish sounding ones.

"Yeah?" Azusa turned and fixed her eyes on her senior attentively. Her plans today may have been just a bit hare brained, but it was definitely born out of goodwill. The rather spectacular failure at actually resolving Ritsu's issue must have made her even more worried.

"If Ricchan won't play the drums, then I will." The resolution in her voice had returned.

"Why?" Azusa raised an eyebrow.

"Ricchan is clearly troubled… she's in a… what's that again? It's not a spike, it's not a strike…" her answer began degrading into mutters and rambles, but Azusa caught her meaning.

"You mean a slump?" The younger girl completed her senior's thoughts.

Yui nodded enthusiastically in agreement. Really, senpai; those words weren't even close…

"That's why she wanted to try something different, I guess." Yui continued, finally revealing her initial thoughts on the entire issue. Azusa tried her best not to sigh; it would have been a lot easier to understand everything if Yui had just said that from the beginning. That would have definitely saved her from worrying about the older girl.

"So, me on the drums, playing behind you Azu-nyan!" the older girl grinned, and Azusa could not help but return with a warm smile of her own; such was Yui, caring and devoted in her own roundabout way. It may have been haphazard and rather weird, but it was all very noble. A child-like innocence radiated from those words of hers.

It may not have worked, but it was truly the thought that counted. That was what was most endearing about Yui.

"No you can't, senpai! I need you within my sights."

"Eh… why?" Yui whined again. Azusa quickly turned around to hide her growing grin and flushing cheeks.

Some distance away, the drummer and bassist were walking in total silence.

Yui's plan today had been rather time wasting, but it had given Mio the precious time she needed to sort out her thoughts somewhat. Even so, her mind was still a maelstrom of haphazard ideas and reasons.

It's just about trying new things right? It's normal to be a little tired of doing the same thing. But what if it's something deeper? This has gone on too long to be a whim.

Mio kept her gaze fixed on the ground before her. Any of those reasons could have been equally plausible given Ritsu's nature. But Mio knew that the glory was what had sparked her first love for the percussion instrument, and even if Ritsu would not admit it, it surely must still influence the way she viewed the drums. One did not simply forget things like that. Nonetheless, she had refrained from asking about it, for fear that it would cause their relationship to grow even more awkward than it already was. The last thing she needed was another factor complicating things between them.

Really, that little incident last year was more than enough.

If I get it wrong…

No. This is Ritsu. My best friend. Avoiding this is just selfish.

She could not simply stay silent anymore. If there was something really wrong with Ritsu, she would never forgive herself for letting it just slip past her because of her cowardice. It was time to take action.

"Ritsu." Mio stopped walking. It was not a request; it was an order, a demand. The drummer slowed to a halt.

"Ritsu. We need to talk."

Ritsu's mind began to race. Slowly, she turned to face the bassist, whose face was now pulled into a serious frown. She wanted nothing more than to give an excuse and retreat to the safety of her home. Away from Mio, away from the source of all her frustration. For if this was about what she suspected, she did not want to hear a single word of it. Her hands clenched into fists within her pockets, and she could feel her face slowly heating up.

But if I run now, I'd be a coward. And nothing will be resolved. Raising her eyes to meet Mio's, she suppressed a gasp from the wave of terror that swept through her as she met the bassist's piercing gaze. Those normally diminished, grey eyes now held a hard, even slightly angry edge to them. Ritsu felt the gaze burning through the inner walls of her mind. Denial would be impossible now.

So, she chose the next safest option. "Talk about what?" Ritsu carefully raised an eyebrow, like how she always would, and made her tone light, like how she was used to doing. She noted the bitter taste in her mouth, despite it being empty.

"Today Ritsu. And yesterday." Was the terse reply.

She chose the next safest option again. "Ah… it's just, well… just wanted to try something new I guess."

"I know when you're lying Ritsu." The steel edge in the bassist's voice sharpened. Amber eyes studied the cement pavement in silence.

Ritsu felt her tongue go limp. She knew that Mio would not stop digging for the truth; she had been cornered without any means of escape. The drummer cursed under her breath, knowing she was now caught between two very destructive decisions.

She could deflect and end the interrogation. That was bound to cost her heavily for obvious reasons. It would be a blatant act of distrust; an act that would surely pierce Mio at her core. The image of a young, raven haired girl sitting in the sand and cradling her arm flashed across her mind. She felt that familiar abyss opening, feeding on her past regrets and fueling her guilt.

What a useless knight… The black hole grew wider. Her arms and legs began to feel numb.

Or she could come clean, and admit the exact reasons for her behaviour. However, that ran the risk of having to reveal something even more potentially damaging.

For there was one additional reason behind her little predicament the past two days. Yes, she picked up drumming out of all the instruments because it was cool, because it was less taxing on the fingers, because it would help her gain some glory.

But above all, she also picked it up because Mio had constantly supported her in doing so. Mio wanted to pursue music; she loved it dearly and built herself up with it. Music would always be a part of her, and her life. Thus, if practicing until her palms were rubbed raw was the price for being able to share that dream with her, to be part of something this important to the bassist; Ritsu would gladly pay the toll.

But now, not only did she not get the glory she desired, her relationship with her closest friend was also in jeopardy anyway.

So was it any wonder she felt a little betrayed by the bright, cheery yellow of her instrument? That she would try to seek something else, given that the one avenue for proving herself worthy of the girl before her had collapsed?

No, it didn't collapse, it never even existed. I was stupid for believing that it did without checking. Shame on me, no? Ritsu felt her chest tighten even more. She had since lost all feeling in her limbs. She wasn't even aware that she was shaking where she stood, or even if she was still standing.

Was it wrong?

She just wanted, more than ever, to be on equal footing with the girl who was currently trying to get at her very soul.

Was it wrong?!

Mio wasn't just a goddess at composition; she was good at everything. She had the grades, the personality, the musical talent, the athleticism and the looks. None of which Ritsu found herself to properly possess.

So while Mio had cruised through her education, gaining the adoration and admiration of many around her without even actively trying, Ritsu had been at the tail end; getting into petty scuffles with boys and girls alike while passing her classes only by the skin of her teeth. While Mio took to music like a duck to water; Ritsu, as much as she would never admit it, still had to practice using that blasted metronome hidden under her bed from time to time.

Knowing what the rest of her bandmates were capable of merely made that sensation worse. Mugi could speak multiple languages and was athletic despite her size, Azusa had wicked skills on the guitar and was no slouch in her studies, and Yui had been blessed with the penultimate gift of potentially being good at anything she put her mind to.

Ritsu didn't feel lonely; she felt inadequate.

Mio may be shy and easily scared, but she was never the one who had her sense of self challenged all the time. She isn’t the one who has had to constantly justify her presence next to her friend. She didn’t have to constantly grapple with the feeling that she did not deserve to be here.

A soft touch on her cheek jolted her out of her thoughts. She felt her head being gently tilted upwards. Her eyes found themselves looking into a pair of grey ones filled with fear and pain; tears flowing out of them. It was only then Ritsu realized that her own cheeks had been stained with her tears.

"Ritsu…" Mio choked out in a whisper, herself shaking slightly. Ritsu just let her tears flow freely, too exhausted to even fight them back.

"I just wanted to be better." She murmured. "I just wanted to be good enough for you… was that wrong?"

"You are good enough, Ritsu."

"Don’t lie to me Mio.” She laughed bitterly, tasting salty tears in her mouth. “I’m a useless, troublemaking dumbass. I can’t get by a single test without you helping me. I’m the reason why the student council thinks our club is troublesome. I’m the reason you sometimes still feel awkward around Nodoka - don’t think I haven’t noticed. Practices stall because I can’t maintain a steady beat. We nearly missed several important concerts because I kept forgetting to hand in the paperwork. And now it seems like I’ve finally gone and made you scared of me.” That made Mio’s eyes widen in alarm, but the drummer was too engrossed to notice.

“So don’t tell me I’m good enough, because it seems that all I’m good for these days is causing everyone trouble.” The black hole in her head swirled mightily, and all Ritsu could feel was bitterness and despair as her chest tightened.

Then, a pair of arms snaked around her waist and back. Mio pulled her forward, nearly crushing the drummer against her own body. In an instant, Ritsu was ensconced in a familiar darkness, and the subtle scent of lavender wafted into her nostrils.

“Stop it.” The taller girl begged quietly. Every word that had left Ritsu’s mouth pierced her heart and made her chest tighten painfully. That the bright, sunny girl would ever think such things about herself… Mio could not and would not stand for it. She squeezed the drummer in a bone-crushing hug, though it was hard to tell whether it was more for the girl’s sake or her own at the moment.

“If you hadn't reached out to me in the park, I would have cried myself sick on the day of my composition recital.” She began. Ritsu’s shoulders trembled. She wished she had the power to take her friend’s pain away.

“If you didn’t stand up for me back then, I would have been bullied by those boys endlessly. If you hadn’t encouraged me I would not have picked Sakuragaoka, or learned the bass, or formed our band. I have fun everyday playing with everyone because of your efforts, Ritsu. I can do what I love because of you. You’re witty, creative, and sharp as a tack. We all get to laugh whenever you’re around.”

Her arms tightened even further, as if she were trying to make the words sink into Ritsu through the hug. “So don’t you dare say you’re useless, or that you’re a troublemaker. Nobody gets to call you that, not even you. Not after everything you have done for me.”

“And… I’m not scared of you.” She pressed her cheek to Ritsu's head, letting the pleasant smell of her shampoo waft into her nose and relishing the softness of her hair. “I will never be afraid of you, Ritsu. You’re my best friend.” The grip around Mio tightened at the last sentence. A stream of warm air tickled her neck as the drummer let out a brittle sigh.

“Then why?” Why have you been so distant? Why have you been flinching away from me?

Mio swallowed thickly. “Because…” Her throat seized, threatening to cut off her words. “Because…” Come on. She pushed herself. It's just Ritsu. “Because I did something weird.” She muttered at last, feeling like a suspect confessing to a crime.

The answer seemed to stir something in Ritsu, making the tremors in her shoulders subside as the moments passed. Slowly, the shorter girl pulled herself back from the hug, reaching down to clasp a single hand. Mio tried to make herself meet the drummer’s gaze, but it was a fruitless endeavour. The cat was out of the bag now, and the next question would be the final nail in the coffin. It would blow open the lid on everything that she has been trying to ignore, and force a conclusion before she’s even had the time to actually figure out what this whole thing was about.

The silence stretched between them. It could have been moments or hours for all Mio knew - only the distant sounds of life and traffic kept her aware that time was still flowing.

She felt a light squeeze on her hand. Her left, she noted quietly. “Mio.”

Gentle fingers tilted her chin upwards, bringing both girls into eye contact once more. The drummer’s eyes were still red from crying, but her expression was soft; softer than Mio has ever seen.

“You know that I could never hate you, right?” There was recognition in those eyes, and in that instant Mio realised. That despite everything she had told herself over the past few months and every assumption she had made about that one moment, the drummer knew. Fear spiked within, but Ritsu halted her instinctual urge to buckle by tightening her grip on her hand. The grip was firm but not crushing - grounding her panicking thoughts and urging the bassist to stay. Rooted to the spot and robbed her of her speech, Mio waited with bated breath.

“I care about you a lot too.” Ritsu ran a thumb across her knuckle. Mio can’t help the flush that came to her cheeks.

“So, no matter how you choose to show it…” In an act of uncharacteristic shyness, the drummer averted her gaze, her own cheeks turning pink in the process. “I won’t mind.”

Mio felt her jaw slacken.

“Just promise me, Mio.” Ritsu squeezed her hand once more. “Promise me you won’t leave me behind.”

The lefty stared wide-eyed as the words sank in. Then slowly, she squeezed back.

She was never planning to anyway.

It took a long while before the two could get to sleep that night. Mio lulled herself into slumber by plugging in to her music player. Ritsu stubbornly decided to sift through her old DVD's of her favourite band, The Who.

Drums were still much cooler looking, Ritsu concluded.

Chapter 4

Notes:

Bonus points if you can pinpoint what outfits the girls are wearing in this chapter, and where they're from :D

Chapter Text

The classroom buzzed with idle chatter and bursts of giggles as the students packed their things and prepared for after school activities. Amongst the clusters of girls absorbed in their discussions, a lone student remained seated at her table, a sheet of paper set before her. The girl mumbled and hummed, brows furrowed in concentration as she pondered.

What do I want to be?

The question seemed simple enough, but the girl just could not find an answer to it. There were so many choices before her, each just as appealing as the one before, yet at the same time just as uncertain. She wanted this, but felt that she would be better off with that. This looked promising, but others said it was better to have that instead. And as she considered one, another took the limelight. Then, while she pondered the possibility of the other, the initial nudges itself back to the front of her mind. She groaned.

It was all very confusing.

"Yui, what's going on?" The girl lifted her eyes to meet those of her long-time friend, and chirped a greeting in return. The confusion faded momentarily as she enjoyed the unexpected presence of Nodoka; the concerned and ever-responsible Nodoka.

"Oh it's nothing really. Just wondering what I should consider as a career…" Ah. Nodoka mused, pleasantly surprised. Yui mulling over serious issues was not a frequent occurrence, and so the student council president found herself suppressing a smile of pride for her friend. She was growing up. But what could have brought this topic to-

"What?! You haven't handed your form in? Everyone else turned theirs in ages ago!" All sense of lingering pride was gone in an instant, and Yui recoiled at the girl's outburst. She needed to justify this, and fast!

"But… but… but…." Yui's protests quickly stooped into mumbled excuses as Nodoka held her glare. As she rolled out her usual reprimands over the head of her childhood friend, she felt a gnawing tug at her chest. This situation, where she was the one dishing out much needed admonishments to a mumbling girl, was all too familiar. If anything, this made up most of their interactions as they grew together; Nodoka couldn't recall many times where she didn't worry about this girl.

But Nodoka could never truly blame her for making her worried. Yui never intended to be a burden to anybody, and having someone to take care of and fuss over felt nice. It felt good to be needed. This extended mother-daughter dynamic they shared, Nodoka had with no one else. It was something special to her. Nodoka figured that this was how it would feel like to have a younger sister. Or a younger brother even. Or just having a sibling for the matter. She counted herself fortunate to have been able to spend nearly all her growing years with this girl. If she could, she would be more than glad to have this incarnation of sunshine with her for as long as possible. But Nodoka wasn't dumb. She knows that her dear friend shouldn't stay in this dynamic. She cannot help her forever, and that there are people who would be in a better position to do so. And ultimately, the real world would catch up, and this innocent girl who was still mumbling over her reply would have to grow and change to face reality.

This dynamic would have to go eventually. No one could live in a childhood dream forever.

Which was why when she watched the guitarist head towards the music room with the issue still fresh on her mind, Nodoka could not help but feel a slight twinge in her heart.

"Really you two, get your act together and take this seriously!" Sawako crossed her arms in frustration as she surveyed the two students before her.

Frankly, it did not matter that the administrative staff were beginning to hound her for the forms. The data analysis could wait a day or two. But this repeated show of poor answers was simply unacceptable.

"Why do we have to write anything? The future is always uncertain, asking us to write something down when we don't know isn't really fair." Ritsu muttered, not quite daring to make any dramatic poses to supplement her complaint. The twitch in Sawako's temple intensified slightly.

"What's wrong with wanting to continue to play music…?" Yui's eyes were downcast.

"There isn't anything wrong with that... but you need to consider the practicality of these paths! And just because you don't know does not mean you should not think about it!"

Sawako inwardly groaned. How was she to explain something like this to a bunch of young girls? Practicality, sustainability; these were concepts that she only came to understand after years of experience. She remembered her own dream back then, her fervent determination to continue to be with Death Devil beyond her high school days. The group, her friends, had all sworn to rise to stardom together, and take the world by storm with their music. They would carry their dream as one, and see it to its end. Yet, as university came along, as responsibilities piled up, she had learned. Her dream had to be more than just a projection of herself on stage, riling the crowds to the sounds of roaring guitars and sky-high pyrotechnics. Her dream could only become real if she could find a way to feed herself, if her peers continued to share it, if it was worth giving up the bigger things she had found as she grew.

The desk she was now drumming her fingers on in annoyance was testament to the way things had turned out over the years.

As she surveyed the two girls before her, whose words and thoughts echoed the ones she had all those years ago, she sighed. Leaning forward, she looked them both in the eye and softened her tone.

"I know it's hard to think of something like this, and it's nice that you hope to pursue a dream like music. But the world of music requires more than just being able to play instruments with your friends. It's not as simple as it sounds. And like it or not Ritsu, the future will come. It is always better to have an idea of where you are going, so that you can make informed decisions. Uncertainty is the reason why you must consider your future, not the excuse to disregard it."

"But your decision to become a teacher wasn't really a path you paved out in high school either, right Sawa-chan?" Ritsu mumbled. Sawako resisted the urge to answer, and thrust the paper in her hands back to the girls.

"In any case, rejected."

"Eh... but we wrote it so seriously too..." The two girls trudged out of the office, and headed back to the clubroom. However, as soon as the girls closed the door, Sawako reached for her phone and dialed a number that she had not seen for a while.

"Hey, long time no see. Listen, I have a small favour to ask. Do you still have those old files?"

"But what about school? Won't this take up a lot of time?" Mugi asked as she laid out a freshly poured cup of tea before her teacher.

"It's not meant to be like the real thing; that will take much longer. Besides, your workload is minimal at this point as there will be no lessons for the week. We teachers need a break too, you know." Sawako explained as she raised the cup to her nose, and inhaled the scent of fresh English tea. Her shoulders slumped as she took in the soothing aroma. Once fully relaxed, she continued.

"This would thus be the best time for all of you to get a small taste of what being in the music industry is like. It would help you gain a little perspective for your craft, if anything. Consider this an extension of your club activities."

Ritsu frowned at the schedule before her, titled "Houkago TeaTime Music Exposure Extravaganza!" in bright block letters. A day for instrumental recording, the next for voice input and cleanup, followed by another two days of video shoots. The final day was to be used as a buffer to do final tweaking. It was a crazy schedule, by the looks of it. But more importantly, it meant that her week of relaxation after a round of tests had just flown out the window.

Goodbye, my well-earned sleep...

Azusa stared at the paper in awe. I actually get to be like a real musician? I get to see what it is like to produce an album of my own? This is... this is unbelievable! It may not be Budokan or the Summer Rock Festival, but she'd have to be lying to not want an opportunity like this! The pig-tailed girl glanced around at her seniors and kept her hands clasped, eyes bright and eager.

On the other hand, Mio kept her arms crossed, unsure of what to make of the plans before her. "Won't this be very expensive? Going to a production studio almost everyday like this… Are we seriously going to be recording our own songs too?"

"Well you guys don't have to play all your songs, you can just pick out the songs you want to record. For the purpose of this activity, you are to take it that you are a real band trying to release an album. We are only going to record one CD, so it's not going to be a large-scale project. As for cost, not to worry. I have pulled a few strings, and the production studio you guys are going to is owned by a close friend of mine."

"And what's this about a video shoot? What, are we going to be in some MV?" Ritsu drawled as she eyed the schedule.

"Eheh, well that's where the pulled strings come in. In exchange for letting you guys record a small album, you guys will assist in the shooting of a short reel-"

"WHAT? No way, no way!" Mio had jumped out of her seat, and her teacup wobbled dangerously on its saucer. The room now buzzed with discussion.

"Is that even legal? We're still high school students." Mugi's eyebrows furrowed in question.

"Novideosnovideosnovideosnovideos…"

"Is this some kind of setup?" Ritsu knew that Sawako couldn't be trusted.

"It actually sounds like a lot of fun, right Azu-nyan?"

"Eh? W-well I don't know about that…."

“It will be a very enriching experience for sure, Azusa!”

"We can get to act and dress up like stars, Azu-nyan! And you can be a cute little kitty…"

"Absolutely not senpai."

"Ehhhhh, why not?"

“This is bad. I’m going to need some blackmail to get us out of this.”

"It'snotrealIt'snotreal…"

"IF YOU ALL COULD JUST SHUT THE HELL UP FOR ONE SECOND!"

It's a total party KO. The victorious one cleared her throat.

"To make myself clear, this shoot is merely to test out the new equipment and software that my friend has bought for her studio. The footage is not going to be sold, used or reproduced in any fashion. And it is under my supervision, so there will be no shady stuff going on."

Ritsu held back a cough. Azusa co*cked an eyebrow. Mio cowered beneath her hands.

"What's more, my friend runs a respected studio. So you can rest easy with that – yes Mugi-chan?"

"Are we using our songs for the shoot?"

"Well…"

"Actually, the song we will be using is one my band recorded some years back. Your teacher filled in for us then, she's the one playing the lead guitar in it." A lady leaned back on her chair, as she started the computer behind her.

The five girls found themselves sitting in the control room of Hiashi Productions. It was a humble place, tucked in the corner of the street and away from the bustle of the marketplaces. The room the girls were in was packed, with chairs and various machines cluttered left and right and cables running from one device to the next. A dual-screen desktop shone brightly in the dimly lit room, illuminating the brown padded walls and deep maroon carpet. But the real eye catcher had to be the sound board. The thing was larger than three of their classroom desks put together, its surface aglow with different coloured LEDs. Sliders, switches, buttons and dials covered the top, and Ritsu had to resist the urge to pretend that they were in a spaceship. Yui on the other hand, had made no attempt to hide her bubbling excitement, despite having slept the least among them all. Apparently, her excitement had led to her being unable to sleep till late in the night.

It had taken the combined effort of the band members, Ui and even Nodoka to drag Yui out of bed, get her dressed and be ready to head to the studio on time. Azusa had tried to pull her senior off the bed, only to be dragged on to it by her for a sleepy cuddle. The little mumble of "Azu-nyan feels nice…" was thankfully inaudible to the rest of her friends. But some cat ears and a dozen promises of cake later, the elder guitarist was finally coaxed into waking. Azusa sighed, it was only thanks to Ui's foresight the night before that they even had the idea to gather at the Hirasawa home earlier. Otherwise, it was very likely that they would have been late.

After a brief tour of the studio and some introductions to the production team on site, the girls were invited to the recording station's control room for a final briefing on the week's agenda and how it compared to a real production's timeline. While Ritsu and Yui fawned over the equipment, Azusa fervently took in everything that the lady mentioned, from safety precautions to specific procedures to follow. After all, she had to make a comeback. This was a serious opportunity, and she had to ensure that she experienced it at her best. She had half a mind to drag her two noisy seniors away from whatever it was that had caught their attention this time. But for some reason, the lady didn't seem to mind very much that only three people were really paying full attention at times. Rather, it seemed that the two's antics and little remarks seemed to amuse her, if the little smirk she had on her face the whole time was indicative of anything.

"Seriously? She played that?" Azusa's eyes were wide as she stared at the lady.

"C'mon Azusa, you've seen Sawa-chan play before, it shouldn't come as a surprise to you." Ritsu nudged the younger girl.

"Hahaha, she really lets you call her Sawa-chan? My my." The lady at the desktop chuckled.

"Ah... well, er we don't mean any disrespect Hiashi-san." The drummer quickly dropped back to more formal speech as she explained.

Hiashi Aikawa smiled warmly at the girls before her. It had been odd, receiving a call from Sawako a week ago with her asking about whether she still had their old recordings. While her mind had raced to recall just where she had laid the files, she also had to take in her old friend's rather interesting request. I want to give my students a taste of being in the music industry, would it be possible to arrange something like that? Y'know, just to give them some perspective on the career. Hiashi had heard of arranging band camps, but having to let the girls experience a recording and video shoot was another thing entirely. Nonetheless, after more than an hour of negotiations, she agreed to the request. She could only be thankful to her production team for being willing to support this little project.

"Really Sawako? You're serious about this? I mean, I can definitely draw up something, but has the school approved of this?"

"Well, I am writing the proposal to the principal as we speak."

"So you haven't actually asked for permission?" Sawako could practically feel the eye-roll over the phone.

"I can just write this as a technical excursion for the Light Music Club. It should be able to get approved easily."

"Really, your methods are always so haphazard..."

"Hey, the one in-charge of the Jazz Club does this all the time as well."

"Yeah yeah, whatever you say. One more thing though; while I certainly will try to lower the number, it still is going to cost a bit..."

"No worries there, Aikawa. It's for my students, so I'm willing to pull out all the stops on this. Besides, we have a fair bit of surplus."

"... Alright. Your students are quite lucky aren't they?"

More negotiations and a quick approval later, the plan was finalized. She surveyed the five girls in the room, letting a sense of nostalgia wash over her. It had been years since she was in contact with anyone from her old high school. The call from Sawako was certainly a refreshing turn of events for her. It was nice to host a bunch of lively students for a change.

"Alright, I think we have spent enough time on orientation. Let's begin the recording of the instruments shall we? Who wants to go first?"

"Geez Ritsu, I thought you'd be familiar with the songs by now." Mio chided, handing her friend a bottle of water. The drummer snatched the bottle and chugged the liquid down.

Damn, when was the last time I felt this exhausted? This is even more intense than a concert...

"Hey, don't blame me. It's a completely different story having to drum without any of you guys playing together with me." The drummer growled, her limbs starting to become sore from the ordeal. The two girls were currently out in the hallway, having just finished their portions of recording for their songs.

Ritsu let out a frustrated huff. It felt rather unnatural to only drum in front of the microphones, without the accompanying presences of her friends around her, and knowing that they were watching her across the one-way glass. The fact that she was being recorded only added to the sense of anxiety. While she was no stranger to practicing her drum portions by herself, it was always in the privacy of her own home, along with her trusty music player. But here? Her head felt heavy with the massive headphones sitting atop her forehead, the lights were too bright and the seat just did not feel right. Yui thumping herself against the glass for the umteenth time certainly did not help either. Needless to say, it resulted in multiple tries to get the first few songs right. Thankfully, the rest of the songs took much less time to settle, which saved her pride from getting further trampled.

"And you still have two more songs to record."

"Sheesh, I know. But I'm getting the hang of it, so it'll be better." The drummer continued to chug her water, painfully aware of a pair of grey eyes observing her every movement.

"..."

"Something on your mind, Mio?"

Mio jumped. "Huh?"

"You're doing that worried-thinking face again. Whatever it is, you can tell me, y'know." Lowering the bottle to the ground, she moved toward the taller girl. There was something about physical closeness that seemed to help put the girl at ease, especially in recent weeks.

She reached out, instinct guiding her. Warmth soaked into her skin as she rested a single, calloused hand onto the lefty’s shoulder. How funny, she thought. Mere months ago things would have had her second guessing if such an action would make things go sideways. Yet, here and now, she was certain that it would not be rejected. Rather, it would be necessary and welcomed.

The shift in the bassist’s weight beneath her hold proved her right yet again.

"Mio, look at me." Grey lifted to meet amber. "What's on your mind?"

The lefty sighed and let herself lean into the touch. It was nice. "Just... I've been thinking of the future. Like what will be ahead." Ritsu kept her hand steady, and silently waited for Mio to continue.

"Remember Budokan? I've always thought about the journey to get there. And now, I'm starting to see that it really is a long journey." The bassist whispered. "And-"

"- you're wondering if we can really get there?"

"I'm sorry..."

Ritsu wagged a finger. "None of that apologizing. A dream isn't just a goal, it's a force that keeps us going.” Then, the drummer broke into a grin. “Think of this experience as a test of resolve. It's a small stage of the journey, but hey, at least we've started and gotten somewhere." Mio let her gaze fall, and contemplated the words in silence. Moments later, she felt her shoulders lighten as she chuckled.

"Trust you to display your actual depth only when no one is watching." She snickered, letting the chuckles wash away her fears. She reached up and ruffled the shorter girl’s hair, relishing how soft and smooth it was.

"Oh come on, we were having a moment!" Mio's shoulders only shook harder at the drummer's signature whine. Upon seeing the pout on Ritsu's face, Mio suppressed her wave of snickers and enveloped her in a tight hug with a muffled 'thank you'. The drummer paused, surprised by the sudden show of affection.

Not that Ritsu was against it - an affectionate Mio meant a warm hug and a respite for her poor skull. But public displays were not the girl’s thing. She supposed that the lefty was just becoming more expressive in general, but it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was spurring her to do so.

Especially since these displays seemed to be increasing in frequency.

The drummer took a moment to return the hug but eventually relaxed into it, burying her nose into the bassist's neck. She supposed it was only sensible to enjoy the affection to its fullest. In the silence of the hallway, the two girls stood; conveying their assurances through each other's presence.

Were it any other time Mio would have felt that such an interaction would be far too embarrassing, but at present she did not care. Hugging Ritsu felt nice, and it was only fair given how comforting and hopeful the girl’s words had been. In times like these, she was grateful for the girl’s presence in her life.

"You smell nice Mio..." Ritsu murmured, sighing deeply.

Heat crept up the bassist’s neck. "You, not so much."

The lefty received an eye roll as the drummer stepped away from her. The warmth lingered on the surface of her skin. "What did I just say about ruining the moment?” Ritsu groused. “And what do you mean ‘when no one’s watching’? You’re far from a ‘no one’ to me." The flush beneath her cheeks deepened with the emphasis Ritsu made.

She was no stranger to the drummer’s manner of speech. She had a flair for the dramatic, and a depth of vocabulary and range of expressiveness to match. One simply did not grow up around Tainaka Ritsu and not be a witness to her verbiage; whether it be the most outlandish thing you’ve ever heard, or the bluntest comment you’ve ever received.

