The last week of school passed uneventfully. There were no more practices, nor exams, for the rest of the semester, and Yui had consumed her daily sweets without a complaint—much to Ui's relief. Then Christmas Eve rolled by, filling the Hirasawa house with many people, food and shared joy.
Hovering over the hotpot, Yui waited for the broth to bubble. In her hand was a pair of chopsticks that held a leaf of cabbage, which looked as though it was sweating.
"Onee-chan, your face will get burnt," Ui yelped. She pulled Yui back firmly but gently into her seat.
Azusa glanced over at the Hirasawa siblings, then to Mio and Nodoka who were conversing about something related to school, and lastly, to a contented Tsumugi. Sighing at nothing in particular, Azusa poked at the plate full of raw meat with her own pair of chopsticks.
"It's really taking a long time, isn't it?"
Yui blinked; surprised that someone had taken the words out of her mouth. Nodoka and Ui also blinked, but they were not alarmed. On the other hand, both Azusa and Mio froze when they recognised the lethargic voice.
"Ah, Sawako-sensei, I'm glad that you could make it," Tsumugi exclaimed. That was a bit of a white lie considering the advisor wasn't invited, again, but Tsumugi was Tsumugi, and she was polite.
Azusa and Mio made a choked whimper. When Sawako looked at them with her predatory eyes, the two band members hid behind Nodoka. Sawako grinned evilly at their reaction, and shifted her attention to the girl before them; Nodoka received a nervous tick. Delaying in making their worst fears come to life, Sawako pushed her glasses up and scanned the room. "Where's Ricchan?" she enquired. It was a question that was on most minds but was, up to that point, never voiced.
"She has the flu so she couldn't come," Tsumugi replied without forethought, preoccupied in dipping a piece of tofu into the now steaming pot.
Mio startled. "Eh? How do you know?" she asked.
"Eh—um, well," Tsumugi looked badly shaken as she tried to fetch an answer. In her fumbling, the tofu she held slipped and fell. "Ah, I called her yesterday and she told me then," she finished unconvincingly.
"You called her yesterday, and she told you then," Mio repeated slowly.
Tsumugi's eyes were shifty.
Mio frowned and continued, "Why would she get sick all of a sudden…?"
Dropping the leaf of cabbage into the hotpot, Yui turned to the others and suggested, "Maybe it's 'cause of the cold showers."
It took a moment for the suggestion to register into Mio's brain. When it did, she whipped towards Yui with wide eyes.
Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "There's no gas at her house?"
Yui didn't look at Mio when she answered a cheerful, "Yeah, I think."
Nodoka and Tsumugi caught Mio's flustered expression easily. A giggle burst out of the latter, forcing her to cover it up as an abrupt cough. Whilst the former empathised one of the emotions Mio was feeling: embarrassment, causing her to look pointedly at the hotpot and, in afterthought, drop several eggs in. Finding the piece of tofu Tsumugi had thrown in to be cooked, she scooped it out and placed it into the blonde's bowl in courtesy. Tsumugi thanked her.
"It's been about two weeks," Azusa pointed out, "the gas should've been back already." As if to emphasise her argument, she dropped in a few slices of meat into the pot. Sawako arched over, took out an egg that she deemed to be cooked and bit into it. She didn't hear Ui's warning cries until it was too late.
Ui rushed over to Sawako and tried to hush her from an impending tantrum.
Shaking out of her reverie, Mio turned to question Tsumugi and ignored the hullabaloo at the other side of the table. "When did she get the flu?"
Tsumugi was waving before her open mouth frantically, having taken the tofu by the mouthful as soon as she had received it. Mio waited patiently.
"Ah, that was hot. Um, ah, about a few days ago, I think?"
"A few days ago…."
"Yes," Tsumugi clarified, giggling, "When I heard her I'd thought it was her brother…."
Mio found the humour in Tsumugi's statement and laughed along for a bit. "Ah geez," she breathed out, "she had the cold a while ago, too." Rummaging through the pot with her utensils, she found a nicely cooked vegetable and picked it into her bowl. Yui was talking to Ui during that time, but the move was not unseen due to her peripherals.
"Mio-chan!" Yui cried, swinging around wildly and almost knocking Ui out in the process.
"Is that my cabbage? !" Yui wailed. After a second's hesitation, Yui seized the item from Mio's bowl and dumped it into hers in the speed of light.
Mio's eye twitched. "…You sure love your cabbage."
Despite the heat, Yui slurped up the vegetable and swallowed it easily. She grinned. "It's because cabbage is tasty!"
Mio's eye twitched again, but for a decidedly different reason.
For the rest of the meal, Mio didn't touch another piece of cabbage. She opted for the tofu instead, sharing it with Tsumugi. When Azusa and Nodoka noticed how specific Mio's choices were getting, they placed a couple of eggs and meat to make her bowl less plain. That left Yui to battle against only Sawako for the cabbages, and the latter lost sorely. Ui was a force to be reckoned with when her sister was in trouble.
Sawako was not pleased.
As the night and Sawako's depression wore on, it soon became evident that Azusa and Mio's worst fears would arise. After many screams, scuffles and encouraging squeals from the sidelines, the two girls stood in the centre of the room with eyes trained on the floor.
Yui beamed. Her sister had left the room silently during the dressing up proceedings, allowing her to pounce towards them without much restraint. Mio, seeing a dark shadow falling upon her, sidestepped just in time. Her fellow band member didn't react quickly enough. The two guitarists fell down with a thump.
Azusa adjusted the strap on her Santa costume, which had fallen and was revealing too much skin for her taste, and pushed Yui off her half-heartedly. "Yui-sempai, you're squashing me."
The protest went unheeded. "Hehehe, Azu-nyan's so adorable."
Sawako crossed her arms proudly, her eyes landing on Nodoka. Nodoka stood up quickly and excused herself for the lavatory.
There was a flash, and Mio's head swung around to look for the source. She blinked and stared. Tsumugi stared back innocently. It eventually led into a standoff and Mio sighed, lamenting on how she was never good at accusing people.
"She has the flu so she couldn't come…."
Mio frowned and sat down, not noticing there were further flashes of light. When Tsumugi realised Mio was in another world, she pocketed the camera and sat down next to her. She made sure they would be on the same eye level before she whispered, "I'm sorry."
Mio made a noise of surprise and turned to face her friend. "Why are you apologising?" she asked, knowing the blonde wasn't referring to the camera business.
Tsumugi didn't answer. But she didn't completely avert her gaze either. Her eyes were slightly lowered, and her expression was sullen. She looked genuinely apologetic, and Mio was starting to fathom vague ideas on why. Before she could ask another question though, Yui abruptly yelled out, "Let's watch a movie! A movie!"
Nodoka and Ui strode into the room in single file, having hidden in the hallway until they were in the all clear. "What movie though?" Nodoka asked.
Yui 'hmm'-ed, and then shrugged. Sawako searched in her handbag for a couple of DVDs she could have sworn she'd shoved in that morning.
"How about 'The Chronicles of Narnia'?" Ui suggested from behind Nodoka, almost—almost—cowering. She stared blankly when Sawako flipped the bag upside down and shook it.
"Is it the second one?" Azusa asked.
