Bridging the Gap

by Beaple Leone Michaelmas

Summary:

Four years after a messy breakup, Tsukimori Len and Hino Kahoko are living separate lives. He's an international superstar in the classical music scene; she's the current darling of the Japanese media. By mutual consent, they've agreed to stay out of each other's business, and the deal carries on splendidly until a girl called Erika comes along. Childish and narrow-minded, but altogether impossible to like, she hatches a crazy plan that ends up turning Len and Kahoko's otherwise normal lives completely and irrevocably upside down. Warning: Insanity Inside.

Chapter One: Finger Auditions

A/N:

Honestly, the original version of this story – the first eight chapters of which have already been written – was much crazier than the one I'm planning to write. I didn't pursue that plot because it was getting too insane. Not that this one isn't crazy, too, of course.

Disclaimer:

I do not own La Corda d'Oro; the whole concept belongs to Kure Yuki-sensei. Also, please note references made to Ninomiya Tomoko-sensei's Nodame Cantabile; none of them belong to me.

Chapter One: Finger Auditions

"Dame desu," Hihara Kazuki said after seeing the expression on Hino Kahoko's face. "I'm very sorry, Eiji-san, but she's not the right pianist to play Karina."

Eiji-san, white-haired and wrinkled but with tattooed eyebrows and one fanged earring, massaged his temples and inhaled deeply.

"Hino-san, kindly enlighten me," he said, cracking a strained smile at the redhead sitting before him. "Just what was wrong with the pianists we auditioned? All of them are top students from Japan's best music schools; one was the champion of the last Maradonna competition! [1] What on Earth are we looking for?" he hollered, flinging the documents in his hand to the floor of the studio.

"Hakuba!" he barked suddenly, causing his pimply young assistant to jump. "How many girls have we auditioned so far?"

"T-t-twenty three, Eiji-sama."

"And how many are left on the waiting list?"

"J-j-just one more, Eiji-sama."

"Then!" Eiji-san turned to Kahoko, his face red, a vein throbbing on his neck. "If this last person does not meet your standards, I will override your casting prerogative, and I will handpick Karina's fingers myself!"

Muttering to himself, Eiji-san settled back into his seat as Hakuba quickly scampered out of the room to fetch the next girl to audition. Seeing the mess she was causing, Kahoko sighed.

"Kaho-chan," Hihara said from her left, "don't back down to Eiji-san. I'm sure he won't override your choice as musical director. He knows you're the best person for the job."

"Kazuki's right, Kaho-chan," Mio said from her other side. "There's no one else who can do this better than you can. But..." she broke off, her eyebrows furrowing, "don't you think you're being a bit too selective about your choices? All the pianists who came to audition today were very talented. I particularly liked the last performer-"

Kahoko shook her head stubbornly. "They all had perfect technique, that's true. But remember Karina's character isn't supposed to be technique-oriented; she's someone who plays purely from the heart. One of the women who auditioned earlier played close to how I imagined Karina's piano, but…" Kahoko bit her lip. "Her fingers didn't look right."

Hihara groaned as Mio sighed. Kahoko flinched inwardly. It wasn't her fault that Hitsugaya Aki, the actress who was cast for the role of Karina, had fair complexion and a petite frame while Auditionee #15 had big, chubby fingers attached to brown, callused palms. [2] If she was going to look for the right pianist to bring to life Karina's music, Kahoko was determined not to compromise.

"Please stand over here."

Hakuba had returned, leading the last girl to face the casting crew. She was an exceptionally pretty woman; even through thick, dark-rimmed glasses, her emerald green eyes sparkled with intelligence, and her long lashes enhanced the effect of her steady gaze. Her dark brown hair, however, was wrapped in a messy bun that rested on the back of her head, and her plain clothes did nothing to improve her appearance.

Slightly perturbed, Kahoko took a quick look at the girl's fingers – they were all that mattered. She was pleased to see that the auditionee's fingers were long, delicate, and altogether strikingly elegant. Despite herself, Kahoko felt hope blossom up inside her. Perhaps this girl would be the one…

"Introduce yourself," Eiji-san commanded curtly.

"Hai," the girl promptly answered. "Hajimemashite, Hondou Erika desu," she said with a deep bow. "I am a fresh graduate from the Momogaoka College of Music, [1] majoring in piano. Although I have not entered any music competitions, I am well-experienced in playing for large audiences due to the nature of my work as a performing artist. My influences include Chopin and Mozart, among others, and-"

"That's enough detail, thank you," Eiji-san interrupted cooly. "What will you play for us today?"

