Well, I'm back. Still busy with life, but I'm back.
First off, Andrew, or MyProjectAlicization, has started a SPS wiki. If you're interested, you can check it out here.
Anyway, here's chapter 9, and we are halfway into the book. I'll be working on this novel till Sunday before heading to Thailand where I'll be denied of internet access for up to a week.
I returned home at about eight at night; and when I opened the front door, I was immediately greeted by an earthshaking <Tarantelle> by Chopin, coming from the depths of the dark corridor, and Tetsurou's weird singing.
"Meat, meat, veggies! Meat, meat, veggies!"
"What the hell are you doing......"
Tetsurou was circling the steaming hot pot and dancing like a lunatic with a bowl and a pair of chopsticks in his hands. His face turned green when he noticed my presence.
"Hah? Hold on, Nao. Why are you back home?"
"Well, I do currently reside in this house." I spoke very politely for some unknown reason.
I turned the CD off and glanced at the contents inside the pot. Meat was bubbling inside the gas stove hot pot, and next to the pot, was what looked like a plate of really expensive marbled beef.
"No, you see, I thought Nao wouldn't be home, so I thought I should enjoy the only dish I know how to cook."
"What's the price of this beef? Per gram."
"Six hundr...... Hold on, Nao! I'm sorry!"
"Do you know about our financial situation right now?" I had the urge to slam Tetsurou's head into the hot pot, but changed my mind at the very last moment.
"It's important to reward yourself occasionally, Nao."
"But Tetsurou has done nothing worth rewarding, have you!? And all you have here is meat and beer—you can't even call this a dinner!"
"Yeah, that's why I was doing the veggie dance that I invented. Thirty minutes of that will net you about sixty lemons' worth of vitamins."
I really wanted to grab some cabbage or tomatoes from the fridge and stuff them in his mouth, but that would've been a waste. Forget it.
"You want some? It's everyone's favourite Tetsurou-styled sukiyaki, made personally by yours truly—though there's only beer, soy sauce and meat! Simple but delicious!"
"Nope. I'm not hungry......"
I weakly removed my coat. It wasn't just because of the snacks I had in the afternoon; a lot of things had happened—the conversation with Mafuyu, listening to Mafuyu play the piano...... I was already filled right up to my chest.
And then there was that beautiful finish from Kagurazaka-senpai. I let out a sigh, then removed my tie and sank myself into the sofa.
The four of us would be spending Christmas Eve together. That was final.
But I was truly happy about that. We had reached another stage that was even higher. And it was just like Senpai had said: this time, it would be a night without the support of the audience. We couldn't afford to make the slightest mistake.
But the problem was—can we really get through the practices and make it onto the stage with our current chaotic states of mind? It wasn't like Kagurazaka-senpai had let it all go or something. Instead, it felt more like she was impervious to that explosive confession she had made....... and it was the three people around her that had become way more fidgety instead.
Does Mafuyu know about the confession Senpai made? Ahhh, I should've asked her earlier today—no, that was impossible. There was no way I could ask her that in that situation.
The problem was, I did like Kagurazaka-senpai as well. No, I mean, well, I've been under her care this whole time. She was always there to push me from behind, and always led us forward in a very dependable manner. I was happy about Senpai's feelings for me, but there was no way I could reciprocate those feelings, as Mafuyu was the one in my heart.
I did want to tell Senpai that, but she avoided it simply with a "I understand, you don't have to take it to heart" look in her eyes. We had managed to make it through the auditions despite that ambiguous situation we were in though. Kind of impressive, if I must say.
I can't drag this on any longer.
I couldn't say it because I was so damn useless.
Today too. I couldn't tell Mafuyu the things that mattered. Why did I even visit her house in the first place? That was just shameful of me.
"So you ran back here just like that? There's a sofa there, no? All you had to do was to push her down onto the sofa, right? You wuss."
"No, that's something...... What the heck are you talking about, Tetsurou!?"
I threw a cushion at Tetsurou, who was walking into the living room with a can of beer in his hand.
"That marbled beef was just heavenly. And now I'll have these strawberry-flavoured reports as my dessert. Which hand did you place on her shoulder?"
"Please, just get back to your work."
Tetsurou grumbled unhappily as he opened his laptop and sat on the sofa opposite of me. I went to my room to change into more comfortable clothes, as my shoulders were sore because I wasn't used to wearing a suit.
There, I remembered the cassette tape in the pocket of my suit. Mafuyu had passed it on to me right when I was about to leave her house. It was her final present for the day.
Then again, I couldn't listen to it in my room. Can't be helped, I'll have to go back to the living room.
"Tetsurou, mind if I play a cassette tape?"
"Oh man, did you actually record the mushy words you two said?"
"Shut the hell up and get the hell away!"
There was nothing soft next to me, so I grabbed a DVD case and threw it in Tetsurou's direction without hesitation.
I returned to the sofa after pressing the play button. Some background noise arose; then, the voice of the producer or recorder or something. Next came the lively melody of the violin, and supporting it, was a simple arpeggio from the piano.
