A/N:

WARNING! This story is rated M because of the strong lesbian theme throughout, and because there are occasional explicit depictions of lesbian sex at various points in the narrative (although not in every chapter). Read at your own risk.

DISCLAIMER! I do not own any part of the K-On! franchise. Ownership belongs to Kakifly, Hōbunsha, and Kyōtō Animation. I do, however, own all original characters appearing in this fiction, and they may not be used elsewhere without my express written consent.


PREFACE:

Originally this story started out as the re-write of the now-deleted Mono no Aware, the first story I published on this site. Over time, however, it evolved into a tale with a completely different plot and timeline. The only thing this story has in common with Mono no Aware is the alternate universe setting, which I have reused with few changes.

This is a story of love, friendship, and above all being true to oneself. It will be a longer story than is normal for me, as I explore this AU a little more deeply than I have the others I've created. I hope you enjoy the journey.

Genki Collective


Chapter 1: Reunion

3/14/2016, 1:05 pm
Second Floor Staff Room, Sakuragaoka Girls' Senior High School, Katakuramachi 553, Hachiōji

Nakano Azusa sat at her desk in the otherwise-empty second floor staff room, staring vacantly at nothing in particular. It was the Monday of the second week of spring break, and she was both bored and lonely. Stifling a yawn, she mentally cycled through her to-do list. The results were not encouraging.

Lesson plans? Check. Musical instruments and equipment inventoried? Finished. Sheet music library reorganized? Yep. And the next task is…nothing. The important stuff is all done.

God, this is killing me! I got a grand total of three days off, and now I have to sit around this place by myself for two and a half weeks until the entrance ceremony. This is what I get for being one of the junior teachers.

Sitting alone among a roomful of empty desks seemed a fitting metaphor. It was one year after college graduation, and here she was, teaching music at Sakuragaoka, and stuck in a near-empty school during spring break. It was the worst possible case for Azusa: she was alone again, as she so often seemed to be. She hated that feeling more than any other.

Even if she could take time off, there was nothing to do and no one to do it with. She was between bands, so she had nothing significant to occupy her time outside work. She had no real friends among the faculty, most of whom were men. Ui was married and living in Fukuoka. Jun had stayed in Tōkyō to work as a music journalist and play bass with her new band. And her closest friend of all, Yui, was with HTT on their latest Asian tour.

Pulling out her smart phone, she decided to flout the school's no-cell policy just this once to re-read the email she'd gotten from Yui that morning. As usual, it was nonsensical – some moronic statement about food with a picture of a bowl of kimchi attached – but it was Yui's unique way of letting Azusa know she was thinking of her. Azusa couldn't suppress a giggle.

It's what…the fourteenth? They're supposed to be playing in Seoul tonight. I guess that would explain the kimchi. Geez, this girl…she always makes me smile, every day without fail. God, I miss her so much when she goes on tour…

After turning the phone off again, she let her thoughts dwell on Yui for a few moments. The carefree brunette had been her friend for eight years. Over time, she had grown from annoying high school senpai to best friend, and finally to the single most important person in Azusa's life.

As her other friendships from high school and college slowly faded to memories, even those with Ui and Jun, her bond with Yui had never weakened. The brunette would not allow it to happen.

The reason for Yui's steadfastness had a lot to do with the kind of person she was. Even though she had become famous fronting one of the hottest acts in j-rock, at heart she remained her old self: carefree, upbeat, uncomplicated, and – in contrast to her band mates – largely unaffected by the soul-crushing grind of touring and the savage competition of the music business.

I'm still as important to Yui as ever. She would never give up on me…and I wouldn't have it any other way.

After Azusa took the job at Sakuragaoka – replacing Yamanaka Sawako, who had left to manage HTT full time – she found herself back home in Hachiōji, where HTT was based. Although she was separated from Ui and Jun, she was once again able to see Yui and the other girls in HTT on a regular basis. Before too long, she and Yui were inseparable, much as they had been in college.

Over the past twelve months, however, the relationship between the two women had grown more and more complicated. There was a dramatic increase in the intensity of their friendship after Ui got married. It was as though Yui was looking for comfort, or maybe a replacement, after "losing" her sister. For Azusa, languishing in the outer suburbs of Western Tōkyō with few other friends, the attention Yui lavished on her connected on a deep level. Yui seemed to be the only one who made her feel truly needed, as though her existence really mattered.

Azusa was at a loss as to why their friendship had taken this sudden turn after so long. She had never really had an attraction to women per se. She had always assumed she was straight, even though she'd never been particularly drawn to men, either. Yet Yui had become the exception to the rule. The brunette was force of nature, and Azusa had been swept along with the rising tide of passion that had grown between them.

They maintained the polite fiction that they were nothing more than best friends. Outside observers weren't fooled for a moment, however, because their deep affection for each other was obvious, and the sexual tension between them was palpable whenever they were together. They were a mere touch away from becoming lovers, and Azusa had to admit that she wanted that more than anything. After fighting it for so long, she had finally fallen in love with Yui, and the brunette gave every sign of returning her feelings.