"An original composition, Sir," Hondou said without missing a beat. "A piano sonata entitled Snowy Mountain."

Eiji-san could hardly conceal his grin. "You're a brave one," he commented. "The first of twenty-four girls to play an original piece. Let's hear it then," he said, snuggling into his seat.

With another deep bow, Hondou Erika proceeded to the grand piano standing in the middle of the studio. For a few moments, she merely stared at the black and white keys, as though recalling something far beyond them. As those elegant, white fingers rose to touch the keyboard, Kahoko felt her breath catch in her throat…

And then the melody. Starting soft and fluid like a cold, windy evening. The keys responding to her gentle touch, creating a symphony so serene and calming, that everyone present in the room ceased breathing for a few heartbeats. Each note seemed to express a kind of suppressed emotion from the pianist, the sounds blending into one harmony that echoed a strangely familiar yet long-forgotten story…

The piece picked up speed and the notes began to collide. Anguish, sheer anguish, was evident from the sounds her fingers made, her desperation evident in the way her music rankled the hearts of everyone who heard it. She was playing passionately, her fingers working frantically, and yet her touch remained gentle such that the melody produced turned out to be one of pain, not anger nor madness. And with a few staccato sounds… the narration ended. All that was left was a girl before a piano, her eyes glazed over with painful recollections she herself had committed to memory by sonata…

The silence that followed her performance was proof that her music was exquisite. Then-

"Bravo," Eiji-san called out in a quaking voice, his hands clapping irregularly. "Bravo!"

Kahoko felt herself snap back to reality. Eiji-san was shaking the hand of a sheepish Hondou Erika; apparently, the director had decided to hire her whether the musical director approved or not. Hihara seemed to be thinking along the same lines, for beside Kahoko, he sat stock still, face straight ahead, murmuring to himself, "That was… amazing."

"It was wonderful, wasn't it, Kaho-chan?" Mio said enthusiastically, grasping her hand. Upon seeing her friend's face, however, Mio's smile disappeared. "Kaho-chan? Why are you crying?"

Kahoko started. She hadn't realized she had done such a thing. Slowly raising her fingers to face, she felt that her cheeks were indeed moist; she had cried unknowingly.

"Aaaaah, it's nothing, Mio," Kahoko assured her friend with forced cheerfulness. She wiped her tears away and gave Mio a glowing smile. "I guess Hondou-san's music just moved me."

Satisfied with this answer, Mio patted Kahoko's hands before rising to join the crowd that had gathered around Hondou Erika. To her left, however, Hihara Kazuki was looking at her with worried eyes. Obviously, he did not buy her explanation.

"There's no need to look so worried, Kazuki," Kahoko assured him playfully. "I'm fine, okay? It's just been a long time since I heard something like that..." Seeing that Hihara was about to argue, Kahoko added, "W-well, don't you think we should meet Hondou-san?" Hastily, she repeated Mio's movements, albeit dazedly.

As she stood amongst the crowd before Hondou Erika, Kahoko found herself thinking why she had been so affected by the other woman's music. Certainly, it was because of her elegant piano, rich both in technique and emotion. Perhaps the bigger factor for the emotion Kahoko felt, however, was the sonata itself: the composition was one of pain and love and… something that could never be? She didn't know how the others felt about the piece, but to Kahoko, it was a force that plunged her into memories that hurt too much to dwell on…

She started when she heard her name.

"… musical director, Hino Kahoko, will brief you regarding the effect we want to create for this movie," Eiji-san was telling Erika. "In the meantime, I want you to grasp the mood that should envelop Karina's character: her past, her hopes, her dreams, her personality – things like that. Contract signing will be two weeks from now; our executive producer is being fickle about her choice of actors." Eiji-san sighed. "If you have any questions, feel free to ask me or my assistant, Hakuba. I look forward to hearing more from you," Eiji-san finished, gracing Erika with a rare smile. As his boss glided out of the room with a brief nod at Kahoko, Hakuba nervously told everyone to, "P-p-pack up!"

Kahoko approached Hondou Erika, who looked a bit lost as the rest of the crew began moving things around the room.

"Hondou-san, hajimemashite. Hino Kahoko desu," Kahoko said with a small smile and an offered hand. "Your piano is… wonderful."

Erika smiled widely, making her look prettier than ever. "Hino-san, I'm honored that you think so," she said humbly, shaking Kahoko's hand. "I heard your work for Wanted Perfect Orchestra and Loop Continuum; they were really 'out of this world'. [3]"

"Your piece was wonderful, too," Kahoko said appreciatively. "I was deeply moved by it, the way it…" Kahoko bit her lip. This would sound insane, but…

"It seemed to be addressed especially to someone who's important to you," she said slowly, carefully weighing her words. "As if you want that person to hear what you have to say, but you can't… express yourself properly…?"