And yet, after that fiasco between them, something has definitely altered the girl’s talking style. Ritsu was, for lack of a better word, more personal. There was a new layer of affection to her words, along with a tinge of something that Mio could not yet put a name to. Sure, the drummer has not lost her penchant for teasing and trolling the bassist, but in times such as this Mio would feel her heart get squeezed by her sincerity.

Not that Mio was opposed to it - direct affirmations were always going to be better than pranks, jumpscares and whatever else passed for endearment in Ritsu’s lexicon. But given that speaking plainly about feelings has never been the drummer’s preferred mode of communication, to say that the shift in her speech pattern was noticeable was an understatement.

But only ever for the things she said to Mio in private. To the rest of the world, Tainaka Ritsu remained an energetic, loud and playful girl in speech and manner. And while it was certainly appreciated, the lefty was still undecided if she was used to such a shift yet.

Especially since Ritsu could so casually say things as personal and embarrassing as that.

A click sounded at the end of the corridor, breaking the girls out of their stupor. The light above the recording room door dimmed as Yui stumbled out with a frustrated Azusa, signalling the end to yet another song recording. Grinning, Ritsu cracked her fingers in anticipation as she got herself ready to dive back in.

"These last two songs are going to be a piece of cake! Just watch me!"

True to Ritsu's words, the recording went smoothly. But as Yui praised their president from behind the glass, admiring her newfound stamina while Azusa and Mugi restrained her from going to the glass yet again, a certain bassist's fingers nimbly typed a message on her phone in the privacy of the corner.

To: Ritsu

Hey, can I stay the night? Your home's closer to the studio.

She knew the answer would be yes even as she sent it, but it was always better to be polite.

Azusa groaned as she felt the alarm blaring into her ears. The high-pitched trill was drilling right through her eardrums, and sending what she could only describe as buzzing shockwaves through her skull. In short, it was highly irritating, and she was surprised any regular person could sleep through such a thing at all.

Of course, Yui was not a regular person.

As the younger guitarist stood in the middle of her senior's room trying to rub the sleep out of her eyes, she wondered how she was going to take on the task of waking the sleeping girl up without falling into another cuddle trap. At her insistence the night before, it was decided that it would be more efficient for them to stay over with those who lived closest to the studio. Ritsu and Yui's homes were up for the count, yet as she spent the walk to the station discussing sleeping arrangements for five, Mugi merely waved them away with a wistful look in her eyes. A subtle nudge for Mio and a wink for Azusa later, the blonde melted into the night crowd and disappeared into the conveniently departing train.

Is Mugi-senpai some kind of anime ninja?

Reduced to four, Azusa had barely gotten over the suddenness of what she saw when Ritsu and Mio muttered a need to head back early, and disappeared into the opposite train that was also conveniently departing. Which effectively left Azusa alone to make her arrangements for heading to the Hirasawa household at the exuberant insistence of Yui. Not that she was really going to complain. Nonetheless, the strange behaviours surrounding her were beginning to get on her nerves as she mulled over them, her eyes still heavy and threatening to close.

Something's up, and I intend to find out.

Coming back to the matter at hand Azusa crept through the room, careful not to trip over her futon and the multiple soft toys strewn about in her sleepy haze. She found herself staring at her senior as she formulated her plan. She really did not want to be late, and there really was no need for the close call and fiasco that was the previous day's attempts. This was an important opportunity, and damn it, she was going to make sure she would not be swept away by antics again!

When Azusa heard about this plan from Sawako-sensei, she was overjoyed. She could barely hold in her excitement as she soaked up Hiashi-san's words, taking notes of everything there was to know of the industry. Timelines, procedures, plans, everything was important to know and discuss. And thankfully, her seniors looked to be taking it rather seriously too, even if it did take a while longer than Azusa had hoped.

All, except for the sleeping girl before her it seemed.

Azusa felt the old frustration spike at the back of her head. The opportunity of a lifetime, the experience that made it abundantly clear that music needed discipline, and here she was, staying over and now trying to wake this person just so they wouldn't delay the rest of the program.

Really, it was going so well while we practiced for the talent show…

Their small but definite success at the talent show, the observation of books and notes hastily stashed aside before Azusa came around for their daily practice and the culmination of her impressive performance for her tests. Yui certainly could hold her own if she tried.

And yet, here we are, alarm ringing and not even a stir. How much of my time in this club has been spent picking up the pieces?

The younger girl pinched the bridge of her nose as she pushed her irritation back. This was not something she could deal with so soon after waking. Right now, she had a plan to execute.

Attempt 1: Azusa moved the clock right next to the sleeping girl's face. No movement.

Attempt 2: Azusa gripped Yui's shoulder, rocking her senior gently. Barely a stir.

Attempt 3: "Yui-senpai!" Mumbling, then back to light snores.

Oh come on!

Attempt 4: Combine all 3.

"Yui-senpai, GET UP!" And all of a sudden, she was yanked by her arm and enveloped in the warmth of a bed, with the occupant snuggling into the back of her neck. The offending clock got silenced as it clattered unceremoniously to the floor, rolling towards the futon.

"Hehehe… Azu-nyan's so cute in the morning…" Yui's voice rasped slightly, having just woken. The younger guitarist fought the rising flush in her cheeks.

"Senpai, we can't afford to be late." Azusa quickly began prying her senior's arm off her.

"Aww… can't we stay like this just a few more minutes?"

Damn it.

If it wasn't warm when she hit the bed, it was certainly very warm now. Yui – in what Azusa could only describe as a sleep-induced haze – was snuggling very, very close to her. With her arms wrapped around the younger girl's waist and her face buried in the back of her neck as the older girl mumbled even more, it merely made the heat under her face intensify. Yui cooed and mumbled, and hugged Azusa even closer as she tried to remove her arm; now her back was completely against the older girl's torso. The clock may have been silenced, but Azusa felt the shockwaves returning as her heart rate spiked and her blood rushed to her head. She steadied her breath, her fingers still gripping her senior's arm.

"W-what are you doing? W-we'll really be late at this rate!" This is too much-!

"I set my alarm an hour early, Azu-nyan… We still have a lot of time." Azusa's eyes widened as she spied the offending clock's face on the floor. No wonder my own alarm hasn't rung!

And that certainly explained her crankiness too.

"I know you don't like being late, Azu-nyan… so I set it early. Sorry I forgot to tell you, but I was really sleepy last night. Oh and don't worry about breakfast, I got Ui to help too." In response, Yui stifled a yawn.

What could she say to that? With knowledge of her irritation fresh at the back of her thoughts, what could she really say in response? Azusa felt the frustration fizzle in an instant, and in its place came a gnawing guilt that tugged at her conscience. She huffed inwardly; for someone who feared being alone, she certainly didn't do a good job appreciating the presence of her friends sometimes.

I really need to treat them better… treat you better.

Azusa's grip softened as she let her hand slide over the older girl's arm and off onto the bed. She wanted to change, she wanted to improve. But perhaps what really needed improvement wasn't her musicianship.

"Alright. Five more minutes then." She let herself melt into the cuddle, releasing a quiet chuckle as the grip around her waist tightened even more.

“Are the marked points for the tracking shots ready?”

“Oi, someone prep the gimbal!”

“Yes, lights 3A to D have been set up-”

The scene rivaled that of a madhouse. On one end, groups of people scurried about the space, checking equipment and hollering instructions. On the other, a small group huddled over various screens, gesturing to various clipboards and devices as they discussed.

Ritsu watched the humdrum with a detached sort of interest. Shooting a video sounded exciting on paper, but the actual execution of it was another thing entirely. It involved a lot of waiting around as the crew did their thing, followed by a flurry of activity during a changeover when it was time for another one of them to be filmed. The process was a cycle of lulls and rushes, dips and highs; the drummer found it overall to be a mixed bag.

“Aww, I wanted to see Azu-nyan in cat ears…”

“What sort of video do you think we’re shooting, senpai?!”

Ritsu grinned. At least with her friends around, the one thing the experience would not be was boring.

“It’s too bad.” The drummer teased as she sidled over to the arguing pair. She called it ‘arguing’, but only one half of the pair was showing any actual sort of annoyance. “Such a video would garner so many views it could make us all rich. Think about it. You and Mio, dancing about in cat ears and-”

“And what, exactly?”

“-a maid costume complete with frills and- OW!”

“Enough with your stupid ideas!” Mio growled as Ritsu cradled her head in her hands. “And pay attention idiot; they’re calling you!”

The drummer scampered off immediately, the ghost of an unrepentant smirk on her lips. Mio continued to glare as Ritsu padded towards the film crew, speaking and taking instruction as if she hadn’t just been whacked in the head. She was clad in a simple getup of light yellow-coloured shorts and a white shirt with blue trim, complete with a pair of white canvas high tops and her signature yellow hairband. The look was hardly the most dressed up she’s ever seen her friend, and yet Mio couldn’t help the mild amusem*nt that crossed her mind. For all that Ritsu appeared uninterested with the proceedings of a shoot, her choice of dress told otherwise.

She also could not help but think that the look fit the drummer very well.

A thread of uncertainty sparked in her. There was nothing wrong in appreciating a friend's looks, was there?

“Mio! I need this for a sec!”

It took a second for her to register that the girl had not only returned, but was also tugging on the sleeves of her jacket.

“What? Why?”

“The guy over there said something about my clothes being too light and wanting to check colours. Or contrast. I don't know but whatever it is I need to borrow this.” The tugging became a little more urgent.

Much as she didn't really want to, Mio began shrugging the garment off. A black hoodie was not a common choice of outerwear for the bassist, but she had come with the knowledge that she was going to be before a camera today for an extended period of time. So could she really be blamed for reaching for a plain, nondescript garment that would make her feel most comfortable and, more importantly, protected?

The hoodie slipped onto the shoulders of the shorter girl easily, and it was then that the difference between them became apparent. The sleeves were a little too long, the fit a bit too large; where it had hugged the bassist comfortably, it hung a tad bit looser on the drummer. But far from making the girl look like she was drowning, the slightly baggy look complemented the girl significantly.

An urge welled up in her gut at the sight. Mio could not tell the source of it, nor put a label to the sudden impulse. But one thing was certain; if she did not grab on to it, it would slip away as quickly as it came.

Without thinking, Mio tugged the hood of the jacket over the drummer’s head and freed the girl from her hairband in one smooth motion. Then, like a puppet on strings, her hand rose to brush the drummer’s fringe. Gently, she smoothed the hairs, patting them into an artfully messy bundle.

“Huh. What do you know.” She muttered.

Ritsu blinked in surprise. “Um, Mio?”

She froze. How was she going to explain this?

Thankfully, she does not need to find out. “Wow! Ricchan looks cute!” Yui bounced over, all but fawning over the drummer. “Are we switching up our outfits?”

“C-cute?!” Ritsu sputtered, clearly offended by the notion.

“It’s very dashing, Ricchan.” Mugi chimed in encouragingly. The girl was nothing but sincere, but that did nothing other than to drive the drummer further into embarrassment.

“Azu-nyan, look! Ricchan is blushing! Cute, isn’t it?”

“I guess so?”

It was too much for the drummer to bear. Predictably, the girl exploded into a barrage of incoherent yells and vicious headlocks, and the situation only devolved from there. But through the chaos, Mio was saved from having to crawl out of the hole she dug herself into. The hood is tugged back down, the hairband is returned to its rightful place, and Ritsu takes a slightly longer time to finish her takes.

When asked about it later, Mio blamed a sudden bout of curiosity and - because she could - temporary insanity.

Obviously, nobody believed the latter.

There was something comforting and inherently healing about being able to walk home with friends after a long day, she thought. The uneven pitter patter of footsteps on pavement, interspersed with the intermittent trills of birds and muffled groans of occasional vehicles formed a patchwork of white noise, a welcome sensation after an extended period of non-stop activity. But the comfort she feels can’t be said to have anything to do with the act of walking itself, particularly since the day has been so demanding.

“I’m so tired I could fall asleep…”

“Senpai, don’t close your eyes! You’re walking next to traffic!”

“Eh? Don’t worry Azu-nyan, I’m not actually going to do that.”

“Then why did you still close them?!”

“Captain! Azu-nyan got mad!”

“Don’t lose heart, Yui! What you’re witnessing is the Nakano species' special mode of communication: the language of Tough Love!”

“What even?!”

Nor does it have anything to do with the weather. The onset of summer meant that the air was warming up, with only the setting of the sun bringing any kind of respite. Though, for now, it seems that they’ve been spared the worst of Japan’s notorious summertime temperatures.

“Alright, time for an activity review! Who do you think did the best today?”

“That’s not what a review is meant for, idiot.”

“Hush, you hater. Come on, any nominations?”

“I vote Mugi-chan! She was the most natural before the camera! And she brought tea and snacks!”

“How is the second point even relevant?”

“Ah, thank you! But I think Mio-chan deserves praise as well.”

“M-me? I think you did far better, Mugi…”

“I think you did quite well too, Mio-senpai.”

It certainly wasn’t because of the scenery either, though the backdrop of amber-tinged streets and honeyed skies was very charming to say the least. It reminded her of the colour of the tea they so enjoyed.

“With the votes in, Mio takes the top spot with Mugi a close second! Next category: Best Dressed!”

“Wasn't this supposed to be an activity review, Ritsu-senpai?”

“Oh? Then I would like to submit a vote for the dashing version of Ricchan!”

“Guh-!”

“Me too! Cute Ricchan!”

“You too Yui?! Ugh! This is all your fault Mio!”

“How?! You walked right into this one yourself!”

“But you’re the one who made me lose my cool image! I have a reputation to uphold!”

“What reputation?”

“Nakanoooo!”

It was all because of how the activity made her feel. The sounds of lively banter wrapping around her like a blanket, cocooning her within layers of fuzzy joy. The warmth and affirmation that their conversations bring, through words spoken and unspoken.

“Besides, I’m not the one who made you wear my jacket. Speaking of which, give it back!”

“No.”

“Damn it Ritsu!”

“Ehe, does that mean you agree with my vote, captain?”

“Hell no!”

The buoying presence of treasured people giving her strength, the heart-soothing comfort that came with belonging. It was woven into the little things that passed between them - a meaningful look, a cheeky grin, a playful bumping of shoulders. That singular moment of understanding, sparked when two or more minds connected and aligned perfectly in a flash. These were things that being in the back of a car by her lonesome could never bring.

“Since this is still all your fault Akiyama-san, who do you vote for?”

“If that isn’t the most blatantly pathetic attempt at redirection, I don't know what is.”

“Just vote, Mio!”

“Fine, fine. I pick Azusa.”

“Eh?”

“I mean, she’s got the most unique look out of all of us. Suspenders together with a sleeveless top isn’t something you see everyday. Plus, her high tops are nice.”

“That is true. Do you take reference from fashion magazines, Azusa-chan?”

“Er, not really…”

With them, there was no shortage of fun. She could bask in the reassurance that followed each bout of laughter, and partake in the infectious glee that came with every opportunity to pull a joke. Such moments were precious, the mere promise of their existence making the problems of tomorrow fade away.

“Ehhh, but those suspenders were suggested by Ui! Doesn’t that dock points?”

“There’s points?”

“Oho Yui objects! What say you, Nakano?”

“There’s room for rebuttal??”

“Azu-nyan had an unfair advantage by asking Ui for tips last night. That should be taken into account, Great Judge Ricchan!”

“I don’t want to hear that from someone whose entire outfit was assembled by Ui!”

“And Azusa strikes back with a critical hit! Private Yui flops to the ground in despair!”

“B-but! I really didn’t know what to pick! And Azu-nyan kept rejecting all my ideas-”

“Because they were ridiculous!”

“But I’ve got to say, Ui has a pretty good eye. The jeans and boots combination works very well.”

“Ehe, you’re making me blush, Mio-chan.”

“That compliment was for your sister.”

“Come to think of it, I’ve never seen you wear this blouse, private. I’m all for the lightning bolt and Rolling Stones-esque design, but this doesn’t look like something you’d own.”

“That’s because it isn’t. The top is Ui’s.”

“Ui?? Damn, the girl’s got a hidden punk side?”

Ultimately, she felt no regrets for taking that chance all that time ago in her first year of high school to join this group. She only prayed that her days ahead would continue as they were: filled with lots of tea, laughter, music and sweetness.

“So, we have one vote for Azusa, and - ugh - two votes for me.”

“Azu-nyan…”

“Those puppy eyes aren’t going to work this time, senpai. Mio-senpai has my vote.”

“Meanie! Even though Mio-chan’s outfit just looks like a school uniform?”

“It isn’t one!”

“See? What I’d tell you Mio…”

“A collared blouse and skirt is a classic look!”

“And what about you, Ricchan? Who are you voting for?”

“Eh? I’m the judge, Mugi. I gotta be impartial.”

“That’s not fair, captain, everyone else voted too.”

“Alright, alright; Mugi has my vote. I like her striped top and the button-down shirt. Gives an almost sea-captain kind of vibe.”

“Thank you very much! Although, I’m surprised, Ricchan.”

Ritsu gave her a puzzled look.

“Huh, why?”

“I thought you’d vote for Mio-chan, since you went through all that trouble to get that ribbon for her.”

Drummer and bassist both explode, and the conversation gets completely derailed once more. Still, amid the embarrassed stammers, incoherent yells and general noise, Mugi giggled in joy.

It’s a honey-sweet tea time.

Chapter 5

Chapter Text

Azusa absently picked at her skirt as she trudged up the stairs leading to the clubroom. The last period had been a challenge to sit though, and in a stroke of miraculous generosity their teacher decided to dismiss them early. However, an early leave from class had barely brought any relief to the girl.

“Wow, the light music club sure takes things easy, don’t they?”

Azusa massaged her throbbing temples. They hadn’t stopped being sore since lunch.

Sure, she was certain that Jun couldn’t possibly have known that those words would sting as much as they did. But damn, was she really callous.

Shush, it’s not Jun’s fault.

And yet, that comment had felt like a rousing slap, waking her and ripping the proverbial wool from her eyes. Wool that could only have been pulled over her eyes by herself. How could she have just convinced herself it was okay to let go?

Wasn’t I loosening up in order to be a better junior?

But aren’t there musical standards to answer to?

Taking breaks has its benefits.

Breaks from really criminally slow-paced practices.

There’s some time, and we aren’t that bad at what we do!

Yeah, because music ONLY needs talent in order to be played well.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!

Yes, because Jack isn’t the one with an upcoming LIVE PERFORMANCE!

Which voice was right? There was Yui, with a cheer and optimism so innocent that it seemed criminal to burden with rigid expectations and discipline. There was Mio and Ritsu, the weirdly inseparable duo whose dreams for music meant that the club really needed to pick up the pace to do the dreams justice. And there was Mugi, whose enthusiastic support for club dynamic and composition talents would be wasted if Azusa failed at playing along or at being a musician.

And these were on top of all the weird undercurrents that were swirling about. Like how Mio and Ritsu would be spotted whispering to each other but suddenly jerk apart whenever she approached them. Or how Mugi would often just be found giving Azusa a weird, almost wistful look whenever she was handling Yui. Or how Yui seemed more determined than ever to ensure she never went a day without at least ten hugs, a frequency that was excessive even by Yui-standards. Worse, it seemed like she was going out of her way to do so; most egregiously when Yui had wanted to walk Azusa home after school in hopes of having more time for hugs. In every instance, Yui would offer no explanation further than a “need to recharge”.

Azusa had not refused that request to have Yui walk with her. Nonetheless, the suddenness of it lingered on her mind long after her blushes had subsided.

She could have talked to Jun, or Ui. Surely they were good enough of friends by now for them to be trusted with her frustrations and worries. But with every attempt to broach the topic, she found her voice dying in her throat before she could even start. Jun wouldn’t know her seniors well; she’s barely had a conversation with them. Azusa couldn’t see how Jun could give her any advice or solutions, as her own relationships with her seniors in the Jazz club just were far too different. Jun would never dream of pushing her seniors to work harder or chewing them out for slacking. If anything, Jun herself was the one who needed the push to keep up with her senior’s work ethic. And to even imply that there was something strange going on between the seniors in the band made Azusa feel like she was spreading gossip. Azusa hated gossip.

And Ui. Azusa would never even want to let the girl catch wind that her sister was acting strangely or stranger than usual. Her time sleeping over at the Hirasawa house made it clear that Ui was deeply attached to her sister. Despite the older girl’s dependence, Ui never found it a problem. She willingly bore the traditional responsibilities of an elder sibling, letting herself live vicariously through Yui. Azusa couldn’t bear to let the girl carry any more burdens than she already does.

The end result left Azusa helpless and more frustrated than ever.

Azusa squeezed her eyes shut. Memories that had faded now came back fresh, as clear as they were back when they first happened. Scenes of supposed friends frowning in disapproval at her, names like “elitist” and “hardass” being whispered at the ends of practices. Back then, she had contributed to bringing her school band up to standard and guiding juniors to independence, so why did it matter how it was done? Music was art, and it was to be respected by musicians giving their due diligence. Talent will never be enough to make up for a lack of practice.

Even if the Light Music Club was the most fun she’s had playing music in her schooling life, she knows that this simple fact will not change.

They had been taking too many liberties with their time for practice. They had spent more time cleaning, talking and eating than actually playing their instruments. More often than not, she found herself swept up by the new topic of the day. And whenever her senses returned and she attempted to push for focus – try as she might – it would either be met with begging whines or worse, with bribery.

Yeah, bribes that you accepted more times than you can count. Azusa could barely recall the last time they had done a decent warm-up without her having to drag and pester Yui or Ritsu back into form.

Azusa froze. When was the last time she had managed to get time for her own warm-ups? Or her own practices to improve her form? Hell, when was the last time she even felt like she was in a light music club?

Frantically, Azusa scanned her memories. With the club time spent doing whatever they did and after-club time spent with the seniors or her own homework, Azusa rarely had time for her own practice routines. Sure, she did what was needed to keep her fingers nimble and the songs familiar, but her daily guitar workouts were now lacking the additional components she incorporated over the years.

Jaw tightening, Azusa felt a shiver run down her as she came to the realisation that there was more at stake than just the live performance.

She could still salvage this, she thought. Given her early release from class, she was bound to be the first to arrive. She could use this precious silence to make up for lost time. Then once she got home, she would regain her momentum and get back into her proper guitar routine.

The last thing she needed was for the whole situation to rob her of her touch as well. She had to make sure she wasn’t slipping, even if the rest were content to do so.

I will make a comeback! I have to!

Steeling herself, Azusa cleared the last flight of stairs, swung the door open and marched into the club room-

Only to find a blonde girl asleep on the ground.

The following minutes were likely some of the hardest instances of mood whiplash she has ever experienced. There was something inherently disarming about the blonde senior, making it hard to remain frustrated - or feel anything negative really - whenever she was close by. The girl practically radiated a calming aura about her, together with a palpable sense of warmth. Her aborted and utterly failed attempt to scare her merely added to the overall effect. Really, how can anyone feel annoyed after seeing something as adorable as that?

It was why she willingly entertained Mugi’s request to try her guitar, even if it did sort of derail her plans. Unlike some of her other seniors, the blonde knew when to put an end to messing about and could be trusted to actually keep her skills up to snuff outside of club time.

“Um, if you don’t mind, I’ll practice the guitar for a bit more.” Azusa said as she lifted the guitar from her senior’s hands.

“Then I’ll get the tea ready.” Mugi beamed contentedly. Her little impromptu guitar lesson with Azusa had been fun - the young guitarist was an attentive teacher and trying the guitar herself was eye opening. She could only applaud the dedication Azusa has to have attained her level of skill. Plus, being able to spend time one-to-one with any of the club members was heartening, and put the keyboardist in high spirits. She had just the tea and selection of snacks to celebrate such a wonderful chance.

Yet, when her gaze fell to the younger girl, Mugi felt her good mood instantly vanish. The younger girl’s shoulders were now stock still in stark contrast to her seemingly relaxed stance when she had spoken with her. Mugi felt her heart drop further when the girl fished out a booklet with the most complex-looking tabs and exercises and went through them at a hastened pace. One fumble, one curse cut short and it was back to the beginning. Rinse, repeat. Mugi remained silent as she watched her junior go through exercise after exercise without pause. Gone was the affable Azusa that had given her an easy-to-follow guitar lesson, now whatever pause between notes was filled by her grumbles and muttering.

To her credit, Azusa held herself to high standards for good reason. But this fervour at which she was tackling her exercises seemed a bit excessive. And her mumbled curses were a dead giveaway that something was bothering the poor girl. Mugi set the tea leaves aside. Gingerly, she approached the bench, peering at the book as she lowered herself to sit next to the guitarist.

Azusa jumped. “Ah! Um, did you need something senpai?”

“No. Your playing sounded really good, so I got curious. These scales look quite tough.” The keyboardist answered lightly. Years of ingrained politeness indicated that she should accept the praise graciously or at least reply with a polite, humble denial; but Azusa felt the ability to do neither. She knew that her movements were sub-par, so even a polite downplaying of the praise felt dishonest. Her worries returned with a vengeance, and whatever positivity that her interaction with Mugi-senpai had built quickly crumbled away.

If Mugi was worried by her lack of response, she certainly did not let it show. Nonetheless, the silence that hung between them and the keyboardist’s gentle smile made it clear that she wasn’t really interested in the scales Azusa had been practicing. The twin-tailed girl resisted the urge to sigh as she carefully worded her response.

“It’s just been a really long day. I’ve… had a lot on my mind.” The reply was slow and controlled, and the pause made Mugi wince. Azusa's eyes remained glued to the ground while her fingers curled around the edges of her skirt, wrinkling them heavily in her grip.

What an understatement.

Mugi’s smile turned sad. Her junior looked like she had a storm in her head and yet she seemed unable to talk about it. She had her guesses as to what was bothering her, but the girl needed to let it out herself. Angling her body towards her, Mugi slid nearer to the still silent girl.

Gently, she urged. “Would it help to talk about it?”

Azusa’s lip quivered.

“Only if you want to Azusa-chan. I will only do what you are comfortable with.” Mugi offered what she hoped was her most reassuring smile, and waited.

Azusa broke like a dam.

“Our concert is coming up and no one seems to be doing anything! Well, not you and Mio-senpai, I know you two definitely responsible enough to practice at home but our practices just keep getting derailed and I’m trying to play along but it really doesn’t help and worse I think I’m slacking too much and liking it and how can we make it in time but I don’t want to keep being a stick in the mud or pushy or bossy and-and…”

Mugi placed her hand on Azusa’s shoulder and gave it a gentle rub as her rants transformed into incoherent grumbles and ragged sighs. The younger girl’s shoulders were stiff, while her jaw was clenched so tightly that Mugi could see the tendons straining under the skin of her neck. The blonde remained silent, keeping her hand on the guitarist’s shoulder.

“Breathe Azusa-chan, breathe.”

Azusa obeyed. Soon, her ragged breaths calmed, and the girl found herself cradling her head with her hands as she slumped forward.

“What should I do Mugi-senpai?” Azusa buried her face in her palms.

“You’re a responsible girl, Azusa-chan. It’s in your nature to push yourself and others around you to take things seriously.” Mugi replied gently. “But perhaps you’re taking on far more responsibility than you need to?”

“But…” The young guitarist trailed off. There was no polite way to say what was on the tip of her tongue. But Mugi merely returned with a soft - if slightly embarrassed - smile, and Azusa didn't know whether to feel relieved or ashamed by the understanding in her expression.

She felt a warm hand come to rest on her head. “We are very lucky to have a junior like you.” Azusa felt her heart squeeze almost painfully at the gentle, straightforward sincerity within those words. “To have someone who cares so much about our band; it’s a wonderful blessing. But if we’ve got you so worried for us, then we really need to do better as seniors.”

“I didn’t mean it that way…” Azusa mumbled. “I just wish some of us would take practices more seriously. We can’t hope to perform well if we don’t keep ourselves sharp - talent cannot cover everything.”

The response prompted a light chuckle from the blonde. “Praise from Azusa-chan is as precious as it is rare, it seems.” Mugi said with an amused gleam in her eye. Azusa felt the beginnings of an uncomfortable flush under her collar. But rather than relentlessly tease like Ritsu or Jun would, the blonde let it slide without further comment. Instead, the senior turned to her skirt. There was a rustle of cloth, and suddenly a phone was brought before Azusa.

“Don’t tell the others.” Mugi whispered. They were the only occupants in the room at this point, so the secrecy was hardly necessary. But it was Mugi, so Azusa paid the blonde’s dramatic flair no mind. “But I think it would help you to gain some perspective if you saw this.” A click, and the screen changed to show a series of video files under the name “HTT”.

“I originally intended to join the school’s choir in my first year. But I misread the flyer, and ended up in an empty music room with Ricchan and Mio-chan.” The blonde smiled in mild embarrassment. “I remember how ecstatic Ricchan was; she looked as if she was ready to catch me in a net.”

Azusa had no difficulty in picturing what that looked like.

“Mio-chan suggested that I see what they were capable of before I committed to joining. And,” The keyboardist opened the topmost file on the digital list. “This was what they sent me when they went home for the day.”

Familiar voices blared out of the phone speakers. The backdrop, however, was not one Azusa recognised.

“Why a video?”

“Shh. It’s more sincere this way. Alright Kotobuki-san, we’d like you to hear this! This is something Mio wrote in middle-school-”

“L-let's not waste Kotobuki-san’s time with the small details. Can’t we just begin?”