"It's the first. We don't have the second."
Tsumugi's eyes lit up. Sawako began to pull obstructing items out into the open; she hated that lion. "I would like to see it," Tsumugi said earnestly.
Mio was taken aback. "You haven't seen it yet?"
"Oh no, I'd seen it when I was in England. But I didn't really understand what was happening." Tsumugi turned to Ui. "Are there subtitles?"
"Yup, and it's voiced over too."
"Let's watch it then!" Yui yelled.
Sawako objected that she'd prefer it was a horror movie instead, but rested her case when Yui offered her a few bottles of wine and a glass. The advisor commandeered half of the L shaped couch and opened her first bottle quickly. The girls shuffled around and tried to be comfortable on what space was left, with Azusa and Mio keeping a safe distance.
The girls were a good audience, 'oh'ing and 'ah'ing at the right places. Seven minutes in, and Mio couldn't help but imagine Ritsu's reactions to some scenes. She knew the brunette would loudly criticise on the subtitle job; the subtitles, when compared to what was spoken, carried a script that was different in tone. It was something that would bother them both; Mio, because she was a writer, and Ritsu, because she liked to whine. Conscious that she was drifting away, Mio shook her head and paid an ear to the film.
"…There are a few rules we need to follow: there will be no shoutin'. Or runnin'. No improper use of the dumbwaiter."
Azusa made a show at giving a big glare at Yui at that line. Nodoka and Tsumugi giggled, and Mio joined in with the infectious silliness, however distantly, for her mind swayed back into memory lane.
She knew that after Ritsu was done in watching the film, she would proceed to open nearby wardrobes, cupboards and closets and see if she could fit in them. If she could, she would go inside the cabinet and stay there for a full three seconds before she stomped out. She would then pull Mio to stand at her erstwhile place, as if she had reached the conclusion that that would make a difference.
All of these were facts, part of history, and would be part of the future as well. Even someone like Ritsu wasn't an exception to the rule: things can only be done so many times and in so many ways before they fade in originality. Mio shook her head again.
"What are you doing?"
"…I'm kidnapping you."
Once, Mio remembered, she was locked inside purposely, by Ritsu's reasoning that she needed to learn how to cope with the dark. It didn't help at all. Not because such a method wouldn't work but because Ritsu had managed to lock herself in as well.
Mio had glowered in the dark, had felt tears tickle behind her eyes, and had demanded that Ritsu should stop fooling around at once. Ritsu had shouted that she wasn't joking at all and she really couldn't open the door. Mio had shouted back that Ritsu was an idiot. It became unusually quiet. Mio, not used to the lack of answers from the brunette, had shoved her way pass her and had a go with the door herself. It didn't budge. The tears started to flow, and Ritsu broke her silence.
"Hey, don't cry."
She had expected her to rebuke—a repeated insult was one too many.
She was hugged instead.
She had reached a hand up to rub her eyes before she asked hoarsely, "What are you doing?"
"Close your eyes, Mio-chan."
"We're gonna play pretend now."
"We're not in elementary—"
"Maybe a jumping castle'll work."
"A what, Ricchan?"
"A jumping castle, Mio-chan. Filled with cakes."
"…The ground's hard, Ricchan."
"It's a rock cake."
"…They're not that hard."
"Don't worry too much on the details!"
"And it's stuffy in here."
Mio was stubborn.
"We're inside a sponge cake."
Ritsu was more stubborn, and Mio was getting hungry.
Somewhere in the middle, her memory timeline seemed to shift. Thirteen year old Ritsu, who had kept her slightly hungry and relatively sane in the semi-darkness of the closet, turned into seventeen year old Ritsu. Before Mio could start to wonder how she got stuck in a closet with Ritsu at that age, light poured in, and it took Mio a while to figure out that Ritsu had leaned to the side too much, forcing the door open.
Gravity took a lot longer in making them fall into a dishevelled heap.
Grimacing in pain, Mio tried to extricate herself and failed. Her body was suddenly heavy. Their legs were tangled together, and Ritsu's arm was slung across her waist. She looked up, and saw that Ritsu's hair band must've slipped off during the fall, leaving brown hair to flutter freely over a wide forehead and amber eyes.
Dark, amber eyes.
Ritsu's mouth was moving, but no words were heard.
Mio strained her ears. "Ritsu…?"
Mio's breath hitched when Ritsu repeated what she'd just said. It was still inaudible, and Mio didn't trust her lip reading.
"I can't really hear you, Ritsu. Speak louder."
Ritsu repeated it again, then again, and again…
So deep into her thoughts was she that Mio didn't realise the movie had ended until Tsumugi shook her shoulder. Then she realised she had actually slept through most of it.
"Sorry for waking you, Mio-chan, but it's nearly eleven…."
"A-Ah, um, it's okay," Mio croaked. She cleared her throat and looked for her glass on the table. Tsumugi was already holding it, had refilled it even, and passed it to her. "Thanks."
Yui entered Mio's blurry vision with a blanket. "Do you want to stay the night, Mio-chan? You might fall asleep on the train home."
Mio took a few gulps of water before she replied, "No, it's okay. I feel awake now. Sorry for worrying you."
Yui looked doubtful. "Are you sure?"
Yui and Tsumugi glanced at each other. Behind them, Azusa, Nodoka and Ui were also wearing varying degrees of worry on their faces. Mio blinked, and then felt her ears warm when she caught on with the implication.
"Did I…" she said slowly, "say something in my sleep?"
All five girls shook their heads negative in unison.
Mio felt faint.
The next time Mio became conscious again, the ground was moving. She gave a start, sat up and would've fallen off her seat if strong hands didn't steady her. She looked up and smiled in appreciation.
"Thanks Ri—I mean," Mio stammered, almost slapping a hand against her forehead, "Mugi, Mugi."
Tsumugi was amused. "Another dream?" she asked.
Mio burned. Hiding away from Tsumugi's teasing smile, she took in her surroundings. The seat she was sitting on was leather and had a belt attached. She looked ahead, across Tsumugi, and saw the scenery fly pass with the occasional blinding lights. "Are we in your car…?"
"Yes, it's a bit late for either of us to take the train."
"Ah, yeah it is…sorry for bothering you."
"Oh, not at all. Anything for a friend."
Mio twisted her body around so her legs dangled off the seat, and felt for the belt to buckle herself. She gave a side-glance at the blonde, and saw the guilt-ridden expression was back. She searched for a topic.
"Um, so how's your job?" Mio asked tentatively, "Are you finished for the week?"
"After this weekend, yes. I'll be staying in Japan for the rest of the year."
"Your parents are going somewhere?"
"A-hmm. This week, they're visiting an old friend in Germany."
"Oh, so you're home alone. Well—you get what I mean."
"So you're doing well at MAX?" Mio repeated.
"Yup. They're holding a special party over there at the moment…."
Tsumugi was about to nod before she remembered the time. "Oh, they should've finished by now."
"…Did you want to go?"
"Hmm…Let's say that if I were to pick you guys or them, of course I would pick the first option."
Mio smiled. "You could've just given a straight answer."
Tsumugi smiled back. "That's not fun, then."
