A/N: First of all, I deeply apologize for the long delay. Longer note at the end of the chapter so I don't hold too much space up here. Since it's been a long time, perhaps rereading the previous few chapters might help :3?
Reminder that this story was planned long ago before I even got the idea for my other story Spiral, so the chapter title has nothing to do with that story. Looping the title song, Singing! And Kurenai by X-Japan helped me finish this chapter.
And so, welcome to the last arc of No, Thank You!
Disclaimer:I certainly do not own K-on.
Thanks to ghikiJ-san for beta :3
And thanks to the wonderful fanarts! Please check them out on my devianart page!
I want to live with all my might
So much that I won't regret it even if I die today
We want to know... to live...to love
Our countless prayers
We give them a voice we give them wings so they can fly high...!
Chapter 20 – Listen!
Frightened yells reverberated in the dark alleyways as the only sources of light flickered out of existence, smothered by the ravenous shadows enclosing upon the passages. The erratic thuds of frantic footsteps began the rushed rhythm, followed by the guttural groans of tremendous pain. The tremors in these jarring noises were soon joined by the broken hollers of futile defiance and, lastly, bolstered by the hitched cries of utter horror.
It was the flight to escape the pitiless clutches of darkness, the very embodiment of terror itself.
As helpless preys scattered and struggled to flee from their labyrinth of fear and despair, the song of chaos continued to hail the inevitable triumph of hungry predators.
Deafening cracks of bones shattering combined with quiet squelches of knives slashing through flesh finally ended the cacophonous melody that has been playing since the start of the game. The pack then rejoiced at its hollow victory in the darkness, created by the blood it spilled. The hunt was over, and only disquieting silence remained.
Suddenly, an incorporeal shadow was casted upon the lightless maze as the newcomer stretched its majestic wings to announce its presence.
The hawk's piercing eyes then fearlessly met the pack leader's contemplative gaze.
The great bird of prey circled the air above the prowling hunters, safe from the confines that ensnared the earthly beings and free from the defilements that tainted their cognizance.
Its sharp shriek, filled with not superiority but pity, sliced through the oppressive silence in the alleyways. Under the severe stares of trapped souls, it flapped its mighty wings and soared far away from their reach.
"How the fliers mock us," a monotonous voice echoed steadily amongst the intangible phantoms, a uniform assent to their plight as forgotten shadows. Amber eyes glinted in amusement as they watched the distant shape became a dot amidst the clouds.
"You will always hear them wherever you go," the leader's lips curved into a wolfish grin.
"They've conquered the sky."
A small hand stretched towards the blue canvas in a weary manner, fingers closing and unclenching as if the movement was not worth the effort. There was no need to shield her eyes from blinding rays because the clouds already obscured the sun behind their shrouds.
Even then, the arm still reached out and tried to capture the ball of light hidden from her view, for it was her sole guidance, the only hope she could rely on.
After several more attempts, Azusa dropped the limb to her side and lamented the futility of her action. The sun could be within her reach and she would still lose her way. All she could do was continue to gaze upon the endless blue and attempt to decipher an answer out of those mysterious patterns far far away.
Smiling lightly, the pigtailed girl now understood why Yui loved lying on the rooftops so much. While the grey wisps remained ambiguous as ever, their tranquil drifting across the sky really calmed the storm in her mind.
It was as if everything that stifled her was lifted from her cognizance and floating into the air, free from the confines of earthly woes. However, reality never failed to crush down and choke her relentlessly before she was liberated by the peace this haven offered her once more.
It must be why Yui watched the sky for long periods of time in spite of such vicious cycle of temporary freedom, where the illusion continuously rotated back and forth between false peace and harsh reality without a stable phase. Azusa knew it was cowardly of her to escape to this secluded spot instead of going to classes, but she has forgotten how to be around Jun or Ui anymore.
At least, up here on the hospital rooftop, she could try to come up with a plan to handle this awkward situation. She has been failing so far, but perhaps distance was what they needed to regain composure and rebuild their strained friendship. She sighed and peered at the gloomy scenery through half-lidded eyes while memories flowed through her mind so fast that they took on a surreal quality and numbed the ache somewhat.
More than a month had already gone by since that fateful Sunday, yet there was still no news of Ritsu, Ookami or Wakaoujigumi. Yui was recovering well under the care of her friends and Ui, whose wounds were almost healed. A few days ago, the older Hirasawa began going around the private wing of the hospital in her wheelchair, proclaiming that she would not let her body go to waste by being idle. Apparently, she was more open to Mio and Mugi, and told them all she knew of Hanagumi. She and Nodoka also reached an understanding, with the former's cheerful demeanor and the latter's mature personality complementing each other to strengthen their bond. The student council president helped them with a lot of commotion in school due to the Hirasawa sisters' deaths in a car accident, or at least that was how the public knew of the incident.
Azusa was glad that she did not have to face ceaseless questions for answers she did not have or could not say. Her peers understood that she needed her distance because she must be mourning.
She was lamenting about a whole different subject, however.
The pigtailed girl groaned softly and stretched out her hand once more. The sun still refused to reappear but at least, its warmth could be felt on her palm no matter how faint it was. Even though Yui was obviously pained by her inability to stop Ritsu from leaving, she maintained her optimistic attitude and tried to be the source of energy for everyone. She would always proudly display the stitches on her stomach as if the mark was an irrefutable proof that there was still hope for their drummer.
Azusa fervently wished that cheerfulness could touch her too, but her conscience was plagued by too many fears that drove her to avoid her two best friends. While she was hiding here on the rooftop, lost and afraid, Jun was attending classes and doing her best to take notes for Ui.
The ponytailed girl was very understanding about Azusa's reluctance to be around them, which only increased her guilt and that made the former blame herself in return. It was another painful cycle spurred by accumulating regret. Jun thought she should not have revealed the secret and Azusa believed she should have been more aware, while Ui felt she should never harbor that sentiment in the first place to create this awkward situation.
