And here's chapter 7.
It was almost ten the following day, and Mafuyu was still in her bedroom.
"It seems like she's already awake. I just heard the sounds of her changing."
Senpai said that in a depressed manner. Hey, there's another room between yours and hers! There has to be a limit to how sharp your ears can be!
"Even if it's at the other end of the school building, I can still hear the sounds of girls changing!"
"Geez! Is that what you do when you skip lessons?"
Upon hearing Chiaki say that in an angry tone, Senpai looked downwards miserably.
"But...... it's always at the most crucial times that I miss hearing things. Just like then. If only I had noticed Comrade Mafuyu was done with her shower......"
Back then? I don't think Senpai was in the state to be worrying about anything else back then.
Moreover, I was the one facing the hall, and I didn't even notice Mafuyu was there till I heard the sound of the glass door. It felt like I had done something shameful—but I didn't do anything wrong that should've made Mafuyu angry! I didn't, right?
"Why is Mafuyu so angry?"
Chiaki stared at Senpai and me as she tuned the tightness of the snare drum.
"It'd be much easier to deal with if she was just angry. That was probably...... her not being angry."
Senpai tilted her head slightly, then let out a sigh. Somehow, she didn't seem to be that worried. It was like I was the only one worried sick, and that made me feel really uneasy.
After we finished breakfast, I decided to head to the second floor to check things out. I knocked on the door of Mafuyu's room. No response.
"...... Mafuyu? I brought breakfast over."
I could feel that she was on the other side of the door; she just wasn't responding.
Back then, Mafuyu said—
"So I am just an excuse."
Which meant she had at least heard the last few sentences Senpai said, and thought she was just an excuse for Senpai to pull me into the band—no wait, that's not it.
"Mafuyu, please open the door! Let's have a proper talk!"
If things continue this way, Mafuyu might start thinking in the wrong direction.
The door to her room remained tightly shut, so I gave up and carried the tray of onigiri back downstairs.
"Is Mafuyu okay?" Chiaki asked. I shook my head.
"There's nothing we can do. Let's practice." When Senpai said that, she had already plugged her Les Paul guitar into the amplifiers and was ready to go.
Somehow...... it feels like this person isn't concerned about Mafuyu at all. Am I thinking too much into it?
"Is Senpai not worried about Mafuyu?"
Chiaki knitted her eyebrows.
"Of course I am, to the point that it feels like my body's about to be ripped apart. However...... I know there's nothing much I can do."
This time, it was Chiaki who ran up the stairs.
"Mafuyu, did something happen? Did that stupid Nao say something terrible again?"
Chiaki's voice traveled down to the first floor. She said that using the same mocking tone she always used when she wanted to tease me. But this time around, it felt really uncomfortable—as though something were stuck in-between my ribs.
In the end, Chiaki walked back down dejectedly.
"She didn't even say anything."
Chiaki sat down in the chair of the drum set, and sighed in the direction of the hi-hat pedal.
"The training camp ends today......"
"We still have some time left before Hiroshi comes over to fetch us."
With that, Senpai gently plucked one of the strings of her Les Paul guitar. I might've just been thinking too much, but that sentence of hers sounded really cold.
"...... Which song are we going to practice? A song by The Eagles again? Since Mafuyu's not around."
"Nope. We'll be practicing the new song."
Senpai took a quick look at me. The song...... yesterday?
Chiaki and Senpai discussed how they should go about having the drums come in, but I was in no mood to play the bass at all. This is the first time we'd be practicing this song as a band, and if we carry on and work on the song without Mafuyu—
Mafuyu's reason for being here might really just disappear.
I covered my mouth after something had come to my mind all of a sudden.
Is that the reason...... behind Mafuyu's uneasy feelings? She had kept talking about how she didn't know her reason for being here. If that was really the case......
I raised my head in response to Senpai's call.
"We'll go with the full ensemble for the intro of the song, and play the first four bars grandly, with a *bam*. We'll be using the same chords for section B as well. Well, something like that."
Senpai strummed her guitar gently to demonstrate it for me.
"The sound of the cymbals will then die down, and we'll transition into the intro you recorded on the tape yesterday. During the first repeat, the guitar won't be coming in. Okay?"
I nodded my head stiffly.
How will Mafuyu feel when she listens to this song?
For a long time, we couldn't agree on the composition of the song. After a while, Chiaki suddenly suggested "Why don't we remove the drums?" I couldn't understand the reason behind her suggestion—it would be too bland with just Senpai's guitar playing in the background. But since we couldn't make it work with the three of us playing at the same time—
Senpai suddenly lifted both her hands up to stop us from playing. We had already played the opening intro a countless number of times. Chiaki's drumsticks slid down the surface of the cymbals, producing an uncomfortable scratching sound that filled the entire hall.