Erika blanched. "How did you-?"

"Hondou-san," Mio interrupted suddenly, bounding towards the two with a sheaf of papers in her arms. "I've been tasked to fill you in on the story of Shattered Symphony; that's the working title of the film. I have the entire script right here, but if you want me to narrate it to you-"

"Ah, yes, please do narrate it to me," Erika said distractedly, stealing a glance at Kahoko.

"Well then-"

Mio cleared her throat importantly and began:

Once upon a time, there were two children named Karina and Toushirou. They lived in the same town, and they went to the same piano school. She was the granddaughter of a caretaker of one of their city's temples, and he was the only son of a slightly obsessive single parent. Because they were the most gifted students in their piano school, most people considered them as rivals. Karina and Toushirou, however, thought of each other as best friends, and even at such a young age, they knew that they were in love with each other.

"Wait," Erika interrupted, holding a hand up. "Just how old are these kids?"

"10-ish," Kahoko supplied in an undertone. "I know it sounds cheesy, but wait for it-"

"Can you please not interrupt me!"

As I've said, they were secretly in love with each other. To the outside world, however, they were only rivals. He had better technique, but she eclipsed him in emotion. In a way, they were equals, and this worried Toushirou's mother greatly because she wanted him to be the best.

One day, there was talk that the world-renowned pianist Tsuburaya Ginta was visiting their town in search of a protégé. There was great excitement among the students and teachers of Karina and Toushirou's piano school, and there were lots of speculations regarding who would be chosen to train under Sensei Tsuburaya. The general opinion was that Karina would be chosen because her lack of technique would be easier to remedy compared to Toushirou's lack of passion, and when Toushirou's mother heard this, she became very agitated.

On the night before the children were to meet the Sensei, Toushirou and Karina met in their secret hiding place, beside a river that ran through their town. That night, Toushirou confessed his true feelings for Karina, because he heard the same rumors his mother did. Instead of feeling threatened that Karina was going to be the Sensei's pupil, however, he felt depressed at the thought that he might never see her again. He asked her to remember him even after she had gone to France to study music, in case someday, there were to meet once more. Karina, after admitting her true feelings as well, asked the same thing from Toushirou – that if he was the one chosen by the Sensei, even though they were separated, he must never forget about her…

However, on her way to the piano school the next day, Karina was kidnapped by Toushirou's mother and taken away to a nearby town. In reality, she didn't want to harm the kid; she just wanted Karina to be out of the way until Sensei Tsuburaya chose Toushirou. It wasn't simply that she wanted him to win; she just thought it was the best way to secure his future. So she did everything she could to protect him.

Karina, however, thought the mother was acting irrationally, and so, while Toushirou's mother was not looking, the little girl ran away. Toushirou's mother ran after her, but it was too late: Karina had been run over by a speeding car. Horrified at what she had caused, Toushirou's mother drove back home, not bothering to approach the scene of the crime. At that point, Sensei Tsuburaya had chosen Toushirou as his next protégé, but he and the rest of the piano school were worried about what had happened to Karina. When her grandfather found out that she was missing, he had a heart attack and died.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the driver of the car that hit Karina wasYumi, a juvenile delinquent who ran away from home. Her current boyfriend had been teaching her how to drive, but then she ran over a little kid. Scared, and abandoned by her boyfriend, Yumi took the body home to her family. Upon closer inspection, her father realized that the girl was still alive, so they decided to nurse her back to health. Meanwhile, they searched for a little girl who might be missing in the vicinity, but they didn't find any.

When Karina finally woke up, she couldn't remember anything. Because the family's search for her true identity was fruitless, they decided to keep her, especially because Yumi and her younger brother Shuichi were growing fond of the stranger. They renamed her Nadeshiko, and from then on they treated her as their own daughter.

Fast forward to ten years later. Nadeshiko is studying at a local university, training to become a teacher, playing piano only as a sideline. Shuichi is now a restaurant owner, and he has come to think of her as more than just a sister. In fact, he loves her, and he supports her in any way he can. So when he sees an ad for an amateur piano competition – meaning no piano majors from music colleges are allowed to join – he encourages her to participate. Under much prodding from the side of Shuichi and her new family, Nadeshiko finally signs up, and this is where the real story starts.