“But we would be more convincing if she knew about your god-like music powers-”

“Just. Start. Please.”

Ritsu answered with a raspberry, making Azusa huff in amusem*nt. It seemed like some things had not changed over the years. The series of music that followed was nothing spectacular, but already Azusa could hear among them the beginnings of what would eventually become the foundation for Fuwa Fuwa Time.

Mugi moved to another video. “This was the first time the four of us played together.” Once more, familiar voices blared out of the phone speakers. But this time, the backdrop was far more recognisable.

“Why a video again?”

“To commemorate this milestone of course! Are you ready Yui?”

“Yes sir, Ricchan! Hehehe, I’m so excited!”

“Don’t forget that we’re playing in A, Yui-chan.”

“Roger!”

“One, two, three!”

Tsubasa wo Kudasai played from the speakers this time, and the tune was as familiar to Azusa as it was nostalgic. True to form, Ritsu’s pace was inconsistent; not enough to derail the piece but certainly enough to be noticeable. Mio’s bass lines were simple compared to her current playstyle and her overall posture was nowhere near as confident as she currently was. Yui’s smile was the same as ever, but her exclusive use of basic chords indicated how green she was. And while Mugi was carrying the piece by playing the melody, she kept her choices simple with minimal embellishments.

All in all, it was a relatively simple rendition of the song. Still, seeing the sheer joy radiating off them as they played was enough to tug Azusa’s lips into a small smile.

“We weren’t very good, were we?” Mugi giggled as she watched the video fondly. “But we were so happy to finally be able to play something together, we just had to keep a record of it. It’s one of my favourite videos to revisit.” The blonde scrolled through her list, her gaze taking on a wistful air as she showed Azusa the extensive record of her memories with the Light Music Club.

“I’ve played the piano since I was four.” She continued. “But most of the time I was alone, with only my thoughts as company to guide the melodies I wrote.” Mugi added a little sadly. “So even though I enjoyed the music I made, there was always something missing from the experience.”

Mugi lifted herself from the bench and settled into the space behind her instrument with a gentle, dance-like sort of grace. “So imagine how I feel now, when I’ve met such a lovely group of people and am able to make music like this.”

With a flourish, the keyboardist began playing. Azusa could only stare in wonder as the blonde began to string the melodies of their many songs together, smoothly building transitions across each one as she moved from one song to the next. The medley rang brightly against the silence of the clubroom, bringing a rush of many different emotions within the younger girl as she listened completely captivated. There was bittersweetness and joy, nostalgia and excitement, freedom and warmth. She has heard every song within the medley many times over, but it must be a testament to the music itself that they never failed to evoke these feelings each time she heard them.

“Consider this, Azusa-chan.” Mugi beamed as her medley came to a close. “That we managed to compose this many songs within the span of two years. That we went from this,” She gestured to her phone. “To this.” She tilted her head meaningfully at her keyboard. “I think it’s safe to say that talent isn’t all that is at play here.”

The blonde left the keyboard, moving to clutch the younger girl’s hands within her own. Azusa marveled at the softness of her skin. “This is why you never need to fear offending us when asking us to pick up the pace. We may indulge in our fun, but we all take our parts seriously - it’s how we managed to come this far.” She squeezed the guitarist’s hands. “Perhaps we aren’t like other clubs, but we are definitely committed.” After a moment Mugi added with a wink. “Ah, but there is always room for improvement of course. Which is why, Azusa-chan, starting today I am going to share the burden with you.”

Azusa blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Anytime you need help convincing us to stay focused, give me a signal and I’ll chip in too. After all, they can’t fight us both now can they?” Mugi suggested. Then, with an air of mischief that would surely make Ritsu proud, she added. “Given what I brought today, I think I have just the secret weapon to use.”

Catching her meaning, Azusa broke into a fit of giggles. The plan was devious and frankly uncharacteristic of the motherly blonde in all its totality, but it was also just so fitting that the junior couldn’t help but double over. Mugi soon joined in, and both girls spent an inordinate amount of time bent over from laughing.

Practice that day went smoothly, as no one had the power to negotiate against Mugi’s dangerously cheerful threat of withholding everyone’s favourite snacks.

A week later, Azusa found herself at the same stairwell leading to the clubroom, her steps unusually slow and sedate. The pace of classes had not let up at all, leaving the second-year girl with hardly any room to breathe for the past several days. Not even her lunch break with Jun and Ui had managed to take the edge off, and when Jun had predictably teased her about the running joke of the day, the guitarist didn’t even have the strength to feel her usual indignation. Even now as she trudged up the stairs, her trusty Mustang felt heavy on her shoulder. More than ever, Azusa wished she could hide in a corner of the school and curl up for a nap. At least the cloud of exhaustion and negativity would go away if she fell asleep.

Azusa never liked this part of herself. The part that questioned her every move, that loved to poke and prod her when she was at her most vulnerable. It reared its head whenever she was tired or unable to sleep, and filled her head with things that she would much rather forget.

Absently, she wondered if a hug would cheer her up. The thought was promptly punted to the furthest recesses of her mind. She was a second-year now; surely she was in better control of her moods by this point. The greatest of musicians certainly didn’t let one tough day dampen their schedules, and if Azusa was serious about getting herself back into shape she could not let this one do so either.

With a determined, if slightly desperate huff, she swung the door open.

Her eyes fell on the lone occupant in the room hunched over the drums.

“Oh, Azusa.” Ritsu looked up from tuning her snare. “You’re early.”

“Oh. It’s just you, Ritsu-senpai?”

Amber eyes narrowed slightly. “What do you mean ‘just’, huh?”

“... Nothing.”

“Oh ho, don’t ‘nothing’ me, Nakano.” Ritsu teased. “Yui has cleaning duty today, so she won’t be here for a while.” She snickered as the guitarist’s face flushed slightly at her answer. Her adamant refusal to maintain eye contact just made it even funnier.

“I didn’t ask that.”

“You didn’t need to.” The flush grew deeper, and snickers turned into cackles. But since she was in a good mood today, she decided to spare the junior from further teasing. “Mio and Mugi got called to the staff office to help with some stuff, so it's going to be us two for a while yet.”

Azusa huffed indignantly, moving to the sofa to deposit her bag and retrieve her guitar from its case. Ritsu chuckled; the girl was supremely easy to read and tease. But as she observed the guitarist settle herself and begin the process of tuning her instrument, she couldn't help but notice the slight sluggishness to her movements, the air of melancholy about her and the hint of bags under her eyes.

The poor girl must be tired from the day’s classes. But such was school, the drummer mused silently. At its worst it made the days long and tedious, testing the endurance and spirits of those that were held captive within its halls. Even knowing that her drums awaited her was not enough to make the worst of school days bearable at times. Those were the days where she would love nothing more than to simply plod home and collapse into bed.

It was admirable then, that the girl who looked like she was about to fall asleep where she sat was still studiously going through her warm-ups and practicing her scales, with nary an error. It reminded her a little of a certain bassist, who sometimes even through illness dragged herself to her bass to keep her fingers nimble and muscles primed.

However, what Ritsu was seeing was hardly the same as what Azusa was feeling at that moment. Her fingers felt fat and slow, rendering her unable to move across the fretboard as quickly as she would have liked. Even if she was hitting the notes correctly, her current speed meant that she wasn’t going to be able to play some of their higher tempo songs accurately today if she didn’t get it together. She frowned; she was not going to be the one to cause practice to stall today.

“Hey Azusa.”

The string pinged awkwardly against her pick. She stared blankly at her senior, who was gazing at her with an unreadable expression. “Eh?”

“Come here for a sec.”

“Um, why?” She doesn’t want to come off so rude, but this was Ritsu she was dealing with.

An earbud is held out to her, both as an answer and a peace offering. Gingerly, the junior placed her Mustang aside as she accepted the proffered item, noticing that its pair was already nestled in the ear of the older girl. At Ritsu’s silent urging, she moved closer to the drummer, practically shadowing her as she sat before her kit.

“Stay close by so the wire doesn’t tug alright? Oh and let me know if it’s too loud.”

“Senpai?”

“Shh. Just listen.” The drummer hit the play button with no further explanation, and an upbeat bass track and melody blared into her ear. The bass line was nothing she recognised; a repeating pattern of walking notes, octave jumps and clever uses of filler notes to keep the rhythm of the track going. It was not something easy to play - what with the frequent jumping between the upper and lower registers of the fretboard and the abundance of eighth-note rests within a quick tempo.

Paired together with the melody, the overall tune quickly proved to be catchy, if a little on the funky side. With the player’s technique and little accents, it was not hard for Azusa to begin unconsciously bobbing her head along to it.

Then the track reached a pause punctuated by metronome clicks - ostensibly readying to loop - and Azusa barely had the time to open her mouth to ask what this was all about before Ritsu began to move.

With the addition of the drums, the whole track changed.

Ritsu played with gusto, her arms flying across the kit. A bright grin bloomed on the drummer’s face, something Azusa rarely saw because she stands ahead of her most of the time. Up close, the grin was infectious, and the junior was drawn into the sheer glee radiating off her. Her playing was frantic and wild, and a little rushed at the beginning as was her habit. Yet, within a couple of measures she manages to wrangle herself under control, and the integrity of the beat is maintained. Azusa quickly realises that there is an artistic order to the chaos that was Ritsu’s drumming. The ends of her measures were punctuated with tasteful cymbal chokes, elaborate tom fills and rapid snare rolls; nothing that she’s ever seen the drummer use in any of their songs. As the track progressed her excitement continued to build, showing in her playing as she began to throw in 16th note phrases in the lead up to the refrain. Azusa’s eyebrows almost disappeared behind her fringe as the drummer persisted, her stamina and infectious power on full display.

Standing this close to the kit, Azusa could feel every sizzle and crash of Ritsu’s cymbals, and every booming rumble of her kicks. The simple, persistent backbeat of the snare is elevated from a plain pattern to a full on groove, more elaborate than Ritsu’s usual style but just enough to not overplay the tune. Suddenly, the original track that was devoid of percussion sounded unfortunately boring in comparison to what she was hearing. Without knowing it, her own body was already in motion tapping and bobbing along, guided by the power of Ritsu’s drums and smoothness of the tune in her ear.

Then, the track ends; and Azusa is left with a buzzing beneath her skin and a burning itch at the back of her mind. She feels many different things at once; a desire to hear it again, to move her body more, to try a riff on her guitar that she is sure would complement what she’s experienced. It’s the musician’s itch, she mused, and whatever haze that hung over her mind before she came in had vaporised.

“So,” Ritsu’s voice draws her back to the present. Amber eyes shone eagerly in expectation. “What did you think?”

“That was…”

“Yeah?”

“I mean you kind of fumbled at the start-”

“Eh?”

“-and maybe the 16th notes were a little bit excessive where you placed them-”

“Oi.”

“But it was still pretty good!” She gushed. “I didn’t know you were capable of playing like that!”

She gets her shoulder poked by a pair of drumsticks. “I have been playing the drums for years, you know.” Ritsu answered dryly. But there’s a hint of a smirk on her lips, so the guitarist knows that she has not offended her.

“Who wrote this?”

“Who else?” The drummer chuckled. “Sometimes Mio gets these tunes stuck in her head, and she spends days obsessing over it, writing and re-writing it until she’s satisfied. Then, she starts begging me to add in the drums until it sounds just right. You know how it is.” Azusa did indeed know, for she herself was guilty of the very thing the drummer was describing. “Ah, this is already my third iteration for this track too - Mio’s perfectionism really is something. But you know me, I don’t back down from this sort of challenge.”

“So, my question to you is this, young Azusa.” She leaned towards the junior with a playful, conspiratorial grin. “Want to help make a kickass riff for this track so we can blow Mio’s mind?”

She doesn’t need to be asked twice.

The two get to work tinkering and jamming together, and Azusa can’t help but feel giddy at having the chance to stretch her creativity. The fact that it was happening with Ritsu of all people, admittedly the last person in the band she would ever expect, made the experience that much more special. Despite the fact that it was the first time she was working directly with the drummer, the process went smoothly - her senior surprising her further with her creativity with her instrument. With talent like that, it was a shame that the drummer was so laissez faire during their usual practices.

But, Azusa thought silently as she surveyed her senior testing another pattern on her kit, it was that same attitude that made it easy to be around the club’s president. If someone as skittish as Mio was inseparable from the drummer, surely something about that relaxed air she brought with her had its place.

“Oh I’ve got an idea. Ritsu-senpai, could you play from the 7 second mark again?”

“Slow down, kid; at least give me a prior bar to start from. On second thought, maybe give me a break first.” Ritsu groaned lightly, flexing her fingers tiredly. “I’ve been drumming non-stop.”

She pouted. “But I’ve almost got it! Just one more time, please!” She braced herself for the incoming protest, her mind already mapping out all the things she could say to persuade her senior. The riff in her head would be perfect - she just needed one more chance to test it out. Yet, instead of a protest, the drummer responded with a small chuckle and knowing smile.

“Looks like you’re feeling better, at least.”

It took her a moment to register what the girl was getting at. “Oh.” A flush worked its way to the young guitarist’s cheeks. Had it been that obvious? “Um, I didn’t mean to trouble you.”

A gentle hand came to rest on her head as Ritsu ruffled her hair with a sunny grin. “It’s never trouble when it comes to you, Azusa.” The words were effortless, straightforward and to the point, much like the drummer herself. The simplicity of it warmed her heart. Azusa let out a sigh, her shoulders slackening as the president continued to rub her head. Of all the club’s members, the auburn-haired girl was probably the next most physically affectionate one among them, even if her actions of choice were generally rougher. Still, gentle displays of fondness were never out of the question, and being on the receiving end of these as opposed to a headlock was infinitely better. Briefly, she imagined that this must be what it was like to have an older sibling.

But this was still Ritsu she was dealing with. Thus, when the tender moment between them had run its course, the sunny grin on the drummer’s face predictably turned impish. “Though, since I’ve expended so much energy now, I’m going to need a long break and a double portion of cake later.”

It was a familiar brand of playfulness, one that radiated off the drummer in waves, and for once Azusa was compelled to let it wash over her. Riding on the infectiousness of Ritsu’s remark, she drew up her courage to strike back with a bit of her own. “And just as I was thinking you were being a cool, serious senior for once.” She pouted, giving her senior an admonishing glare.

“For once?!” Ritsu sputtered indignantly, though there was no true heat behind her words. “I break my back to cheer you up and this is the thanks I get?”

“I wouldn’t call jamming for 45 minutes back breaking senpai.”

“Oh yeah? I’ve been moving all my limbs! You’ve only been moving two!”

“I’ve also been using my head.”

Ritsu threw her head back dramatically. “The nerve! The audacity!” She yelled, jabbing a finger between Azusa’s brows. “You would repay your president’s kindness by turning into some kind of Smug-zusa?! That calls for punishment!” The drummer lunged forward, throwing an arm around Azusa and trapping her in a playful headlock.

“Take this!” Ritsu ground her knuckles into the girl’s temple; gently enough to not hurt, but hard enough to make her point. Azusa flailed and struggled as was her wont, and Ritsu responded by making increasingly ridiculous proclamations about the consequences of her mutiny. Yet, despite the relentless assault on her skull, warmth bloomed in the guitarist’s chest. It was a different sort of warmth - not quite the fuzzy, all-encompassing one of Yui or the motherly one from Mugi. This was a bright and sunny warmth; one that chased the gloom away through its promise of cheer, that brought with it an assurance of fun, laughter and good times ahead. It was both a comfort and a breath of fresh air for the guitarist, and laughter bubbled out of the younger girl’s mouth as the tension in her chest released. She could break the drummer’s hold anytime - she knows she has the strength for it - but for today, she was content to remain a little bit longer.

She was still laughing when the rest of the band made it to the clubroom.

The resulting feel of her guitar solo that day was far more upbeat.

If the first time was a fluke and the second was a coincidence, then the third instance must be an act of god.

For how else was she going to explain being in another one of these situations a mere week later?

“Oh, Mio-senpai.”

“Hey Azusa.” The bassist greeted her warmly.

Already, she could feel the jitters rising in her gut and buzzing beneath her skin. Of all her seniors, Mio was the one whom she wanted the most from, but felt the least equipped to face one-on-one. Which was ironic given that in the face of the rest of their club, they were the two that were most often in agreement. But agreements didn’t always come with a set of easy-to-follow lines to define a relationship, and with the lefty’s general shyness it was often tough to figure out how to approach her. Without the presence of the club’s president to lower Mio’s guard and open her up, what were otherwise points of admiration and relatability became barriers to the guitarist instead.

Azusa considered Mio as she fiddled with the pegs on her instrument with an air of calm. Pages of sheet music lay in a tidy stack next to her; annotated in the neat, precise strokes of her handwriting. Her long hair - meticulously brushed and clearly cared for - hung over her shoulders like an ethereal curtain, their ends disappearing somewhere within the space of her dark-coloured bass. There’s a small, almost imperceptible furrow to her brows as she alternated between listening to the single little metal fork in her hand and to her instrument. Azusa watched in quiet wonder as Mio effortlessly wrangled all four of her newly replaced strings into tune, checking the intervals with nothing more than a quick reference to that same, single tuning fork between her fingers. Satisfaction followed with a single upward tug of her lips when she confirmed the results of her work against a digital tuner, turning the otherwise mundane act of maintenance into a test of skill.

Azusa then considered herself; stiff, awkward, nervous, and unable to divest her judgement of pitch from the little device clipped to her Mustang. The gulf between her and the senior has never felt wider.

“Um, Azusa? Is something wrong?” Mio asked.

“Oh, nothing!” She really needs to stop getting caught doing such things. She grasped for the first thing that came to mind. “What songs do you think we should play for our upcoming concert?”

The bassist, likely choosing to be polite about it, ignored Azusa’s blatant redirection and answered her query. They traded suggestions and ideas, and discussed their songs like one would chatter about the weather. And while the guitarist was grateful for the older girl’s consideration, it merely made her own janky, stilted replies stand out that much more.

Mio, on the other hand, was wondering where to begin with bridging the obvious gap that had opened between herself and the junior. That such a gap still existed after spending almost two years in constant company was frankly a bit absurd to the bassist. The guitarist was a vital part of the band, and a treasured part of the group. Yet, in the face of this wall of nervous energy around Azusa and the sound of the rigid formality in her voice, Mio found no words of comfort immediately forthcoming. What did it say about her if people like Yui and Ritsu - who often ignored logic and considered tact a suggestion - were far more adept at putting the guitarist at ease than herself?

Still, she is the girl’s senior; it behooved her to at least try.

“Maybe we could try writing a ballad? Or something more jazz-like?”

“A ballad actually sounds good. Jazz too.” Mio supplied enthusiastically. She supposed she could begin with this. “Do you have any suggestions?”

She could practically see the excitement flare behind the smaller girl’s eyes.

“I, um, wrote something with Ritsu-senpai last week! I could show you, if you'd like.”

“Ritsu? Oh, right.” A sheet of manuscript paper is held out to her, clasped formally in both hands.

“It's not complete yet, and there’s still a lot of things to work out; but I, uh, hope it will be to your liking!”

The guitarist picked up her instrument in what had to be the most stuttering series of motions Mio has ever seen from the girl. Inwardly, she cringed; it was almost painful how nervous the junior was in front of her.

Azusa’s nervous scowl soon morphed into one of belated embarrassment. “I just remembered I don't have the recording with senpai’s drums…”

Mio offered her phone. “Here.” Ritsu, in an uncharacteristic show of timeliness, had managed to return an updated audio file containing her latest percussion track. “Whenever you’re ready. It will give you eight counts before it begins.”

Azusa hit play, and Mio had to admit the result was everything she thought the song could be. It was obviously still a work in progress, but the girl’s overall choices and style were great, elevating the track further than the current sum of its parts. In that moment, one could truly tell that she was the daughter of musicians.

Now, if only there was a way for her to make the girl herself believe that.

“That’s all I managed to write within the week.” Azusa said shyly, torn between making eye contact and looking at the ground. She opted for staring at the body of her cherry-red Mustang, hoping that her face didn’t match the shade of her guitar. “Please let me know if there’s anything I should improve.”

“For a week’s work, Azusa, that was amazing.”

“But there must be something I can work on.” She insisted. How could there not be? Her playing had been subpar, and she knew she had fumbled on the first few bars. “I mean, maybe I shouldn’t place so many muted notes, and maybe the-”

“Azusa.” The sound of her name felt like a whip crack. “You’re talented, you know that right? You don’t really need my critique.”

“But…”

There was a hint of desperation in those eyes now, something which tugged strongly at Mio’s own heartstrings. She was no stranger to the desire for affirmation, and that burning need to prove oneself. She supposed she was fortunate that she had such assurances in spades throughout her growing years, as a result of having supportive parents and a very loud and very enthusiastic hypewoman as a childhood friend.

Even if the latter’s efforts were sometimes - scratch that, oftentimes - questionable.

Her mind drifted to consider what the rest would do in such a situation. She thought of Mugi; motherly and gentle with an array of tea and snacks to warm one’s belly. She thought of Yui; fuzzy and affectionate, offering cozy hugs that made you feel at home. She thought of Ritsu; bright, powerful and sunny, with her boundless laughter and myriad of jokes always at the ready.

She thought of herself.

Looking back at the paper in her hands, she realised that perhaps the answer wasn’t so difficult after all.

“Well, I have had some new ideas for some sections…” Mio began.

“And I have been meaning to test them out.” Her bass primed and ready, she sent the junior her best smile. “Want to give it a go together?”

The resulting smile she got in answer was so bright it was a wonder that she was not blinded by it.

They played, traded suggestions and discussed music like it was the new trendy thing between them. Little by little, the rigidity in the little guitarist’s words slipped away. Somewhere in between, Mio found it within herself to make the girl giggle unabashedly. They chattered excitedly, neither girl ever missing a beat. Their adjacent, designated seats at the clubroom’s common tables finally felt more natural.

Of course, because it is tradition for the Light Music Club at this point, practice does not get to go as planned despite the momentum the two girls built. The arrival of Ritsu came with the reason why the drummer had been able to give Mio that updated audio track so quickly, which blew all plans for practice completely apart.

“I swear I forgot about it because I was busy!”

“You had two weeks to finish this!”

“But we have to use the sewing machine! You know how I am with those!”

“You’re hopeless.”

While her seniors debated about the difficulty of sewing a skirt by hand versus using a machine, Azusa sighed. She packed up her guitar with that familiar feeling of exasperation, resigning herself to losing yet another day of practice to the whims - or in one person’s case, utter irresponsibility - of her seniors. Still, when Mio extended the invitation to come over with a warm pat on the head and gentle smile, Azusa couldn’t help but smile back.

It only dawned on her later that Mio had invited her to Ritsu’s home, with a familiarity that sounded as if she treated the place as her own.

This was it, Azusa figured. There was no other explanation for this series of weird, groundhog day-esque occurrences. If this wasn’t some kind of test from the powers that be, then she would shave her hair and eat her guitar pick.

“Yui-senpai?”

“Hiya Azu-nyan.”

She approached the older girl slowly, bracing herself for either a tackle-hug or some other equivalent. It took a moment to register that none was forthcoming, which surprised the junior. Yui seemed slightly less chipper for some reason, her usually cheery gaze subdued while she peered at the club’s resident reptile. Still, the overall situation did not bode well for Azusa’s chances. Already the younger guitarist was anticipating the possible routes this encounter could take, and what responses she could use to weather them. She absolutely was not going to allow anything to disrupt her plans for practice today. Whatever Yui was going to throw at her, she was going to resist with all her might and, if it came to it, go down metaphorically kicking and screaming.

… Alright, maybe that’s a little excessive.

It was probably extremely rude of her to treat the warmest and friendliest member of the band like some kind of final boss, but said senior was by far the most likely - and most able - to distract and derail her plans for practice. Statistically, she knew her odds against Yui were the slimmest when it came to getting her way. After all, it was her hugs that she was seemingly powerless against, and her bribes that she accepted the most. Not that she was ever going to admit any of that out loud, of course. She was taking those statistics to her metaphorical grave.

I have a lot of metaphors today, don’t I?

She squared her shoulders and put on her strictest, most no-nonsense tone. “We’re definitely going to practice today, okay?”

But the senior in question didn’t even spare her a glance at her declaration. Instead, she gestured Azusa over, her eyes never once leaving the tank. “Before all that, come take a look at this.”

What now?

“Don’t you think Ton-chan’s tank looks strange?”

On closer inspection, Azusa realised with a jolt that the older girl was right. Even under the generous light of the overhead lamp the water looked downright murky. Ton-chan’s little flippers were kicking up swirls of unknown debris with every stroke as he swam about, and standing this close the air around the usually nondescript tank was becoming noticeably foul.

Her mind jumped to all those warnings written in the reptile care guidebook. Dread built in her chest. This was very, very bad.

“We need to get the hose.” She said urgently. How could she have let this escape her notice? The poor thing must be feeling awful swimming around in the muck for so long. She couldn’t even tolerate not taking a shower for a single day, so what more for a creature as delicate and sensitive as Ton-chan?

“Azu-nyan-?”

“Hurry Yui-senpai. Leaving Ton-chan in that water any longer might make him sick.”

Panic filled the older girl’s eyes. “Oh?! I’m on it!” Whipping a crisp salute, Yui bolted into motion; retrieving the items in record time. Both girls set themselves to the tedious task of cleaning the tank. And while Yui decided to occupy herself by singing a completely nonsensical series of lyrics, Azusa couldn’t help but feel a growing tension within.

This was her own fault. She was the one who neglected Ton-chan and put him in danger, and now she was paying for it. But, irritated as she was, there was no helping the situation other than to keep her mind on the task at hand. She scrubbed the walls harder. It took effort - the tank was big, had been left for far too long - and by the end of it both girls were covered in sweat.

Well, Azusa thought to herself as she watched a rejuvenated Ton-chan swim about with renewed vigour. At least he looks happier now.

“You really love Ton-chan don’t you, Azu-nyan?” Yui smiled with a knowing gleam in her eye. There was no missing the relief within the smaller girl's expression when the task was completed. Privately, Yui was happy that their purchase of the little turtle was paying off. The younger guitarist was not always honest with her words, so Yui has long since learned to watch and feel, rather than merely listen.

And right now she was reading a whole lot of other things mixed with the relief within her little junior's aura.

There was that signature brand of tension, visible through the line of her shoulders. The slight rigidity to the curl of her fingers as she scrunched the fabric of her skirt, the tilt of her lip and brow. The hint of shadow underneath her eyes, the hesitance in her gait.

“I wouldn’t call it something as strong as that…” Azusa retorted, jolting Yui out of her thoughts. The sight of a rejuvenated Ton-chan, however comforting, still was not enough to chase away the negativity gnawing at her. More than ever, Azusa felt the need to make up for lost time. It was the only way to rectify this mistake. “Now that this is done, can we please get to practicing?”

“At once, Azu-nyan-senpai!”

“Again with that…”

“Ah, but before that,” Yui rummaged through her bag, pulling out a set of sheet music. She held the paper towards Azusa with a sheepish grin. “Can you teach me how to read this?”

Azusa refrained from smacking her forehead. She supposed it should have occurred to her that this would happen; Mugi had included classical musical notations within her newest composition after all.

The two girls settled on to the table with their stationery and sheet music between them. The sooner she assisted her senior, the sooner she could practice. But of course, their foray into musical notation came with the expected tangents.

“Why can’t these terms be in Japanese, though?” Yui wondered aloud as she scribbled the definitions down. “ Forte could just be replaced with ‘loud’, and fortissimo can just be written as ‘very loud’. Things would be much easier if it was in a language people could understand.”

“It is a language people can understand, Yui-senpai.”

“It is?”

“Yes. Italian.”

“Ehhh?”

Yui for her part did her utmost to be a diligent student, taking down everything that Azusa said. But as time passed it was evident that her efforts were unable to help her overcome the one thing every highschool student had in common: exhaustion.

Azusa placed a hand on her swaying senior. It wouldn’t be good if she accidentally slammed her head into the desk. “Yui-senpai.” No response. Azusa shook a little harder. “Yui-senpai!”

The girl jolted back to wakefulness in an instant. ““Ah! S-sorry Azu-nyan!” She yelped, waving her hands around haplessly. The frantic apology would have been considered cute if it didn’t make something unpleasant twist within Azusa’s gut. The flash of panic that crossed the older guitarist’s eyes was not comforting in the slightest either. Azusa’s fingers curled around her pen a little tighter as unwanted memories resurfaced.

“It’s alright.” She answered stiffly, even if nothing about it felt alright to her. “Just make sure you got all that down.” The junior continued, trying to keep her mind focused. “Especially the notations around the guitar solo; you need to pay attention to the dynamics here, otherwise it’s not going to sound good.”

“Okay.” Yui chuckled shyly, dutifully taking notes as she did so. Azusa noted the shadows underneath the older girl's eyes. “Azu-nyan-senpai sure is strict.”

Azusa’s shoulders tensed. She knew the comment was playful in nature. She wasn’t so obtuse as to miss the affectionate undertones beneath it. Hell, with her background, it was practically a compliment. So, why did it make her feel so uneasy anyway? She loved the band, and she wanted them to sound the best they could. She wanted their music - the fruits of their labour - to reach and move people, just as it once moved her. And to do that, the foundation was to make sure they were proficient. And proficiency required consistency, even in the face of obstacles. Music, at the end of the day, was an art that needed to be respected with due diligence and not tomfoolery.