Azusa swallowed thickly and placed her arm over her eyes. How was it that she never noticed her best friend's feeling before? The way Ui looked at her was softer than how she looked at anyone else. It was so achingly familiar with Azusa's own gaze towards Yui that she completely understood her best friend's torment at the inability to express the unrequited love.
She did not want to lose Ui. However, now that she knew of the girl's feelings, she did not have the heart to ask her to remain a friend either, in spite of what the latter said.
"You are my friend first before I even felt anything more, Azusa-chan. I want us to stay together. I know it might be too much to ask but… will you and Jun-chan get along?"
"…I promise I'll try."
"Azusa-chan…it's us three. We won't be us if you're not here. I-I've already said it before. You and Onee-chan will be happy together. I'll be okay."
Jun and Azusa both tried hard to interact as they used to, since neither of them could refuse Ui's heartfelt request. Even then, the awkwardness became too much that avoidance was simply easier for them. Without the ponytailed girl at school, the remaining two did not voluntarily seek each other. And whenever they visited the hospital, they did so separately in fear of confrontations.
Their group dynamic was disintegrating to the point of no return.
Azusa slowly sat up and stretched her arms before turning around to face the smiling brunette. Yui had always been her source of solace but she felt guilty about taking advantage of the brunette's selfness nature. The Hirasawa sisters really needed to care about themselves more, especially because of what happened to their family and themselves, yet they continued to put others' welfare above their own.
"Hehe, you're right, Mio-chan, she's really up here," Yui spoke to the two people behind her before wheeling towards Azusa.
"Senpai, don't move around too much," the pigtailed girl berated softly and tried to appear aloof. Yet the moment the older girl smiled sheepishly, Azusa felt an instinctual pull at the corner of her lips and soon she found herself smiling as well.
It was impossible not to return Yui's affectionate gesture.
When she looked around for another familiar presence, the brunette promptly said, "Ui is with Mom and Dad right now. Mugi-chan's bodyguards are with them so it's all safe!"
"Yes, they should be fine, Yui-chan," the blonde stood at the entrance beside Mio and chuckled when the guitarist energetically waved them over.
For a moment there, Azusa felt like she was an outsider as she observed the seniors from where she was sitting. The bassist seemed more expressive while the keyboardist appeared more confident and was always there to support her best friend. They kept each other informed of everything they knew and even though they still told the pigtailed girl of any news they obtained, it felt like something was still being kept from her.
She sighed and stood up from her seat, frustrated at her own paranoia and restlessness. They must have a good reason to hide whatever secret it was, or she was overthinking things.
"Azusa," she looked up to meet Mio's gaze as the older girl patted her shoulder. "Mugi and I have to go somewhere right now, so will you watch over Yui and make sure she takes her medicine?"
"Mio-chan, I'm not a kid…" "Maa maa, Yui-chan, Mio-chan is just worried…"
There was that feeling of alienation again, but the weight of the bassist's hand seemed to give her just the comfort she needed. "Of course I will, Mio-senpai."
Nodding, the older girl stuffed her hands into her jacket's pockets and turned to leave. Mugi gave Azusa an encouraging smile before following her friend down the stairs. Now alone with Yui, she almost had the urge to flee when brunette held out her hand and smiled affectionately.
"So, Azunyan, why were you up here?" Even though the guitarist's voice was cheerful, her chestnut brown eyes showed just how concerned she was.
Guilty that she made the injured girl worry, Azusa quickly squeezed the offered hand once before walking to the back to push her wheelchair. "I-I was just thinking, that's all."
"Oh, is everything okay? Ui doesn't say it but I think she's worried about you, so I thought maybe something happened between you and Jun-chan? Oh it's just a guess…" Yui chuckled sheepishly, "Never mind, I'm bad with guessing."
The pigtailed girl gripped the handles hard but she managed to keep her voice even, "it's nothing much, Yui-senpai. We're all restless because of the recent events. So don't worry about me, worry about yourself more," her reprimanding tone then grew more severe, "I know you don't want to stay in bed all day but you have to let your body rest if you want to recover as fast as possible."
"Hehe, that sounds like the usual Azunyan," the brunette leaned against the backrest and looked up to meet the younger girl's reprimanding gaze, "Thanks for caring about me!"
Azusa was surprised that she didn't blush or stutter as she replied immediately, "Of course I care about you, Yui-senpai."
The guitarist blinked slowly, and then gave her the most content smile she had ever seen. Coughing awkwardly, the pigtailed girl looked away and directed the chair towards the elevator, "Now, you're going back to your room so you can take your medicine."
"Eeeeh? I want to stay up here! I-I have some thinking to do too!"
"You can think in your room."
"But I want to stay with Azunyan!"
"I'll come with you," Azusa faltered and added hastily, "Mio-senpai gave me the task of watching over you after all."
In spite of the brunette's grumbles about her lack of freedom and inability to play Gitah at the moment, the black-haired girl could not stop smiling at the oddly nostalgic atmosphere between them. It felt nice, perhaps even too pleasant considering their circumstances, but she sorely missed such normal interaction and was grateful that it was still possible.
Things could easily have been different after all.
"Azunyan? We're here," Yui spoke quizzically as she tilted her head, wondering why they weren't entering the room.
"Ah, gomen," Azusa hurriedly opened the door and pushed the wheelchair towards the bed. Even then, those concerned brown eyes lingered on her as she helped the brunette stand up and carefully ease the latter onto the bed.
"I didn't hurt you, did I?" The pigtailed girl asked when she saw Yui grimacing.
"Oh, it's okay. I'm just hungry," the brunette grinned brightly, "I miss strawberry cakes!"
Even though Azusa knew the slash wound must have been bothering the guitarist, she decided to drop the subject and simply tucked her under the blanket. Sighing, she brushed away a strand of hair covering Yui's eyes and involuntarily rested her hand against the girl's cheek, bringing a soft smile on the latter's visage.