And yet, they seemed stuck in a sort of stasis. Azusa, prone to overanalyzing, was still not entirely sure about dating another woman. The problems same-sex couples faced in Japan seemed formidable to her, and because of this she couldn't bring herself to take the initiative with Yui. If the brunette had reassured her that they would face those obstacles together, however, Azusa would have put her reservations aside in a moment. But Yui, normally not one to hold back in anything she did, seemed oddly unable or unwilling to take things to the next level.

So here we are: two people in love but not in a relationship. I wonder when we're going to stop kidding ourselves.

I should call her after work. She emails me constantly, but it's not the same. I just really need to hear her voice right now.

With effort, Azusa shook off her reverie. Daydreaming about Yui made her miss the brunette all the more, and served only to sharpen the edge on her loneliness.

She decided to make some tea to clear her head. Unfortunately, this did little to improve her focus, and as she sipped from the steaming mug, she couldn't stop her thoughts from running away again. This time, she was successful in deflecting them away from Yui, and they eventually came to rest on the empty desk facing hers.

It was the desk reserved for the English para-educator. Like many Japanese schools, Sakuragaoka contracted with a private firm for the services of native English-speakers to work alongside the Japanese teachers in the English classes. The goal was to improve the students' conversational skills, and to help the Japanese teachers deal with idiomatic speech and slang.

The school had had a recent run of bad luck with para-educators, however, and it seemed to Azusa as though there was a different person sitting at that desk every term. Most couldn't cope with the culture shock of working in Japan. Others were incompetent and had been fired, including the man who had filled the position during the previous trimester.

Azusa had heard a great deal of buzz about his replacement. She was a Japanese-American from the San Francisco area, a graduate of the University of California who was fluent in both English and Japanese. Supposedly, she'd been born in the States to first-generation immigrants, and had spent several years in Japan when she was younger. The male English teachers had seen a picture of her somewhere, and Azusa had overheard them talking excitedly about how beautiful she was.

That'll be a nice change. That last guy, the Australian...very rude. He was a lousy teacher, and ugly to boot. Every time he hit on me it made my skin crawl…ugh! At least it sounds as though she'll be easier on the eyes than he was…and she spent a long time in Japan, so maybe she'll have some manners. That'll definitely be a step up. I hope she's friendly. I could use someone to talk to.

Frustrated by the fact that her thoughts had drifted yet again, Azusa decided to kill time by rearranging her files on the faculty server. She was wading through a directory of old lesson plans when the door to the staff room opened, and the head teacher of the English department entered. Acting on reflex, Azusa stood and bowed, greeting him politely.

"Good afternoon, Sensei."

"Nakano-sensei," he replied with a nod. "I'm really glad you're here. We need someone to help our new English para-educator get settled in. The problem is, I'm the only one of the five English teachers here this week, and I'm swamped with administrative work. Can you help?"

It was more of an order than a request, and Azusa knew it.

"Of course, Sensei. I'd be glad to."

The department head nodded with satisfaction.

"Good. Stay here. I'll bring her up from the front office in a couple minutes."

To pass the time, Azusa decided to go back to reorganizing her computer files. Before she could get anything meaningful accomplished, however, the head English teacher returned. At the sight of his companion, the new para-educator, Azusa's jaw dropped.

Despite what she'd heard, she was unprepared for how beautiful the woman was. Her skin was pale to the point of being almost translucent. Taller than Azusa by a good eight centimeters, she had a slender build, except for a chest that was two shades too big for her frame. Her midnight-black hair, which was cut in a collar-length shag, framed possibly her most arresting feature: a pair of smoldering, almost-round brown eyes.

She was one of the prettiest women Azusa had ever met, on the level of Mio or even Mugi. As Azusa tried valiantly not to stare at the woman's chest, she realized there was a familiar air about the new teacher that she couldn't place. Azusa was almost certain she knew her from somewhere.

Oh. My. God. Is it…Tori? It looks like her…a grown-up version of her, anyway…no, that's impossible.

"Nakano Azusa-sensei, this is our new English para-educator, Takeda Natsumi-sensei," the head teacher announced. "Nakano-sensei teaches music here at Sakuragaoka."

At the sound of the name, Azusa froze. She gaped at the woman, and after a moment noticed that Takeda-sensei seemed just as surprised as she was. The light of recognition flickered in her eyes.

It can't be the same Takeda Natsumi from junior high! Is it? But the Takeda Natsumi I knew went by the English name Victoria, nickname Tori…and the Tori I remember was scrawny and flat-chested, with braces, braids, and glasses. This gorgeous creature can't possibly be her!

"Puh...puh...pleased to meet you," Azusa stammered out loud, bowing stiffly and desperately trying to hide how flustered she was. Takeda-sensei, on the other hand, quickly regained her composure.

"Please take care of me from now on, Nakano-sensei," she replied formally in flawless standard Japanese, bowing as she spoke. Once Azusa heard Takeda-sensei's voice, the unmistakable musical note in it left her with no further doubt.

That voice...it is Tori! I can't believe it. She came back to Japan! And of all the schools in all the cities in this country, she walks into this one? I must be dreaming…

"Likewise," Azusa responded almost numbly, afraid to say anything else in front of the head teacher. He didn't appear to notice her hesitation, however, and began issuing directions.

