Here's 12. Enjoy.
The following two weeks passed by in a flash as we engrossed ourselves in our practice, and before long, the end of May had arrived. The skin on my left fingertips was hard like dried soil. Because the strings of the bass are much thicker than those of the guitar, the positions of the calluses on my fingers were slightly different from those on Kagurazaka-senpai's.
"You look more like a bassist now."
Senpai couldn't help but let out a loud laugh when our fingertips came into contact like in the scene with the alien in E.T. However, the calluses had slightly changed my sense of touch—which affected my work when I was doing something delicate with machines—so they were a little inconvenient.
However, before issuing a challenge to Mafuyu, there was a matter that required me to utilize my hobby of fooling around with machines.
On the fourth Thursday of May, I ran straight to the courtyard after school. At the same time, Chiaki tried to stall Mafuyu by any means possible—though, optimistically speaking, she could probably only keep her for about twenty minutes. I'd have to win this battle with speed. I started with picking the padlock, which took me less than a minute. Then, I turned the handle slightly, as usual, and opened the lock to enter the room. Replaying the imaginary scenarios I had run through my head earlier, I took the tools and wires out of my bag and began to work on the amplifier. I swiftly opened the back cover, bringing the internals of the machine into full view. I had worked on the amplifiers several times before, so rewiring the circuits wasn't much of a problem; it was hiding the newly-extended wire that took up the bulk of the time.
After everything was done, I locked the padlock. Just as I was about to round the corner to return to the main building, I accidentally bumped into Mafuyu.
The two of us just stood there without moving. Neither of us had our eyes focused on the other party.
Ever since that day, we hardly spoke to each other. Because of that, those fellas in class were complaining about how their only source of information regarding the Princess was blocked off. However, none of them knew the details behind the situation.
As I began to walk past her, Mafuyu spoke.
"Have you...... given up already?"
"Bass. You used to play it on the roof."
"I'm still playing it, yeah? It's just that I've been practicing on the roof of the northern building, because I don't wanna disturb someone who has unexceptionally sharp ears."
"Liar. I looked for you there as well, but you weren't around."
That was indeed a lie. Recently, I've been going to Nagashima's Musical Instrument Store to get a bassist, whom Senpai knew, to take a look at and oversee my practice. As I had no intention of letting her know about my fervent practicing, I wove that lie.
"...... You just said you looked for me? What do you mean by that?"
"Ah, that's...... you don't have to mind that, it's nothing. I'm just slightly worried."
Mafuyu's voice became even more anxious, and she shook her head repeatedly.
"I'm just wondering...... if you are still thinking about that incident back then?"
I jumped in shock, and turned around. It seemed like Mafuyu was finding it difficult to speak, and she kept staring at her fingers.
"Please forget about that. I'm totally fine, so you do not have to be concerned about it."
Please forget it. I've heard that countless times from Mafuyu already.
I felt a slight anger stirring within me. I guess I'll just tell her my feelings truthfully—
"Look, what do you think the human brain is? Our brains aren't like some hard disk; do you think a simple 'Memory delete' from you will make me go, 'Oh, like this?' and I'll forget everything?"
Mafuyu's eyes widened, and she took a step back.
"I forgot nothing, and in fact, I remember everything clearly. You said, 'Do you think you can catch up to me by playing the bass?' Well, let's have a showdown tomorrow after school."
"...... What do you mean by 'have a showdown'?"
"A showdown between my bass and your guitar, that's what. If I can keep up with you all the way till the end, in terms of playing, then it'll be my victory. If I win, I'll be allowed to use that room. And if I lose, I'll never get close ever again."
"Are you serious...... about that?"
Of course! But I said nothing more, and walked past Mafuyu just like that.
To be honest, I wasn't even remotely confident about winning. But Kagurazaka-senpai did say before, that she'd make me win the showdown; therefore, it wasn't "I will win," but "she will make victory mine."