See, the competition is a newly founded event in memory of Sensei Tsuburaya, who passed away recently. Given the nature of the competition, Toushirou was, of course, asked to be one of the judges. He was now a famous international musician, but still, he never forgot his promise to Karina, many many years ago, and he never stopped thinking of her. So when he takes his post in the panel of judges and sees a girl who looks exactly like Karina, and plays exactly like Karina, he is shocked, and he confronts her about her identity. Shuichi, being distrustful, tells him that she is his sister, and because Karina is confused, she agrees and says that she is indeed Nadeshiko. So the conflict is: What will happen to Karina and Toushirou's promise?

Erika was thoughtful for a few moments, ignoring the fact that Mio was expecting some sort of reaction. "You know, technically, Toushirou did keep his end of the promise because he never forgot about her. Ending up with each other wasn't really part of the deal, actually."

"That's not the point!" Mio said, frustrated. "The ultimate question of the movie is whether they'll end up with each other! First love never dies and all that!"

"Mio, don't get so worked up," Kahoko warned. "I think Hondou-san is just trying to view the story from a logical perspective-"

"You can't treat love with logic-!"

"Gomenasai, Hondou-san," Kahoko said, turning to Erika desperately. "Mio wrote this story so she gets very depressed when people don't appreciate it-"

"It's not that I don't appreciate it," Erika negated. "I just think it's a bit melodramatic, that's all. And highly improbable, for that matter. But if it's drama you want," she said to Mio, "this movie certainly has all the makings of a good tearjerker."

"You really mean that?" Mio asked, eyes glistening.

Erika nodded, smiling. "I think childhood memories always bring out bittersweet emotions in people. Not to mention, both guys care deeply for Karina, so it's going to be really difficult for her to choose… On one hand, there's the person she's loved since she was younger, but on the other hand, there's someone who's always been there and will always be there for her."

At this point, Erika's mood shifted suddenly, her eyes shadowed in sadness. "I'm sure it's going to be very tough for her to decide which one she really wants to be with. But her indecision isn't good for any of them… The sooner she decides, the less painful it will be for all of them involved."

Mio and Kahoko looked at each other. It certainly seemed as though Erika was talking about a very personal matter…

"Hondou-san…"

"Kaho-chan, Mio-chan!" Hihara Kazuki came bounding over to the three of them, distracting Mio and Kahoko and jolting Erika back to reality. "Mimiko-san let me off early today. Shall we go to Nami-chan's party then?"

"Oh yeah…"

Amou Nami had recently been accepted as an entertainment correspondent at a primetime talk show. Having dreamed of holding said position for a very long time, Nami thought of throwing a party for her closest friends just to celebrate her promotion.

"I guess we should get going," Kahoko said, after checking her watch.

"I think you guys should go ahead," Mio told them, scratching her nose. "I promised Nami I would give her a gift if she got promoted, but with all the commotion that the movie casting caused… I kind of forgot to get her something."

"We can help you pick out a gift for Nami-"

"No, Kaho-chan," Mio interrupted, shaking her head. "You should go ahead. Nami will have a fit if she thinks we've deserted her or something…"

"But-"

"I'll see you later then!"

With a small wave, Mio rushed out of the studio without a backward glance. Frowning, Kahoko watched her friend's retreating back. Although Mio had given a perfectly reasonable excuse, Kahoko couldn't help thinking that this was another mad "Kahuki" matchmaking plan.

"Shall we go then, Kaho-chan?" Hihara smiled at Kahoko, face shining with hope.

"Actually, I…"

Seeing Erika looking curiously between the two of them, Kahoko was instantly struck with a brilliant idea.

"I wanted to invite Hondou-san, as well," she chirped happily. Turning to Erika with a smile, she said, "How would you like to go to the party with us, Hondou-san? I'm sure you'll have fun!"

"Oh, but…" Erika looked hesitant. "Are you sure it's all right? I don't even know the host-"

"Don't worry," Kahoko said, waving Erika's excuse aside. "Nami loves meeting new people; I'm sure she won't mind our inviting you."

"Well then… thank you," Erika accepted, smiling graciously. "I'd really love to go with you. I never did go out much when I was in college…"

"That's such a shame!" Kahoko said, linking her arm with Erika's while trying to ignore the fact that a certain green-haired model had just sighed deeply. "Pretty girls like you shouldn't stay cooped up in their houses – you should live a little more!"

"That's what a friend of mine used to say," Erika said, grinning as the two women walked arm-in-arm towards the studio exit. "I can't imagine what he'll think when he sees me right now!" she added, laughing.