"...... What's wrong?"
"Comrade Ebisawa has gone out."
I lifted my head to look at the corridor of the second floor. She went out? If that were the case, we should've noticed her door opening.
"She went out through the windows. That reckless girl." Senpai quickly turned down the volume of the amplifiers and switched them off. She then threw her guitar on the sofa and dashed out the door.
Out through the windows? There were trees close to the windows on the other side of the room, so it wasn't impossible for her to climb down using the tree trunks. But..... really? Chiaki was one step faster than me at making her way to the stairs. Both of us ran up to the second floor, causing the spiral staircase to creak. Chiaki opened Mafuyu's bedroom door, but there was no one to be seen; there was only an opened briefcase on the bed. Through the opened window, we could see the layers of greenery swaying with the wind.
Chiaki leaned her back against the side of the door dejectedly, then slumped onto the floor.
"Why is she doing such dangerous things despite her fingers being immobile......"
I could feel my strength leaving me. I sat on the handrails of the corridor weakly, and stretched my legs out.
Just where is Mafuyu planning to go to? She even ran out barefooted. Damn......
Is she going to disappear again without saying anything?
"Thank god Senpai realized."
Chiaki mumbled as she looked towards the opened window.
That person must've been worrying about Mafuyu in her own way—that's probably why we only practiced the new song, right? Because the tone of that song was quiet, which made it easier for her to detect any movements on the second floor.
Thank god she noticed it. But I didn't notice anything.
"What exactly happened? Are you not telling me something?"
It was only after I had heard Chiaki's words that I lifted my head up from between my knees.
Chiaki bit her lower lip and stared at me earnestly.
"...... Actually...... I don't really know either."
"Why is Nao always like this!?"
But where exactly should I start? Somehow, it felt like, even if it was Chiaki, I shouldn't tell her about the gloomiest part of Senpai's heart.
"Mafuyu seems to think the band will be alright even if she's not around."
"Mmm, I know that."
"And then...... I think she overheard a conversation between Senpai and I...... probably."
I explained to Chiaki what happened yesterday night. In order to not tell her about Senpai's painful past, I paid special attention to the words I used.
"Which means, Senpai used Mafuyu to get close to Nao?"
"No, like I already said, that's not it."
Mafuyu probably thought the same thing Chiaki did.
"Senpai was already planning to invite Mafuyu; she just did so through me, even though she could've done it herself."
Well, if you want to say it in a manner as blunt as Chiaki's, it would be: Senpai used me to get Mafuyu in the band, and manipulated me to get myself in as well.
There was no need for Mafuyu to think too deeply into things. If only I had the chance to talk to her properly about it.
"I think Mafuyu probably knows that as well."
"So it's pointless to explain everything to her, because that's not what's important."
I glanced at Chiaki's side profile. Behind her face were the leaves and branches of the trees, rustling gently in the wake of the breeze. The gaps between the leaves had sliced the sun's rays into multiple strands.
"The reason Mafuyu's in the band is because of Nao! Do you understand?"
I nodded my head hesitantly. Well, I had heard something similar from Mafuyu before; she said she was following me because Senpai had invited me to join the band. However, Chiaki shook her head with a slightly sad expression on her face.
"Mmm...... Nao probably doesn't get it."
"...... Don't get what?"
"Think through it carefully and figure it out yourself! I'd be very troubled if you didn't realize it yourself."
Just as I was about to continue asking her about it, I heard the sound of knocking coming from the main door. Someone was knocking on the door. I sprang up and ran down the stairs.
Upon opening the door, I saw Senpai's exhausted face. Mafuyu was on her shoulders, her face green with exhaustion, and her eyes shut tight.
Senpai dragged herself through the door carrying Mafuyu on her back.
"She collapsed on the floor, probably due to anemia. Comrade Aihara, clear out the space on the sofa."
Chiaki hastily removed the guitar. Senpai laid Mafuyu's small body horizontally on the sofa, then propped Mafuyu's legs up using the cushions, elevating her feet above her head. Finally, she began loosening Mafuyu's collar.
"Young man, there should be some red tea in the fridge, right? Add some sugar to it, then warm it up using the microwave. Bring it here when it's done."
As I grabbed the cup of red tea, making my way out of the kitchen, Mafuyu's eyes opened slightly—though she still looked to be in pretty bad shape. Senpai knelt down next to Mafuyu's face as Chiaki peeked at Mafuyu from behind the sofa.
