Monday, January 16, 2012

The Longing of Shiina Ryo Volume 2: d.m.c - Chapter 1: Megumi

“Charybdis! That’s right, the name of the monster that created whirlpools by belching in Greek mythology is Charybdis!”

Only then I realized there were people inside the room whose door I had opened, and it was a good thing to find out that the two girls were as shocked as I was at that moment. Not for the same reason, probably.

“Say what?”

The one that asked the question was so unusual looking I had a hard time accepting the fact I managed not to see her during my first week. Eyes of completely different colors that could probably gleam in the dark, layered unruly hair so multicolored it made her look like a razor cut a Christmas tree covered in rainbow graffiti, along with obligatory pierced lips, ears (both the helix and lower conventional parts) and one eyebrow to match the hair and give to the viewer an extreme version of the ‘youth gone wrong’ stereotype. In her ink-marked arms, an acoustic guitar so customized with psychedelic drawings and stickers it could definitely find place in a postmodern art exposition (in the same way a pink brick with a rudimentary image of a kitten carved on it could; it’s postmodern we’re talking about).

Think rebel: judging by my first impression, that is definitely what she wants you to.

“…eh, nothing. Hm.” Sometimes explaining things properly takes time, pre-canalized energy and unreasonable amounts of effort one simply cannot afford. Bonus points if said one is so tired from running through the school buildings he starts generalizing about his oneself…-ness?! Besides, just seeing that person was confusing enough. “My club application form was mistakenly sent here and I just came to retrieve it.”

The pierced right eyebrow was raised in a surprisingly non-threatening manner, which reminded me that the person in front of me was definitely not a certain fashionista I had the displeasure of knowing. Not that the tattoos, metal and hair dye weren’t enough of a hint, really.

“Oh, so you’re Koukishin Shinzou.” The girl whose looks screamed ‘rebellion’ looked at the other one, who seemed to be doing her best to keep her distance from me while holding my application form. Maybe she was just shy, but the way she kept trying to slowly walk backwards when her body was already pressing against the wall was slightly disturbing even for an acquaintance with Kouma Yon. “Akane and I were just saying it would be very weird if there was a girl with such a name.”

How am I supposed to reply to something like that? Should I thank her or something? Not only that, the girl in the corner she called ‘Akane’ didn’t look like she would ever say anything.

“I …guess?”

“It was a good idea to stick to that thought until the end, even though I never heard of boys studying here. By the way, my name is Megumi.” She raised a fist and left it suspended in my direction, a gesture I could not comprehend coming from her but would have assumed being an attack from Kouma. Wait, why am I still thinking of her?

Then it dawned on me: that fist suspended in air and pointed at me was a greeting.

“Koukishin Shinzou, but you can call me Shin-tsu.”

I too turned my hand into a fist and punched hers firmly but definitely not with the same intensity I used when fighting that creature; this was a punch in name and aesthetics only, but as artificial as a closed fist could be. While our hands were still meeting each other, I heard something I wasn’t expecting at that moment, and just being in that school meant getting used to expect everything.

“A fist bump between two young individuals of different gender seems like a lacy glove slap on the face of those who still believe there is a gender war going on. Or a cute feminist photographic postcard, I am not so sure right now.” It took me a moment to realize someone had entered the room through the door I forgot to close and that’s why I was surprised, although this might be connected to the fact the third girl walked in without making any kind of noise. “It is hard to tell because he looks quite feminine for a boy or even for a girl, this affirmation based on certain urban areas.”



“I do not!”



When I turned around to face the new arrival with the accusative contralto voice, I found her significantly closer than I would have expected her to be. Too close for comfort and respect of personal space, perhaps. In retrospective, it makes me wonder why I didn’t consider the possibility of being a decent countertenor and therefore forces me to realize I can be a little bit biased when it comes to vocal ranges.



…perhaps not only on that matter.



While her way of speaking was similar to Ryo's, it would be impossible for me to ignore the precision of her resemblance to the other of my closest acquaintances in this city. She reminded me of Reikoku-sensei’s classroom appearance, only somehow neater (which was probably not quite true, just my mind’s natural reflex to my teacher’s bad habits outside school). Her long hair and narrow eyes seemed so perfect in symmetry that I almost assumed she was not a living person; the figure in front of me was giving me a sense of stability I could only get from well-crafted mannequins.



“I simply stated a fact but you are entitled to an opinion. If people are still silly enough to waste time on ‘science versus religion’ discussions you might as well state your opinion saying you are not a walking chunk of androgynous meat. For the record, I never said or implied it was a bad thing.” The long-haired girl was now looking at the colorful one with confidence. "And obviously, the whole anti-gender war propaganda loses its metaphorical sparkle once other factors such as a long-term relationship are established. Are you somehow ‘intimate' with this visually ambiguous boy?"



“We don’t know him that well. Actually he came out of nowhere saying stuff about mythological monsters, just like that.” Megumi stared at the school council president and I felt a little animosity between them, which is only to be expected when you put two graphical opposites in the same place. Thankfully, the girl was a bit too bold to just blush at the insensitive comment made by the older student. “What the hell are you doing here?”



But the rude question had no effect, apparently.



“Interesting. Do you often walk into rooms and say random fragments of information to complete strangers?” Said to me the complete opposite to the freak girl, the way she manipulated her voice keeping her intentions veiled. “If your answer is affirmative, I might actually enjoy talking to you.”



“…what?” Sadly that was the best line I came up with back then. “Seriously, what?”



The overtly colorful one looked a little more serious now. “You didn’t answer my question, Miss Student Council President.”



Apparently the moment the older student was referred to by her title marked the point where I lost focus and the other girl got the spotlight.



“And what would that be, my dear second year student who makes no effort to display an ounce of respect to her upperclassmen?”



“Why are you here?”



I could not entirely blame the girl with almost as much metal as face on her, uh, face: there was something in the arrogant eyes of the neat girl that made me want to scream ‘pretentious,’ even knowing that word didn’t quite apply, and for one brief and shallow moment, I knew exactly how elitist fiction critics and ranting music bloggers felt.



“Not quite sure, I do not care enough about the subject to have what a valid opinion by my personal standards. As one could presume by my previous statements, I do not enjoy the idea of wasting time in scientific and religious debates, metaphysics included, because in the end it is commonly connected to both,” she said, playing with what could hardly be called a lock of her hair, considering how fine and straight it was. Yes, I am kind of jealous. “On the other hand, if you meant that in a less universal way, I suppose the answer is one I can provide: I, Koukina Rin, am interested in this club.”



Upon hearing those words my curiosity took over me and I could not stop my eyes when they decided on their own to look at the paper sign on the door. I barely paid any attention to it on the way here because my motivation was strong and my directions were simple: find room 23. Although my eidetic memory was probably more than enough to remind me of the words written on the sign, my body felt the urge to look anyway; it was just like those occasions when you feel compelled to look just because someone told you not to.



"D… M... C?" When my gaze saw the words on the paper and they matched the words in my memory I could only think one thing: 'great, this time we're actually facing a lawsuit.' But as long as I kept breathing, I could not give in to despair. Not without knowing why, anyway. "Does this mean what I think it does?"



Visually puzzled, Megumi stood in front of me as if I had done some kind of unforgivable mistake.



“This obviously stands for Dark Music Club! What else could it stand for, really?”



And by doing that, the girl practically made of contrasting colors triggered a brief series of replies, the credit for them being shared between the Student Council president and myself. A very impressing similarity to an occurrence of today lingered.



“Digital Mixing Console.”



“Death Match Classic.”



“Dimethyl carbonate.”



“Donatio mortis causa.”



“Detroit Medical Center.”



"Diffusion Monte Carlo."



“Dynamic Matrix Control or even Dynamic Markov Compression would work fine, too.”



Strange as it may seem, considering her question was answered with honesty and amazing precision, Megumi was clearly infuriated, her vivid orange and azure eyes burning with sheer anger.



“Seriously? You guys came up with eight realistic and somewhat reasonable possibilities and not a single one of them was related to the famous hip-hop group, the manga/anime or the video game series?”



“To be honest I did my best to avoid those examples.” Koukina Rin maintained her elegant composure as she explained her reasoning, which is far more than you can expect from some national presidents. “The group was not that good to begin with, the anime is disappointing because there is no real death metal in it, and in the new installment of the game they changed the protagonist’s hair to black. As the common man says, ‘totally dropped’.”



By that, one could tell she considered people who browse internet forums to be the ‘common man,’ which is obviously an incredibly bad start for any premise on, say, anything.



“Still on the manga subject, corpse paint on death metal. No, really?” And with that I started playing along, violating all my common sense; it just seemed like a good idea at the time, like bad ideas always do. “What’s the point of writing about something that exists in the real world when you don’t have a clue of what it’s like? No matter how good it is, it’s hard to get past errors like that.”



“Very interesting.” While completely innocent on the surface, to a practiced eye Rin’s flaming glance towards me could easily be interpreted as the same kind Kouma would give her favorite kind of candy. “You are somehow and somewhat familiar with concept of death metal. Given your brief purist speech, one can presume you are a fan of the subgenre. Is that correct?”



“Pretty much, yeah.”



“Are you, by any chance, a musician?”



“Well… I play both electric and double basses.” My initial plan was to act humble like musicians usually do when talking about their own abilities but something in her stance made me quit my false modesty act; the good thing about arrogant people is that their mere presence makes you want to do and be your best when you’re around them. “Permit me to frankly say I am fairly good at it.”



I don’t believe human contact is a bad thing. The concepts of personal space and distance between people who don’t know each other too well actually add to the flavor of closer and better-developed relationships as the beauty of the thing remains in the contrast. I don’t mind shaking hands with people or even being hugged after delivering good news (not to say that kind of thing happens to me frequently, anyway) to someone who was waiting for what seemed to be an interminable quantity of time. There are, indeed, exceptions, but they are so unlikely (or directly related to a certain fighting fashionista), I feel it would be a tad stupid to consider them even if only for the sole purpose of statistics.



Then there is another story, an unusual situation where a boy’s hand is suddenly grabbed by an older female student, who proceeds to tenderly and almost provocatively caress his fingertips while gazing into his eyes with tangible superiority and more than a hint of indifference burning in hers. In other circumstances I would have been surprised and acted like it, but then again what good could possibly come out of blushing, stuttering and acting like a complete shoujo manga shrinking violet lead character in front of someone like Koukina Rin? For that purpose, we already have the girl in the corner, Akane.