Even her laugh is pretty!

"Kaho-chan, wait!" Hihara called out from behind them. "Don't go out!"

"What? Why?" Kahoko asked, bewildered. She and Erika had already stepped out of the studio and into a marble hallway, both of their faces turned towards Hihara, who was wearing a nervous expression. "What's wrong, Kazuki?"

"I think I see-"

"Hizuki-san! Hino-san! What can you say about this upcoming movie?"

Whirling around, Kahoko saw a swarm of paparazzi gathering around her and Erika, popping out of nowhere. As they formed a closed circle around her and Erika, Kahoko felt for the other woman's hand; surely it was her who they were after.

"Hello, Miss," one reporter said to Erika, a camera flashing behind him. "Are you one of the new actresses for this new film? What role will you be playing? What kind of movie will this be? Who are your co-actors? What does it feel like to be working alongside the world-renowned director, Eiji-san?"

"Actually, it's not really like that," Erika started to explain. "I'm just-"

"Hi there!" Hihara greeted, jumping into the middle of the circle. Standing in front of Erika and Kahoko, he addressed the reporters by saying, "As of this moment, we're not authorized to release any information about the movie yet, not until our producer gives the final say-so. I can assure all of you, however, that this is going to be a one-of-a-kind movie, and arguably the most interesting one I've ever worked on so far."

Hihara's timely action did the trick. Instantly, the spotlight focused on him instead, as though completely forgetting that Kahoko and Erika were standing right behind him.

"Hizuki-san, what role will you be playing in this movie-?"

"Hizuki-san, how has winning the Youth Vote Awards [3] for Best Actor changed your life-?"

"Hizuki-san, is it true you're good friends with Tsuchiura Ryoutaro-?"

"I'll handle things here," Hihara whispered to Kahoko and Erika. "You two go ahead. I'll meet you in the parking lot. I brought the green vintage today," he added to Kahoko.

"All right," she confirmed, nodding. "Thank you, Kazuki."

Giving her a small wink, Hihara turned back to the press and, with a smile, began to speak.

"In response to your question, Shiina-san, like I said, I can't reveal anything about the movie yet. Definitely, I'll be portraying a very different character from the ones I've played before… but I can't say anything about it until we do the contract signing-"

As the media listened attentively to what Hihara was saying, Erika and Kahoko extricated themselves from the crowd. A few of the reporters tried to glean a bit of information from them as they left, but Kahoko, who had a little experience with situations like this, merely kept walking straight ahead, keeping her eyes downcast.

As they entered the elevator, Kahoko and Erika saw the reporters who had trailed after them take last-minute pictures. As the last of the blinding flashes disappeared behind closing metal doors, Kahoko punched the key for the ground floor, slumped against the cold wall of the elevator, and sighed.

"Thank goodness Kazuki jumped in," she said gratefully. "I wouldn't know how to handle the paparazzi if he wasn't there. Come to think of it," she said, struck by a sudden realization, "they shouldn't even be up here – this is private property!"

"Well, they are the paparazzi, after all," Erika reasoned. "Although I have to admit, Hihara-san seems very familiar with all the attention. He didn't seem unfazed at all."

"You'll be surprised to know how camera-shy he used to be," Kahoko told her, smiling. "After his first CM project, he had a couple of fan girls, and he couldn't accept his new popularity very well. If you told me then that he'd pursue a career in the entertainment industry, I wouldn't believe you at all!"

"You seem to know him very well," Erika noted. "I take it you're good friends?"

"We've known each other since high school, so I do know him well," Kahoko admitted. "He hasn't changed much, actually. He's always been warm and friendly, and always ready to help-"

The elevator suddenly lurched, the lights flickering. And then it stopped completely.

"What happened?" Kahoko asked, straightening up. "Is it a blackout?"

"I suppose," Erika said, looking at the busted lights. "I wonder if it's the whole building…"

"This is bad," Kahoko said, walking over to the buttons on the elevator wall and pressing the one reserved for emergencies. "The emergency button seems busted, too."

"There isn't any signal either," Erika observed after checking her phone. Through the darkness of the boxed room, Kahoko saw her companion glance up. "Do you think we should try climbing up?"

"Like they do in movies?" Kahoko asked. "I don't think we should. We're stuck between the 21st and 22nd floors, so it's difficult to get to either of them. Besides, we're in no immediate danger, so I think we should just wait for someone to realize that we're in here…"

"You're probably right."

Kahoko felt Erika sit on the floor in front of the metal doors. Following suit, Kahoko sat beside her, and together, they spent their first minute of dark isolation in silence.