"You're sly," Mio stated playfully. When she saw how Tsumugi's expression seemed to go still, she tried to back-pedal. "I mean…."
"No," Tsumugi said sharply, and then her voice went soft again, "you're right. That's why I apologised before."
"You know something I don't, don't you?"
Tsumugi's lips tightened. "Yes. I'm sorry."
Mio sighed. "You don't need to apologise, I understand."
The car slowed down to a stop; the sound of gnawing gravel reached their ears. Tsumugi looked out of the window. "We've reached your house, Mio-chan."
"Yeah," Mio muttered, unbuckling her seatbelt and opening the door. "Thanks for the lift again."
"You're welcome, and Mio-chan?"
There was something in Tsumugi's voice that made Mio stop in stumbling out of the car and look over her shoulder. It sounded as if it held hope somewhat, rather than just an obligatory blessing. It also sounded a bit—Mio gave a small smile—sly.
"Merry Christmas to you too."
After she pushed the door closed, its window rolled down. Mio stepped back from the road and ducked down to see Tsumugi give a small wave. She waved back. The car sped away.
Mio exhaled sharply; she watched the white puffs disperse before turning and making her way towards her house. She had just reached the front door when her phone gave a buzz. Digging into her jacket pockets for the keys of the house and her phone, she shoved the key into the lock and flipped the phone open to display the following message:
'Merry Christmas, Mio!
Hope I see you soon!'
It was from Ritsu.
Mio frowned and re-read the mail.
Do I reply…?
Mio almost dropped her phone in surprise.
The front door was slid open, and standing in its place was Mr Akiyama in his pyjamas. "You must be cold," he continued as he sidestepped for Mio to enter, initially mistaking Mio's contorted expression to be discomfort. As soon as his last word was uttered, realisation came to him. "Oh, did I scare you? Sorry."
Mio took the keys out and stepped inside, pocketing the keys and her phone in her jacket. Her hand stayed in the jacket pocket. "Thanks, Dad. Er, did I wake you?"
Sliding the door back and locking it, the man shook his head. "Nah, I went down to get a drink and then heard you. How was the party?"
"It was fine," Mio replied distractedly.
"'Fine'?" he echoed with a sceptical eyebrow. It was replaced by a face of recollection. "Oh, right. I almost forgot."
"What is it?"
"There was a present in the mailbox from Ritsu-kun. It's at your bedroom door."
Mio stopped fidgeting with her jacket pocket. "Present? From Ritsu?"
Mr Akiyama nodded. "I guess she didn't want to burden you."
"Yeah. You'd probably lose it on the train home, right?"
Mio's brow creased. She didn't answer.
"Ritsu-kun's sure is thoughtful," Mr Akiyama went on, misinterpreting Mio's expression yet again, "it reminds me of the old days, when your mum and I were around your age."
Mio's mind was still on the previous topic. She shook her head for the current one was making some sense to her. "Mum liked sending you stuff, she told me," she said quietly.
"Right. She always left gifts in my mailbox; your grandparents always teased me about that."
"Grandma really does like to pick on you."
"She does, doesn't she…? Anyway, how is Ritsu-kun by the way? I haven't seen her for a while."
"You're making it sound—oh!" Mio laughed. "She wasn't at the party. She's sick."
Grinning, Mio dashed towards the stairs. Her father stood quiet for a long moment as if he was contemplating over something. At last he managed to say, "Oh."
At the top of the stairs, Mio remembered she was supposed to be quiet and lessened her haste. She squinted in the dark as she felt her way around, and then stopped, puzzling over her sudden craving for cake. She shook her head and allowed her eyes adapt to the dark.
She knelt at her bedroom door, her hands grappling on the ground. Her sight found what she was looking for before her touch; she picked up the present.
…It's quite flat, Mio noted, feeling its shape. She mentally rifled through all presents she had ever received from Ritsu. None of the inane (and horrific) options matched with the shape in her hands.
Deciding to look at her gift in the privacy of her room, she opened the door, stepped inside, turned on the light and began the unwrapping. At first she peeled off the cello tape carefully, but her patience waned after a few tries. Sliding a thumbnail under the wrapping, she tore it thoroughly. She let the wrapping fall to the ground at her feet as she stared at her gift.
It was three CDs.
On top of them was a note. A note written on one of the writing pads Mio had given on Ritsu's birthday. It wasn't the first time the brunette had used the stationery, Mio observed with a smile; the page number was reaching two digits. Mio started to wonder what had happened to the pages before this one, then shook her head for the umpteenth time that night, and read the note:
'Merry Christmas, Mio! Here's the YUI CD I was supposed to give back. And you said you didn't get her singles, right? Since you were late and all, but hey, even if you did, you have backups now!'
Underneath the words was a drawn caricature of Ritsu. It grinned and winked at Mio, complemented with a victory sign—or was it two drumsticks, Mio wasn't sure.
Mio slid the note to the bottom of the pile, revealing the first CD to be her copy of 'CAN'T BUY MY LOVE'. She slid that one under the note—
Remembering what time it was, Mio covered her mouth with a hand and continued her moment by flailing around on the spot.
The second CD was the limited edition of 'again'; something that was long out of print.
Grinning gleefully, she managed to slide that CD to the side—and squealed again. It was another out of print single, and another limited edition, but best of all, it was double A-sided.
"'It's all too much/Never say die'…! How did she get these? !"
After rubbing her eyes to make sure she wasn't imagining things and flipping over the CDs multiple times to make sure they were absolutely tangible, Mio ran around her room in tie-toe fashion. That happened about thrice before she finally settled down. Pulling her phone out and—after re-typing and deleting parts she deemed to be verbose—replied:
'Merry Christmas to you too!
Hope you get better soon.
You'd better check your mailbox too.'
New Year's Day came quickly.
The first thing Mio did when she awoke was to turn on her CD player. As it looped the 'again' single…again, her phone beeped. It was a 'Happy New Year' message from Ritsu.
Mio smiled and was about to type her own reply when she remembered something.
The Light Music Club had decided to meet up at Imamiya Shrine on the third, just like last year, and hoped it would turn tradition. Graduation was going to be upon most of them in a year, and they needed something that would delay them from separation. They had heard the horror stories of good friends that soon drifted apart after high school. Even though they often reassured each other the band would survive, all of them knew the world outside Sakuragaoka High was harsh. They needed each other to go through the many trials life would bring them.
But there was a flaw in their plan: they had forgotten to notify the club leader about it.
Or to put it more precisely, Yui had slipped into her airhead persona and zoned out when it came to the question of who would tell Ritsu. Azusa had pointed out that she wasn't there last year so it would be 'inappropriate' for her to be the messenger. Tsumugi had only uttered the words 'family business' and the subject was changed—after a hasty 'we're counting on you, Mio-chan/sempai!'
Sighing at the memory, Mio hung her head but the smile stayed. In addition to the obligatory greeting in her reply, she passed on the details of what her other lovely friends were going to be up to. She had to press the 'send' button at least twice due to her excitement, hoping Ritsu was well enough to go.
Ritsu's reply was:
'Sorry~! I'm gonna be busy practising.
Have fun without me!'
In Mio's symbolic writing style, the brunette's reply had stapled Mio's high hopes together and had it sent to a paper shredder.
