rhapsody (plural rhapsodies)

noun

\'rap-sə-dē\

1. a portion of an epic poem adapted for recitation

2. archaic a miscellaneous collection

3a. (1) a highly emotional utterance (2) a highly emotional literary work (3) effusively rapturous or extravagant discourse

3b. rapture, ecstasy

4. a musical composition of irregular form having an improvisatory character

from the dictionary of Merriam-Webster

xxxx

They fall apart somewhere between the drum break and the repetition of the original refrain. It's a subtle sort of disaster that begins with Ritsu and propagates onward. By the third measure, Yui can't quite play her riff fast enough to the new tempo and tapers off looking confused. Mio effortlessly follows Ritsu, though her brow furrows noticeably and she spares a quick glance behind her. Azusa, subdividing religiously to the starting tempo, does not notice that she's out of sync with the bass line until their mistimed chords jar against each other. And Mugi stagnates, unsure which beat to follow.

They both drop out until only Ritsu and Mio are left playing. Despite everything, the rhythm section is still together, and Azusa can't help but wonder how it still sounds good even though they've strayed so far from their starting speed. She has no idea how Mio does this—consistently keeping up with Ritsu's unprecedented and unpredictable tempo changes.

"At least Ricchan and Mio-chan can play together," Yui comments, sneaking a cookie when she thinks her fellow guitarist isn't looking.

"Um, that's not the point," Azusa says, exasperated a little with their drummer, but more so by how quickly their lead guitarist gravitates toward the sweets on the table. "All of us need to be able to stay together. Maybe… maybe we should practice with a metronome."

Ritsu glowers at her as if she has said a dirty word.

"W-well, I mean, it's just that you keep losing the beat, Ritsu-senpai," she says tentatively. "Are you subdividing?"

Ritsu glares some more at her before turning an accusing gaze on the bassist. "Mio, have you been teaching her what to say?"

"No," Mio answers simply. "Anyone slightly versed in music would know what to say to you."

"It might not be enough if you're only counting quarter notes," Azusa continues doggedly, "If you subdivide with eighth-notes there'll be more integrity in the beat."

"Eh, I'm not really counting at all…" the drummer admits a little sheepishly. "I'm just kind of… feeling it."

"You're not counting?" the guitarist is horrified. "How do you expect us to stay together then? We can't play like that! The drums are the foundation of the rhythm, you should know how important that is!"

Ritsu tries for an awkward grin as she scratches the back of her head.

"Azusa."

The call comes from Mio, and she immediately feels a little abashed over her outburst.

"A little tempo fluctuation is normal and probably not very noticeable. Since Ritsu's the one responsible for the pulse, we have to listen and follow her, even when she rushes. As long as we can stay together with the drums, we'll all end together, which is the most important thing."

"It's good to be adaptable. We won't have a metronome when we perform," Mugi chips in, procuring a handkerchief from nowhere and handing it to Yui, who has meandered back to the group, finishing her third cookie.

"The audience won't notice if our tempo changes a little. We should listen to each other in addition to counting," Mio finishes.

Azusa is quiet as she listens to Mio. "You're right," she concedes to both upperclassmen.

Mugi nods in encouragement, Mio smiles at her, and Yui pats her head, getting cookie crumbs in her hair.

"But she's right, Ritsu," Mio says quite sternly, turning around as Ritsu sinks a little in her seat behind the toms, "Even if you're not counting in your head, you have to feel the pulse and stay with it. We can't start at allegro and end at prestissimo."

xxxx

She falls in love with music young—before Ritsu's harmonica, before finding her father's old acoustic guitar, before hearing her mother sing, really sing, and not just hum lullabies to lull her to sleep—when she's in elementary school.

It's not the sound of castanets that captures her the way it did Yui, but instead little reverberating wooden xylophones and felt-covered mallets. And as she sits there in music class, listening to the last vestiges of the dilapidated chiming echo off she realizes in a rush that it's gone. The music is gone and over and she doesn't know how it had happened, and how to make it happen again.

Ritsu, completely oblivious to this dilemma, is sitting in the row behind her and to the left. She knows this because that's where the poke comes from. "Mio-chan. Mio-chan!"

