Was celebrating Chinese New Year, so this chapter took me some time.
Yelled Chiaki from behind the drums as she lifted her hands that gripped firmly the drum sticks. I stopped my hands from strumming the strings and wiped the sweat off of my forehead.
Senpai and Mafuyu pressed the neck of their guitars with their right hand to end the lingering sounds. The rock tempo that filled the Folk Music Club practice room just a second ago had turned into a painful sound of killjoy in my ears.
The three girls looked at me at the same time. Unable to withstand the inquiring gaze of Mafuyu, the teasing look of Senpai as well as the emotional gaze of Chiaki, I was forced to rest my eyes on the bass in my hands.
"You tell him, Comrade Aihara. I guess we're all thinking the same thing, but you're the only one whom young man will listen to right now."
Chiaki nodded and pointed her drum stick in my direction.
"Quit sticking to me all the time!"
I almost dropped the bass from my hands from the shock. I was surprised by the meaning behind her words — though in a musical sense, of course.
"I deliberately played the tempo slowly to portray the lazy mood! It will not do if you play similarly to me and overemphasize the laziness! The bass and the drums operate on a different timing, 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 looks like you lack practice, young man. You thought I did not 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 that we fail the audition?"
I swung my hands hard in denial. However, Senpai's smile did not disappear.
"Here, Comrade Ebisawa. Tease him a little too."
"E-Eh?" Mafuyu's hair flinched because of the sudden words of Senpai. However, her sapphire-blue eyes were still fixed intently 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 which surprised me the most — to the point where I flicked off the power of the bass' amplifiers. Urm, she was referring to how my bass sounded, right? Senpai gave a loud laugh.
"Let's take a rest! Young man will need some time to reflect on things as well."
"For how long? It's already five, so there's not much time left."
Mafuyu's fingers, which were placed on the strings of the guitar, moved uneasily.
"Till the sleeping young man wakes up?"
"It will take until next year for that! There's only a few days left till the audition! When exactly is it anyway?" asked Chiaki.
"It's not confirmed yet. There are quite a number of bands that have registered for the event. I think they should be contacting us soon."
"Will we be performing the actual songs during the audition?" interrupted Mafuyu. "We'll have to decide on the order of the songs. 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 which the audience can sing along to? I mean, it's Christmas eve."
"I think we should just aim to clear the audition with songs we're familiar with for now. That's an option for us as well—"
I listened to their conversation from a distance away. I then pulled the wire away from the amplifier and plugged it into a mini amplifier instead.
"...... I'll practice by myself for a while."
Mafuyu was surprised by that — she was about to remove the guitar strap from her shoulders. I turned around and opened the door. What greeted me was the rays from the setting sun in the icy winter.
The rooftop that I would typically go to was located right above our practice room, so I made my way to the rooftop located on the other side of the school. The sun was already deep below the horizon. As the school was slowly enshrouded in darkness, I could see the small silhouettes of the baseball team tidying up the court.
On the sides of stairs to the protruding roof was a ladder, which led to a large water tower on top. I heaved the bass on my back and climbed my way up. When I sat down and viewed the scenery before me, I could see the lights scattered across the streets on the opposite side of our school. It looked much more like the starry skies than the real thing above my head.
I placed the mini amplifier besides me, 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.
However, I could not immerse myself in the music. It was as if the strings managed to read my thoughts — it felt like they were rejecting my fingers.
Senpai's words rang in my ears.
"Are you trying to screw things up so that we fail the audition?"
That was never my intention. However, I would be lying if I say that idea never crossed my mind after Senpai told us about the audition.
Why must it be on the twenty-fourth? It would have been great if it was held on another day.
What baffled me even more was Mafuyu — she seemed to be incredibly pumped about it. I do know I was wrong for taking that to heart, but even so.......
It would not do if things went on like this. I would be dragging the girls down yet again — I was plagued by this feeling ever since our live performance in the school festival. I did improve compared to half a year ago, but the three girls - especially Chiaki - were climbing upwards at an even faster pace. For the current me who could only strum to the best of my ability but was unaware of the things are going on around me, I will definitely be left far behind by them. I should just forget the thing about Mafuyu. It wasn't like I actually asked her out on Christmas Eve anyway.
My thoughts were pulled to the scene where Mafuyu and I were alone in the room, the moment just before Senpai came barging in.
It would have been great if I could have at least popped the question.
My fingers had stopped when I regained my senses. I let out a wry laugh. Was I not here to do some practice alone? Why was I allowing my thoughts to run astray?
I was shocked by the voice from the darkness — I forgot the fact that I was sitting on the ledge of the tower and almost attempted to stand up due to the surprise. That was dangerous.
Looking downwards, I crossed sights with Mafuyu, who was popping her head out through the door leading to the roof. For a second, I wanted to find a place where I could hide. However, the small space on the tower was barely enough for someone to sit by himself.
