And here's chapter 7. The beginning of the end.
Tetsurou wasn't around when I returned home. When I entered the house, it felt much colder indoors than outside, so I put on a duffel coat before spacing out on the sofa in the living room for a while. When my head finally cooled itself off, I thought back on everything Senpai had said to me earlier. I was now calm enough to recognize the bloodstained emotions that were hidden behind Kagurazaka-senpai's exaggerated speech.
When did it start?
When did Senpai start having feelings for me?
That was something I couldn't answer myself. Senpai has been telling me this the entire time, hasn't she? It started the moment we met.
"Therefore, I had already been paying attention to you for a long time already, young man."
"—I want you."
"I think I've already found the Paul McCartney that belongs only to me."
"It's really simple, young man. It's much simpler than what you're thinking inside your head."
Indeed. It was really simple.
I just never noticed it.
But I had no idea what to do, even after coming to that realization. The audition was just around the corner. No wait, Senpai said the live performance and audition had been arranged to prevent Mafuyu and me from spending time alone together. That's just her bringing her personal desires into work-related matters. But then again, that was just the sort of person she was.
I curled myself up on the sofa. My back hurt. I felt something snap; and that was when I realized I had crushed my bass underneath my body. My face turned pale as I quickly pulled the instrument out of its case. Shit, what the heck am I doing? Is it okay? I checked the four knobs, the bridge and the pickup—then heaved a sigh of relief when I realized nothing was broken.
I hugged the bass in my chest, then pulled my feet up on the sofa and curled myself up again. I shouldn't frustrate myself thinking about all these things at a time like this. Why did she bombard me with that lengthy speech of hers when the band is already in such a busy state? And what should I do if Mafuyu comes to know of this? I wasn't sure how well the two girls got along with each other. Senpai teased Mafuyu all the time, and it looked like Mafuyu wasn't too against it; but whenever they played together, the two girls attacked each other with timbres that sounded like two cobras going at each other's necks. You could call it feketerigó's style, but the difference in the tones of the melody was incredibly obvious when the two girls were playing together. My bass, however, was insufficient to carry the middle voice of the melody, and I often wished I could receive some assistance from the sounds of the synthesizer.
Hold on. Oi, now's not the time to be thinking about the band. This is just me running away from reality, isn't it? I knocked my fist against the body of my bass. The thing I should be worrying about at a time like this is—
Should I really not be worrying about the band at a time like this? Am I really okay?
I was disgusted by the various thoughts that were surfacing in my mind. The opposing guitar solos by Mafuyu and Senpai, along with the rhythmic phrases by Chiaki and me, reverberated from afar—and I was unable to stop them from awakening within my ears. I tried to reconstruct the song's missing strings and organs in my mind. Feketerigó lacked a fifth person, but ideas were already floating around in my head. They had come to me when I was listening to Mafuyu's solo rendition of <Happy Xmas>.
The blueprint and program were gradually taking shape.
How ironic. The music was being blocked out of my ears when we were practicing in the room earlier, as I was being overly conscious of Senpai's gazes and words. But here I am, all alone by myself in the house, trying to think about the things Senpai had said to me with a cool head—and yet, the music keeps surging its way into my brain.
Simply put, I was subconsciously trying to find a place to hide.
The god of music will become angry if I keep using music as an excuse to run away from reality. But I had no choice but to do so. It was the only place I could run to.
I stood up from the sofa.
I went to my room, opened the cupboard, and took out an old synthesizer and a toolbox. Looks like I'll have to spend my night like this. But I guess working on machines is a much more productive way of spending the night compared to watching the clock tick while I hide away, distressed, in bed.
At the very least, it'll feel like I'm moving forward.
"Did you not get any sleep at all? The dark circles beneath your eyes are really something!"
Asked Chiaki, as she stared intently at my face. I nodded my head in response while trying my hardest to hold back a yawn. My voice was slightly hoarse.
It was morning at the station platform. The sky was still dark, as the sun hadn't come out yet, but the grayish concrete and Chiaki's checkered red skirt still stung my eyes, since I had stayed up all night.