A person who'd use all sorts of (underhanded?) methods to get her hands on whatever she wants—a chill ran down my spine when I considered the fact that those few words from her mouth were enough to grant me so much courage. I guess the only person I can depend on right now is her.
"Young man, you've become quite good with words."
Kagurazaka-senpai said that to me when I reached the roof. It seemed she had watched us from the fence.
"I really can't believe you were that born loser three weeks ago."
"Don't call me a born loser!" I shifted my sight away from Senpai. I had no idea why, but ever since that day, I felt rather embarrassed whenever I looked straight at her.
"When I really think about it, there's nothing for me to lose in this showdown. I can't currently use that practice room anyway, so nothing changes even if I lose. It's just like the rock-paper-scissors match I had with Senpai back then."
Half the reason for that sort of twisted thinking was self-mockery. However, Senpai sat down next to me while hugging the bass, and flashed me a satisfied smile.
"So you still remember what I did during that match."
I looked at the side of Senpai's face and nodded my tilted head. Back then, Senpai declared a match against me, and held a pick in-between her index finger and middle finger. Upon seeing that, I thought she was trying to trick me into thinking she wouldn't throw scissors, so I just went for it—with my brain a huge mess, I threw out rock. In the end, I lost to Senpai. However, Senpai laughed loudly and said,
"Actually, I wasn't trying to read your thoughts so I could use them against you. Even if I did that, it wouldn't increase the odds of me winning such a simple game. What do you think is the surefire method of winning rock-paper-scissors?"
"Eh?" That means Senpai had used a sure-win strategy?
"It's simple. Just throw out last."
"There was actually no special reason for holding the pick in-between my fingers, other than to confuse you so you'd throw out your choice at my tempo. That was all. Remember this well: the sure-win strategy is to go last."
I was shocked speechless, and just stared at Senpai's triumphant face. Then, I let out a long sigh in-between my knees. It was impossible. Right from the very beginning, I had no chance of winning against someone like her.
"It has always been said that battles are won long before they have even started—that's exactly what it means by that. Which means, how you lure your opponent into your territory is of critical importance. Oh right, do you know the reason I chose this song for your showdown against Mafuyu? I'll tell you."
With that, she took the scores out of a file in a case behind us, and spread the sheets out before us. She then said, "There are four reasons why I picked this piece."
"You should've told me right at the beginning!" That thought flashed past my mind for a brief moment. For the past few days, I had asked myself, while practicing, "Why this piece?" However, after listening to Senpai's lengthy explanation, I could only answer with a sigh.
"—So, are you slowly believing that you have a chance of winning this?"
"Mmm...... A little."
I answered truthfully. The chance of me winning has increased multiple folds—it's 0.2% now! That's probably how I feel right now. Senpai bumped her shoulder into mine as she laughed.
"That's good enough! Only you will know how your battle will unfold. All I know are the results of my own battles, because I won't be taking part in the battle between you two."
"If you took my place, you'd win...... is that what Senpai is trying to say?"
I asked weakly. Senpai answered me with a slightly angry voice.
"Could I actually win?"
I looked at Senpai's face in shock.
"Didn't I say already? It has to be you."
I couldn't reply to that, so I lowered my head again.
Senpai suddenly took out a piece of paper and used it to poke the tip of my nose.
"Well then, this is the final preparation. Sign this first so you're mentally prepared for it. This copy's for Ebisawa Mafuyu."
I lifted my head to take a look. It was the application form for joining a club, printed out on coarse paper—there were two of them. For both the applications, the words "Folk Music Research Club" were written neatly—using a pen—in the box where the applicant was supposed to provide the name of the club of interest.
I shifted my eyes away and tried to divert the topic.
"Urm...... I guess I'll just...... keep these two forms for now."
"Why? I've already taught you so much about the bass. Could it be...... that you actually hate me? Is that it?"
Please don't look at me with such a sorrowful expression. You're obviously faking it.
"Mmm, how should I put it?"
I lifted the bass off my knees.
