Introductory Chapter 1
16 days until the show
The next day, Thursday, after school…
The Light Music Club was gathered in Music Room #2.
“This is Kazusa Touma, our new member. I guess you already know her, but…”
“…No way,” Takeya said, seeming half-amazed. “Haruki… You’ve finally surpassed me…”
“No, that’s not…”
Was that all he ever thought about? …Probably. Considering his reason for not coming to see the Ogiso family the day before.
“Um, Touma, this is Takeya Iizuka, our club chief. I guess you already know him, but…”
Touma’s face was blank.
“H-Hey. Good to have you here.”
Then she glared at him.
Takeya slowly took a few steps back. Evidently, he still wasn’t sure how to handle her. …This was not a promising start.
“Well, anyway, we have our full lineup now, so let’s make this happen.”
“Full lineup? Kitahara… Did you even hear what I said yesterday?”
Touma turned her glare on me. I wished she wouldn’t make that face—Takeya would just get spooked again.
“Well, er, maybe not a full lineup, but we’ve managed to gain another member, and that’s something. We should celebrate that.”
“Oh? You’re saying we have time to celebrate? I assume that means you’ve got leads for our bass player and drummer.”
No, I didn’t.
Our first “lead,” Touma, had taken a week to convince.
With just over two weeks remaining, things were looking extremely tight.
“Touma-san, haven’t we talked about that already?”
“I know. I just want to have the full picture of the situation. If the plan is to perform at the school festival, we’re in a tight spot. Just to be clear, our goal is to put on a successful show. Yes?”
Takeya didn’t answer, trembling slightly. Pitiful…
“All right. Then let me say this. Supposing we can’t hope for new members, doing a show with our current formation will be impossible. We could do a less successful show, maybe, but that would miss the goal. Yes?”
“Impossible…? I guess…”
“I feel like we should be able to do something with four people…”
Ogiso was right. We had gone to so much trouble to pull this group together.
“Kitahara, Ogiso, you’re each half-right.”
“With this formation, the show will be impossible. However, it might not be impossible with our current members.”
“What does that mean? Oh, should I play the triangle?”
“That won’t be necessary… But it’s along those lines. Hey, chief.”
“Huh? O-Oh, how may I help you?”
Evidently, Takeya had been spooked into politeness.
“Can you play the bass?”
At this question, every one of us, apart from Kazusa, blinked questioningly.
“Bass? Oh, um, well, I messed around with it a bit before I started the guitar…”
“You’re on bass from now on, then. Get your old sense of it back as quickly as possible.”
She glared at him again, making him flinch.
“W-Wait, Touma, why are we changing instruments at this point?!”
“If you’re serious about this, it’s our only option. He’s got experience, there shouldn’t be any problem. You and Ogiso can stick to what you’re doing, of course. And… I’ll handle the drums.”
“What…” Touma’s proposal seemed to come out of nowhere, catching me off guard. “Wh-Why?”
“Guitar, bass, drums. It can vary depending on the song, but if you want to have a proper band, these three are indispensable. Yes, having two guitars can change the gravity of the sound—which can help to cover up a lot, but without a bass, you can’t keep rhythm.”
“Good point,” muttered Takeya, in a faltering voice.
“The keyboard gives greater breadth to the performance, and bolsters the melody significantly. But that’s a final addition, once all of the necessary components have been gathered. Drums lay the foundation for everything, so without them, the sound turns unstable and unpleasant. Once you’re onstage, all of that will be abundantly clear.”
“Do you have an objection, Kitahara? You look dissatisfied.”
“Not dissatisfied, exactly… You’re probably right, Touma, I just… I was hoping you would play the keyboard, that’s all.”
“Kitahara-kun, you’re a big fan of Touma-san’s piano playing, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“…Gross. You could have said ‘no.’”
Touma huffed and looked away. You would think she would appreciate a compliment… She must just dislike me personally.
“Anyway, this is how we’re doing it. And you’ll do everything I say, yes?”
“…Yes. That’s what we agreed.”
I didn’t really have any other choice.
I wanted the show to be a success, Touma’s intentions were absolute, and we did need a bass and drums.
But, on a personal level… I really had wanted Touma to play the keyboards.
Her piano playing was what I had been hearing this whole time.
So many times, as we played these sessions to either side of this wall, I had dreamed of what it would be like, sharing a stage with that piano sound…
As if she had read my thoughts, Touma muttered, “Well, if you find someone else to play drums, I’ll play the keyboard.”
“Ugh, stop shouting. How many times do I have to remind you that your chances of finding someone are zero?”
That was fair.