Mio resolutely ignores her and thinks that there must be some way that such beauty is recorded in order to be replicated. She resolves to go to the library that afternoon just as Ritsu, unhappy with being ignored, reaches over and drums on her head with the mallets.

It's all in some exotic code, she realizes, when she first sees written music. So fitting, that these musicians and composers would so carefully guard their secrets. But sheet music is beautiful, like hieroglyphics: some notes white and some black, some round and fat, and others with sharp flared tails.

Ritsu as is her wont, follows her to the library. And while Mio loses herself between ledger lines and single bars, dreaming of a day when it will all make sense, Ritsu lays on her stomach and flips through the most colorfully obnoxious books she can find, looking longer at the pictures than the words.

And on one such afternoon, "Hey hey, what's that?"

She starts, and turns her head slightly to see that Ritsu is bent over, hands on knees, peering over her shoulder.

"That," she lifts a hand from where it's resting on her knee and pokes the book, "What's that?"

"A fermata," Mio replies.

"Fermata," Ritsu repeats, testing the word out. "What's it mean?"

"It's like a hold."

The headlock is a bit unexpected and everything but appreciated.

"No," Mio grates out, pulling at her friend's elbow to give herself more breathing room, "Not like a chokehold."

"Eh?"

"It means you get to play the note for as long as you want. Or if it's over a rest, then you get to be quiet for as long as you want."

Ritsu likes this, has always liked the sound of independence. "So I could hold a note for like…" she trails off and imagines the longest time span she can, "an hour?"

Mio pauses to think and consults the book as a reference again. There is nothing that says contrary. "…I guess."

She looks up at Ritsu who is already fidgeting from foot to foot. "But wouldn't you get bored, Ricchan?"

"Me? Of course not!"

It's on the way back to their houses that Ritsu comes up with a new game.

"Let's play pretend, Mio-chan!" she calls from a few yards away, having run ahead as usual.

Mio is pulling along a small wagon that an hour ago held all of Ritsu's overdue library books. The back left wheel squeaks along rhythmically, interrupted only occasionally by the imperfections on the sidewalk.

"Play pretend?" she echoes.

"Yeah, pretend!" Ritsu sprints back to her side and steps along with her. "I'm a musician, and you're a fermata."

Ritsu has stopped moving and turns now to face her fully. Mio recognizes the look in Ritsu's eye. She drops the handle of the wagon and makes a desperate dodge.

She isn't fast enough, and they both tumble to the grass, Ritsu's arms choking the life out of her in a bone-crushing, asphyxiating hug.

"Hehehe!" she sounds positively gleeful. "I can hold you for as long as I want!"

The pun is stupid and awful, and only Ritsu would distort musical terms to torture her.

Five minutes is four minutes and fifty-seven seconds too long. Fittingly, Mio doesn't think Ritsu should ever be a musician, and feels deeply sorry for any fermata that has the misfortune of meeting the shorthaired girl.

Ritsu kneels in the grass next to her, silly grin still not quite gone, patting her head consolingly. "Hey, at least it wasn't an hour."

"It hurt, Ricchan," Mio pouts.

Mio is unbearably, heart-wrenchingly adorable when she pouts.

To show she is properly sorry, Ritsu lets Mio sit in the red wagon and proceeds to pull it along. She is still thinking about fermatas. "So whaddya do with it if you're playing with someone?"

It's awfully nice of Ritsu to give her a ride in the wagon, even after nearly choking her, and even when she is fixated on the most random of things, so Mio contemplates this. "I guess you decide beforehand how long the fermata is going to be." She extends her legs full length and taps them on the passing ground.

Six squeaks later: "Hey, Mio."

"Yeah, Ritsu?" she reaches out to snag a daisy from the grass. The center is yellow like Ritsu's headband.

"How does forever sound?"

At first Mio doesn't understand. Then she remembers that when something catches Ritsu's attention it preoccupies the girl for hours, even days, afterward. Mio herself is an example of this, though the usual time limit has long since expired.

The daisy falling to the ground, Mio turns around so she faces forward and looks at the grass stains on the back Ritsu's shirt. "Alright. Forever."

She thinks she likes the sound of that.

xxxx

Ritsu is browsing through Mio's collection of manga, pulling them from the shelf and stacking them on top of each other on the ground and making a general mess of things.

