Forever friendzoned - the story of Chiaki's life.
That winter was the very first time in my life when I wrecked my brain over what present I should get for a girl.
It was morning in the practice room of the Folks Music Club. Due to the drum set and the amplifiers, there was barely any space left in the room even though only Chiaki and I were in it. The air outside was chilling to the bones, but it was really warm inside of here.
The other two girls should be here soon, right? — I thought to myself as I stared at the bundled short hair swaying between the cymbals. There was no way I could ask Mafuyu, whom I will be giving the present to, for ideas. Also, I had no intention of consulting Senpai since it would definitely pique her interest.
However, when I had finally decided to discuss it with Chiaki, she asked me this question instead: "Haa? Present?". She then threw a punch in my direction.
"What was that for......"
I rubbed my head gingerly as I picked up the fallen bass.
"What's the present for? Come on, say it again."
Asked Chiaki as she puffed at her fist. Who would have the guts to answer you? However, I was forced to answer in stutters as Chiaki's gaze was becoming sharper and sharper.
"Well, as I was saying, Mafuyu's birthday's coming soon......"
Another blow. Just as I had expected.
"Unbelievable! You shouldn't be approaching me for that if there's even an ounce of sensitivity in you!"
"Eh? But...... I mean, I do know Chiaki's preferences are vastly different from Mafuyu's, but I have no idea who else I can approach."
"That's not what I meant!"
The third blow. I was getting dizzy already. Chiaki gave a "hmmph" and began to tune the snare drum. I gave a sigh and plugged my bass into the amplifiers. What was going on here? Did I say something to piss her off?
"Geez! Nao, stop thinking of all those pointless stuff and begin our practice! Time is precious, you know?"
"I get it......" Guess I'll leave the issue about the present for later. It was rare for Chiaki to come to school together with me early.
I placed the strap on my shoulder and gripped tightly the neck of the bass. The remnants of the heat from back then still lingered on the strings. I could even feel the sweat that flowed out from my fingertips before being absorbed by my palms.
It has been a week since the storm-like school festival. We were in the winter season now, so that made it hard for us to wake up early, but that did not stop me from doing the morning practice. That was because I realized how poor my physical endurance was during the live performance.
I barely made it past the two-hour long non-stop performances that was held for two consecutive days. I had already braced myself for it, but I guess that strange incident made my emotions run high all the time, and my body moved against my own will as though it was under the influence of some strange drug. However, after we were finished with the encore on the second day and my brain was drained of the drug, the student council came barging onto the backstage and said to Senpai.
"Kagurazaka, there's a whole lot of people outside who wanted to watch your performance but couldn't get in. Can you guys hold another performance during the kouyasai?" [TLNote: Kouyasai (後夜祭) is the event held at night on the last day of a festival, usually involving dancing near/around bonfires and other events]
Senpai agreed to it readily. Can you try imagining just how tragic that was when the wax of the candle was all burned up, and all that remained was the candle wick flickering faintly?
"Right, Nao's back looked really pitiful during the kouyasai." Seems like Chiaki remembered as well. And as she tuned the bass drum, she continued, "But Senpai was really happy though. She said you sounded like Springsteen."
"Though I changed into Mori Shinichi later on......" [TLNote: A famous enka singer]
"All the more reason for you to practice!"
Looks like Chiaki was still angry about the issue of the present. She stepped repeatedly on the pedals of the bass drum, and the bass notes gradually gained rhythm and transformed into a solid sixteen beat tempo as it interwove together with the beats of the floor tom. The door was still opened for air ventilation, you know...... oh well, she was restraining herself on the volume anyway.
I sighed to myself silently — it was incredibly difficult to drum continuously while keeping the volume down. She was getting more and more impressive. I had the feeling that I was left behind.
"Nao's singing sounded a little forced. Perhaps it's because you're playing the bass at the same time. It used to be much more straight-forward."
"That's some memory of yours......" She even remembered how I used to sing?
"How long do you think I've taken music lessons together with you?"
Chiaki and I have been classmates for the past ten years. Quite unbelievable, come to think of it. And ten years later, we even joined the same band.
"That's why you have to practice more to get your fingers accustomed to it. Your singing should become more natural once that happens."