I took a deliberate grip at the bass to put on the act that I was practicing hard, and at the same time I tried to come up with something to say. Mafuyu turned her head around and caught sight of the ladder.
Mafuyu ignored my nervousness and gripped onto the ladder. But for some reason, she was only using her left hand. She pressed her chest against the vertical pillar and climbed up clumsily. I leaned my body outwards quickly and stretched my hand to pull Mafuyu up.
Mafuyu stood on the cramped space next to the water tower, panting and heaving as she gripped on my hand tightly. Her face was ghastly white.
"A-Are you alright?"
"....... I'm okay, just a little scared."
Then why come up? And also—
My gaze landed on Mafuyu's right hand, which she was using to grab onto the edges 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....... when I realized it, I was already doing things with only my left hand."
Don't push yourself. I stared hard at the fingers of Mafuyu's right hand, which was buried before my chest. When she realized what was happening, a blushing Mafuyu retracted her arm quickly. However, we were still forced to sit side by side with our arms coming contact into each other due to the small amount of space around the water tower.
And with that, the two of us looked downwards at the school surrounded by the walls amid the darkness. At the same time, we were counting the each other's thumping heartbeats. Despite my desire to convert my breaths into speech, my voice was jammed up in my throat because of the nervousness due to the sleeves of the winter uniform that stuck tightly against my skin.
Again. It was always the same. But with Mafuyu sitting next to me, my mind was in a blank state because of the warmth of her body. The frustration which was tormenting me earlier had disappeared as well. Why was this happening?
Come to think about it, Mafuyu and I did come into contact countless number of times ever since we knew each other. However, the painful, conscious throbbing I was experiencing right now was because of my realization of my feelings.
Painful. Yes, it was painful.
Finally, Mafuyu spoke once more. Her voice was no longer trembling.
"Are you not angry?"
I couldn't help but to look in Mafuyu's direction. Half of her face was hidden by the shadow.
"Why...... but I am not angry......"
I was not angry. Just losing myself.
"But, it seems like...... you dislike the practices."
"I don't dislike them!"
I almost fall off because I suddenly turned my body. "Whoa!" "Kyaa!" I gripped hard onto the leg of the water tower, while Mafuyu grabbed me by my shoulder. I managed to maintain my balance.
When I recovered from my shock, I turned my head to look at Mafuyu's face. Despite the fact that Mafuyu's face was burning red, she did not let her hands go.
"I knew from the sounds. Naomi's bass was trying to run away from my Stratocaster."
I was stunned. I never thought music would express my feelings that simply; furthermore, they may not always be on my side. I gripped hard at the neck of my bass placed on my thigh. Just a thought — should there be a day when I master the instrument and play it on an entirely different level, would I be able to play the bass calmly despite the hesitation and confusion I was experiencing 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. I then turned towards the sapphire-blue eyes which were reflecting the starry skies.
"I was thinking about what birthday present I should give."
The blue, icy walls in Mafuyu's eyes were melting away silently.
"You know Arthur Honegger? He's a French composer. I originally wanted to give you the <Une Cantate de Noël> record composed by him. Urm, I have a friend who will 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 said we are to take part in the audition...... for that live performance."
I could feel my face getting hotter and hotter while I said that. I was afraid that I'll shift my gaze back to my knees, so I stiffened my neck muscles and continued.
"I originally wanted...... the two of us...... to spend Christmas together. But......"
Mafuyu raised her voice all of the sudden. I moved my head backwards in surprise.
"Why did you not tell me?"
The light in her eyes were shimmering on the surface of the waters.
"N-No, but, Senpai has already fixated on the live performance!"
"That has nothing to do with it! You should tell me all the same!"
"Sorry......" Though I had no idea why she was that angry. "Urm, well, if we did not pass through the audition stage, we could......"
Mafuyu gave a forceful tug at my tie. It hurts.
"We have to pass it! I'll never forgive anyone who dares to screw it up deliberately! Not even you, Naomi!"
"No, sorry. Don't you worry, I'll never do that."
"We will be able to perform together live as long as we pass the auditions, no?"
I was stunned for awhile from her words.
I will be able to attend the live Christmas performance together with Mafuyu, even though that means we'll be taking part in it as performers. Indeed. Moreover, I'll 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 she stared at my bass that blended into the night sky.
"I wish to stand on the same stage together with Naomi...... and Chiaki, and Kyouko. Forever and ever."
"....... Do you enjoy performing live that much?"
Mafuyu's words flowed out from within her. I was suppressed by those feelings of hers which felt like they were searing my skin. I accidentally asked that silly question impulsively. Mafuyu nodded her head slowly.
"It's saddening each time I get on stage."
"Because it will be all over soon."
Mafuyu's words froze into frost and scattered in the sky.