But the past weeks with her seniors have shown her something different too. Music was fun; it breathed life and rejuvenation into both its listeners and creators. Music built camaraderie; bridging gaps and connecting otherwise disparate people together. Music gave meaning and purpose; letting people find fulfillment and joy within. All these were integral to making music sound good.

The members of the Light Music Club didn’t just love music; they loved the experiences that came with it, alongside the people they made music with. It was that love, that special connection between them that made their music as powerful and compelling as it was. Having fun with one another and enjoying each other’s presence was as important to their music as practicing.

And wasn’t that precisely what had compelled her to stay when she first joined? Was that not evident enough through Mugi’s collection of videos and her wonderful medley? Was it not what she experienced for herself when she jammed with Ritsu and Mio? Was that not what she personally felt deep within, when she decided that it was fine to keep the band the way it was at the beginning of the year?

What did it say about her when she - after almost two years - could still fail to properly understand these simple facts? What sort of person was she when she, for all that she espoused about standards and consistency, was still able to end up neglecting their innocent, resident pet? What did it reflect about her, that she was still thinking about trying to push for practice while her senior looked ready to fall asleep where she sat; that said senior seemed afraid of not meeting her expectations?

If all this was indeed a test, then she's certain she's failing it.

“Hey, Yui-senpai…” Azusa mumbled.

“Hmm?”

“Do you think I’m full of it?”

Yui blinked, pausing in her note-taking to regard the younger girl in shock. “Huh?” She asked.

Azusa could only stare at her hands as they rested numbly on the tabletop. “I mean. I’m always being a buzz-kill, and always getting in the way of everyone’s fun.” Her fingers curled into fists. “I can’t even take proper care of Ton-chan, and I’m making you push yourself when you’re clearly exhausted… I'm just terrible.”

Yui was, understandably, saddened. Her junior was responsible to a fault, but to take it to such an extent made something within the older girl hurt. Ton-chan’s care was something they all managed together, and with school ramping up it had been hard on them all. If anything, this was an error they all shared. To heap it entirely on herself was unfair. And as strict as the girl was she was never overbearing, nor has she actually ever ruined any fun they’ve had together. The fact that everyone deemed the junior a precious member of their club was evidence enough.

If she truly were like what she was describing, surely Ton-chan would not be as healthy and robust as he currently was to be able to tolerate his tank’s condition for this long. If the girl were anything close to what she thought about herself in the moment, Yui would not have eagerly went along with the girl’s request to get to practicing, even if she was tired from the day’s lessons. If Azu-nyan was truly such a terrible person, then Yui would not have grown to see the girl as someone dear to her.

Perhaps if her mother or Ui were here, they could advise on what she could say to help. The two were always able to cheer her up easily with a choice word, after all. But neither her mother nor sister were within reach, and the sight of furrowed brows and sullen eyes was stirring up something within the elder girl. Like water coming to a boil, Yui felt a building pressure bubbling in her chest. Azu-nyan was a wonderful person; a kind, diligent and determined girl who deserved all the cheer, warmth and cake in the world. She deserved to see herself the way everyone saw her - as a lovely and talented young girl who had cemented herself as an irreplaceable part of their little band.

With nothing but her burning desire to bring a smile back to her precious junior’s face, Yui reached out the best way she knew now.

Azusa jerked in surprise when a pair of arms slid around her shoulders from behind.

“Shh… It’s okay Azu-nyan.” Yui cooed gently as she nuzzled the girl’s head. The junior guitarist shifted uncomfortably in her hold.

“But…”

“Ton-chan is everyone’s responsibility, not only yours. So, you didn’t do anything wrong. And you have never made me do anything I didn’t want to do.” Yui replied evenly. “In fact, I was looking forward to practicing with you today.”

The hope within the junior’s tone made Yui’s heart twinge. “Really?”

“Mm hmm.” Yui nodded fervently. “When Mugi-chan showed us the new song, I got so excited. I could already tell that our guitars were going to sound amazing together. But when I tried to sit down and practice last night, I realised I couldn’t read Mugi-chan’s notations. I ended up staying up late trying to figure it out…” She chuckled shyly, pulling the small girl further into her embrace. Azusa, for her part, remained silent as she contemplated Yui’s words.

“In any case, you are never going to be a terrible person, because you’re you, Azu-nyan.” The elder guitarist supplied gently. “You’re smart, kind and amazing.”

“... you really don’t think I’m a stick-in-the-mud?”

Yui shook her head. “Azu-nyan is serious, but in a good way.” She replied, nuzzling the younger girl’s hair. “She’s a diligent and talented guitarist who is able to easily learn any song we make. Watching her with Muttan always fills me with energy, and hearing her play always inspires me to do better.”

“Azu-nyan is a hard worker, but she also makes time to have fun with everyone. In fact, she works hard so that we all can enjoy ourselves. She’s also very kind-hearted; someone who never forgets to give greeting cards to her friends and always keeps Sawa-chan from taking our favourite snacks. She even secretly tried to take care of Ton-chan all by herself recently to ease our stress. She’s the lovely and amazing girl who watched over Ui when I was gone, and helped me make Obaa-chan happy.” Yui smiled. “Every moment with Azu-nyan is wonderful and filled with fun. Without her, Hokago Tea Time wouldn’t be Hokago Tea Time at all.”

She pulled the girl closer. The familiar scent of Azusa’s floral shampoo filled her nose, an invigorating and relaxing sensation all at the same time. Yui buried her nose into the dark locks, inhaling deeply. “So don’t ever say anything like that about yourself Azu-nyan, because you are precious and special. You’re wonderful as you are.” Yui said quietly. She held Azusa in the hug, even as the smaller girl trembled and warm drops fell on to the skin of her arms.

“That’s the first time someone’s ever said that to me…” Azusa mumbled as she fidgeted in her seat.

“Then I’ll make sure it won’t be the last.” Yui answered resolutely, earning a sniffle in response. “I’m going to make sure you can hear it everyday, so that you know how true it is.”

The two girls stayed silent, the quiet forming a comforting blanket of safety for them both. Slowly, Azusa allowed herself to relax as the words sank in. Gingerly, she placed her hands on the older girl’s arms, feeling the warmth of Yui’s skin seep into her palms. The sensation gave her pause. She rarely initiated physical contact with the elder guitarist, and any that she did was usually in service of something else - whether it be to pull her to get something done or hold her at arm's length to tone her excitement down. This was not due to an actual aversion to physical intimacy on her part, much as some might think. As straight-laced as she was, Azusa understood that touch was merely another means of communication. Depending on the situation; a hug, a bumping of shoulders, or a linking of hands could convey more than any words she could employ.

But with Yui, Azusa often wondered what she could hope to convey. The older girl did not lack in cheer or assurance, and carried herself with a level of carefree confidence Azusa could never hope to match. She had a whole class’ worth of students who cared for her, and a tight-knit group of band members behind her back. Not to mention an ever dutiful sibling who was so attentive, her awareness of the guitarist basically translated as borderline psychic powers. Compared to a group of seniors who grew up with her and spent time with her every day, or a sister who could practically pass as her twin, what could Yui ever really need from a junior such as herself?

Yet, she was the one receiving random calls and texts from the cheery girl every day. She was the one getting ambushed in the hallways for hugs that made her cheeks flush, and being held in cuddles that set her heart aflutter. She was the one who was, right now, being granted a promise so personal and earnest it made her chest squeeze tight and mouth run dry.

Azusa considered herself; small, awkward, yet sincerely cared for. Serious, straight-laced, but genuinely appreciated. Unremarkable, plain, but still seen.

Ordinarily, the thought of initiating anything on her part would have felt like trying to answer a question she did not know the contents or context of. Receiving affection was one thing, but answering it would likely open up a host of other things she was neither certain of nor ready to think about.

But here and now, Azusa realised that there truly was no need to think too much.

She tugged Yui’s arms closer and buried herself into the embrace. Pouring all her gratitude and pent up tension into the hold, she clamped the girl against herself, afraid that loosening her grip would make those comforting words float away into nothingness. Yui gladly allowed herself to be pulled forward, letting Azusa bask in the full warmth and weight of the hug. With her senior forming a comforting cocoon around her neck and shoulders, Azusa closed her eyes, drawing in the familiar scent of strawberries that Yui brought along with her wherever she went.

“T-thank you, Yui-senpai.” She whispered when she finally regained her voice.

“Anything for our precious Azu-nyan.” She heard Yui answer in kind. Then, in an act that genuinely surprised her, the older girl took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Let’s practice, shall we? I’m sure Muttan and Gitah would love to sound out.”

Azusa laced her fingers with Yui’s own, happily letting herself be pulled along.

Chapter 6

Chapter Text

Love has always been a complicated affair. With the ability to come in different flavours and take on different forms, it was always guaranteed to be a confusing concept to grasp.

As a young child, her understanding of love was extremely simple. Love was when her parents shared a portion of their food with her, or when they treated her to her favourite snacks. Love was her mother somehow always knowing what would scare her, and removing the scary things before they ever got close. Love was when her father ruffled her hair with that sunny grin of his, which never failed to make her feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Then her brother came into her life, and she was told to love him in the same way her parents loved her. Wishing to be a good girl, she tried her best. She shared her snacks with him, but only those that were left over, which she told him were obviously better than the ones she just had. Somehow certain that the new toy was definitely dangerous for him to touch, she would yank it out of his grasp the first chance she got. Thinking it would be good to take a leaf out of her father’s book she reached for her brother’s hair, aggressively rumpling it till it became a tousled mess.

Somehow, all these weren’t actually proper ways to show love if her brother’s and parent’s reactions were anything to go by. Her father had simply sighed and told her that love was about sharing and paying attention. That, as an older sister, she was not supposed to be tussling with her obviously smaller-sized sibling and making the younger of them cry. While she understood her parents' meaning, they failed to take into account that her brother was a pint-sized powerhouse who often gave as good as he got, and thus there was no such thing as a power disparity between them. Whether it involved splitting snacks, playing with toys, sidestepping chores or avoiding punishment; her brother was just as, if not more capable than her at getting his way.

Still, she wanted to be a good girl, and thus she listened to what her parents tried to teach her. It was why, on one fine summer day, when she saw how miserable her brother looked at being made to stay indoors with nothing but his books to read, she decided to do something about it.

Of course, because she was a child that understood nothing of health and safety, her efforts to sneak her still-feverish sibling out of the house resulted in both siblings being angrily dragged back from the playground by their collars. In the tongue lashing that followed, it was clear that her parents did not appreciate this particular show of affection either, adamant that grounding her sibling at home had been for his own good. But one thought back to the laughter in her brother’s eyes when they had successfully escaped and the cheeky brightness in his smile as he charged towards the swings told her otherwise. Despite the verbal onslaught they received threatening to fry her ears and nerves, something about it all felt completely right.

Such was Ritsu’s first step in trying to understand the complexity of love.

Her next foray into the confusing depths came during elementary school. Going along with her hard-earned lesson, she brought her newfound knowledge into a room full of new faces. This knowledge would prove powerful, as her exuberant efforts would earn her a coveted spot amongst the playground goers as a regular, along with a bunch of fun-loving friends. Here, she learned a dearth of new ways to show affection. How Hinata’s chosen nickname for her felt like a badge of honour. How Takeo could convey friendliness through unexpected moves like punches and headlocks. How Yamada could make her revel in their races, regardless of who won the day prior. How Mika easily made her laugh through their exchange of pranks.

It did have some unfortunate side effects, but that was to be expected. That her teachers were unable to appreciate that fun came in many shapes and forms that all deserved to be shared, that paying attention didn’t only mean sitting quietly at her desk; all that was, to her young mind, more their loss than hers. It had earned her a band of friends that were thick as thieves, ones who she could count on to face the dreary challenge that was school life. She thus saw no need to do things differently.

Until the teachers decided to change things up.

Her new table partner was quiet, shy, and very reserved. While her peers preferred to spend recess running about and playing marbles in the sand, the girl remained at her desk and read her books in total silence. While she herself made sure she was heard before she was seen, the girl’s voice was barely louder than a squeak when she answered questions in class. But this little enigma of a girl clearly had a lot more to her than met the eye. No matter the question, she was always able to answer correctly. The teachers obviously liked her a lot, but she never played the teacher’s pet. Her dark hair and round face made her the talk of the class, but she never rubbed it in anyone’s face. Not to mention that she wrote using her left hand, something which no other kid in class was capable of.

This girl - Akiyama Mio, Hina had told her - was obviously one of a kind.

A burning compulsion built within her. She had no idea how to describe it, nor did she possess any conscious understanding of her deeper intentions. All she knew was that this person was very cool and very different from the rag-tag bunch of friends she has come to know and love.

Her mother, with an exasperated sigh, warned her that some kids took time to warm up to others. While it was nice to want to make new friends, she should be patient with regards to this “ultra-cool” girl in her class.

Again, wanting to be a good girl, she did her best to take her mother’s advice.

But the girl in question proved to be a tough nut to crack. No matter how much she tried to talk to her the girl did not seem to open up. Most of the time, she merely responded by letting out an absolutely adorable squeak and turning as red as a tomato. While that was amusing and very entertaining to watch, it wasn’t quite the outcome she was looking for. Still, the girl never turned her away from eating lunch together, so she figured she needed to just keep up her efforts. Her mother had said she needed to be patient after all.

Nonetheless, eight year-olds were hardly masters of forbearance, and Ritsu was no exception. After a grueling week, she decided it was time to pull out the big guns. With a broad smile on her face and a skip in her step, she went up to the girl - Mio-chan, she reminded herself - and pulled her straight to the playground for a game. It was a tried and tested method that has worked wonders for her so far and she has hand-picked the easiest game she knows, so there was no way her plan could fail.

It did. Much to her confusion.

She went home that day, pondering hard. How had her greatest weapon failed so spectacularly?

She had no choice but to go back to the proverbial drawing board. Patience, she came to realise, was quite the difficult thing. But Mio was too cool and Ritsu absolutely wanted to be her friend, so she concluded she just needed more patience. Her father loved to go on about how she wore him down like water did to stones whenever she whined for things she wanted, so she figured that was the sort of level she needed to reach. Or perhaps what she needed was another “Operation: Sneak Satoshi out of the House” scenario. Regardless, how to achieve either was not the important question; Ritsu simply needed to do it.

It would take years for Ritsu’s efforts to finally pay off. The path to her success was riddled with bewildering mixes of unexpected things that worked, and trusted things that completely backfired. But Tainakas were nothing if not determined, and she made it a personal mission to note everything down. She would definitely forget what she learned occasionally - sometimes intentionally because the opportunity to tease was too good to pass up - but she made up for it by getting good at calling them back to mind.

Love was a learned language. While there were things she could rely on in broad strokes to connect with others, every person had their own lexicon - different combinations of affectionate communication that needed to be grasped. This was the next lesson that cemented itself into the mind of Tainaka Ritsu. Years of her life would be spent learning and re-learning that language by heart for all the different people in her life, with Satoshi and Mio becoming her chief assignments. And without fail, every step in her learning process would be filled with some measure of befuddlement.

Learning something over a long period of time also required perseverance. Tenacity became another quality to build as the drummer weathered the changes that came with growing up and growing alongside another. Some acts were discarded as maturity set in, while others would be added as newer things came to be. Old beats sometimes took on new depths of meaning, while novel experiences sometimes lead to them rehashing long-buried sentiments. However, it wasn’t always a straightforward march to progress. Emotional connections were, by their nature, finicky. Push too hard, and it risked putting feelings under strain; do too little and it risked ignorance or worse, offence. It involved a delicate balancing act between persistence and self-control, and between intuition and sound observation.

Between Satoshi and Mio, two representatives of the different forms of love and pretty much on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to personality, Ritsu had her work cut out for her.

But unlike familial relationships, platonic ones did not have the luxury of blood ties or familial trust to cushion any blows. It was a connection that one had to maintain oftentimes entirely on the merit of one’s character alone. It was one of the toughest of lessons for Ritsu to learn, one that was immensely challenging and highly frustrating, but ultimately oh so worth it.

And now, at the ripe age of eighteen, Ritsu found herself at yet another crossroads in her understanding of love.

It had begun as an ordinary evening. Ritsu had arrived home for dinner, cleaned herself up, and tossed her school bag to the far side of her room. There wasn’t anything immediately due tomorrow, and hence that meant free reign to spend the last few hours of the day on whatever she wanted. Opting to look through an old but favoured manga series, she readied the stack of books alongside a cup of cold tea in anticipation of a relaxing night ahead. But before she could fully settle into the cozy warmth of her bed, her plans were interrupted by the trill of her phone.

“Yes?” She answered lazily. There was only one person who was assigned that ringtone, who would bother to call her at this time of night. She shifted her pillow under her chest, bracing herself for a long phone call ahead.

The panic that blared into her ear, however, had her shooting out of bed.

“Festival! Cold! Sick! How?? We-What do we-?? Do something! Yui!”

She really had to hand it to herself that she managed to decipher that garbled mess of a sentence. With her heart hammering and mind running a mile a minute, she got dressed and charged towards the Akiyama residence in record speed.

“Gathered…” She heaved as she hunched over her knees. “The others.” Grabbing the bassist’s hand, she hauled a white-faced Mio out of the house. “Let’s go.” They tumbled out of the door, tearing through the streets towards the nearest train station as they made a beeline to their distressed friend.

Thankfully, the actual emergency was nowhere near the level that Mio’s panic had implied. While it wasn't the best of circ*mstances - Ui was as much a part of their group with how much support she gave them all - Ritsu took comfort in the fact that it was not going to be a repeat of last year. Still, she did not appreciate the heart attack she suffered, and once they retreated from the Hirasawa home she made sure Mio knew it.

“Next time, could you please be more specific?” Ritsu grumbled as she massaged her hip tiredly. The run to both homes had taken a lot out of her, and she knew that she was going to feel the consequences of her mad dash tomorrow morning. “I nearly lost my mind when you called me.”

“I already said I was sorry.” Mio pouted. “And in my defence, Yui wasn't clear over the phone either.”

Ritsu let out an aggravated sigh. “You two really need to learn to stay calm under stress. At this rate, one of you is going to send me to an early grave.”

“Oi.”

Ritsu ignored the admonishment. Her point had been made, and she felt no need to make any additional justifications. Mio, seeing no point in furthering her own, let the topic drop. They continued their walk in comfortable silence, with only the sound of shoes scuffing against concrete punctuating the quiet. The sun had long since set, plunging the backstreets of the residential area into both stillness and darkness. With only the streetlights providing any sort of illumination, Ritsu resigned herself to making the detour to the Akiyama home. There was no way Mio was going to be comfortable walking home alone in conditions like this, and with the scare they all received just prior, she likely needed the company anyway.

She was proven right when Mio shrieked next to her ear.

“Hell!” Ritsu swore as her heart leapt out of her chest for the second time that night. “What did I just say about giving me a heart attack?”

The bassist, however, did not reply. Her eyes were squeezed shut in terror, and she was rendered mute as she buried her face into the drummer’s back. Strong, trembling arms clamped around Ritsu’s midsection like a vice, rooting her in place. Much as she was inclined to think that the girl's skittish nature was just getting the better of her yet again, they were still two girls walking down a dark, empty street late at night. Her hands flew to Mio’s arms, grasping them tightly as she drew herself into a defensive stance. Amber eyes darted about frantically to scan her surroundings. She needed to assess the situation before Mio’s panic crested and took over. Briefly, she bemoaned the limiting of her mobility.

She let out a loud, aggravated sigh once her eyes finally fell on the culprit. “Mio, it's just a cat.” She said in relief, patting the terrified girl’s arm. “Look, it’s just a little tabby.”

Mio, however, did not seem to hear her. Instead, the vice-like grip around her tightened, and the bassist mumbled a string of denials into the fabric of her shirt. Ritsu sighed once more - there was no getting through to the lefty whenever she was like this. Wordlessly, she turned within Mio’s grip and slid her arms around her shaking frame, pulling the girl into a hug. There was only one course of action to take in such a situation, which was to let Mio ride out her nerves at her own pace.

They stayed in place, with Mio determined to squeeze the air out of Ritsu’s lungs and Ritsu herself trying to remain as a comforting presence while struggling to breathe. The cat, oblivious to the trouble it caused, sat on its haunches across them with an air of nonchalance. Twin eyes of yellow glinted in the darkness, seemingly judging the two girls for kicking up a fuss where there was none.

Ritsu shot the offending feline a dirty look. The cat, being a cat, just twitched its ears and licked its paws.

Eventually Mio recovered, loosening her hold and straightening to peer at the tabby. Ritsu sputtered as she was finally able to draw in a normal breath of air. Quietly, she added her ribs to the growing list of things she was going to feel tomorrow morning.

The tabby simply flicked its tail and sauntered off, no longer interested in the two humans that were taking up space in the center of the street.

Yeah yeah, damn you too.

“I-it really was a cat.” She stammered out. Ritsu snorted.

“Yes, like I said. Now can we please go home?” The drummer yawned as she slid her arms off the taller girl. “I’m really tired and we're both on day duty tomorrow.”

“R-right.”

The two continued down the street. Or at least, they would have, were it not for one minor problem.

“Mio.”

“Hm?”

“I can't actually walk like this.” Ritsu gestured to the pair of arms still clamped around her. “Do you mind?”

Mio jumped back with an eep, withdrawing her arms swiftly. The familiar urge to tease rose within, but as she observed Mio more she pushed back against the temptation. The raven-haired girl's hands were clasped together, and the tilt in her head and slant of her shoulders all but screamed nervous hesitance into Ritsu’s face. The drummer shook her head wryly as the message fell into place. “Sheesh. Come here you.” She chuckled as she laced her fingers with Mio's own. “Better?”

She was met with the shyest, most adorable flush on Mio’s cheeks. Something about it made her heart catch in her throat. “Mm.” Mio nodded, letting the drummer pull her along. Ritsu led the rest of the way with Mio trailing along beside her, their hands linked and arms brushing. It filled Ritsu with a nice, fuzzy warmth. Not an alien or unwelcome feeling in the least, but one that has been appearing with increasing frequency.

They made it back to Mio’s doorstep without further fanfare. But before Ritsu could begin mouthing her farewell, she was pulled back with a soft tug to her fingers.

“It’s really late, Ritsu.” Mio began.

She gave the bassist a shrug in response. “I’ll be fine.” If she was already going to feel sore tomorrow, one more run back to her house wasn’t going to make much of a difference. The way back was hardly long. Fifteen minutes if she walked fast, eight if she ran, four - she discovered today - if she went full tilt. She wasn’t going to be able to repeat her earlier achievement, but she likely still had enough left to manage under ten minutes if she tried.

The grip on her hand tightened. “But that alley…”

“C’mon that was years ago.” She gave a reassuring squeeze in answer.

“Still.” Grey eyes slid down to study the ground, while she worried at her lower lip. It was a sight Ritsu had seen numerous times in her years, in as many permutations as was physically possible. Nothing about it was new, nor outside of what was within the lefty’s range of expressions. Yet, watching the bassist shift ever so slightly on her feet in concern, her low ponytail swaying gently like a jet-black wind chime - the whole scene felt entirely different under the light of the doorway and silence of the night.

“Stay over?” Mio asked softly, finally looking up to make eye contact through her lashes. Lashes that were dark, long and striking against fair skin. Ritsu swallowed thickly, her tongue suddenly sluggish and her ears warming.

“But it's nearly midnight.” She stuttered, feeling slightly stupid for parroting the bassist’s earlier reasoning. What was she even saying anyway? The Akiyamas would never turn her away from their home, moreso if they were made aware of the hour. Besides, Ritsu knew she was powerless against that look, no matter how many times she has borne witness to it. Giving Mio a wry smile, she caved. “Alright, alright. I’ll let my mother know.”

The little smile of relief she got in return could be a reward all on its own.

But a reward for what though?

The two settled into a steady rhythm as they took care of their nightly routines. The toothbrush was where she last left it, and her spare bottle of face wash, thankfully, still had enough within for a good rinse. Her sleep clothes were pulled from the corner of Mio's dresser from their tidy little pile, while her spare uniform was laid out and hung up on the hook next to the bassist’s own. Ever since she had the misfortune of getting caught in a downpour that left her entering first period looking like a drowned rat, it had been protocol to leave at least one spare set at Mio's. The issue that was her school bag could be easily dealt with tomorrow. Ritsu let out a small chuckle as she changed her clothes. She should consider herself lucky that she essentially had a second room outside of her home, complete with spare belongings to boot.

As she slipped her head through the collar of her pajama top, she was momentarily stunned by the fresh scent that bombarded her nose. The smell was heady and crisp, making her breath catch and throwing her tired mind for a loop. She thought back to the insistent concern the bassist displayed, the shy plea, and the feel of her fingers between her own. Suddenly, the thought that she was going to fall asleep surrounded by the scent that she has come to associate with Mio made her feel very light.

The sense of lightness only grew when she approached the bassist’s room.

“Yes, Tainaka-san, she’s in the bathroom.” Mio’s voice came through the door. “Yes, everything is alright now. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she gets it tomorrow. Thank you for letting her stay.”

Ritsu opened the door to see Mio giving her a quizzical quirk of her brow as she slid the drummer’s phone shut with a decisive click. “A note? On a paper towel? Seriously?” She asked incredulously.

Despite her giddiness, the snark came to Ritsu with little problem. “Because someone was losing their sh*t, remember? And I was in the middle of a snack for that matter.”

“Since when do you write faster than you text, Miss ‘I-am-a-pen’?” Mio huffed, not rising to the bait. She was clad in a simple tank top and shorts, making her hair stand out even more against the fairness of her exposed skin.

The drummer waved a hand in dismissal. “Since I discovered that my mother checks everything else before her own phone.”

“You’re lucky she was alright with it.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of your resounding appreciation for my speedy rescue.”

That finally got the intended reaction, which pleased the drummer to no end. “Don’t make me sound like some ungrateful person.” The bassist groused, hugging her pillow tightly as she perched herself on her bed. “I do appreciate what you’ve done tonight. Everyone does, especially Yui.”

Feeling like she was floating and more than a little brazen, Ritsu marched up to Mio, flopping onto the bed and planting herself mere inches away from the taller girl. “Surely I deserve a little more than that modest statement?” She smirked. “I ran myself ragged for you and walked you home, you know.”

The bassist met her impish look with a steely one of her own. Whatever uncertainty Ritsu had expected to find was nowhere to be found, and she found herself instead on the receiving end of what could only be described as a determined glare. “You know what?” Mio began, seemingly coming to a decision.

Before the drummer could react, something soft and warm brushed against her forehead.

To say she was stunned was an understatement.

“Thank you.” The fire in that steely look remained as Mio drew back. “For taking care of me today.”

Ritsu knew that she should respond. But the combination of shock and physical exhaustion was making the rusty gears of her mind grind uselessly against one another.

Despite the reassurance she had given Mio all those months ago, the bassist had not repeated this since the drummer’s bout of illness. Possibly because there was something about it that felt like treading along an unseen line. Their interactions since have skirted this invisible border with lingering touches and affectionate words, but they’ve never strayed this close to it. What this state between them was now - this strange, nameless boundary that made her heart feel fuzzy and head impossibly light - Ritsu honestly had no idea.

Did it have to be given a name? Did it really need to mean anything else other than what it was stated to be? Did it even matter? Answering any of these felt like far too big of a task for her current sleepy, loopy self to undertake. The only thing she could be certain of was that come sunrise, they would still be the best and closest of friends.

But just like what she felt all those years ago, when she and Satoshi had exchanged knowing, mischievous glances while under fire from their parents, this felt right. It was also warm, fuzzy, exciting and a bit tingly - but still very right.

And perhaps for now, that was enough.

They would need to talk about this someday. Not today, while her mind was shutting down and her soul felt like it was leaving her body. But someday.

Absently returning to the present, she knew she could not leave the increasingly red-faced bassist hanging. Much as her nerve had improved, the girl had practically poured out - or more likely, short-circuited - her heart with a move as bold as that. She had to hand it to the lefty too; whatever Ritsu could barely manage to think about the whole thing, the move was effective and very efficient. It was only polite to return such daring with something of equal measure.

And hell, it wasn’t as if she didn’t mirror the bassist’s sentiments anyway.

Mio’s eyes were wider than saucers when she felt the same soft, gentle warmth against her temple.

“Thanks accepted.” Ritsu chuckled, her smile a mix of mischievous and embarrassed as she silently enjoyed the scent of lavender. “Now, can we please go to sleep? I can barely keep my eyes open.”

“You’re the one who’s still talking.”

Ritsu flopped down onto the mattress proper. “Shh, sleep.”

“Ah fine.” Mio put her pillow down and scooted to give the drummer space. “You better not steal my bolster again.”

The yawn that Ritsu let out was enough to pop her jaw. “Can’t promise that. Throw me off if it happens then.”

“Do it yourself.”

“And how the hell am I supposed to do that if I’m asleep?”

“Figure it out.”

Rolling her eyes and leaving the futon on the ground completely empty, Ritsu fell asleep to the feeling of Mio’s breath warming her neck.

Growing up had always been something that fascinated her.

It began when she first witnessed how her parents reacted to her first ever breakdown. Her memory of the exact sequence of events that led to the outburst had long been forgotten, but she would never forget what her parents had done. Whatever it was that had sent a young Mio over the edge barely even fazed her mother and father. Her mother simply drew her into a hug with the kindest, softest smile. Her father, in his quiet yet unflinching way, simply approached the offending culprit and removed it in a single, deft move.