"I couldn't sleep, so I worked till morning."
I removed the heavy cases from my shoulder and put them on the floor. In addition to my bass, I had also brought along the synthesizer. My hand almost snapped under the weight.
"Something must've happened yesterday, right? But Senpai refused to say anything."
Chiaki's eyes fixated on me, and gradually teared up as she put on a sorrowful expression. Two conflicting feelings flooded my heart. Thank goodness she's not saying anything; but why doesn't she make things easier by voicing it all out? I had no idea if I was nodding or shaking my head.
"Why is no one willing to disclose anything......"
"Why's Chiaki being so gentle with her words?" I thought to myself. Why doesn't she just ask me forcibly to make me "spew it out quickly"? That was how she normally approached things like this. And that was what she did that night I was shaken up by Mafuyu and Yuri's <Kreutzer Sonata>.
But this isn't just my problem alone...... I can't tell Chiaki about it.
"Senpai said 'I love you, please embrace me' to you, right?"
I fell backwards and almost rolled onto the tracks.
"Nao's just too easy to read," laughed Chiaki shyly.
"So you did h-hear everything?"
She heard Senpai asking me to embrace her...... or rather, words that were along that line?
"I didn't hear that much, but I do know that Senpai has been in love with Nao right from the start."
"You knew about it this whole time?" I unconsciously started speaking in a polite manner.
"I should say everyone does. Even the girls in our class."
I sat down next to the synthesizer—or maybe I fell flat on the concrete due to the shock. Come to think of it, it's not surprising that that's the case. Kagurazaka-senpai's feelings towards me were clear as day, right from the beginning.
"Forget it, I'm not surprised by this. It's typical for Nao to not realize something like this."
I should just skip my lessons. I couldn't bring myself to face the rest of the world.
I suddenly came into contact with the synthesizer lying next to me.
But I can't do that.
Chiaki squat down opposite of me beside the synthesizer case. It felt like those powerful eyes of hers would capture me if I lifted my head up, so I continued staring at my hands instead.
"Just as I expected, Senpai's really strong."
"Though I can't understand why she chose to tell you with such bad timing."
That's something...... I don't understand as well. And I was in tatters because of that.
"...... That's something I can't do. I should've been shocked when I heard about this."
Right. Chiaki loved Senpai as well. There was no way she could act like nothing had happened.
"Urm, well, sorry."
"You have no right to apologize to me, so shut up."
I almost stumbled backwards onto the ground when Chiaki rebuffed me with a fierce smile on her face.
"I'm alright. I'm not as strong as Senpai is, so a weird mechanism in my mind will kick in and ask me to take it easy so that everything will remain the same."
"...... Isn't that being strong?"
"That's being weak. This is too hard for Nao to comprehend. You probably wouldn't understand anything even if I explained it to you."
I remained silent when Chiaki pointed her finger at my nose. That may very well be the case.
But there was one thing I was very certain of though: Chiaki's smile was lonelier than the cloudy dawn of early December.
"So, having skipped yesterday's practice, and having spent the whole night thinking, did you figure out what you're going to do?"
What I'm going to do? Where should I escape to? What should I do from now on?
I nodded my head slowly.
"...... I modified the flanger so that, in theory, it'll only take in the note values of the synthesizer."
"Hold on a second, what're you talking about?"
"The arrangements, of course."
I rapped on the synthesizer.
"I made this effects unit myself. It'll connect Senpai's and Mafuyu's guitars to the synthesizer, and will use the delayed effects as a backing. It'll also adjust the tones as well."
Chiaki lifted her hips slightly in a dumbfounded state. She remained speechless for a while.
"Wh...... What's this? That's what you did instead of sleeping?"
"I couldn't help it."
I could create some breathing space for myself if I directed all my attention to music; so I focused my consciousness and fingers on the soldering iron, the screwdrivers and the pliers, and buried myself in working on the modifications. I linked the effects unit, my bass and my computer to the synthesizer, and modified the code while repeatedly checking on the sounds.