Mio glared at her phone.
Practising…? For what! Mugi's still checking over the new song…and since when does Ritsu practise…? Does that even exist in her schedule? If she had a schedule, that is.
She groaned and curled in her bed.
She's not…avoiding me, right?
After pressing a few buttons on the phone idly, Mio stared at Ritsu's mail that was received on Christmas Eve. She groaned again and curled further until she reached foetal position, not wanting to get up anymore.
But Nature called.
On the ground floor, Mr Akiyama glanced towards the ceiling and wondered why his daughter's footsteps were heavier than usual. It was the kind of heavy that sounded intimidating, prevising you to keep on your toes. Mr Akiyama frowned. Mio was a morning person and the only times she was not was when her Aunt Yuuna came to visit—she can be awfully chatty and likes to drop in at four in the morning—or there was a row with her childhood friend.
He eyed his wife who sat across from him. She'd claimed she heard their daughter squeal in delight around the first hour of Christmas Day. He assumed that was due to Ritsu's present and vetoed the idea that Ritsu had sent another horrific item. That also meant he didn't need to give the young lady another subtle threat…
As if those had worked in the past, he frowned.
Propping his elbow onto the table, he rested his chin on his palm. He didn't remember an angry Mio last night, and it seemed Ritsu was still down with the flu considering Mio stayed at home all week. Her blonde friend—Tsumugi, was it?—came over a couple of times, but that was it; the girl rarely left the house unless accompanied by the eccentric brunette. He stared ahead.
Ms Akiyama stared back at him. Her eyes had a knowing glint, but her chin was set. Sensing a reprimanding, he lifted his head and steepled his hands. "Drink your tea, darling," he said warmly.
She did, but made a face and settled her tea cup down with a clink. Pulling the shawl over her shoulders, she stood up and went to check the mailbox. She came back with a bundle of cards and the morning paper. Skimming through the cards, she slipped several into her apron pocket and placed the remaining items onto the table.
"I've told you to stop worrying about it," she said finally.
"I'm not worrying about it," he replied a bit too quickly.
"Ricchan sent a card. They're—"
"—not fighting then."
"That's good," he said monotonously.
His wife frowned at him. She picked up her cup of cold tea and waddled to the kitchen for a refill. "You know Mio doesn't like it when you fuss over her."
"Yes, I know." He played with the corner of a card idly as he stared at nothing. "Somehow, I kind of understand mum's feelings."
Ms Akiyama hummed in agreement. "Speaking about mum, did you send her a card?"
There was a rush, a smack of wood against bone, and another darkly muttered curse.
Mr Akiyama danced on one leg, nursing his foot. The table, that he had snubbed his toe against, had flipped the cards over, littering all over the floor. Mr Akiyama stepped on one of them—and fell onto his back, arms waving in the air.
His wife returned to the dishevelled living room. "Aren't you a frog," she remarked in amusement.
The man tried to sit up, until pain from his lower back stopped him. He settled at lying still. "Frog?" he croaked, "How am I a frog?"
"A frog's child is a frog," she replied airily. Comprehension began to dawn on her husband, but was easily wiped out with confusion.
"Mio hurt her toe too?"
Ms Akiyama didn't answer. She had already left the living room and was assumingly at the stairs, judging from the sounds of slippers landing on hollow wood. He closed his eyes and relaxed; he'd call his mother later and apologise. If he was lucky, she wouldn't throw in a hearty death joke. They worked fantastically well as guilt-trips and always sent him packing his weekend duffel bag for home. Maybe he should look for that bag later as well; his back was still rebelling against him and the ground was growing comfortable. Now was a good chance in considering what gift he should bring home.
His peaceful thoughts were interrupted by a loud thump and muffled yell from above. There were another few similar, but lighter in comparison, thumps after that. He didn't dare sit up to find the reason of the commotion. He waited for his wife to appear, and soon enough she did. He lifted his head up and looked at her questionably.
"I was giving her her cards," she explained.
Her husband's brow wrinkled.
"She tripped over one of the cords," she elaborated.
At the Imamiya Shrine, even though it was the third of January, the area was a phalanx of people. Tsumugi arrived first, with Azusa and Yui appearing several minutes later. Seeing that she could see them but they couldn't see her, Tsumugi called out their names and waved them over with gusto. She was finally out of a kimono, which went on for three days straight, and back into casual, winter clothing. Yui, on the other hand, hadn't worn a kimono for three years straight, and since she was also wearing casual clothing, that personal record was going strong.
Azusa looked reluctant when she saw Tsumugi. She held her ground when Yui pulled her along.
"C'mon, Azu-nyan," Yui cooed, "You look adorable."
"You told me I'm not going to be the only one."
"Oh, I did, didn't I?"
"Look, Azu-nyan! Mugi-chan thinks you look adorable too!"
Azusa blanched. "Can you please tell her to get rid of the camera?"
"…But I want pictures…."
"And I don't! So can you please tell her to stop?"
"D'aww," Yui pouted. She stuck her nose to the side and puffed out her cheeks. "Fine then. Mugi-chan…you heard her."
Tsumugi slipped the camera into her purse and pasted a smile. "Good morning!"
"Good morning…!" Yui greeted back. She eyed Tsumugi's purse. "Mugi-chan…?"
"Did you bring—"
"Of course she didn't, Yui-sempai!"
"What do you mean, Azu-nyan?"
Azusa gaped, and flushed red. She crossed her arms and huffed, taking in her surroundings.
"Unfortunately, I didn't," Tsumugi answered. "I'll bring them next time."
Yui was more sullen than ever.
"It's still a bit crowded today, isn't it?" Azusa remarked.
"It is," Tsumugi agreed. "Shall we go and do our prayers?"
"Shouldn't we wait for Ritsu-sempai?"
"She isn't coming."
"Oh, how about…?"
"She's probably not coming, too."
"I see. I guess…we should go then."
Yui continued to gaze at Tsumugi's purse wistfully, and would only move when Azusa promised she would wear the Santa costume the next time they see their advisor. Appeased, Yui happily followed the two through the gate and to the main praying area. She rummaged through her bag, brought out a five yen coin and popped it in the offering box. Azusa watched Tsumugi insert a hundred yen coin. Frowning, she stared at the ten yen coin in her hands. She switched it with a fifty and rung the bell, hastily, when Tsumugi gave a knowing giggle.
Just as Yui was about to clap her hands together, Azusa interrupted her.
"Yui-sempai, I do hope your wish is related to the club."
Yui froze. She laughed and waved a gloved hand in front of her. "O-Of course, Azu-nyan!"
"I-I'm not lying!"
"But you were!"
"Now, now," Tsumugi said warmly, looking over her shoulder. The other two followed her gaze, and were reminded of how crowded the shrine was. A few people were waiting in line behind them.
They straightened up, clapped twice and bowed.
"I hope that all of us continue to have fun together," Tsumugi prayed.
"I hope that we will visit the cake shop—" Yui paused when she heard Azusa literally growl, "—and feel energised enough to practise."
Azusa stopped growling; she apparently accepted Yui's prayer.
"I hope that this year's school festival is also a success."
