Was celebrating Chinese New Year, so this chapter took me some time.
Yelled Chiaki from behind the drums, as she lifted her hands while firmly gripping her drumsticks. I stopped my fingers from strumming the strings and wiped the sweat off my forehead.
Senpai and Mafuyu pressed the neck of their guitars with their right hand to stop the lingering sounds, and the rock tune that had filled the Folk Music Research Club practice room just a second ago, turned into the painful sound of killjoy in my ears.
The three girls looked at me at the same time. Unable to bear the inquiring gaze of Mafuyu, the teasing look of Senpai and the emotional gaze of Chiaki, I was forced to rest my eyes on the bass in my hands.
"You tell him, Comrade Aihara. I think we're all thinking the same thing, but you're the only one that young man will listen to right now."
Chiaki nodded and pointed her drumstick at me.
"Quit sticking to me all the time!"
I almost dropped the bass from my hands due to my shock. I was surprised by the meaning behind her words—though, in a musical sense, of course.
"I deliberately slowed down the tempo to convey the lazy mood! It won't do if you play your part in a similar manner and overemphasize the laziness! The bass and the drums operate on different timings, so you'll have to be livelier than that!"
Chiaki's words hit me really hard, because I knew very well that she was right.
"It seems like you lack practice, young man. Did you think I wouldn't notice you fumbling your way through the fill-ins during the unisons?"
The sinister grin on Senpai's face made her look like she was teasing a cat—I shrunk my body in response.
"Are you trying to screw things up so we fail the audition?"
I crossed my hands vigorously in denial. But Senpai's smile didn't disappear.
"Here, Comrade Ebisawa. You tease him a little too."
"E-Eh?" Mafuyu's hair flinched in response to Senpai's sudden words, but her sapphire-blue eyes were still intently fixed on my face. Just as I was about to turn my body away, Mafuyu spoke.
"...... Coward. Why didn't you express yourself clearly?"
That was the line that surprised me the most—to the point that I accidentally flicked off the power of the bass's amplifiers. Urm, she's referring to how my bass sounded, right? Senpai let out a loud laugh.
"Let's take a break! Young man needs some time to reflect on things anyway."
"For how long? It's already five—there's not much time left."
Mafuyu's fingers, which were resting on the strings of the guitar, moved uneasily.
"Till the sleeping young man wakes up?"
"It'll take until next year for that to happen! There's only a few days left till the audition! When exactly is it anyway?" asked Chiaki.
"The time hasn't been confirmed yet, as quite a number of bands have registered for the event. I think they should be contacting us soon."
"Will we be playing our actual performance songs during the audition?" interrupted Mafuyu. "If so, we will have to decide on the order of the songs, as there are quite a few songs that I want to play."
"Hey, how about we put in some Christmas carols at the end of our performance, so the audience can sing along? I mean, it will be Christmas Eve."
"I think, for now, we should just aim to clear the audition with songs that we're familiar with. That's an option for us as well—"
I listened to their conversation from a distance, then pulled the wire out of the amplifier and plugged it into the mini amplifier instead.
"...... I'll be practicing by myself for a while."
Mafuyu was surprised by that, and was about to remove her guitar strap from her shoulder, but I quickly turned around and opened the door. And what greeted me were the rays of the setting sun in that icy winter.
The rooftop that I typically went to was located right above our practice room, so I made my way to the rooftop on the other side of the school instead. When I arrived there, the sun was already deep below the horizon. And as the school slowly became enshrouded in darkness, I could see the small silhouettes of the baseball team tidying up the court.
At the side of stairwell leading to the protruding roof, there was a ladder that led to the large water tower on top. I heaved my bass on my back and climbed my way up; and when I sat down and viewed the scenery before me, I saw lights scattered across the streets on the opposite side of the school. It looked much more like the starry sky than the real thing above my head.
I placed the mini amplifier beside me, then rested my bass on my leg and began to fiddle with the strings. I played the same phrase over and over again—slowly, at half the original tempo.
But I couldn't immerse myself in the music. It was as if the strings had managed to read my thoughts and were rejecting my fingers.
Senpai's words rang in my ears.