"Nakano-sensei, get her set up at this empty desk facing yours. See if you can find the department's lesson plans for the Spring term – they should be on the shared faculty drive. Takeda-sensei, spend your time this week familiarizing yourself with those lesson plans. You'll meet the other teachers and start joint planning next week. I'd stick around, but I have a department heads' meeting. I'll be back at the end of the day to check on how things are going."

As he hurried off, the two women looked at each other blankly for a moment. Azusa felt a sudden urge to say something, anything, to ease the awkward atmosphere.

Oh, God, I don't know where to start. We were best friends back then, but now…it's been eight years, after all. Say something, Nakano! Preferably not something stupid!

"Would you like some tea?" was all she could think to ask.

"I'd love some, thanks," Takeda-sensei replied. "Black."

As Azusa poured the tea into a mug, she felt Takeda-sensei's eyes on her. The woman seemed to be studying her; she appeared to want to say something, but seemed unable to find the words. After several long moments, the newcomer finally broke the uncomfortable silence.

"Nakano-sensei, I don't want to seem rude, but I'm curious, and I don't want to make any assumptions. Are you by any chance the same Nakano Azusa who graduated from Nakayama Junior High in 2008?"

Azusa nodded as she handed the mug to Takeda-sensei.

"I am."

In response, the deep, brown eyes sparkled, and the fair face lit up in a 1,000-watt smile. It was a smile every bit as warm as Azusa remembered.

"I knew it!" Takeda-sensei cried in triumph. "Azu, don't you recognize me? It's me, Tori!"

At the sound of her old junior high nickname, the one Tori had given her, Azusa caught her breath. A smile cracked through her reserve.

"Victoria Takeda," she said softly, carefully pronouncing her friend's name in English. "I can't believe it's really you."

"In the flesh," Tori replied, still beaming. "I came back, Azu. Just as I promised."


4/4/2005, 4:51 pm
Guitar Club Room, Nakayama Junior High School, Nakayama 1158, Hachiōji

The tall Japanese-American approached Azusa after the Guitar Club meeting ended. She wasn't much to look at, Azusa thought: a gangly, flat-chested 12-year-old, with her hair in twin braids, braces on her teeth, and thick, tortoise-shell-framed glasses.

It was a case of looks being deceiving, however. Once the girl began playing her acoustic guitar and singing, Azusa had been captivated. The girl seemed utterly at home in front of an audience, as if she was born to perform on stage. Her voice was strong and clear, with no trace of an accent, and her guitar skills, while not at Azusa's level, were still superior to those of any of the other first-years. She seemed altogether likeable, as well, and that, combined with her obvious talent, made her performance riveting. Were it not for her ungainly appearance, Azusa thought, she had all the makings of a future idol.

Sensing a kindred spirit, Azusa had been thinking about approaching the girl, but had hesitated, not wanting to seem rude. To her relief, the girl had made the issue moot by coming to her first.

"Um…Nakano-san, is it?"

"Yes," Azusa replied. "Takeda-san, right?"

"Right on the money," the girl grinned, and when her lips parted Azusa could see that the bindings in her braces were an attention-getting pink; far from being off-putting, the effect was actually kind of cute, and seemed to mesh with the girl's charismatic personality. "The name's Victoria, but you can call me Tori. Easier to say in Japanese."

Tori's breezy manner and disarming smile cut through Azusa's reserve and put her at ease. Even though they had just met, she decided she felt comfortable being on a first-name basis with the easygoing meganekko.

"Call me Azusa. You're really talented, Tori-san. Your voice is beautiful, and you play guitar well. You make performing look so easy. I wish I was as confident as you are."

Tori waved a hand dismissively.

"Oh, don't let that confidence fool you. I was terrified. I just hide it well. You're an amazing guitarist, by the way. I like the way you handle that Mustang – it makes me want to get an electric for myself. Hey, the senpai were saying they wanted us to form into groups. Want to team up? I think we'd do well together."

Azusa didn't need to think twice. Tori was not only skilled, she seemed like she'd be fun to play music with. With a smile, she nodded her agreement.

"I think so, too."


3/15/2016, 5:37 pm
Hanamaru Udon, Minami-Ōsawa 2-1, Hachiōji

Azusa and Tori huddled together at the tiny corner table, surrounded by people grabbing a bite to eat before heading upstairs to the movie theater. The noodle restaurant was crowded and noisy, and they had to lean their heads together to hear each other speak.

Azusa was amazed at how effortless it was to talk to Tori, even after more than eight years. The easy camaraderie of their junior high days had returned almost instantly. The Tori in front of her was certainly more mature and sophisticated, as expected of an adult, but underneath it all she was still the same old Tori, with the sunny, carefree disposition that drew Azusa to her back in junior high. Azusa still couldn't fathom how fate had allowed her path to cross Tori's again after such a long time.

"I'm really glad you suggested we eat here, Azu," Tori said in between mouthfuls of noodles. "It's just like the old days. Remember when we used to grab a bowl of noodles, then catch a movie?"

Azusa chuckled.

"Of course I remember. How could I not? We used to run all over this part of town."