They quickly stepped off the platform—after Azusa apologised to the people in line—and made for the paved footpath. Yui scanned through the crowds as Azusa and Tsumugi checked their phones. Finding something—someone—strikingly familiar, she pointed towards the gate and grabbed her friends' attention by yelling hysterically. Tsumugi looked up from her phone in concern. Azusa looked up with a tick in her eye.
"What is it, now—Sensei? !"
"It is Sawako-sensei!"
Sawako had not yet acknowledged her students' loud presence. Considering there were many people and garden lanterns in between them, it was understandable.
"And look!" Yui jabbed her finger at the same direction, making a few tourists turn around and wonder what was so interesting about a garden lantern. "Her boyfriend's with her this time!"
Azusa's and Tsumugi's eyes moved from Sawako to the man that was practically attached to her hip. They briefly mused over how they didn't spot him immediately.
"Her boyfriend's really handsome," Yui exclaimed in disbelief.
"…Yeah," Azusa admitted. She immediately looked guilty for the shallow assumption.
"Let's spy on them!"
"No, we shouldn't—" Her pleas went unheard. She and Tsumugi were dragged to a lantern that was several metres away from the couple. Yui knelt down and peered from its side—and jumped back so suddenly her elbow almost connected with Azusa's jaw.
"Yui-sempai! Watch it!"
"Sorry! Are you okay?"
"Yes, but please be more careful next time."
"I will." Yui checked her phone.
"Did you just get a mail from Mio-sempai?"
"Yeah! She said she couldn't come 'cause something came up." Yui giggled. "More like 'someone', eh Azu-nyan?"
"Do you mean Ritsu-sempai?" Azusa asked unnecessarily. She glanced back at their advisor and then to her senior. Yui had apparently forgotten her earlier promise.
"…I don't get why they're taking so long to make up."
"It hasn't been that long."
"It's been three weeks!"
Yui took a step back at the outburst and blinked. "Eh? You were counting?"
"Yes," Azusa stressed out, and then added, "I've been counting how long we haven't practised together."
"Oh, I never do that…."
"Actually, I'd be pretty surprised if you did, Yui-sempai…."
"You know, I wonder what Mio-chan and Ricchan are doing."
Azusa looked as if she was going to retort, she eventually sighed instead. "You and me both, Yui-sempai."
"They might be making up right now, you know. With hugs and kisses."
Azusa stared blankly at Yui. Shaking her head, she glanced at Tsumugi. She gasped. "Mugi-sempai! Your nose is bleeding!"
Tsumugi broke from her daze, clapped a hand over her nose and blinked. "I am?"
"Um, it's kind of hard to tell now that you're covering it. But yes, I was sure you were."
By now, Yui had grasped what was going on—barely. "Mugi-chan! What's wrong?"
Tsumugi blushed at the extra attention as she fumbled for a couple of tissues. "I-It's nothing, Yui-chan. It's just a nosebleed."
"A-A nosebleed? What happened? Should I call—"
"It's okay, Yui-chan. It's okay."
"It can't be normal," Azusa said, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh no, this happens a lot more than you think."
"Why is that?"
"It's because I'm usually warm. And in the middle of winter, I'm more prone to them."
"…So it's really a common thing?"
Tsumugi nodded, "Yup."
Azusa raised the other eyebrow; Tsumugi pretended she didn't see the look by treating her nosebleed.
Yui had switched her mind off in the middle of the conversation and only returned when Azusa was perplexed. "Hey, let's go and eat some rice cakes!"
Azusa narrowed her eyes at her senior, but ended up following Yui's proposition after a surprise hug. Tsumugi did not object, having told herself that she would avoid treats for today. So the three swirled around—or swivelled as if she was executing each step of a lawn sprinkler—and made their way to a nearby restaurant.
At the end of lunch Tsumugi excused herself early. Yui nodded and waved absentmindedly as she looked around, admiring the surrounding view. Munching on the last cake she'd claimed to be her last, Yui commented, "Mugi-chan isn't working again, is she?"
There was no answer.
"Azu-nyan," Yui turned to the side, "why don't you try this—Azu-nyan?"
Her fellow guitarist wasn't at her side.
Tsumugi had managed to drag Azusa along with her.
The third and last semester loomed closer and closer, and soon enough Mio left the house for school. She had messaged Tsumugi earlier that she would be taking the keyboard for today and hoped she wouldn't mind; Tsumugi had not yet replied.
It was until she had stepped onto school grounds did Mio's phone go off. Moving to the side so she wouldn't impede anyone's path, Mio flipped her phone open and read Tsumugi's reply:
'That's okay, Mio-chan.
By the way, can you meet me at the music room before homeroom starts?
It's about the song.'
That's our Mugi.
Pocketing her phone, she made her way towards the building where the music room was located. She hummed the song in writing as her eyes drifted to the sky. Cloud watching was not one of her common pastimes but now that she had noticed them—white puffs that don't immediately disperse—they'd be good inspiration for some lyrics. She caught sight of a contrail before she entered the building, and was so engrossed in her wonder that she bumped into someone.
Shaking and preparing to apologise, Mio's gaze fell and met nothing. Confused, she spun around on her heel and continued to find nothing, no one—until she saw several strands of familiar, golden hair disappearing behind a wall.
…Was that Mugi?
Mio shook her head at the thought. Tsumugi would've apologised—would've been the first to apologise.
Why would she run away from me, anyway?
Laughing dryly, Mio went on: crossing through hallways and climbing up stairs. Her pace picked up with each step, that when she reached the music room door, she wretched it open and flung herself into the room.
The music room was empty.
The room was too quiet.
Hearing a susurrus sound of movement from behind her, Mio whirled around and came face to face with—Mio lifted an eyebrow.
"Who are you?" she asked.
The person that stood by the doorjamb looked unfamiliar, and yet didn't. She was a student like Mio, judging by the uniform she wore. She had shoulder length, brown hair that looked unkempt. The fringe was long, and reached her nose, but was parted in a way so her eyes were visible.
The other girl met Mio's eyes, making her mind halt. She tried not to flail her arms when the recognition hit her.
Ritsu gave a lopsided grin; Mio reminded herself to breathe.
"W-Why are you here? Where's Mugi?" Mio demanded, and would have continued if Ritsu hadn't revealed what was behind her back.
It was a bouquet of vibrant coloured flowers.
Mio gaped. She felt her bag slip off her shoulder and fall.
"Uh, here, it's for you," Ritsu mumbled, stepping forward with her hand out. The hand that held the roses, or lilacs, or lilies, or—Mio wasn't sure at that moment what kind of flowers they were. She was only sure that they were stunning—and that they looked a bit too battered and bit too dry, and that a few fallen petals were on the floor.
Another petal drifted off and joined the others on the ground, and Mio became conscious of how long she had been standing there gaping like an idiot. She stepped forward and took the bouquet in a daze.
"Um, thanks." She tilted her head. "Uh, what are these?"
"You mean the flowers?"
Mio's jaw tightened.
Ritsu spun around hastily. Picking up the acoustic guitar that lay against the wall, she made herself comfortable by sitting on the couch before lifting the guitar onto her lap. Mio looked on in confusion.