Tetsurou lifted his head above the screen of his laptop.
"...... You got your hands on the sample tape?"
"I see. Hmm, she's playing on par with Julien Flaubert even though she hasn't played in a long time."
Regardless of how useless he was, he was still a music critic, so he could tell straight away.
It was Mafuyu's comeback album that she had performed together with Yuri. She had passed me the sample tape. It was Beethoven's <Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major>, better known as <Spring>. The piece is typically paired with <Kreutzer>; and together, they're actually the most commonly seen combination of pieces. Given that, both of those pieces will probably be included in the album.
"Rather than this smooth-flowing piece though, I very much prefer to listen to the intense arguments between the two instruments in <Kreutzer> or <Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor>"—I thought to myself, as I cocked my ears to listen to the exchange of the crisp and clear melody in F major.
However, something felt off when the piece reached the third movement, the Scherzo.
"Hey, what are you doing, Nao? Don't reverse the tape!"
"Urm, sorry, I want to listen to it once more."
I reversed the tape back to the start of the third movement and played it again. That strange feeling I had was gradually taking shape.
It was the same in the last movement as well, but wasn't very noticeable because <Spring> was a slow-moving piece. I fast-forwarded the tape to the next piece.
Abrupt bursts of the chord in A Major. So the second piece is indeed <Kreutzer>. This should be enough to confirm my doubts. I sat in front of the sound box and focused my attention on the tarantella of the final movement.
"...... What's wrong, Nao?"
"Eh? Ah, nothing."
Was it just my imagination? I rewound the tape back to the middle portion of the tarantella.
"...... The way Mafuyu strikes the keys with her right hand....... Doesn't it feel like something's not quite right?"
Tetsurou tilted his head and gave it a thought. So it was just my imagination? But the strange feeling was way more intense than what I had felt during <Spring>.
"It's even more obvious towards the later movements. Like the way she forcefully presses the keys down after striking the keys."
What's this? It's just like...... Yes—
It was like she was using the force of her shoulders to put strength in her fingers to compensate for the lack of strength in her wrist. But the transfer of the force was delayed, resulting in a murkiness of the sound.
Tetsurou sat on the floor, shuffled his way next to me and pressed himself against the sound box. We rewound the tape and replayed it once more.
"You're right. Some of the notes sound sticky towards the end of the piece."
No, that's not it. That's not the main thing. There was something more important than that.
"Hey, you've got the better pair of ears, Nao. You sure about this? Is it really only her right hand?"
I nodded as Tetsurou shook me by my shoulders. It was just her right hand.
That glass-like right hand of Mafuyu's.
Why is this happening?
She played quite a few pieces for me today right before my eyes, but I didn't notice anything out of place back then.
No...... hold on a second. All the songs I heard today were compositions by Bach, aside from <Les Adieux sonata>, and were all pieces that were around three minutes in length. and she rested in-between the pieces as well.
But the pieces recorded in the tape are pieces by Beethoven, and the movements of <Kreutzer> were all very long. Moreover, Mafuyu wasn't playing solo; she was playing a duet with Yuri. So she didn't have the option of playing at her own pace.
So, that was what caused...... a relapse of her injury?
"I'm surprised you noticed something like that."
Tetsurou shook his head and stood up.
"I better give Ebichiri a call. Just in case."
"Eh? Ah, w-wait."
I myself had no idea why I stopped Tetsurou.
"What if it's a relapse? Better safe than sorry."
A relapse. I gulped. No, but that condition was caused by psychological issues. There should be nothing restraining Mafuyu's fingers right now.
I suddenly recalled what Furukawa had said: she was putting way too much strain on her wrist. If she still used that strenuous method of playing the guitar, and coupled that with increasing amounts of piano practice, then it was possible that that was not a relapse—not a psychological issue. But something that was much more cruel.
In any case, I should ask Mafuyu first. It would be great if everything was fine.
But Tetsurou had already started calling while I was still entangled in my chaotic thoughts. The conversation ended quickly though.
"Ebichiri wasn't around, so I asked Matsumura to pass the message on."
Oh yeah, Ebichiri isn't home today. I heaved a sigh of relief. I guess it's better not to let Ebichiri know? I must've been mistaken. I rewound the tape once more. Would I realize it was all just an illusion of mine if I turn the volume down? I pressed the play button with that naive thought in mind.
But there was no way I could erase that strange feeling after noticing its presence.
"Well then, even though Comrade Ebisawa is not here yet, let's have a toast. Please raise your cup."
It was the day after, and that was what Kagurazaka-senpai, the first member to reach the practice room, had said to Chiaki and me when we made our way there. She passed both of us a paper cup and poured the contents of the bottle inside.
"Wait, this is liquor, isn't it?"
"You don't like whiskey? I have sake too."
"That's not the point. We have lessons later!"
"More!" said Chiaki. She downed it all in one gulp before I could even stop her.
"Fwuaaa! It's just barley tea!"