"Yui-senpai…how are you feeling? I don't just mean your injuries, I mean about the whole thing. Your parents…Ui…and," Azusa swallowed dryly, "Ritsu-senpai."
The brunette's expression was serene and devoid of any negative sentiments as she closed her eyes and nuzzled against the small hand.
Even though her ears burned, the pigtailed girl did not pull away. "S-senpai?"
"Relieved?" Azusa was bewildered. How was it possible for her to feel that way?
"Mhmm, relieved. Finally, I have no reason to hide anything anymore. Mom and Dad don't have to be someone they don't want to be, Ui doesn't have to pretend she doesn't know anything, and I don't have to lie any longer," Yui whispered and slowly opened her eyes, "I might be stuck here in the hospital, Azunyan, but I've never felt so free."
Her gaze grew so solemn that she looked wise beyond her age. "I want Ricchan to feel this too, so she can find her way back to us."
"…I see," Azusa did not know how to reply, for her view on the whole matter was still jaded by memories of seeing her important people covered in blood. Her wish to trust and reluctance to forgive continued to wage war in her already turbulent mind. Was she not also trapped then? Did Ritsu experience similar conflicts as she did? Was that why the drummer returned to darkness, since it was the only way she knew how to deal with such frustrating sense of helplessness?
Sighing wearily, Azusa finally pulled away her hand and brought a glass of water and medicine to the brunette, hoping an action of practicality would be enough to cease her swamping thoughts.
"No cake?" Yui blinked pleadingly but wilted submissively under the younger girl's unyielding stare. "Okay, okay," her cheeks puffed in playful indignation, "cheh, meanie."
Azusa smiled at that, which made the brunette giggle in return.
After swallowing the medicine with an exaggerated grimace, Yui glanced at the pigtailed girl and tilted her head thoughtfully. "Azunyan, you've really grown up!"
"Eh? W-what do you mean?"
"You've always been so independent, and become even more so these days…you've really helped us all this time, just by being you," the brunette's voice was sincere as she raised her chin in pride, "My Azunyan is so mature! Oh, hehe, just don't leave me behind, okay?"
Azusa was so flabbergasted that she didn't even notice the particular pronoun. "I-I didn't do anything, and I still rely on you senpais-"
"That's the same for us too, Azunyan," Yui spoke firmly, "We won't be the senpais we are today without a kouhai like you. It's okay to rely on us more, you know. Well…I rely on all of you too, eheheh…"
"Yes yes, I know." Even though the brunette's words touched her deeply, the pigtailed girl tried to appear unaffected and pretended to be absorbed in smoothing the nonexistent creases of her skirt.
She looked up sharply.
"Will you… wait for us then?"
Baffled by its unknown significance and the grave tone that presented it, she blinked and swallowed dryly. Instead of elaborating, Yui simply gazed at her and patiently waited for her to process those words.
Azusa still did not understand, yet an inexplicable calmness gave her the confidence to reply in an even tone. "Of course I will," her lips curved a little, "It's the same for you all. I'll have to ask you to wait for me to catch up."
The brunette nodded as if she knew the meaning of Azusa's request, even before the girl understood it herself. Smiling like a satisfied child having her plea fulfilled, Yui shifted and snuggled under the covers to get more comfortable.
After exchanging several furtive smiles, they continued to chat about idle matters until the older girl gradually succumbed to the effects of the medicine and drifted off. Azusa watched the steady rising of the blanket from Yui's breathing, assured by this simple movement that the latter would recover in time.
How could she look so peaceful? The pigtailed girl sighed wistfully as she stared at the sleeping brunette's soft features. For the umpteenth time, she cursed her inability to live in the present to its fullest without letting the past dictate her actions.
She should just focus on what she already had, shouldn't she?
With her shoulders drooping, Azusa reached out and gently caressed Yui's cheek with her thumb. "Back then, you tried so hard to keep the group together by speaking to Mio-senpai. I will try my best with Ui and Jun too. As for Ritsu-senpai," her whisper grew uncertain, "I wish I can trust her… but I can't forget what she did to you and Ui just yet."
Her thumb then trailed by the corner of the brunette's smiling mouth, and the warm breath she felt on her skin strengthened her determination even more.
"I want to protect you too."
Overwhelmed by the surge of emotions she felt, Azusa leaned forward and lightly brushed her lips against Yui's.
They were warm, sweet and inexplicably addictive, just like the brunette herself.
Startled, the pigtailed girl hopped backwards when Yui suddenly shifted and mumbled incoherently. With her face deep red, she watched with wide eyes as the brunette giggled a bit before quieting down again, still deeply asleep.
Though mortified, she exhaled in relief and pressed her fist against her thundering heart.
Since the time her attempted confession was interrupted by a simple 'Sorry', her confidence was shaken even though she understood the circumstances on that day. She replayed Yui's apology repeatedly in her head to decipher its meaning, but after a long period of fruitless pondering, she put the matter on hold in favor of more pressing concerns, such as the Hirasawa sisters' recoveries and the lack of news about Ookami. The brunette never mentioned anything except for apologizing for knocking her out, so Azusa did not think of it anymore either.
Until just now.
Swallowing dryly, she touched her lips as she reminisced the warmth she felt. While she did not regret her action at all, her conscience was berating her for doing such a thing to her unconscious senpai. Her mind was in a blank state of elation mixed with revulsion at her lack of control. With her breaths quickening to near hysteria, she tried to stop herself from reliving the moment but she was failing miserably at that.
She must calm down, fast, before she did something stupid again.
Where could she go though? Her earlier rest on the rooftop proved to be futile to her analytical mind. Every aspect she observed of the sky only spurred her brain to keep thinking and wondering.
What should she do?