"It will have to end some day, and that is saddening — if only this could go on forever."
Mafuyu placed her ten fingers onto my arm, dancing to an uneasy tempo on the imaginary keyboard. I knew what the piece was despite not being able to hear any sound. The music came through the contact of Mafuyu's fingers as they tapped on my skin. Erik Satie. <Le Tango Perpétual>.
"Back when piano was my everything, I never thought I would be experiencing feelings like this."
I nodded my head silently. It's the same for me as well. Back when all I did was to listen to the music of others, I never knew such passion or pulsation exists.
"I want to continue playing. I want to allow Kyouko to sing, I wish to move forward together with Chiaki...... and I want to listen to the sound of your heartbeats."
Thinking back on how I was all emotional earlier on, it was really embarrassing. My thoughts were silly compared to Mafuyu's clear feelings for the band.
But then, Mafuyu kept quiet and turned her head away.
"...... And so, I'm sorry."
"Christmas. W-We're 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?"
"I haven't bought the tickets anyway...... It hurts it hurts! Mafuyu! Let go of me!"
For some reason, Mafuyu sunk her fingernails that were originally on my arms deep into my skin. Why was she pissed off at what I said?
I don't get it. Would it be better if I minded?
"I am not talking about the tickets! Don't you feel it's 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 my arms. It was dangerous! We'll fall off! "It's all your fault! It would have been okay if you told me about your plans for Christmas earlier!"
Mafuyu was right. It was my fault for not voicing my plans, which made Senpai think we were all free for the live concert...... Eh?
Something hit me. I asked Tomo about the price of the Christmas concert tickets back then — 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 knew about it. It was 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 did blurt it out already. I hope the present could be a surprise, if possible. It would be really boring if I gave her what I originally had in mind.
Moreover, if we are attending as performers, we may have to prepare ourselves at the backstage, and we might miss the performance from Tomo's band. If so, it will be meaningless to gift Mafuyu <Une Cantate de Noël>. I somehow feel we'll be able to get through the auditions, despite the lack of evidence that we will — Mafuyu wants to pass, and it's the same for me as well. Also, Mafuyu's guitar techniques were getting better each passing day. Was it because she had finally found an outlet to her thirst for passion?
Mafuyu's desire. The never-ending stage.
That came to me all of the sudden, followed up shortly by the dumb things I had done. I hugged my head and lowered it in dismay.
"...... W-What's wrong? Sorry, does it hurt?"
Mafuyu stopped herself from slapping my arm and inquired worryingly.
"Eh? Ah, no, not that."
I let go of my hands, but my head was still burrowed between my knees.
"I just thought of what I should give you......"
It was quite a smart idea — to me anyway. Mafuyu should be happy with it as well. But I gave that to Chiaki already. It was The Beatles' <Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band>. And it must be the British version of the vinyl record. Though I've no idea if I can locate another one.
"...... Sorry, it's nothing. I'll definitely find a way to get it before the birthday."
"M-Mmm." She won't be troubled by that, right? I'll do nothing more than to pass it to her secretly in school.
"It falls on a Sunday."
"Eh? A-Ahhhh!" I never noticed that. That was the worst possible timing. I burrowed my head between my knees once more. But then, Mafuyu said something totally unexpected.
"Would you like to come to my house?"
I wondered if my ears heard right. When I lifted my head, I could see 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's...... n-not busy with anything. If you want to."
"Eh? Ah, u-urm, yeah. I'll go. Really? Can I?"
I still find it unbelievable. Visiting Mafuyu's house? Then again, wouldn't Ebichiri be around? Will that be okay?
"Papa will be doing a rehearsal, so he will not be around."
And that was when Mafuyu finally succumb to embarrassment and turned her gaze towards the darkness of the night.
However, I could still see her burning cheeks despite the darkness.
"There's something...... I want to give to Naomi too. Something that cannot be carried around."
Something she wanted to give me?
And something that cannot be carried around?
My face felt like it was floating about like a crimson balloon. I couldn't really recall what we said after that. It was only when I checked my phone that I realized I had even typed in the time of the visit into that day's schedule.
"How did Mafuyu always manage to find Naomi?"
We bumped into Chiaki just as we were walking down the stairs to make our way back to the practice room. It looked like she split up with Mafuyu to search for me.
"Because I heard the sounds of the bass."
Mafuyu explained softly. Now that she said it, she does have a pair of really sharp ears. It was no wonder she can find me despite me hiding at places where I will not normally go. Chiaki sulked, moved her sight from Mafuyu to me and slammed her fist into my stomach. Ouch.
"Whatever, let's go back pronto. We've not much time left! Senpai's still waiting."
Chiaki pulled me by my hand, while Mafuyu was pushing me from behind. I was forced to run along the corridor while hugging to the bass in my arms.