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penny for your heart

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“The only way to get past the fear is to just do it!”

Taking a deep breath, Kyouka closes her eyes. Lights, chatter, and faces disappear before her, leaving a blank slate of open space. Lifting her eyes, she gathers all the courage and music within her and breathes out.

 

If you are a cliffhanger ending
I'm the one that doesn't know anything

 

A few passersby stop and listen. Whether they’re entranced by the song or not, Kyouka tries not to think about it. Just go for it! her roommate Momo’s voice echoes again in her head.

 

Like a magpie and a ring,
I'm always going to be looking right to you

 

Given the tuition fees at Tokyo University of the Arts, it had been a harsh summer trying to gather enough funds to make it through the year at her shared apartment. On top of that, her music professor had said she really needed to get over her stage fright sooner than later. Thus, Momo had suggested she try street performance and kill two birds with one stone.

As Kyouka predicted, street performing isn’t always smooth sailing. On her first day, the only pennies she made was a handful of coins from a toddler and ¥2000 from a woman who saw Kyouka at the beginning and end, and had probably donated out of pity. Another time, a posh businessman kicked her hat full of cash ‘by accident,’ but he hardly spared her a quick muttered apology before speeding off on his way. (She collects money in her guitar case now.)

Worser still, just last week, some random college idiot tried to flirt with her. Although he had left a pretty nice tip, it came at the cost of having to hear the cheesiest, most gag-worthy pick up line of all time ( You electrify my life, he had said upon spotting her electric guitar. She had started favoring acoustic more afterwards). Contrary to Momo’s claims and reassuring objections that this display of affection is genuine and based on Kyouka’s musical talent, she wouldn’t put it past men to throw money without thought at whatever is attractive to them. Either way, the situation makes her feel like she’s prostituting her voice. It’s revolting.

Still, all things considered, although Kyouka is not able to pay off the entire year’s worth of rent just yet, a few weeks of busking in a cozy but lively corner of Yoyoga district has earned her a decent amount.

 

Oh, you capture my attention
Carefully listening,
Don't wanna miss a thing,
Keeping my eyes on you
Got me on my toes

 

The warm night air feels pleasant on her cheeks. The hustle and bustle around her slowly fades away, leaving nothing but herself and the music. For the next two hours, she plays until her fingers start to sting.

After what feels like ages, Kyouka reaches the last note of her last song. Eyes closed, she holds it until the end and tops it off with a final strum on her guitar. Bracing herself for silence once the reverberations fade out, she takes a deep breath and slowly opens her eyes.

Disordered claps greet her, followed by giggling. Kyouka frowns. Probably that annoying gaggle of high school girls who never leave any tips.

When she turns to look into the crowd, however, her gaze lands on someone completely different.

“You!”

A shock of blond hair and bright eyes appear before her. It’s the same college idiot who tried to flirt with her last week, looking intently dazed as he stands there with his hands in his pockets. When Kyouka glares at him, he raises his eyebrows and blinks, looking innocently curious.

“Me?”

“I’ve seen you before,” Kyouka scowls, swinging her mic to the side so as not to magnify her voice. “You following me?”

But the idiot seems to have registered only the first half of her words. In spite of her harsh tone, he lights up and smiles even wider.

“You recognize me?” he asks, taking a step forward, eyes eager like an overexcited puppy.

Kyouka leans back and wrinkles her nose.

“Unfortunately.” Upon seeing an increase of enthusiasm on his face, she adds in a mutter, “You had the worst pick up line I’ve ever heard.”

But this doesn’t seem to deter or embarrass him.

“Wow! I’m so honored you remember!” he gushes instead, clutching a hand to his chest. “I have more where that came from, by the way.”

“No thanks—” Kyouka starts to say, but the boy plows on.

“‘If I supply the voltage and you a little resistance, imagine the current we can make together.’”

He winks and finger guns. Kyouka groans and drags a hand down her face.

“You totally googled that one.”