"So," Erika said, breaking the calm. "Are you and Hihara-san dating?"

"W-what?!" Kahoko asked, shocked. "Where did you get that idea?"

"Oh, I just assumed. While you were talking about him, your eyes seemed so distant, not to mention you had a small smile on your face-"

"That's because we're friends, like I told you," Kahoko countered. It was a good thing it was dark, or Erika would see her face heating up. "He's a really old friend, just like Mio. There's nothing going on between the two of us, honestly-"

"Why are you being so defensive then?" Erika teased. "It's strange that you're reacting this strongly if there's really nothing going on between you two. I personally think you look good together."

Kahoko shook her head. And then she realized Erika could not see her.

"I've always thought of Kazuki as just a friend," she said firmly. "That's all there is to it."

She felt Erika's eyes scanning her expression through the darkness.

"I see…" Erika said after a while. "I take it to mean you're already in love with someone else?"

"WHAT? No, that's not- I'm-!"

"It's okay, Hino-san," Erika said, laughing as she waved down Kahoko's protests. "I'm pretty sure a person like you has a lot of admirers. Am I right?"

"Hondou-san, just where do you get your ideas?" Kahoko said, slumping lower down the wall.

Erika laughed. "So I am right! Hurrah for me!" she cheered, clapping gaily.

"Don't be silly, Hondou-san! I'm not in love with anyone right now!"

"But surely you've been in love before," Erika countered.

"Well, that's-"

"What was he like, your first love?"

Scowling, Kahoko asked, "You ask a lot of questions, don't you?"

"Pleeeease?" Erika pleaded, holding both hands up in front of her. "I promise not to tell anyone. Not even if they threaten me, or pay me, or torture me-"

"All right, all right, pipe down," Kahoko said with a small smile. Her mood shifting suddenly, she took her time before saying, "I've… been in love only once before, back when I was younger. He was this guy from my old high school, and he was quiet and mysterious, and I never really knew much about him because he rarely spoke about what was going on in his mind. He was just so… difficult to read."

She sighed before plodding on.

"He played the violin, and, don't think I'm saying this just because I liked him, he was the best musician in our school. He practiced his violin all the time, and he made such wonderful music that I could go on and on just listening to him play…"

There was silence as Kahoko ceased speaking, apparently wrapped up in her memories.

"What happened then?" Erika asked softly. "Are you guys still together?"

"No, he left for Vienna shortly after we started dating," Kahoko said heavily. "I never saw him after that, but I hope he's happy now."

"Have you ever tried contacting him?"

"I really don't think I should," Kahoko said, smiling faintly. "He's there, and I'm here, and… I guess things are better off this way."

She sighed again, forcibly reminded of him. As she closed her eyes and saw his face materialize in her mind's eye, she realized that even after all his years, the wounds from their relationship still hurt. Wanting to change the topic, she turned to her companion and asked, "How about you, Hondou-san? Are you in love right now?"

"Ah, well…"

"Come on, now, don't be shy," Kahoko teased, taking pleasure in her revenge. "Do you have a boyfriend?"

"Um, it's not like that, really," Erika said sheepishly. "But… I guess I do like someone…"

Taking Kahoko's silence as a sign that she should continue, Erika explained further.

"There's this guy I went to college with," she said slowly. "He's actually very ill-tempered, and at first I honestly didn't like him. I tried to befriend him, but he always so aloof. It even came to the point when he irritated me so much that I gave him a piece of my mind, and told him he was the worst person ever!"

Erika paused, savoring the memory.

"Then one day, my teacher told me I was never going to be a great pianist," she continued. "She said I always played too carelessly, that my interpretations of the pieces I played always reflected too much of my childish character, and they ended up losing their meaning. I was crying alone in one of the classrooms when he found me, and after I told him what was wrong, he just stared."

"But then he said, 'I see where your teacher is coming from; you do seem very half-hearted. If you want to improve your performance, you have to put music at the forefront of your mind. How can you expect people to treat you seriously if you're not serious yourself?'"

To Kahoko's surprise, Erika giggled.

"I was so shocked when he talked to me like that," she reminisced. "I was ready to scream at him for being so insensitive when he suddenly told me to play a piece - any piece. So I played Beethoven's Pathetique, mainly because I felt so pathetic at that time. As I was playing, he didn't interrupt me at all; he just listened. And when I was done, all he said was, "That wasn't so bad." And then he left."

Erika was now hugging her knees, still talking as though lost in thought.

