Chapter 3, enjoy.
Before returning home, I briefly attended the celebration party to casually ask Tomo about the price of the tickets for the Christmas concert. Four thousand yen each. That's expensive—about the cost of a professional concert. Tomo explained, "Can't be helped, the venue is large, and it's a really stylish event. I'm already giving you an eighty percent discount." Yuri, who was standing next to me, was actually surprised at how cheap the tickets were. I guess tickets to the concert of a famous classical musician are in a totally different league.
Kagurazaka-senpai, who was competing with Furukawa in a drinking game, ran up to me all of a sudden and asked, "What's with all this talk about Christmas or whatever?"; and I quickly ended the conversation in response. Yuri seemed to be pretty interested in all the liquor, so I pulled him out of the bar and we set out on our way home.
"Well then, I will not pray for your success, but I will still support you anyway. Do your best."
Said Yuri, as he entered the car that had come to pick him up.
"What you mean by that?"
"What I mean is, I will pray that you will be harshly rejected by Mafuyu when you ask her out. You will then run to me in tears, and I will do my best to console you."
While I pondered a response with my jaw opened wide, the door of the car shut tight and the vehicle drove away.
When I returned home, I was exhausted, and was not in the mood to prepare dinner. Instead, I went straight to the garage. Coughing because of all the dust, I tried my hardest to find the records I wanted—records of Arthur Honegger's symphony <Pacific 231> and the ensemble <Une Cantate de Noël>. Found them. Now I'm done with the first present.
Back in my room, I mulled over Yuri's words several times as I flipped through the cashbook in my hand. It was possible that Mafuyu would reject my invitation, but Yuri did say "How can she possibly decline!?" Should I believe him?
I'll never know if I don't properly confirm it with Mafuyu.
But there were plenty of things I had to do before that.
I wanted to attend the live concert that month, but because I had spent an inordinate amount of cash to purchase my bass, my monthly pocket money was already considered spent. And on top of that, I knew our household finances were already running really tight.
When I left my room and headed down the stairs, I was greeted by Rodolfo's theme from <La bohème>. The music had just reached the scene in the opera where the broke poet was forced to burn his manuscripts for warmth, as he was too poor to afford coal. I heaved a sigh in front of our living room door. Whenever royalties came in late, Tetsurou would always put that song on at full blast.
"Eight thousand~~~!?" That was what my dad Tetsurou said while lying down on the sofa in an uncouth manner. He cocked his eyebrows and said unhappily, "Look, you've got quite the guts to ask for that despite knowing our household's financial situation. Both my pocket money and yours was reduced by a substantial amount so we could cover our daily expenses, isn't that right? Eight thousand yen is a huge sum of money! Huge!"
"I know, but......" My voice became tinier and tinier. In the past few months, Tetsurou hadn't taken up any jobs because he was lacking motivation; and if we factored in the fact that the royalties we were due hadn't been paid to us yet, we were in a really tight situation.
"Do you know how hard it is to earn eight thousand yen? You do know how petty the people in my circle are, don't you? Money just disappears in a flash! Just a day ago, the cabaret club I went to was charging eight thousand...... wait wait wait don't flash that knife at me Nao! I'm lying I'm lying! I didn't go to no cabaret!"
"You'll be revealed sooner or later anyway, so why are you wasting all our cash in secret?"
"Nah, I just thought: if I top off the cash with what I win from horse racing, Nao will never notice."
"Horse racing!? You just said horse racing!? Despite the amount you squandered last time, you tried it again!?"
"Whoaaa! No wait! Urm, you heard wrong—I was talking about the gay bar!" [TLNote: Horse racing (競馬) is pronounced as "keiba". And well, it sounds similar to gay bar.]
"Enough with those lame lies, that's not an excuse! Speaking of which, you haven't accepted any jobs recently. Why did you reject the requests to advertise the promotions?"
"I still have the pride of a critic in me! And moreover, I do belong to the educated class as well!"
"As someone who goes around snooping for news about Yuri, you have no right to say that about yourself!"
"Ah, speaking of which, did you get me Yuri's three sizes like I requested?"
"He's a guy, damn it! And what good would knowing that information do you?"
"You're really silly, Nao. In a highly capitalistic society with differing values, what you need is all sorts of information. And the only ones that can make full use of those opportunities, are the industry's ruffians, like me!"