"What are you doing?" Mio asked.
"Playing the guitar," Ritsu answered, as if it was a common thing for her to do.
Mio's incredulous tone portrayed her succinct thoughts. "…You can play?"
The drummer gave the guitar a few, idle strums. "Yeah, of course!" She winked. "Watch me, okay?"
Mio gave her a dubious look.
Taking out a plectrum from her pocket, Ritsu paid the look no mind as she concentrated on the strings of the guitar. At the first chord the look remained, still not registering how it wasn't as jarring as expected. At the second the look began to crumble, realising that, yes, it wasn't really jarring at all. By the third chord, the look disappeared and was taken over by shock.
As if that wasn't surprising enough, Ritsu started to sing along.
That's why I go to you now 'cause I decided
I want you to hear this song in my pocket
I turn up the volume quietly
Just to make sure, you know
Ritsu's vocals were like a staggering entity, it would stumble on the line between two tunes: on or off. When it was the latter the brunette would slow down with the melody, placing the lyrics in priority and causing the timing to go more awry. But those trivial flaws didn't matter. Mio was still struck with awe.
Oh, good-bye days
Now, I have a feeling things are gonna change
So long, the day before now
Because there's this uncool gentleness beside me
By the second line of the refrain, Ritsu was struggling with the chords. Leaving the strings alone for now, she sang the chorus with a more modulated voice. It was a voice that contained a mild vibrato that, somehow, was not horribly strained from the power Ritsu gave. By the end of the verse, she began to strum the guitar again.
I give you the other earphone
And the song flows slowly at that moment
The melody stopped again, and Ritsu looked up with those amber eyes.
Dark, amber eyes.
"I'm loving you, aren't I?"
A harsh deja-vu crashed its way down, blinding Mio to the point where she had to blink, and blink. Stupidly. She felt her limbs go limp and heard something fall onto the ground, but she knew she was still standing.
Ritsu was still gazing at her, but looked away after a few more moments.
Mio started to speak, but the first uttered syllable was hoarse so she cleared her throat and licked her lips before trying again.
"Put the guitar down and stand up."
Ritsu faced her again and raised an arm in defence. "Okay, I know I sucked and I could have—"
"Put it down and stand up!"
"Just do it!"
Ritsu finally complied, and Mio took a few, quick steps forward to embrace Ritsu tightly. She heard Ritsu sigh in relief, and felt hands sneaking their way around her shoulders timidly. Mio smiled. Pulling back, she grazed her suddenly dry lips against Ritsu's cheek and felt the hands pause momentarily.
It was Ritsu's turn to blink stupidly.
Mio tightened her hold on Ritsu again, and then giggled, having felt Ritsu's heart beat heavily against her.
Ritsu rested her chin on Mio's shoulder and closed her eyes. "Mio…?"
"For, you know, being, uh."
"You were gonna stay 'stupid', weren't you?"
"Well…" Mio said slowly, "you're able to catch colds, so you can't be stupid."
Ritsu's eyes flew open. "Hey!"
Mio gave a snort, which soon turned into full-blown laughter. A laughter that was so infectious, Ritsu's offended face crumbled easily and she joined in.
When their shared mirth had settled into a little giggle here and there, and Ritsu had relaxed, Mio remembered something. "Hey."
"That song you were playing…."
"Was it YUI's 'Good-bye Days'?"
"Yeah, it was."
Mio's next reply was subdued.
"…Don't die on me."
She felt Ritsu's head immediately move, chafing against her ear. She bit back a wince.
"Huh? What'd you say?"
"Did you do your homework?"
Ritsu's left arm fell from Mio's shoulder to her side, and poked; Mio flinched. "Don't change the topic. What did you say?"
"I said 'Did you do your homework?'."
There was another poke, and another grimace. "No, you didn't."
Mio slid her arm across her stomach quickly, covering her side. She didn't let Ritsu go, despite her unrelenting poking. "Yes, I did. Oi! That hurt!" She grasped Ritsu's hand and held it. "You didn't, didn't you?"
"Do my homework?" Ritsu asked innocently as she struggled to reach Mio's side.
Mio's hold was resolute. "Yeah."
Ritsu tried to yank her hand away. "I'll just borrow Mugi's again."
Mio's grip hurt with each struggle. "How often do you do that?"
Ritsu stopped. "Every other week or so? Not that often."
"That's very often, Ritsu."
"She doesn't mind," Ritsu huffed, trying to flex her fingers to see if any were broken.
"You think she doesn't mind. Anyway, is that her guitar?"
"Yeah. Mugi's really nice, isn't she? She let me borrow it for all winter break."
Mio's grip loosened. "Winter break?" she echoed. She tightened her grip again when she felt Ritsu tense up.
"Yeah. Argh. Oh man, I practised so much. And I still stuffed it up!"
"Practised over—oh!" Mio finally understood Ritsu's New Year message. "Hey, you did all right."
"I should've mastered the chords by now…."
Mio moved her hand around so their palms were against each other, and lazily rubbed her thumb over the back of Ritsu's hand. The drummer relaxed—eventually—and Mio knew she would not be poked for a while now.
"Hey," Mio murmured, "don't be so harsh on yourself. We're all not like Yui."
Ritsu went rigid again. "…Yui…That lucky…."
Mio continued to rub with her thumb; Ritsu remained tense. "…You're not jealous of Yui, are you?"
Ritsu's voice carried a mildly rough edge. "No, I'm not jealous. Why would I?"
Mio couldn't help but snicker. "You are jealous."
Ritsu stepped away from the hug. "I'm not jealous!"
"Yeah you aren't."
"I'm really not—"
"It's homeroom time."
Mio's eyes darted to Ritsu's. "Hmm?"
Ritsu glared, and then tilted her head to the side. "Have you been hanging around with Mugi?"
"Uh, yeah. I have."
"Oh," Ritsu said shortly. She looked as if she was pouting.
Mio made sure the amusement didn't show on her face when she asked, "Why?"
"I dunno," Ritsu dragged out. "You just seem a bit—I mean, I dunno, it's like you've been hanging around…."
"You're sounding like you're—"
"Yeah," Ritsu admitted, puffing up her cheeks and looking at the ground, "Got a problem?"
Mio smiled and squeezed Ritsu's hand. "C'mon, we're gonna be late," she reminded, trying to tug the brunette forward.
Ritsu held her ground. She pointed to the floor. "You forgot something."
Mio looked down and saw what Ritsu was referring to. It was the bouquet of flowers. Mio realised with a small jump that that must've been what had fallen before. Slipping her hand from Ritsu's, she knelt down and picked up the flowers. A few more petals were left behind. She looked ahead and saw her neglected bag. She picked that up as well.
Glancing over her shoulder to see if Ritsu would follow her ("What are you looking at…oh," Ritsu said), Mio made her way out of the music room. Ritsu ran up to her, closed the door and matched her pace so that they walked side by side. A comfortable silence, which was punctuated with even footsteps, fell.
When they were a couple of classrooms away from the stairs they usually part at, Ritsu asked, "Like the flowers?"
Mio yelped in surprise. "Yeah. Thank you."
Ritsu grinned at her.
"Though," Mio continued, "how can I go to class holding this…?"