"You're cleaning that up when you're done, you know."

Vaguely, Ritsu wonders how Mio knows what she's doing when the other girl hasn't even looked up from the music magazine that was waiting in the mailbox when they arrived at Mio's house after school. She is contemplating the possibility of Mio having eyes in the back of her head or extraordinary peripheral vision while watching as the bassist's long slim fingers turn a page. Mio makes an appreciative face as she pauses. Ritsu wonders if there's some half-naked cute boy in an advertisement on that page.

"Let's go to the lake tomorrow," she announces, turning back to the bookshelf and wrinkling her nose as she plucks out something disgustingly pastel colored. "The one with the boats that you can rent. Do you think we should get a canoe or a paddleboat?" she slides the offending item—complete sugary fairytale—back into place with a grimace.

"Paddleboat. There's less of a chance of you tipping us over."

"But I've kind of always wanted to try actually paddling, you know. Not just pedaling. You have bikes for that."

"You're the one who asked for my opinion," Mio comments mildly, still looking at the same page.

Giving up her search for good literature, Ritsu walks over and bends over Mio's shoulder, interest piqued. She can smell the papery plastic of a new magazine. There is no cute boy on the page at all. Mio is staring at an advertisement for a bass.

Ritsu snickers. "You dork."

But to be honest, it's a very nice bass. It's shiny and glossy black with a flame motif spiraling from the below the bridge up the fingerboard.

She leans closer. "How many strings does that have?"

"Five," comes the answer, and the page flips. "It doesn't matter. It's not left-handed anyway."

"More like, it's too risqué for you," Ritsu jibes, "Everyone knows flames are sexy."

Mio flushes just a bit. "Whatever. I like my own bass."

"Yeah, but you were staring for a good two minutes."

"There's nothing wrong with looking," is the protest, and the blush doesn't subside.

"I think that bass would go pretty well with that maid outfit Sawa-chan made. We both know you could play right-handed if you really wanted, and I bet it'd really enhance the appeal and …"

Now, for certain, Mio blushes. She closes the magazine and tosses it over her shoulder into her friend's face. Ritsu feigns grievous injury as she lays on the ground inert. How unfortunate, Mio thinks, that her mouth still moves.

"Lake lake lake," she chants, "We're going to the lake tomorrow!"

"You're excited."

"Of course! It's summer! We have to do fun things!"

"And school only got out today…"

"If you think like that, time will pass before you know it. You should spend each day like it's your last!"

"And that'll be your excuse all next year for why you don't do your homework."

Ritsu's retort dies when she turns towards Mio and catches sight of the clock. "Agh! I'm supposed to be home already!"

She scoops her things from the ground and dashes to the door, pausing when she swings it open. Mio is observing her as if this is—and it is—a common occurrence. "Leave everything to me! You just bring the food. Bring tasty stuff!"

"Food?"

"For the picnic, of course!"

Mio listens as Ritsu stomps down the stairs—two at a time, from the sound of it—and hears the gate swing shut. She picks up the discarded magazine from the ground to place it on her desk. Standing up and moving over, she nearly trips over something when she stubs her toe. Looking down at a pile of books on the floor, she growls in the back of her throat, "Ritsu…"

xxxx

The first time that Mugi composes one of their pieces is also the last.

The entire situation comes about from one of Ritsu's remarks about Mio's lyrics on an ordinary afternoon. Instead of her usual reactions to the drummer's comments—insulted embarrassment or self-righteous anger—their lyricist looks pensively at the piece of notebook paper most recently rejected by the club president.

Then she turns to the pianist. "Mugi, why don't you try composing something for us?"

"Me? Oh, but I couldn't. I'm not really good at that sort of thing…" Mugi's declination is polite and modest as she continues placing the pastries in the hand-woven basket in the most aesthetically pleasing arrangement.

"Why not?" Ritsu demands, taking a muffin and forcing Mugi to shift the sweets accordingly to retain proper symmetry. "You help Mio all the time with our music."

"Just with some minor details, but—"

"Chew with your mouth closed, Ritsu."

"—I don't think I could come up with anything fitting from scratch. I'm a classical musician," the blonde finishes pleasantly.