But… Drums, huh. I doubted we could get Ogiso to learn how to play.
“Anyway, we’re out of time as it is, so let’s get to work. Chief, there’s a bass right over there. Use it.”
“Ah, y-yeah. …Hey, Touma.”
Takeya continued to flinch as he spoke.
“Um… Do people use… synths, for this kind of thing?”
“…Synths?” Ogiso tilted her head.
The same idea seemed to have struck me and Touma at the same time.
Synthesizers, of course… That was an option.
“I’ve programmed stuff before. I have the software on my computer.”
Touma appeared to be pondering something, a look of realization on her face.
“What? What are you talking about?”
Setsuna still had a questioning look, so I explained.
“Er, to put it simply, it’s a way of recording your performance in advance. You play it back during the show itself. Since you can record any instrument, you can easily fill in any gaps…!”
“Recording… Yes, maybe.”
“It’s not exactly just recording everything as it is. Strictly speaking, it’s still a live performance. It’s just a machine reading the score, rather than a person.”
An automated performance, essentially.
It felt a little bit like cheating, but it was a good idea… There was just one problem.
“Takeya, will you be able to do it in time?”
Programming took a good deal of time and work. It would have been one thing during summer break, but we had school going on now… And, if we took too much time for that, we might not have enough left over to practice our actual performance.
“Yeah, about that. I’m thinking I might just work behind the scenes for this show.”
“You mean… not actually play onstage?”
Takeya? The one who wanted all eyes on him, constantly?
“I’ve actually been thinking about this a bit ever since you brought Setsuna-chan in, Haruki. Wondering whether there was anything I could do to help the show happen. Since… the initial split-up was my fault, anyway,” he added, with a self-deprecating laugh. “So, I figured I might handle the synths… What do you think, Touma?”
“Well, you’re the chief. If that’s what you want, do it. It would get things into shape…” Touma muttered.
“Are you serious, Takeya? You can actually play the guitar. Why don’t I handle things behind the scenes—”
For some reason, Touma and Ogiso both whipped around to look at me. What? Why?
“No, no,” Takeya sighed. “If we let you do the programming, it could take forever, for all we know. That kind of tedious work isn’t really my thing, but if it’s what’s best for the Light Music Club, I’ll do it.”
“Takeya… You know, you’re actually kind of cool today…!”
“C’mon, Haruki, I’m always cool. More importantly, this means Touma can play the keyboard.”
Takeya gave a satisfied smile. He was right. We could program the drums in. In other words, Touma would be able to fight fully on her own field.
I clenched my fists tightly.
I’d done it. I’d done it!
Now things were really going to happen.
I was going to be able to play together with Touma’s piano… with the “neighbor” I’d played with so many times.
And, on top of that, we had a fantastic vocalist—Ogiso.
Sure, we had barely any time before the show.
But we would do it. We could realize this final hurrah of our high school careers.
We had made it this far through miracle after miracle. With this momentum, we ought to be able to dash to the finish.
As I suppressed the urge to scream, Ogiso beamed at me and said, “We can do this, right?”
“…Yeah. Yeah, we can!”
I smiled back, just short of yelling.
This was because Ogiso had believed in me, because she had worked so hard.
All of it was thanks to Ogiso—but I was too embarrassed to say that outright, so I just smiled, with a heart full of gratitude.
“All right. Now we have to decide what we’re going to play.”
Touma’s words brought my attention to the next matter.
“Kitahara, how long is our time slot for the show?”
“Twenty minutes. That includes setup and tuning.”
“That should fit about two songs, then… We can’t get greedy.”
“Two songs, huh. Well, we’ve already got one of them decided, right?”
Ogiso smiled. Decided? I tilted my head, questioningly, but then—
“Since Touma-san didn’t play along with us yesterday.”
At that moment, it hit me.
Touma and I reacted in unison, and Ogiso smiled again.
Now that she mentioned it, there was no reason for us not to play it.
That all-important song that connected the three of us.
“Huh? What? I feel like I’m out of the loop here.”
At the blank look on Takeya’s face, the three of us couldn’t help laughing. Even Touma let out an amused “Heh.”
“…Ah.” From the look on Takeya’s face when he heard the title, this explained everything. “I guess it’s the only song Haruki can play decently. I mean, barely, but.”
“Oh, sorry for barely being able to play.”
I couldn’t even deny that, which was the worst part.
“Will that work for you, Iizuka-kun?”
“Oh, yeah, of course. You said you want to do it, Setsuna-chan. How could I turn it down? For you, I’ll program any—”
“Y-Yes, that will work for me…”
Takeya deflated, his flinching resumed.