"You were running about recklessly without having eaten breakfast, right?"
Senpai said gently, as she lightly touched Mafuyu's cheeks.
"Do you want to drink this? You'll feel better if you do."
Senpai took the cup from me. Mafuyu bit her lip and shook her head when the cup was held close to her face. Senpai slowly brought the cup to her mouth and took a sip of the red tea. She then got close to Mafuyu's lips—Hey! Hold it right there!
"...... Mmm, mmmmmm!"
With her hands being grabbed onto and her shoulders pressed down, Mafuyu had no choice but to accept Senpai's way of feeding her through her lips; she was even making noises through her nose...... Uwa! I knew in my heart it was something I should not have been watching, but I continued to stare at Mafuyu till she finished swallowing the red tea.
Senpai moved her moist lips away from Mafuyu. She then licked them with an intoxicated expression on her face.
"Thank you for that!"
"What's with the 'thank you for that'!? What exactly is going through your head at a time like this!?"
I snapped at her without even thinking, while Chiaki covered her blushing face with her hands.
"I'm sorry. I finally had the chance presented to me!"
"Geez! Stupid Senpai!" Chiaki yelled.
Mafuyu's face was flushed red. She turned her body away and buried her face in the back of the sofa.
"It was an emergency...... so I had no choice but to do it."
T-This person here...... I really couldn't come up with anything else to yell at her.
"Don't mind it, Comrade Ebisawa. Just treat it as though you were bitten by a stray dog and forget about it."
"You aren't allowed to say that since you're the culprit behind this!"
"Hey, there might be a next time if she forgets about it!"
Senpai patted me on my head when she saw I was agitated. Is she joking about it to alleviate the tense atmosphere? Or is she serious about everything she just said? My head hurt just thinking about it.
Just then, Senpai's handphone, which was on the piano, rang.
"...... Yes? ...... Hmm? Ah, mmm. Thanks, I get it....... Mmm, see you later."
*Pa*. After closing her phone, Senpai turned her head around to look at the hall.
"Hiroshi's about to arrive. He just passed the intersection."
Chiaki and I exchanged looks for a moment, then looked at Mafuyu.
"Let's pack up and clean the hall! Comrade Ebisawa, you rest for a while. Young man, go prepare our bento. Hiroshi probably hasn't had lunch yet as well. Seems like we don't have much time to spare, so we'll eat on the car instead."
Senpai placed her guitar into its case, then proceeded to pack the stands.
Chiaki's sight landed on Mafuyu's maroon-colored hair. After a while, Chiaki stood up, made her way to the drum set, and began packing the cymbals.
It's finally about to end? Under such circumstances?
I took another look at Mafuyu's back. Her frail, slender body remained motionless.
In the end, I was unable to talk to her about anything. Mafuyu and I were still unable to communicate with each other properly.
But then...... would everything be fine if we could communicate with each other through words? Chiaki said before: "So it's pointless to explain everything to her, because that's not what's important."
Which means, it's all because I didn't notice?
It was a little past noon when I heard the sounds of an engine outside the door.
"Hmm? Why is everyone not tanned?"
Hiroshi stuck his head out from the driver's seat of the SUV.
"We didn't come here just to swim; we came to practice."
Senpai answered while carrying the drums from the terrace. Mafuyu was still lying on the sofa, and Chiaki had gone to Mafuyu's room to bring down her luggage. I took their luggage, along with mine, and loaded it all into the SUV. Just as I was about to head back to grab the rest of the luggage, Hiroshi pulled me by my collar.
"I-Is there something you want?"
"Did you do something that you weren't supposed to do?"
He didn't seem like he was joking, which flustered me.
"Urm...... why are you asking that?"
"The mood feels really strange. Even Kyouko has become really meek."
He was really sharp...... as expected from someone who had (probably) known Senpai for a long time.
"We had a small quarrel."
"Well, that's to be expected, since you're the only guy around! From the beginning, I had thought this might not have been the greatest idea."
"Urm...... it's probably not what Hiroshi's thinking."
"Nothing like that happened? But it was three days and two nights?"
Hiroshi placed his hands on my shoulders and asked softly.
"Urm...... nothing." The things he was referring to were probably...... those things, right?
"That's even worse, right? That's not normal at all."
I was getting more and more confused about what he was trying to say.
As I was about to walk through the door of the villa, I nearly bumped into Mafuyu, who was carrying the floor tom. Did she just wake up? She still looked like she was in really bad shape.
"It's better for you to continue resting."
I was about to offer to help her with that, but she shook her head silently instead. It's really dangerous for you to be carrying such a large object, given your immobile fingers. Are you really okay with that?