"The pattern of the calluses I found in his fingers matches his story: this is definitely the hand of someone who plays the bass on a regular basis. Given that he was the first person that walked into your club room and did not laugh and leave, one could go as far as saying this is a fortunate meeting."



Her reasons were now explained and thus her behavior didn't seem as odd as I first believed. The course of action she took almost sounding logical to me. What did seem odd, irrational and strikingly similar to my newfound battle partner's attitude was the fact that Rin too seemed fond of touching me past the point I found myself comfortable with, despite not being particularly familiar with me.



Almost as if stating what she was doing gave her complete freedom to do it and much more, the School Council president's fingers long fingers and flawlessly French-styled nails now ran over mine. The keratin blades that grew out of her hand scratched my skin as if she intended to mark me like cattle; the drawing movement her slender fingers did seeming anything but random.



She was clearly teasing me, and not in the way I was unfortunately already getting used to.



“Of course I’m telling the truth: why would anyone lie about being a bass player? We’re underrated as it gets, regardless of musical genre.” To ignore Rin’s body language (which was beyond the point where its signals could be called ‘protean’) was the only visible course of action for someone who didn’t want to give signs of weakness. I looked at Megumi, who seemed to be busy thinking of something else, and envied her. “And why would meeting a bass player be a fortunate thing? Were you looking for one?”



The weird-looking girl snapped out of her unfitting mundane daydream.



“Oh… yeah. I could settle for a club where the members would just spend their afternoons being lazy and listening to the darkest forms of music until we graduate, but what I really wanted was to recruit members to form a band. Well, that and spending my afternoons being lazy and listening to the darkest forms of music until I graduate.”



“I see.” The words came out of my mouth pretty easily: unlike the distressing patterns of colors present in her hair, accessories and figure, as a whole the girl was surprisingly not complex at all. “But don’t you need an assigned teacher for every club? What kind of teacher would want to watch over a ‘Dark Music Club’?”



“Excuse me, what are you talking about?” A puzzled Koukina Rin asked. “I have never heard of such practice and I have been on the school council since my first year in the school.”



It took me a moment or two to grasp the meaning of those words.



“That cannot be right, Reikoku-sensei told m-” And then it finally struck me: this too was part of a plan devised by my teacher, the arch conspirator. She relied completely on my paranoia and complete lack of knowledge about the ways and bureaucracy of this school to pull a prank on me and make me run through the hallways like there would be no tomorrow after something that couldn’t possibly matter less. My hand was raised in apology and, deep down my soul, defeat. “Never mind, my mistake. A band, you say?”



“Not ‘a’ band; I want it to be more like ‘the’ band.” The movement her mouth made when she smiled along with the angle by which the sunlight came out of the window made her lip piercings gleam in an obfuscating manner. “To take part in something huge and influential is what I’m looking for, you know? A band with a distinct, unique sound.Much more than merely fresh, I want something wild.”



Like your hair then, I thought but never stated out loud because that would be just rude instead of adorably witty.



“That sounds… nice.” And also as optimistic and naïve as it gets; funny thing is, pretty much everyone in the music business genuinely believes they are the ‘hot stuff’ and their albums are ‘complete revolutions’ and ‘the end of this genre as we know it’ even when they are generic at best and the ones who don’t quite believe they’re the best thing since wheels were invented but will say it anyway because boasting is the only way of getting people to pay for something they cannot touch or see. Those opinions are often considered laws by the cult-like band fans, and there was never a day the word ‘fan’ meant ‘extremely zealous’ as today. Well, maybe not but it's tough to compare to people with yellow submarines. “You do, however, realize that doesn’t explain much about your band idea, right?”



“Oh, right.” Megumi scratched her head and blinked twice. “I guess we can figure that out as we go; as long as it’s dark I’m cool with it.”



And with that statement she finished marking herself as a common, indecisive amateur in my eyes. Does she really expect to make a ‘huge and influential’ band without even having an initial concept? It’s like planning to write the deconstruction of a novel or a genre without ever reading the source material and expecting people to call you ‘genius’.



“Unfortunately you have been found wanting. That certainly is not enough to make the quintessential band.” A few minutes around her and Rin already seemed like the kind of person that felt the uncontrollable urge to always have the last word on a topic. That and running her fingers on my body; apparently, my hand too has been found wanting and now the girl was focusing her attacks on my arm. Still, it was nice to see I wasn’t the only one in that room who was unaffected by the overwhelming idealism in the air. “It takes good musicians, discipline, chemistry between the band members and the most important, superb leadership. That is why I am taking the role of leader of this band.”



At that exact moment, Akane sneezed just like a baby mouse does, involuntarily reminding us of her existence and presence in that room. After the shy and nearly invisible girl’s unexpected portrait of cuteness, her unusual friend blurted out her thoughts.



“Now why the heck did you get the idea I would let you join my band, let alone lead it?”



In face of this sentence Rin breathed artificial suavity.



“I play guitar fairly better than you, for starters.”



“Bravo sierra!” She didn’t actually say those words, but I’m doing my best to keep this story clean for the kids, so using a military slang seemed the right thing to do especially when the alternative was somewhat profane. If you’re an age appropriate and more than merely moderately curious reader, search-engine it. “You haven’t heard me play, ever!”



“And I do not need to because I know exactly how well I play.” Oh, the audacity; it was massively unreasonable to the point of making my blood boil and I wasn’t even part of the dialogue. It made me wonder if that girl managed to become School Council president by winning a bet. “Plus, I own enough equipment to set up a recording studio right here by tomorrow. Think of me as a blessing from the heavens that will turn your kiddy project into the real deal, if you will.”



I am not sure if this girl has the talent it takes to be a rock star but no one can possibly deny the fact she already has a surprisingly solid amount of sheer overconfidence, maybe enough for two or three big names. Not that there’s anything ‘sheer’ about her boasting, that is.



“Pretty full of yourself, aren’t you?” Megumi’s mismatched, mischievous eyes were completely full of delight. Possibly, from the rebel girl’s point of view, this was an invite to duel to the death; to me however it was just a pointless battle of egos. She extended the acoustic guitar she had been holding so carelessly to the school council president. “Let’s see if those wings you’re so proud of are made of wax.”



Does anyone know why people start saying stupid things when they get into fights? It might have something to do with testosterone, but I have always thought it worked differently in men and women (and I must clarify that this is not baseless sexism, just baseless science).



“Your loss, my friend. I always, always dare to win.”



Her slender, teasing hands were off me and, in a blink of an eye, on the guitar she took from her recently-acquired rival. While menaces not composed of words were brought to this plane of existence, I could only try and figure out how I managed to come across situations like this over and over again. The supernatural element wasn’t around but the shadow of tension that fell upon that room was hardly bearable.



Further investigation of my field of vision revealed a hawk-ish look coming from where I didn’t expect it to. The locks of not-so-wavy but most definitely slightly messy hair half-covering Akane’s eyes before were now being held by her right ring finger, revealing adorably huge but somewhat cold doll eyes, intent in a manner I could only fully describe as ‘targeting’. Unlike Kouma Yon’s, those eyes didn’t lack expression, but the heat and vibrancy we usually find in living beings. The apparently shy bird of prey seemed to have intentions of rapine for Koukina Rin.



Rapine, as in ‘abduction’ or ‘plundering’. Don’t get any funny ideas.



The body posture adopted by the School Council president as she sat on a chair with Megumi’s guitar was quite not the correct one for acoustic guitar players of classical style and thus I was a bit underwhelmed. There was something familiar about that pose, but I couldn’t help but feel like all that arrogance was just talk.



After a strum that only let natural harmonics out, she hummed a note and started loosening and tightening the strings repeatedly.



“What are you doing to my guitar?”



“You did not tune it properly to A440, thus I must tune this instrument myself. Thankfully, one of my many skills is perfect pitch. We shall not be hindered by your presumably usual clumsiness.”



“Oh, you little…”



“Please be quiet, this old G string of yours is giving me a hard time.” She became aware of me and looked in my direction as I chuckled because of the involuntary bilingual pun. “Is there something particularly funny or amusing you’d like to share with us, Koukishin-kun?”



Laughter suppressed, I waved a hand abiding with her true desire of having me quiet. After the situation with Reikoku-sensei earlier today, I should watch out and not react the way my body wants without considering the scenario first.



“…no, please proceed.”



The girl reassumed the playing posture to finish tuning and only when she struck the strings to test if the guitar tuning was still stable by using natural harmonics it came to me: I deduced her act wrong. That posture of hers implied she was going to play flamenco or something similar and not classical music per se; the two postures are a little different from each other and that’s why I assumed she was trying the classical one but making significant mistakes.



Suddenly and without another word uttered, the performance began. Strings successively struck using one slender digit nail per strum; the visibly older girl known as Koukina Rin sent the room an obscure signal through the expressive gypsy chords that were being attacked without absolution. Achromatic images formed as sour memories that weren’t exactly mine.



Her rasgueado technique was flawless and the musical progression presented itself with overflowing acrimony. The song sounded somewhat familiar but I could not recall when I heard it, if I in fact did. Adherence struck me faster than I could possibly expect but the whole short experience ended just as abruptly as it began. The motive of the conductor was obvious to me.



To tease.



A chord progression intentionally unfinished, build-up lacking resolution: it was almost unbearable, the thought of the missing final note. Instead of delivering what we were expecting and even craving, the girl with long nails preferred to replace the last part with a silence that was only interrupted by me unintentionally humming the resolution for the unfinished melody.



The idea of being musically manipulated struck me as an afterthought and a small movement in her jaw formed what I believed to be a hidden smile of pleasure.



No, she definitely did it on purpose.



A sudden change in the position of her body was made audible after she attacked not the strings but the body of the acoustic guitar with a percussive rattlesnake-like finger tapping. With her current posture being the proper classical one and the picking technique changed to tremolo, a fast continuous array of notes began.



This second musical round was entirely different from the warm-up. The values changed along with the technique, and this song I could recognize for sure. A composition of Francisco Tarrega written in 1986, Recuerdos de la Alhambra. Melancholy was still a major figure written in minor scale, but it wasn’t half as raw and over-the-top like the song used as introduction. My notion of how refined it was might have been biased by the fact I knew what would come in the B-section of the piece.



Pure cheerfulness and bliss, almost reaching sweetness.



Incoherent it was not, the transition well done to the point of coming across as a small anti-surprise such as guessing which side of the coin will be the one up correctly; not so much overall thrill on it, although there was an awful lot of note trill going on and I assume some people can find that distracting. Not a defect on the part of the performer, though.