So where did your critic's pride fly off to?
"In any case, the opportunity hasn't shown itself yet, so it's impossible for me to give you more pocket money. How about we cut down on the cash we spend on our meals?"
"I've already been doing that. I've used all the culinary techniques in my repertoire on cabbage for the past two weeks."
"Wow, I didn't even notice. Come to think of it, those meals were indeed all cabbage—just what you'd expect from Nao. No wonder Mika, Arisa, Rena and Aoi told me, 'You've slimmed down quite a bit, Tetsurou!'."
"How many cabaret clubs did you visit, you damn bastard!?"
"I'm sorry, I really am!"
While the bustling theme of Café Momus played over the speakers, Tetsurou squirmed his way around the sofa and desk, trying to escape.
"O-Oh, Nao. I just thought of a way to fix our financial problems!"
"...... And that is?" I heaved a sigh and asked him that while chasing him in-between the television and the decorative plants.
"We can borrow some cash from Misako."
"Do you any pride as a man!?"
"Ha ha ha! If I had that, I wouldn't have gotten married, or filed for a divorce, or even fathered Nao!"
That's nothing to be proud of. And can you stop wearing that smile of yours that says "you'll have to thank me for that"?
"Moreover, what'll be your excuse when you ask her for money?"
"Well...... calling her will be Nao's job."
"What!? Don't screw around with me!"
"But Misako refuses to speak to me! It has been like that since half a year before our divorce. Come to think of it, I lost a family member when that happened......"
"And you're about to lose another one this very moment."
"Don't leave me alone, Nao!"
Don't hug me, you're irritating. I sent Tetsurou flying with a kick and made my way to the phone—not to call Misako, obviously. I had no idea how rotten my father was, but I at least, had a man's pride. I made a call to the publisher. The magazine's editorial department wasn't like your typical company—despite it being ten o'clock on a Saturday night, someone was around to receive the call. After informing the person that I was Hikawa Tetsurou's son, I began rambling on about how I had used cabbage to make two weeks' worth of meals; and when I reached Friday's meal, which consisted of cabbage rolls with cabbage filling, the man on the other end of the phone (whom I guessed was the chief editor) let out a painful cry and said tearfully, "I'll definitely send you the money by Monday!" before hanging up on me.
"...... Nao, you'd be just fine even if I wasn't around, isn't that right?"
"Are you insured, Tetsurou?"
"Sorry, it's Daddy's fault. I'll give you the eight thousand yen, so don't be angry."
It wasn't my intention to threaten you, but thank goodness—though everything may be for naught, depending on Mafuyu's answer.
"But Ebisawa Mafuyu should be under a strict curfew, right? Ebichiri's a worrywart after all."
"Eh? W-What are you talking about?" I was flustered by Tetsurou's words.
"And isn't eight thousand yen a little too expensive? I do know some cheaper hotels, you know?"
"What the heck are you talking about!?"
It wasn't until noon on Monday that I was able to mention the Christmas event to Mafuyu.
I had actually planned to casually touch on it during our morning practice, but the promise from the editorial department had only been verbal. So in order to avoid the embarrassing situation of not having the cash to purchase the tickets after Mafuyu had agreed to go, I actually snuck out of school during lunch break to check our bank account. And it was only after I had confirmed that the royalties had been deposited that I returned back to school.
"Nao, where did you go? I finished my side dishes already!"
Chiaki pointed at me with her chopsticks while holding her lunchbox in her other hand. WHen I passed her my bento, she immediately opened the lid and peered at the contents inside.
"Look look! This may look like fried chicken, but it's actually cabbage! Isn't that impressive?"
Chiaki showed my bento to Mafuyu and the other girls at the table beside me. No, this is nothing to be proud of, so please don't go showing it around.
"Nao has always been good at things like this—like turning tofu into mock burger patties. I've always wanted to eat this again."
Said Chiaki, as she narrowed her eyes into slits. Mafuyu's gaze moved back and forth between the bento and my face. Terada and the rest of the girls then walked over, and what followed was a series of questions like "Is this really cabbage?"
"Let's just do a Hikawa Restaurant for next year's school festival." Class-rep Terada's suggestion sent the girls into a frenzy. "Nao, can you make a chocolate parfait with tofu?" "How about cakes with cabbage?" I better pray that I can.