After ensuring that all the doors and windows were locked, and checking that all power sources were switched off, I locked the main door and passed the keys to Hiroshi. It was already one. The weather felt cool though, as the sky was filled with clouds.
Mafuyu sat between Senpai and Chiaki in the backseat, while I grabbed the bento and sat in the co-driver's seat.
"Hiroshi, that villa was quite impressive."
Senpai said that to Hiroshi after the car passed through the forest and hit the road .
"I want to come here next year as well. The four of us together."
The four of us—coming here together next year. Those words struck a chord somewhere deep in my heart.
"I'm okay with lending you guys the villa again, but don't ask me to be your driver next time. I don't have that much free time—I have to rush down to the studio after dropping you guys off."
"You can just ask someone else to take over for you."
"How could I possibly do that!"
Hiroshi slammed the pedals hard, and a refreshing gust of wind blew in through the open windows. Through the trees, I could catch glimpses of the glittering horizon.
"I'm chauffeuring three high school girls, yeah? How could I ask someone else to do this? What would I do if something happened? Also, for nothing to happen despite being with three girls—that's just embarrassing."
Somehow, it felt like he was indirectly talking to me. Did he notice? Hiroshi shot a glance at me, and laughed with his shoulders shaking. Immediately after, he turned on the stereo, and the conversation ended just like that.
The cheap-sounding, but warm, timbre of the keyboard—as well as the crisp sound of the guitar—could be heard from the speakers. It was Mötley Crüe's <Home Sweet Home>.
Hiroshi spun the steering wheel sharply. The trees to our left disappeared along the bend, and what appeared before our eyes was the sea, as though it were bidding its last goodbye.
It was about four when we reached home. Hiroshi had kindly offered to drive us each back to our respective homes. Senpai and Mafuyu had been dropped off earlier, so Chiaki and I were the last ones left in the car.
"Ah, you can just drop both of us off here. We live close to each other," said Chiaki, as she took her luggage out of the boot.
"Sorry for making you drive us home."
"It was nothing! I have to go this way anyway, as I'm heading down to Tokyo." Hiroshi removed his sunglasses and flashed a wry smile. It must've been hard on him. I mean, he only lost a bet.
"Hamasaka, you'll be going to the live performance, right?"
Chiaki stuck her head into the car through the driver side window and asked.
"Live performance? We aren't performing together...... Ah, you mean the live performance for Melancholy Chameleon?"
"Yes! I already got my ticket. I was really surprised when I saw you the day before yesterday."
Chiaki is a fan of his? I haven't been too interested in listening to music lately, so I had no idea at all.
"I'll make sure you can see me from the stage. Oh, I'll throw a towel up on stage too, so make sure you catch that!"
"Well, I'll be in your care during the secret gig too! Ah, we'll meet each other again during the rehearsals, yeah?"
Hiroshi then shifted his sight from Chiaki to me.
"I'm really thankful towards you. Somehow, it feels like I can't lift my head in front of you."
"Forget about it!" Hiroshi hammered me on the shoulders a few times.
"To be able to see Kyouko sing right before my eyes—that's more than enough for me."
I stared at the SUV as it left, then suddenly thought of something—just what is the relationship between him and Kagurazaka-senpai? He seemed to know more about Senpai than all of us, so he probably met her when she was in one of her earlier bands or something?
"Nao, I'll be heading back!"
Chiaki's voice came from behind me, so I turned around.
"Well, next Monday? See you in school then."
Even though it was the summer holidays, the schools were open during work days, so we could still use the club room. The live performance will be here soon huh.
"You must reflect on a lot of things, alright?"
After saying that, Chiaki ran past a turn at the intersection, then disappeared.
Reflect...... seems like I have to do some reflecting huh? But I had no idea what I should've been reflecting on, so finding that out was probably first on my list.
When I opened the door, a stack of records came crashing down onto me like an avalanche, nearly blowing me out the door. I stepped on a case or something, and felt a sort of cracking feeling under the sole of my foot. I had no strength left in me though, so I crawled up the corridor as though I was swimming, and removed my shoes.
The clothes in the washing room had already piled up into a small hill, which looked as though it was some sort of mysterious object. I was only away from home for two days—how did things become like this? The kitchen must be even worse, so I better not look at that for now.
I was surprised, though, that there was no music to be heard. It turned out Tetsurou was taking a nap on the sofa in the living room. He's enjoying himself quite a bit, huh.
After my bath at night, I just sat on my bed and stared at my handphone. For a long time, I fretted over what I should do.