The song continued exactly as expected, not a single broken section from beginning to end. Whether it was a faithful interpretation of the author’s ideas with nil experimentation or a subversion of the patterns she showed us until that moment it’s hard to tell. Both, perhaps.



In the silent intermission that took place after the piece was over and before the performer decided to talk, I analyzed the reactions of the two girls who apparently were my upperclassmen and Rin’s underclassmen: Megumi clearly was taken aback, the expression on her face probably connected to both her being unfamiliar with this kind of music and the shock of seeing someone around her age doing a great deal more than playing three powerchords and calling it a song. Akane on the other hand just covered her eyes with her wavy fringe again, like it was a theater curtain that closed after the show was over, an action that only made her more intriguing to me.



“This guitar is not so bad for a cheap, brand-less model although I particularly prefer cypress when it comes to inexpensive acoustic ones. May I ask what kind of woods is this made of other than Indian rosewood and maple?”



“I don’t have the slightest idea and I don’t care!”



“Oh, casual much?”



Megumi clenched her teeth and let out a low growl, and I started to wonder if the young woman called Rin was aware of how far she was going with her attitude towards others. It didn’t take a genius or prodigy of any kind to tell Megumi’s blood was boiling and a real ugly fight was just a step away.



“That does it: you’re going down now!”



“A short-tempered one, are you? Please, prove me wrong if you can.”



“What did you say?”



“I politely asked you to prove me wrong, if that is within your range of capabilities. If you believe in your technical ability enough to challenge me and take as the role of lead guitarist, now is the moment to show us all what you can do. Otherwise, I do not see a reason why someone who clearly does not plan ahead or have the skill and precision it takes to be the front man of a project of such, say, majestic proportions and should be leading. You do want this to be huge, correct?”



“Of course!”



“Well, you already showed us you are not fit as a strategist, so a splendid musician is the only redeemable feature you can achieve now. Consider this as a chance to claim your crown if you are worthy: I will have no objections with having you as director if you can at least outdo my performance with a piece or two of your choice.”



“Wait, why are you handing out rules like you already owned the place?”



“Simply because you set none.” Beautifully arrogant, but I could see where her reasoning came from: she expects Megumi to back down and thus avoid future discussions on leadership. The execution of that plan, however, was not something I would applaud under any circumstances; her extremist ways were paved with good intentions but would not necessarily lead to good results. “Go on. This time, I dare you.”



Acoustic guitar in her arms, Megumi stared down for a moment in what seemed to be the shadow of despair. Suddenly the colorful student smiled and it was not in a sweet, girly way but in a hot-blooded manga protagonist’s.



“Fine. I’ll do it!”



And the inked hand went down fast, clumsily holding a guitar pick with three fingers but when only a brief metallic and choked noise was heard, I admit I choked too.



I didn’t see that coming.



Her shy companion’s hand was muffling the strings and I almost felt like the silence present in the girl was being transferred to the guitar, an idea reinforced by the fact that girl talked only after performing that action.



“Save yourself the embarrassment and don’t play. There is no way you can defeat her as you are now and you know it.”



Truth be told, her voice was almost a whisper, although the words gave me the prospect she was anything but frail.



“Hmph.” Megumi did not seem satisfied at all with the outcome or her friend’s words, but she also seemed helpless and somewhat scared, like people who brag about their strength usually feel when someone stands up and accepts their challenge. “I will back down now because Akane knows much more about music than I do, but this isn’t over yet! Tomorrow band practice starts and I don’t care how good you are, if you don’t fit in, you’re out! Let’s go, Akane!”



The walking metallic rainbow stormed off without waiting for her friend. Said forgotten friend shook her head quickly and looked at Koukina Rin, one of her huge eyes uncovered by the movement.



“…that w-was impressive for so-someone your age.”



“Thank you.”



“N-next time I expect you to pick a piece you’re t-truly comfortable with to the point o-of improvising instead of a f-flashy one, t-though.”



“Once again, thank you for your honesty. Next time I shall sweep you off your feet.”



“I-I’ll look forward to i-it. See you t-tomorrow, senpai.”



“Farewell.”



Without making eye-contact with me, Akane left in a hurry, leaving my application form on a chair. That left me alone with the older student that had a fondness for teasing alone together in that borderline empty room. Keeping that in mind, I silently put some distance between me and the girl, as a somewhat effective immorality prevention measure.



“Now what on earth was that about?”



“A couple minor mistakes of mine made mostly out of nervousness, but nothing to be worried about.” Her breath was hot and somewhat tired. “You could say I know a thing or two about Akane-san’s musical background and being praised or scolded by her is something one should cherish or appreciate as constructive criticism, although in this case I had to do both.”



“I was talking about the sudden portrait of modesty! You can’t come in out of nowhere and act all high and mighty to the point of dueling with someone and then take a hundred and eighty degrees turn to being humble with someone else who is directly related to the first scenario. That doesn’t feel right or even fit!”



“Not quite the case, but the way you put it, that situation could easily be explained with bipolar disorder.” She stared at her own fingernails, their polish still enviably flawless despite the fast impact to nylon strings the fingers were subjected to. “There are times when even a very ‘technical’ musician needs to bow down to someone else.”



That indirect praise showed me the trait of arrogance was still present, only thinly veiled.



“Still…” Shrugging it off and changing topics sounded like the sensible thing to do because there more than enough pointless confrontation for a day or two already earlier occurred. “Regardless of technical difficulty, isn’t Recuerdos De La Alhambra a tad too standard for classical guitar demonstrations these days?”



“I was considering the possibility of playing a Django Reinhardt song and getting a few points with the jazz conservatory child prodigy, but I did not think it would be comprehended by the other. The regular ‘hardcore’ and modern metal fan is always looking for something that is close to what they already like but a little more, say, extreme than what they are used to listening. With that in mind, I thought that particular Tarrega piece would do the job.”



“So you knew more than only a thing or two about Akane’s musical background.” And that’s probably the real reason why she chose to join this club/band, arrogant dynamic entry included and everything. “Why not Niccolò Paganini? Many metal guitarists are inspired by his works, to the point of plagiarism if you ask me. His pieces are much, much more popular than Tarrega’s too.”



She looked calm, as if scheming something.



“If you want an honest answer, specifically because he is way too popular. Now go on, say it: we both know what you want to call me right now and just this time I shall allow you to, entirely consequences-free.”



“…you bloody hipster.”



For a split-second she raised both eyebrows in a very, very suggestive manner that struck me as twisted approval for using the words she assumed I would.



“A somewhat imprecise and thus entirely incorrect description, but I am much more interested in the obscure forms than the mainstream subgenres of music. To compare the technical, flawless beauty that lies in modern progressive blackened death metal to common radio heavy metal sounds like an awful joke even in theory.”



“That’s a pretty biased view you got there.”



“And yet it is by far closest to the utmost truth than the belief that all music is the same because of how they make people feel.”



“Right, I’ll grant you that.”



It’s very, very sad, but I believe you cannot condemn a person’s valid opinion because you don’t agree with the methods that person uses to express his or hers opinion: they are two separate things. Now if only I could get the rest of the world to think like that, political parties would get a tad more interesting.



“So, will you join us? A bassist would be good, and unlike the other members, your position does not require too much experience or talent therefore you will be fine either way.”



Rude.



“…I’m not sure. I don’t have a reason to, you see.”



“Do you need me to… give you a reason?”



A single line composed of cold sweat traced down my face to my mouth, and when I nervously licked my lip, I found out it tasted of subversion. Still, to give in would mean becoming a side character that would only be useful for jokes and teasing or a standard anime protagonist and, honestly, even I knew better than that.



“No.”



But she didn’t look disappointed or surprised at all.



“Perfect. Take your time and think about it. I must admit the idea of spending time with someone like you appeals to me on a personal level, but I have no intention of pushing you towards or away from this band.”



“That’s, hmm, very mature of you.”



“I see you underestimate me. I am the School Council president, after all. One of the first things I had to learn was that there are many times when the collective needs are so important we must ignore the wishes of individuals.”



“Wouldn’t it be a good idea not to tease people you just met then, especially in ways that can be considered harassment?”



Then she gave me a smile that could easily be found on face of the criminal mastermind in a secret spy movie.



“Good thinking. You could become a great Student Council secretary someday. There are, however, times when a leader like me needs to show her minions she has flaws so they won’t bother searching for them, although these flaws cannot be connected directly to the leading capabilities or knowledge of the subject the group has to deal with. You want your soldiers to think you’re human, but not like them at all. All work and no fun, etcetera.”



“So it was just for show? The teasing.”



Her gaze went to the roof like a rocket. Not to say that rockets usually go to the roof, but the motion was the same as a soaring rocket in the sky and… forget it.



“Not quite, I actually have a penchant for teasing people. However that doesn’t change the fact that unveiling and accentuating that natural, small flaw of mine for the purpose of achieving my goals was for show.”



I couldn’t deny she was amusing, regardless of pretty much everything else.



“…you’re weird.”



And then her mature eyes came rushing back to me like a falling meteor would, only with a good amount of expression one should not expect to find on humongous space rocks. The room lit itself on fire when her gaze met mine in an impact of cosmic proportions. Figuratively, of course: after the Ayaka incident it’s best to clarify these things.



“And you like it, correct?”



Always a bit too direct for comfort: only later it occurred to me she probably wasn’t able to turn that whole act off at will.



“I guess I don’t mind it as much as the ‘common man’ would.” Shrugging was more of a reflexive action rather a visual aid. “One could say I have high immunity to the uncommon, or at least should by now.”



She smiled at me, a glass façade of innocence I was quite sure she didn’t possess.



“Perhaps I should try harder in our next meeting?”



After walking with such style and rough grace that would make a hard-boiled noir detective protagonist jealous, I opened the door of the room and turned my upper body around to face her in a feature that was both rather mysterious and painfully vertebral column damaging.



“If you think you can.”



Then I closed the door and ran away like a scared little girl before she could have a chance to even consider attacking me right there.



***************



Shocked and almost infuriated without quite knowing the reason why, I pressed the space bar of my portable computer and stopped the movement of a group of handsome actors dressed as doctors on the screen.



“Wait, so you knew about the band thing?”



Reikoku-sensei did her best to pretend she wasn’t annoyed by the interruption during the climax scene of the streamed show she suddenly had her attention drawn to, possibly after identifying herself with the somewhat misanthropic main character.