"Are you trying to screw things up so we fail the audition?"
That was never my intention, but I would be lying if I said that that idea had never crossed my mind after Senpai had told us about the audition.
Why must it be on the twenty-fourth? It would've been great if it was held on any other day.
But what baffled me even more was Mafuyu—she seemed so incredibly enthusiastic about it. I know it's wrong to take that to heart, but even so.......
It won't do if things continue on like this. I'd be dragging the girls down yet again—I had been plagued by this feeling ever since our live performance at the school festival. I had improved compared to half a year ago, but the three girls—especially Chiaki—were climbing at an even faster pace. The current me—who can only strum as best I can, and is unaware of the things going on around me—will definitely be left far behind by them. I should just forget about the thing with Mafuyu. It isn't like I actually asked her out on Christmas Eve anyway.
My thoughts were pulled to that time when Mafuyu and I were alone in that room—that moment just before Senpai came barging in.
It would've been great if I could've at least popped that question.
My fingers had already stopped by the time I regained my senses. I let out a wry laugh. Wasn't I here to get in some practice alone? Why am I allowing my thoughts to run astray?
I was shocked by the voice coming from the darkness. I forgot I was sitting on the ledge of the tower, and almost stood up in surprise. That was dangerous.
Looking down, I crossed sights with Mafuyu, who had popped her head out of the door of the stairwell. For a second, I wanted to find a place to hide, but the small space on the water tower was barely enough for even one person to sit down by himself.
While I was trying to come up with something to say, I deliberately gripped my bass to make it look like I was practicing hard; but in the meantime, Mafuyu had turned her head around and caught sight of the ladder.
Mafuyu ignored my nervousness and grabbed onto the ladder. But for some reason, she was only using her left hand. She pressed her chest against the side rail and climbed up clumsily. I quickly leaned my body over and stretched my hand out to pull Mafuyu up.
Mafuyu stood on the cramped ledge of the water tower, panting and heaving as she gripped my hand tightly. Her face was ghastly white.
"A-Are you alright?"
"....... I am okay, just a little scared."
Then why did you come up? And also—
My gaze landed on Mafuyu's right hand, which she was using to grab the hem of my coat.
"Your right hand...... it can't be...... that you can't move it again?"
"Eh? Ah, n-no."
Mafuyu shook her head. Her maroon hair came into contact with my chest.
"T-This is just a habit from the past....... Before I realized, I was already doing things with only my left hand."
Don't push yourself. I stared intently at the fingers of Mafuyu's right hand, which were buried inside my chest. When Mafuyu noticed what I was doing, she blushed and quickly retracted her arm. But we were still forced to sit side by side with our arms contacting each other, because the space around the water tower was so small.
After that, the two of us looked down at the school surrounded by walls and encircled by darkness. And at the same time, we counted each other's thumping heartbeats. Despite my desire to convert my breathing into speech, nothing came out—because my voice was stuck in the back of my throat. The sleeve of the winter uniform sticking tightly to my skin was making me too nervous to speak.
Again. It was always the same. Whenever Mafuyu sat down next to me, the warmth of her body always made my mind go blank. The frustration that was tormenting me earlier had disappeared as well. Why does this happen?
Come to think of it, Mafuyu and I have come into contact with each other a countless number of times since we met. So the painful, conscious throbbing I'm experiencing right now is a result of me realizing my feelings.
Painful. Yes, it is painful.
Mafuyu finally spoke again. Her voice was no longer trembling.
"Are you angry?"
I couldn't help but look in Mafuyu's direction. Half her face was hidden under the shadows.
"Why...... I'm not angry......"
I wasn't angry. I was Just losing myself.
"But, it seems like...... you dislike the practices."
"I don't dislike them!"
I almost fell off because I suddenly turned my body. "Whoa!" "Kyaa!" I seized the leg of the water tower while Mafuyu grabbed my shoulder, allowing me to regain my balance.
When I recovered from that shock, I turned my head to look at Mafuyu's face. Despite the fact that her face was burning red, she didn't let go of my shoulder.
"I could tell from the sounds. Naomi's bass was trying to run away from my Stratocaster."