I already had Mafuyu's number saved, so I could call her anytime I wanted to.
If so, should I give her a call right now?
There were a lot of things I wanted to talk to her about—things like, if she had recovered from her anemia yet, and other stuff. I hadn't told her about the new song yet, and—
Before I knew it, I had already pressed the call button.
I placed the speaker next to my ears, and listened to the connecting tone ring on for a while. Just as I was about to give up and disconnect the call, I suddenly heard a *beep*. A faint breathing sound then caressed my ears.
Mafuyu's voice sounded really fuzzy, as though it had come from the bottom of a swimming pool. Even the background sound of the dogs barking sounded much clearer than her voice, despite it being much further away. The image of Mafuyu throwing her phone to the ground and burying her face in her pillow appeared in my mind.
"Urm...... is your body alright?"
"...... I'm fine."
What a cold reply.
"Really...... but you didn't even take a bite from the bento."
"I ate a little for dinner."
"Is your father...... in Boston?"
"Yes. He won't be back anytime soon."
I had no idea what to say next. The silence, joined by the background noise, continued on for a while. I could even hear the exhaust of the car outside her house. What's with the incredible performance of her phone? Somehow, the silence became even heavier.
"— Hey......" "—Urm......"
Our voices overlapped. Then, we found ourselves in the same situation again, with neither of us speaking. What the heck am I doing? Focus! Aren't I consciously aware of it already? The communication between the two of us is severely lacking.
"...... It's about yesterday."
I finally said it.
"It's about what happened yesterday night. I want to talk about it properly with you. The things that Senpai said."
There was a slight change in Mafuyu's breathing.
"You heard everything right? From when onward were you listening?"
If Mafuyu didn't answer, there'd be no point in me going on and on by myself. I stared at the backpack on the floor and waited.
"...... Kyouko....." Mafuyu replied with a hoarse voice. "She said she had her eyes on you right from the start. What did she mean by that? I did not quite understand."
I pinched my eyelids and thought for a while. Is that really important? I didn't get it. Anyway, I began explaining it to her from the very beginning—about how I occasionally wrote critiques under Tetsurou's name; how Kagurazaka-senpai felt like there was something out of place, based on those articles alone; and how she realized it was me who wrote those articles.
"So Kyouko had actually noticed something like that."
After I finished explaining, Mafuyu said that.
"If it were me...... I definitely would not have noticed."
It'd be normal for you not to. She's the strange one.
"What are you talking about? That's her......"
"Kyouko always had her sights set on you, right? She pulled me into the band in order to get you in as well."
"That's not it!" The pitch of my voice raised a bit. "Senpai had always been paying attention to you as well. She had planned to get you in the band right from the start. I'm not lying. I heard this from Senpai: while on the roof of the school building, during a certain rainy day in May, she heard the sound of a guitar coming from the courtyard. Remember? Book II of <The Well-Tempered Clavier>, when you used to skip the fugue and play only the preludes. That was the first time Senpai noticed you, and from then on......"
"I know that."
Mafuyu suddenly interrupted my heated explanation.
"I know that Kyouko...... really likes me. Because she is the sort of person who doesn't lie."
"Mmm. That's why......"
"But I do not care about those things at all."
"Sorry. It's not Kyouko's fault, and neither is it yours. It's just that I...... don't know what I should do."
I had no idea what I should be doing either.
"I...... had never once thought of joining a band, and I do not know anything about rock. Even though Chiaki said it was fine for me to be like this, but....... but I still......"
...... The sounds of sobbing?
"As expected, I know it will not do. I knew that after last night. It's because...... the band would be nothing to me if you were not around, just like how my existence is nothing to the band......."
"I won't leave the band. What are you talking about?"
The things Senpai said before suddenly appeared in my mind again—"People can easily, very easily, just suddenly disappear someday and never return."
"It's not that......"
Mafuyu's voice was trembling.
"Because...... you still have Kyouko, right? Even....... Even if I'm not around—"
It was as if the latter half of her sentence were swallowed by darkness. The last part of that sentence finally pierced its way into my heart.
After she hung up the phone, I could still hear the remains of her voice in my ears. It was as though I could feel her silky smooth, long maroon hair, just by moving my shoulders a little.
I still had Senpai...... What does that mean? What exactly was she saying?
"Even if I'm not around—". That was what she said. So that was where the problem lied.
I had no idea how she had gotten herself in that place; however, I finally understood the situation Mafuyu was in, and I knew what sort of place she had shut herself into.
And also—it was much more than just the communication of words that was lacking between us.
But if that's the case...... Just what is lacking between us? And what should I do from here on out?