“There isn’t much happening on that school I’m not aware of, Koukishin-kun. Plus, sending that paper to just any random club wouldn’t be half as fun to me. If it isn’t somewhat complex, it cannot be amusing. Every little thing needs at least two reasons to happen.” Playing with the pencil that only seconds ago was holding up her hair, she uttered words that would sound deep if they didn’t came from a grown woman in pajamas killing time late at night at her student’s house. Not quite what comes to my mind when I try and imagine a mentor figure, you see. “And that’s why my suggestion is that you give that club a try.”



For some reason that shocked me more than it should, enough for me to spit all the soda in my mouth all over a near region of the wooden carpet. Not an insignificant amount of liquid, definitely not an insignificant spread rate. Considering the pressure needed for that result, if I were looking at my personal computer screen at that moment, chances are some repair store with a shady fellow would have become a little richer by tomorrow.



“Are you serious? What would be the point of that?”



“Honestly, can’t you see what is wrong with your current situation?” Reikoku-sensei seemed genuinely and unusually concerned at that moment, so I figured interrupting her would be a bad idea. After this morning’s events, even a dog would understand that; Pavlov would be quite proud of my teacher. “You have only been here for a week and already started to hang out with the anti-social students, started a visible love triangle situation, got into a fight with a classmate and defied common sense and physics by using your body as a cushion to save someone from a fall without even considering the harm to yourself, including your death. As a matter of fact, I’m still trying to figure out how you survived the latter.”



“…love triangle? Seriously?” My sarcastic laughter was suddenly interrupted when I met her gaze. “Right, I know what you mean. An awful lot of things happened way too fast by normal standards.”



“But not by yours, I presume.” Right on the spot, as always. Then it was obvious to me: in one mere week, there should be nothing established as ‘always’ yet. That was exactly the problem, the fact bonds too deep were being made too soon. “And here I am, trying to slow down the carousel before someone gets hurt. Please notice I’m not telling you to stop talking to them but to consider the possibility of expanding your social circle a little, preferably with perfectly normal people who share interests with you.”



“Such as music?”



“Indeed.”



A simple, nearly silly plan that disappointed me somehow. I didn’t see that coming from the woman who led a double life and did her best to be a manipulator in both. Apparently, (self-proclaimed) geniuses are not sheer brilliance all the time and the incredible intuitive talent she possessed had no direct influence on her plans: the things I believed to be well pondered master strokes were very probably but lucky strikes.



So much for chess masters.



“I see. But why did you assume I would be interested in joining a band or that I have what it takes to be in a band with the School Council President? She is most likely quite the shredder.”



“Based on your CD collection, you listen to old school jazz and fusion, progressive and math rock, sixties funk, thrash, early death and avant-garde metal, baroque and tango and only a single album of post-hardcore. If there’s anyone I would team up with that musical elitist, it would be you.”



She seemed quite confident about it. “Plus, you own a five string bass; the chances of you not being a real musician are incredibly low now because more than half of the, say, ‘posers’ buy common electric guitars shaped after famous guitarist’s models. Spending much more money on a bass that’s not even industry standard does not sound very amateur-ish to me.”



“That reasoning was kind of dodgy.”



“Fine, there were a few complex sheet music pages with your handwritten annotations on them lying around on the first day I came here but that’s not the point.”



A genuine smile formed on my face too quickly for me to even consider the possibility of suppressing it, not that I would if I had the chance.



My teacher really watches out for me. In a creepy and somewhat plotting way, yes, but she does it and it’s much more than I could wish for. Based on what she told me last week, I can only imagine how hard she wanted to have someone doing that for her when she was younger. She gives up all of her free time outside school to be here, when she probably has something better to...



“Reikoku-sensei, do you have a significant other in your life?”



More soda on the wooden carpet, but this time it didn’t came out of my mouth: from that day on I tried buying more neutral drinks.



“What the… where did that came from?”



“Just sheer, potentially intrusive but honest curiosity.”



She touched her forehead with two fingers and took a moment to think, although I almost expected her to teleport away from my house.



“…you mean someone like a boyfriend?”



“That’s a little bit more specific than I was hoping for, but yes.”



Strange as it might sound, she stopped moving for a moment and then all of a sudden action took place again, with a presumably feigned attribute on it.



“Not so far from the truth, so I suppose you could say that. Why do you ask?”



“If you knew the people you care about were in trouble, wouldn’t you try and help them?”



“Oh, so you’re still thinking about that.” She seemed bored, but on further examination, I noticed the expression she had could be also interpreted as relief. “Caring for people is fine; we are prone to bonding because of our humanity. Still, there is a thin line between doing a number of things out of care and Messiah Complex. The real problem lies in the fact the perpetrator of the action never knows when he or she crossed said line. One moment you’re the knight in shining armor, next one you’re the Universe’s favorite punching bag wasting your life with a silly smile on your face and let me tell you one thing, your strings will only be pulled harder and harder.”



Saying that, Reikoku-sensei got up and went towards the kitchen while I followed her physicallybut not so much in the metaphorical sense. Her speech on morals was coming across as rather confusing and baseless to the point of referencing lyrics and movies rather than actually teaching something. As I had presumed, she stopped by the refrigerator and opened it looking for dessert, which was probably ready to be consumed by now.



“So you’re telling me I should stay out of Ryo and Kouma’s business?”



A bored sigh and a disappointed look.



“Koukishin-kun, I am a teacher who is starting a custom of going to a student’s house for dinner practically every night mostly because of the striking similarities that exist in our unfortunate lives. Does it sound like I could tell you such a thing without being a total hypocrite?”



Taking out a bucket filled with pudding-flan I had bought because of viral marketing, she went to the sink and picked up two spoons, one of which she handed me without any grace. “Don’t read too much into it. Young people like you just have to stop worrying about every single thing and learn to appreciate the moment. You’ll have the time to overthink everything later. But limits on what one should do to and for others should always, always be in sight.”



“…what does that even mean?”



“Never mind, it will come to you when it’s time. For now, let’s finish that episode. I really want to know what kind of disease it was and if I know that series, we still have three incorrect diagnostics left with straw man arguments and morals clashing as intermission.”



Knowing I wouldn’t be able to extract any more information from my teacher, I fed myself a spoonful of the flan and pressed the space bar to make the video resume playing. While I watched not the series’ weekly episode but the amusing reactions my companion made when the characters made witty remarks at each other (you’d think she be sick of that, considering it seems pretty much like her daily life), I couldn’t help but wonder what that woman so close to me had been through. Then the flavor kicked in and I let go of being so preoccupied because even Ms. Entropy wasn’t.



Being a victim of cutesy internet viral videos never tasted so sweet.



***************



Next day at school was pretty okay. No, really.



Unlike what I quickly trained myself to expect in that school, nothing much happened other than several successive Physical Education classes (something I managed to avoid last week by being absent due to an unfortunate meeting with an entity that was rather mysterious at the time). Walking with Kouma and Ryo during lunch kept people away, so by having my closest friends acting as natural repellents, I didn’t hear a lot of gossip on the Morimoto Ayaka subject. It wasn’t the worst thing ever, although I was sure it was within my capabilities to conceal any pertinent detail of last week’s happenings. Besides, for me, entirely avoiding particular topics is almost a super power.



For starters, there’s the Reikoku-sensei situation. She said a strikingly similar situation to mine marked her adolescence, yet I did not push her to tell me what happened. Kouma said she attacked me out of care for Ryo, but forcing her to say anything more didn’t feel right, even though I could see the traces of a badly formed relationship everywhere in her behavior. The way Ryo can change from too naïve to way too sharp in the blink of an eye also went uncommented, although God and many other supernatural entities know I had a plethora of chances I never bother to take.



Overlooking things on purpose and at command is an acquired skill used mostly to avoid red herrings and mind control. I don’t claim to be able to do it perfectly, as I am aware every little detail I run into will eventually come back to bite me at some point in my life: if anything, my best take on that skill is to dodge what can be dodged at the moment while thinking of a way to counter it when that potential disaster’s turn to try and ruin everyone’s life comes.



Postponing the end over and over again. That’s me alright.



“Does he ever get tired of spacing out?”



Knowing the girl for exactly a week was enough time to realize Kouma Yon always found a way to interrupt your train of thought. Funny and ironic as it might sound, yesterday she wouldn’t leave my mind while she wasn’t around and, now that she is, I keep thinking of something else.



“However, this too fits my hypothesis.”



Oh boy, another hypothesis. Any other teenager would have casually used the word ‘theory’ instead, but my particularly uncommon one-time battle partner knew better than that.



“What hypothesis?” Ryo asked. “Is this the one about him having ADD?”



With a sigh of mine, the three of us sat down on our secret place, our sanctuary of concrete, steel and sky to enjoy our meal. We have done this enough for me to assume it was a ritual, a custom they probably shared long before I came to this town. The formation was a perfect triangle in which each one of us could face the others, and by that I mean Kouma could watch us both with just one stare of hers, which was economical and effective when it came to comfort prevention. The rooftop was empty as always and the only reason I was comfortable with this situation was because if they hadn’t found trouble so far because of eating here every single day, I think the odds are smaller for a storm to start just because I’m together with them.



No, actually not.



“Imprecise, but yes,” proceeded the fashionista. “While we are talking about the same hypothesis, the correct term since 1994 is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and no longer Attention Deficit Disorder. Therefore, the proper acronym for that would be ADHD. Predominantly inattentive, to be more specific.”



The fact I decided at the last second not to tease Kouma that most people, doctors included, still called the disorder by the old name was probably for the best. I do not think I have the energy it would take to get in a heated ‘popular knowledge versus scientific advance’ debate with Kouma Yon without eating first. Or after eating, for that matter; even if it’s only to annoy her a bit, it just wasn’t worth it.



“It doesn’t matter, I don’t have ADHD.”



It was easy to tell that dialogue wasn’t going to end there, so I figured I should eat as much as I could without looking disgusting in between my lines. Otherwise, I’d end up not finishing my meal before break was over. Again.



“Are you sure? You daydream on what could be called a ‘regular basis,’ your eyes go everywhere even while people talk to you, and anyone who saw your house before we went there would say you lack a sense of organization. The symptoms fit.”



“Not all of them.” Ryo intervened in the diagnosis. “He never showed any urges of touching and playing with everything in sight or even talked to excess.”



What would be considered as ‘excessively talking’ by Shiina Ryo, exactly?



“Actually, that’s not evidence.” I said after another portion of my gyudon was properly swallowed. Disagreeing with Ryo wasn’t half as bad when I had something in mind, and setting up a hook for Kouma was kind of worth it. “That just means I am not the hyperactive type.”