They reached the stairs, and Ritsu looked at it for a moment then looked back at Mio. She did that again before she waved. "See ya, then."
Mio freed a hand and waved back. "Yeah, see you."
"And I don't think they'll mind."
Mio was about to enquire what she meant by 'they' until she remembered what she had said before. "You think?"
"Yeah," Ritsu shrugged, turning around. She was on the fifth step of the stairs when she added, "Well…for now, anyway."
Ritsu looked over her shoulder and grinned. "Don't worry, go to class, you goodie-two-shoes."
Mio gave Ritsu an even stare, mulling over the words she had insinuated she didn't hear. She shrugged. "All right," she said, "have fun."
Ritsu pulled a face. "'Fun'? Did you just say 'have fun' when I'm going to class?"
"Yeah. And you'd better pay attention. Don't bother Mugi anymore."
"I'm not bothering her."
"You've been copying her notes and homework—"
"And she's been real nice at feeding me at lunch, too."
Mio was appalled. "You're taking advantage of her!"
"What? I…" The rest of Ritsu's objection trailed off rather ominously. She held a hand over her mouth, her eyes turning impish and dark. "Oho? Jealous that it's not you I'm taking advantage of?"
Mio stomped one foot forward and raised an angry fist. "Go to class, you idiot!"
Ritsu jumped up a few stairs in reflex. Her hands were up in the air with the palms facing out. "Okay, okay, Mio-chuan."
Mio waited until Ritsu had disappeared upstairs before she headed for her class. A few students who were in the hallway gave her varied looks as she passed them. Focusing on the bouquet in her hands, Mio kept her head low and didn't meet their eyes.
She reached 2-1 and paused.
They won't mind…They won't mind…I won't even be noticed. Yeah, I won't be noticed.
Taking a few deep breaths, she opened the door and entered the room. She cringed, realising belatedly she had forgotten to hide the most incriminating item behind her back. Because the moment Mio stepped into the classroom, a couple of heads turned to her, saw the flowers and glowed with curiosity. She backed away instinctively as they rushed towards her.
"Oh my, Mio-san!" one of the girls gushed, "Who gave those to you? They're so pretty!"
"Um," Mio said shortly, startled eyes darting from one to the other. She tried to remember their names.
"Yeah, yeah," the other girl agreed, jabbering away, "What's her name?"
Mio's brain halted for the second time of the day. "I'm sorry?" she spluttered, going scarlet.
"It's someone at school, isn't it?"
Her mind still not catching up, Mio could only nod dumbly.
"Do we know her, Mio-san?" the first girl asked in excitement. When the girl started to scan the room for any eavesdroppers, Mio recalled her name.
Ah, Shimazu. Shimazu Masae. And the other is Ishidou…Ishidou—
"Taka-chan! Do you think they're from her?"
Ah, Ishidou Takayo. Right. Eh. Eh? Whom are they talking about?
"Well, who is it?" Takayo repeated. "She does have a name, right?"
Mio gaped, then nodded and found her tongue. "Um, uh, Ritsu?"
Mio nodded again. She felt as if her cheeks were going to release smoke soon, with the way they were burning.
"I knew it!" Masae squealed, "I knew you two had something going on!"
Mio startled. Scared that she would say something that would further her embarrassment, she kept her mouth closed and hoped fervently they'd change the topic for her.
"Stop teasing the poor girl," Takayo reprimanded, "she's all red."
Thank you so much. Thank you.
Masae stuck out her tongue at Takayo before turning to Mio with a sincere face. "Sorry."
"It's…It's okay," Mio replied. She was about to head over to Nodoka, who was giving her a knowing look, when she was stopped by a hand on her arm.
"Tell us the details!" Masae pleaded.
Mio didn't quite succeed in hiding her grimace. Takayo frowned and shook her friend's shoulder, rebuking her about her lack of tact.
Mio quickly turned to Nodoka, almost blinding her classmates with her flippant hair. "Yes?" she asked a bit too eagerly.
"Do you want to practise those English orals we talked about yesterday?"
"Yes, of course!" Mio replied cheerfully, and in well enunciated English. She gave Masae an apologetic look before walking over—Akiyama Mio does not run, unless an unstoppable force (read: any of her fellow club members) is in play—to her desk.
"Let's start now."
"We're not going to practise today?" Mio asked in disbelief.
Ritsu was zipping up the guitar in its case. She nodded and grinned. "Yup! Don't worry, I've already told Mugi and the others yesterday. And Yui knows."
Mio blinked. "…Yesterday? Mugi and the others?"
"Yeah," Ritsu said. She picked up the case and slung it over her back.
"When you say Mugi and the others…You mean Azusa?"
"Yup. She helped me."
"In what? The guitar?"
"Uh huh. She's great! The club's gonna be in capable hands when I graduate along with…," Ritsu frowned.
"No one recognised me."
"When you went to class, you mean?"
Mio crossed her arms—as well as she could with a bouquet in her hands. "Well, duh, I even had trouble telling it was you."
"Really? Well, what did you think when you saw me?"
Mio felt another blush coming, so she faced the other way. "Nothing," she said hastily.
Hearing the hurt in Ritsu's voice, Mio eyed her with her peripherals. She cringed. Ritsu was looking crestfallen. "Hey—"
"You seriously mean that?" Ritsu sniffed.
Mio cringed again. "I…you," she stammered in a panic. Her next words were mumbled.
Ritsu's expression became darker. "I can't hear you."
Mio mumbled again.
"…Can't hear you."
"I thought you were really cute, okay? !"
Mio drew a deep breath, almost hissing. "Are! Whatever!"
"…So is that a compliment?"
"Yes, it's a compliment, you idiot!"
Ritsu cracked a smile, and Mio knew in dismay that she had been duped. "Thanks!"
Mio kept her face to the side.
"Well, I'm packed," Ritsu announced, "and you didn't bring Elizabeth, so let's go!"
Before Mio could retort, Ritsu had grabbed her hand and pulled her along.
"Time is precious!" she exclaimed; the last word was spoken in English. "No waiting around!"
"Don't you mean, 'Time is money'? !"
The door was slammed behind them but was left unlocked. Mio tried to free her hand and stop, knowing their advisor would not be pleased if they had left it so. But Ritsu was already racing down the stairs and Mio's sudden main concern was to not fall face first on the ground floor. One arm in the air like an acrobat on a tightrope, she treaded the edges of every step for a nanosecond each. She tripped on the last and was about to drop the bouquet so she could break her fall—until Ritsu flung an arm out and stabilised her. She grinned, didn't apologise and continued the brisk pace.
After they had passed the school gate, Mio wretched her hand away from Ritsu and glowered at her. She was catching her breath whilst doing so; Ritsu was unfazed.
Ritsu placed a hand on her hip and cocked her head to the side. "You really aren't fit, huh?"
"You just have too much energy!" Mio huffed out.
"You always say the opposite when we're practising."
"Because you're lazy!"
"No." Ritsu was humming. "It's 'cause I'm cra—"
Ritsu abided Mio's wishes by snapping her jaw shut. But that didn't stop her from giving another cheeky grin. Ignoring the urge to club a cranium, Mio straightened her posture and adjusted the strap of the school bag on her shoulder. The rough texture of the material hurt her cold fingers. She sighed and looked at Ritsu's hands.