"Since that incident, I began to take a little more interest in him," she said. "First out of curiosity, and then out of the genuine desire to become good friends with him, and then the time came…" Erika paused, hiding her face behind her knees. "I realized I liked him. I love him. And I never want to be parted from him… ever."

Kahoko found herself smiling. The story was oddly familiar.

"You really like him then?" she asked Erika.

Looking up from behind her knees, Erika fixed her eyes on Kahoko's face and nodded.

"Then," Kahoko said, taking the other woman's hand, "be sure to treasure him. A love, once lost, can never be found again."

"Are you speaking based on experience?" Erika teased.

"Hondou-san! I'm trying to be serious here!"

"I know! That's what makes it so funny!"

At that moment, the lights flickered on again, and they heard the sound of the elevator coming back to life. Rising to their feet, they checked to see where they were. The 20th floor.

"We're moving again," observed Kahoko. "I hope Kazuki isn't too worried about us…"

"Ne, Hino-san," Erika said suddenly. Kahoko turned to her curiously. "May I call you by your first name?"

Kahoko smiled. "Sure," she answered.

"Jaa, Kaho-san," Erika said. "You may call me Erika from now on. Or Eri, if you want to…"

"How about Eri-chan?"

"That makes me sound like a kid!"

"Well you are a kid, in more ways than one," Kahoko said, laughing.

Upon reaching the ground floor, the first sight that greeted them as the metal doors opened was a worried Hihara Kazuki, surrounded by lots of people Kahoko didn't know.

"Kaho-chan! Hondou-san!" Kazuki exclaimed the moment he saw them. "Thank goodness you're all right! I'm so sorry we weren't able to get to you much sooner; there was a problem in the power room so they wanted all of us to evacuate. But it's okay now, it turned out to be just a false alarm."

"It's all right, Kazuki," Kahoko said, smiling. "Erika-san and I talked about a lot of things while we were stuck in the elevator. I feel as though I know her well already," she said, and the two girls exchanged smiles. "How long were we trapped inside?"

"About two hours, give or take a few minutes-"

"Two hours?!" Erika exclaimed, disbelief etched on her face. "I didn't think it was that long. Our conversation certainly didn't seem that lengthy…"

"Still, it's the truth," Hihara told them. "The power failure caused such a big commotion because FBC's transmission got affected as well [3]. It appears to be a big loss for the company, and I hear the executives are going to have a conference right now. In fact," Hihara said, looking apologetic, "there are a lot of reporters here right now to cover the commotion. I wish we could take a route other than the one through the lobby but… given the tight security, it's our only choice."

Together, they walked towards the lobby of the FB building. Indeed, there were many reporters loitering in it, supervised by several security guards. Aside from the reporters, there were other people gathered around the lobby as well: stage crew, desk workers, HR personnel, and even a few celebrities. Feeling overwhelmed, Kahoko turned to Hihara and asked, "Has it been like this for 2 hours?"

"Pretty much," Hihara replied. "Although the reporters have become more aggressive now because I hear the bosses are coming. And we have to leave before they do, or we'll never get past that crowd."

"Right. Come on, Eri-chan."

"I'm sorry, Kaho-san," Erika said, smiling apologetically. "I'm afraid I'm a bit tired. I think I'll go home early."

"What?" Kahoko asked, concern preceding her selfish desire not to be left alone with Hihara. "Maybe getting stuck in that elevator was bad for you. Are you claustrophobic?"

"I don't think so," Erika replied. "But I really don't feel well…"

"Let us take you home then," Hihara offered.

"It's okay," Erika said, shaking her head. "You go on ahead. I doubt I have the strength to go through that crowd just yet, so I'll wait here until I'm feeling well enough to go home."

"Oh, but-"

"It's okay, Kaho-san," Erika assured her. "Really, it is."

Kahoko stared at Erika, a frown on her face. Hihara only stared at her, too, until one of the reporters shouted, "They're just a block away. Get ready!"

"That's our cue," Hihara said. "We should head off now."

Kahoko nodded. "You sure you'll be okay, Erika-san?" she asked, eyes filled with concern.

Erika grinned. "Sure! I can take care of myself!"

"Well then… I'll see you soon," Kahoko said with a small wave as she and Hihara began to walk away. Erika waved back, watching the two of them walk past an excited media crowd, camera lights flashing from each direction to capture a photo of Hihara Kazuki leading Hino Kahoko by the hand. With all the fuss, Erika didn't feel the presence of someone standing closely behind her, until he whispered, "Mission accomplished, Ojousama. Do you have any other orders?"