I see. Come to think of it, she was actually drumming and chatting at the same time. Was that also because her hands were used to it after repeated practicing?
"Urm, where should I begin our practice? Which phrase?"
"How should I know? Don't depend on me for things like that!"
She was right. I regretted it the moment I asked her that question. Chiaki puffed up her cheeks, and all these while her limbs did not stop their tasks of sketching out the tempo.
"Even if it's me, there's no way I'll know every single thing about Nao."
"Then how much do you know?"
I almost fell forward at the sudden voice from behind my back. When I turned around, my nose almost came into contact with the maroon colored hair — a pair of sapphire eyes appeared right before me. I froze on the spot as I stared intently at Mafuyu's face. Her nose and cheeks were slightly red, probably because she was walking to school in the cold winter air of the morning. When did she reach here? I never noticed her presence because of the continuous beats from the drums. Chiaki did not see her as well as her sight was blocked by my body — she stopped her hands with a surprised expression.
"Geez, give us a greeting if you're here already! Morning, Mafu-Mafu!" exclaimed Chiaki as she lifted the drum sticks into the air.
"...... Morning," Mafuyu shifted her gaze away from me in embarrassment. It was the same for me as well — my heart was pounding just from a brief exchange of sight.
That was because — it has only been a week since our live performance at the school festival.
"It's not a good habit to eavesdrop," came the voice of Chiaki.
"I was not!" Mafuyu shook her head hard, her hair dancing about in the air. "...... It was by accident!"
"H-How much of our conversation did you hear?" I was panicking. Did she hear about the present as well? Mafuyu frowned.
"...... Is there something you want to hide from me?"
"Eh? Ah, no, well......"
"I heard you and Chiaki talking about how you two have been attending music lessons together for years."
Thank goodness. So she heard our conversation only from then onwards.
"Why are you heaving a sigh of relief?"
Mafuyu's question caused my mind to go into panic mode once more. Why was she angry as well?
"You're always like this, Nao. Your thoughts will be reflected clearly on your face," came Chiaki's voice from behind me.
"I-Is that true?"
"You never noticed?"
Mafuyu dealt me a heavy blow when she said that. Chiaki gave a shrug.
"How can he possibly notice it? He's so dense, he would not even realize it if he is stung by a bee."
"That much I know."
"Even the amoebas possess more nerves than he does."
"That I know too."
What the hell did I do!?
"Earlier on, he even asked me about Mafuyu's pre-" "Whoaaa!" I stepped over the drums and clamped my hands on Chiaki's mouth. Please don't say that out loud!
"What? Is there something that I must not know?"
When I turned around, Mafuyu was putting on an expression as if she was interrogating me. Being forced into a corner with nowhere to run, the only thing I could do was to flap my arms about like a dying moth as I tried to come up with something that could satisfy her.
"Morning, my fellow comrades!"
Came a booming voice, and a tall silhouette appeared in the opened door. Kagurazaka-senpai strode leisurely into the practice room as her braided black hair fluttered in the air. She then closed the heavy door. I was saved. She might not know what was happening around here, but I was in a really bad situation.
"Hmm? Young man's about to kiss Comrade Aihara, so Comrade Ebisawa's trying to stop him?"
"No way!" "Not at all!" "Kyouko!"
Senpai removed her guitar case from her shoulder and placed it onto the floor. She then opened the door with a smile.
"In order not to interrupt you three, I'll leave the camcorder running and stay outside for about five minutes. Please continue."
"Hold on, hold on! What the heck are you here for? Let's begin our morning practice! You know, the morning practice!?"
I tried my hardest to make her stay.
"You need to practice kissing in the morning? I never expect you to be such an innocent guy. I see, I am willing to help you out."
"Why is Senpai thinking in that direction!? We are a band, are we not!?"
Senpai turned around, closed the door and lifted her index finger.
"We are no ordinary band, yeah? We are the black birds <feketerigó>, burning through the night with the flames of love, and ours wings will declare to the world the advent of dawn."
"Okay......" And so?
"If we ever get popular one day, and should someone request us to take part in a movie shoot, wouldn't it be problematic if we can't get the kissing scene right?"
"Why are you worrying about such pointless things?"
"On the side note, Comrade Ebisawa's pretty impressive when it comes to kissing," Senpai licked her lips.