Tori pushed the bowl away with a satisfied groan.

"Man, that was good. You can't get udon like this in the States."

"So, Tori-san…" Azusa began.

"Please, just Tori," her companion insisted. "Come on, Azu, we go back a long way. No honorifics, okay?"

Azusa hesitated. With anyone else, dropping honorifics would be serious business for the normally proper schoolteacher. But this was Tori, and they had been friends a long time ago, after all. She decided it felt right. After a moment, she smiled.

"Uh, okay…Tori. Speaking of the States, you were about to tell me about why you're here in Hachiōji. I was really surprised to see you after all these years."

"I got into a bit of legal trouble," Tori deadpanned. "I thought it best to leave the States until things calmed down. Let's just say that it would be a good thing if I never entered the city limits of Palo Alto again. Ever. In my defense, I thought the propane tank was empty."

A mischievous smile crept across Tori's face, and Azusa, realizing she was being teased, rolled her eyes.

"Come on, quit joking!"

Despite her protest, Azusa couldn't help smiling. Tori had definitely not lost her sense of humor as an adult.

"You want me to be serious, huh?" Tori's playful demeanor grew suddenly thoughtful. "I don't really know, to be honest. I have a degree in Asian Studies, and I actually had two different job offers as a translator, but…well, I didn't think I was ready to be chained to a desk at age 22. When I heard that I could get a job as a para-educator, it seemed like fun. An adventure, I guess. I hadn't been back to Japan since junior high, and I really missed my grandparents. But not only that, I remembered the good times, and the friendships. And I remembered my promise to come back."

Their eyes met briefly, but neither could hold the other's gaze, and they both quickly looked away in embarrassment.

"I had to look twice to make sure it was you," Azusa admitted. "The eyes looked familiar, but I wasn't sure, because you always used to wear glasses. It was your voice that gave you away. I can't believe how…different you look. Your hair's so short now, and you're not wearing glasses anymore. And, uh…you've filled out quite a bit."

"What, you mean these?" Tori grinned, nodding downward toward her chest. "Yeah, I guess they weren't quite this impressive the last time you saw me. They do make me look different, don't they?"

She stuck her chest out and pretended to leer at Azusa, who was taken by surprise; she had forgotten her friend's unique, American style of candor. She gasped, blushing with mortification.

"Knock it off! Geez, you're shameless!"

"Okay, okay," her companion laughed. "I couldn't resist teasing – your reactions are just as adorable as ever. Anyway, I didn't recognize you at first, either. You're…I don't know, a little taller and curvier than you used to be, and you're wearing your hair in a single ponytail now instead of those twin tails you had in junior high. But after a few seconds, I was pretty sure it was you. God, you've gotten even cuter than you were back then. I'll bet you get plenty of attention from guys, huh?"

"Um…er…" Azusa stammered. "I'm…not really into guys…"

"Girls, then?" Tori pressed. Azusa, now blushing like a beacon, could only mumble her response.

"Well, mostly just one girl."

"Interesting," Tori mused. "I didn't mean to assume. Back in junior high, you were into guys, or so you told me. Tell me about this girl."

I told you that because I was confused, and it was easier than turning you down flat. I was afraid I'd lose you as a friend. But that was a long time ago, Tori. I'm in love with Yui now. And this is one part of my life I don't really want to discuss with you.

"I'm not really comfortable talking about her," Azusa stated flatly. "Maybe another time. Besides, there's nothing to tell. We're not in a relationship. We're just really close friends."

"Oh, good, then that means I still have a chance."

For a brief moment, there was a look on Tori's face Azusa recognized all too well. It was the same look that had led to complications in their friendship during the final months before Tori moved to the States.

Oh, you've got to be kidding. You still have feelings for me? I can't believe it. I have to nip this in the bud.

"Um, no, you don't have a chance," she declared with uncharacteristic bluntness.

For a moment, the two locked eyes. Then, suddenly, Tori laughed, and when she spoke, her tone was light.

"Just kidding! Man, you should have seen your face."

It seemed like Tori's usual teasing, but the fact remained that she had indeed had feelings for Azusa back in junior high, and that gave her supposed jest an unsettling overtone. Even so, it had been such a long time that Azusa decided the best course was to take Tori's words at face value. She allowed herself to relax.

"I'll bet you'll probably think it's weird, huh? Me not being into guys, I mean."

"Hey, it's all good," Tori answered airily. "Guys, girls, whatever. Any port in a storm, as the saying goes. I don't restrict myself by gender, although recently I've been more attracted to guys, I guess. You have nothing to fear from me, anyway, because I actually have a boyfriend at the moment. His name's Jackson, and he's a law student at Stanford. Well, I guess you could still call him my boyfriend. Our situation's a bit complicated."

"How so?"

Tori thought for a moment, then shrugged.

"Jackson knows exactly where he's going and what he wants out of life. For a long time, I liked that about him, but now he's so focused and driven that he's gotten…boring, for lack of a better word. He was not at all pleased about me coming to Japan. Why we're even still together is beyond me. The way he and I left things was, um, indefinite. I'd be surprised if we stayed together very much longer."