Just then, Mafuyu mumbled,
"...... Chiaki has been eating Naomi's dishes all this time?"
"Mmm, they always invite me over for parties and stuff. Like during Christmas, for example. Every year, Uncle always shows off the new sound system he has bought. I never understand a single bit of what he's talking about, but I do know that Nao's cooking is delicious."
Mafuyu scowled, then shifted her gaze from Chiaki to me. Urm, what's wrong?
"Do you two celebrate Christmas together every year?"
Mafuyu's sudden question caused my heart to pump wildly. I never expected her to touch on the subject of Christmas herself.
"We spend it together almost every year," answered Chiaki in my stead. She was looking at me with a meaningful smile on her face, so I could only nod my head in agreement. From the murderous auras I felt around me, I could tell that the guys in our class were listening to our conversation intently beyond the wall of girls surrounding us. "He actually spends Christmas together with Chiaki every year?" "Go die, Nao." "Stuff yourself with cabbage cake." The combined attack of Mafuyu's gaze and the guys' resentful words was more than I could handle, so I came up with a random reply and escaped from the classroom.
When I reached the practice room, I plugged my bass into the amplifiers and waited for my heartbeat to return to its usual rhythm, then sat down on the round chair with a sigh.
"Oi, why are you running away?"—I thought to myself.
Didn't the conversation fortuitously steer towards the topic of Christmas? You should've gone with the flow and asked Mafuyu! Should've checked if she's free this year! Asked how she's planning to spend her Christmas! Wouldn't that have been easy enough?
Of course not. The whole class was watching. I would've definitely stirred up something huge if I had popped that question in front of everyone. But then again, will I really find another opportunity like that? I am really useless.
I mean, I've never even invited a girl to spend Christmas with me before. Chiaki did come over to play during most Christmases, but Tetsurou was always the one that invited her.
If I'm able to ask Mafuyu out, we will be alone together. And on our way back home from the live house, we'll be strolling down the streets together beneath the night sky, surrounded by Christmas jingles. Wham!, Yamashita Tatsuro, or the B'z...... Wait a second, why are those all songs about unrequited love? I swung my head hard to shake those melodies out of my mind. That was really inauspicious.
I gripped the neck of my bass and tried thinking about more typical Christmas songs. Perhaps that song will grant me the courage to ask Mafuyu out.
As I fumbled the strings with my fingers, a slow melody began to flow.
What was surprising to me was the fact that I managed to recall the complete Latin lyrics of <Ave Maria>, composed by Gounod. The accompaniment to <Ave Maria> had been written to be superimposed on Book I of Bach's <The Well-Tempered Clavier>.
That was the first piece Mafuyu had played for me, back on a certain day.
She had played it at the junkyard located at the ends of the world, so that I could locate this bass.
When did I fall in love with Mafuyu? While humming to the tune of the hymn, I reminisced about all the days I had spent together with her.
The spring when we met; the summer when we brushed by each other; the autumn when we were separated.
We had always been linked by music.
But perhaps it shouldn't be like that. I have no intention of blaming the god of music, but the current me doesn't even know what's going on in Mafuyu's mind. I've always used music as a medium for conveying the feelings I couldn't put into words—
Suddenly, the door behind me creaked open, causing me to swallow the melody back down my throat in surprise. My fingers, however, remained frozen on the strings. I turned around, and at the entrance of the door, I saw a pair of blue eyes and maroon-colored hair.
Why am I apologizing?
"It's okay to come in."
We were supposed to gather in the practice room during the break after we finished eating, so I couldn't possibly hog the room for myself just because I was dwelling on some negative thoughts. Mafuyu timidly slid into the room and closed the door after quickly peeking outside.
Our voices overlapped. We exchanged a glance, but turned our gazes to the floor immediately after. Neither of us said anything. After a brief silence, I worked up the courage to lift my head and prepared myself to speak, but Mafuyu did the exact same thing, so we turned our gazes away once again. What the heck are we doing?
Mafuyu sat down on the round chair. My head was still lowered, so the only thing I could see was her feet. An awkward silence permeated the cold and dense air of the practice room. Crap, I have to say something. I mean, it's a rare opportunity for us to be alone together. And yet, I couldn't come up with anything to say.