"Kyouko~!" Mafuyu shrieked and slammed her fists hard onto the cymbals by her side. I was surprised by that. W-When did that happen!? Ah, no wait, could she be talking about what happened on the third day of our training camp?
"Geez! Music's our main focus!" Chiaki poked Senpai with the tip of the drum stick. "We should direct our attention to holding more live performances in order to get ourselves famous!"
"The reason why I love Comrade Aihara so much is because you'll always say the right things at the most crucial moment!"
"That trick of yours will only work twice a month at most!"
"How about if I throw in a hug and a kiss?"
"Hmm...... make it three times then."
What was with that conversation? Senpai walked past me with a smile and opened up the guitar case. The Les Paul was giving off a black luster.
"I am happy to see that everyone's flame is still burning. I thought young man was already burned to a crisp, and it would take you a while before you recover. Looks like you've steeled your heart already."
Senpai flashed a smile as she tightened the strings in a sultry manner.
"You will show me an unknown world in our next performance, and the many ones after that. Right?"
"We've already decided on our next performance?"
Asked Mafuyu as she swung her head around quickly. That was way beyond what I had expected. It looked like she was getting more and more into the live performances.
"No, not yet. I want to hold one more performance before the end of the year, but I wish to aim further. I have no intention of staying on the same spot."
"An even bigger stage?" asked Chiaki.
"That's right. At a place where we will receive no support from our audience."
Kagurazaka-senpai was someone who would not remain on the same spot forever. She was always aiming further and further. How far has she set her sights on? And can I really keep up to her pace?
Smiled Senpai as she took a brief glimpse at the small country which we are in.
"Even if we are stuck, we should be able to move forward as long as our hearts continue to beat in rhythm. Just like what young man did for Comrade Ebisawa back then."
The sound of a clatter came from behind me. I turned around and saw Mafuyu picking up the fallen chairs and amplifiers. She stole a glance at me, but her face turned even redder instead, so she moved her gaze away instead. I quickly turned my head towards my bass's amplifiers.
I played quite a few notes wrongly during that morning practice, and it was all because I noticed Mafuyu staring at me hesitantly through the corner of my eyes. Needless to say, my singing did not sound natural at all.
I could not shake off Mafuyu's gaze away from my mind even during class.
Ever since that incident—
The distance between us has shrunk.
I had no idea how much it was. But I was scared — scared that it was all just my wishful thinking. After the ending of the kouyasai, Mafuyu collapsed from exhaustion while she was packing things up, so I carried her to the infirmary. As there was no one around in the infirmary, I was left with no choice but to look after her (though all I did was to sit on the chair next to the bed). That hour was a great opportunity for me, but I screwed it up by chatting with her on music only. What the hell was I doing?
"That's right. What the hell were you doing, Nao?"
"You should have made a move on her back then! We thought you two would return hand in hand. What a huge disappointment that was."
The guys in my class surrounded me and blasted me with their insults. That happened in the changing room after the we were done with physical education, the fourth lesson of the day.
"Urm, sorry......." No wait, why was I apologizing?
"But you should have done something there, right?" "It's impossible for nothing to happen, right?"
"Urm...... Ah, right. Mafuyu hates Italian operas, just like I do."
"Who the hell is asking you that?" "Just be a music critic for the rest of your life!" "Damn it, is that thing between your legs a dud?"
Why was I scolded by everyone I met today? I really felt like crying.
"Nothing else? Like a date or something?"
My classmates were closing in on me like a pack of hungry wolves ready to pounce on a sheep. I finally revealed to them my intention of celebrating Mafuyu's birthday with her. In an instant, the eyes of everyone flared up like the pumpkins of Halloween. Whoa!
"What are you getting her, Nao?"
Why must I answer that question?
"I-I-It should be a ring first, right?" "That's way too fast, calm down! He should gift her a choker as his first present." "You should be the one who's calming down!" "How many months of salary do you have to burn to buy a choker?" "Not for the Princess, silly. It's for Nao!" "That's a good one!"
"No, well...... Sorry to interrupt while you guys are having such a passionate discussion on the matter...... but I have not made up my mind yet."
"Just die already, you indecisive bastard!" "It better end up in a tragedy!"