As Tori discussed her relationship with Jackson, her normally ready smile faded, and she seemed unusually somber. She abruptly changed the subject, however, and her cheerful manner quickly returned.

"Anyway, you can't imagine how happy I was to see you in that staff room. I was hoping for a friendly face, but I never thought it would be yours. Imagine, TōriiAzu, together again, just like back in junior high."

Azusa smiled as memories of their days performing as a duo flashed through her mind.

"We had a lot of fun, didn't we? Remember that time you talked me into busking on the concourse of Mitsui Outlet Mall, just for the heck of it? I was mortified when security ran us off. I think we made about ¥2,000 from people throwing money into our guitar cases."

"Which we promptly spent at the Baskin-Robbins across the street," Tori giggled. "And remember the time we played at the cultural festival during third year? We got in big trouble using Orange Range's Locolotion as our encore, because the principal said our performance was 'too suggestive.' I remember your parents and mine all laughing at that."

Azusa groaned at the recollection.

"Trust you to remember that. All we did was shake our hips a little. I never would have done that on my own, but once you started, I pretty much had no choice but to go along with it. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die after that concert."

Tori was silent for a long moment, staring into space as if remembering. When she finally spoke, she sounded unusually wistful, even though she was smiling.

"All the good times we had together, not just playing…I'll never forget them, Azu. But those times we played together? Those are some of my best memories from junior high. Getting up in front of an audience and performing…it's part of who I am, and those junior high experiences really shaped that for me. That's why I never stopped playing. In fact, I was in a working band until right before I moved. No one close to me seems to understand how important music is to me. I know Jackson sure doesn't."

When Tori alluded to her boyfriend, Azusa saw her smile briefly waver again. It was obvious to Azusa that the state of her relationship with Jackson bothered Tori more than she was letting on. As before, Tori's smile returned when she pressed on with the conversation.

"What about you, Azu? Do you still play?"

"I do," Azusa nodded. "I've been in bands since high school. It's been a couple months since I quit my last band, but yeah, my skills are fresh. What are the odds? We're both still going after all this time."

Tori thought for a moment, and when she spoke, she sounded relieved.

"I'm glad you didn't give up guitar. You were so talented even back then that it would have been a tragedy. I was worried you would, the way you were talking when I left. We were both pretty upset, and we said a lot of dramatic things, didn't we?"

"It's true that I almost quit playing after you moved away," Azusa admitted ruefully, opting not to rehash the awful experience of their long-ago parting. "But when I went to Sakuragaoka, and I heard the Light Music Club play at my freshman assembly…things changed."

She went on to tell Tori about how that performance had so inspired her she abandoned all thought of quitting, and wound up joining the Light Music Club instead. She omitted the details about how Yui's performance, in particular, was the one that had so impressed her. She didn't want to have to try explaining her and Yui's complex relationship further. Her earlier exchange with Tori had been uncomfortable enough.

"It was me and four senpai," she explained. "They all became close friends as well as band mates. I was the rhythm guitarist. After they graduated, they all went to the same university and kept the band together, without me, of course. They're still together, in fact. They caught a lucky break, and right before they all graduated from college, their demo CD got to Sunrise – the animation studio – and they got picked up to do an anime opening theme. It was so popular they got a major label contract out of it. I'm not sure how plugged into the j-pop scene you are, but if you know who HTT is, that's them."

Eyes wide, Tori gasped in surprise.

"Wow! I know exactly who they are! That's that hot j-rock group that's all over TV and the internet. They're even catching on in the Asian-American community in the States. I've seen their videos online. They're definitely the real deal, and not a bunch of overproduced, media-manufactured idols. You were actually a member? I'm impressed!"

"Yeah, I'm the so-called 'forgotten member,'" Azusa grimaced. "I get requests to do media interviews from time to time, but I always refuse. We went to the same university, but I haven't been a member of HTT since 2010, well before they got famous, so what do these reporters expect me to say? I'm still close to all of them, though, especially the lead guitarist. We're, um, best friends."

Tori's jaw dropped.

"You mean – what's her name – Hirasawa Yui? You're best friends with one of the biggest rock stars in Japan? Whoa, you're full of surprises today. I have to say, Azu, I like her style. When I watch her perform, I can't take my eyes off her. She draws me in, like she's singing just for me. I've never seen anything like it. I'd love to be able to front a band like she does."

"Yeah, she's an amazing performer," Azusa agreed, unable to keep from glowing with pride as she talked about Yui. "Totally self-taught, and works on instinct. Can't read music, even after playing for nearly nine years, although she finally managed to learn to read guitar tabs. She does everything by feel. Wears her heart on her sleeve, and the audience loves her for it. In short, she's absolutely brilliant – everything I'd want to be as a performer. And we really are friends. Closer than sisters. She's on tour now, but I hear from her every day, even if it's just an email."

Tori eyed Azusa for a moment, her facial expression at first speculative, then smug.

"'Closer than sisters', huh? She's the 'one girl' you mentioned before, isn't she? I could tell by the way you were talking about her just now. No one gets that look in their eye about someone who's supposedly just a friend."