“Well yeah,” he says, as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “That’s what Google is for.”

“So in other words, you’re really unoriginal,” she counters.

“What! I can totally—” the boy pouts. “Okay fine, you may have a point, but it’s not my fault! I can’t think straight when I hear you sing, like — has anyone told you? Your voice is phenomenal .”

“I—” Kyouka falters, her neck growing suddenly warm. From someone who’s only shown her googled pick-up lines, she definitely hadn’t been expecting that . As much as she hopes others enjoy her music, such straightforward and genuine compliments still make her feel rather uncomfortable.

“Shut up,” she mutters. “It’s just a hobby. I’m experimenting.”

“Just a hobby? But you’re soooo good at it! And your whole set up!” he gestures to her amp and speaker. “It’s like a professional street performer’s!”

Kyouka averts her gaze, feeling her cheeks burn. “Go away! I’m not here for fun. I’m here to make a living. So if you’re not here to contribute to the cause then move along.”

“Ouch,” the boy frowns. “For someone who plays music so well, you sure don’t like compliments, do you?”

Kyouka narrows her eyes at him. “I’ll give you five seconds to zip it and go.”

“Okay, okay! Hold on!” He pulls out his wallet and thumbs it open. Judging by the crestfallen look on his face, it’s not a good sign.

“Aw man,” he laments, looking thoroughly put-out. “I just used my last note on some new pens for school. Will you take a rain check? Or… maybe even dinner?”

He wiggles his eyebrows hopefully, causing Kyouka to scowl.

“I’ll take a cash check or nothing, thank you very much!” she asserts, giving him a light shove. “Goodbye!”

“Wait—!” A hand closes around her wrist. “Can I at least get your name?”

“No.” Kyouka wrests her arm out of his grasp. “Goodbye!”

She turns and resumes her original position behind the mic. Keeping her head down, she glances at her watch and sighs. She had meant to squeeze one more song in but after the unwarranted interruption, it’s probably too late. Momo might be here any minute.

Before she can decide whether to stay or leave, a light cough from behind settles the matter.

“Had fun tonight?”

Kyouka turns to see Momo, immaculately dressed as always in a sleek navy-blue dress and a light coat. There’s a knowing smile on her face that unsettles Kyouka. Any minute now, Momo is going to mention something uncomfortable.

“Who was that cute blond-head you were talking to just now?” she asks. “Was he the guy who tried to compliment you last week?”

“Ugh,” Kyouka winces, her cheeks growing warm. “He’s not cute.”

Momo laughs as Kyouka unplugs the cable from her acoustic guitar.

“Aww, but he seemed so mesmerized by you.”

“You were watching?” she asks, crouching down to place her guitar back in her case.

“Just a bit,” Momo says apologetically. “Dinner ended early so I thought I’d come and catch your last song. Looks like I was able to catch a bit more than that.”

She winks, causing Kyouka’s mood to sour. She slams her case closed and flips the metal latches shut.

“He was an embarrassing idiot. I hope he doesn’t come back.”

“That seems unlikely,” Momo remarks sagely. “Did you see the way he looked at you? I'd be surprised if he doesn’t come back here everyday hoping to see you again.”

“T-that—” Kyouka splutters. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Is it?” Momo asks, feigning ignorance. “But your voice is so beautiful.”

“Shut up,” Kyouka grumbles as Momo breaks off into laughter. Stuffing the rest of her belongings into her bag, she picks up her guitar and speaker box and starts walking towards the subway station with Momo following close behind.

“All teasing aside,” Momo adds, catching up easily to her. “He really did seem taken by you. I honestly think he means well.”

“He seems like a typical, annoying guy,” Kyouka scoffs. “How do I know he’s not just messing around because he likes the way I sing? He doesn’t know me.”

“And you don’t know him. Maybe he’d like to know you.”

“He uses terrible pick up lines.”

“No man is perfect.”

Kyouka groans and quickens her pace as they make their way down the subway entrance.