The drummer waves her hand dismissively, a gesture that threatens to knock out the approaching Yui, enticed by the smell of sugar and brewing tea. She waits until she finishes swallowing before speaking because Mio's eyes are still on her.

"Doesn't matter! Music is music! We could always do with something different. Am I right or what, Yui?"

"Hmmmm," Yui says, torn between either the biscotti or the scone.

"Hey, are you listening to me, Yui? Oy! Yui!"

As Ritsu endeavors to capture the guitarist's attention, Mio looks up gratefully as Mugi pours her tea and smiles encouragingly. "Just try your best, Mugi," she says.

To save Yui the dilemma of making a choice, Mugi loads her plate with both a biscotti and a scone and places it before her. The pianist turns back to Mio, but finds her already otherwise engaged.

"Ritsu, if you've already touched it, it's only polite to actually eat it."

"Are you saying I have germs?"

"I'm reminding you of manners."

"You're still afraid of cooties, aren't you?"

"No, that's not it…"

Her attention is diverted from the argument when Yui pulls on her sleeve, smiling in a food-induced euphoria. "I want to see what kind of song Mugi-chan writes!" she exclaims.

"Well, if all of you insist, I guess I could give it a try," Mugi decides.

The next time they meet, Mugi comes with a sheaf of papers. Ritsu snatches at it immediately, while Yui, musically illiterate, opts to instead study the page containing only lyrics. Mugi smiles apologetically at Mio while their club president ruffles through the stack, looking for the drum part. She hands the raven-haired girl a different set of sheet music.

"This was the original composition that I came up with on the piano," she explains. "I ended up separating the left hand into the bass line and harmony, and the right hand part for the melody. I was rather unsure about the percussion, though."

The melody, though beautiful, Mio thinks, trying to sound it out in her head, is quite complex and intricate. She looks at the running sixteenth notes and the compound chord structure, and tries to imagine Yui playing it.

"…We don't have a timpani," Ritsu states suddenly, holding a piece of paper loosely in her hand.

"I can't read this," Yui laments, setting aside the lyrics to try her luck at music instead.

Concerned by this statement, Mio leans over to glance at the words that have stumped Yui. She nearly falls over.

"The lyrics are choral in nature," Mugi explains from her side.

Neglecting to mention the fact that they're in Latin.

"What does awp mean?" Yui asks, mispronouncing the 'Op.' abbreviation.

Mugi turns away, missing Mio's flabbergasted expression. "That's short for 'opus.' It's the opus number. It's the way composers identify their musical works by number."

"Opus 8," Yui pronounces, scratching her nose.

"Eight? Mugi, you mean you've written seven other—"

"My part has notes," Ritsu interjects.

No one answers her comment. They are all stunned—or in Yui's case, confused—into silence.

"Notes," the drummer repeats, still not quite believing it.

Mugi refills her teacup obligingly.

"It's very… classical," Mio finally begins, tentatively.

"With pitches," the club president clarifies, as if no one understands the problem.

"Is it… too different?" the blonde queries. "I thought it might not work… But I did give it a try."

"Ah, well…"

"God, I need some tea."

Their advisor enters the room, looking more frazzled than usual. She deftly removes the music from Ritsu's unresisting grip (it has notes with pitches, after all), and spears herself a piece of cake from the open pastry box on her way to her seat and tea.

"Sawa-chan-sensei…" Yui whines, "that was mine."

"Too bad, Yui-chan. I'm the teacher."

She waves the fork as she speaks. Yui's eyes follow the piece of skewered dessert forlornly.

"She talks with her mouth full," Ritsu mumbles in an undertone to Mio.

"Which is exactly why you shouldn't," Mio hisses back.

Sawako scans the music quickly, thumbing through the many pages and adjusting her glasses as she does so. "It won't work," she decrees decisively as she places the sheets of music back on the table and takes an appreciative sip of her tea with a sigh.

Mio cringes at the harshness of the statement and reaches over to pat Mugi's arm. She is nearly bowled over as Sawako lunges toward the piano prodigy and grips her shoulders.

"Do you think you could arrange it for a wind quintet?" she asks desperately.

Mio's incredulity is matched by Ritsu's, although in a completely different manner. "Oy, Sawa-chan. How come you actually do useful stuff for the woodwind club and not us?"