I was stunned. I never thought music would betray my feelings so easily—I guess its not always on my side. I gripped the neck of my bass tightly as it lay on my thigh. I wonder...... if there comes a day when I have mastered the instrument and can play it on an entirely different level, would I be able to play the bass calmly despite the hesitation and confusion in my heart?
"Did you have something planned for Christmas? Back then, you—"
She popped the question.
I took a deep breath and nodded to prepare myself mentally, then turned towards the sapphire-blue eyes that reflected the starry skies.
"I was thinking about what birthday present I should give you."
The blue, icy walls in Mafuyu's eyes were silently melting away.
"Do you know who Arthur Honegger is? He's a French composer. I originally wanted to give you a record of his <Une Cantate de Noël>. Urm, and I also had a friend that would be performing that piece on stage during Christmas. It's a great song, so......"
My parched throat was about to tear apart.
"I originally...... wanted to....... attend the live concert...... together...... with Mafuyu. But...... well...... Senpai signed us up to take part in the audition...... for that live performance."
I could feel my face getting hotter and hotter as I said that. I was afraid that I was going to shift my gaze back to my knees, so I stiffened my neck and continued,
"I originally wanted...... the two of us...... to spend Christmas together. But......"
Mafuyu raised her voice all of a sudden. I moved my head back in surprise.
"Why did you not tell me?"
The light in her eyes was shimmering on the surface of the water.
"N-No, but, Senpai's already fixated on that live performance!"
"That has nothing to do with it! You should have told me all the same!"
"Sorry......" Though I had no idea why she was so angry. "Urm, well, if we don't pass the audition, we could......"
Mafuyu forcefully tugged my tie. That hurts.
"We have to pass! I will never forgive anyone who would dare to screw it up deliberately! Not even you, Naomi!"
"No, sorry. Don't you worry, I'd never do that."
"We will be able to perform live together if we pass the auditions, no?"
I was stunned for a while by her words.
If we pass, I'll be able to attend the live Christmas performance together with Mafuyu—though we'd be taking part in it as performers. Indeed. Moreover, I'd also be able to save on the concert tickets. But still......
"I want to perform live."
Murmured Mafuyu, as she pressed her palms against my chest while staring at the bass blending into the night sky.
"I wish to stand on the same stage together with Naomi...... and Chiaki, and Kyouko. Forever and ever."
Mafuyu's words flowed out from within her, and I was suppressed by those feelings of hers, which felt like they were searing my skin.
"....... Do you enjoy performing live that much?"
I accidentally asked that silly question impulsively, but Mafuyu nodded her head slowly in response.
"I am saddened every time I get on the stage."
"Because it will all be over soon."
Mafuyu's words turned into frost and scattered in the sky.
"It will have to end someday, and that is saddening—if only this could go on forever."
Mafuyu placed her ten fingers on my arm and danced them to an uneasy tempo on the imaginary keyboard. Despite not hearing any sounds, I knew what the piece was. The music came from the touch of Mafuyu's fingers tapping on my skin. Erik Satie. <Le Tango Perpétual>.
"Back when piano was everything to me, I never thought I would experience feelings like this."
I nodded my head silently. It was the same for me as well. Back when all I did was listen to the music of others, I never knew such passion or pulsation existed.
"I want to continue playing; I want to let Kyouko sing; I wish to move forward together with Chiaki...... and I want to listen to the sound of your heartbeat."
Thinking back on how emotional I was earlier on, I felt really embarrassed. My thoughts were silly compared to Mafuyu's clear feelings for the band.
But Mafuyu kept quiet and turned her head away.
"...... And so, I am sorry."
"Christmas. W-We are unable....... t-to spend Christmas together...... by ourselves."
"Eh? Ah, no." I was in a fluster. Did she see through my intentions? "It's okay, I don't mind."
"You don't? Why?"
"Because I haven't bought the tickets anyway...... That hurts, that hurts! Mafuyu! Let go of me!"
For some reason, Mafuyu sunk her fingernails—which were originally on my arms—deep into my skin. Why is she getting angry over what I said?
I don't get it. Would it be better if I did mind?