Then, an idea crept through her musing, an answer so obvious that she was surprised not to find it earlier. Nodding to herself, she stood up and decided to go to a special location right away, since she was certain it would calm her turbulent emotions at last. Yui-senpai was asleep so she would be fine without her for now. Ui should be back soon either way, so Azusa could take her leave without feeling guilty.
"I wonder if she can hear me play," the pigtailed girl muttered to herself as she opened the door. After giving the sleeping brunette one more glance, she closed it with a quiet click.
Loud clamors of the bell echoed in the distance, signifying the end of school as well as the beginning of another session far from the classrooms. It was a silent language used between those who stayed away from the paths of normality, either by choice or lack of options. In these people's trails to find their place was a building that represented the hurdles they must overcome.
This large, spacious structure was avoided by the student body because of the superstitions that plagued its surroundings and, recently, the series of misfortunes that befell upon the band that used it as its clubroom. The president and drummer transferred back to her former high school while the guitarist was killed in an accident that also claimed the lives of her family.
It was perfectly alright that the students did not know the true fates of the band members though. Those normal teenagers were never a part of this segregated world after all.
The figure seated on top of the crates shifted and leisurely moved her hands out of her pockets.
It was time for the outcasts to gather and make their stand.
The harsh lessons they learned all these years now demanded an answer using the knowledge they've gained. Will they abandon their past by fleeing to the light, or confront and overcome the darkness within the shades?
Her lips curved in cool amusement of her thoughts. She was being melodramatic, wasn't she?
"It's after school now."
Mio tilted her head and glanced at her best friend, who was staring at the entrance with a pair of unwavering blue eyes. Mugi was usually by her side as the two of them tried to formulate a plan to solve their dilemma. School took a backseat on the grand scheme of things, but at least it was the perfect location for them to meet with the informants while keeping up the façade of normality.
Their enemies must not know of their plan.
"She will come, won't she? With the others," the blonde spoke quietly and finally turned to meet Mio's gaze.
"They will," she replied curtly, as if the briskness of her tone could make her feel more certain.
Nodding, Mugi's blue eyes then took on a contemplative glimmer. "Afterwards, we'll go back to the hospital to see Yui, and we'll tell Azusa-chan."
The raven-haired girl shook her head and tried to erase her unease about Azusa. While the three senior members of HTT agreed to involve their kouhai as much as possible to prevent feelings of alienation, it was still too dangerous to inform her every single detail. They agreed that the pigtailed girl had already been through so much that, as her senpais, they would clean the loose ends and finalize everything before including her. There was no need to alarm her when nothing was for certain yet.
Seeing how lost Azusa was reminded Mio of her scared self years ago. However, unlike her, the younger girl had people to support her and the bassist strived to be that very pillar of strength.
Therefore, the meeting that was about to occur must flow smoothly. If Ookami had Wakaoujigumi's support, then Mio had Mugi's connections backing her.
Now, she just needed to fulfill her role.
"It's been a long time, Akiyama-san."
Grey eyes closed briefly before they reopened and, when they did, they were no longer convoluted with uncertainty. The raven-haired girl coolly pulled at her jacket as she remained seated on the crate and waited for the silhouettes to become tangible forms under the dim lighting of the warehouse.
The dyed orange tresses of Sokabe Megumi came into view first, followed by the amiable yet dangerous smile Mio remembered. With a subtle gesture of the older girl's hand, more people left the shadows to join her place in front of the crates.
"Sokabe-senpai," Mio nodded in greeting as she calmly glanced over the group and recognized a few familiar faces. Some were the ones who left the gang after Taka became leader and some simply had grudges against Ookami.
Smiling grimly, she hopped off her seat to stand in front of the former Hayabusa leader as a show of respect. While she held no fondness for the gang, she appreciated Megumi's encouragement back then and even more so now.
For the older girl answered her call and rallied this many supporters.
"You seemed surprised, Akiyama-san."
"You lead a new life now, Sokabe-senpai," Mio met her former leader's cool gaze, "There is no reason for you to get involved in the past again, so I'm merely curious."
"Tatsuya may have done many terrible things just as we all have, but he was still a family member," the orange-haired girl's voice was dangerously soft, "He did not deserve to die, and definitely not the way he did. Besides, I have some things I need to discusswith Tachibana-san."
The bassist nodded curtly. Even though she completely despised Taka, she did not wish for his death either. It all came down to the mysterious double-agent Tachibana Himeko. According to Megumi, the kogal joined Hayabusa quite early on but she had always kept to herself and none of the other members cared much for her past at the time, especially because of how useful she was.
"Alright, what will be the first thing we do?"
"Hmm? Why are you asking me, Akiyama-san?"
Nonplussed, Mio frowned at the older girl and tried to decipher any hidden meaning behind her amused tone. "Aren't we reforming Hayabusa, Sokabe-senpai?"
"Ah yes, you did say that in your letters," Megumi laughed lightly and lifted her arm to reveal something she had been holding all this time, "but that's not why I'm here, Akiyama-san. I'm not the leader anymore."
"…what is this?" She stared at the purple hoodie in the older girl's hand in mild fascination. The folded clothing looked very familiar, almost identical to the one she used to wear, and briefly, she felt she was thrown into the past.
However, instead of the consuming fear and hatred that usually accompanied her memories, there was only an odd sentiment of triumph. It was as if she was delighted to be given an opportunity to confront her past with her current self.
She was strong now.
Entranced, she continued to scrutinize the item as if it were a foreign yet cherished article she lost long ago. Under the faint light of the warehouse, the color looked especially forbidding yet vibrant at the same time. A peculiar glint caught her attention and she leaned closer to see that there was a red button clipped to the left side of the hoodie, right in front of her heart should she wear it.
"Before, you wore this because you didn't have a choice. Now you do."
