That winter was the very first time in my life I had racked my brain over what present I should get for a girl.
It was morning in the practice room of the Folk Music Research Club. Even though only Chiaki and I were inside, there was barely any space remaining in the room because of the drum set and the amplifiers. The air outside was chilling to the bones, but inside the room, it was really warm.
"The other two girls should be here soon, right?"—I thought to myself, as I stared at the bundled short hair swaying in-between the cymbals. There was no way I could ask Mafuyu—whom I was getting the present for—for ideas; and I had no intention of consulting Senpai either, as it would've definitely piqued her interest.
But when I finally decided to discuss the issue with Chiaki, she asked me this question instead: "Haa? Present?" And threw a punch in my direction.
"What was that for......"
I rubbed my head gingerly as I picked up my fallen bass.
"What's the present for? Come on, tell me again."
Asked Chiaki, as she blew puffs at her fist. Who would have the guts to answer you when you're acting like that? But I was forced to answer, as Chiaki's gaze was becoming sharper and sharper. I stuttered,
"Well, as I was saying, Mafuyu's birthday is coming up soon......"
Another blow. Just as I expected.
"Unbelievable! You shouldn't be approaching me about that if there's even an ounce of sensitivity inside you!"
"Eh? But...... I mean, I do know Chiaki's preferences are vastly different from Mafuyu's, but I have no idea who else I can talk to about this."
"That's not what I meant!"
The third blow. I was already getting dizzy. Chiaki gave a "hmmph" and began to tune the snare drum. I let out a sigh and plugged my bass into the amplifiers. What's going on here? Did I say something to piss her off?
"Geez! Nao, stop thinking about pointless things like that and let's begin our practice! Time is precious, you know?"
"I get it......" Guess I'll put the issue of the present aside for now. It was rare for Chiaki to come to school early together with me.
I slung the guitar strap over my shoulder and gripped the neck of my bass tightly. Remnants of the heat from back then still lingered on the strings; and I could even feel the sweat that had flowed from my fingertips at that time being absorbed by my palms.
A week had passed since that storm-like school festival had ended. It was winter now, so it was harder to wake up early; but that didn't stop me from attending morning practice. Because, during the live performance, I had realized just how poor my physical endurance really was.
I barely made it through the two-hour-long nonstop performance on both Saturday and Sunday. And despite having braced myself for the ordeal going in, I guess my emotions were running high because of that strange incident; the entire time, my body was moving against my will, as though it was under the influence of some strange drug. But on the second day, after we had finished our encore—and after my brain had already been drained of the drug—the student council barged backstage and said to Senpai,
"Kagurazaka, there's a whole bunch of people outside who wanted to watch your performance but couldn't get in. Can you guys hold another performance during the kouyasai?"1
To which Senpai readily agreed. Can you imagine just how pitiful it must be when the wax of a candle has completely melted away, and all that remains is the candlewick flickering faintly?
"Right, Nao's back did look really pitiful during the kouyasai." Seems like Chiaki remembers as well. As she tuned the bass drum, she continued, "But Senpai was really happy though. She said you sounded like Springsteen."
"Though I turned into Mori Shinichi later on......"2
"All the more reason for you to practice!"
Seems like Chiaki's still angry about the issue of the present. She repeatedly stepped on the pedal of the bass drum, and as the bass notes gradually gained rhythm, they interweaved with the beats of the floor tom and transformed into a solid sixteen-beat tempo. The door's still open for ventilation, you know...... Oh well, she's restraining the volume anyway.
I sighed to myself silently—keeping the volume low while drumming continuously was an incredibly difficult feat. Chiaki was becoming more and more impressive, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being left behind.
"Nao's singing sounded a little forced. Perhaps it was because you were playing the bass at the same time. It used to be much more straightforward."
"That's some memory you got there......" She even remembers how I used to sing?
"How long do you think I've been taking music lessons with you?"
Chiaki and I had been classmates for the past ten years. Quite unbelievable, come to think of it. And ten years later, we even joined the same band.
"That's why you have to practice more, to get your fingers accustomed to it. Your singing should become more natural once that happens."
I see. Come to think of it, she's actually drumming and chatting at the same time. Is that also because her hands have gotten used to it after repeated practice?