Looking back, it was a little embarrassing to have been reduced to tears by the presence of a mere cicada. But for a girl who was barely taller than her father’s knees at the time, the presence of a loud, summertime insect larger than her palm on her shirt had been enough to shock the young girl into hysterics. The feeling of an entire park’s worth of complete strangers staring at her as she cried helped even less. While the fear may have left its mark; it was the calm, steady demeanour of her father and warm, grounding presence of her mother in the moment that really impressed itself onto her mind.

The world never truly ceased to be a scary place. There would always be things that were disgusting, things that she could not prepare for or anticipate. Yet, her parents had never once panicked. Whatever scary thing would pop up in her life, she could always count on their reassuring presence. She admired them for that. The ability to face terrifying things without so much as a tremor in their stance. Which was why she sought dearly to grow up, if only to be one step closer to that level of confidence and grace.

So she threw herself into all the things her parents did. After all, her mother had said that it was important to do the right things so that she could grow up right, such as eating her vegetables and taking her baths and sleeping at the proper times. So, if her mother was warm and knew so much, it must be because she was meticulous and not picky with her food. If her father was this calm and strong, it must be because he loves to read.

Her first indication that her methods were perhaps not quite the way to go was when she strode up to her father and asked to borrow a book from the massive bookcase in his study. When asked which book she wanted, she had simply pointed at the thickest entry closest to her. Upon being further asked if she was certain, she proudly declared her intent to study its contents so as to improve her maturity. That was what the answer had been to her, at least.

In reality, she had - with an extreme amount of politeness and more than a little tripping - mentioned that reading the book would let her attain the power of grown ups. The gleam of amusem*nt within her father’s eyes followed by his strangled chuckle sent blood flooding into her head. Still, catching himself, he handed her a hardcover with a colourful front page and lifted her into his chair. Miffed at the change in her plans but unable to tear her eyes from the cute characters drawn on the cover, she settled herself into the seat. It turned out to be a very nice story, and her original plans went completely forgotten.

It was only years later that she realised why the situation had been so funny. Her five year old self had essentially proclaimed that the secret to maturity lay within the pages of an advanced thermodynamics textbook. No wonder her father had nearly laughed his head off. Still, despite her little incident, she soon picked up her father’s love of reading, and the study became another favoured part of her house.

Nonetheless, when she entered elementary school, she quickly learned that while she gained a fair amount of knowledge through reading, it still did not give her enough power to overcome her greatest weakness: attention. No matter how many books about fluffy animals overcoming the odds, not shying away from other people’s attention seemed like an impossible goal. She hoped more than ever to grow up, and quickly.

Eventually, she did. All she needed were the right friends, and the right amount of time.

And now, she wished more than ever to reign in time’s non-stop forward march.

She opened her eyes blearily to the trill of her morning alarm. The other occupant of her bed, naturally, had no reaction to the call to wake - remaining as an unmoving lump despite the growing volume and urgency of her clock. Mio dragged herself toward the noisy implement above her head, silencing it with a swift pound to the top of the plastic box.

A quick survey of her surroundings confirmed that, yes, Ritsu had once again stolen her bolster. But rather than sending the drummer careening to the ground as was her threat hours ago, she had instead unconsciously latched onto her in compensation. It was a wonder that the sleepy girl had not even stirred during the night despite having the bassist practically draped over her. Mio took in the feel of her friend within her arms. Ritsu formed a warm, solid mass against her - a welcome sensation in the coolness of the room.

Normally, such closeness would have sent blood rushing into her head. She was still a shy person by nature after all. Not even time had been able to completely erase this part of her.

But this was Ritsu. Her close friend. Her best friend.

Though, could this thing between them really still be called ‘being friends’?

She was certain that no others in her class found it normal to share a bed with their best friend. Or had their best friend turn their room into a second home. Or had a best friend that they were this comfortable snuggling with. Or had a best friend they were okay with doing anything that they had the night prior.

It was all chaste as far as Mio was concerned. But she wasn’t so oblivious as to not feel the various undertones that radiated from their interactions last night. She wasn’t so dense as to not see the trajectory this thing between them was on.

Was this what it meant to grow up? To push, skirt and redefine boundaries? To watch a form of communication slowly transform?

Or had it more to do with the understanding that no one could live in a bubble forever, and that reality was a cruel mistress?

Mio had no illusions about the future. They would all be graduating soon. Life was going to tear their band apart to go their separate ways. And while she could hope that she and Ritsu could continue alongside each other as they have had for the past several years, the reality was that it was far more likely that they would end up on diverging paths on the road to adulthood.

Growing up meant that you finally understood that fairy tales had to come to an end, after all. All carriages would ultimately transform back into the pumpkins that made them, and all fellowships were destined to fade once the final boss was down.

Which was why, for the longest time, she had been content to let things be. Following the tumultuous fight in their second year, Mio treasured the strengthened, more intimate pace they fell into. Old habits still formed the bedrock of their interactions; but the new, unnamed thing between them made things nicer, for lack of a better term. Not that time with Ritsu was ever really bad, but there was something highly comforting and validating in reaching out to one another with these additional layers of affection. It felt good, and more than a little addictive. Why question anything when nothing was broken and everything was fine?

But in light of the steadily transforming language between them and the finality of graduation, was it wise for her to let things remain as they were? For them to continue skirting ever closer to that unseen boundary, blurring the lines of what counted as a friend?

Such was the topic of consideration last evening as she scribbled potential lyrics down on her notebook. Emotions were always powerful reservoirs of inspiration, and she took the chance to ruminate on the special connection between herself and the drummer.

Then that phone call happened, and all thoughts flew out of her head.

All, but the sense of how lucky she was.

Seeing Ritsu, hunched over but alive with wild energy and dogged determination as she showed up at her doorstep mere minutes after her panicked phone call. Watching as the drummer tugged her along, formulating plans and organising her fellow bandmates as they raced to the Hirasawa home in rescue. Holding on to the girl for dear life as her own terror spiked, her presence grounding her as she grappled with her fears in the middle of the street. The feel of strong, familiar arms going about her protectively and holding her tight even as she trembled. The volumes of affectionate understanding as the drummer took her hand without prompt, the sensation of which made her heart skip. Brave, unyielding confidence despite the bassist’s own worries for her safety among the darkened streets, followed by the willing crumbling of that resolve into a wry grin as she acceded to her request. The amusem*nt that bubbled at the all-too-familiar brand of sarcasm she slung at her, in stark contrast to the cheeky, almost flirtatious tone to her teasing when she had come right up to her face.

She was lucky to have such a steadfast friend in this girl.

Years worth of gratitude swelled within her at that moment as she drank in the presence of her friend. A bubble full of appreciation, mirth and joy grew within, expanding and enlarging with each passing moment until it threatened to explode within.

Maybe it wasn’t wise to let things be. Perhaps it was better to think a little more before she gave in to her impulses. But right in that moment, she knew that if she did not express this in the face of looming finality, she would regret it. Piggybacking on Ritsu’s giddy energy and summoning all of her own courage, the lefty took another firm step toward that unseen, unnamed boundary.

And now, as morning broke and duty called, she was both unsurprised and relieved that despite all that had transpired between them, things still felt right.

They would need to talk about this someday, Mio realised. Perhaps not today, not while they had a full day’s worth of class duties and schoolwork ahead. But certainly soon, when an opportunity arose.

Until such a time came, perhaps it would be alright to let things be a little longer.

She herded a whining, disgruntled drummer out of her bed with a gentle smile on her face.

Chapter 7

Chapter Text

Ritsu stared at the board in disbelief. There it was, her name with the word ‘Juliet’ written next to it in the tidy strokes of Nodoka’s handwriting. The neatness of the words mocked her to her face. Ritsu wanted to object, she wished with every fibre of her being to throw her hand up again and yell it at the top of her lungs, but Nodoka would not even spare her a second glance.

Damn your class prez airs, Nodoka!

The class was now abuzz with ideas and suggestions flying back and forth. In stark contrast to the earlier silence and slow start, the girls of 3-2 were steadily putting themselves forward as volunteers for the various roles in the play. The drummer could only silently glower at the traitorous turn of events as supposed friends and comrades left her to shoulder the worst of the burden.

Sawa-chan excused herself, offering an enthused cheer for the class to do their best with planning as she gracefully exited the classroom. Or at least, it looked like a graceful exit to most of her classmates. Ritsu, on the other hand, was under no such delusion. Their trickster of a teacher had all but strutted out of the room with a sh*t-eating grin plastered on her face. The excited, anticipatory whispers by the class about the costumes their teacher could make just widened the already gaping pit in her gut.

She slumped on her desk, too tired to even care about the rest of the discussion going on around her. Taking a risk, she glanced back at Mio.

Her seat was empty.

We are so screwed.

“Ton-chan, Ton-chan, I want to be you…”

“Um, how long has Mio-senpai been like that?”

“About 15 minutes Azu-nyan.” Yui answered helpfully, eyes focused forward while holding her T-pose.

Or is it a tree-pose?

Azusa sighed as she massaged her neck, fresh out of a headlock from her disgruntled club president. While she has come to expect these sorts of shenanigans by now, nothing could have prepared her to be greeted with the scene of the bassist kneeling before their resident turtle in mock prayer. That she was selected for the lead role of a play wasn’t surprising, given her popularity and stage presence. With the addition of her looks and outward demeanour, Mio had the capacity to play a princely character well. If she were being honest, Azusa was actually rather looking forward to seeing the bassist act on stage.

The only problem was that, well, this was Mio.

Whatever encouragement she could conjure for her senior fell on deaf ears, and Azusa was left to provide commentary as she witnessed the lefty spout increasingly delusional excuses. It was a sight to behold.

“Sorry, I am actually moving away. I’m following Daddy to Irkutsk..”

“Don’t worry, my twin sister will cover me on the bass.”

“Oh? Wow, I just woke from a terrible dream where I was cast as Romeo!”

“She’s denying reality even more now…” The junior guitarist muttered to no one.

Ritsu let out an aggravated huff as she watched the scene unfold. She certainly wasn’t happy with the situation either. The drummer knew that she was not a girly girl in every sense of the word. She wasn’t like Yui or Azusa, whose demeanours radiated cuteness and made one’s heart feel fluffy. Nor was she like Mio or Mugi, both of whom carried themselves with a demure and gentle grace. Ritsu was… Ritsu. A girl at heart no doubt, but one who hated pink frills, shrinking away and being soft-spoken.

Yet, just because she was Mio’s partner, she was roped in to play the very antithesis of everything she believed herself to be. And in front of the whole school no less. The mere thought of having to faint onto a pink cushioned chair while dressed in a frilly, flowy pink costume sent a chill down her spine

And that’s if Sawa-chan and Mugi decide to spare us.

But fate was fate, and despite the growing knot in her stomach Ritsu resigned herself to the role. It would be rude to tell the class no after all that excitement. Now all she had to do was make sure Mio didn’t turn tail and leave her behind. Yanking her by the collar, the drummer dragged the bassist out of the clubroom, leaving the two guitarists behind.

“Let me go! Let me go!!”

“Shut up!”

Sighing, the drummer released Mio’s collar as she reached the stairs. Without the support, Mio sank onto the top step, burying her head in her palms. Both girls fell silent, an uneasy air hanging between them as the reality of the situation sank in.

“I really don’t want to do this Ritsu…” Mio mumbled, tears in the corner of her eyes.

The drummer sat next to her dejectedly. “Neither do I, but do we have a choice?” Mio winced at her reply. They really didn’t have one, did they? She was bound to perform an archaic and embarrassingly cheesy romance in front of the entire school. She did not even want to imagine the kind of pressure that would entail. A single tear began to drip down her cheek.

Immediately, she found her shoulders enveloped in a warm side-hug. “Hey, hey.” Ritsu nudged her, her voice having lost its edge. “It’ll be fine. I’m with you.”

Mio wordlessly leaned on the drummer’s shoulder. A hand slid down her back, leaving a trail of soothing warmth. She leaned in further, and another hand found itself on her knee. “We’ll do this together.” She heard the drummer murmur softly as a familiar chin perched itself on her head.

“But I don’t know if I can…”

She felt Ritsu affectionately bump her head into her own. “Sure you can, you’re Ro-Mio.”

Mio let out a watery chuckle. “Smart-ass.”

“C’mon Mio. You’re a musician. We’ve all seen you sing on a stage and own it. What’s a measly play compared to controlling an audience through song?” Ritsu’s eyes sparkled, and though the logic made no sense to her, Mio could help but crack a small smile.

“Smooth talker.” Ritsu felt her cheeks heat up at Mio’s tone, but returned an encouraging smile nonetheless. It was painful, watching Mio struggle like this. The girl was more than capable of holding her own on stage, if her ability to play an instrument and sing well was any indication. That her debut performance led to the formation of her own fan club was further proof. And much as the drummer was still sour about them being railroaded into their roles, that a large proportion of their classmates chose the lefty for this lent further credence to everyone’s faith in her ability. If there was anyone who had the poise to pull this off, it was her.

It was a shame then, that the girl lacked confidence in herself. Still, Ritsu could understand the pain of being forced by popular opinion into something that made them uncomfortable.

“Look, how about I talk to Nodoka?” Ritsu offered, giving Mio a gentle shake.

Mio lifted her head. “You’d do that?” Ritsu felt that familiar warm tingle on her skin as she met the bassist’s gaze. The muffled voices of Azusa and Yui could be heard on the other side of the door, and the air droned with the distant noise of afterschool activities. The stairwell echoed with the sounds of footsteps. The girls were hardly alone. Yet, the air somehow stilled itself, their silence becoming a veil of intimate privacy. The brunette found herself drawn into the other girl’s hopeful gaze. Her eyes were moist from her tears, but shone with an innocent fragility that stirred up something deep and fierce in Ritsu.

“Leave her alone!” Ritsu squared her shoulders and drew herself up, glowering with barely contained fury. Tainaka Ritsu cut an intimidating figure, being a head taller than most boys her age and with a loud voice to match. The offending 11-year old boy certainly felt it, eyes momentarily widening in shock at her challenge.

“Back off Tainaka, quit sticking your nose in our boss’s business!” Perhaps Ritsu’s intimidation had a limited range, as another boy – the offender’s lackey no doubt – hollered from behind his “boss”. Though, judging by how said lackey remained firmly behind his boss as he issued his own challenge, it made more sense that he was just pretending.

Nonetheless, the answering challenge reminded the “boss” that he had his backup, and his features returned to form a sneer as his confidence renewed.

“That’s right! This here’s our patch, you know the rules!” The offender gestured at the faded hopscotch patch. Wednesday lunch periods meant that the boys of class 5-3 were out, and that meant that the hottest thing in the play-area would be monopolized by them. Any kid who was not a boy and was not from their class would not even be allowed close. Last week, it was the sandpit. This week, it was the hopscotch patch. Ritsu, a fellow frequenter of the play-area knew the rules well, and despised them. Only her great distaste for speaking with these boys that made up the rules kept her from breaking them.

It finally seemed like her days of playing along have come to an end; a day that Ritsu welcomed with savage glee. And fittingly too, since it would be done in protection of another.

Said protected person was currently cowering behind her, tears already staining her round face. Only her long, flowing hair kept the tears from being too obvious. It had been a while since she last agreed to spend her lunch away from her books, and Ritsu had been more than happy to oblige. But of course, their teacher had to hold her back and by the time she made it to the play-area the worst had already happened.

“Real manly, all of you. You must be real stupid to need five of you to yell at a single person.” Ritsu mocked, voice laced with acidic hatred. Immediately the boys flinched, and Ritsu stifled a victorious grin. Boys were too easy.

“You’re the stupid one!” Real classy too. “And her too! You girls are the stupid ones! Don’t you know it’s rude to barge in on what belongs to us?” Another lackey hollered, accompanied by a cacophony of agreeing yells and grunts. Behind her, the black-haired girl shrank further, letting out a terrified whimper. The tears were flowing freshly now, and she struggled to hold back her sobs.

The fire in Ritsu’s belly roared.

“She was here first you moron! And who’s the rude one, making up rules and saying that these things belong to you?!” Her voice boomed across the play-area, startling even those inside the building. An uneasy crowd began to form around them, watching in equal parts fear and awe at the spectacle unfolding before them. It was the first time any girl had stood up to the 5-3 boys.

The offending boss seethed. “Do you know who my father is?” He threatened, voice low but losing none of its arrogance. Loyally, his lackeys parroted him. “Yeah, do you know who you’re dealing with? His father’s-”

“The discipline master, yeah yeah. Anyone with half a brain knows.” Ritsu rolled her eyes, waving her hands dismissively. The look of shock she received almost made her laugh. They certainly did not expect to have their go-to threat fail spectacularly.

“So tell me, oh-great-son of the discipline master.” Ritsu drawled scathingly. “When your father gets here, whose ass is he gonna kick? Us two girls, or the five idiots who are ganging up on us and clearly making her cry?” A look of horror dawned on the boys’ faces. Ritsu powered on, hamming it up as she gestured to the watching crowd. “Tell us, daddy’s boy! Would your father believe you, or an entire crowd of witnesses?”

The boss looked downright murderous, ears reddening and shaking fingers curling into tight fists. Ritsu stood her ground, chest puffed while matching his livid stare with one of her own. She could hear her heart thumping in her head and feel her blood pulsing in her veins. But all of those paled in comparison to the roiling anger that burned hotly in her gut. It was high time for these assholes to shut their mouths. After what seemed like forever, the boy let loose a loud huff and stormed off, white-faced lackeys in tow.

“It’s not over Tainaka!” “Don’t think you’ve won!” came their retreating cries, but Ritsu barely cared. With the danger averted, she grabbed the trembling girl’s hand and pulled her away. The crowd cheered and whooped, relieved by the karmic comeuppance and release of tension, but she was in no mood to celebrate. Marching into the building, the brunette led her friend to an empty stairwell and sat them both down. Despite her victory going more smoothly than she could have dreamed, Ritsu still found herself jittery and her mood foul as the adrenaline continued to roar through her system.

“Here you go.” She muttered as she shoved her arm towards the girl’s still shaking frame. She should have passed her handkerchief more gently, but her nerves were shot. The raven-haired girl accepted her offering silently nonetheless. As Mio wiped the tears from her face, Ritsu rubbed her neck in annoyance. She hated watching Mio cry like this. She hated those who made her cry even more.

And she hated that she didn’t know what to say to her to make it stop. So she did the only thing she could do - sit and fidget.

After what seemed like forever, Mio stopped shaking and her sobs died down. Almost timidly, she handed the handkerchief back to Ritsu with both hands. “Thank you, Ritsu-chan.” The brunette answered with a thin smile. She did not like how formal Mio still was with her, even after an incident like this. But her heart was still racing and her nerves were still shot, so her brain was not quite capable of forming coherent sentences regarding names and honorifics.

“Listen, if this ever happens again, just yell for me.”

Mio’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Just yell as loud as you can. I’ll hear ya, and I’ll come running. If anyone bothers you, I’ll kick their asses.” Ritsu struck her best impression of a super sentai pose – the same sentai show they both watched – as she made her promise. She’d come running for sure, and she’ll show those boys that no one gets away with messing with her friend. It was like those heroes in the fairy tales, who came riding in on horseback to save the day. What were they called again..?

She must have done her pose weirdly, given the laughter that was bubbling out of Mio. The laughter came in short unflattering bursts, sounding nasal and punctuated by sniffles. But for the brunette, it was melodic music to her ears, soothing the fire in her gut. The accompanying hopeful shine in the grey orbs stirred a different excitement in the brunette, and she found herself giggling together.

And then it clicked. A knight.

She had the perfect idea of what they could play tomorrow.

Ritsu’s thoughts returned to the present, and she returned the bassist’s hopeful gaze with renewed vigour. Ever since then, if there was anything Mio needed help for from herself, anything she needed support to confront, Ritsu had sworn to come running.

So, her next words came naturally with a warm smile. “Of course. I’ll let Nodoka know and let’s see if she can’t find another Romeo for us.” Clasping Mio’s hands in hers, she lifted the both of them up and began the trek to the classroom.

The smile of grateful relief that followed made her heart flutter with every step.

Of course, because the universe hates them, their plea to Nodoka failed.

Not because of any neglect on the president’s part, but that there really was no one else who was willing to step up to the plate.

Which left the pair with no choice but to return to the clubroom and begrudgingly prepare for their roles. Predictably, Mio quickly imploded while Ritsu struggled to not pass out from the cringe. In between the mumbled curses, incoherent stammers and unconvincing reassurances of “No, no, I’m really not laughing I promise!”, the drummer swore on her family name to crucify whoever wrote such god-awful lines for the play. Azusa’s helpful reminder that trying to kill a dead person was unproductive earned her another headlock.

“No more please…” Drummer and bassist both muttered as they slumped over their desks in defeat. Not even the promise of tea and cakes seemed able to rouse them from their stupor. The remaining senior club members looked on in worry.

Yui pondered hard. Ever since it was announced, she had been bubbling with excitement at the prospect of doing something fun together with the class of friends she has come to love. This was their final year after all, and the lead guitarist was more than ready to make the play the best thing ever. But with Ricchan and Mio-chan out for the count and, according to Mugi, totally uncomfortable with their roles; it left Yui with a sinking sensation.

There has to be something that can help them, right?

And in a flash of inspiration, Yui shot her hand up. “I got it!” Two pairs of eyes turned to her expectantly, while the other two remained trained to the table-top.

“Ricchan can try acting more like a girl, while Mio-chan can try behaving more like a guy as practice!”

Understanding dawned on the younger guitarist’s features, and Azusa nodded affirmatively. “That is actually a good idea.”

Mugi caught up easily. “In that case, Ricchan cannot speak like a guy anymore.”

“The hell, seriously?!”

“Strike one!” Yui chirped almost too happily.

The brunette let out an irritated growl. Just because she chose to speak more bluntly didn’t mean she was not a lady! And that disrespectful little junior of hers, saying that she wasn’t suited to be playing Juliet? She was definitely stealing her share of the cake later. What had started as an uncomfortable evaluation of her femininity was slowly turning into a full-blown roasting session. Grabbing her tea cup, she tried to down the warm liquid to soothe her stinging pride.

Yui, however, remained unrelenting. “Hold your cup gracefully with both hands!”

“Huh? Why?”

“Now stick your pinky out!”

“Like I said, why?!”

“Oh and you need to tuck your shirt in.” Don’t just ignore my question!

Grumbling, Ritsu rose from her seat and began shoving her shirt into the hem of her skirt. If this was what it would take, then she would show them that she had the guts to do so. No one got away with insulting Tainaka Ritsu, even if it was regarding her less than orthodox understanding of feminine ideals. Which she certainly did not care much about.

Hell, I’ll even button up my blazer, then we’ll see who isn’t suitable!

But as she finished with the final button of her own blazer that she had worn for three years, she could not help but feel completely alien in her own skin.

“It just feels weird…” Azusa hummed as she took in the look of her club president.

“Mio’s done too!” Ritsu turned to look, and nearly choked on her breath.

Mio had her hair tied in a signature high ponytail, leaving her porcelain neck exposed. Her shirt had its top buttons undone and the bottom untucked, the blue ribbon loosed and her blazer left hanging open. It was boyish, rumpled, and rebellious; a look that did not suit her personality in the least. And yet, it was downright criminal. With her jacket unbuttoned and hanging over her chest, what had been kept wrapped up was now more obvious to the eye. Her well-fitted shirt underneath just made the temptation to stare all the harder to resist. It was a perfect combination of colours, textures and layers that made every line of her figure that much more visible. The dusting of pink across her cheeks was just icing on the cake. Ritsu felt herself shiver.

It shouldn’t be surprising. Mio had always been pretty to her. Yet, in this moment, the word suddenly felt wholly inadequate.

She was beautiful. That notion stirred something within Ritsu, and for a moment she felt like she stumbled on something that should have been extremely obvious to begin with. That feeling of skirting along a line; the stomach clenching, heart stuttering sensation of walking on the edge of a precipice came back in full force.

The drummer silently shook herself. She was in no state to ponder any of these matters, not with this dumpster fire on her hands. Opting to give up and make this her future-self’s problem, Ritsu latched onto the next easiest thing. “Let’s just go practice.” She sighed aloud, turning to her drums to find some semblance of peace.

Yui and Mugi, naturally, ignored the memo with glee. “Close your legs!”

“JUST DROP IT ALREADY!”

Their walk home was plagued with an uneasy silence. Mio wouldn't stop fiddling with the edges of her blazer, while Ritsu was trying her best not to rip her buttons off. The remaining trio of the band had more or less enforced their “persona training regimen” with ruthless efficacy. Well, at least Mugi and Yui had. Azusa could potentially be let off the hook since she did restrain her comments. Filching the girl’s share of cake had proven effective at getting the point across. The remaining two on the other hand, were merciless with their enforcement. Mugi in particular, whose teasing reached new levels on the walk from school to her station. With every comment received, Ritsu felt her headache and irritation grow. Mio’s plea to bail out on the whole thing only served to solidify her frustration into determination.

The drummer would show them. She would show them that she was capable of portraying a Juliet that would put their comments to shame. She would put on a performance so convincing, so lady-like that she’d give everyone a run for their money. If she had to play an ultra-feminine Juliet from the sheer force of anger alone, she would make it happen.

At least that was how she felt on the way home.

Now that she was slumped over on the bed with Mio alongside her, that determination seemed much harder to reach for. Reciting the corny lines over and over had been physically painful, and the utter strangeness of the required delivery had sucked all the fight out of the drummer. Ritsu cracked open an eye, observing the bassist. She lay beside her completely winded, though Ritsu suspected it had more to do with the amount of laughing she had done in the past half hour alone.

Then she felt her mattress tremble, and the embarrassment came back in full force.

“Laughing again? Your Romeo is no better! Which girl in their right mind would fall in love with an uncertain guy like you?” Raising herself up, she shoved the bassist off her bed for emphasis.

The laughing stopped. “I can’t help it, you know.” Mio complained.

Ritsu ran her hand through her hair in irritation. “We’ve seriously been miscast. You should have been Juliet. Think about it. This is totally something you could say.” Standing up, she drew her elbows to herself and brought her knees together. Tilting her hips slightly, she imagined herself to be Mio staring longingly into the distance. “Romeo!” Ritsu cooed. “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

Annoyance burned within Mio’s gut. “I do not sound like that! And please, with your style, you should be playing Romeo.” Mirroring the drummer, Mio stood up and squared her shoulders, puffing her chest as she drew from her many memories of Ritsu. “Ah dear Juliet! Why art thou yet so fair?”

“What the hell kind of Romeo is that? And how does that sound even remotely like me?” Ritsu groused. “Friends for this long and you can't even get me right?”

“That is completely what you sound like, even if you refuse to admit it. You even do this with your hands.”

“I do not! You on the other hand!” Flipping through her script aggressively, Ritsu shot back another line, this time channeling her memories of Mio's numerous outbursts. “Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet!”

Mio scoffed, red-faced. “Now who's the one who can't get it right? I am hardly that dramatic!”

“That's what you think!”

The two continued in such fashion, slinging line after line at each other, turning the classic romance play into a verbal sparring match between them. Somewhere along the way, the ridiculousness of the script fell by the wayside as the recital turned into a competition, with both girls determined to outdo the other at mutual imitation.

It was only after they had managed to burn through an entire scene that they noticed.

“Hey.”

“Wait a minute.”

“That was…”

“Actually good!”

The two girls whooped for joy, their verbal spar completely forgotten.

Satisfied, Ritsu flopped back onto the bed. With a sure-fire method in the bag, the play no longer felt as daunting as it did. Mio herself visibly relaxed, and had returned to burying her nose into the pages. The brunette snickered as Mio began gesticulating as she whispered her lines, in an attempt to project the drummer with her movements and tone. Leaving Mio to her practicing, Ritsu gazed at the ceiling.

And the sinking feeling that had started during the last period of school returned as the implications sunk in.

Am I... really not feminine enough?

The brunette faced Mio again. The bassist was still gesturing, this time in a different pose. Hand on hip, chin out and one arm extended to the sky as though she was in search of something. It was clichéd, but it worked. Mio was moving and shifting between poses with a dancer’s grace, accentuated by her dark locks swinging behind her. Those locks would be completely at home with a flowing gown. Ritsu could try the same poses, but she knows that she cannot pull them off with the same fluidity and flair.

No one will deny that she would be an awesome Juliet.

Her mind jumped to Satoshi, who had squirted soda out of his nose the moment he heard who she was playing. His howls of laughter during their practice just now helped even less.

Even Satoshi thinks I’m not cut out for this.

Ritsu felt her heart sink further. She knew who she was, and everyone seemed alright with the way she carried herself. So why did it suddenly feel so damn wrong for her to be the way she was? Was not conforming to traditional femininity that strange?

“Ritsu?”

She knew how to do make-up; she knew how to style herself when it counted. She would have no qualms about putting herself in a dress if the occasion really required her to do so. So, it wasn’t like she was completely unfeminine. And maybe her preferred colour palette wasn’t traditionally girly, but it couldn’t be that far off either could it?

“Ritsu?”

The drummer felt her frustration grow. It never mattered before, so why is this really bothering me now? She pictured herself next to Mio. Her hair was long, straight and felt like silk. Hers was short and tangled easily. Mio was tall, and walked with proper posture. Ritsu was nowhere near her height, and slouched wherever she walked. Mio laughed with an almost melodic tone, while her own laughter was brash, throaty and echoed down hallways.