“…That could definitely be a good song choice. Setsuna-chan’s voice suits the vibe. It’s a little old, but it’s classic, so I bet everyone there will know it.”
“Great. That’s our first song, settled.”
“Okay. We’ll go from ‘White Album.’ Once we can play that, we’ll think about the second song. Ogiso…”
Touma turned in Ogiso’s direction.
“I heard more of your singing than I ever needed the other day, but I want to hear it again. I’ll play the piano along with you.”
Ogiso nodded, and Touma sat down at the piano.
“Oh, hang on. I’ll get ready.”
I hurriedly pulled out the guitar.
“No, you don’t need to play along. Don’t interrupt.”
Touma didn’t look at me as she spoke.
“You’re too crummy to join yet. The room next door is free today. You can go practice in there.”
“Wh-Why are we splitting up all of a sudden…?”
After we had brought everyone together like this…
Touma gave a small shake of her head, as though she had read my thoughts.
“A band where the guitar is the weakest link…”
“Okay, fine, just watch me. I’ll play for ten hours a day!”
“Well, yeah. That’s the standard.”
I felt like crying.
“…I guess I’ll head home and pull the synth out of my closet,” Takeya said, clapping me on the shoulder.
“I have a synth at my house that’s easy to use. I can send you the equipment.”
“Oh, could you? Mine is falling apart.”
I gave another look at our members.
Ogiso, who was already doing vocal exercises.
Touma, who was clacking her nails on the keyboard, and Takeya, who was talking with her about synths.
The Light Music Club had been on the cusp of ending, but now, it was coming alive.
I made up my mind to give it everything I had.
If I did everything I could, miracles would come after.
The three of them all looked at me, as though there were something on my face.
“Oh, no, nothing. …Let’s do this!”
At this out-of-character exclamation, Touma snorted, and Takeya remarked, “You’ve got the most work to do out of any of us.”
But Ogiso simply said, “All right!”, and that was encouragement enough for me to pick up the guitar and head to the next room over.
Piece of: Setsuna
“… … …”
As the song ended, Kazusa stopped playing and gave a small nod.
“Phew… You really are amazing at the piano, Touma-san.”
“…Eh. This is normal,” Kazusa mumbled. Setsuna couldn’t help but smile.
“I think a lot of people would feel pretty bad about themselves if that were considered ‘normal.’”
“What about you? How did you develop that? It’s hard to believe you could sing like that without any voice training…”
“Well, as you are aware, Touma-san, I am very fond of karaoke.”
“Yeah, you do way too much of it. I guess that’s a godsend in this situation, though.”
“…Hey, tell me honestly, what do you think of my voice?”
Though it made her anxious, she had to ask.
“Well, for an amateur, it’s very good. There are a few things I could teach you, but two weeks should be enough. You’ll be able to go onstage without any problems.”
“Really? Oh, I’m so glad!”
Setsuna was genuinely thrilled to receive this seal of approval.
She knew how nice it felt to have her singing voice praised. One person had already done it.
But with this co-signing by such an expert advisor, a feeling of reassurance joined that happiness.
The relief of knowing that, if she worked at it, she could use her voice to help him.
“Thank you for deciding to play the keyboard for us, Touma-san. Kitahara-kun seemed thrilled, didn’t he?”
“It’s for the band, not him. I’m better at playing the drums than most people, too.”
“It’s not about that.”
“…Hmph. I don’t care about his opinions.”
Kazusa scowled and looked away, causing Setsuna to sigh yet again.
Why did she have to be so stubborn?
“But, wow, I never knew we could program stuff!”
“Really, it’s basically cheating. But it’s what we’ve got. Our lineup is too lopsided to play everything ourselves. On top of that, you need bass and drums for ‘White Album,’ not to mention a saxophone.”
At that moment, it finally hit Setsuna. The saxophone played a prominent role in “White Album,” in the middle and at the end. It leapt out from the main melody, soaring, swelling, adding new color to the whole song.
“That saxophone part is really nice…”
“It has to be there, to make it work. We can cover that with the synth, too, though.”
“Whether it goes well depends on your club chief’s speed and accuracy in programming. If worst comes to worst… I guess you could do it like a folk song, like I mentioned, with just guitar and singing. You wouldn’t have me there, though.”
“Ahaha. …By the way, Touma-san, when will we be able to rehearse with Kitahara-kun?”
“Oh, good question…”
Kazusa opened the window, and the sound of his guitar drifted in on the breeze.
“…There’s still far to go.”
Setsuna forced a smile, feeling faintly anxious.
There was so little time left… Would they be able to pull it together?