"What are you talking about? Mugi-chan's going to do all the work, right, Mugi-chan? Five parts: flute, oboe, clarinet in A, bassoon, and French horn."

"Still, you're bringing them music. Yui, that last piece is mine. All you ever get us are those stupid cosplaying costumes."

"They're not stupid. I put a lot of effort—"

"Nah-uh, Ricchan."

"—into them! Do you think you can have it arranged and transposed by the end of the week, Mugi-chan? Please?"

Mio takes this moment to step back and observe the entire scene. Yui and Ritsu are wrestling on the ground for a piece of cake and Sawako is shaking Mugi by the shoulders. To this, Mio responds with little more than an eyebrow lift and metaphorical sweat drop, as such occurrences have become (and this may be truly frightening) much too common.

"I'm sorry, Mugi," Mio sympathizes. And she feels as if she's apologizing for more than just the rejected score. For also Yui's haplessness, Ritsu's behavior, and Sawako's general insanity. For the Light Music Club itself.

"Oh, no," Mugi says and beams quite brightly over the top of Sawako's head. Mio can almost see the stars in her eyes, "It's fine. I'm very happy."

xxxx

She is anything but happy.

In fact, on the first day of elementary school, she cries so hard she throws up and misses class completely. Because school is scary, strangers are scarier, and being away from her mother and stuffed rabbit is akin to torture.

For the next four days, one little girl arrives at school half an hour earlier than necessary so her mother can console her and dry her tears in the car before she is shepherded inside the bright and happy—terrifying and awful—classroom with a horde of cheerfully screaming children to learn fun things like arithmetic and kanji, and be forced to do impossible things: singing songs and making friends.

But because she is an intelligent six year old and possesses the innate survival instinct in all living organisms, Akiyama Mio learns how to survive by the end of the second week of the first grade. If she stays inside during recess, does her work quickly and correctly, speaks only when spoken to, and doesn't make eye contact, the strangers leave her alone. Like a pretty painting to be looked at, admired and forgotten in nearly the same instant, with a sign above reading, "Do Not Touch." It works well enough that she no longer cries every morning, regains her appetite for dinner, and can walk home by herself after school.

Unfortunately for her, Tainaka Ritsu is in her class, and she doesn't bother to read.

Mio adds it up in a way that would make her teacher proud: 6 because she rounds up first, plus 3 for junior high, plus 3 more for high school equals 12.

Twelve years. But school years are different from full years, the time between birthdays. If only she were able to calculate the number of days instead, for accuracy's sake, but she only knows her multiplication table up to 12 times 12.

Twelve years of mandatory schooling. It's more than she can count on her fingers, but not more including her toes, and her mother has already taught her how to count to one hundred, so it can't be that bad. She mentally steels herself for this arduous task and thinks maybe, just maybe, she can do it.

She looks up from her handout back to the board, but stops midway through the action. There is someone staring at her. She clams up immediately. It's Tainaka Ritsu, the girl who sits one seat in front of her. She is unable to obey her gut reaction because she is in class and not allowed to leave, and there is nowhere to go, really.

Tainaka Ritsu. Written with four kanji and twenty-two strokes. Mundane thoughts ease her palpitations somewhat. Tainaka Ritsu. She knows her name the way she knows everyone else's name but she doesn't know why she's looking at her. If she did, maybe she could get her to stop. Mio can barely bear passing glances, but an open stare is completely—

Curious amber eyes study her. Sitting behind Tainaka Ritsu has so far been unobjectionable. She doesn't smell. She isn't tall and she isn't fat, leaving the view of the chalkboard unobstructed. And she leaves her alone. Until now.

Her eyes are bright and wide, her smile brighter and wider, and she's still staring, so Mio can't quite breathe. Akiyama Mio has spent two weeks becoming well acquainted with the back of Tainaka Ritsu's head. And she's not quite used to the other side.

"Hi!" Tainaka Ritsu chirps. Mio freezes.

Everyone turns to look at them, the interrupted teacher included. Mio burns and Ritsu grins.

"Ritsu-chan," the teacher says sternly but sweetly, "please pay attention."