"What kind of strings does that guitar use?"
"Eh? Uh…steel, I think."
"Don't your fingers hurt?"
"Huh?" Ritsu blinked. She brought her hands up and inspected them. Her fingertips were pale and swollen. "Yeah, why?"
"I got used to it though."
"I'd thought you'd be complaining instead. You're excellent at that. Always complaining, and complaining, and complaining—"
"Okay! I get the point!" The drummer crossed her arms. "…Fine, they honestly hurt like hell."
Mio smiled. "And you still played."
"Yeah, well, it'd be a waste if I didn't, wouldn't it."
The end of Mio's lips twitched. "You are," she stopped and shook her head. "There are no words to describe you."
"That wasn't a compliment."
"But you'll forgive me because I'm so cute, right?"
Ritsu could have sworn she saw something white stream out from Mio's ears before she was pummelled.
She was going to do that again, if only so she was allowed to rest her head on Mio's shoulder during the train rides.
"It sure feels weird, passing here this early," Ritsu commented.
Mio lifted her gaze from the ground, having busied herself in eyeing their joined hands, and settled them on the playground at their side. A playground they had sometimes played in after school during elementary.
"I hardly pay attention to it when we pass this way," Mio admitted. Her eyes followed two of the kids as they did a running jump for a monkey bar each, pull up, bend over at their stomach with angled knees, and flip themselves upside-down, hanging from the bar by their legs. She cringed when she recalled how Ritsu had done the same thing at that age; she ended up with a dislocated shoulder.
"Just remembered something," Mio replied. She glanced at Ritsu and immediately became wary; the growing smile on the brunette's face was giving her alarm bells. She knew she was going to regret it but went ahead and asked, "What…?"
"Is it the time we were making those flowers?"
"Huh?" Mio looked down at the bouquet questionably.
Ritsu shook her head. "Meh, I guess you weren't."
"We were making flowers?"
"Don't worry about it."
"I wanna know now!"
"What kind of question is that?"
"How about yours?"
"Don't answer my question with a question!"
"You started it!"
Mio hissed and clenched her hands, making the other girl flinch. "Ritsu!"
"Okay, okay! Uh, remember those huge flowers made from, uh, what's-it-callie paper?"
"Please be more specific."
"I can't remember the name! I just know if it's coloured, it bleeds when you put glue or water on it…."
"It's not that you don't remember the name—you just don't know it."
"Same thing." Mio clenched her hands again, but Ritsu seemed to have gotten used to the pain. "Anyway, only some people could make it since there weren't much paper. So whoever was able to get it from the front got to do it—you were so slow—I got to do it, though. And, oh yeah, you weren't the only slowpoke in the class so the teacher got the rest to make cards."
Mio was shaking her head. "I don't see where you're going with this."
But Ritsu's suspicious smile was going strong. "You were sad 'cause you wanted to make the flower instead. I'd already made it so, uh…," she trailed off, going pink.
Mio blinked. "And…?" she prompted. Her curiosity was greatly piqued now; she would tease Ritsu later.
"I gave it to you—and you gave me the card and…kissed me."
Mio flinched, her face contorting and blushing. "I don't remember that!"
"What's with the pause? !"
"Are you making this up? !"
"What? No! I—forget it."
Mio watched Ritsu bite her lower lip in frustration.
"I…was it on the…mouth?"
Ritsu ran her free hand along a metal fence and didn't meet Mio's eyes. "The cheek," she finally muttered.
Mio looked at the bouquet once again. Some of the flowers were yellow; a shade of yellow that was similar to a flower she received years ago. She had to wash her hands repeatedly on that day, for the sallow colour had seeped and stained them.
"…I remember now."
Ritsu scratched the top of her head roughly. "I feel so old now! It's too early to reminisce!"
Mio smiled. "What's so bad about that?"
"It just is—and, oh great, we're here already."
"Hm?" Mio looked around and saw they were at the intersection they had to part. "Ah."
Ritsu released her hand. She stood awkwardly and stared at Mio, as if waiting for something.
"What?" Mio asked.
"I can say the same for you," Ritsu said, almost sulking.
Mio looked over her shoulder, towards the direction where she had to leave. She sighed. "I guess it's 'bye' for—"
Mio turned back. "Wha—"
She never got to finish her sentence.
A/N: I apologise for not including many music scenes. Though, you know, if KyoAni didn't add that element much into the series, I don't think I'm able to in retrospect….
Thanks to those who reviewed! RtDK, thank you so much for your tremendous help and your tolerance of my many, inappropriate and now deleted semicolons in the past two chapters.
P.S. A sequel will appear inevitably. And oh my, it's probably going to contain less music….
— I do not own UVERworld or YUI.
—"Time is precious" = "Toki wa precious", it's a line in UVERworld's 'CHANCE!'
— If you're a YUI fan and you didn't understand Mio's 'Don't die on me' line, I'm not going to explain it. I'll spoil you otherwise. Oops, I already did.
— Ken and Noriyuki seem to be common names. I know the former is awfully common but the latter? Hmm. So yeah, it wasn't an intended Ga-Rei reference, but you're obviously free to think it as one if you want. Anyone that knows their rumoured gay j-artists will probably know where the guys' names were stolen from.
— The names of Mio's and Nodoka's classmates and teacher were 'borrowed' from some of the K-ON seiyuu/voice actresses, i.e. Satou Satomi = Ritsu, Hikasa [Youko] = Mio.
— If you still couldn't tell, I'm not great at making up names. Aunt Yuuna doesn't count. That's just a stupid pun that was made up on the spot. The other two classmates that appeared in this chapter? I got their names from a names generator. :D
— The character for Mio's name means 'waterway' whilst Ritsu's means 'law', so if you're wondering if Ritsu was scribbling ai ai gasa (love love umbrellas): yes, yes, she was.
— Do not poke me about the hotpot not being typically Japanese, if you are. I dunno.
— Yeah, I used the original English script of the Narnia movie. Oh, and I do not own it.
— Yes, in some cases girls can be addressed with the honorific '-kun' as well. I find it quite fitting for Aki-tousan to call Ritsu with that, so don't badger me.
— 'A frog's child is a frog', it's a Japanese saying, and if you haven't figured it out, it's like the more familiar saying: 'like parent, like child'.
— I hear it's a myth or something that if a person is stupid, they wouldn't catch a cold. It's obviously a myth because I managed to get sick twice during the writing process of this fic.
— I stumbled on a site where some bored fans found comparative RL scenes with the scenes in the anime. Since it's KyoAni we're talking about…the scenes were around Kyoto. And that's where I got the shrine name, Imamiya, from.
— 'Mugi and the others' = 'Mugi-tachi'; something Ritsu would say if she's talking about Mugi and Azusa. Please don't ask me why I used the plural for 'other'.
— Elizabeth is the name Yui gave for Mio's bass in the 4-koma. Mio learnt to adopt it. :3
— Yeah, I know how different roses, lilies and lilacs look like. And I'm pretty sure Mio does too. I'm not going for physical characteristics there. ;P