“Why are you so insistent about some random guy I met on the streets anyway?” she demands once they’ve made it safely past the ticket barrier and onto the platform. “It’s not like anything will come of it.”

Momo shrugs. “I just think he genuinely likes you. If you’re not interested, that’s okay, but I think you already know the answer to that if you search your heart.”

The train arrives, pulling into place with a soft hiss. Momo gives her a reassuring smile as the doors open and they step in together.

 

 

🎧

 

 

For the whole ride home, all the way until Kyouka showers and slips into bed that night, she considers Momo’s words and thinks about the boy in the crowd.

Of course, it’s only after she pulls the covers over her head that she realizes she forgot to count her earnings from today. With a disgruntled sigh, Kyouka reaches out and turns her bedside lamp on before slipping out of bed to retrieve her guitar case.

Upon opening it, she lifts the instrument up by the handle to uncover the pile of cash lying at the bottom. Before she can reach in, however, a flash of stark white catches her eye.

“Huh?”

Her focus zeroes in on a blank piece of paper, its corner sticking out from behind a 500 yen bill. Curious, Kyouka pulls it out and finds a single line written in black ink and a messy scrawl.

sorry if i made you uncomfy. you really do have a wonderful voice. see you around, i hope? -kaminari denki

Kaminari… Denki. Kaminari? Kyouka frowns. She doesn’t know any Kaminaris. Kami…nari…

And then it clicks. After telling the boy to get lost, she had turned around and stopped paying attention to him. Maybe he had dropped this in her case before he left. But… why?

I honestly think he means well, Momo’s voice echoes in her head. He really does seem taken by you.

Kyouka groans and crumples the note in her hand, a wave of feelings threatening to rise up in her.

She remembers the wide-eyed wonder she’d felt when she listened to The Wombats for the first time in elementary school, how in that moment, everything seemed to shift around her and fade away, leaving nothing but the music for her to lose herself in. Passion, she’d learn, is the name for it. If the combination of melody, rhythm, and beat can make her feel this way, then maybe someday, she can learn to do the same for others.

Afterwards, she had filled her heart with voices and guitar riffs for two weeks straight, then told her parents she wanted to be a musician.

Although the dream to pursue a career in musical arts never left her, her idealistic and childlike hope admittedly had. School load and competition has been killing her spirit. How can she ever “make it” as a star when so many others who are just as talented wanted the exact same thing?

But even if you impact just one person’s life… wouldn’t it all be worth it in the end?

Kyouka sighs. Trust Momo to always be the voice of reason in her head. Looking down at her hand, she opens her palm.

The note unfurls, black words splaying out across her skin. As she stares at the scribbled handwriting, an unbidden swelling fills her chest.

Kyouka bites her lip. This Kaminari Denki may be a fool but he’d made a point of telling her he liked her voice. If she were honest with herself, the idea that he might be into her both scares and exhilarates her. On one hand, he’s… sort of endearing. On the other hand, what if Momo’s wrong and he really is just messing with her?

But maybe, just maybe, he’d genuinely been impacted by her music.

Like lightning, an idea strikes her at once. Abandoning the pile of cash on her floor, she scrambles to the cabinet by her desk and pulls the bottom drawer open. Inside, a stack of papers sits, mostly dusty from underuse. Kyouka pulls them out and sifts through it, searching.

Maybe… just maybe…

Kyouka fishes out a stapled set of wrinkled pages. Grabbing her headphones and pencil, she sits on her bed and starts re-tuning her guitar for practice.

Mom, Dad. I want to be a musician!

 

 

🎧

 

 

Kyouka adjusts the mic, tilting it up to her lips. Her breath echoes softly back to her as she takes a deep inhale and closes her eyes.

 

When I first held your hand
Things felt right and in place then
Why am I so afraid?

 

It’s been a week since she last saw him. After telling him to get lost, she’s not sure he’ll ever show up again. To be safe, she plays the same song at the beginning and end, hoping if he’s passing by, he might just pop in and say hi, complete with that foolish overconfidence and a cheesy grin.