Tainaka Ritsu does not turn around until the teacher asks a second time, and promptly glances back at her once more the moment the teacher resumes writing on the board. Mio lets out a breath and commands her quivering hand to continue writing. Twelve years. She doesn't think she can make it after all.

xxxx

Ritsu gawps at the sign as if she has never learned to read.

Mio is un-amused and unsurprised. She sighs, "I knew I shouldn't have trusted you with this."

"It's not my fault! Who would think they'd be closed today, of all days?"

"It says they're closed for the entire month of July."

"What? Why would they do that? It's summer! These people are idiotic at business." She kicks some of the loose gravel on the ground at the "Closed" sign to add injury to insult.

"So," the bassist shifts the picnic basket so it rests more comfortably on her arm and scans the deserted lake, "what now?"

"Change of plans!" Ritsu declares immediately, irritation fleeing as improvisation strikes. "We'll just have a picnic then!"

Mio looks decidedly unimpressed, but does not resist Ritsu taking the picnic basket from her and peering inside curiously.

"Oh! This looks good. Is this your mom's fried rice? What's this? Chicken? Man, I'm hungry."

"It's barely eleven…" her comment is ignored as Ritsu makes a beeline for the nearest tree and drops gracelessly onto the grass.

She follows at a slower pace. "At least let me lay out the blanket—hey! You're supposed to eat dessert last, Ritsu!"

After consuming her portion of the picnic lunch in record time and reverse order to Mio's great disapproval, Ritsu immediately lounges back under the shade, relishing in the happy warmth of a food coma.

"Hey," there's a rebuke in her voice, "it's rude to lie on people."

In answer, Ritsu makes a noise, half contentment and half I-don't-care.

"Off." The command is rather imperious.

"But Mio," Ritsu tries in her best whine. She knows it's no good; she can practically feel the glower that Mio gives the clouds in her silence.

Perhaps flattery is key, "You're more comfortable than the ground."

Then she rationalizes, "Probably because you put on a few kilos—AGH!"

A bump on the head and much wheedling later, Ritsu reclaims her spot on Mio's stomach; the fact that she's full and drowsy noticeably lessens the duration of her protests.

For summer, the air is light and cool with hints of a breeze. It's so quiet she can hear the grass rustle. The sunlight lowers itself gently upon them. The lake is deserted, but desertion has never seemed so comfortable.

"This is pretty nice, isn't it?" Ritsu doesn't respond, and Mio can't be bothered to check, but she's pretty certain she's asleep.

She closes her eyes and strains her ears, trying to hear the quiet slosh of the lake's waters.

xxxx

"Ritsu? Ritsu."

Mio is sitting up and looking down at her. Ritsu yawns widely, her head now cushioned on her friend's lap instead of her stomach, and still just as comfortable.

"Wake up," she says, "it's drizzling. We should go."

Ritsu lazily looks away from her face and realizes that the overcast sky is the same color as Mio's eyes. She sits up so quickly that Mio has to jerk backwards in order to prevent Ritsu's oversized forehead from giving her a nasty uppercut. The shorthaired girl holds out her hands, palms up, feeling the light rain becoming steadier. There is a look of wonder on her face.

"Come on!" she shouts as if she has never been asleep at all. "Let's play in the rain! We haven't played in the rain since elementary school."

Mio packs away the empty containers into the picnic basket, disinclined to the idea of purposely staying out to get wet. "And last time we did, we had umbrellas, boots, and jackets."

She shifts off the blanket, watching in dismay as the fabric darkens in the downpour. "We can run," she decides, shaking the wet cloth and folding it into quarters. "The bus stop is covered."

A shoe and sock is thrown to her feet in response. "I know you hate mud, but you can at least splash in the puddles." Ritsu kicks the other shoe off her foot and dashes away with a loud whoop.

"Where are you—come back!"

But Ritsu is already tearing down the shoreline, waving her arms like a flightless bird. Putting the folded blanket into the basket almost like an afterthought, Mio grudgingly trails after her. She wades out as far as her she can before the waterline reaches the hem of her capris. Not that it matters, particularly, as she is already soaked through completely. The water from the lake is surprisingly warm against her calves.

Ritsu, in shorts, is several steps farther out. There is one rock in her right hand.