"Urm, where should I begin our practice? Which phrase?"
"How should I know? Don't depend on me for things like that!"
She was right. I regretted it the moment I asked her. Chiaki puffed her cheeks out, and all the while, her limbs never stopped their task of sketching out the tempo.
"Even I can't know every single thing about Nao."
"Then how much do you know?"
I almost fell forward when a sudden voice came from behind me. When I turned around, my nose almost came into contact with the maroon-colored hair. A pair of sapphire eyes appeared right before me, and I froze on the spot as I stared intently at Mafuyu's face. Her nose and cheeks were slightly red, probably because she was walking to school in the cold winter morning air. How long has she been here? I didn't notice her presence earlier because of the continuous beats of the drums; and Chiaki hadn't seen her either, as her view of Mafuyu was being blocked by my body. Chiaki then stopped her arms with a surprised expression on her face.
"Geez, give us a greeting if you're here already! Morning, Mafu-Mafu!" exclaimed Chiaki, as she lifted her drumsticks in the air.
"...... Morning." Mafuyu shifted her gaze away from me in embarrassment. I did the same as well—my heart was pounding just from briefly crossing sights with her.
That was because—it had only been a week since our live performance at the school festival.
"It's not a good habit to eavesdrop," voiced Chiaki.
"I was not!" Mafuyu shook her head hard, her hair dancing about in the air. "...... It was by accident!"
"H-How much of our conversation did you hear?" I was panicking. Did she hear about the present as well? Mafuyu frowned.
"...... Is there something you want to hide from me?"
"Eh? Ah, no, well......"
"I heard you and Chiaki talking about how you two have been attending music lessons together for years."
Thank goodness. So she only heard our conversation from then onwards.
"Why are you heaving a sigh of relief?"
Mafuyu's question caused my mind to go into panic mode once more. Why is she angry?
"You're always like this, Nao. Your thoughts are always clearly reflected on your face," said Chiaki behind me.
"I-Is that true?"
"You never noticed?"
Mafuyu dealt me a heavy blow when she said that. Chiaki then gave a shrug.
"How could he possibly notice? He's so dense, he wouldn't even realize if he was stung by a bee."
"That much I know."
"Even amoebas possess more nerves than he does."
"That, I know too."
What the hell did I do!?
"Earlier on, he even asked me about Mafuyu's pre-" "Whoaaa!" I stepped over the drums and pressed my hands on Chiaki's mouth. Please don't say that out loud!
"What? Is there something I must not know?"
When I turned around, the expression on Mafuyu's face looked as though she wanted to interrogate me. Being forced into a corner with nowhere to run, I could only flap my arms about like a dying moth as I tried to come up with something that would satisfy her.
"Morning, my fellow comrades!"
Came a booming voice. A tall silhouette appeared at the opened door. Kagurazaka-senpai leisurely strode into the practice room, with her braided black hair fluttering in the air, then closed the heavy door. I was saved. She might not have known what she was walking into, but I was in a really bad situation.
"Hmm? Young man's about to kiss Comrade Aihara, so Comrade Ebisawa's trying to stop him?"
"No way!" "Not at all!" "Kyouko!"
Senpai removed her guitar case from her shoulder and placed it on the floor, then opened the door with a smile.
"In order to not interrupt you three, I'll just leave the camcorder running and stay outside for about five minutes. Please continue what you were doing."
"Hold on, hold on! What the heck did you come here for? Let's begin our morning practice! You know, the morning practice!?"
I tried my hardest to get her to stay.
"You need to practice kissing in the morning? I never expected you to be such an innocent guy. I see, I am willing to help you out."
"Why is Senpai thinking in that direction!? We're a band, are we not!?"
Senpai turned around and closed the door, then lifted her index finger.
"We're no ordinary band, yeah? We're the blackbirds <feketerigó>, burning through the night with the flames of love, and ours wings will declare to the world the advent of dawn."
"Okay......" And so?
"If we ever become popular one day, and someone requests that we take part in a movie shoot, wouldn't it be problematic if we couldn't get the kissing scene right?"
"Why are you worrying about such pointless things?"
"As a side note, Comrade Ebisawa's pretty impressive when it comes to kissing," Senpai licked her lips.