The black-haired girl was silent, but she accepted the hoodie without any hesitation. Slowly and carefully, she took off her jacket and placed it on top of the crate she was sitting on. Her eyes briefly met Mugi's approving gaze before she shrugged the hoodie onto her shoulders. When the clothing hugged her frame as if it was always meant to, she felt her decision sinking down on her back.
She was not crushed though. She felt so calm that all the apprehension faded away like the terrors of her past. As she pulled the zipper up and knotted her tie, she looked out of the warehouse and gazed into the endless sky. It was so blue, so distant and so cruel with its indifferent shades.
However, she knew she could fly with the wings of their conviction.
Seemingly perceptive of the internal change within the raven-haired girl, Megumi smiled and spoke up. "Now, Hayabusa swears its loyalty to you, Akiyama Mio."
The declaration did not shock her at all, for she could only feel the impenetrable strength brought forth by the symbolic outfit. Grey eyes narrowed as they looked over the faces of former acquaintances and strangers who will now fight by her side.
"Akiyama," they murmured in unison, some nodding their heads brusquely while the others folded their arms. There were eager smirks of approval, grim stares of resolve and even trusting smiles of loyalty.
Mio inclined her head slightly to accept their acknowledgements. As of this moment, these people were her gang, members who believed in her to lead them to a fitting destination.
She will not disappoint them.
"There is no turning back. No more wallowing in memories. No more empty promises. This," the raven-haired girl pulled the hood over her dark stresses as she gazed into Mugi's resolute blue eyes, "is our path."
"Yes, it is," the blonde whispered as she lightly brushed the back of her hand against her friend's. "It is either all or nothing."
Nodding, the leader of Hayabusa turned to stare at the graffiti she painted on the door of the warehouse.
This was their band's clubroom.
She clenched her fist and looked up into the sky once more. A flock of birds uniformly sailed over the building and high above the newly reformed gang. They blended with the cloudy background yet stood out with the vivacious flaps of their wings as well. However, the pattern formed by these majestic flyers was asymmetric due to their uneven number.
Mio's lips curved.
Even then, their formation did not fall apart as they continued to soar.
"It's so empty here…"
Azusa chuckled weakly as she strummed her guitar's strings, desperately wishing for her fervent notes to fill up the vacant apartment.
It wasn't like this. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Furious notes gradually fell into a gentle ballad, projecting the player's memories of her band's precious time in the leader's apartment. Everything was left the way it was, impeccably clean and devoid of dust. A small smile fluttered on Azusa's lips before bitterness overtook the young girl once more. It seemed that everyone came here often on their own, like an unspoken pact that they would keep this place clean while they wait for their drummer's return.
The chords stopped singing as the pigtailed girl slowly got up from the sofa and approached the fridge. She opened it and stared at the untouched contents in there, disappointed. It seemed so long ago that she came here every now and then to stock up the fridge, grumbling about what a troublesome senpai the tawny-haired girl was. It was a habit she had yet to break in spite of everything that happened.
Azusa glanced towards the sofa and imagined the older girl slumped on it, grinning irritatingly as she replied to the complaint.
"Yui is one lucky girl~"
"W-what's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, Azusa-chuan is growing up so fast, daddy can't take it~"
"What nonsense are you spouting now!"
Groaning, the pigtailed girl shook her head to dispel the silly memory. She took a few textbooks out of her bag and idly flipped through the pages until something fell onto her lap.
A breathless giggle left her lips as she gazed at a photo of Yui and herself, with Mugi and Mio in the background. The brunette had her arms wrapped around the pigtailed girl from the behind as she tackled the latter into a huge hug, to commemorate the forming of YuiAzu. Azusa smiled nostalgically as she searched through the notebooks for more pictures. She found several photo booth stickers of her two best friends, and her heart ached fiercely at how bright and innocent the three of them appeared. She clutched at the sheet and bit her lips as she willed her eyes to remain dry.
Sniffling irritably at her weakness, she placed the pictures between the pages and looked at the photo frame on top of the old television. The picture of their band stood proudly like a perpetual presence, proving that the memories they had together was real. Everything they experienced together was precious and irrefutable.
Azusa smiled at Yui and Ritsu's cheerful grins and Mio and Mugi's content expressions. Their bond was too strong to break apart. It was only bent right now, not torn.
But how will she untangle and straighten it?
"You don't have to change who you are, Nakano. Just be who you are. You are you… no one can change that."
The drummer's cheeky smirk seemed to repeat what she told the younger girl the day they met.
"Just be myself?"
"Yup! Just be yourself. You can do that, right?" She grinned encouragingly.
"Alright, I will," Azusa replied inwardly as she looked around the empty apartment. "Thank you, Ritsu-senpai."
Nodding to herself, the pigtailed girl decided that she lingered here for far too long already. Briskly, she picked up her guitar and was about to shoulder the strap when an idea struck her. Before her practical side rejected it, she walked towards the storage room and placed the instrument beside the unused drums.
"Keep them company won't you, Muttan?"
When only silence responded, Azusa blushed and quickly closed the door, blaming a certain brunette for her lapse in character. She did not expect that she, of all the people, would do something so Yui-esque. However, it felt quite nice at the same time.
Because it didn't make her feel alone.
"I'm going now, Ritsu-senpai," she whispered to the desolate place, "but I'll be back, with everyone else."
Smiling, Azusa was about to pick up her school bag when the entrance door was suddenly kicked open with a thunderous thud, almost torn off its hinges.
Stunned, she stared at the strangers entering the place and was alarmed when she recognized one of the intruders.
The brown-haired man beside her slammed his fist against the wall once before looking around with a disdainful smirk. "So this is where that bitch lived." Malice oozed out of a pair of fierce and cruel hazel eyes as they finally noticed Azusa.
She immediately bolted for the window but a hand easily caught her collar and slammed her head against the wall. Pain drilled through her skull and her vision blackened temporarily as her knees buckled, but the unyielding grip kept her standing.
Indifferent ochre eyes merely stared at her. "Don't move."