She flings the stone at the dimpling water. It bounces off the surface, too stubborn to sink immediately. It takes to the air, a large circular ripple spreading out from the point of impact. It hops again. And again. The small white plumes on either side of the projectile like wings.

Seven skips.

Ritsu turns to her, teeth flashing in a triumphant grin. "Did you see that? Did ya? Seven. Seven!" she hollers.

Not content to stop there, Ritsu is out of the water again in record time, rampaging past the black-haired girl toward the grass. She takes a running jump and throws herself into a belly slide along the wet grass.

Those stains will never come out of Ritsu's clothes.

Already, the water feels like a second skin, and it's weighing down her long hair, making her bangs stick to her forehead. Mio's observation is the driest thing in the vicinity.

"We're going to get sick."

But underneath the foolishness of her antics—they are too old for this, after all—there is a contagious joy in Ritsu's grin, so Mio finds the largest puddle she can. And she leaps.

xxxx

Numbers are boring, she decides.

It's nothing personal, of course, but she thinks that the numbers themselves would be insulted by how boring the teaching is making them seem. Besides, what if they don't want to be added together? The way she figures, math is an unnecessary confusion. Counting is all one really needs, after all.

The teacher is still adding on the board. Ritsu sags in her seat. Recess is too short and the school day too long. She wonders how elementary school can be so much fun one instant and then so boring the next. The view outside the window is nearly as lame as the droning teacher, so on a whim, she turns around.

Tainaka Ritsu does not often look behind her.

She is eager (impatient), determined (obstinate), and impetuous. Looking back is not an activity she partakes in because it is nearly as much a waste of time and energy as standing still. Moving forward is the only kind of motion fit for this six year old. And nothing good ever came of looking back anyway.

Except maybe this once.

Because, for the first time, she notices the girl. Her face is childish yet delicate, with all the signs of a refined beauty to come in the years of her womanhood. She sits in a way the slouchy, lounging Ritsu could never hope to emulate. Her posture is perfect: back straight, knees together, feet flat on the ground, arms on her desk, and unwavering eyes looking over Ritsu's head. Her worksheet is placed squarely in the middle of her desk and her pencil case lies at the corner with the spare pencil perfectly perpendicular to it. Her pale fingers, quite long and thin for her age, move dexterously as she forms the proper strokes for the number twelve. The slowly turning ceiling fan above moves her bangs slightly with an invisible breeze; Ritsu has never seen anything so black—darker than a starless night—as her hair.

Of course, Ritsu is not noticing these things—she is a child without an eye for details, and poetics are no less fit for her mind than arithmetic.

The only thing Ritsu thinks is, Cool.

But for all the attention Ritsu is giving her, this girl spares her only a glance. There is a flicker of grey before the other girl's eyes jump away like a skittish animal.

Her second thought is a jumbled trio of: I've never met anyone like this before! I want to touch her hair and She's gonna be my new friend.

All of this dilutes down to an overenthusiastic, "Hi!"

The girl whose hair she wants to touch does not turn to her. If possible, she becomes even more still and her wide unblinking eyes fixate unrelentingly on her paper. She could be a statue if not for the way she turns an interesting shade of red when the teacher speaks.

Ritsu turns back around reluctantly. Facing forwards or backwards, she certainly isn't going to pay attention now.

She is forced to stay after class so the lame teacher can lecture her on her poor attention span. It's upsetting because this gives the other girl ample time to pack her things and leave with all the other students. Which means she won't have another chance to speak to her until tomorrow. Ritsu doesn't think she can last that long. So she decides that learning her name will probably sustain her until the next day. Therefore, when her teacher allows her to leave, she does not snatch her things and sprint out the door, but instead stays in the classroom. Lingering is a rarity for her, but she is impatient and waiting for tomorrow's roll call is an impossibility. So she stays behind and peeks into the black-haired girl's desk. She rummages around until she finds what she needs: a previously graded handout with a name at the top of the page.

That night after dinner she shows her father the paper and asks him to read the name to her.

"What a pretty name," her father comments. "Why do you have her math worksheet? Did the teacher mix them up by accident?"

"She has pretty hair," Ritsu answers. She is pleased with the fruits of her labor.

The girl behind her is Akiyama Mio.

xxxx

True to Mio's prediction, they do get sick.