"Kyouko~!" Mafuyu shrieked and slammed her fists down on the cymbals next to her. I was surprised by what Senpai said. W-When did that happen!? Ah, no wait, could she be talking about what happened on the third day of our training camp?
"Geez! Music's our main focus!" Chiaki poked Senpai with the tip of her drumstick. "We should concentrate on trying to hold more live performances so we can become famous!"
"The reason I love Comrade Aihara so much is because you always say the right things at the most crucial moment!"
"That trick of yours will only work twice a month at most!"
"What if I throw in a hug and a kiss?"
"Hmm...... make it three times then."
What's with that conversation? Senpai walked past me with a smile and opened her guitar case. Her Les Paul was giving off a black luster.
"I'm happy to see that everyone's flame is still burning. I thought young man was already burned to a crisp, and that it would take you a while for you recover. But it looks like you've steeled your heart already."
Senpai flashed me a smile as she tightened her strings in a sultry manner.
"You will show me an unknown world in our next performance, and the many ones after that, right?"
"We have already found our next performance?"
Asked Mafuyu, as she quickly swung her head around. That was way beyond what I had expected. It looked like she was getting more and more into the live performances.
"No, not yet. I want to hold one more performance before the end of the year, but I wish to aim higher. I have no intention of staying in the same spot."
"An even bigger stage?" asked Chiaki.
"That's right. Somewhere we'll receive no support from the audience."
Kagurazaka-senpai was someone that refused to remain in the same spot forever—she always aimed higher and higher. How far has she set her sights? And can I really keep up with her pace?
Senpai smiled as she briefly looked at the small country we were in.
"Even if we're stuck, we should be able to move forward as long as our hearts continue to beat in rhythm. Just like what young man did for Comrade Ebisawa back then."
A clattering sound rang out behind me. I turned around and saw Mafuyu picking up the fallen chairs and amplifiers. She stole a glance at me; but her face became even redder, so she shifted her gaze away. I quickly turned my head towards my bass's amplifiers.
I played quite a few notes wrong during that morning practice—because I had noticed Mafuyu staring at me hesitantly through the corners of my eyes. Needless to say, my singing didn't sound natural at all.
♫ ♯ ♬
I couldn't get Mafuyu's gaze out of my mind, even during class.
Ever since that incident—
The distance between us had shrunk.
I had no idea by how much, but I was scared—scared that it was all just my wishful thinking. After the kouyasai had ended, Mafuyu had collapsed from exhaustion while she was packing things up, so I carried her to the infirmary. As there was no one else around in the infirmary at the time, I was left with no choice but to look after her (though all I did was to sit on the chair next to the bed). That hour was a great opportunity for me, but I screwed it up by only talking to her about music. What the hell was I doing?
"That's right. What the hell were you doing, Nao?"
"You should've made a move on her back then! We thought you two were going to return hand in hand. What a huge disappointment that was."
The guys in my class surrounded me and blasted me with insults. That happened in the changing room after we were done with physical education, the fourth lesson of the day.
"Urm, sorry......." No wait, why am I apologizing?
"But you did do something there, right?" "It's impossible for nothing to happen, right?"
"Urm...... Ah, right. Mafuyu hates Italian operas, just like me."
"Who the hell wants to know that?" "Just be a music critic for the rest of your life!" "Damn it, is that thing between your legs a dud?"
Why am I being scolded by everyone I meet today? I really felt like crying.
"Nothing else? Like a date or something?"
My classmates closed in on me like a pack of hungry wolves ready to pounce on a sheep, so I finally revealed to them my intention to celebrate Mafuyu's birthday with her. In an instant, everyone's eyes flared up like pumpkins on Halloween. Whoa!
"What are you getting her, Nao?"
Why must I answer that question?
"I-I-It should be a ring first, right?" "That's way too fast, calm down! He should give her a choker as his first present." "You should be the one calming down!" "How many months of salary do you have to burn to buy a choker?" "Not for the Princess, silly. It's for Nao!" "That's a good one!"
"No, well...... Sorry to interrupt while you guys are passionately discussing the matter...... but I haven't decided yet."
"Just die already, you indecisive bastard!" "It better end in tragedy!"