"Yeah, don't let her get away, Tachibana." The man jerked his head, signaling the two older men behind him to look around the apartment as if they were trying to find something. He walked out of the apartment, shouting orders to presumably more people waiting in the hallway. Azusa trembled at the cold grip around her neck and struggled to keep her eyes open.
"Yui is alive, isn't she?"
Though stunned by the unexpected question, the pigtailed girl bit her lips and glared coolly at the kogal. "How dare you ask that…?"
Himeko smiled at her defiance. "I see. Yui and her sister are under the protection of the Kotobukis, aren't they?"
Azusa's heart froze but she managed to maintain her hateful expression and remain silent on the matter.
"Well then," the sandy-haired girl's voice dropped to a mere whisper, her face solemn. "Try to run away the first moment you get, little cat."
Blinking in confusion, the pigtailed girl stared as Himeko loosened her grip and stepped back the moment that brown-haired man returned to the apartment with a livid scowl. Azusa slid down against the wall, still nauseous with the pain on her skull.
"There's nothing here, waka-sama."
"Cheh, figures that bitch don't own anything worthwhile," he barked furiously and kicked Azusa's bag across the floor. The loud noise blared in her pounding head, making her wince. Unfortunately, the simple movement caught his attention.
"So, who the hell is this kid?"
"No idea," Himeko shrugged nonchalantly.
The man whirled around, gnashing his teeth, "Don't take that tone with me, Tachibana. You still owe me."
"I owed your father a favor," she muttered without even looking up from examining her nails, "not you."
"Waka-sama," one of the strangers, a much older one with a beard, interrupted steely, "Why did you order us to come here?"
"Isn't that obvious? It's all about Ookami. This is Tainaka's place. I'm just looking for some leverage to use against her."
"Why did you decide to come now and not before?"
"Never knew where she lived," the brunet smirked, "but I…convincedmy sister to talk. That bitch's too close to Ookami, as if she's part of it and never part of us!"
Azusa dared not to move in case the attention shifted back to her again. The speaker was standing too close for her to make a sudden lunge for the window. Even then, she had no idea what she could do after leaping out from the second floor. She felt the weight of the cell phone in her pocket and a burst of fierce determination burned away any remaining fear.
She must be patient.
"Ookami," the bearded man snorted, "It is just a kid's gang that happens to be associated with our gumi. Why Oyabun kept it around I would never understand."
Shivering, the pigtailed girl instantly made the connection. This speaker must be a high-ranked man from the Wakaoujigumi, while this brunet was Wakaouji Shinichiro, the deceased boss's son.
"Beats me. Either way, Ookami is connected to us. It belonged to us," Shinichiro growled, "She may be hiding it but I can see it in her eyes! She's trying to take back Ookami, I just know it! How dare she? Both the gumi and the gang are mine now! I don't give a fuck about Ichigo, but she's a Wakaouji…how dare she even think about siding with that bitch? She cannot leave her gumi!"
"Indeed, leaving is not allowed," the bearded man murmured, his expression scornful even though he was standing stiffly in a respectful pose, "Hnn, perhaps Oyabun was right. Tainaka should have entered our gumi fully and take over the position. A mere teenage girl she may be, she is much more suitable than you are."
"What the f-"
"But of course," the older man continued smoothly, "we are bounded by honor to our Oyabun. And so we will follow you, waka-sama. However, I strongly advise you to show us you truly have what it takes to be a leader. You see, every time I see Tainaka at the headquarters, she always defeats you without breaking sweat. I am beginning to doubt that you cannot even defeat a little girl."
Though trembling in utmost fury, Shinichiro did not reply. The bearded man smiled.
"Much better, waka-sama. Well then, we have not found anything that proves Tainaka is betraying us. A petty matter like Ookami is not of our concern. Evading detection from the police and pesky investigators is our top priority," he inclined his head before turning away, "We will return to the headquarters now. You too, Tachibana."
Azusa tensed as the yakuza and Himeko left the apartment without even giving her a glance. A part of her was relieved that she was not deemed important enough for them to do anything to her, yet a part of her understood why they took off. The swaying door closed with a sinister click, leaving her alone with the furious gang leader.
Shinichiro stomped towards her and hauled her up by the collars until they were eye-level, ignoring her hiss of pain. "I can't even defeat a little girl? What a fucking joke! That Nakajima, just because he used to be father's right-hand doesn't mean he could treat me this way! Wait a minute, you look familiar…"
The pigtailed girl gasped at the recognition in his eyes, terrified at the wrathful insanity gleaming in them.
"You're that girl who used to follow Tainaka around! Good…very good… this will teach her. No one will defy me."
His nails dug into her neck with so much rage that her panic took over. Azusa swung her arms wildly and managed to slap his face hard enough that he dropped her to the floor.
"You bitch!" Roaring, he kicked her stomach before she could roll away. Wheezing, she clutched her middle and crumbled to the ground as her phone fell out of her pocket. Blinded in agony still, she hastily grasped for it only to cry out when the heel of his shoe dug into her knuckles.
"You'll pay for this!"
Once again, she was pulled up by her neck and slammed against the wall, making stars burst behind her eyelids. The combination of pain and utter fear was making it too difficult to think. Azusa never fought against a real fighter on her own. The last close encounter was with that rookie Ookami member, and it was only by sheer luck that her guitar pick managed to disable him. No matter how much the other yakuza looked down on him, Shinichiro was much stronger than she was.
The pigtailed girl choked and gasped for air, scratching desperately at his arm but this time his hold only tightened around her neck. She must get away somehow and dive for her phone. All she needed to do was gather her nerves to confront this fear.
It sounded so simple, but just where could she get that courage?
As soon as the thought came to her mind, a surge of fury overwhelmed everything else. She was not helpless. The weight of Mio's hand on her shoulder filled her with tremendous courage and defiance she needed to fight and struggle until the very end.