“RITSU!”

The drummer leapt out of bed. “Hell! What was that for?!”

“Says you! I’ve called you twice now and all you did was give me a creepy blank stare!”

“Ah? Sorry about that.” Mio’s brows furrowed and Ritsu felt herself breaking into a slight sweat. That was Mio’s trademark interrogation face. “What’s going on Ritsu?” She asked. The drummer reached for her script in reflex, and the words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop herself.

“Nothing really. Look, we should continue our practicing-” Mio snatched the book before she even reached it. Her grey eyes take on a steely edge as her frown deepened.

“Don’t try this with me again, Ritsu. I know something’s bothering you.” Sighing, Mio drew herself to sit beside the drummer, looking ready to grill her where she lay. But in a twist, the bassist’s voice suddenly faltered. “You… don’t want to talk to me about it?”

The brunette felt a jolt of panic rise in her. “No, no, no. That’s not it.” I’m not making that mistake again. Mio’s frown softened at the answer, but remained laced with worry.

Ritsu sighed. “It’s just today in general okay? Everyone’s been pointing out how un-ladylike I am and it just got to me.”

A deep breath, and she continued. “And I was looking at you and thinking, you’d really make a much better Juliet than I ever would. You’re prettier, way more graceful and I’m-”’

“Stop.” A finger placed itself firmly on the drummer’s lips as grey met amber. “No more of such talk. You’re awesome and you know it.” In light of a day’s worth of insults - however good-natured - the certainty in Mio’s voice was refreshing to hear. The bassist moved herself closer to look Ritsu in the eye, looming over her prone form on the bed. She was going to make sure her words reached the brunette loud and clear.

“Don’t ever tell yourself you’re not good enough. You’re beautiful Ritsu. You’re every bit a lady as I am, as anyone is. Don’t ever listen to those lies in your head.” Her voice was firm, carrying the weight of years of personal knowledge of the drummer. Ritsu’s tongue felt stiff; she was left speechless and floored by the certainty and dominance in the words. Even if the voices in her head howled in disbelief, condemning her over and over, she would not hear them. With such authority in those words, how could she not believe them? Vaguely, her brain noted a distinct feeling of déjà vu regarding the conversation.

We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

Warm breath tickled her lips, and the brunette suddenly registered the closeness of their faces. She remembered the Mio with a high ponytail just hours ago, the feel of her arms about her whenever they hugged. She recalled the tingling of fingers entwined with her own, and the gentle warmth on her temple that could both stun her in place and lull her to sleep. She thought back to the relaxing scent of lavenders, and the fuzzy feelings that welled within whenever Mio smiled.

Future-me, meet your problem.

Did it really take something as little as a change in perspective to alter the barrier between two people? Was it really possible for such a well-worn, well-defined form of love to transform into another? Was she really only coming to understand the existence and nature of her attraction in the wake of a centuries-old romantic-tragedy of a play?

While the gears continued to turn in Ritsu’s mind, Mio’s gaze remained firm and fixed on her. A blink later, and the piercing look quickly dissipated as the bassist registered the position she was in. A flash of uncertainty streaked across her expression, but before she could even move, Ritsu’s hand latched onto hers and held her in place.

“Don’t go.”

Mio obeyed. It seemed like the time to make things clear had finally come. She had tried to prepare for this, but now that it was actually happening, whatever conversation starter she had practiced in her head died a swift death. Instead of the logical, rational dialogue she had been planning for, now she was stuck with a sluggish tongue, frozen mind, paralysed muscles and racing heart. As she savoured the burning heat of Ritsu’s palm on her arm, her mind raced for her next move.

Ritsu beats her to it. “Romeo and Juliet are lovers.” She began matter-of-factly.

“Yes.” The tremor in her own voice betrayed her, and the air became just that more brittle.

One breath. Two breaths. Ritsu’s mind was in overdrive.

“Mugi wanted to keep the kiss scene, you know.” The brunette’s voice tripped at the word. Mio gulped hard. She willed her voice not to shake.

“I know. Ichigo stopped her.”

More minutes of deafening silence passed between them. Ritsu’s hand remained on the bassist’s arm and Mio stayed looming over her. Neither girl dared to move. A storm of non-verbal messages passed between them. Fear. Embarrassment. Uncertainty. And underneath it all, the emotion they were finally able to give a name to: want. Both girls struggled to decide which to approach first.

Nonetheless, Ritsu was the first to bridge the gap. “If it was in there…” No questions on what “it” was. Mio nodded dumbly, her heart thundering in her chest.

One final, deep breath.

“Would you want to do it?”

There was no escaping now.

Mio squeezed her eyes shut as the question rolled about in her head. Logically, it was a simple yes or no question. So, she merely had to look at each option and decide from there, right?

She looked at no. Mio thought hard. She had never considered herself to be someone who liked girls. She did find some girls pretty, just like she found some guys to be handsome. Beauty could be found in both. But highschool happened, and this was where she was now.

What’s more, there was more than herself to think about. What if it affected the band, or her studies? Third year was crucial, and the stress would run high very soon and very quickly. But perhaps what was most scary of all, was the final question in her mind: what if it failed, and she could not be friends with Ritsu anymore?

The drummer had been an integral part of her life. She could not imagine her life without the energetic girl by her side. If this messed up, there would be no telling what it would do to her.

But if…

She turned her mind to yes. And her heart soared. Ritsu was her anchor and her pillar. Her energy – infectious and steadfast – was her saving grace through the years. More than anything, it was the prankster drummer that had pushed her to be better, pushed her to go further than what she felt she could on her own. The shy, timid, cry-baby girl came out of her shell because she wanted to keep pace. And that had opened up a world of opportunity for her in the present.

So if Ritsu could bring out the best in her now, what more could she do in the future?

And perhaps, with this one thing tying them together, it could help keep their inevitable separation from consuming her completely.

Her mother had once said that a relationship was never certain. That the only thing that could hold it together was the determination of the people to keep their promises to one another.

Could she do so for Ritsu? Did she trust Ritsu to do so for her?

The answer was obvious.

Mio opened her eyes.

Bravery is the willingness to look at what you fear straight in the eye.

“Yes.”

Ritsu all but yanked her down, and their lips crashed into one another.

Subsequent practices for the play ran much smoother. Mio settled into her role as Romeo, projecting her inner Ritsu as she read her lines with gusto. Ritsu channelled her inner Mio and delivered her lines with bashful grace. Their classmates shook their heads when hearing about the strategy, feeling it to be needlessly complicated. But no one could argue with the results. Mio and Ritsu were now showing a chemistry unlike any they’ve seen before, with their most recent practice managing to stun their friends into silence. Each time the girls held each other’s gazes as necessitated by their scripts, one could swear they could see something pass between them. But that thing disappeared as soon as it emerged, and the play would proceed.

The class chalked it up to the partners finally finding their rhythm.

Mugi went to bed squealing over the next several nights.

Chapter 8

Chapter Text

“Once again, great work everyone!”

Nodoka led the class of 3-2 in a round of applause as they settled into a messy tumble of people, props and paraphernalia. The girls were beyond exhausted, many flopping to the ground and crashing from their own adrenaline high as soon as they had left the auditorium from the backstage entrance. But their work was not yet done as there was still a huge mess to clean up and many, many items to be returned. The dutiful ones in the stage crew were in charge of that, but Nodoka had insisted that they gather back in their homeroom for a debrief before breaking off to wrap up the day.

The bespectacled president beamed proudly at her fellow classmates. Tired they may be, but there was an infectious grin of satisfaction on each and every one of their faces. Even more so on the faces of the actors; their efforts had paid off spectacularly and they knew it. Nodoka had to suppress tears of joy at hearing the roaring applause and cheers that accompanied the closure of the curtains. It was a play that befitted the mark that they had desired to leave on the school for their last school festival.

As the class whooped and hollered along with their applause, Nodoka felt her heart swell.

“And to commemorate our huge success, I wish for us all to take a picture together in costume.” Nodoka proposed as she held her trusty digital camera up. Thirty seven pairs of eyes light up in unison.

“Nice suggestion, prez!”

“Let’s decorate the board and pose with it!”

“I call dibs on the dagger!”

“Hey, someone grab another person to take the photo for us!”

The room descended into chaos in minutes as the girls jostled to fit in frame. Squeaks and squawks flew as everyone attempted to avoid pulling on another’s costume before bumping into another. Yui nearly trips over her tree costume, and Ritsu has to drag Mio to join her front and centre; they were the lead stars after all. Chika snatched for the dagger only to have it nearly stab Ichigo in the face, and Mugi readied her tissue pack as she watched the two leads press against each other. Mika felt a prop staff whack the back of her head. Himeko dive-bombs into the fray after dragging a friend to help take the picture.

The girls of 3-2 settled into various poses, and the camera captured the scene of thirty eight gleeful girls huddled closely in front of a board. Scribbled on it in colourful chalk was several doodles surrounding the word “Success!!”. The room smelled of paint, glue and old newspaper, the area behind the camera was so cluttered that it would have warranted a scolding on any other day and the girls struggled not to trip and tumble over each other while holding their positions. It was as far from a comfortable environment to take a picture as it could be.

Nodoka would not have wanted it any other way.

She felt tears pooling in her eyes when the camera clicked. The torrent of warm hugs that smothered her only squeezed her heart further and made her tears pour out in full force.

Azusa sat alone in the clubroom, Mustang in hand.

The play had been nothing short of captivating. She replayed the scenes of Ritsu and Mio in her head, recalling the powerful assertion that Mio had exuded when she was on stage. Seeing the reserved bassist dressed smartly and moving with such self-assurance lit a fire in Azusa - she had clearly practiced hard and come very far. Ritsu too, sounding so unlike herself and yet so fittingly in-character that Azusa could only salute the drummer’s efforts and dedication to getting her role right. And as she watched her two seniors deliver the final, tragic scene with a stunning level of power and drama, she felt a pang of guilt stab her in the chest for all the comments she had let slip about how unsuited they were.

One scene was the testament to how unfair her perspective had been. It was the balcony scene, where Romeo had valiantly climbed a tower to meet Juliet under the cover of night. Finally meeting as lovers, the two characters proclaimed their intense passion for one another before rushing into each other’s arms, much to the fervent delight of many in the crowd.

It was just a play, and they were merely students acting. Yet, the longing gaze that her seniors had shared on that fake balcony felt almost real. The gingerly approach they made as they drew close, the pause in their step as they took each other in; that had generated a tension so palpable that for a moment Azusa had actually expected the original script to play out.

That had sent Azusa’s heart racing and left her a blushing mess.

She was grateful to whoever was responsible for re-writing that part of the script. The auditorium would have exploded otherwise.

All that extra practice must have really paid off…

That realisation had set off a pang of unease in her chest. The results of the play were clear indicators that a lot of time had been spent on getting their roles right. And that had resulted in many instances like the one she was in now - alone on the bench practicing, her chords naked without any of its accompanying parts, reverberating from the walls of the otherwise empty room.

Did they prepare for the band’s performance at all? That had set off the first jolt of guilt in her tightened chest. But there was no way to tell, since none of them showed up in the clubroom. She could trust Mio and Mugi-senpai to practice on their own, but both were so heavily involved in the play. And it felt rather intrusive to step into their classroom to ask them such a thing in the middle of such a large-scale production. With the stress running high it would be downright rude for a junior to show up with such questions.

Azusa felt the guilt surge when the next thought came. Did they care? There were no texts about how she was doing, no one popping by to practice, not one mention of the live performance that was coming.

It was a selfish line of thought, but Azusa felt powerless to stop it.

It was to be her last festival with them as a band. She was certain they were aware of it too. So why did it look like they did not really care about it too much?

She had wandered up to the clubroom after the play to take her mind off things through solo practice, but her trusty Mustang somehow felt heavier than it usually was. Fingers sluggish and thoughts fragmented, she found it impossible to move past the first several bars.

Sighing, she turned her head to the window. Her thoughts swirled in her mind as she stared, her heart growing heavier as the seconds ticked by. The sun was setting, and its rays filled the room with a warm orange glow. Muffled chatter hummed through the glass as the last of the day’s visitors to the school filed out of the gate. The day had been charged with excitement, and the vestiges of that enthusiasm lingered in the air and hallways as she walked through them. Yet, she could not find it in her to resonate with that energy at all. Her Mustang’s strings felt cold against her fingertips as she scanned the space of the clubroom. It suddenly felt a lot larger and spacious than it usually did.

Was this what next year would feel like? Her fingers tensed, curling to grip the neck of her Mustang tightly. The strings creaked as they scraped against the fretboard.

Had the transition to next year already begun? Was she just naïve to think it wouldn’t happen yet? The thoughts roiled anew, and Azusa felt the same heavy haze weigh on her shoulders.

No. You still have a performance tomorrow. The year isn’t over yet.

Her phone buzzed. The screen lit up brightly, and Azusa caught sight of the cheery message displayed. Her seniors were on their way up, based on the text. Azusa took in a deep breath, trying to find peace in it. They wouldn’t be going onstage tomorrow without any practice at all. She only prayed that it would be a productive one to make up for lost time. Yet, the promise of a practice eased her only slightly, and she felt her shoulders distinctly sagging in trepidation.

Her seniors would no doubt burst into the room, chattering and asking her about what she thought about their performance. She had promised to watch and cheer them on after all. How would she answer?

She was certain her mood was reflected clearly on her face. That would be a complete buzzkill.

Azusa slapped her cheeks.

I should be a good junior. This is their last festival. I need to at least congratulate them with a smile.

She forced her thoughts away from her unease. It was their last festival ever with their classmates, and they had been so excited for their final product. She shouldn’t tarnish this. If she was to be giving praise to her seniors, the least she could do was to make sure she meant it. For all the dejection she felt, they were still her seniors and deserved respect for their efforts. Focusing on the play’s highlights, she replayed the scenes in her mind. Ritsu-senpai and Mio-senpai were deserving of her best congratulations; they were nothing short of amazing while onstage. They had taken on such stressful roles and made it work. Mugi-senpai too, for her quality script and great directing, making the play both dramatic but easy to follow.

Then there was Yui-senpai.

She had perhaps the easiest role in the play. But hers was the one that had left Azusa sitting on the edge of her seat. The younger guitarist had been sweating bullets as she observed Yui trying her damnedest not to sneeze and ruin her role. She felt bad for not really paying attention to the other parts of the play as much as she should have, but she couldn’t help herself. The senior guitarist was so close to breaking character Azusa was surprised that no one else seemed to notice.

Maybe it’s because I’m just getting too used to looking out for her.

The storm of thoughts halted. Why was she still looking out for Yui specifically anyway? It wasn’t like her senior was that hard to find. The guitarist more-or-less appeared in front of her all the time of her own volition. On the way to school, in the clubroom, after school. Hell, Yui showed up even in between her classes; always, she gleefully proclaimed, for a recharge. With her recent crusade to shower Azusa with all the hugs and affirmation she possibly could in a day, there certainly was no lack of the older girl’s presence in her life.

It was also clear that she had a whole entourage of people who were able to take care of her. Her sister was on permanent Yui-watch during the school day, and she was in the presence of the band members for the whole day too. Yui was clearly in no danger of anything at all.

So, what really was making Azusa constantly feel a need to look out for her?

Need?

Azusa frowned. The gears in her head turned. Her mind flashed to the gaze her seniors had shared on stage, and she felt the same heat rise to her cheeks.

Need.

She thought about all the warm hugs she had received, and how she had never really minded a single one. She remembered the terrible squeeze in her chest when Yui was ill and unable to play for their first concert together, and the relief that had washed over her when the guitarist finally joined them on stage. She recalled the quiet excitement of practicing with Yui into the wee hours of the morning during summer camp and even for their little duo for the community talent show. She thought back to the rush of warmth when her senior showered her with affirmation, saying words so sincere and intimate it made her breath fail and mind stop.

She replayed the answer she always received from the older girl whenever she appeared out of nowhere: “I need a recharge!” and how it never failed to make her crack a smile despite herself.

She felt all the blushes she has felt over the past two years.

In the quiet of the clubroom, Nakano Azusa came to the realisation that perhaps the answer to her question wasn’t hard.

Oh. Oh no.

Ritsu sauntered down the hallway, trash bag in hand. The setting sun coloured the sky a deep orange, and the sounds of students leaving for home echoed through the area. The air stirred with a light breeze, which swirled and carried the fallen leaves through ever shifting piles. It had been a long and arduous day, and the drummer could already feel a deep ache forming in her shoulders. Her legs felt no better, having needed to be on her feet for several hours. She let out a mumbled groan as she trekked towards the recycling bins, wondering why they had to be placed all the way behind the auditorium.

Still, she wouldn’t have traded this day for any other, and tomorrow was going to be even more thrilling with their live performance. Ritsu grinned as she felt her excitement surge anew. They were going to practice till the sun came up, sore muscles be damned! Just the thought of staying overnight in the clubroom elevated her mood, and she found herself humming in time with her footsteps as she neared her destination.

The humming stopped when she rounded the corner.

If there was ever a need for a picture definition of surreal beauty, the sight before the drummer would fit the bill.

Amidst the swirling leaves, stood a lone girl under the shelter of a lone tree. Her jet-black locks billowed behind her as the wind picked up, rising and falling through the air like a cape of silk. Slate-grey eyes were fixed onto the rustling branches of the tree, carrying a look of almost serene calm. The wind shifts and the midnight locks swirl upwards, revealing fair and supple skin that glowed orange under the tint of the sun’s rays. Her pristine white uniform remained unmoving in the constantly shifting air, tucked neatly into her flowing light blue skirt. A long, blue ribbon hung loosely in hand, looped around slim fingers. Overhead, the orange sky continued to deepen in hue, and the chirping of a flock of birds echoed in the distance.

It’s a spell - an enchantment - and the drummer found herself willingly bewitched. She stared, eyes drinking in every detail and burning every part of it into her memory. A magnetic pull tugged at her senses and Ritsu felt her body drift forward in response. Closer, she thought dimly. I must get closer.

A leaf crunched under the drummer’s foot, and the spell shattered. The brunette slapped herself on the forehead, sending the bag flying out of her grasp.

“Ah, it’s just you Ritsu.” The cool tones washed over her like a fresh spring. It seeped into every muscle and every bone, filling her aching body with a refreshing delight. It’s a different spell this time, one that the brunette welcomed as willingly as the former.

“Hey Mio.” The name rolled off her tongue easily, and the familiarity of it invigorated her further. Absently, Ritsu noted the muted tone of her voice; somehow it seemed inappropriate to approach this with her usual volume.

That did not stop the follow-up jibe though. “If you wanted to be a tree so badly you could’ve just switched with Yui.” The serene calm vanished from the bassist’s eyes as she raised an eyebrow.

“What does that even mean?”

“No idea!” The resulting irritated huff dissolved into quiet chuckles in the face of Ritsu’s trademark grin. The spell deepened with the familiar dynamic surfacing between them. Both girls stepped closer in total submission to the magnetic pull between them.

“What a day huh?”

“Yeah…”

The sunset painted a stunning picture, but their eyes remained fixed on each other. Under the growing shadow of the tree and shelter of the building, Ritsu and Mio allowed themselves to sink deep into their mutual mesmerisation. Silence reigned as the minutes passed.

And as usual, Ritsu was the first to lose her patience with the quiet. “C’mon Mio, are you planning to stare all day?” She teased.

“Hmpf. Says the one whose mouth has been hanging open all this while.” The bassist smirked when Ritsu hurriedly shut her jaw with a click.

The relief of having the day finally end had placed Mio in a strange mood. The play had been a nerve-wracking ride from start to finish, and even after the curtains lowered Mio had struggled to stop the tremble in her limbs. Yet, when she folded her costume neatly and returned it to its box, she felt a twinge of sadness. It was as if a portion of herself parted with the garment as the box was sealed. The blue cloth had been the culmination of weeks of hardcore practice and immense stress; a mark of a persona that she had poured her hardest efforts into perfecting. It was a badge that she knew she earned, proof that she had the stones to survive a lead role in a play. She would never ever want to don that costume ever again, but she recognised that it had become a significant object for her.

It was also the catalyst for the shift in status between her and the brunette that stood before her.

With one answer, she had taken that step forward into the unknown. The thrill of finally letting her feelings into the light had almost overwhelmed her alongside the play. And now that the main rollercoaster was over, Mio finally had time to mull things over.

Hence her presence at the back of the building.

“So why are you here though? It’s not like you have anything to throw away.” The plastic bag rustled as Ritsu shoved it into the large collecting bin.

“Just thinking… about u-us.”

A look of mild alarm crossed the drummer’s features. Mio hurriedly continued.

“N-nothing bad! Just trying to process everything that’s happened. The play didn’t exactly leave a lot of time to think…” The tension faded, and Ritsu let out a light grunt in agreement.

The kiss they shared had been clumsy, desperate and entirely impulsive. And yet, there was no better way to summarise the situation and feelings that had been floating between them all this while. For all its inelegance and awkwardness, it had clicked in all the right ways and finally answered all the questions that had been swirling in her head. More importantly, it allowed the return to a comfortable, safe environment where Mio felt like she really, truly fit. Right next to Ritsu.

“It’s nice to see you smile again.” Ritsu was even closer now, her lips tugging into a gentle grin. A small, subtle movement; but one that spurred a heat to rise in Mio’s cheeks. “You haven’t been smiling or laughing much since the play was announced.”

That automatically sent a shudder through the bassist’s spine. Mio sighed. “Can you really blame me?”

“I suppose not.” The grin turned playful. “Ah, but you did almost laugh during the balcony scene though.”

“And whose fault is that? If I recall, you were the one who started corpsing first.” Mio gave Ritsu an accusing side-eye, and the brunette stuck her tongue out in answer.

They slipped back into their typical banter, and it feels familiar and new all at the same time. Like how one felt after coming home from a long trip. The house was as you left it, but somehow it feels fresh and new. It was a comfortable and homely feeling to be with Ritsu, yet now it held a distinct current that thrummed underneath the surface. Like a bed of smouldering coals, the new current felt like it could reignite at any moment with a brush of their hands or a locking of their gazes. Mio felt a blush creep further up her neck as her heart began to race.

So this is what it’s like…

Ritsu’s reply drew her out of her reverie. “Still, I’m really glad that the play happened the way it did.”

The drummer closed the final inches between them, and their breaths tickled each other’s faces. Her gaze bore right into hers.

“It led me to you.”

The romantic in Mio turned to mush, and her cheeks flushed full-red.

“I-idiot… saying such embarrassing things.”

“Only to you my princess. Only to you.”

They headed to the clubroom, steps in sync and shoulders never more than an inch apart.

It had been a glorious day for Mugi.

Their play had been a huge hit with the audience. The class had thoroughly enjoyed their experience. And most importantly, her two close friends from the club had finally taken that final step forward.

If it had not been obvious from their chemistry during the play, then the intimacy they shared at the back of the auditorium would be a dead ringer.

It wasn’t like she had intended to spy on them. She had just finished doing the final checks to ensure everything they used had been cleared from the auditorium and its prep room. Her excitement from the play had left her feeling light and giddy, and thus she decided to take the long way back to the classroom building for a stroll.

And the gods decided to gift her with a final blessing.

As she took a detour to give her friends some privacy, the blonde mulled over the events of her high-school life.

The Kotobuki name was a powerful one in Japan. With a high-ranking diplomat for a father and CEO as her mother, her parents were a formidable pair in the world of politics and commerce. The family mega-corporation owned many businesses nationwide, and her father’s work in the public service and Finnish embassy gave the family name an international presence. As the potential heiress to either field, her parents had placed her education as their highest priority outside of their careers.

Her etiquette lessons had begun as early as when she first started walking. History lessons followed soon after she learned to talk and internalise information. Classical piano and choral lessons were added alongside. Her elementary and middle schools had been hand-picked by her parents, following the advice of their most trusted family advisors and friends. And at the behest of her parents, she had been to more functions, business trips and high-society parties than any teenager had any business being in.

And being the only daughter to two high-profile adults meant that her safety was also of utmost importance. Aikido lessons quickly became another activity that was added to her hefty list of appointments to attend.

And despite all the fortune and glamour her upbringing had showered upon her, Mugi had felt empty most of her life. There were many days where she had wanted above all else to just go out with friends after school to hang out, but each day put a different barrier in her way. If it wasn’t her etiquette lessons, it would have been her Aikido instructor demanding more sessions. Holidays weren’t safe either, it would be one business trip after another. By the time she hit her fourth year in elementary school, she had lost track of the number of times she had to turn down requests from her classmates.

The requests themselves stopped soon after. Kotobuki Tsumugi faded into the background, becoming the diligent but quiet girl that existed only on the attendance roster.

Her life had no shortage of things to learn and places to be, but the blonde had found it incredibly dull as she grew older. Yet, she knew she couldn’t blame her parents entirely. Being with them on trips had showed her first-hand the level of stress they bore on a daily basis. And to say they did not care was unfair as well; family time, birthdays and graduations were never missed despite their intense schedules. So, she continued in the role of a faithful daughter, doing her best to ensure her parents had one less thing to worry about.

Still, it would have been nice if they asked what she wanted to do once in a while.

The piano had been a blessed and favoured outlet for her to vent her unspoken frustrations. It was the first and few decisions that her parents made that happened to resonate with her own personality and desires. Music became a safe channel for her emotions; a secret haven for her undeclared desires. Whatever she could not say in words, she declared through song. Her pieces became an extension of her as she injected her emotions into them, a melody and message to whomever would hear. A portrait of her soul.

Aikido lessons were a close contender; tossing people to the ground using their own momentum tended to be cathartic in its own way. Mugi did not enjoy it as much as the piano, but the increased strength and frequent exercise were nice to have.

And still, it was not always enough.

The first time she had insisted on her own way had been at the end of middle school. It had begun as a typical family conference following her graduation. True to fashion, her parents had already listed several institutions as potential avenues for her high school education. However, they were locked into a mutual debate over which was better. Each school had its history and merits, and each place boasted of a niche that could prove helpful for both her growth and her education. Her father was inclined to schools that promoted leadership building, while her mother preferred those that focused on entrepreneurial education. Mugi had watched the debate persist for a solid twenty minutes in total silence, feeling the weight in her chest grow with every exchange of words. She knew that both were useful for her. She knew that they were important skills. But she wanted something for herself, and she had enough of others making the decisions for her.

When her frustration crested, her actions were swift. In one smooth motion, she had grabbed the application papers, penned her choices of schools neatly and sealed the documents before her parents could even respond.

Her first choice had been Sakuragaoka. The school whose niche was its music education.

That reaction had stunned her parents into silence for several days. Though, the gentle smirk that her mother gave her after eased her fears. Thus began Kotobuki Tsumugi’s crusade to take back her youth and seek new experiences for herself. Since she had already seen so much of the world of the upper-class, she made it a personal goal to live her high-school life as down to earth as possible. She would create pleasant memories for those around her and be one with the friends she made. She would enjoy every aspect of high-school life while continuing her love for music.

It took some effort to set her plans into motion. Asking her chauffeur to essentially not do his job had been monumentally hard. The night before her first day, she prayed hard that she would succeed.

The Light Music Club would be the first of many answered prayers.

She knew that Ritsu and Mio had yet to give anyone a heads up on their development, but Mugi did not mind. She was sure they would tell her and the rest in due time. And being a secret secret keeper was something that Mugi could not deny feeling excited about. It felt like those spy movies she had watched in her childhood.

High school was too fun.

Mugi skipped her way to the music room, giggling as she went.

“Azu-nyan!” Yui launched herself at the twin-tailed girl, face first and arms outstretched.

In one move, Azusa deftly redirected the approaching face, suppressing the all-too-familiar blush that was crawling up her neck. It would be the third attempt she arrested that night. And the night must be getting to her; Yui’s face had managed to get closer before Azusa managed to respond.

With less than fourteen hours before their live performance, the girls had finally decided that it was time to turn in. The walk around school grounds had been oddly thrilling; seeing the building in the absence of light ironically painted in a new one. The darkened hallways may have seemed eerie, but the bubbly presence of the band members and lively chatter chased away any sort of vile shadows and creepy feelings. Their laughter had echoed across the empty courtyard and turned the otherwise uncanny mess of stalls and decorations into a playground. It was almost a shame to have to let time slip away in their sleep, but their collective better sense reminded them that playing on stage while severely sleep-deprived would be a bad idea.

“Aww… Azu-nyan is so cold today…” Yui whined as she retreated. Azusa remained silent.

She would have answered, but there was currently a toothbrush stuck in her mouth. She chose to let out a grunt instead.

As the junior guitarist continued her night grooming, Yui scanned her surroundings. The band members had huddled in the girl’s bathroom nearest to the music room. Mio was in the shower stall, conversing with Ritsu and Mugi who remained just outside the stall door. The bassist had been adamant about not entering the restroom by herself, and thus the whole band decided that they would settle their nightly routines within the same space.

The play had been a thrill to watch from the stage. She never minded the fact that she had to play a tree; it was far easier than any other role in the play. She would not need to tackle the challenge of memorising lines and movements, while still able to be an actual part of the play itself. Ui had been very supportive about her role too; keeping her company whenever she practiced holding her poses and even making a good-luck meal the night before.