I shrunk my body and leaned in close to the lockers. I wanted to hide somewhere. Please don't talk about this matter anymore. I had no idea why the guys were lashing out at me. For some reason unknown to me, everyone had assumed that Mafuyu and I were already in that sort of relationship. When did I ever say that?
"Her birthday is less than two weeks away, right? You better make up your mind quickly, Nao."
"Mmm...... Wait, why do you guys know when her birthday is?"
"Are you an idiot!? It's obvious we would check up on the birthday of a girl in the limelight!"
"High school's a long period of time. You never know what'll happen."
"Though it has all happened to Nao already."
"Damn it, I'm pissed. You should just die, Nao." It's not my fault!
"You can't even decide on a gift, even when you're surrounded by girls."
"Mmm. I tried discussing it with Chiaki, but she rejected me."
I could sense everyone's fury.
"You tried discussing it with Aihara?" "About Princess's present?" "Are you for real?"
I shivered and nodded. In the next moment, I was being beaten on the floor. "This is for Aihara! And this is for me!" said one of the guys, as he punched me twice in my stomach. The rest of the guys followed suit.
The dust danced in the air that was mixed with the smell of sweat and deodorant. I was alone in the room—my body, immobile, because of the pain emanating from all the injuries on my body. The only thing I could do was lie on my back and listen to the bell signaling the end of lunch break, ringing in a place faraway.
♭ ♬ ♫
Human beings are creatures that will reflect on what they've done wrong—so that very night, I spent my time in my room thinking about why Chiaki and the guys were angry. We had been around each other for over ten years, but I still didn't really know her that well. And that became even more apparent after we joined the band. I mean, we do know each other quite well if we're talking about typical things, like birthdays.
Hmm. Birthday. Is that it? It's highly possible she was angry because of that. Right, I'll get her a present that's suitable for her then. Will that be okay? I wonder how late I am. I checked the calendar on the desk and counted.
Urm......—it was way too late.
But I guess it's still better than nothing. Yup.
My mind circled around that thought for heaven knows how long.
After finally making up my mind, I quietly walked downstairs. Tetsurou was listening to Bach's Christmas Oratorio on full blast in the living room. I carefully snuck past the corridor and opened the cabinet to pull out a record that was kept inside, then wrapped it up with blue wrapping paper from the department store.
"Will she be happy with this?"—I naively thought to myself. Looking back, I was really hopeless back then.
The next day, while I was waiting for the first train, I saw Chiaki on the platform, so I ran over to her to hand her the present. Chiaki's eyes opened wide when she received the present from me. Her gaze wandered back and forth between me and the present about four times. She then asked,
"Urm, I'm ten months early, but it's your birthday present."
"This is the vinyl record of <Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band>, the UK version. You've wanted this for a very long time, right?"
"Eh? W-W-Why? And normally, wouldn't you say it's two months late?"
Chiaki's face alternated between red and white; and her eyes widened for a brief moment, then started blinking repeatedly for a while. What a busy person she is.
"Why? You've never given me a birthday present before."
"Weren't you angry yesterday because of this?"
Her beet red face froze for a moment. And in the next instant—
The scenery before my eyes flipped upside down at the same time I heard her furious roar; and a violent impact greeted my back before I could even figure out what was going on.
The unbelievably blue winter sky suddenly appeared before me, though half of it was hidden behind the shelter of the train station. Pain shot through my head, and my back was arching upwards because of the spasm. When I realized I had been thrown by Chiaki, she popped her head out above me.
"U-Unbelievable! I never expected you to be as stupid as this!"
In response to Chiaki's stomping attacks, I shielded my head with my arms and rolled about on the floor.
"S-Sorry. Urm, I never expected you to be this angry."
Seems like I've made a critical mistake. It took me a great deal of effort to finally get up. Chiaki was hugging the record tightly in front of her chest, and was staring at me fiercely as her shoulders heaved up and down in conjunction with her breathing. Thank heavens no one else is on the platform in the wee hours of the morning—it would've been bad if anyone had witnessed that incident.
"Moreover, you should know that the gramophone in my house is broken."
Come to think of it, it's just as she says. I had visited her house several times to play, but had forgotten about that already.
"I'm sorry, I'll take it back......"
Chiaki slapped my hand away and hid the record behind her.