 

If it's alright with you
I think I'll leave soon
If it's alright with you
I think I'll miss you
If it's alright with you
I think I'll love you
Think I'll love you

 

She holds the last strum until the sound fades out into the night. As always, after the song ends, she’s afraid to open her eyes. She hears a few passersby clap around her. Footsteps and the clink of coins at the bottom of her case. Then another. Still, she has to brace herself for the inevitable moment when she looks up into the crowd and feels disappointment sink in yet again.

“You’ve been playing that song a lot,” says a familiar voice to her right.

Heart spiking in her chest, Kyouka snaps her eyes open and turns. She never thought she’d be glad to see that shock of yellow hair again.

“You came back,” she breathes.

The boy — Kaminari — winces, holding an apologetic hand up.

“Sorry. I meant to stay away once you made it pretty clear you didn’t want to see me but — I actually walk by this street quite regularly and there’s not really another route and, well, to be honest it’s kinda hard not to stop and listen every once in a while, so…”

He trails off, looking sheepish. Kyouka blinks, frozen in place as she stares at him in wonder. He’s been lurking around? He—

“Erm,” Kaminari coughs. “I can leave though if you pref—”

“No!” she exclaims before she can stop herself. “I mean — it’s — it’s fine.” Her grip on her guitar handle tightens. “I don’t mind if you — if you stay.”

Kaminari blinks, looking curious. Looking down, Kyouka bites her lip.

“Can I ask you a question?”

His expression shifts to surprise.

“Of course.”

She takes a deep breath, threading the words carefully in her head.

“Do you think you would’ve noticed me if— if I hadn’t been singing?” In other words… if I didn’t have music.

Kaminari frowns, raising an eyebrow at her. “Is this a trick question?”

“No trick. Just be honest.”

Kaminari looks up, concentrating. “That depends. Would you be standing out here if you weren’t singing?”

“Probably not.”

“Then nah,” he replies simply.

Kyouka’s heart sinks. She should’ve known this would be the case. He wouldn’t give her the time of day if they had met under any other circumstances. Trust Momo to be overly optimistic.

You’re an idiot, Kyouka. Idiot, idiot, idiot—

“I mean, how would I have ran into you in the first place if you were never here?” he purses his lips, looking deep in thought. After a moment, he shakes his head and adds to himself, “No, no, that doesn’t make any sense. Gahhh, this question is hard.”

It’s Kyouka’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Dude, chill out. It’s a simple question. It’s not rocket science.”

“No,” Kaminari agrees, “It’s so philosophical! I’m gonna be thinking about this one for days. Like, if you weren’t a singer, where would you be instead? Or what if you were still a singer but just didn’t sing here ? I would’ve never seen you! On the other hand, I see lots of street performers and I never approach them.” He pauses. “Is this relevant to your conundrum?”

‘Conundrum?’ What the hell…

“I — no—” Kyouka pinches her eyebrows. “Look, it’s a simple yes or no. I just—”

She falters. What does she even want to know from him at this point?

Kaminari tilts his head, waiting.

She sighs. “I just don’t know why you’d keep coming back here. What do you see in me if not my music?”

“I don’t know,” he laughs. “Call it a feeling, I guess.”

Kyouka’s breath hitches. “A feeling about what?”

He shrugs. “Dunno. But maybe if you give it a chance, we can find out.”

The only way to get past the fear is to just do it!

Maybe Momo really did have a point. What does she have to lose anyway?

Hoping she won’t regret this, Kyouka extends a hand forward.

“I’m Jirou,” she mutters. “Jirou Kyouka.”

“Kaminari Denki,” he grins, shaking her hand eagerly. “Ooh, you brought your electric guitar this time!”

“Yeah,” Kyouka smiles, giving her instrument a little strum. “I did.”

It’s a subtle hint that she’s ready for him to electrify her life.