While we were being worn down by time like two wax statues, a blurry sound suddenly came from the direction of the sun. It was a duet between a horn and a trombone—it was probably the band practicing. The melody being played was the all too familiar tune, <Joy to the World>. The band was repeating the same phrase over and over again, but was speeding up each time...... Wait a second? Hey! Why's the tune turning into the main theme of Lupin III? I nearly fell off my feet. At the same time, Mafuyu stood up angrily and was about to turn around.
We crossed sights again, but this time around, we couldn't help but laugh. Mafuyu swayed her long maroon hair and returned back to her seat.
"It's a long-standing tradition for the band to come up with some sort of prank for their yearly performance."
"I did something like that before."
That's surprising. I never thought Mafuyu would be one to fool around. That was quite unimaginable.
"During my performance of Book 2 of <The Well-Tempered Clavier>, I slipped <Santa Claus is Coming to Town> into the fugue. Back then, I was thinking to myself, 'Why am I being forced to hold a Christmas concert?' But I became even more depressed when no one noticed my prank."
I was speechless. Mafuyu's expression darkened as she lifted her legs onto the chair and hugged her knees.
I see. So she had to work on Christmas Eve as well. But what about last year? She should've stopped playing the piano by then already.
"Last year, I spent the whole day at home with Hitomi."
Hitomi...... Oh, that was Miss Matsumura. She was the young female butler of the Ebisawa household—a mysterious and expressionless lady.
"What about your father? He probably wasn't in Japan at the time, right?"
"Papa was performing Beethoven's Ninth." [TLNote: short for Beethoven's Symphony no.9]
I see. So the reason why Ebichiri had come back only at the end of the year, was because he had forcibly worked the performance of Beethoven's Ninth into his schedule huh? Urm, well then...... I took a deep breath.
"...... What...... about this year then?"
Mafuyu's hair shook for a moment. I could almost feel her flinch despite our distance.
I said it. I actually asked her. When I regained my senses, my gaze was directed at the floor again. I have to look her in the face.
Mafuyu and I looked into each other's eyes.
Those deep-sea blue eyes of hers were filled with unease.
"Urm, well, d-do you have...... any....... plans for this...... Christmas?"
I was struck by a sudden pang of nervousness. And as I tried to squeeze my words out, my eyes landed on an area near Mafuyu's lips.
Mafuyu shook her head slowly.
"I think...... it will probably be the same as last year."
An inconceivable and warm sensation flowed up from my stomach to an area beneath my lungs. It was thumping wildly. Now's not the time for me to be happy just yet though. The crucial thing is what happens next. Come on, say it.
"Well, then...... together—"
I was so nervous, I had forgotten how to speak. Together? Mafuyu tilted her head in response to that word.
Just then, the door to the practice room suddenly flung open. The main theme of Lupin III came rushing into the room, and Mafuyu's hair soared with the gust of air. Next to the surprised Mafuyu was a long, slender silhouette. I swallowed the words that were in my mouth.
There was a tremble in Mafuyu's murmur. It was actually because of this interruption that I realized I could feel my heart thumping through my ears.
"Nice timing. So you two were already here."
With her hand resting against the door, Senpai flashed a clear smile.
"Geez, Senpai! That's just too pushy of you!"
A voice came from behind Senpai—and Chiaki's head popped out. Her eyes briefly made contact with mine, then alternated between looking at Mafuyu and me. Her cheeks were all puffed up. What's going on here?
"Our next live performance has been decided."
Said Senpai, as she grabbed Chiaki's hands and walked into the room.
Why the sudden decision...... Actually, that's just the way she is. Mafuyu was actually retreating towards the wall in shock. Senpai then fished a photocopied paper out of her chest and placed it on the amplifiers.
"Or more specifically, we're not guaranteed a spot on the stage. It's going to be a huge event with professional bands participating, so whether or not we make it to the stage will depend on our audition. Just the thing for our next performance, yeah?"
"Eh, ah, yeah......"
I shifted my gaze to the piece of paper and froze on the spot.
The event was called "Snow Crash." I think I heard that somewhere before—yeah, Tomo had mentioned it at the live house back then......
"...... A-And it will be held on?"
I already knew the answer—it was even clearly written on the piece of paper. But I still couldn't help but ask that incredibly stupid question. Kagurazaka-senpai flashed me what was probably the brightest smile I had ever seen from her, and replied,
"December 24th. Christmas Eve."