One could tell the dreadful fashionista grin was coming because of the aura that preceded it.



“He seemed fairly, say, touchy with you last week, if that counts.” Surely she, who had previously attacked this boy she hardly knew and who all of a sudden chose to lock arms with him due to alleged cold, is one to talk about people being touchy. “So, you see, my hypothesis is still val-”



Kouma completely lured in with the bait equals time to fish.



“But I am completely sure I don’t have ADHD because my parents had me tested for it, twice.” The first time didn’t really count, as the doctor was a hired Neapolitan assassin with fairly poor acting skills and a penchant for touching his moustache. The second doctor was legit and fairly well shaved. For a bearded woman, that is. “You can argue all you want, but I can get the medical papers scanned and sent to you in high resolution in less than fifteen minutes and then rub them in your face until your makeup comes off.”



It was obviously a bluff, and undeniably a tad too harsh for a friendly conversation between people who had only recently met, but I could frankly and rather disappointedly say Kouma did not appear appalled at all by my words. If anything, she stared at me with more lack of expression than she usually did.



Back then it didn’t occur to me that the complete absence of small nuances of concealed feelings itself could be a symptom of something else.



“Today’s P.E. seemed to be very tiring,” Ryo said, implementing passive diplomatic countermeasures.



There was some irony in the way she carefully picked the words, though.



“But none of us took part in it.” It seemed pretty obvious to me why Ryo didn’t participate in physical activities of any kind (and I have been around for only a week). In my case, I was directly told by Reikoku-sensei not to, although I’d rather believe it was because of my display of strength in that battle rather than the fact I am the only male in class. On the other hand, we have Kouma Yon, who is a fairly healthy girl with excellent motor skills yet won’t participate, presumably to not leave Ryo alone. This would not be an issue if Kouma became fond of the idea of leaving Ryo alone with me. “It’s been a while since I played any kind of sport.”



That gorgeous catty smile of Ryo made its appearance and thus my day was complete; I could as well go home at that moment and sleep, waiting patiently for my next fix tomorrow.



“Really? I could never picture you as someone who liked sports, Shin-tsu.”



“Wait Ryo, I might have given you the wrong impression. I’m not a fan of sports or similar physical activities but I’m pretty good at most of them because, well…”



Kouma finished taking a sip of whatever she was drinking, as rushed to speak as a half-asleep amateur actor who was just reminded of his line; the fashionista managed to maintain a certain degree of composure in her speech while lacking it in visual effect.



“You are used to running all the time.”



Denying it at that point would be juvenile and kind of silly.



“…precisely, thank you so very much.”



“You’re welcome.”



The flat expression (or rather, absence-of) in her face annoyed me a lot.



“For someone so used to analyzing people and their speech, your usage and perception of sarcasm is rather poor, Kouma.”



“The same cannot be said of the amount of split ends in that thing you call hair, unfortunately.”



That line sounded oddly familiar to me, although I was sure she didn’t mention a thing about my hair in the previous week. For some reason unknown to me, it also reminded me of an entirely different topic.



“Hey Ryo, how are the ARK thing’s projects going? Any new ideas?”



“Funny you asked. I got this novel series idea in a dream, but I can’t remember much of it so it’s just a vague concept now.”



“Not vague enough to wake me up at 4:17 AM, surely.” Kouma tilted her head to the left side, which was a bit creepy because her face was still hers. If I were to describe the effect to someone who had never met her, I’d tell them to imagine an Ichimatsu doll with a five hundred dollar haircut and sailor uniform moving only her head, j-horror movie style, to look at someone’s direction. “Not that I am complaining about being woken up to the sound of my mobile phone’s ringtone to listen to information on Sengoku-era clothing before breakfast.”



Then she looked at a rather dumbfounded me as if saying ‘if you want sarcasm, I can give it to you,’ but what really surprised me was the fact she could actually act in a non-worshipping way towards Ryo. Maybe I jump to conclusions a bit too fast…



“Who else could I text? You’re the only person I know who would know whether matching the colors of an obi with a hakama worked back then or not. And it turned out you knew an awful lot about gloves too!”



Then Kouma moved her eyes to me, and knowing that hideous grin of hers was forming, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted her to have easy to spot expressions or not. It was Scylla and Charybdis all over again.



“Try and find a decent yukage pattern in less than thirty minutes. I double dare you.”



Apparently, I do reach conclusions too fast: even when acting sarcastic and annoyed, Kouma Yon actually likes to spend time with Ryo, and vice-versa. The fact they had been doing it for a long time cancels out any possible kind of offense taken by any remark they could make at each other. Weird as they really are, they’re completely comfortable being themselves around each other.



It made me so jealous that I could not refrain from biting my inferior lip. Not hard enough to break the flesh and spill blood like one would expect, to deliver a graphic example of my inner turmoil and justified angst when confronted with the fact that the chances of me actually sharing this kind of relationship with anyone are still slim. There’s only so much of a drama queen a person can be, even as a teenager.



“So,” I said, trying to divert the flow of the conversation to one topic where I would have at the very least chances of cringing slightly less, even if only a bit. “What are your predictions and speculations for this season’s Medical Doctor Holmes? The latest episode was pretty good.”



Shiina Ryo suddenly became radiant, so lively one could hardly imagine a girl capable of such vibrant vivacity had a physical health so different from that appearance. What caught my interest the most at the time was not the fact I didn’t know what kind of condition she had, but the lack of stability in her condition. I was not considering her fragile state to be false (although that might have been reckless of me), but rather how developed whatever her sickness or disorder was. In my experience, inconstancy is where the danger lies.



“Yes! Yes it was! The sudden yet somehow fitting development of his relationship with the gracefully feminine yet firm administrator caused by a petty argument that started very early on that episode was quite well written. To bring it back with a simple symbolic gesture at the final scene was a good tactic, although I have seen too many drama shows to miss the hint that this was a breather episode. Thinks are bound to get darker.”



“Even you, Shin-tsu?” Kouma had this bored, borderline ennui look on her pretty-but-easily-associated-with-cynicism face. “I didn’t assume you’d like that show.”



Pouting, I tried giving her a lazy caricature of her facial expression by reflecting it with mine. Now that I think of it, I still wasn’t sure whether Kouma and I were on friendly terms, given the whole on-off nature of hers. Slight teasing, unlike any other more intimate or aggressive attempt, worked both ways.



“Why, do I look like someone who likes monster truck demolition races or something like that? You’re not the only person around with ‘refined’ tastes, you know.”



“The opposite: I don’t consider that show very refined, especially when it comes to the application of medicine. Of course, it could be argued that since the show has to last the full timeslot, the writers have to come up with hardships for the doctors, but that doesn’t make me any more attracted to the idea of seeing them formulaically misdiagnose patients for a whole episode. Certainly not for more than five years, in all honesty.”



Although this will sound judgmental as hell, I must say: her analysis, regardless of right or wrong, was always anything but what one would usually expect from someone that actually bothered to follow the current fashion trends. If anything, Kouma Yon lacked the ‘charming shallowness’ almost glorified in that scene that would give her an illusion of the concept we (possibly wrongly) perceive as personality.



“Plus, you don’t even seem to be the kind of person that distinctly cares about television. When Ryo and I went to help you sort your apartment, a task I wasn’t uncommonly interested in doing but was urged to given the circumstances, we couldn’t help but notice you didn’t have one. And demolition races sound plainly unsuitable, you’re not alpha enough.”



“Hey, I take offense to the last line. And from all the people I know around here, I thought you would be the one that would like that series the most, Kouma. I heard they rarely get medical mistakes and everyone dresses and looks nice. Dr. Holmes manages to look really good even with permanent action movie guy stubble.”



“It just seems wrong, going through all the trouble of streaming, downloading or waiting for the horrid Japanese dubs of what I already know is more and more of the same. The way they’re using the relationship Ryo-chan and you care so much about just shows me the whole thing is even more of a waste of time, egging on shippers like that rather than raising the bar on its cases and making sure the accuracy is pitch-perfect all the time. Being serious though, your beta is showing. Hard.”



My adorable friend stretched herself and yawned, cue me feeling like yawning as well but doing my best not to succumb to that feeling. My tongue quickly touched the roof of my mouth and with a tickly movement the will to yawn was gone. Works every time; do try it.



“Mistakes happen, although writers are supposed to keep them to a minimum to avoid loss of the public’s interest. There’s only so much suspension of disbelief, really. You can retcon mistakes here and there, but do it on a regular basis and even the most naturally over-the-top Mexican telenovela will not appeal to the viewers anymore. And Kouma, this new season is just delicious, you have to give it a shot. I’m a tad tired because I didn’t get much sleep last night, but if you feel like it we could all go to Le Ciel Bleu and watch a few episodes toget-”



Ryo’s speech was brought to a rather abrupt halt, and because of that I could tell there was someone we didn’t usually see approaching us, which was something really unusual considering we were having lunch on the rooftop. And some people say poor social skills aren’t useful.



“Shin-tsu, my man!”



“Oh, it’s you.”



If you watch a reasonable amount of anime, you definitely don't need me to tell you the important characters are always given special, attractive (and often blinding) coloration when in comparison to, say, bland and normal ones. Judging by that alone, one could argue that Megumi was the most likely individual to be relevant to the plot the industry had ever seen. Still, the color thing is predominantly used to grant the viewer easy identification of the character (and thus, propel the sales of merchandise and make cosplayers earn their brief popularity with their blood and tears) and I don't see how a company could market what my eyes can on perceive as the result of infinite pigments of watercolor thrown into the world's most brutal kitchen blender. Unless it's one of those artsy things you're not supposed to really comprehend, just mock the ones who admit they don't while riding your fixie bike.



“We were playing detective all morning trying to find out where you were, bro. Yesterday you only told us your name, not your class or anything.”



“Were you? Also, what do you mean by ‘we?’” And then I noticed the second, almost shy shadow hidden almost entirely in Megumi’s shade, and couldn’t help but wonder if that was premeditated, considering she managed to vanish on a rooftop, a technically open area. “Never mind. Hey Akane. Didn’t see you there.”



The girl-shadow hid a bit more.



“Yeah, and to be honest I thought finding a boy in this school should be easier. Somehow, you don’t seem to stand out much,” said the peacock queen.



It might have just been my imagination, but I think I actually heard the air moving around Kouma’s well-designed lips when she smirked, possibly due to the irony of the situation. Another possibility is her fashionista roots being overwhelmed by fury at the sight of what even in my eyes could be considered an abomination of style and the color spectrum, and I’ve actually seen my and everyone’s share of real abominations, mind you.