"We'd be punished and disbanded if they found out," smiled Senpai.
"But I want some real liquor! It won't do if I don't drink a cup or two!"
Chiaki slammed her paper cup on the desk. She had been in a bad mood since I had met her at the train station.
"...... Did something happen?"
"Uhhh—Senpai, are you hearing the dumb things Nao is saying?"
Senpai hugged the teary-eyed Chiaki and gently patted her head.
"It's no good drowning yourself in alcohol, Comrade Aihara. We made it past the auditions and won ourselves a brief happiness with our victory last night, so we should be hugging each other in joy right now."
"Mmm, I won't be attending lessons today. I want to be together with Senpai all day."
"I'm happy to hear that, but the diligent me will be attending lessons obediently as the exams are only two weeks away."
"Then I want to attend Senpai's lessons together with you......"
"You want to hide yourself in my skirt?"
"I'll do my best!"
Don't! What the heck are you girls doing?
"Are you interested in joining us, Comrade Ebisawa?"
Senpai directed her gaze past my shoulders; and I turned around in surprise.
There was a small slit at the door, and a pair of navy-blue eyes was peeking into the room. Senpai walked past me and Chiaki to the door, grabbed Mafuyu by the wrist, and pulled her in.
"Ah, do not......"
Mafuyu's tiny body was enveloped by Senpai's arms in a flash.
"Since all four of us are here now, let's have another toast."
Mafuyu broke herself free from Senpai's arms and retreated to the side of the wall and put her guitar down. The four of us exchanged glances for a brief moment, but immediately broke eye contact.
In the end, there was no change in our relationships.
I suddenly noticed Chiaki glaring at me fiercely. What, did I do something wrong?
Chiaki turned her head away unhappily and pulled the table to the middle of the room.
"Toasting with barley tea is of no importance! Let's begin discussing our battle plan!"
"Right, it's about time we think about the songs we want to play for the actual performance."
Mafuyu nodded her head silently and sat on one of the stools.
"What should the theme of our next performance be? We should take this opportunity to coordinate our clothes as well."
"Since it's Christmas Eve, how about we all dress up in a Santa miniskirt?"
"No, that does not suit me."
"All the miniskirt Santas in the world would be out of job if Mafu-Mafu was incompatible with that costume."
"Young man, how about you wear a miniskirt as well? Or perhaps you should dress up as a reindeer? What a painful decision to make."
"Kyouko, that is not normal at all."
"I'll design the new set of clothes."
The girls began discussing the topic at hand while I just leaned against the wall and listened. Before I realized, I was already staring at Mafuyu's right hand. There were so many things that required my attention, but I couldn't even move an inch.
Mafuyu didn't come to practice after school because she had received a call right after the lessons were over. She dashed out of the classroom when her phone rang, but I knew that ringtone. It was Ebichiri.
"Sorry, I am not too sure what is going on, but Papa wants me to head home right now."
Said Mafuyu to Chiaki and me apologetically. I was shocked. Tetsurou should've informed Ebichiri about my baseless doubts through Miss Matsumura. Is that the reason for this? I mean, Ebichiri's a worrywart when it comes to things concerning Mafuyu. Actually, it might just be something related to the record company or the producers or something.
Doesn't this make me the same as Ebichiri? That kind of hurts.
"You're about to release your CD soon, right? Mafuyu will be getting busier and busier."
"M-Mmm...... The album is scheduled to release sometime early next year."
"Your concert too?"
"I guess that will be sometime later. But......"
Mafuyu gripped Chiaki's hands tightly.
"I will definitely continue practicing with the band. I will not cause any inconveniences for any one of you."
"Mmm, I understand."
Chiaki patted Mafuyu hard on the head.
"But don't force yourself. Mafu-Mafu always does things recklessly."
Mafuyu's face went red. She walked out of the classroom after shooting a brief glance at me. "How's that!" Chiaki puffed her chest out as if to emphasize something.
"What a mature adult I am. I'll put on a smile regardless of the pain I'm feeling; and I'll cheer my enemy on even if my heart is bleeding."
"Sorry, I don't quite understand what—"
Stars appeared before my eyes all of a sudden—Chiaki had sunk her knee deep into my stomach. She gave me no time to catch my breath, as the second and third strike followed right after.
"Wait! Don't...... stop! Chiaki, it hurts! What the hell are you doing!?"
"Nothing! Alright, let's head to the practice room! Nao, you idiot!"
After almost knocking me out, Chiaki dragged me down the corridor by my hands.
"It's almost Christmas, and there are still lots of things that need to be done!"
That's right. I need to settle everything before Christmas arrives.
The things related to Senpai; those related to Mafuyu; and those related to the band, of course.
I began running through the corridor following Chiaki's lead. Through the windows, I saw a small silhouette with maroon hair cutting across the square in front of the gates, making its way outside the school.
Back then, there was nothing more than just a fleeting unease in my heart. Little did I know that the audition would turn out to be the swan song of feketerigó.