The noodle restaurant's already stuffy dining area suddenly seemed to grow even warmer. From the heat in her cheeks, Azusa was convinced she was blushing a bright scarlet. She cleared her throat in embarrassment, and tried not to stutter.

"Like I said, it's…complicated. But Yui's, um, special. You'll really like her, Tori. When she gets back from their tour, I'll introduce you. In fact, I'll introduce you to all four of them."

Tori's face lit up as she began babbling excitedly.

"Whoa, that'd be so chill! They're all so talented, and totally gorgeous, too. Oh, wow! I've never met anybody famous before. Well, I met Orianthi once, but that was just to get her autograph. I meant I never knew anyone who knew someone who was really famous. Or something like that. And I'm making no sense because I'm so blown away. I can't believe you're tight with Hirasawa Yui and the rest of them! That's totally awesome!"

The silly look on Tori's face made Azusa want to burst into laughter, as much from relief as from amusement. She suppressed the urge, however, because Tori's reaction gave her the opening she needed to steer the conversation back on course, and away from a potentially awkward discussion of her and Yui.

"They're just ordinary women, like you and me," she assured the American. "They worked hard chasing their dream, and it paid off. They inspire me, and that's why I still play. I have that same dream. One day, I'm going to make it. I don't want to spend my days looking back with regret at what might have been. Yui tells me I have the talent to be successful, and I believe her. All I need is the right people to play with."

At this statement, Tori grinned, and her eyes twinkled eagerly.

"You're speaking my language, Azu. We both want the same thing, I think. It's why we both kept playing for all these years, right? Why don't we do some jamming? You know, play some songs and see what comes of it? Like I said, TōriiAzu, together again."

"Are you serious?" Azusa exclaimed. "We haven't done anything together in eight years!"

Tori's grin vanished.

"I'm deadly serious," she countered. "There's no time like present. Neither of us is in a band, and both of us want to be. Let's just play some of the old songs together and see how it goes, and if it feels right we can talk about what's next."

"Okay…maybe this weekend we can get togeth-"

The words died on Azusa's lips as Tori abruptly cut her off.

"I meant tonight. As in right now."

Azusa slumped backward in her seat, speechless. Part of her was intrigued. Here was an old friend, an experienced musician, floating the idea of reviving their long-ago musical partnership. Azusa had been looking for a band, and this seemed like a golden opportunity. But the world-class over-analyzer in her hesitated.

It's been a long time…who knows what level she's playing at now? She was in a band, but that doesn't really mean anything – the world is full of crappy bands that'll never play for more than 25 people at time in some seedy bar. First things first - I've got to play with her again to see if she's any good, and if the old chemistry is still there. Even if it is, there's the matter of a rhythm section – we'd need a bassist and drummer to have a proper band. And I'm still kind of worried about that business of her "having a chance"…I'll have to watch that. I can't let her get the wrong idea. And this all seems so sudden…I mean, geez, it's been eight years! What is this girl thinking?

"Come on, Azu," Tori coaxed. "Let's just start by jamming together for old times' sake. I mean, for us to cross paths like this, and then not pull out our guitars…that seems kind of silly, don't you think? We can go to my apartment. It's down the street from the school."

She fixed Azusa with a pleading, almost puppy-dog look. Groaning inwardly, Azusa had no choice but to capitulate, as she had so many times before during their junior high days.

Geez, it's almost like dealing with Yui, except Tori comes across as being a lot less…innocent. And there is no way in hell I'm going to that apartment with her by myself, not after the way she was talking before. I don't want her thinking I'm a potential replacement for that boyfriend of hers.

"All right," she sighed. "I just can't say no to you. But my house is closer, so let's go there instead."

To Azusa's relief, Tori did not fight the change in venue.

"Your parents won't think it's an imposition, will they?"

"No way," Azusa reassured her. "They'll be really happy to see you after all this time."

Tori flashed one of her brilliant smiles at Azusa. She was almost bouncing in her chair with excitement.

"Then let's go, Azu! This is going to be awesome – I can just feel it!"


3/17/2016, 10:46 pm
Azusa's Room, Nakano Residence, Kitanodai 3-26-5, Hachiōji

Azusa flopped wearily into her bed, one arm automatically closing around her pillow as she settled in under the covers. As she lay there staring at the ceiling, she attempted to process the events of the previous three days as they swirled around in her mind.

Tori had left some time earlier, after she and Azusa had played their acoustic guitars for over three hours. It was the third straight evening they had done this. From that first chord three days earlier, Azusa had immediately felt the old musical connection, almost as if it had never been broken. Each night they met at Azusa's house, and song followed song as the two women seemed unable to put their guitars down.

Clearly, Tori was delighted to be playing with Azusa again, and her excitement was contagious. Azusa hadn't had so much fun since the last time she, Ui, and Jun had performed together eighteen months earlier.

Their playing together felt effortless to Azusa. Even though Tori had lived in the States for so long, she had been following the j-pop scene closely, and she was therefore familiar with a surprising number of songs. The ones she didn't already know she was able to pick up quickly from sight-reading the guitar tabs off of Azusa's tablet screen. She had grown into a skilled, professional-quality rhythm guitarist, and her voice had lost the adolescent quality of eight years earlier and was now clear and powerful. To Azusa, it was almost like playing alongside Yui, although Tori's performance didn't have the elusive magic that made Yui unique. Even so, her skills were formidable, and Azusa was thoroughly impressed.