“I need to talk to you, bro. You can spare a minute?”



“Sure.”



“Great, awesome.”



She squatted next to me and Ryo, putting herself between us as Ryo edged away. The triangle and its symmetry were gone, but Megumi probably didn’t even realize she was disrupting the natural order of things. As far as she was concerned, Ryo moved away from her as an invite for her and her friend to sit. Whether Akane felt the crescent animosity or just didn’t want to be near me, that’s another mystery I had to postpone; she stood still like a tower, casting her extended shadow over us. Due to the current position of the sun, her shadow’s head reached Kouma’s leg and darkened the detailed checkered patterns on her knee high socks, which I will pretend I just noticed and you will pretend you believe me. “Hey, are the three of you first years?”



I could not see how that was relevant to any topic Megumi could have to discuss with me.



“Yes, we a-”



“Cool. Class B, right?”



“Yeah, why is that imp-”



“So you’re really in Reikoku’s class. Tough luck, guys. Akane and I were in her class last year, and she makes even old man Kawajima look like an angel. Just wait for finals. I barely made it to the second year!”



Akane muttered something under her breath at that point but stopped all of a sudden when she noticed I was looking at her. She was visibly uncomfortable, even more than the Shiina Ryo I’ve caught a glimpse of while turning to face Megumi once again, and it might or might not be related to the fact the colorful older student was looking at her and Kouma while smiling sillily, like people do when they have a good set of Mahjong pieces in hand.



“Just wondering, how did you find me?” I asked.



“We actually had just quit for now and decided to visit our old lunch spot. The plan B was to find you before you went home, but by sheer luck we found you.” And just when I thought Megumi would get to the point, she turned to Kouma with the same smile of a few moments ago. “I think I remember you. You went to the kindergarten two blocks from here?”



“That is correct, both Ryo and I were in Honmaru Kindergarten.”



“Your hair wasn’t layered or anything, but you looked pretty much the same as a kid as you do right now. Not to say you look like a kid, but you stood out even then. And man, I’m drooling all over your hair.”



Kouma’s eye twitched upon being called ‘man;’ I could only expect a retort boiling to come out of that cold as ice person.



“Oh, I could get you the salon’s address, their specialty is this kind of cut. And I must say you stood out a lot back then, too.”



I started to notice the layers weren’t only present in those girls’ hair but in their conversation as well: no one could deny there were at least two conversations going on at that point, one on the surface and other underneath. As I could feel the levels of animosity rising without knowing why or how to solve the problem, all I could do was to use my power to divert the topic.



“What did you want to talk about, anyway?”



This brought the carefree thing back to Megumi’s expression.



“Oh, right. Akane’s mom just gave her a call. She heard us talking about the band thing yesterday and because a client changed his mind about the schedule she is free today to come to help us gather the instruments and other equipment after school. We’ll get to ride around town in her delivery van and everything. So, are you in or are you out?”



Too much seemingly unrelated information to digest at once for me, and this impression was coming from someone who texts Ryo on a daily basis.



“I don’t think I’m following.”



“The band thing, man. I don’t want to pressure you or anything, but Rin seemed pretty thrilled when I told her Akane’s mom would be free to transport our instruments today and stuff. That doesn’t usually happens, so we are in a pretty lucky moment right now. If you feel like being a part of this, I kind of need you to decide now or you might be on your own to bring your stuff all the here. Do you live close to the school or something?”



“No, he doesn’t.” Kouma Yon answered the question for me, possibly with the intention of interrupting the original course of the dialogue and thus gather my attention to her so she could pose a question of hers. “…a band? You been here for a week and already joined a band? Are you serious?”



But if my insight into Kouma’s intention was correct, the course of action the girl with enough metal piercings to disrupt small-sized magnetic balance zones had taken was a direct confrontation.



“It’s more like ‘the’ band, and it’s going to be brutal,” she said proudly, and then proceeded to fully ignore Kouma’s existence, a feature I’d envy if I didn’t know it only made my classmate more and more dangerous. Megumi looked at me like she was watching something surrounding my body and not the body per se. “Let’s say you decide to join us later, would it be hard to bring your bass and rig all the way here?”



Trying to overlook the imminent conflict of teenage girls for a moment, I pondered on that hypothetical scenario’s chances of coming true and realized it would be unlikely.



“A lot, I’ve got one huge amp.”



“Right.” She took a second to present another alternative. “Can you get your parents to bring it here by car later or something like that?”



I did my best to avoid making a face that screamed ‘touchy subject, don’t ask’ in front of this older girl I hardly knew, but it wasn’t easy at all because all I could see was Kouma Yon twitching her nose with Ryo’s nervous humming as background effect.



“…no.”



I couldn’t tell if she was trying to ignore the undertones or was just that simple, but Megumi did not bother with my specific and uncomfortable answer.



“Then I guess this is a now or never thing, eh? Which will it be, bro?”



Then intervention came.



“Do not rush things.” The vanishing girl had quickly got on her knees and whispered, but specifically because of that I managed to grasp the high frequencies of her voice’s sound waves. “Give him some time.”



“I would be okay if he could just call us when the time is right, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, man. It’s not that much of a deal.”



But it was.



Everybody involved was uncomfortable to some extent. Ryo hated being around new people and wasn’t particularly happy about having visitors in our sanctuary. Kouma was somehow teasing Megumi and did not seem pleased about being ignored. Megumi was acting a bit cocky and from yesterday’s experience I could tell she was nervous. Akane was clearly visible and I was in the midst of all that chaos.



It occurred to me then I could halt everything with a single word, so I did.



“Okay.”



All of the faces in front of me seemed surprised, Kouma being the exception. Megumi vocalized their thoughts.



“What?”



“Fine, I’ll play with you.” And to hint something I wanted but couldn’t directly ask for without being rude. “Meet you guys later, then?”



Whether she realized I needed them out of there or was just done with her business, I couldn’t tell. What I did witness was sudden movement and a girl fading once again to her position as the other’s shadow.



“Great, we’ll be waiting for you by the club entrance at the end of classes. Let’s go, Akane!”



They opened and closed the rooftop entrance door as silently as they had the first time and with that they were gone and it was all over. Everything would go back to normal, and I could finish the meal like nothing ever happened.



Surprisingly, Ryo didn’t seem relieved or happy at all.



***************



Funny or not, the thing that surprised me the most that afternoon was not the fact I was in a parked flower delivery van with three older girls and a grown woman, all of them borderline strangers to me. Neither was the realization that my life was not, despite all my constant efforts over a long period of time, becoming any more normal. It was something else entirely.



“So, is that really your house?



Rin tilted her head to be able to see me from her position next to the driver in a way I had only witnessed before in the works of a particular animation studio, and for a moment all I could do was wonder if it hurt.



“Was it not, what we are about to do would most definitely be considered a crime. Removing musical equipment from the home of another person would, in many circumstances, qualify as theft. Why do you ask, Koukishin-kun?”



I do not consider myself a particularly wealthy individual for a reason or two, but I know that I surely lead a comfortable life when compared to many less-fortunate others. With that in mind, I guarantee the school council president’s mansion made my flat look rather mediocre and unremarkable. The property was, at the very least, hard to describe without using stuff such as ‘big’, ‘large’, ‘huge’, ‘humongous’, ‘massive’, ‘monumental’, ‘gigantic’, ‘colossal’, ‘stellar’, ‘dude is that really necessary’ and so on. Not to say that it was flawless when it came to aesthetics or common sense, but it most surely peacocked just as much as Megumi did. Proportionally, I suppose.



Judging by that one, has to wonder why she bothers to attend a public school or any school at all: anyone with that kind of money could and would get better than decent tutors unless they have a reason not to or similar ulterior motives of some kind. A future career in politics sounds like a fairly good reason, though; the people need to think your roots are the same, although they expect you to be superior to them in honesty and morals. Go figure.



“No particular reason, not at all.” I looked through the window of the stationary vehicle with flower-themed paint job, mostly looking for a petty topic to divert my attention from what was not a mere elephant in the room. I could have dealt with that. In fact, I had, once. “Is that a Japanese Iris garden?”



The driver and owner of the car we were in let out a pleasant laugh that sounded a lot like a glissando slide played on a violin.



“Close, you have good eyesight.” Akane’s mom was astonishingly similar to her daughter physically, but a tad too different when it came to personality. As in complete opposite. It was quite the shock to me when I met her at the school entrance: to see a carefree, older version of Akane waving to us, chatting and smiling in a very calm way the whole ride while the younger Akane more intensely tried to fade into inexistence using both her predisposition to it along with the natural edge to it that dawns on every teenager when their friends or colleagues are meeting their parents. It was too much to take at once. “My bet is that those are flowers from the orchid family but varied genus. Am I right?”



Rin turned around to face her and nodded firmly.



“Absolutely. In that particular section there can be found several types of orchids, many of them brought from Central America.”



“That’s great! It’s good to know there is a garden so rich in diversity in our town. Flowers have power.” I did not know it then, but found out soon enough Akane’s mother was a hippie, technically. She believed in the ideals and loved the culture, but was not born in the right time to actually live any of that. In retrospect, being a single mom, driving a van, owning a flower shop, discussing the benefits of solar energy with high school students and having slightly messier hair than her daughter should have struck me as clues. “Those flamingoes fit well as decoration.”



They didn’t, both in the visual aspect and the geographic one: there are four kinds of Flamingoes in the Americas, but as far as I was concerned not one of them was from Central America, but from the South. The visual aspect was probably not as much of a lie as it was an honest mistake. The compliment on taste did come from a woman riding a flower-themed van around town after all, so it could be seen as being called ‘fashionable’ by someone who dresses very badly.



“Those are real.”



That small sentence did not seem to blend well and I don’t think I was the only one to think that way.



“Yes, I can tell those flowers are real even from here.” Hippie mom tried to look just as carefree as she did before, but I could see small sweat drops starting their despair-inducing descent from the points where her hairline was visible in the midst of too-messy-to-be-called-wavy black locks. “I see real and plastic flowers every day.”



“A misunderstanding; I was referring to the flamingoes.”



Silence reared its ugly head as a rising sun, eclipsed by the sudden beginning of a spring rain, a poke and a rather loud whisper coming from the colorful girl who sat by me in the center of the van’s backseat.



“Dude, she’s like, filthy as a wobble bassline rich!”



“…did you actually say that?”