"I don't feel I'm qualified. The standards of both Senpai and Chiaki are too high for me."
"I said it before already, didn't I? I'm not asking you to follow us. We will be the ones to follow you."
Because the bass is the heart. I know that, but still......
"Still, I can't decide if I'm going to join the club or not. At least, not for now. Therefore......"
I lifted the bass and stared at its strings.
"Therefore, if I manage to win against Mafuyu and make her join the club......"
"If you can beat her, you'll join us too?"
I nodded in reply.
If it wasn't like that, I'd definitely regret it. It somehow felt like I had no say in everything that was laid out before me.
"Then...... what will you do if you lose?" That sentence from Senpai left me breathless due to shock. I hadn't thought about that.
However, I have to make my decision right now.
"...... If I lose, I'll continue to play the bass—however, I won't join the club. Senpai has been looking after me this whole time, so I can't bring myself to say things like...... 'please allow me to join the club even if I lose.'"
After a short moment of silence, I could hear Senpai let out a gentle sigh next to me.
"I've only come to understand this recently, but you are a man with really strong self-esteem."
She showed a gentle smile. I could barely keep my eyes open any longer, and shifted my gaze away after a brief look at her face.
"We'll treat this as a promise between us, for the day that's still faraway. Yeah, let's do just that."
Senpai took a screwdriver out of my bag—without my consent—and removed the back cover of my bass. She folded the two application forms in half and stuffed them into the empty space between all the wiring. She then screwed the cover back in place.
"...... Why are you putting them in a place like that?"
"Try listening to it. There should be the faint sound of the papers rubbing against each other."
I placed the bass back on my knees. Then, Senpai strummed the strings. The sound of the papers rubbing against each other—
"Nope, I hear nothing?"
"But I can hear it!" Your ears are comparable to those of a cat. "And maybe Ebisawa Mafuyu can hear it too. She's really sensitive to the sound of paper rubbing against each other, right? These minute sounds may affect her subconsciously, causing her to become uneasy and frustrated."
There was such logic behind it?
"If you want to be a little more superstitious, it's a sort of spell. Just like how the samurais sewed amulets of protection on their clothes."
Senpai patted my bass.
"Our promise will be with you the whole time. So don't you forget it."
After a moment of hesitation, I nodded.
"I wish you good luck."
I just so happened to meet Miss Maki on my way home. After walking into the ordinary carriage, which stopped at every station, she asked,
"Seems like you've been chatting with Mafuyu quite a lot recently?"
I shrunk my head as I grabbed the overhead handles. I had been caught by a troublesome person.
"No, you can't quite consider that chatting."
"Just be straightforward and tell her you'd love to share that room with her. Why are all the boys so indirect?"
You think I could say that? Me? To Mafuyu?
"And also, what have you been doing recently? Seems like you've been together with the second-year Kagurazaka quite a lot, right?"
With her vice grip grabbing the back of my collar, I had no choice but to tell her the truth.
"A guitar showdown?"
Miss Maki suddenly let out a strange sound, resulting in the rest of the passengers directing their attention to us.
"Should I say you're stupid, or that you're similar to Kagurazaka......"
Miss Maki let out a sigh as she voiced her thoughts. Was Kagurazaka-senpai that famous among the teachers as well? She didn't seem to attend any lessons, so perhaps, she was one of those so-called "problematic students" or something?
"And Mafuyu said she was okay with the proposal? How's that possible?"
"No, she was just stunned."
"Yeah, that's more like it! Then, what are you going to do? Do you really want to do this?"
"Sigh, there are a lot of reasons behind this...... but I'll put my best into it."
I replied vaguely. I couldn't possibly tell Miss Maki about the various things we did to make Mafuyu participate in the showdown.
Miss Maki knitted her beautiful pair of eyebrows for a moment, and pressed her finger against her temple.
"Look...... I'm very grateful to you for interacting with Mafuyu, but don't provoke her too much. She's a really delicate girl."