"…Hello?"

The voice is an octave lower than it should be and awfully croaky, so Ritsu has to check, "Mio, is that you?"

A grunt.

The logical conclusion, "Are you sick?"

An angrier grunt.

"…Me too."

This does not seem to appease the girl on the other side of the line. There is something like a huff and barely audible, "I told you so" before she hears a squeak and rustle of cloth and assumes Mio is burrowing under her covers.

"My brother keeps laughing at me being sick. It's not fair," Ritsu stops to cough belatedly, "I get stuck with him and you've got a mom who makes the best chicken soup ever."

Mio cradles the phone to her ear and hides in the dark warmth of the sheets. She thinks back on how her mother had gently chided her for going out without an umbrella and then doing something as impulsive as playing in the rain.

Ritsu carries on the one-sided conversation quite spectacularly by herself: "I can't believe it! The first week of summer vacation and we're stuck in bed."

"Your fault," Mio manages to rasp and reaches for the box of tissues. Eerily similar to the explanation she gives her mother, who only smiles knowingly in response: "It was all Ritsu's idea. And I couldn't just leave her there, could I?"

"Hey! Let's watch a movie together." Her friend's voice jolts her back to the present.

A nap, the dark-haired girl thinks, would be heavenly. "We're sick. We should rest, not play."

"But it's summer!" Ritsu howls it like the fact hurts her deeply. From the immediate sound of her hacking, it apparently had hurt in some way.

Mio holds the phone away from her and speaks to it. "I'm going to hang up now and take a nap."

"What? No, no, wait! Mio, don't hang up!" There is a fifteen second intermission in Ritsu's pleading as she coughs up a lung.

The cold-ridden bassist blows her nose delicately as Ritsu manages to get everything under control again. "Misery loves company, right?"

Mio places the receiver back next to her ear tentatively, but not before lowering the volume to the lowest bar, unsure when Ritsu would start coughing again. "I suppose…"

"So I'm gonna bring lots of movies over to your house, and we're gonna watch them and have fun anyway. Hah! We'll show them!"

Mio doesn't bother asking who "them" is, resigning herself to Ritsu's company. "When are you coming…?"

"Soon. When I, urgh, get enough energy to move." There is a sound like Ritsu flopping back on the couch after a failed attempt to sit up.

A while, then. There's time enough for a nap after all.

"Stay on the line until you get here, okay?"

"Why's that?"

"So I'll know if you pass out on the way." She turns the volume back up and places the phone on the pillow. "I'm going to take a nap. If you need me to call an ambulance, start yelling, 'kay?"

"…I can't yell if I'm passed out."

"Shh. Napping."

"Your concern for my well-being is so touching," Ritsu grumps. Sitting up is too much trouble, so she opts instead to roll off the low sofa onto the ground. Mio makes a sleepy inquisitive sound at the thump.

She reports her progress: "I'm off the couch and looking for movies."

Ritsu indiscriminately shoves an armful of movies into a plastic bag. She thinks she saw at least one horror movie go in there. Good enough.

"Shoes. Now I'm putting on my shoes." Or not. The ones from the other day aren't dried yet. She throws them outside carelessly, hoping the sun will speed up the process. She manages to wiggle her sandals on and sits down on her doorstep exhausted. Her neighbor rides past on a tricycle and a little boy chases him, waving a stick.

Ritsu continues her monologue: "You know, sometimes I forget how much fun kids have. We should do stuff like play in the rain more often. Even though getting sick sucks."

The shorthaired girl pauses and touches the barely noticeable friction burn on her stomach, remembers the giant splash Mio made, and tries to recall something that had felt like unbridled freedom.

Mio, nearly asleep, hears Ritsu's voice from right next to her. "…But it was worth it."

Yes.


A/N

Say, is it actually possible to skip stones in the rain? Seems like the raindrops might mess up the surface tension… or something. It appears as if I've learned nothing in my college physics course.

Anyway, this fic will be multi-chaptered. It is something like a collection of vaguely interwoven drabbles in a discontinuous [but hopefully not too confusing] timeline. It has no real plot, yet I'm still trying to work it towards some kind of definitive end.

So if I haven't scared you off, check back [hopefully] soon for the next chapter.