With her eyes narrowed in primal anger, Azusa viciously bit down on his hand and paid no heed when a string of swears exploded near her. The disgusting taste of blood on her tongue only fueled her energy as she kicked at his crotch with all the strength she could muster. Perhaps it was her dizziness or simply a miscalculation, for she only managed to hit his thigh.
However, he cringed from the attack and stumbled backwards out of surprise, swearing loudly about some old injury. Immediately, Azusa lunged for her phone and ran towards the door in staggering steps. Her body smarted but hope was suppressing the pain. She could make it, she could get out, she could escape -
"I was only going to kill you by breaking your neck, stupid girl," a strong hand caught a fistful of her long hair and yanked her back, "Not anymore."
Chilling dread drenched her skin at his cold voice. Cringing, Azusa punched blindly but he easily caught her wrist and twisted it until she cried out in pain. Pleased with her whimpers, he leaned close and whispered darkly. "Not so cocky now, huh, little girl?"
Chuckling, he tightened his grip and earned another muffled sob. An ugly grin appeared on his face as he drank in her fear and relished in the pain he caused. "Even if you beg for your life, there's no changing your fate. I will break all of Tainaka's toys, Nakano Azusa."
Trembling, the pigtailed girl managed to lift her head and glared into his eyes in spite of the frigid terror she felt. It was not Shinichiro's vicious sneer she saw in her panicking mind, but the various faces she knew so well.
Jun's sheepish chuckle.
Ui's gentle smile.
Mugi's warm gaze.
Mio's cool stare.
Yui's bright laughter.
Her vision blurred momentarily from the tears trickling down her cheeks, yet the preceding fear dissipated even as her limbs pulsated with sharp stings. She will not give her tormentor the satisfaction of watching her surrender and succumb to fright. An old memory, a vague image akin to forgotten chalk lines on the blackboard of her consciousness, jostled her spirit and numbed the pain.
Ritsu's defying smirk.
With her eyes narrowed in stubborn defiance, Azusa smiled. "You…will…never…break us…"
Shinichiro snarled furiously and backhanded her so hard that her head whipped to the side. However, the sting on her wet cheek and coppery taste of blood on her lips only made her giggle faintly. She could almost feel Yui's fingers entwining with her own and their phantom warmth reaffirming her belief.
Her defiant laughter grew in volume, making him narrow his eyes in bemusement.
"Even if we're apart…we'll always… be… together!"
A hoarse yell burst from her throat as she abruptly dove forward and rammed her head into his jaw. Even though her wrist was still clasped within his grip, she slammed her other elbow at the base of his throat with all her might and finally succeeded in freeing herself. Wheezing and sputtering, he smashed his fist into her shoulder the same moment she kneed his crotch.
Shinichiro groaned and staggered backwards as Azusa pulled her hair out of his hand, mindless of the stings on her scalp from several torn strands. With adrenaline pumping through her veins, she used her uninjured arm to fling her bulky bag to his head when he tried to get up, and quickly rushed towards the exit.
Unfortunately, the books only stunned him for a moment.
Roaring in rage, he pounced on her back and caused the two of them to crash onto the ground in a heavy thud. Her chin and knees struck the hardwood floor so forcefully that the blinding pain almost paralyzed her, but she commanded her body to turn around before his weight completely crushed her onto her stomach. Her elbow caught him at his temple and gave her the room she needed to maneuver her form from beneath him. Half-crawling, she swung her heel at the same thigh she accidentally kicked before and caused him to crumble again, cursing loudly. Panting tiredly, she grasped desperately at the wall to pull herself upright. No matter how determined and defiant her mind was, her bruised body was wrecked with fatigue and screamed for rest.
Just as she managed to stand up, she heard an ominous footstep and felt air whipping by her cheek. Even though she was able to block the incoming strike, the heavy kick hurt her arms so much that she could not defend herself from the following attack.
There was a deafening crack.
She felt breathless for a moment and everything seemed to slow down. His cruel smile. His fist still clenched in front of her. The dizzying sensation of free-falling.
Then agony exploded around her chest as her senses finally caught up to the present world. The moment her body hit the ground, Shinichiro stomped down on her ribcage and molten pain erupted again. No matter how much she clenched her eyes and tried to move, the repeated assaults drove the air out of her lungs and rendered her immobile.
All she could hear was her raspy attempts to scream, the sickening squelches and snaps on her chest.
Her consciousness flared and dimmed erratically, roused by the bursts of agony at each struggling breath. She could not move one of her arms and her legs long lost their strength, leaving her completely helpless against his relentless kicks and stomps. Her limbs were completely limp as the enraged gang leader struck her everywhere akin to a vengeful beast. Whenever reflex caused her body to feebly curl, he would drag and chuck her to another spot before repeating the frenzied beating.
By the time the prickling rings in her ears dulled to constant buzzing, most of her nerves were numb with paralyzing pain. She faintly felt something warm sticking to her hair and trickling down her forehead over her eyes. Her reddened vision only showed her Shinichiro's blurry form as he held up a rectangular object. The following flash from his phone camera did not even cause her dilated pupils to contract, which further impaired her sight with consequent black spots.
"No one will find you for days, little girl."
His gruff voice was filled with glee but she had difficulty breathing through her clogged lungs, let alone understanding his words.
"Once I show Tainaka this picture, she will definitely do something treacherous! Ha! The gumi won't overlook her actions anymore!"
Azusa's fingers twitched at the vaguely familiar name and strained to listen to his angry mutters. "That bitch is doing something, I just know it. Some of father's more trusted men keep disappearing, cheh, can't be a coincidence…"
Snorting, he gave her another contemptuous kick and laughed madly when she wheezed thickly and rolled to her side.
"Nakano Azusa, curse Tainaka in your afterlife."
She was dimly aware of him sauntering out of the apartment but she was no longer certain of her surroundings. The more she breathed, the more it hurt. There just wasn't enough air no matter how desperately she gulped.