Earlier that evening, after three nights of playing every song they knew in common, many of them more than once, the two had decided to reform TōriiAzu, under a different name and with a rhythm section this time. Despite how rapidly things had evolved, Azusa felt right about it all.

It's been too long since I felt this way about making music. Everything's clicking when I play with her. It's just like we were on stage back in junior high. I can hardly wait to tell Yui! Maybe when she gets back she can watch us play, and maybe join us…

The sudden realization hit her, and she sat bolt upright.

Oh, my God! Yui! I forgot to call her!

She scrambled to get her phone from the nightstand, and when she saw the time display, her heart sank momentarily.

Dammit! It's quarter to eleven. They're forty five minutes into the first set…no, wait. She's in Macao, and that's an hour behind Tōkyō. It's still fifteen minutes to curtain.

She heaved a sigh of relief as her fingers glided over the touch screen. Yui picked up on the first ring, almost as if she had been staring at her phone, waiting for the call. Azusa, unable to suppress a grin, knew this wasn't far from the truth.

"Azunyan! I was so afraid you wouldn't call! I've barely heard from you in the past three days, and I've missed you so much!"

Distorted as it was by the international satellite link, Yui's voice was still music to Azusa's ears. The moment she heard it, she felt a powerful sense of connection with the brunette, even though they were some 3,000 kilometers apart. Even so, Azusa didn't miss the barest hint of reproach in Yui's words.

"Yui! I've missed you, too. Sorry for the late call. How are you? How's Macao?"

"I'm spectacular, now that I'm talking to you," the brunette said with characteristic enthusiasm. "This call is giving me the Azunyan energy I need to play the show, after all. And Macao's not too bad. We're playing the Cotai and staying next door in the Venetian. This place is huge, and the food is excellent!"

"Must be nice," Azusa said with a touch of envy. "Did you get to the beach?"

"You're kidding, right?" Yui snorted. "Not today. Things have been absolutely crazy. It took us forever to get through sound checks. Problems with the sound system."

Azusa frowned as she tried, unsuccessfully, to remember HTT's tour schedule.

"Um, you're only in Macao for one night, right? I'd look it up, but my laptop's off."

"Only tonight," Yui confirmed. "We head across the bay to Hong Kong tomorrow for two nights. The girls were talking about going to the beach before tomorrow's concert, but there's no way this girl can leave Hong Kong without sampling the food, so I'll probably hire a guide and prowl the street stalls. Then we come home on Sunday morning. The domestic leg of the tour starts next Wednesday."

"Sounds like the usual whirlwind," Azusa said, noting that Yui seemed as energetic as ever despite the frantic pace of touring. "Honestly, Yui, I don't know how you can take the punishment."

"Oh, you know me," Yui chirped. "I just go with the flow."

Suddenly, Azusa heard Ritsu's voice in the background. Her words were quite audible, and it was obvious that she wasn't happy.

"Yui, what's the deal? It's ten minutes to time! We have to meet with Sawa-chan and the tour manager!"

"Yeah, yeah!" Yui groused at the drummer before turning her attention back to the phone. "God, she's such a slave-driver. She's gotten so bossy since we got our record deal."

"Better listen to her, Yui," Azusa advised. "If she gets too annoyed, she doesn't play well."

"True, but she's just going to have to deal with it for a few minutes," the brunette declared; it was clear she was in no hurry despite Ritsu's summons. "So anyway, Azunyan, it feels like you've hardly had any time for me lately. You usually return all of my emails, but lately you haven't been doing that. Our phone calls and chats have been a lot shorter this week, and you've seemed distracted when we talk. This Takeda-san…you and she must be having a lot of fun together."

Something in the way Yui said this gave Azusa pause. There was a pout in her voice that was not light-hearted, and her reference to Tori by using her last name and an honorific was unusual for the normally informal brunette.

"Yeah. We've been jamming together this week. We ran through all the old songs she and I used to play in junior high – the Orange Range covers and all rest. I taught her a couple of the old HTT songs from high school. Numbers you guys don't play much anymore, like My Love is a Stapler. You'll really like her, Yui. You're a lot alike."

There was a momentary hesitation on the other end.

"Wow…um, that sounds like fun…" Yui said, her tone of voice conveying exactly the opposite message.

My God, is she jealous? She's got no reason to be, and no right to be, either. If she wants a say in who I spend my time with, she needs to declare herself.

"It was fun," Azusa continued, pretending to take Yui's words at face value. "We haven't performed together since junior high, but things were just as effortless as they were back then. She totally connected with me. Honestly, it reminded me of how I feel when you and I play together. In fact, things have been going so well that we're going to start a new band together, as soon as we can find a bassist and drummer."

"A…new band…?" Yui stammered; she was clearly taken by surprise. "Wow, no wonder you've not had as much time for me. Don't get me wrong – I'm happy for you, because I know that's what you want. But at the same time, it's been hard for me, because it's almost like my Azunyan is spending so much time with this Takeda-san that she's forgetting about her poor Yui. And I've been so lonely for you, too."