Rin looked to the backseat once again.



“Well, this has been a good conversation …”



“No it hasn’t.”



I automatically muttered those words without considering the consequences, the alteration of my mood and lack of inhibition and self-restraint possibly occurring due to being inside a hot variation of car during a rather warm spring day.



“Is there anything you would like to add, Koukishin-kun?”



“No ma’am.” Quite the opposite, there was plenty I would have liked to subtract if we were under normal conditions. “Please proceed talking about how great the previous talk was.”



Chances are she grasped the implied insolence and sarcasm, but ignored it. I savored the sweet moment, given that it was easy to tell there would not be many of those.



“As I was saying, this has been a good conversation, but I would like to do what we came here to do and, as the common man says, ‘get done with it’. We still have two more houses to visit in order to gather musical equipment and time consumes itself easily.”



Megumi shook her head full of hair in slow motion.



“Just one more, I guess: my guitar, cables, pedals, amp, all my stuff is already in the back of the car.”



That sounded fishy to me, but apparently not to Rin.



“Excellent, in that case we will have more time to set the gear up back at school. Thus, I am going in.” Her gaze rolled and fell upon the girl who had done her best to conceal herself from being topic relevant or part of the discussion the whole time. “If you do not mind, I would much rather it to be you accompanying me, Akane-san.”



Shy girl didn’t need to uncover her eyes to show her surprise, as her open mouth did the job well enough. Megumi disagreed with Rin’s decision, as I was sure I would see happen more than once again in a not distant future.



“Just wait a second! Why don’t we all go in?”



“This is but a scout mission, so that would be completely unnecessary. Our first step is to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of my father and based on his location choose the best method of bringing the equipment outside in these current climatic conditions. Only then we will gather at the backdoor of the mansion and start transfer phase.”



I was interested in a particular detail of Rin’s lines.



“Could that be interpreted as your father not approving of these activities? As in the band being formed and moving your gear around?”



“I am afraid it suggests what you thought but in all honesty it means my father is not even aware of me having sound-related apparatus in my bedroom, let alone joining an extra-curricular activity unrelated to the School Council. That said, this maneuver is only a precaution. By this time he is usually working, so we shall have no more hindrances in executing the transport operation.”



Yet like a puppy playing with someone, Megumi wouldn’t let go.



“Fine, but why Akane and not me or Shin-tsu?”



“Seems remarkably simple and logical to me, but you and I are very distinct persons so I shall try and put it in terms you can comprehend. He is, contrary to visual-aided common sense, a male individual around my age and that would raise suspicion with the helpers, possibly enough for some of them to talk with to my father about some boy entering his daughter’s bedroom along with her. Worst case scenario, if my father is indeed inside, Koukishin-kun does not have enough data to act as if we were long-term friends or part of the School Council, thus creating an even stronger image of a hidden relationship paved with bad intentions and juvenile passion. About you, well, I do not think I can possibly explain why your appearance would gather unwarranted attention in a way that you would not perceive as directly offensive.” A breath and a blink later, I realize that I could not tell if Megumi understood the situation or was just looking mad because of Rin’s constant patronizing attitude. “It is obvious, then, why I am choosing Akane-san. Even like this, she is visually the closest to an acceptable companion for me that we have in this car. No offense meant.”



“None taken.” Akane’s mom was watching Rin with a soothing look in her eyes. “I keep telling this daughter of mine she needs to work on her looks a little bit. We’re not in the sixties anymore.” And from what I could tell by looking at her face, she never was. “Even then, boys had standards. Still, if being around Megumi-chan has not given her a wish to change her appearance, I hardly think you can do something about it. You just don’t have half as much boldness as she does, despite your manners, but I must congratulate you on managing to run the Student Council even with those social skills of yours. No offense meant.”



Megumi produced a muffled giggle, so it was probably okay making a little bit of fun of her looks if you were Hippie mom and attacking Rin with an almost static yet very natural carefree smile on your face. I sort of hoped for conflict, but it was prevented by Akane, who had somehow opened the van door at her side, moved outside, closed it and then opened the front one by Rin’s side without me noticing it.



“Let’s go,” Akane meekly said to Rin.



And without any further ado they left, presumably a tactical move of our School Council president devised as a way of avoiding meeting our eyes while flustered with anger and, in a less likely scenario, shame. Not as much of a sadist as the girl she had just teased, Akane’s mother had the decency to wait for the two girls to walk away before commenting the situation with the two students that stayed in the car.



“It’s great to see Akane-chan making new friends, but that older girl could use a small dosage of consideration for others. We all have flaws, anyway, and her vocabulary is great for her age.” She looked at me through the rear-vision mirror. “You don’t talk a lot, do you? Like my Akane-chan.”



She could have good vision for flowers, but her hearing was not the best.



“…no, it’s just that…”



“It’s probably hard when you’re the only boy around and surrounded by girls, eh?”



“No, not really,” I replied with a strong and secure voice that surprised even me, although it was the utmost truth. While it could be argued I have always been mainly in the presence of females, it wasn’t until then I realized it was happening. Perhaps that is the way a fish would feel if someone told it about the water. “You could say I am used to that kind of situation, as I always had more friends who are girls than boys. What’s really making it hard for me to get into the conversation is the fact I’m new around here and didn’t even know anyone until yesterday afternoon.”



“You’re not from here, then?”



“No, just moved here last week.”



That was probably news to Megumi too.



“Really?” The second year student seemed impressed. More than anyone, I knew there were people very interested in what was somewhat foreign, especially because I can hardly remember any time when I wasn’t a foreigner. “Were did you live before, Tokyo?”



“Actually, I was living abroad most of the time during the past years.”



Rising levels of uneasiness warned me the conversation was heading to a direction that could not meet a good end as I finished speaking that sentence. Her next question confirmed it.



“Where?”



The shrugging was automatic but the vague answer was completely intentional.“Everywhere, really.”



To divert their attention by bringing in another topic was a cheap and easy way out, but I wasn’t in any condition to be picky. “Hey, can I ask you a few questions, rapid fire style?”



“This is kind of sudden but sure, hit me.”



I breathe in.



“Blood type?”



“B.”



“Interests?”



“Music!”



“Hobbies?”



“Music again!”



“Favorite color?”



“All of them.”



“Favorite accessory?”



“All of them.”



The last two were quite believable, very much. I smiled without showing teeth and wondered for a moment if it looked anything like Ryo’s characteristic cat smiles, which was unlikely. However, as long as it was reassuring, it worked.



“Fantastic. So far, you’re doing great. Isn’t she?”



Akane’s mom nodded cautiously, as did not seem to understand what I was getting at. Still, she did not intervene.



“Thanks, man.” Megumi scratched the back of her head with the visible embarrassment of those who aren’t used to being praised. “I practice for the day I’ll get magazine questionnaires.”



“Interesting. A saying?”



“Ten persons, ten colors.”



Which basically translated to ‘to each their own’, if I was correct.



“Did you see the person you like today?”



“Never liked anyone, not in that way.”



“A painting?”



“None specific, but I dig abstract art.”



“Last movie you’ve seen?”



“Some old American black and white comedy. Wasn’t very interesting.”



“Have you found anything interesting while walking recently?”



“A golden paperclip. I still walk around with it in my bag.”



And there it was: we had reached the point where the defenses of the interviewed were lowered because of being conditioned to answer, the stage right before she’d get annoyed and answer things with sarcasm and quirkiness. Experimentation showed me how to identify that and, as it was a useful skill for extracting information, I made sure not to forget how to do it.



“Did you contact your parents while in school today?”



“Nope,” she said, seeming a tad unsure about it afterwards.



“So there was no way you or your parents could know today would be the day we’d gather stuff and move it to school?”



“Not really… Why do you ask?”



“How did you get to tell someone at home to get your stuff ready for Akane’s mother to just come by and pick it up without making mistakes?” Everything was just too convenient, too neat even for a fated situation. Even though it was possible due to how random life can be, it sure was not likely and questioning her was a risk I was willing to take. “You left school at the same time I did and did not even bother to look at your equipment. How could you possibly know everything is in there?”



“Well, I…”



I saw Akane’s mother movements in slow motion and could tell she was going to try and intervene, which implied I was doing it right. A bit more of pressure was necessary to expose the truth.



“Answer the question.”



“I didn’t, but what is the poi-”



Although fully aware that my final move was a huge stretch of the truth, the whole thing still sounded a lot like a good idea at the time.



“Megumi, don’t be offended by this supposition, but you are actually living at Akane’s place, right?”



Once again it was time for one of those silent moments, except this one was caused by yours truly. After it happened, I could only wonder why I had done it; the impulse that drove me was not composed of reason, but something much more primal and similar to what I felt when facing Ayaka last week. As if I was a beast that could attack in ways other than by using physical strength.



Not that despite the raging thrill I felt it was morally correct or, more importantly, socially acceptable.



I must admit she could have lied and dismissed my hypothesis with ease, but in her case I assumed she would not. No, the correct word would be ‘knew;’ I could without a trace of doubt tell she was the type that hid but did not have the custom of lying, although for reasons that shame me. To some extent, I am both: someone who hides and someone who lies, and good enough at both to tell when I see one of my kind.



The response to that behavior was fairly better than I expected or deserved.



“You are a nice guy, Shin-tsu.” Hippie mom had a good impression of me, somehow. “I am sure you wouldn’t tease Megumi over this or spread this rumor.”



Well, I could be mistaken but to me there wasn’t a hint of threat in that line: just pure motherly concern, which made me somewhat uneasy, I admit it. Days later I would understand they assumed I wasn’t being an obnoxious, offensive socially unfit individual but just someone without a perfect grasp of daily Japanese, my rudeness a mere lack of acclimation with the language and culture.



You stay around manipulators, literal monsters and such for too long and you start assuming everyone is one.



“I wouldn’t.” Ironically, there I was trying to assure someone I was one of the good guys after playing mind games. “I just needed to know because I’m concerned, and this is something you two might want to avoid hinting in the future in the presence of other people. People who would have a harder time understanding. You are obviously trying to keep this a secret for some personal reason, so it might be a good idea to think twice before giving out information that may be suspicious or contradictory in the light of other events. Never say anything concrete if you want to be able to take it back. When keeping secrets, chances are you’ll have to.”



Megumi’s mouth was still open, the piercing in her lip lacking the shine her eyes always had (which was probably a byproduct of the two different colored contact lenses she wore all the time). And those lips I for one moment felt strangely focused on started moving a bit sooner than I expected they would.