"I am not talking about the tickets! Don't you feel it is a shame?"
"No, of course I do. But it can't be helped, right?"
"Even if there is nothing you can do......" Mafuyu slapped me repeatedly on the arms. This is dangerous! We'll fall off! "It is all your fault! It would have been okay if you had told me about your plans for Christmas earlier!"
Mafuyu was right. It was my fault for not telling her my plans, which made Senpai think we were all free for the live performance...... Eh?
Something suddenly hit me. Back then, I had asked Tomo about the price of the Christmas concert tickets—did Senpai know about that? It seemed like she was interested in what was happening, but who filled her in? No wait, she wouldn't have planned the live performance if she had known about it. It's probably just me thinking too deeply into it.
The more important thing was—I'll have to come up with another present. I could still give her the Honegger record, but I had already told her about it; and if possible, I wanted the present to be a surprise. It'd be really boring if I just gave her what I originally had in mind.
Moreover, if we were attending the concert as performers, we might have to prepare backstage, and might miss the performance by Tomo's band. If so, giving Mafuyu <Une Cantate de Noël> would be meaningless. I somehow felt we were definitely going to pass the auditions, despite the lack of solid evidence that we would—Mafuyu wanted to pass, and I felt the same as well. Also, Mafuyu's guitar technique was getting better with each passing day. Is it because she has finally found an outlet for her thirst for passion?
Mafuyu's desire—the never-ending stage.
It came to me all of a sudden, and was followed shortly by all the dumb things I had done. I hugged my head and lowered it in dismay.
"...... W-What is wrong? Sorry, does it hurt?"
Mafuyu stopped slapping my arm and inquired worryingly.
"Eh? Ah, no, not that."
I let go of my hands, but my head was still buried between my knees.
"I just figured out what I should give you......"
It was quite a smart idea—to me, anyway—and Mafuyu should be happy with it as well. But I had given it to Chiaki already. It was The Beatles' <Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band> record. And it had to be the British version of the vinyl record. I had no idea if I could even find another one.
"...... Sorry, it's nothing. I'll definitely find a way to get it before your birthday."
"M-Mmm." She won't be troubled by that, right? I won't do anything more than just pass it to her secretly at school.
"It falls on a Sunday."
"Eh? A-Ahhhh!" I never noticed that. That's the worst possible timing. I buried my head between my knees again. But then, Mafuyu said something totally unexpected.
"Would you like to come to my house?"
I wondered if my ears had heard right. When I lifted my head, I saw Mafuyu's face flushed red. It was obvious from her trembling lips that she was trying her best not to shift her eyes away.
"Would you like to come to my house on my birthday? If...... Naomi is...... n-not busy with anything. If you want to."
"Eh? Ah, u-urm, yeah. I'll go. Really? Can I?"
I still found it unbelievable. Visiting Mafuyu's house? Then again, won't Ebichiri be around? Will that be okay?
"Papa will be busy with a rehearsal, so he will not be around."
Mafuyu finally succumbed to the embarrassment and turned her gaze towards the darkness of the night.
But despite how dark it was, I could still see her burning cheeks.
"There is something...... I want to give to Naomi too. Something that cannot be carried around."
Something she wants to give me?
And something that can't be carried around?
My face felt like it was floating about like a crimson balloon. I don't recall what we said after that, but it was only after I had checked my phone, that I realized I had typed in the time of the visit into that day's schedule.
"How does Mafuyu always manage to find Nao?"
We bumped into Chiaki as we were walking down the stairs on our way back to the practice room. It looked like she had split up with Mafuyu to search for me.
"Because I heard the sounds of the bass."
Mafuyu explained softly. Now that she mentions it, she does have a pair of really sharp ears. No wonder she could find me despite the fact that I was hiding in a place I don't normally go. Chiaki sulked, then moved her eyes from Mafuyu to me and slammed her fist into my stomach. Ouch.
"Whatever, let's go back pronto. We don't have much time left! Senpai's still waiting."
Chiaki pulled me by the hand while Mafuyu pushed me from behind, and I was forced to run down the corridor with my bass hugged in my arms.