I shrunk my body and leaned myself in closely against the lockers. I want to hide somewhere. Please do not talk about this matter anymore. I had no idea why the guys were lashing out on me — for some reason unknown to me, everyone has assumed that Mafuyu and I were in that sort of relationship already. When did I ever say that?
"It's less than two weeks before her birthday, isn't that so? You better make up your mind quickly, Nao."
"Mmm...... wait, why do you guys know about her birthday?"
"Are you an idiot!? It's obvious we'll do some checking up on the birthday of a girl who is in the limelight!"
"The high-school's a long period of time. You never know what will happen."
"Though it has all happened to Nao."
"Damn it, I'm pissed. You should just die, Nao." It was not my fault!
"You can't even decide on a gift even with all the girls surrounding you."
"Mmm. I tried discussing it with Chiaki, but she rejected me."
I could sense the fury in everyone.
"You tried discussing with Aihara?" "About Princess' present?" "Are you for real?"
I shivered and nodded. In the next moment, I was beaten onto the floor. "This is for Aihara! And this is for me!" said one of the guys as he punched me twice on my stomach. The rest of the guys followed suit.
The dust danced in the air mixed with the smell of sweat and deodorant — I was left alone in the room, my body immobile from the pain I had suffered due to all the injuries on my body. The only thing I could do was to lie on my back and listen to the bell which signaled the end of lunch break, ringing from a place faraway.
Human beings are creatures who will reflect on what they've done wrong — so on that very night, I spent my time in my room thinking about the reason behind Chiaki and the guys' anger. We've been hanging around with each other for over ten years already, but I did not really know her very well. And that was even more true ever since we joined the band. I mean, we do know each other quite well if we were talking about the typical things. Take for example our birthdays.
Hmm. Birthday. Was that it? It was highly possible that she was angry because of that. Right, I'll get a present that is suitable for her then. Will that be okay? I wonder how late I am? I checked the calender on the desk and counted.
Urm...... it was way too late.
But I guess it was still better than nothing. Yup.
My mind was circling around the same thought for heaven knows how long.
After making up my mind, I walked quietly downstairs. Coming from the living room was Bach's Christmas Oratorio with Tetsurou listening to it in full blast. I sneaked carefully past the corridor and opened up the cabinet to draw out a record that was kept within it. I then wrapped it up with a blue wrapping paper from the department store.
Will she be happy with this? — I thought to myself naively. Come to think of it, I was really hopeless back then.
The next day, I saw Chiaki on the platform while I was waiting for the very first train, so I ran over to hand her the present. Chiaki's eyes opened wide when she received the present from me, her gaze wandering to-and-fro me and the present for about four times. She then asked,
"Urm, I'm ten months early, but it's your birthday present."
"This is the vinyl record of <Sgt.Peppers>, the UK version. You've been wanting this for a very long time already, isn't that so?"
"Eh? W-W-Why? And typically speaking, shouldn't you say that it's two months late?"
Chiaki's face alternated between red and white; her eyes widened for a brief moment, and then she blinked them repeatedly for a while. What a busy person she was.
"Why? You've never given me any birthday present."
"Were you not angry yesterday because of this?"
Her beet red face froze for a moment. And the next moment—
The scenery before my eyes flipped at the very same time I heard her furious roar. A violent impact greeted my back before I could even figure out what was going on.
The unbelievably blue winter sky appeared before my eyes, though half of it was covered up by the shelter of the train station. Pain shot through my head, my back was arcing upwards from the spasm. Just as I realized that I was tossed over by Chiaki, she popped her head over me.
"U-Unbelievable! I never expected you to be as stupid as this!"
In response to Chiaki's stomping attacks, I shielded my head with my arms and rolled about on the floor.
"S-Sorry. Urm, I never expect you to be that angry."
It looked like I had made a critical mistake. It took me a great deal of effort to finally get up. Chiaki was hugging the record tightly before her chest, staring at me fiercely as her shoulders heaved up and down to her breaths. Thank the heavens that there was no one else on the platform in the wee hours, or else it would be bad should anyone witness the scene earlier on.
"Moreover, you should know that the gramophone in my house is broken."
Come to think of it, it was just as she had said. I had visited her house several times to play, but I forgot all about it already.
"I'm sorry, I'll take it back......"