She coughed wetly and stared at the crimson spots on the floor in morbid fascination, as if she could not really believe they came from her. Her eyesight was so blurry, and her eyes were so dry because of the dried blood and lack of tears.
So why was everything so fuzzy?
She felt cold, so cold. She couldn't even whimper from the sheer pain, let alone calling for help. But no, she still had an ounce of strength left. She must not give up yet. One of her arms could still move.
Blood slowly filled up her mouth as she pleaded at her limb to work for just a while longer. Her head lolled to the side and allowed the coppery liquid to dribble down her chin, warming the cold wooden floor against her freezing skin.
The pain was unbearable, but this must be what all her senpais felt with the burdens they carry, wasn't it?
She couldn't believe she ever doubted Ritsu. Of course she returned to Ookami for a reason. Azusa did not completely agree with the drummer's actions but she must consider the gang as her responsibility, her friends even. She must be doing something to the yakuza to help them.
The black-haired girl smiled weakly. It was just like Ritsu-senpai. She must have done all those horrible things to Yui to keep her cover in front of those bad people, just like the guitarist claimed.
I should have listened to Yui-senpai and believed in Ritsu-senpai…
Cold, why was it so cold? She immensely missed Yui's hugs. She always felt so good and safe in the brunette's embrace.
Her trembling arm painstakingly nudged her phone from her pocket until it was in front of her half-lidded eyes. After several attempts, the cracked cover finally flipped open and the screen lit up, showing that the device was still working. The wallpaper shone brightly as if mocking her for the warmth she could not feel.
Lips curving weakly, Azusa tried to recall the day she took this special photo. Yui was dozing on the rooftop as usual and, under that particular sunlight, the younger girl took a snapshot before she could stop herself. At that moment, the brunette looked so peaceful and beautiful, like an angel resting briefly from her mission of spreading joy around the world.
That's right, I can't give up yet.
Her shaking fingers sluggishly called for ambulance and police yet nothing left her lips. Her throat ached so terribly that even her wheezing hisses sounded so muffled. Despair shrouded over her when the other end disconnected, possibly thinking it was a prank call.
The wallpaper's encouraging brightness coaxed her to make the call again. This time, the person who answered was confused about the silence but Azusa's wet coughs must have alarmed the policeman.
"Hang on, we will try to find you as soon as possible!"
Even though his friendly voice was optimistic, the black-haired girl understood that this was it. They would not be able to locate her in time.
Instead of panicking, a strange calmness washed over her. Azusa half-heartedly thought about Yui's close encounter with death, Mugi and Ritsu's as well and even Mio's. Did they feel this too? Did they accept their fate and made peace with it?
I don't want to die. There are so many things I haven't done yet…
Garnet eyes blinked listlessly.
Yes, so many things I need to do…I must tell them somehow.
In barely coherent sentences and fragments, she painstakingly typed in what Shinichiro mumbled about Ritsu and the yakuza men. However, before she could finish inputting her whereabouts and what she wanted to say, the phone dropped from her slack hand and landed with a loud clatter that contrasted sharply against the soft thump of her limp arm.
Coughing, she gritted her teeth and reached out tiredly to press the send button.
Would they be proud of me? Or would they be angry with me? No matter…as long as they hear me…
Suddenly, the phone's shrill rings cut through her foggy mind.
Everything seemed so blurry and all the sounds were so muffled, but she recognized the caller from the ringtone right away.
Fude Pen, Ball Pen, the first song she and Yui ever played together.
Azusa smiled, or she thought she did. She couldn't feel anything.
Good. Yui-senpai must have gotten my text.
The black-haired girl felt an inexplicable urge to giggle at her success. Everything will be fine now, even though she will not be there to witness it. The humor quickly drained out of her body.
She pressed the answer button before her hand refused to move anymore.
Though overjoyed that she was able to hear the familiar voice one last time, she could not greet the caller. She coughed faintly as her vision blurred in and out of focus. All she could identify beyond the windows were the fading blue and the indiscernible white blotches decorating its endless stretch. It looked almost the same as the image she saw earlier the day in the hospital.
How cruelly ironic.
Squinting wearily, she was barely able to make out a flock of doves sailing across the sky in a unified fashion. She briefly imagined wings growing on her unfeeling back so she could take flight too. She wanted her feelings to fly and soar into the heavens to reach the person she loved so dearly.
But Azusa could not picture her anymore.
"Azunyan! Please answer me! Azunyan, can you hear me? Please talk to me!"
The remaining tingles of pain finally receded and robbed her of her vision as well. All she could hear was her own laborious heartbeats, pounding weakly and trying to keep up with the continuous calls of her sun.
"Let's form a duet, Azunyan!"
"I've always wanted to play Gitah with someone! This is great, Azunyan! That's it, we'll be YuiAzu, starting tomorrow!"
Her stiff fingers twitched feebly at the phantom sensation of a warm hand grasping her own.
Sumimasen, Yui-senpai…I can't play with you anymore…
The photo frame of their band had long fell from the television and lay shattered on the floor.
A/N: I know some people already saw this coming. The most blatant foreshadowing would be Interlude2, but there were tiny ones throughout the entire story (yes, even the first chapter...). Now, it should be obvious why this chapter took so long to come out, since Azusa took the majority of the chapter (for a good reason).
There were many ways to 'use' this song, but those chosen lyrics stood out to me since the beginning, and so the plot was planned long ago this way.
Criticism or any feedbacks are welcome.
Wakaouji Shinichiro is actually less hot-headed than Taka and usually has a calm demeanor. However, any doubts directed in his ability or any comparison with Ritsu will throw him into insane rage, thus a very different personality where his actions are controlled by anger, not mind.
It would be interesting to reread ch6, ch12, Interlude2, ch14, ch18 and Interlude3 again, even though I haven't reread them myself.
waka-sama means 'young master'