Jumping into the air, Erika forced herself, not without difficulty, to keep her face straight and not to turn around. Moving her lips as little as possible, she said, "Naoto-san, how many times have I told you not to scare me like that?"

"I'm sorry, Ojousama," the man said. "But I thought you didn't want our presence to be conspicuous."

"I suppose that's right," Erika agreed. "You've done well, Naoto-san. Arigatou."

"My pleasure, Ojousama."

Erika kept silent for a moment, watching Kahoko and Hihara walk past the last of the paparazzi and exit through the building's large glass entrance. She frowned unconsciously, sure that somehow, one of them had feelings for the other.

"Is there something wrong, Ojousama?" Naoto-san inquired. "Did you not enjoy your talk with Hino Kahoko-sama?"

"It's not that," Erika whispered in reply. "It's just… she's not anything like I expected her to be."

She was pensive, thinking of all that Kahoko had told her. If she had said the truth, then until now…

"I'll meet you at the konbini three blocks away from here," Erika told Naoto-san. "Thank you again for your hard work."

"Hai, Ojousama."

The man in the black suit and the pretty woman with plain clothes separated ways - he blending into the crowd, she walking through the crowd of reporters to exit via the glass doors. A few cameras flashed in her direction, but generally, she was ignored because she was not a familiar face. As she walked out of the Fujioka Broadcasting Channel Tower and down the pristine white steps, a black limousine stopped before her. Raising her eyes to inspect the car, she made a quick assessment of it, and proceeded to ignore it.

As her feet left the last of the white steps, a driver opened the limousine door and out of it stepped a handsome man in his mid-twenties, with silky, long blue hair and deep, shrewd eyes. It was with these eyes that he fixed a gaze at the woman who was decidedly ignoring his presence, wondering who she was and why she had such an inscrutable expression on her face. Before he could formulate an assumption, however, a soft touch brought him back to reality, as an elegantly-dressed lady with soft brown curls stepped out of the limousine after him, linking her arm with his. Smiling at the woman, Yunoki Azuma covered her small hand with his own, and gently led her up the white steps of the building.

As they walked through the glass doors of FBC Tower, camera flashes blinded them from all directions. Although Yunoki was never one to hate attention, at this moment, he wanted to be free from the spotlight, to have all the interest showered on someone else for once. After all, whatever had he done in his life to merit so much curiosity from the press? He had always done his best not to stand out, hadn't he?

It seemed, however, that his companion was comfortable with their situation. In fact, she merely stood before the press, smiling for the cameras and waving at a few people she knew. Taking her lack of apparent animosity as a good sign to ask a question, one of the reporters raised a hand and inquired:

"Fujioka-sama, Yunoki-sama, is it true that you're engaged?"

Fujioka Rumi's light blue eyes met Yunoki's topaz ones. And then, she smiled.

Next:

Chapter Two: Rubbing Elbows with Movie Stars

"Eri… chan?"

Following Erika's gaze, Kahoko was surprised to see that the person her friend was staring at unabashedly was the man Nami and Mio had been talking about earlier. Even the stranger, Takishima Makoto, wore an expression identical to Erika's, as though he could not believe he was seeing her there either. Confused, Kahoko turned to Erika, who was still in shock.

"Eri-chan, what's going on?"

A/N:

*Wipes brow* It's overwhelming, isn't it? I tried editing it over and over and over, but I didn't know what to do about the writing's frenzied pace! Ranting and overdescribing are habits that I don't know how to break, and shame because they make my work so unreadable. But! I hope you enjoy working out the implied truths I scattered all over the chapter. I restrained myself from explaining everything, so I guess there are some things you'll have to piece together on your own. *points at the large block of italics* I couldn't leave out the SS explanation though; in Mio's flippant narration, no less.

PS Thanks so much to everyone who's read the story so far. Honestly, I uploaded this story thinking no one would read it, much less review it, so I was very happy when I got notifications telling me that BTG had been reviewed! Yehey! Thanks to ariadne-chan, PrayerSenshi,and FrozenRoseLady, esp. ariadne-chan, who is my favorite La Corda d'Oro fan fic author. Do yourselves a favor and favorite her as well! That is, if you haven't yet.

Revenge of the Footnotes

[1] The Maradonna piano competition and the Momogaoka College of Music are both from Nodame Cantabile by Ninomiya Tomoko.

[2] I'm assuming that, because we can't expect all beautiful and talented dramatic actresses to be able to play the piano expertly, Eiji-san is expected to hire professional pianists to cater to the movie's musical needs. Like lip-synching for pretty people who can't sing.

[3] Products of my imagination.