Being under Mugi’s directorship had been very enjoyable too. Watching her correct the movements and lines of her classmates had been amusing, and she had been very cute whenever she clapped in delight at successful practices. She vaguely wondered if Mugi would ever try to enter the film industry, given how much fun she had directing the class.

Seeing Mio and Ritsu perform had also been a real treat. They had been immensely cool, managing to stir such an excitement in the crowd while not missing a single step or beat. There were many points in time she was nearly drawn into the performance itself, tempting her to step forward to get a better look. But the temptation came with a stern, Ui-voiced reminder that she was on stage and in a tree costume, and so her hard training thankfully kept her in place. Her on-stage time eventually turned into a mix of resolute efforts to remain stoic and excitement at seeing each and every scene play out perfectly. The battle between both moods was unrelenting, and it left Yui drained when she left the stage after her last scene.

Actors must have it tough, having to be there but be unable to enjoy the scenes they are in.

Humbled, she had bowed to her cardboard cut-out of a costume after she took it off. Her explanation of her humbling realisation had elicited some quizzical looks and amused chuckles from her classmates, but she didn’t mind. It was what she felt and experienced after all, and since having the costume had made her understand that, it was only polite to give credit where credit was due.

Nonetheless, it felt uplifting to know that her input had helped her good friends come out of their shells to become successful stars for the day.

And to think that she played music with these talented girls and had the fortune to be their friends. That thought alone had made Yui’s heart swell with pride during the play, and it spurred a surge of energy to play the best tree possible. Sure, the energy surge alongside her battle against temptation had nearly resulted in her sneezing on stage, but that did not happen so that meant that she did well enough.

Yui’s attention returned to the junior guitarist who was lazily brushing her teeth. The rush of running water had dwindled, leaving the excited chatter of Ritsu and Mugi echoing through the restroom. The sudden loss of noise made the vacancy of the space much more apparent, and Yui was reminded of the scene she had seen upon bursting into the clubroom after the play.

It had been of Azusa, sitting alone in the room with Muttan in hand and a faraway look on her face.

Yui felt her heart sink when the younger girl had dejectedly muttered her worries of them forgetting about their live performance. And though she had been sincere about her praise of their efforts for the play and about her enjoyment of it, the tone of her admission had made one thing clear.

Azusa had felt abandoned.

While their late-night practice and trip around the school had managed to perk her up, it did not seem to be enough. Not when she remained unable to look her in the eye and adamant at rejecting the offer for hugs.

The senior guitarist’s brows furrowed as she observed said girl. She could understand how Azusa felt. It was their last year, and their last school festival together. They were supposed to be giving it their all together, practicing late into the night more than just once. They should be hanging more in the clubroom, enjoying all the tea and snacks they could in between practices. They should be having fun with their instruments, enjoying each other’s company all the while. Instead, they had been absorbed into the play and almost never showed up in the clubroom. Worse still, it dawned on her that none of them had even checked in on her.

She knew that she and the others had been practicing on their own at home, but that seemed like small comfort for the issue.

We are a band aren’t we?

The guilt began to build as a lump rose in her throat.

She should have texted her. Or came up to the clubroom to check in. As a fellow guitarist and senior, she should have been more perceptive and thoughtful.

Yui shuddered as she pictured Azusa in a clubroom devoid of tea, cakes, and music. Just one twin-tailed girl sitting on the bench, with Muttan clutched in her hands and a sombre gaze aimed at the door. On the other hand, she herself was in her classroom, basking in the peals of laughter and buzz of excitement of her peers. She was trying on costumes, peeking at scripts and posing with props; all the while not once thinking to go check on their junior.

The two rooms were merely a floor apart, but the atmosphere could not have been more different.

The senior guitarist thought back to their training camp, to the light chuckles of the younger girl as they sat on the cool studio floor into the wee hours of the morning. She remembered the look of resolution in her eyes during Summer Fest as they sat on the grass, and the fire that the twin-tailed girl’s resolve had sparked in her chest. She thought about the surge of guilt that shot through her when told that Azusa had been the most worried for her while she was ill. The pout that had crossed the young guitarist’s face compelled Yui to make the sincerest apology she had made in a while. She reminisced about the dizzy rush of relief when Azusa had agreed to help her with the talent show with barely any hesitation, and how she had diligently assisted her with every step. Dealing with finals and a competition in close succession was daunting, but with Azusa it had felt possible.

She thought back to that firm declaration she had made in the clubroom, to make sure the girl never had a reason to doubt that she was a treasured member of their band.

We are more than just a band now. And I’ve messed it up, haven’t I?

Which was why she wanted to give Azusa a big giant hug to reassure her that they cared. That she cared. But given how her attempts were being thwarted one after another with more than the usual vehemence, Yui felt her restlessness grow. Azusa looked willing enough to mingle with the rest but seemed unwilling to entertain her approaches and hugs. Every word that Yui spoke to her was met with a hesitant look and exasperated sigh. Each approach to give her a hug, however sneaky she tried to be, was pushed away or redirected. Yui felt her heart sink further as the hours passed.

The sound of the running faucet stopped, and Yui watched as Azusa began packing her things. A quick glance back showed that the others had already left the washroom.

Maybe if they were in a more private setting, they could speak more directly. As the twin-tailed girl turned to leave the sink, Yui’s mind raced. She wanted to make sure the young girl was feeling alright, that she understood that she was important to them.

Most importantly, she wanted to say she was sorry.

Azusa tucked her toiletries into a small pouch.

Yui felt her heart pound hard. Now was the best time to act. But how should she do it? Hugs were clearly out of the question at this point.

Azusa reached for the door.

Now or never!

“Azu-nyan! Er…” Her call deflated almost as quickly as it came.

Azusa froze in her tracks.

Yui’s voice was hesitant and low, devoid of its usual cheer and perkiness. A sharp contrast to her demeanour prior to entering the washroom, where she had cheerfully expressed her support of what was essentially a “bathroom party”. This was a foreign tone, one that would never be heard coming from the exuberant girl unless something had gone seriously wrong. Azusa felt her heart rate spike as she reviewed the possible causes. She wished she could say that she had no idea what was triggering the disturbance in the senior guitarist. That she was just as confused about what was happening. But Azusa was no liar. The shock of her realisation in the afternoon had not died down. It remained fresh at the forefront of her mind, buzzing like an annoying mosquito hovering next to her ear. Every chord she strummed, every conversation she joined, every joke she laughed at; it was there. Prodding her, poking her, trying to tear her attention away from the present. And she had no idea how to deal with it.

She had tried to swat it away like the pest it was. But her efforts felt increasingly futile as the night wore on. The thoughts came one after another, spiking in intensity whenever the senior drew close. They wore at her restraint unrelentingly, and every thought bred a distinct sense of dread and helplessness that sapped her mood and left her chest feeling heavy. With her control crumbling quickly with each assault, she decided to spare herself and put some distance between herself and Yui.

Yui might not have been the main source of her distress but avoiding someone was infinitely easier than avoiding one’s thoughts. Turns out trying to ignore your own voice was as easy as trying to ignore a screaming infant strapped to one’s back.

Azusa groaned inwardly. She wanted nothing more than to simply enjoy the festival, to bask in the renewed mood that her seniors had brought about. After all, they had more than proven that they did not forget about the performance. The practice they had was one of the smoothest she had experienced. Mugi-senpai had made good on her word too, keeping everyone focused and motivated on the practice session. Yui-senpai had remained on good behaviour while Ritsu-senpai managed to keep herself in time. Even Mio-senpai – in contrast to her usual shyness – had ruffled her hair gently and offered thanks for her patience.

And their little trip around school grounds had been nothing short of fun too. The sense of exclusivity that came with roaming their school during an atypical time of day was exciting. That thrill thrummed within her as she walked, and Azusa found herself taking stock of every shred of closeness she felt with her seniors. And with a performance just up ahead, the whole night had projected one single thought with absolute clarity.

We are a band.

It should have been more than enough to help her focus, to lift her spirits that had otherwise felt crushed mere hours ago.

Who am I kidding? I’m still feeling like a mess.

And now, she was to have what would no doubt be an uncomfortable conversation she was ill-prepared for in a bathroom of all places. A headache began to creep its way across her temples.

No point prolonging this any further. The sooner it starts, the sooner it will end.

Azusa willed herself to turn around. Fighting every urge to run and hide, she forced her eyes up to meet Yui's.The senior girl’s eyes were downcast, her gaze aimed at the floor. Her shoulders were hunched forward, weighed down by an unseen load. Fingers fidgeted nervously as she struggled to piece together something to say. The small space suddenly felt cavernous, and the silence quickly turned the air stuffy, making it somehow infinitely harder to breathe. Azusa could practically hear the pounding of her heart in her ears.

What will you say, Yui-senpai? Do you already know what is going on?

“Azu-nyan… are you mad at me?”

Was she? She could not really tell. She was frustrated and aggravated, she was tired and feeling absolutely done. She did not want Yui to take a step closer, to stir up any more uncomfortable and disconcerting thoughts with her affections. She did not want to be taking such rude actions against her senior when she clearly wasn't being malicious. Her head and her heart were already charging in different directions since the play, desperately pulling at her control and sanity. Above all else, she just wanted to sleep and ignore everything. Did that count as being mad?

I have to answer, don’t I?

“… Not really.” It wasn't a lie she supposed. Some small vestige of her rational mind reasoned that she was just simply confused, which was responsible for the torrent of negative emotions. Thus, Yui was not the cause of her ire. A more emotional part of her mind protested. Yui made the negative surges worse, therefore Yui made her mad. Tell it to her damn it!

...I better leave it at that.

On the other end, Yui felt her head threatening to explode from the pounding as it raced even more.A "not really" wasn't a yes, but it wasn't a no either. So, was Azusa mad at her or not? Or was she mad but unwilling to say so? Why did she not wish to disclose it? Would her apology have any effect then? The ambiguity stung far more. Squeezing her eyes shut, Yui tried to steady herself. She had to stay strong and carry out a proper apology. Even if Azusa was truly angry, she would have to bear the responsibility of defusing the situation. It was only befitting of a senior wasn't it? Clutching a balled fist to her chest, she let out a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry I didn’t check on you Azu-nyan. I… I should have.”

The younger guitarist blinked. Was that what Yui-senpai thought this was about? She felt a chunk of her frustration fizzle out as she processed the apology. Yui continued, fingers fidgeting all the while. “I know how important our performance is to you, how much you want to play it well with us. I should have paid more attention to you.”

Please Azu-nyan… I'm really sorry.

Azusa felt her ears heat up. Voice tight, she forced out her reply. “B-but you were busy…”

“That still doesn’t change the fact that you felt abandoned… and I am responsible." Hazel eyes fixed themselves on hers. Azusa felt her head begin to spin.

That was... such a ridiculous claim.It was no one's fault. None of them would have intentionally wanted her to feel that way. It was merely an unfortunate circ*mstance, like a group outing that falls through due to overlapping commitments. It happened all the time, and Azusa was no stranger to that.So why did part of her feel tempted to agree with such an unfair statement?

No… it's not fair to-

But I thought she cared. She’s always so attached, isn’t she? She promised you too.

Some small, vindictive part of her wanted to agree, to rub it in her senior’s face that it was as she said. But that would not help the situation or be fair. The throbbing in her head grew stronger, and she pinched the bridge of her nose as she willed her mess of thoughts and feelings to stop.

Stay calm. Focus.

Her mind, rebellious as always, did not comply.

"Yui-senpai, it's not... your fault. You were just busy." Azusa ground out through gritted teeth. How did it get to this?

The senior girl remained silent as she chewed on her bottom lip. Azusa's mind continued its conflict.

She was busy-

We are fellow guitarists. Doesn't that mean something?

What was it supposed to mean? Her thoughts from the afternoon surged anew, sending a wave of dizzying fatigue through her limbs. Blood rushed to her face, and her cheeks heated up significantly against the cool air of the empty washroom. Grasping for the sink, she gripped the white porcelain and held on as her legs trembled. She cursed.

Why now?!

"Azu-nyan! Are you alright?!" In a flash, Yui had reached her junior's side. Worry streaked across the hazel-haired girl's features as she reached to feel her forehead. Azusa jerked away like she had been branded by a hot iron. Worry instantly turned to confused hurt.

"Azu-nyan…" came the weakened reply.

No that's not what I meant!

Whatever restraint Azusa had left shattered.

"I'm just really confused!" Hazel eyes widened as the younger girl leveled a feverish stare at her senior.

"I felt sad that you guys might have forgotten about our performance. Then I felt guilty for even thinking such a thing. Then…" Tears began poking out from the corners of her eyes. This wasn't supposed to happen. It was the school festival and the night before their performance! She was supposed to be having fun, laughing along with the rest, not freaking out and crying in a bathroom!Her breathing became ragged, and her heart was beating so hard she felt it would break through her chest at any moment. In the silence of the bathroom, Azusa heard only the thunder of her heart pounding in her ears. Feeling her legs give out, the younger guitarist slid to the floor as she desperately tried to wipe her tears.

"Then then I thought about you and… and I got so confused and you wouldn't stop hugging me-"

Thankfully - or maybe not, Azusa couldn't really think anymore - Yui didn’t seem like she heard what she was implying. Instead, the older girl simply interjected.

"I'm sorry I've made you so uncomfortable Azu-nyan." Her voice was gentle, but the smile that accompanied it was strained. "I'll stop the hugs if it will make you feel better."

"N-no… that's not what I meant…" Azusa choked out, wiping away a fresh stream of tears. Her head felt stuffy and heavy from the stress of it all, and her eyes burned from the tears. And with her rational mind shot and feeling like the sparking ends of a frayed wire, her next words tumbled out before she could even get a handle on them.

"Why do you keep saying you're the one responsible? You're not the only one who was-" She forced herself to pause. "busy."

Yui held back a wince."Well…" the lead guitarist found herself twiddling her fingers again. "I'm your senior and I have a responsibility to care for you. Especially after I made you that promise."

Azusa felt her heart squeeze uncomfortably . Damn that choice of words!

"And we are guitar partners. So, it's double responsibility on me, isn't it?"

Guitar partners. Are you just coining that term for fun?

"So, what does it mean?" Azusa countered immediately. Her eyes, puffy from crying, now bore an intense and almost desperate look.

Yui blinked in confusion. "Huh?"

"You called us partners. What does it mean?"

She shouldn't be asking this. She shouldn't be asking such a loaded, strange and unclear question at nearly two in the morning. She shouldn't be having such a fragile conversation in a bathroom on the eve of a live performance. But the words were already out, and Azusa could only sit and watch as she railroaded herself and the conversation straight for the wall. Whether it would end in a proper stop or blazing crash was anyone's guess.

But at the same time, she had to.

Ever since she had joined the Light Music Club, it had been a conga line of challenges to her view of reality. First came the challenge to her views on music, where the light-heartedness of the members of HTT proved that music didn’t need to be all about discipline and standards. That had been a hard enough pill to swallow, as it ran counter to everything she believed about music. Then came the challenge to her dealings with her seniors; where the traditional roles of leadership and mentorship were turned completely over on their heads with the familial and laid-back dynamic of her seniors. That had been a far-cry from where she had come from. Then came the issue of their teacher; there was nothing more she could say about it beyond it being seriously atypical and borderline controversial at times.

The Light Music Club had challenged every aspect of high school life that she had come to believe.

And now, there came one final one in the shape of a Hirasawa Yui. To whom traditional senior-junior relationships and limitations on public displays of affection seemingly did not apply. Everything she did in her presence had an intimacy and level that bordered on…

Admit it. You want it to mean that.

Fine, yeah. Azusa admitted.

But this was Yui. A girl who was the walking embodiment of affection and had nearly everyone in her class on her favourite people list. A girl who was terrible at taking care of herself at times, yet had more than several people’s worth of thoughtfulness and care to give. With such a repertoire of good-natured and all-loving tendencies that extended to almost everyone, could any of those directed at her be intentional and special anymore?Did the term ‘partner’ mean anything to her? Or was this yet another one of those irresponsible things she did, foisting labels onto others without realising the implications?

Azusa glowered at her senior, silently demanding her answer.

Sensing the gravity of the question, Yui gulped. Azu-nyan’s really mad… This wasn’t one of the typical Azusa flip-outs. Those ones – while definitely containing some measure of frustration – were still good natured and within control. They were usually for the sake of moving a practice along or to get away from whoever was being a bit too playful at the time. And though it mostly tended to be directed at Yui herself, they were outbursts made with trust. Trust that they both would be willing to make up later, trust that Yui knew what was the right thing to do. But this one right now, this one had mistrust bleeding out of every crack. She had to pick her words carefully.

"I-it means…" Her voice cracked. She knew what she wanted to express, but the sheer pressure that Azusa directed at her was making her tremble.

Azusa held her breath.

"It m-means that I share your wishes and feelings Azu-nyan.”

The torrent of confusion in Azusa’s head paused.

Huh?

Taking another deep breath and fixing her quavering gaze on hers, Yui continued. “Our performance is important to you. It is for me too.”Another breath later, and the words become easier to say. “You want to play music with us, and being able to play alongside you is also important to me. I practiced Giita everyday even while preparing for the play, because I wanted to make sure you wouldn’t worry about having to re-teach me. I wanted to make this performance with you the best one yet.”

The older girl’s lips curved into a sheepish smile as she scratched her cheek. “But it seems like I forgot the most important step, which was to actually tell you what I was doing and thinking.”

“And because we are both guitarists, we practice together a lot. I of all people should know how worried and lonely you would feel if you had to practice by yourself. Because I would too.” That sent a blush creeping up Azusa’s neck, and she averted her eyes from Yui’s in reflex.

“Ricchan, Mio-chan and Mugi-chan all had their hands full as well. So, I should have come to check-in on you all the more. I had promised to let you hear how much we care for you every day, and I failed.” Yui’s expression turned sombre, and she shifted to assume a seiza pose before lowering her head.

“So for that Azu-nyan, I am very sorry.”

Azusa’s mind ground to a halt.What could she say in response to that? Here she was, having heard arguably the rawest apology she has heard regarding the whole incident. The tumult in her head waned as she processed the whole string of events.There was still one very obvious aspect to her question that had not been touched on. One that Azusa wasn’t sure if she wanted an answer to.

It spilled out of her lips anyway. “Why? Why do you care about me so much?”

What am I doing?

Yui’s face turned serious. “Because you’re important and special to me. When you’re sad, I feel sad too. And sometimes, I end up feeling… extra sad.”

The younger guitarist felt her jaw slacken.

“Which was why I’ve been trying to give you a hug all this time. I wanted to cheer you up and make it up to you. B-but if you prefer for me to keep a distance, I can do that! Er… I’’ll just cheer you up another way! Whatever you need me to do, just name it Azu-nyan!” Yui rambled as she waved her arms in front of her, emphasising her decision to respect staying at arms-length.

What more could she say? Yui cared, and she wanted her to feel better. To feel happy. And if she was being honest, Azusa wanted to feel happy too. She was tired and wanted nothing more than just to feel better and let this whole ordeal end. The real, unaddressed question was something she was not yet ready to face, and she was sure as hell she did not want any discussion of it while she was in a bathroom and while her mind was in such disarray. It would be something she would tackle later. For now, Yui had given her an out, an end to the maelstrom of negativity, and she was going to take and hang on to it for as long as she could.

Azusa launched herself toward Yui, enveloping the girl in a tight hug.

And in that instant, everything finally felt right.

Yui, ironically, stiffened upon the contact. Arms raised and hovering hesitantly over the younger girl, she stared at her with widened eyes.

“E-eh? Azu-nyan… i-is this okay with you?” Yui croaked, torn between wanting to keep her distance and wanting to do what she had been trying to do the whole evening.

Azusa let out a teary chuckle as she buried herself deeper into Yui’s shoulder. “Of course. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.” Softly, she added. “Thank you. I care for you a lot too, Yui-senpai… And I forgive you.”

The older girl let out a loud sob and dived fully into the hug, squeezing Azusa tightly as fresh tears streaked down her own face. The twin-tailed girl squeezed back gratefully.

The warmth of Yui spread over her shoulders in a soothing wave, easing the frayed edges of her mind. It was the warmth that she had grown accustomed to over the past two years. It was a welcoming and easy warmth, one that made her feel accepted and wanted. The remainder of her tension faded, and the air became breathable once more. Melting fully into the embrace, Azusa inhaled deeply. Yui’s blue jersey was old and slightly faded, but it held a distinct mild scent that she had come to associate with the older girl. The smell alone triggered a fresh wave of serenity, sending a flood of warm and fuzzy memories through her mind. Memories that she wanted to persist, to never lose access to.

For her petite stature, Azusa clearly had a fair amount of strength. Yui felt that the air was being squeezed out of her lungs as the younger girl continued crushing herself against her torso. But she didn’t mind. It would be the first proper hug that Azusa ever initiated with her, and that meant that this was special. So she bore with the bone-crushing pressure, letting her own hands pat Azusa’s back and soothe the younger girl.After what felt like forever, Yui felt the arms around her midriff loosen. Finally able to breathe normally again, Yui let out a hacking cough as the sudden influx of air tickled her dry throat. Azusa looked up in mild alarm.

“Sorry senpai! Did I squeeze too hard?”

“Ehehehe, it’s Azu-nyan’s special hug. So I’m fine!” The senior girl threw a fist up in the air, posing triumphantly. The twin-tailed girl let out a sigh in response.

“Ah! Does this mean I get to keep hugging you Azu-nyan?” Yui asked earnestly.

Azusa giggled. “Yes, you can Yui-senpai.”

“Oh! And can I still call you Azu-nyan?”

“That wasn’t in question, senpai.”

Yui heaved a dramatic sigh of relief, and Azusa found herself rolling her eyes. Nonetheless, it was comforting to finally be able to slip back into a more normal interaction. It was far from a traditional interaction between a senior and junior. It might not even be totally proper. But it felt right, and that was all Azusa wanted to care about for now.

Gathering the last of their toiletries, the two girls began their trek back to the clubroom. Without warning, Yui latched onto the smaller girl as they walked down the darkened hallway, and refused to let go even as they continued moving.

“C’mon Yui-senpai, that’s a bit much isn’t it?” Azusa gently patted the older girl’s arm. But as usual, she did not really mind it.

“Aww but you said I could hug you Azu-nyan. Besides, I’ve not fully recharged.” Came the signature pleading whine, and for once Azusa smiled despite herself.

“I’ve been meaning to ask… what do you mean by recharge?”

Yui raised an eyebrow. “Eh? You don’t know?”

Azusa levelled a flat stare.

“It just means that your hugs are special to me, Azu-nyan. Only your hugs can recharge me and help me feel better.” That statement ignited a fire in her cheeks, and the rhythm guitarist felt her face flush hot from the rush of blood. If it were possible, she probably would be steaming out of her ears as they turned as red as her jersey.

“T-that’s-”

“So, don’t worry Azu-nyan, you’re the only one I’ll hug from now on okay?” Yui gave Azusa what was supposed to be a reassuring squeeze, but that served to bring their faces closer to one another.

She was sure that was not what she was asking about but Azusa could barely register her thoughts anymore. For the second time that day her mind ran out of her control. Her heart began to race even harder than before as the shared body heat began to sear her skin through the fabric of her jersey.

Oblivious, Yui continued, drawing Azusa even closer. “Ah! How about I hug you through the night?”

“Senpai!” Azusa squealed in alarm, embarrassment peaking and suffering so much sensory overload that she was sure she was going to faint.

“Alright alright…” Yui pouted. Azusa heaved a deep sigh of relief as Yui slackened her hold on her, moving her face away. Any more and she was sure she wouldn’t make it back to the clubroom conscious. But the arms remained around her nonetheless, reluctant to release her fully. The senior girl’s expression turned pleading as her lips pouted, wordlessly hoping to not be dismissed so quickly from her recharge. Azusa felt her chest squeeze again, and her resistance crumbled.

“F-f-fine. You can h-hold on till we reach the clubroom. B-but only till there o-okay?” She stammered, turning her gaze to the ground.

Yui happily complied.

“Hey they’ve been gone for a while haven’t they?” Mio said, voice laced with worry.

“They’re probably still in the washroom. Azusa wasn’t done when we left, remember?” Ritsu waved an arm lazily, while the other reached for the leftover rice balls from dinner. Ui’s cooking was superb as ever, and even though she had already brushed her own teeth she couldn’t resist another bite.

“Yeah, but this is too long isn’t it? Should we go look for them?” Mio stood as she spoke, eyes aimed at the door as she wondered what had happened to the two guitarists.

Ritsu’s tone automatically turned sly. “Oh? You? Venturing out into the dark, empty hallways all by yourself and not knowing if something will pop out and- ARGH!”

Mio regretted nothing. Still, with that tease whatever strength that fuelled her to stand disappeared completely. Legs trembling at the thought of dark hallways, she remained rooted on the spot. Cradling the bump on her head, Ritsu croaked out an offer to go with Mio.

Mugi watched the entire scene with barely concealed bliss.

“I’ll go look for them. You two take a break.” Mugi interjected with a mischievous smile. Before the two could even respond, the blonde had already foisted herself out of the clubroom and left them behind.

She figured it would be for the best. Ritsu and Mio would have some privacy while Yui and Azusa would have the time and space needed for them to talk. It would be the most direct action she had taken and would be quite a gamble. But if both pairs could stay put long enough, it would be worth the payoff. Positioning herself in the middle of the stairwell, Mugi waited.

When she heard the embarrassed squeak of Azusa along the stairwell mere minutes later, she knew her gamble had succeeded. Now all she needed to do was not blow her cover.

This is it , she thought dreamily, when dawn broke and the first of the morning light stirred them all awake. It was a pleasant feeling, waking up to the sight of sleeping bags on a picnic sheet, to the cream-coloured walls of the clubroom, to the sounds of her waking friends all about her. A sleepy yawn here, a warm greeting there, an indignant yell and pained yowl from the side. It could hardly be more perfect - to be surrounded by dear friends at the cusp of the most important day of their lives, to share the dawning of such a momentous day together in such a fashion.

This is it , she considered as she donned the HTT shirt over her shoulders, letting the slightly oversized T-shirt hang loosely over her frame. It was tasteful, simple and most importantly, actually a proper representation of their merry little band; a bright, five pointed star signifying the five brightly beaming members. Light, cheery colours for the light and energetic songs they played; large, block letters emblazoned above it all in homage to the very activity that brought them all together within the clubroom each day. Her grin broadened as she soothed the fabric, feeling both proud and grateful to be a part of this band.

This is it! She whooped in glee as they all ran towards the auditorium, excitement spilling out into laughter as she kept pace with her bandmates. The last of their instruments have long since been moved over and it was still at least a whole half hour before they were even expected backstage, making the run back from the clubroom more for fun than anything. It was an expression of joy, a release of nervous tension, and a battle cry all at once. It was a signal to everyone, band members or not, that this was the runway towards the best concert of their lives, and nothing was going to stand in the way of them charging forward to bring the roof down on their humble school.

This is it, she noted as she gazed in wonder, as it became clear that they were not the only ones who sought to make this performance one to remember. As the maroon curtains opened to the sight of a sea of white shirts and eager faces, she found herself utterly floored. Gratitude and joy nearly overwhelm her in the moment, and it becomes a battle to retain her calm as she readies herself for the opening act.

This is it , she muttered as she sucked in a deep breath. The seconds slowed to a crawl, until all that indicated the passage of time was the rush of blood in her ears and the dull thud of her heart in her chest. A shiver ran down her spine - not in fear, but in anticipation. Already she can feel the ghost of the movements that she is supposed to make, as if her body itself were raring to go, with or without her input. Then the countdown rang out and years of muscle memory and practice took over, and the stage shook with the power of their music.

This is it, she told herself when the last of their notes echoed down the hall, making the place erupt into thunderous cheer. It was an explosive cacophony of sound and noise, the loudest she has ever heard; ranging from high pitched screams to dull roars, but all expressing joy one and the same. She can’t help the goofy grin that plastered itself onto her face, nor the triumphant shout that she gave in answer to the audience. That her fellow band members joined in her celebration bolstered her, until she nearly shouted her vocal chords raw from the effort.

This is it, she sighed satisfaction as she slumped down against the wall once back within the quiet and familiar confines of the clubroom. There was still a distinct buzzing under her skin, and her mouth followed the pull of her nerves as adrenaline continued to pulse through her veins. She joined the others in laughter, both relieved and amazed by the success of their performance. Not a single person went off-beat or out of tune, and everyone had been in complete sync throughout it all. Pride welled within her; they had come a long way, and if this was what they were already capable of then their future would be bright indeed.

This is it, a voice within quietly reminded her as she finally took in reality. The future meant that time would march on, and there would no longer be another chance to repeat the magic that they made today.

This is it, she stammered, the words seemingly sucking the life out of her. Her head suddenly became too heavy to hold up, and her chest tightened painfully in response. Joy turned to yearning, and laughter turned to sobs as her emotions spilled over. She does not want this, she realised; she doesn’t want her time here to end. The people within this room have become precious to her, their shared love for music now a centerpiece of her life. Their music was now a part of her, and their memories together a treasure. That time would be so cruel, so unfair; she could not accept it. Sadness pierced her heart like a lance and paralyzed her limbs, until all she could do to save herself from being swept under was to hold onto the others for dear life. She chased the warmth within the others with a fervour, reaching for them like they were the last bits of flotsam amidst rocky waters. She wept loudly and openly with everyone; grieving for the time-limit imposed on them, for the uncertainty ahead, for the ending of an era.