She shook her head.
He would be able to do it. She knew he would.
Because she believed in him.
“…Dammit, I almost made it through with no mistakes that time…”
While the girls in the next room over were having their one-on-one, I was applying myself to my guitar practice on my own.
To start, I had to get to a point where I could play along with them. …Was I even going to be able to manage that?
“No, come on… This is no time to wimp out.”
There was no room to stew in anxiety. All that I could do was move forward—I, and my pick.
In the time that I spent grappling with the strings, it became completely dark outside. This was November—the days were short. When Ogiso poked her head in to suggest we get going, it was past eight p.m.
The three of us departed the school, the teacher on patrol scolding us for sticking around so long.
Ogiso chattered happily about this and that (wasn’t her throat sore?), and as I nodded along, I suddenly realized the unusual position I was in. I was leaving school with Setsuna Ogiso, Miss Houjou High School, and Kazusa Touma, the aloof beauty. If any other students had seen us, they would probably have thought, “What’s someone like that doing with them?” …It was just a perk.
Ogiso was walking home, so we split off from her at the station, leaving me and Touma alone.
What happened to the conversation from moments before? The only sounds to be heard were the dull thundering of the trains and the chatter of the passengers. Um… Why was I so nervous? Because we hadn’t talked one-on-one since Saturday? It finally hit me that Ogiso had been handling most of the talking.
“Um, so, what do you think of Ogiso’s vocals?”
In the end, I decided to bring Ogiso herself in as my topic. I realized that I hadn’t actually asked Touma for her impressions yet.
“…Decent, for an amateur. Should be good enough to bluff for the kinds of people who’ll show up at the festival show.”
Good. Inviting Ogiso in hadn’t been a mistake.
“Yeah, I think she’s amazing—I guess I said that already. The vocalist is the face of the band, and I feel good relying on her.”
“…Kitahara. You think you have time to concern yourself about other people?”
Touma spoke coldly and bluntly, as if to say, “And the guitar isn’t the face of the band?” I curled up on myself pitifully.
“The point is, practice. Play through it, review any and all points where you get stuck, then play through again. When you take a break from that, practice your scales. At your level, it would honestly be ideal for you to skip school and practice twenty-four hours a day.”
She didn’t seem to be joking in the least. I slumped again.
“Well, the next time I can use the music room again is Tuesday. Until then, I’ll stay at home with my headphones on, and play for ten hours a day, like I said.”
Still, only being able to use Music Room #1 on Tuesdays and Thursdays was rough.
“Hm… It would be best to get you playing with us as soon as possible, though.”
“Right. I’m going to work at it so that I can join in as soon as I can. If things are looking promising for Ogiso, I hope you’ll help me out, too.”
I had already experienced Touma’s strength as a leader, that single day over summer break.
“…I would very much like to do that, but improving vocals is best done one-on-one. It wouldn’t be soon.”
“Ah, okay. I guess you know best.”
Of course, the vocals were what would stand out the most—but, though I might say that out loud, internally I felt pretty dejected.
I hadn’t received any direct coaching from Touma since that day in the summer. I had been hoping a bit that it could happen again.
“The train is arriving at Iwazu-cho. Iwazu-cho.”
With all of that, the train slid into Touma’s station.
“Yeah, see you. Tomorrow’s another day!”
After alighting on the platform, Touma turned back to look at me.
“Kitahara—you’ll improve more quickly if you’re playing with someone, rather than alone…”
She seemed to be struggling with saying this—maybe she was feeling bad for prioritizing Ogiso over me, trying to consider my feelings.
So, I did my best to act completely unconcerned.
“Maybe so. But Ogiso comes first, right? If the vocals are outstanding, no one will notice if the guitar isn’t that great. Not that I’m going to slack off or anything, haha.”
Had that been the wrong thing to say?
“L-Look, Kitahara. If… Um, if you’re… This w-weeke—”
What was she mumbling over? The “doors closing” announcement made it even harder to hear anything.
“What was that? Tell me, the doors are closing!”
“…N-Never mind! Just practice twenty-four hours a day! Do better!”
After snapping this order, Touma quickly walked away. The doors closed, and a literal distance opened up between us.
I had thought she was being careful with me, but apparently it had been the opposite.
She had been bright red in the face, too. Was she that angry?
I knew she wasn’t that fond of me, but… Were we doomed never to get along?
As the train clattered along, I looked out the window.
Little white dots of light from residential neighborhoods appeared in the darkness.
Somewhere out there, Touma’s black hair was rustling in the night breeze.
It would probably be a little while yet before the snow fell.