Chiaki slapped my hand away and hid the record behind her.
"I'm keeping this since you're giving it to me!" So do you want it or not? What on earth do you want?
Just then, the first train arrived in the station, so I quickly stepped back behind the white line. The back of my head was assaulted by the blaring sirens.
"You should think about my feelings as well!"
Yelled Chiaki with a voice comparable to the sound of the train, her face flushed red. The bunch of hair that she had tied up was flapping against her ears due to the wind. I did not step onto the train when the door opened as she was giving off an overbearing aura around her.
"Stupid Nao, you should just die!"
Chiaki's voice was cut off by the closing doors of the train. I could see the silhouette of her body through the windows, and it was getting further and further away from me. But I caught a glimpse of a glitter at the corner of her eyes.
Was she crying?
I squatted on the platform and tried my hardest to recall her voice and expressions until the next train arrived.
The frequency of the trains was very low. If I missed the first train, I would be twenty minutes late for school.
As the main gates were closed already, I entered the school through a side door instead. It would be awkward when I bump into Chiaki — just as I turned past a corner of the building while thinking of that, I heard a faint drumming sound.
It was the old, low-rise music block, huddled amid the shadows of the tall school buildings. There was a person squatting against the door of the room that was located furthest away between the buildings, her long maroon hair almost brushing against the ground. It was Mafuyu. What was she doing there?
Mafuyu greeted me softly by lifting her eyes to look at me. She hugged the guitar in her bosom.
I stopped at about three steps away from Mafuyu. Why was she waiting outside? Wasn't Chiaki in there? We turned our sight away right after we came into eye contact with each another. It has been the case ever since the school festival.
Was there something that you should be telling me?
Feels like Mafuyu was conveying that message to me from the corner of her eyes, but neither of us could touch upon that matter. It was the same for that morning as well. Instead, what I said to her was an ordinary question,
"Urm...... Chiaki should be inside, so why are you here?"
Mafuyu stared at me intently and heaved a deliberate sigh. A stinging sense of guilt and sadness was jammed up in my throat. She lowered her head and allowed her words to fall between her knees.
"Chiaki's angry, so I am waiting for her to cool down."
"S-She's angry? Did she say anything to you?"
Mafuyu shook her head.
"It's obvious from the sounds. The strength in the upbeats had disappeared. It will turn into this sort of uninteresting tempo whenever Chiaki's angry or anxious."
I was speechless. Can she tell that much just from the sounds of the drums alone?
"You never noticed? You are really dense......"
Mafuyu was giving off a look of resignation in my direction. Okay, I am dense, but that is another thing altogether, okay?
"Something happened? You were acting strangely yesterday as well."
Mafuyu stood up slowly and pulled her face towards mine.
"No, nothing. Urm......"
Chiaki's anger began when I wanted to discuss with her Mafuyu's birthday present, so it should be more or less related to Mafuyu as well, isn't it? But now's not the time for me to say it.
"Explain it to me properly."
"Urm, you see, uhh......"
"Why are you always like this?"
Mafuyu's voice and gaze stabbed their way deeply and painfully into my heart.
"If you do not say it properly...... I....... I am......" Mafuyu's furious voice was getting softer and softer, her gaze was sliding downwards along my body, "...... still waiting for you."
Waiting for me? Waiting for what?
No, of course she was waiting for my words. B-But I was not mentally prepared yet, and neither was I ready with the present, so now was not—
"Forget it. I get it." Mafuyu lifted her lowered head all of the sudden. "I'll ask Chiaki."
I was surprised even by my own voice. Mafuyu was shocked as well. She pressed her back against the door.
"Urm, I mean, well, urm, I made Chiaki angry...... probably. So I'll think of something and apologize to her."
That was right, it had to be me who spoke. It was the same for Mafuyu's present as well. All in all, asking for Chiaki's assistance was a mistake. It should be me to think about it and decide everything by myself.
And so, I pulled Mafuyu aside and grabbed onto the handle of the door.
"Nao! You are so freaking late! I've said this before, it would be faster if you run to school should you miss the first train, didn't I!?"
A furious roar came pouncing onto me the moment I opened the door. Thank goodness, it was the usual Chiaki — I heaved a sigh of relief for some unknown reason. That was really shameful of me.