Eventually, it all proved too much. The lack of sleep, the day’s activities, the torrent of emotions roiling within. Exhaustion quickly took over, and soon the five girls found themselves unable to fight the magnetic pull of sleep. Their eyes slid shut as they remained as an untidy, huddled pile on the floor, nobody daring to move away for fear of losing the affirming warmth they each provided. In the resounding silence of the clubroom, each girl made one last, silent wish before they drifted off into slumber; their fingers intertwined with another’s all the while.

Oh God, if you could, please give us some more time.

In the end, as time continued to march on and the finality of graduation loomed ever nearer, four senior girls collectively came to a decision.

Their connection had proven too precious, too valuable to lose to the whims of time. None wanted to tangle with the possibility of growing up without the others around, nor leave such a thing to chance. Thus, rather than wait for a miracle, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

It was not going to be easy; their chosen target had a tough entrance exam and was famous for its selectivity and stringent requirements. And for two girls in particular, they may as well have been shooting for the moon. Their grades were never spectacular to begin with, and studying had always felt like a chore rather than a habit. Combined with their seeming lack of academic talent compared to their other compatriots within the band, they had their work cut out for them. Still, they had deemed the daunting, monumental obstacle to be one worth the pain - because the alternative of going their separate ways was worse.

The remaining two girls, for whom academics had never really been too big a problem, felt that they had the arguably harder task. It was one thing to have to rise to the challenge of a highly selective and difficult entrance exam, it was another to help someone else do so. All while grappling with the knowledge that there was always going to be a possibility that their best efforts to help would not be enough. If going their separate ways was painful, then failing to keep their friends together would leave them gutted.

There was also the unspoken question of whether the two were deliberately hamstringing themselves, choosing a private university over that of the national ones. One more so than the other, given the wide range of options that had originally been available and part of her consideration.

“You really did it.” Mio stopped at the voice behind her. The soles of her indoor shoes squeaked against the varnished wood, echoing down the quiet corridor of the faculty wing. She should have known that this would not escape the girl’s notice. Not that Mio was trying to hide it in particular, but the bassist had hoped for a little bit of privacy, before she would announce the decision to the rest later in the day. “You forfeited the recommendation.”

Ritsu stood in the middle of the hallway, hands tucked into the pockets of her skirt. Her tone was not accusatory or hostile. Rather, it was a mixture of awe, disbelief, resignation and worry.

“Yeah.”

There was a stilted quality to the follow-up question. “You really won’t worry that it’s going to hold you back?”

Mio sighed. The decision was already made, so questioning this was pointless. It wasn’t as if she made this choice on a whim to begin with. The drummer herself had been privy to the steps that led to this, and was aware of how this fit into the greater plan the bassist had for herself. Though, she could hardly fault the shorter girl for her reaction - Mio had literally just let go of a golden ticket and turned down an opportunity most girls in her position would kill for. Talking about it and actually doing it were two different things, after all.

Nonetheless, the lefty did not miss the unspoken sentiment behind the question. She marched back toward the drummer and flicked her in the forehead. Hard.

“I thought I told you to stop putting yourself down.” She scolded.

“I know, I know…”

Her gaze softened. “Besides, I need to keep my half of an important promise. So you better make sure you keep your half, got it?”

The drummer answered with a determined grin. “I’m dragging myself through those gates with you guys, come hell or high water. So bet on it, my princess.”

Thus, four girls tackled the monumental task they laid out for themselves; in pursuit of joy, love, and a dream. Forget waiting for a miracle, they were pulling out all the stops to make one themselves.

Come one fine winter day - through a combination of blood, sweat, tears and a heap of prayer - their miracle would come to fruition.

Chapter 9

Chapter Text

Eyes scanned the open trunk that was splayed across the floor. “Outerwear; check.”

Another sweep, and the eyes rested on a mismatched pair of sling bags hanging on a rack. “Day bags and travel guides; check.”

A hand patted the small pouch that dangled on the door. “Passport and tickets; check.”

“Shoes-” A pause as Azusa’s gaze lingered over the gaping hole amidst a pile of neatly packed clothes within her luggage. “Not check. Right.” She let out a sigh to no one in particular. A quick glance at the wall clock told her it was almost time for dinner.

The young guitarist had spent the better part of her day packing. Like the organised, meticulous one she was, it involved a systematic, almost religious adherence to her colour-coded packing list peppered liberally with colourful sticky tabs. And because she absolutely hated getting anything wrong, there was a lot of mumbling as she padded about the house to locate and retrieve the various items in question. The day had seen the petite girl repeatedly muttering under her breath and crossing off items on the list that she had taped to her desk next to a printout of her itinerary. So engrossed was she that she failed to notice the coloured sticky tabs that had caught onto her locks and shirt; her dark hair and plain pyjamas becoming an unintentional riot of colour as she moved about the Nakano home leaving coloured paper trails in her wake. Her parents merely curled their lips in silent amusem*nt as their only daughter continued her task, unaware that she had essentially become a mobile art piece for the day. Oh, she’d pout and confront them for not telling her about it later, but their daughter’s embarrassed ire would be worth it in exchange for watching her laser focus juxtaposed with a playful accident.

The trip was only days away now; the big red circle on her calendar was a constant reminder of it. She could feel her heart skipping as the time between now and the day closed in. In a matter of days, she would be on the other side of the world, immersed in a place with a totally different culture. A place brimming with people who spoke a wildly different language, one that was the bane of every Japanese student at some point in their school life. A place which would look and smell and feel nothing like her home. And she would navigate its streets, see its sights and breathe its very air with the company of friends, no adults present. Just her, them and the streets of London. Perhaps it was silly, brimming with this much nervous energy for what was essentially a holiday with friends.

But this wasn’t just a holiday. This was so much more, was it not? It was a trip to celebrate her seniors’ completion of a rite of passage, a celebration of their high school journey. A culmination of three years worth of memories and adventures in a little music room at the top of the stairs; for what better way to commemorate something like that than making even more special memories in a foreign land?

And not just any foreign land. London. The veritable land of classic rock, the place where many of her own favored music icons hailed. The city oozed with a storied history with music and a kind of charm that she only wished she could experience within her home. Mugi-senpai and her never-ending tea sets may provide a posh and classy look, but Azusa knew better than to indulge in fantasies of elegant ballrooms and refined butlers alongside a seemingly endless supply of high-end teas.

She let out a small giggle of excitement at the thought of simply being able to walk down the busy streets, drinking in the feel of just being in a different place. Of course, her excitement would need to be tamped down significantly once she was actually there; there was no telling when - not if - something would go awry. Yui-senpai might wander off, Mio-senpai might freak out over something, Ritsu-senpai might get obnoxiously loud, and Mugi-senpai was a wildcard whose lot fell any way between the three. And with the exception of the keyboardist and bassist, Azusa was certain that her remaining seniors were likely unable to speak or understand even a single, coherent sentence in English.

No adults be damned, I’m going to have to do double-duty as team mom, don’t I?

It was a pain, but at least it was one she chose. With someone reliable on watch, her seniors would have the room to freely enjoy their extensive itinerary, cobbled together after an extended planning session which saw them arguing for hours over which sights to see. And what an extensive one it was; its contents could likely rival one of those tour packages the travel agency had offered.

Better still, it came with contingencies - mostly courtesy of Azusa herself. Wet weather plans, locations of eateries near their intended sightseeing destinations, detailed routes that led to and from their hotel. She printed copies of the document, labelling each one with the names of her seniors. Her own copy was annotated with even more information - locations of pharmacies and general stores, alongside a list of English names of common items that they might need to replace. And right atop it all, was her supplementary packing list. A list of spares to pack should anything be forgotten.

A spare travel adapter if Yui-senpai recklessly plugged in a device, a spare phone cable if Ritsu-senpai tried to hog Mio-senpai’s again, smaller currency denominations if Mugi-senpai didn’t have the time to split hers, a charge-splitter for Yui-senpai to share, a bag of travel snacks because Yui-senpai was sure to go hungry on the plane, a spare copy of the itinerary because lord knew Yui-senpai might misplace-

The heat surged to her cheeks anew as she noted that a good portion of her list was basically just herself on Yui-watch, London edition. Azusa pinched the bridge of her nose.

I guess… this is what it’s like if someone is important.

There had been no new developments, no other earth-shattering conversations between them ever since the fateful night in the school bathroom. Exam fever had gripped them all soon after the festival ended, which left little time for things like feelings and unresolved questions. Azusa could only feel annoyed at herself for allowing their conversation to end back then without actually addressing the root of the issue. Though, to be fair to herself, she had not been at her best either. She had only just come to realize what the root issue was hours before that incident in the bathroom; surely she should be more merciful in her self-critique.

Her chest twinged painfully. The time they had together - with Yui-senpai, with everyone - was drawing to a close soon. And while the trip was exciting and new and something to enjoy, there was no denying the looming sense of finality that came with it. A few days of absolute high points, and then it would just be a handful of days before graduation.

And her days of light music, hot tea, sweet cakes and warm hugs would end.

Azusa shook her head violently, desperate to disperse the dense fog of sadness that threatened to wash her away. She wouldn’t. She promised herself. This was their time, her seniors’ time. She would not ruin their final days of high school by becoming a moody downer. She would let those tears fall once her seniors had their diplomas in hand and took their steps out of the school gates for the last time. Until then, she would live in the present and enjoy whatever time was still hers to have.

And maybe, just maybe, she might find the chance to resolve this issue.

Wiping the ghost of tears away from her eyes, she dragged herself back to the present moment. Her luggage wasn’t going to pack itself, and there was little point crying while she had a trip to London to look forward to.

Her attention was drawn to a pair of shoe boxes she had retrieved. One contained her trusty leather boots; a plain, light brown pair with a modest wedge heel. It was her usual go-to choice for travel footwear, as the sturdy material and soft in-soles provided great support for long walks. But the leather was very faded and creased, and the soles were losing their treads. It could probably last her one more trip, but the thought of wearing these old boots to London was slightly off-putting.

The other box housed a brand-new pair of flats with a generous in-sole, purchased during a recent shopping trip. It bore a fresh sheen and clean look, but the material was still stiff and tough. This pair certainly won in appearance and would complement all her packed outfits well, but the stiff heel would not be kind to her when walking for long distances.

The choice should be obvious.

But…

She shook her head. This was London . Surely, she should at least try to impress the place. The last thing she wanted was for the English to think she looked shabby. Plus, she had her seniors to match. If their messages were anything to go by, the rest were certainly packing and bringing their best.

Azusa felt the flash of jitters return and the pressure mount. Hastily, she shoved the newer box into her luggage and zipped it shut.

She’ll manage.

A group of teenage girls huddled around the dining table, hands primed and at the ready.

Before them were five slightly tattered strips of paper enclosed by a fist. The room was silent, and its occupants watched the paper strips in anticipation. Not a single one dared move from their spots, and the air was heavy with a palpable sense of urgency; a tension so dense it tingled on the skin like electricity. The girls, gleefully focused on the task at hand, kept their senses trained on the papers before them.

At least, most of them were.

“I don’t see why you couldn’t have done this yourselves…”

“It’s to prevent cheating Nodoka-chan!” Came Yui’s cheery reply, but her eyes remained trained on the strips in said person’s fist. Eager fingers twiddled in anticipation.

“Indeed, this is a matter of utmost importance. Your neutrality is much appreciated and needed, Nodoka.” Mugi supplied sagely; a look of intense concentration on her face.

A quiet groan soon followed. “I fail to see how this is something one can even cheat at…”

“Hush Nakano, you’re going to ruin the feng shui with that negativity.”

“What does feng shui even have to do with this?!”

“Can we just get on with it?” Mio sighed, rolling her eyes.

“All right then, pick your papers.” Nodoka instructed, and five hands reached forward. Once each person had settled on their choice, Nodoka gave a signal and released her grip.

The room quickly filled with chatter that shattered the - admittedly lighthearted - tension.

“Looks like you’re with us, Mugi.” The drummer gave the blonde a bright grin, waving a blue tipped strip of paper.

Mugi returned with an enthused, triumphant smile as she held up a matching paper strip. “I look forward to it!”

“Azu-nyan! We’re going to be room buddies!” The twin-tailed girl found herself enveloped in an enthusiastic hug, knocking an unmarked paper strip out of her fingers. Ears flushing red, the younger girl reluctantly tried to pry her senior off, to no avail.

Azusa squawked. “Yui-senpai!”

“Room buddies!”

Mio shook her head lightly. “Did we really need to do this just for rooming arrangements? We could have done this over the phone, you know.”

“Nope, but this is way more fun isn’t it?” Ritsu replied, shooting Mio a wink. Leaning over towards the bassist's ear, she continued softly with a wry smirk. “And don’t act so tough. I know you’re very happy with the result.” The bassist sputtered, hastily stuffing her blue-tipped paper strip into her pocket. A textbook tsundere move, but Ritsu wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“… Can I go now?” Nodoka interjected with a deadpan voice, arms folded in mild annoyance.

“Ehhh but you haven’t even had Mugi-chan’s cake with us yet…” Yui whined, arms still wrapped around her flushed and very exasperated junior.

“I only came over because you texted that it was an emergency!”

“It was!”

The bespectacled girl looked torn between retorting and giving up.

Ui patted Nodoka’s shoulder in sympathy. “I really apologise for the trouble…”

“Hey Ritsu.” Mio started.

“Yeah?” The drummer replied absently as her eyes remained glued to her manga, her body stretched out across the floor while her free hand reached for another cracker on the plate beside her.

“Should we tell Mugi?”

It was days before their scheduled flight to London, and Mio was slated to have a regular dinner at the Tainaka house. She had left her home in good spirits, looking forward to the results of Tainaka-san’s turn in the kitchen.

Ritsu was by no means a bad cook, but her mother put the drummer’s skills to shame. A genius before the stove, her dishes were always a treat for both the eyes and the palette.

And even more so ever since the two girls had broken the news to her about their new development all those weeks ago. While her initial reaction had been one of concern, she had taken things in a surprisingly good stride. Within a matter of minutes after the solemn discussion had ended, the Tainaka matriarch had managed to make Mio feel completely at home as she always did. First through her hosting, and after that through her culinary skills.

Tonight’s dinner had been no different; a sumptuous treat that filled the belly and warmed the soul. Once the necessary cleanup had concluded, the two girls retreated to the comfort of Ritsu’s room.

“What do you mean?” Ritsu asked, eyes shifting from the open manga pages to meet Mio’s. The raven-haired girl was deep in thought, brows pulled into a slight frown as she pondered hard. Her slender legs had been drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her knees as she rested her chin on them. Dark locks flowed over her shoulders, framing the sides of her smooth face. Next to her, a pair of earbuds lay strewn across the floor, its owner having abandoned them in her contemplation.

A typical pose, Ritsu told herself. Just Mio sitting on the floor of her room.

But it was Mio .

Girl couldn’t stop looking good even if she tried.

Said girl continued, mumbling with uncertainty. “I mean she is sleeping with us…”

The drummer felt the familiar urge to quip, to break through that look of consternation that was written all over her features. A choice comment, teasing the bassist for the sheer suggestiveness of that remark, and the warm amusem*nt she would feel from watching her sputter in embarrassment.

But another look at the bassist’s face pushed the rising urge back. Her grey eyes were slightly downcast, and she had begun chewing on her bottom lip as her statement trailed off.

Ritsu bit back whatever quip she wanted to make.

“Yes, she is.” She replied slowly, urging Mio to continue.

“Won’t she figure out that we’re…”

“Together?” Ritsu finished. Cheeks flushing nearly crimson, Mio nodded meekly and hid her face behind her knees. The drummer felt her heart tug slightly. Putting the manga aside, she scooted across the floor and plopped herself next to the brooding bassist.

“What do you want to do?” Ritsu asked quietly as she ran her fingers through the long tresses. Mio had progressed by leaps and bounds over the years, but at her core she was always going to be the less daring one between them. The one that preferred to have as much information as possible before she deemed to take a step forward, the one that erred on the side of caution at the first sign of risk. And now having to explore the wonderful but uncharted territory between them, Ritsu had wisely surmised that it was generally better to let Mio decide on the approach first. While she had grown to be able to catch up to whatever forward charge the drummer believed in, it would always be smoother if the bassist was the one that set the direction beforehand. The last thing she wanted was for Mio to have a knee-jerk reaction that sent her into a worried spiral, or worse still, closed her off.

Of course, if there was a pressing need to move forward, Ritsu would answer the call of her second-nature readily.

But not yet.

So Ritsu waited. Gentle, calloused hands played absently with the bassist’s hair, the strands sliding smoothly through the drummer’s fingers. Mio’s hair care routine was a juggernaut compared to her own, but she could never argue with the results. Soft, smooth and undeniably silky; running one’s fingers through the dense expanse could easily become its own form of therapy.

One that was restricted solely to Ritsu and anyone else Mio deemed fit, of course.

“We should probably tell her…” Mio trailed off.

“But?”

“Will she get mad?”

Ritsu raised an eyebrow. “Why would she get mad?”

“I mean it’s been some time. Don’t you think she would be upset that we didn’t tell her sooner? That they all would be?”

“Mio, you’ve met Mugi right? And Yui? Hell, Azusa still practically worships the ground you walk on.” The drummer said, voice slightly incredulous.

“Doesn’t mean they can’t get upset. Plus, we don’t know what they really think of… y’know.”

That… was something she couldn’t fully deny.

Their experience with breaking the news to their parents had been tough. Days were spent agonizing over whether the idea of informing them was even a good one, let alone how to do so. And when they finally did, having to endure the volleys of questions nearly made Ritsu collapse from the pressure.

Her own mother – boisterous, blunt and unrelenting – had ironically been the easiest to inform out of the bunch, and even then Ritsu could not stop herself from sweating bullets when she answered her mother’s concerns.

Mio’s soft-spoken father, on the other hand, had answered with a stunned silence that froze both girls to their seats. He eventually came around, but it took days of walking on eggshells for the situation in the Akiyama household to finally settle back to what it once was.

So as much as Ritsu believed that her band-mates were the most understanding and supportive people she had ever met, there was truly no telling when it came to matters like this.

“Then why not wait till after we come back?” She suggested.

Mio let out a tired sigh, letting her shoulders slump. “I guess I’m just tired of having to keep it a secret. I don’t want to spend the entire trip worrying if anything would tip them off. Plus, they’re our friends. They deserve to know.”

Raising her eyes to lock with Ritsu’s own, she added. “And… I guess I just want to be able to enjoy being with you as freely as possible.” The statement was uttered with such plain, simple sincerity that the drummer found herself unable to respond. Ears burning, the brunette averted her gaze. Mio chuckled slightly despite herself. Scooting closer to Ritsu, she leaned her head against the drummer’s shoulders, soaking in the feel of the drummer’s solid warmth against her.

“You look cute when you’re shy, Ritsu.” She teased.

Ritsu’s response was to simply blush even harder, squirming under the teasing gaze of Mio. “Aw come on, this is way more fun when it’s happening to you.” She whined, shooting Mio a disgruntled pout. The expression sent Mio into a giggling fit, washing away the tension in her shoulders. At the sound of the bassist’s lilting laughter, Ritsu’s pout dissolved into a gentle smirk.

“Well,” Ritsu answered. “I can’t say I disagree with what you’re feeling. I’m kinda tired of tiptoeing around the others too.” She slung her arm around Mio’s shoulder, and buried her nose into the dark tresses. The faint scent of lavender wafted into her nostrils, sending a wave of relaxation through her.

“And I'll be honest… there’s something very appealing about doing couple things in a place that’s not our homes for a change.”

That earned her a mild look of warning. “Behave, Ritsu. Mugi is sharing the room with us.”

“But she won’t be there all the time.” The drummer’s grin was turning sly. She brought her lips close to the bassist’s ear. “Don’t tell me you don’t find sneaking a cuddle here and there to be tempting?”

Credit to the raven-haired girl’s improved mettle, she held her ground. Though, judging by the rising blush creeping onto her face, it was proving to be a challenge. Ritsu chuckled lightly; an embarrassed Mio never failed to be endearing. And with the little reversal that got pulled on her earlier, the drummer found herself aiming for a little bit of payback.

“C'mon Mio…” Ritsu pressed a little further, drawing the name out in a teasing whisper and tugging the other girl to bring their noses level with one another. Amber eyes bore into grey. “It’s you and me in London . We could hold hands down cobbled streets, share a hug by Abbey Road. Or better yet…”

A shudder ran down the bassist’s spine, and at this distance there was no missing the hitch in her breath.

Grinning, Ritsu went in for the kill. “Kiss under the shadow of the Big Ben.”

Their contact breaks with a bang, and Akiyama Mio all but flies out of the side-hug, dissolving into a flustered panic.

“Y-you! T-t-that’s!” The rest of her scandalised tirade is buried under incoherent noises, made more muffled by her determination to shove her face into her own knees.

“Oh? So you don’t want those things?”

“No! I mean yes! I mean-!” The blush reached new levels as Mio registered her words, and Ritsu had to let out a whistle at the extent of the implosion that was occurring before her. Mirth filled her mind as she bore witness to Mio - cool, ever elegant, poised Mio - reduce herself into a sputtering mess. That the reversal managed to draw out more of the girl’s desires just made the moment that much sweeter.

Even if it was predictable - the drummer wouldn't have pushed those buttons otherwise - hearing the raven-haired girl express the extent of her affections, even if completely by accident, would never fail to stir up waves of warmth within.

And it was that wave of affection that eventually won over the sense of entertainment. Deciding that she had put the bassist through enough teasing, she reached over to run her fingers through the girl’s hair anew.

“Alright alright, I’ll stop teasing.” She intoned, injecting as much sincerity into her words as much as possible. She received a garbled grunt that suggested that her sentiments were not quite on their way to being accepted, so the drummer continued. “I’m flattered, I really am.” Ritsu chuckled lightly. “But if it makes you uncomfortable at all, I won't force it. You know that, right?”

Pranks, faux-horror stories and general tomfoolery were still going to be exempt from that statement, as one could hardly expect Tainaka Ritsu of all people to give up on trolling her oldest and closest friend. But this deeper connection between them, one made up of the magnetic swells of emotional affection and the simmering fires of physical touch, born from the highs and lows of the better part of a decade; this, Ritsu had long ago deemed to be sacred.

Because Hell would freeze over before she would allow this particular layer of trust to be broken by her own idiocy.

Mio’s embarrassment faded at this declaration, and Ritsu flashed a bashful grin once the bassist raised her head. She wasn’t completely calmed yet; her legs were still tucked close to her chest and her face was still noticeably flushed. But she had deemed eye contact possible once more, and that was a sure sign to Ritsu that her sincerity had reached where it needed to.

They sat in silence for a while, Ritsu occupying herself with Mio’s hair, the latter riding out the remnants of her embarrassment. But, as quickly as the silence descended, the air changed with a shift in the bassist’s shoulders.

Ritsu prided herself as one well-versed in the body language of Mio. It was the result of experience and eventually necessity; the girl had developed a rather mean left hook over the years. Coupled with the drummer’s own nature as a creature of impulse and general trickery, it was all-too-crucial for Ritsu to develop an eye for Mio-movements and changes.

So when the shy, embarrassed, curled up lump of a girl suddenly squared her shoulders, Ritsu knew that the bassist must have come to a decision.

What she ended up hearing from said girl, however, ground her brain to a halt. “... could you repeat that?” She muttered.

Steel grey eyes held their ground. “I said... you better make sure it happens, Ritsu.”

The tables turned for the third time that day, and this time, Ritsu was more than okay with it.

A year ago, if someone were to ask Mio what her favourite song was from their band, she would have considered the question a somewhat difficult one. She loved all their songs, no doubt, but conventional wisdom stated that there always would be a preferred one amongst a collection.

“Fuwa Fuwa Time” was the first piece they ever composed together, and the very first song to adopt her own penned lyrics. The bass line was nothing particularly difficult to play, and while the opening slide was charming in itself, the song was ultimately a relatively simple affair for the rhythm section. It would always hold a special place in her heart as their debut piece, but Mio could not truly name it as her favourite.

“Curry Nochi Rice”, “Ichigo Parfait ga Tomaranai” and “Gohan wa Okazu” had far more energetic bass lines; any one was a go-to pick for solo practice whenever she needed to warm her fingers up on her trusty Elizabass. She loved these pieces for their upbeat rhythm and slightly aggressive sound, not to mention the fun echoes and calls they incorporated into the song structure. Those portions of these songs never failed to get her pumped during a performance, and breathed energy and life into her as she played. Still, as fast-paced and powerful as these songs were, none would be picks for her absolute favourite.

“Honey Sweet Tea Time” and “Pure Pure Heart” would rank high on the list of ‘refreshing’ pieces for her, because Mugi’s skill as a composer and keyboardist truly shone through these titles. Hearing the blonde deftly carry the musical hooks made the pieces stand out in comparison to the rest of their repertoire. Not to mention how amazing it was to hear her sing - both through harmonising with Mio and as an actual lead vocalist. That her written hooks complimented the bass lines well merely made the pieces that much more enjoyable to play. Yet, they also would not be choices for Mio’s favourite.

“Tokimeki Sugar” and “Samidare 20 Love” were the more bass-heavy songs within their collection and were the most difficult ones for her to perform. These were the ones that she had to warm up extensively for, and she would never allow for either to be the first songs within any set they played live. Having to manage the more complex bass lines while having to sing was challenging, and thus she often preferred these pieces to be placed in the middle towards the ends of their setlists. Ritsu had once described these songs as “the most Mio songs Mio has ever Mio-ed into existence.” While she had let the drummer know exactly how much she appreciated having her name become a noun, verb and adjective all at once, she could not help but agree with the sentiment. Their iconic bass lines were ones that she was exceptionally proud of, and she will never not secretly feel like a musical god after successfully finishing either song. As such they ranked very high with her, but neither would still end up taking top spot in her heart.

“U&I” would probably be the penultimate piece of the band - a result of all their accumulated experience with composition and with one another. With a combination of melodious solos and passionate lyrics born from a moment of actual adversity, there was an undeniable magic within the piece that made the song a show-stealing crowd pleaser among their schoolmates. Mio would hazard a guess that it ended up becoming a favourite among their peers. Still, as much as the piece was powerful as it was a joy to perform, Mio still would not be able to choose it as her favourite.

As for “Fuyu no Hi”, the less said about the circ*mstances behind that song, the better. Still, as embarrassing as the context behind the song’s creation was, it would ultimately end up as one of Mio’s guilty pleasures. The resulting composition was fun, swing-like and almost christmas-y in its tone - all things Mio could appreciate. But a guilty pleasure still did not make it an all-time favourite, and she both anticipated and dreaded the day where Ritsu would try to make her sing those lyrics to her face.

That left “Watashi no Koi wa Hotchkiss” and “Fude Pen, Ball Pen” as the remaining candidates. These were the slightly slower, more mellow songs within their collection. Closer to the rock ballads that she listened to, her love of the genre showed strongly within these two compositions. The bass lines were not very complex, their beat placement relatively standard, and the main guitar riffs nowhere near the level of technical difficulty some of their other pieces had. But the mood that the songs conjured, the tinge of melancholy underneath, and the nostalgia that the choruses stirred up; these were the things that made the two pieces stand out above the rest to her.

So, how would she choose between the two?

A year ago, the choice would have been less easy to articulate. But now? She need only think back to whenever they played it. The hush in the silence preceding the piece. The hitch in her breath in anticipation of the countdown. The skip of her heart as sticks click together.

The surge of power when the drums open the song.

It’s the only piece among their set that opens with Ritsu’s signature vigour and strength, while also giving her a chance to show off her skills. Sometimes, just because the drummer could, the iconic opening fill would be further embellished, just to sell her excitement that much more. And no matter how many times Mio has heard it, not once has that opening ever failed to send her mind into a rush. It kickstarts her engines instantly, filling her to the brim with an infectious energy that lets her fire on all cylinders from the get go.

What more could she really say? Like Ritsu, Mio too, was a sucker for dotted rhythms.

And whenever she looks back, both to stay in sync and to keep Ritsu’s fervour in check, she is always witness to the widest, brightest expression of glee on the drummer’s face.

So really, the choice was always going to be obvious.

Mio smiled to herself, scooting ever closer to the one beside her. In a few more hours, they would all be on their way to London. Excitement and adventure awaited. Thus, in order to prepare herself adequately to soak everything in, ample rest was going to be necessary.

And if that rest could be bolstered by letting the scent of a certain auburn-haired girl fill her nose and lull her to sleep; then, all the better, no?

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  1. Pachinkogirlon Chapter 1Sat 18May 202405:11PM UTC

    OH MY GOD. NO WAY. NO WAY. NOOOOOO WAYYYYYY

    I remember reading this fic about a year ago and absolutely losing my mind over how good it was. As a mitsu fan#2, who has read every single canonverse mitsu fic to ever exist (in English and my native language anyway), I have no idea how it managed to fly under my radar for so long. I didn't know it was unfinished, so I was left with the biggest hole a story has ever left me with when I saw the last update was years ago. I coped so hard knowing there will not be any continuation. There is like a hundred trillion to one chance something like this could even happen. Not only finished, but rewritten too, as far as I see? That's just nuts, I'm gonna thrown up.

    Geniunely have never been more excited to read something in my life. Eternal glory to you! Long live the K-on fandom! Hellll yeahhhhh going absolutely crazy clinically insane yeaaaaaahhhh

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