"I'm keeping this since you're giving it to me!" So do you want it or not? What on earth do you want?
Just then, the first train arrived at the station, so I quickly stepped behind the white line. The back of my head was assaulted by the blaring horns.
"You should think about my feelings as well!"
Yelled Chiaki, with a voice comparable to the sound of the train. Her face was flushed red, and her tied-up bundle of hair was flapping against her ears because of the wind. I didn't step onto the train when the door opened, because Chiaki was giving off an overbearing aura.
"Stupid Nao, you should just die!"
Chiaki's voice was then cut off by the closing doors of the train. I could see the silhouette of her body through the windows; and as it moved further and further away from me, I caught a glimpse of a glitter in the corners of her eyes.
Was she crying?
I squat down on the platform and tried my hardest to recall her expressions and her voice as I waited for the next train to arrive.
♬ ♯ ♬
The frequency of the trains was really low, so missing the first train meant I would arrive at school around twenty minutes late.
When I finally reached the school, the main gates were already closed, so I entered through a side door instead. "It'll be awkward when I bump into Chiaki"—as I turned past the corner of a building while thinking that, I heard a faint drumming sound.
It was coming from the old, low-rise music block that was huddled under the shadows of the tall school buildings. There was a person squatting against the door of the room located furthest away from the buildings. Her long maroon hair almost brushed against the ground. It was Mafuyu. What is she doing there?
Mafuyu greeted me softly by lifting her eyes to look at me. She hugged her guitar in her bosom.
I stopped about three steps away from Mafuyu. Why is she waiting outside? Isn't Chiaki in there? We averted our gazes right after we made eye contact with each other. This had been happening ever since the school festival.
Is there something you should be telling me?
It felt like Mafuyu was asking me that from the corners of her eyes, but neither of us could touch on that matter. It was the same that morning as well. Instead, I just asked an ordinary question.
"Urm...... Chiaki should be inside, so why are you out here?"
Mafuyu stared at me intently, then heaved a deliberate sigh. A stinging sense of guilt and sadness became stuck in my throat. She lowered her head and allowed her words to fall in-between her knees.
"Chiaki is angry, so I am waiting for her to cool down."
"S-She's angry? Did she say anything to you?"
Mafuyu shook her head.
"It is obvious from the sounds. The strength in the upbeats have disappeared. This sort of uninteresting cadence always emerges whenever Chiaki is angry or anxious."
I was speechless. Can she glean that much just from the sound of the drums?
"You never noticed? You are really dense......"
Mafuyu shot a look of resignation in my direction. Okay, I am dense, but that's another thing altogether, okay?
"Did something happen? You were acting strange yesterday as well."
Mafuyu slowly stood up and moved her face towards mine.
"No, nothing. Urm......"
Chiaki's anger began when I wanted to discuss Mafuyu's birthday present with her, so it should be more or less related to Mafuyu as well, right? But now's not the time for me to say such a thing.
"Explain it to me properly."
"Urm, you see, uhh......"
"Why are you always like this?"
Mafuyu's voice and gaze stabbed deeply and painfully into my heart.
"If you do not tell me properly...... I....... I am......" Mafuyu's furious voice became softer and softer as her gaze slid down my body."...... still waiting for you."
Waiting for me? Waiting for what?
No, of course she's waiting for my words. B-But I'm not mentally prepared yet, and the present isn't ready either. So now isn't—
"Forget it. I get it." Mafuyu lifted her lowered head all of a sudden. "I will ask Chiaki."
Mafuyu was shocked by my voice; and even I was surprised as well. She pressed her back against the door.
"Urm, I mean, well, urm, I made Chiaki angry...... probably. So I'll think of something and apologize to her."
That's right, it has to be me who speaks. It was the same for Mafuyu's present as well. All in all, asking for Chiaki's assistance was a mistake. I had to think about it and decide myself.
And so, I pushed Mafuyu aside and grabbed the handle of the door.
"Nao! You're so freaking late! I told you before that it'd be faster to run to school if you missed the first train, didn't I!?"
A furious roar came pouncing at me the moment I opened the door. Thank goodness, it's the usual Chiaki—I heaved a sigh of relief for some reason. That was really shameful of me.