"My Azunyan"? "Her poor Yui"? Wow, she is really jealous. I've never heard her talk like this before. I'm going to have to handle this situation carefully.

"Yui, don't get all weird on me, okay?" she said quickly. "She's just a friend and a colleague. We're getting reacquainted after eight years. And besides, I called you every night, just like I always do. There's no need to get upset just because an old friend and I decided to start our own band."

There was another hesitation, and then Yui began to sputter. To Azusa's surprise, she sounded flustered. It was completely out of character, and therefore quite alarming.

"But…but…singing and playing together…you never do that with anyone but me! That's our special privilege!"

"That makes absolutely no sense," Azusa countered. "You never had exclusive claim on playing music with me. It's not like I've never been in bands before. Please don't talk like this, Yui. You make it sound like you're being replaced or something."

"Replaced? Me? Impossible!"

Yui laughed, but again, it seemed artificial.

"Of course it's impossible," Azusa soothed. "You're one of a kind, Yui. At least to me you are."

Azusa heard Yui draw a deep breath. When the brunette spoke, her voice was filled with a sudden determination.

"Azunyan, I am coming straight over to your house when I get into town on Sunday. It makes me crazy when we're on tour and I can't spend time with you. And that's what I want to do when I get back: spend time with my koneko-chan. Just the two of us, by ourselves. I've missed you so much."

"I'd like that, Yui," Azusa said softly. "I'd give anything to see your face right now."

And yes, I caught that. You don't want Tori anywhere near us.

"I know," Yui replied, and now her voice was much warmer and gentler. "I wish I was there with you. I die a little inside when I go on tour and leave my Azunyan behind. I've been so much lonelier for you on this trip, way more than the others."

Once more, Azusa heard a voice in the background. Not surprisingly, it was Ritsu again, and she was even more annoyed this time.

"Yui, you need to get off the phone! You're going to delay the concert again!"

"Okay, okay!" Yui groaned. "Geez! You guys have to say 'hi' to Azunyan first."

There was a chorus of hellos from the other end.

"Azunyan, I've got to go," Yui said hurriedly. "Remember, I want us to get together this weekend. And I want to meet this Takeda-san at some point. The other girls are going to want to check her out, too. If she's going to be in a band with my Azunyan, she needs the Yui seal of approval."

Okay, this is not a good thing. Yui clearly sees Tori as a threat. She's never predictable – who knows what'll happen when she meets Tori? Man, this is going to suck.

"Okay, Yui, fine. You know, she knows exactly who all of you are. She's a huge fan of yours. When I promised to introduce her to you, I thought she was going to faint."

There was a chuckle from the other end.

"Well, if she's a fan of mine, that makes a tiny bit of a difference," the brunette said, and this time her characteristic warmth had returned. Azusa bit back a sigh of relief.

"Have a great show, Yui. Rock out for me, and call me from Hong Kong, okay?"

"Okay. Hey, Azunyan…?"

"What?"

"I'm still your best friend, right? Your number one?"

The naked anxiety in Yui's voice took Azusa by surprise. Worry was not a normal emotion for her carefree friend.

Oh, God. What the hell is going through this girl's mind? She's so jealous she's panicking. She's acting like she's afraid she's going to lose me. This is not good...

"Don't be ridiculous, Yui," she chided gently. "You're my best and closest friend. Nothing and no one could ever come between us."

"Oh, I'm just being silly again," Yui said with a nervous giggle. "My Azunyan would never give up on me. Oops, gotta go! Sleep well, koneko-chan!"

The connection dropped as Yui hung up. Azusa slumped back onto her pillow, unsure of what to make of the unnerving turn the conversation had taken. It was a long time before she managed to fall asleep.


A/N:

− This story was beta-read by my literary right hand, Musician74. She stuck by me as what was supposed to be a simple re-write of an existing story turned into a completely new fiction. To paraphrase Yui, awesome Beta-chan is awesome.

− As usual for a Genki fic, all stores, locations, buildings, etc. in this story are real-life, existing entities, where possible. For example, the Hanamaru noodle restaurant and Mitsui Outlet Mall are actual businesses in Hachiōji. The street addresses given in the scene headers are actual street addresses. Plug them into Google Maps and go to street level and you will see the actual buildings I imagined as I was writing.

− The arena in Macao Yui refers to is the CotaiArena, which is a 15,000 seat facility on the grounds of The Venetian resort in the Cotai district of Macao. It is one of the major concert venues in East Asia, and for HTT to headline there is evidence of their star power.

− A virtual cookie to anyone who can spot the reference to the 1942 Humphrey Bogart film Casablanca. EDIT, 6/25/2012: The virtual cookie goes to Hyperkinetic-Rabbity-Thing for spotting the Casablanca reference in Azusa's thoughts on finally recognizing Tori: "And of all the schools in all the cities in this country, she walks into this one?" It's a paraphrase of a famous line Humphrey Bogart delivers in the aforementioned film.


Thanks for reading this chapter! Like it? Have some constructive criticism? Submit a comment below!