And the answer I had come up with, was the black box placed in the back pocket of the synthesizer case.
Chiaki burst into a fit of laughter. She started out leaning forward while hugging her stomach, but when she heard my hesitant "Chiaki?", she covered her face with her hands and roared.
"...... Hold on, sorry...... Ahahahahaha, ha, Nao, you're really......"
"D-Did I say something strange?"
Chiaki shook her head as she held back her laughter, wiping away the tears in the corners of her eyes.
"Now I'm the one that looks like an idiot. If only I could be like you."
No, I just pushed the problem aside for now......
I would still see Senpai at school, and I wasn't even sure what expression I should put on when facing her. But if it was music, it could gush into the silence and fill everything up, regardless of how hopeless the situation was.
An announcement broadcasted the arrival of the train, and not long after, the train rushed past us, causing our hair to flutter in the air, and came to a stop in front of the platform—and with that, our conversation ended.
When we reached the school, we were surprised that the keys to the practice room couldn't be found in the key box. Someone had come earlier than us. Chiaki and I exchanged looks, then made our way down to the practice room located at the back of the school complex.
"How close were you and young man together? Something like this?"
"Eh? Ah, uh......"
"Did he place his arms around you? There's not much space there, right?"
"Naomi would not do something like that......"
"But it's cold outside, so he should've at least done this, right?"
"Yaa! Kyouko, stop!"
"What are you two doing......"
I was speechless when I opened the door. Kagurazaka-senpai and Mafuyu were sitting on a couple of tables that had been placed together, and Senpai's arm was wrapped around Mafuyu's waist. It looked like Senpai was sexually harassing Mafuyu.
"Geez, Senpai! Here I am, wondering to myself why you're here so early today!"
Chiaki pushed me aside and dashed into the room, then wrapped her arms around Senpai's neck to save Mafuyu. With her hair and uniform in a disheveled mess, Mafuyu hid behind Chiaki's back with a timid expression in her eyes.
"She and young man had their love talk on the water tower on the roof, so I'm grilling her for the details. As the president of the club, how can I not keep myself updated on things like this?"
"That has nothing to do with you being the president, right? And there's no need for you to remove your tie either."
"But everyone has forgotten that I love girls as well, so I wanted to use this opportunity to reestablish that fact."
It's okay for you to not reestablish that. Man, she's just...... I happened to briefly exchange glances with Mafuyu when she turned to face my direction. Her face was dyed in the colors of the setting sun. I averted my gaze on reflex.
In my mind, I had already decided what expression I would show, and what I would say, if I bumped into Senpai or Mafuyu. But it looks like it was all for nothing. Who would've expected to walk in on a display of sexual harassment in the practice room? I heaved a sigh and laid the cases I was carrying against the wall.
"You brought the synthesizer as well? Are you planning to do some arrangements? I was thinking of having a guitar showdown with Mafuyu. If so—"
Senpai leaned into me and looked over my shoulder at where my hands were. She rested her chin on my shoulder and pressed her chest tightly against my back, causing my body to freeze when I was about to take the synthesizer out of its case. My body was being stabbed by the painful glares of Mafuyu and Chiaki.
"Urm, well, I'm going to take the synthesizer out. P-Please move away."
No one said a word while I was connecting all the wires. Compared to the simple preparation of the instruments, the setup and tuning of the synthesizer and the effects unit was much more complicated.
When I passed one of the synthesizer's connecting wires over to Senpai, she put on a gentle smile and asked,
"Is this your answer?"
What? What did she mean by my answer?
My answer to the grand, unreserved, heart-bleeding confession Senpai made yesterday?
How's that possible? There wasn't a single word or thought inside me that I could use to answer her. It was just that I had no idea what I had to do to get things back to normal—
Senpai plugged the wire into her Les Paul without waiting for my reply. I still couldn't bring myself to look at Mafuyu when I passed her her wire, so I fixed my gaze on the control panel of the effects unit instead. The bars on the display sprang to life, signaling that the two guitars were connected to my machine.