Even if she told me that...... for some unknown reason, I couldn't help but get angry at how she wanted me to be gentle towards Mafuyu. That lass has said many terrible things to me you know?
"Mmm......" Miss Maki crossed her arms in front of her chest. Her expression suggested that she didn't know what she should say. "I think, the majority of the problems are due to a certain psychological issue she has. Therefore—"
"....... What do you mean? What's this 'psychological issue' that Miss Maki's referring to?"
Miss Maki stared at me without saying a single word. She then mumbled to herself in a hoarse voice, "If it's Nao, it should be fine telling him......" But she immediately shook her head and canceled that thought of hers.
"I can't be the one to tell you this. It'd be best if Mafuyu was willing to tell you about it."
Psychological issues. I recalled the time Mafuyu was holding a bag of medicine tightly in her hands.
So Mafuyu was really sick? I couldn't quite see that from the outside, but if—
"Urm, Miss Maki......" I thought of something else and decided to ask her about it. "Mafuyu...... I heard she's about to transfer away soon. Is that true?"
"...... Ah, nothing."
She was disappearing in June. But...... what did that actually mean? I said nothing, and once again sank into my own thoughts. In any case, Mafuyu said nothing to me at all.
"A showdown through guitars huh...... that's youth for you! But that may be a good thing as well."
Miss Maki smiled as she gazed into the distance.
"Mafuyu has no intention of making friends. So even though it might be slightly unreasonable for me to support this, it's quite a good idea to force her to join a club. And if she joins, I'll be the adviser for your club!"
"So you think...... I can win?"
"No, not at all."
Miss Maki answered immediately. I gripped the handle hard and slumped my head in disappointment.
"However, I heard she only started playing the guitar half a year ago."
"Really?" She can achieve such skill in just half a year? God is really unfair.
"Still, everyone will go through things like this, right? There are times when you just have to do the things you need to do. All the best, my boy. If you make Mafuyu cry, though, I won't let you off the hook so easily."
With that, Miss Maki gave me a hard slap on the back.
That night, Tetsurou wasn't home. I received a short message from him via cellphone: "I'm drinking with a friend, so I probably won't be home tonight." I was thinking of asking him a few more things about Mafuyu, but that guy was never around at the most crucial moments.
I returned to my room and sat on my bed. After placing the bass on my legs, my fingers began to unconsciously strum the strings. I then realized I was playing the bass of that piano concerto unknowingly.
It was the piece Mafuyu was playing at the junkyard on the day we first met.
I went into Tetsurou's room and began stacking the CDs of the various piano concertos of the late romantic era, then brought them all into the living room. I spent the whole night listening to the CDs without pause, to the point that I even skipped my dinner. However, I didn't manage to locate the track in my memory. That wasn't surprising though, as there are a few thousand piano concertos.
I switched the sound system off and gave up on trying to find it.
I suddenly remembered my declaration to Mafuyu when I was tuning my bass: "If I lose, I'll never get close ever again." That line suddenly appeared in my mind, but wow. What the heck was I saying? What I meant was that I'll never get close to that room, and that I'll never get close to Mafuyu, right? And since our seats are right next to each other, it will be impossible for me not to be close to her, right? In the end, I was endlessly trying to explain things to some random unknown person in my mind.
What would happen if I lost? I kept thinking that.
My excuse for talking to Mafuyu would disappear along with that as well, right?
And I did say I wouldn't join the Folk Music Research Club if I lost. That was because I would have no confidence in starting a band with Senpai and Chiaki should that happen.
I recalled the song we played in the recording room that day—<Kashmir>. It was a wonderfully sweet experience that left me breathless; it felt like my body was burning in flames.
There was nothing to lose—what an incredibly huge lie that was.
Unknown to me, there were many things around me that I might end up losing, things I didn't want to lose.
If I lost—
I shook my head and threw that thought out of my mind. It was pointless to think about all that now.
Tomorrow—I could only do my best and rock on.