“Yeah, he won’t. And even if he did, I know it wouldn’t be anything like what Rin would do if she knew. Maybe something like calling names between bros, but that’s all. I know we’re going to be bros because we kind of clicked when I saw you, you know?” She did not say that in a romantic way, or at least I could only associate that line coming from her with friendship for some reason. Possibly related to the constant usage of the word ‘bros’, I guess. “Almost the opposite of what happened when I first saw Rin. Pfft. Man, there’s something about her that pisses me so much.”



To manage to ignore that, one would have to be trying very hard to do so.



“Sure.” I concurred, and then tried to come up with an understatement to follow that avoided minimalism. “You even talk way more casually when she’s not around. It’s like you two are competing all the time over everything.”



“Yeah, I do. Speaking like that is weird for me, but not doing it in front of someone like her would be like, giving her more fuel to act all high and mighty. Someone needs to fight her on her own terms, bro.”



A characteristic sound went off, something universal although not exactly popular: the sound of a cheap wristwatch’s alarm. The driver of the flowery van turned her head to face us.



“Megumi-chan, there are other ways of standing up to The Man. In the sea of life, it’s not always about rowing and rowing; fighting the power is an activity that can be performed in many ways, but what really matters is to do the right thing even if it means kicking reason to the curb.” Hearing Akane’s mother speak about whatever topic she managed to grasp was really amusing, for a given value of that word. Definitely a good person, but one could tell she believes in the flower power, power of the people and all that jazz from kilometers away. “Now if you kids don’t mind, it’s my meditation time, and I’m going to need phones for this or the binaural frequencies will be buried and lost in this van’s cheap boosters.”



Megumi started moving all of a sudden and seeing her searching for something in her school bag was rather trippy, certainly enough to make me dizzy -- way too many colors and movement happening in too little time.



“Oh, earphones!” She said, her hand continuously digging down and bringing a mess up as an excavator would do to a terrain. “What a great idea!”



“Someone already patented that, I’m afraid.”



“You’re real funny, man,” she took ear buds and extended me one of the pair, and once more I was entirely baffled by her corporal language. “Now seriously, let’s listen to some music and chill.”



For a moment I could only think of the irony present in her poor choice of words and then I understood what was going to happen.



“Sure, as long as it’s not metal. It wouldn’t work.”



“Eh? Why is that?”



“We will be sharing, right? That means one earbud for you and one for me.”



“So?”



“Modern metal production standards pretty much dictate at least one guitar track should be used in each side so when it comes to harmonizing or completely different riffs being played simultaneously, they can contrast and fill the overall mix. Listening to only half of what the sound engineer intended might sound a tad awkward for one of us, perhaps both.” Then I noticed I was doing it again, the whole Ryo-speak thing. “What I’m trying to say is that we probably won’t be able to enjoy the songs as much while sharing the earbuds because the music is usually mixed to only work properly in stereo.”

Her rather unfeminine laughter was somehow only noticeable when I stopped talking, or for the sake of a fairly more precise description, lecturing.

“…for one second you really sounded like Akane.”

Chuckling ensued.

“Wait a second, did I ever stutter or something? Never mind that, are you implying she ever actually speaks and a lot on top of that?”

“Boy, you’d be amazed.”

“I already am.” Sure, I met the girl yesterday but there are a few characteristics you just expect to be permanent, or at the very least, not contradicted within minutes. “Her mother doesn’t see her that way though.”

She wasn’t laughing anymore, and it wasn’t completely unexpected.

“Do your parents know exactly who you are?”

If they didn’t, they’d still be around. Or six feet under.

“You tell me. Most of the time I don’t know myself.”

Satisfied with my half-fabricated answer, Megumi pushed her hand further and made me take one of the earphones almost inserting it in my ear herself.

“Enough talking, let’s get down to business: it’s Dubstep time.”

A button press was all it took for a distorted synthetic bass to start growling inside one of my ears along with a beat that didn’t quite naturally felt like one, but grew on you after a while. Unlike some more common forms of music it was based on ambience and feel rather than a melody one can hum, and unlike most electronic subgenres the production was overflowing with a powerful sub-bass. Hundreds of glitches and sliced vocal samples happening almost at random added much to the composition. It was rather dark, dirty and harsh, yet somewhat contained and completely nothing I would expect from someone made of blinding chromatic variations and metal who got into a silly argument with a girl she apparently met yesterday just to get in a van with her on the following afternoon.

“This isn’t bad at all.”

“Not the kind of music you can get into at once, but once you get into it it’s pretty hard to fall out of love.”

“Yeah. But there’s one thing, Megumi.”

“What?”

“This track has basically nothing to do with dub or 2-step garage.”

A blurry window reflected the colorful Megumi biting a toothpick she found in her bag while searching for the earbuds, the reminiscence in her eyes barely visible amongst the hundreds of raindrops running on the glass at random speeds with unpredictable pauses during its course.

“It’s been raining at least once a week around here, but it’s always like that when it’s spring, so no biggie. There was this amazing rainbow these days though, it was really something out of this world. Totally unforgettable.”

“Last week?”

“Whoa, you saw that rainbow too, man?”

“Yeah, I was hanging out with… a friend.” Giving unnecessary information out has ruined too many kingdoms. “We caught a bit of rain and then all of a sudden there it was, the most beautiful l’arc en ciel I had ever seen, stunning as heaven. What were you doing?”

“Same as you, just chilling with a buddy: Akane’s room has a huge stained glass window so it took me a moment to realize it was open and all those colors were on the sky and not coming from the stained glass itself, you know?” When she looked at me I saw her face wasn’t particularly hard to read despite the heavy makeup. “I saw those amazing trippy colors outside and even told Akane about it, but she didn’t pay much attention to it so I guessed it was all in my head or something.”

Something clicked in me.

“Hey.” I lowered my voice so Akane’s mom wouldn’t have a chance to hear us. “Were you, say, ‘clean’ that day?”

Laughing loudly, Megumi ruined my efforts in making that question private, even though it was for her own good.

“Oh dude, relax: I’m always clean. Straight edge for life!” She held the toothpick between two fingers like it was a cigarette, looked to her hand, laughed slowly and then shook her head as if to wave the irony away. “I see where you’re coming from though. Thing is, I used to be around smokers for a long time and became what you would call a ‘passive smoker’. I don’t hang out with that kind of people anymore, so whenever I catch myself thinking about the smell of nicotine, I start chewing on a toothpick until the craving goes away.”

That sounded way more like a lie she spent quite a good time working on than an honest truth, but for that moment I assumed the best course of action would be not to pressure her on the subject. After all, it was definitely not my business.

Yet.

“So, why did you assume you were able to see that but Akane wasn’t?”

“I don’t know, man, my brain plays tricks on me once in a while when it comes to colors and stuff. Good to know it wasn’t all in my head though, or that there is at least one more person around here who is just as weird as I am.” I felt like disagreeing because at least in the visual aspect no one could be half as weird as she was without actually trying, but I figured I’d understand the meaning of her words at some point in the future after some cooking scene or something so I’d be wasting saliva and ruining plot points. One of her fingers pointed outside at Akane and Rin were walking towards us. “Here they come.”

The president passed in front of the window Megumi was watching so intently but didn’t stop, moving directly towards the van driver’s. I couldn’t hear all of what she said to hippie mom, but the words ‘help’, ‘butler’, and ‘backdoor’ gave me a vague but interesting idea of the overall context. Obviously it could have turned out to be something completely different from reality, as thoughts that start at the back of flower power vans often are.

The rest of that day was blurry and fast-forward but anything short of easy.

Rin had an awful lot of equipment for an individual and not a studio, enough to make me consider going back to school by foot to give everyone more free van space. I only stayed because Akane’s mother insisted, although we had to stop at the school to unload cargo before going to my place to pick up my stuff. The good thing about my house being the follow-up to Rin’s is that, in comparison, it did not seem surprisingly big at all.

We spent the afternoon setting up and turning what initially was a small empty club room into a small recording/rehearsal facility crowded with cables and equipment, activity that took time and a good deal of unnoticed effort in the nearly empty school campus. It was a day of carrying instruments, computers and gear while sweating in our uniforms. The irony is that to get things right for the band, we had to act less like musicians and more like roadies.

When the darkness of the night was starting to gain territory in the sky, Rin spoke.

“I believe I am speaking on behalf of all of us when I say we should just lock up the room and call it a day.”

“Yes, I concur. This was tiring.”

Megumi argued and not only for the sake of doing so. “But we haven’t even played a single note yet!”

“Still, significant progress was made. We now have a functional practice and recording room that will not attract attention or disturb anyone.”

Thanks to Rin’s meticulous planning, the room’s structure was absurdly effective despite being a mess: two guitar amps, a bass one, a microphone and a netbook working as host for the information sent by the electronic drum kit, all passing through a small mixing console with outputs to the main recording computer and four high fidelity headphones, two of them brand new. Definitely not eye candy setup, but it was so beautifully functional it hurt; we could jam and record the most brutal tunes at the same time without any passerby ever hearing what we were doing inside of that room, being only subpar in the vocal aspect because of acoustics. “Except for perhaps minor tweaking, the band studio is ready to start activities right away.”

I could only agree.

“Already far more than most bands can even dream of. I’m honestly surprised. We might get spoiled because of all this convenience.” But what surprised me the most was how smooth and fast everything went: it was too neatly executed to be part of a plan devised Reikoku-sensei. This crazy, abrupt and juvenile thing could actually work. “Do you guys know any ramen stands or something around here? Today is my treat.”

We left the room as Megumi barely could contain her excitement, considering she had worked as enthusiastically as I did; the other two did help, but we were the active ones, burning energy like there was no tomorrow and stuff. If her hunger was anything like mine, my words must have sounded like an oasis. Akane looked like she was about to faint or evanesce completely too, but that was just her usual self.

“Agreed.” To my surprise, Rin seemed a little calmer, almost to the point of vague, even after our driver left and kept acting like that for the whole afternoon. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but I think she just did not know how to deal with being defeated. “We managed to get most of the work done today, so I suppose we are allowed to have a break like that.”

A chance like that only came once; it was only obvious Megumi would bite.

“Isn’t it a commoner-exclusive activity, to eat ramen in stands and stuff?”

You’d think Rin would fluster, react with a disguised bad mannered answer or give us some odd line that would eventually reveal itself as having a deep meaning, being a reflection of her past or something like that.

“Rich people eat too.”

After that disappointingly mundane reply we locked the door and left, and with that my story with that unusual band started.

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