"Chiaki, you start off with the hi-hats. And Senpai, please join in during the second chorus. Mafuyu will perform solo for the first one."
The atmosphere of the room was silent, yet heated. I tapped the body of my bass and began the countdown. Chiaki started drumming faint beats that sounded like the minute echoes of the bell reverberating in the snowy sky.
I didn't tell them which song we were playing, but there was no need for me to. All we needed was one breath, and we were transported to the silent night of Christmas Eve, when the falling snow was about to cover everything—be it the soldiers, the trenches, the corpses or the weapons.
As though it was exhaling air out of its chest, Mafuyu's Stratocaster began to sing. So this is Christmas, and what have you done, Another year over, a new one just begun......
The remnants of the beautifully decorated lines of the main melody led the clear hymns of the organs and began to spread. I heard someone gulp. No one was touching the keyboard—everything was being done solely by the effects unit connected directly to Mafuyu's guitar. It had managed to locate the harmony between her guitar and my bass.
It felt just as though another Mafuyu was standing right there. But when I finally raised my head, the illusion disappeared in an instant without a trace. On the other side of me was Chiaki behind the drums, playing the sounds of the falling snow; and there was Mafuyu, whose eyes lowered as she wove out the song with her Stratocaster; and lastly, Kagurazaka-senpai was also there, with her Les Paul held tightly in her hands, looking at the shattered fragments of the illusion together with me.
I crossed sights with Senpai. Her eyes glittered like melting snow. She gave the pick in her fingers a swift flick in the direction of her Les Paul, overlapping the whispering melody of Mafuyu's Stratocaster with a simple and powerful stroke. I could hear the children singing the prayers of peace. War is over, if you want it, war is over, now......
I could feel a slight difference in the tone. The bright strings exploded, and goosebumps ran through my body. Is it really just the four of us here? Is this the music being created by just the heart and limbs of feketerigó? Even though none of us were making any sounds, I could hear the voice of John Lennon and the chorus of the thousands of children; I could even hear the bombing of the jet fighters, the explosions of the incendiary bombs, the cries of the orphans and the furious roars of the people.
Chiaki's fill-in came bursting forth like lightning streaking through the night sky, and dragged us all into a rock tempo. The hymn broke free from John Lennon and the hands of the children. Supported by the wings of Kagurazaka-senpai and Mafuyu, it changed into a complex variation, spiraling at a dazzling speed as it climbed upwards. It dragged all the timbres of the synthesizer, shot its way into the sky of the Christmas night, and burst apart. If the entrance of my bass was even a split second late, the harmony would become distorted and fragmented, and would cover up the brilliant stars in the sky. The scattering particles of light were burning my body. I had to rely on the faint vibrations detectable only by the tips of my fingertips to continuously pump blood into the wings of feketerigó.
No one stopped.
In the end, the thing that prevented Senpai and Mafuyu from going on and on for eternity, was the bell that had come from far away.
When I finally stopped my fingers in exhaustion, the night sky faded away. Chiaki's beats slowed down considerably, and Senpai's and Mafuyu's guitars were restraining each other as they stopped their singing and counted the lingering echoes of their counterpart.
None of us spoke for a long time, even after the preparatory bell had finished ringing. The room was filled with a comforting numbness.
"—This has to be our best yet, right?"
Murmured Senpai, with heated breaths. Her eyes were wet.
"The auditions, the actual performance, and even places higher than that—it's all within sight, isn't it?"
I had no idea who started it, but we were all nodding our heads. The synthesizer and the effects unit as well—it felt like they were giving off a satisfied glow in reply.
As the volume of the amplifiers dropped step by step, the lingering heat finally slipped away from our bodies, and replacing it, was the air of reality on our skin.
It was a really scary scene.
When I think back on that, I realize the feketerigó then should've already been torn apart into pieces.
But even so, we were bound tightly together by the music and the machines I had hooked up. Despite the fact that I hadn't replied to Senpai's feelings yet, or my own thoughts.
And that was my first mistake.