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Bearing the Weight of Happiness

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Chapter 1: Al-Dubu

The desert.

Vast, lifeless, isolated. Hills and vales of faded sand. Granules forming ripples in the sea of tan. The wind whipped dust across the unceasing blue sky, and the white sun bore down without repentance or mercy. The horizon was muddled with the dim haze of heat, the dry ocean stretching from eternity to eternity.

On the edge of the skyline, far off into the nothingness, a fuzzy dot of pink clashed with the brown and blue. The languid figure dragged its feet through the dunes, leaving a trail of trodden sand and desperation in its wake. A fluffy head, locked in a permanent and hollow grin, was hung low, sauntering back and forth with each tired stride. Burly pink arms swung idly by its side, propelled only by exhaustion’s inertia. Its marching band uniform, once bright and effervescent, had become torn and tarnished by the thrashing of gales and the coarseness of grains. It seemed wholly out of place – a creature trapped in a state of utmost destitution, wearing the widest grin in the world. Yet within its furry confines, the one inside the mascot outfit was bearing with her situation in full.

“So…hot…”

She moaned the words out, with little breath or intonation. Despite the fact that the costume was replete with state-of-the-art air conditioning and a specially fitted canteen in the head – likely because the cost of the outfit exceeded the GDP of several small nations – it did little to undercut the fact that the suit doubled as a makeshift convection oven. The girl would’ve gladly taken the suit off, but she had no other protection against the harsh rays of the sun. It was a choice between being baked or grilled. Both were grim.

The figure collapsed to her knees, her hands reaching for her stomach. The creeping nausea that had been crawling its way through her guts had finally become too pervasive to ignore. Oh no… I’m going to hurl, thought the girl, clutching her abdomen weakly. Come to think of it, isn’t that one of the symptoms of heatstroke…? Oh great. So this is how I’m gonna go.

With an ominous lurch, the pink bear wobbled slightly, before flopping mightily onto its back, spread eagle and facing the sky, the cruel, cruel sky – appearing like a cool, refreshing ocean in her current hallucinogenic state. She guzzled the last droplets of water from the canteen, which were practically boiling in the thousand-degree weather. Despite the bleakness of the situation, the girl wasn’t feeling particularly dour – but that was just because ‘dour’ was her usual state of mind. If anything, she was only slightly more demoralized than usual. Perhaps the direness of the situation hadn’t hit her. Perhaps she, like her bandmates, had just taken a happy-go-lucky, ‘everything will work out’ attitude towards all of reality. She chuckled at the thought. As if she were ever an optimist.

Misaki Okusawa leaned her head against the sand, unable to feel its scorching pebbles through her insulated suit, and wondered how she had gotten here.

When Kokoro said she had a “super special” spot to have a performance, Misaki had assumed – foolishly – that it would be something only moderately crazy. The crater of Mt. Fuji, perhaps. Or the waters of the Mariana Trench. Something local, at least. What she did not expect was to have the Tsurumaki heiress cart the five of them across the world to the Sahara Desert, airdrop them over Algeria, and have the chaotic winds carry her parachute hundreds of kilometers away from the rest of the band and civilization. If you had told her a week ago that she would be fighting off hyperthermia in the middle of the Sahara due to one of Kokoro’s whims, then… well, she’d probably believe it. Misaki had grown pretty accustomed to her schemes – at this point, she was just waiting for the golden-haired girl to suggest that Hello, Happy World! launch themselves into the sun to play a concert there. Because what could be sunnier than that? she thought dryly.

For a second, she realized the scope of the situation, and half-chuckled. She wondered what a passerby would think, finding a ragged mascot bear containing a teenage Japanese DJ in the middle of the wastes. She was sure that whenever her body would be found in the next fifty years it would make a great story. Or a great joke. Misaki remembered a time when her life wasn’t a great joke, but each day it slipped further and further out of memory.

She wondered what she would do if she ever made it out of this situation. She could barely even imagine such a thing, her mind was so fuzzy. But it would be nice to see the band one last time… Kokoro, Kaoru, Hagumi, and Kanon… especially Kanon… she had put up with so much, and Misaki had never thanked her properly. How could she live with herself up to that point?

Michelle’s giant, round head turned to the left. Through the bear’s shiny domed eyes, Misaki saw only a blur of colors slowly fading away, the seriousness of her situation settling in her chest. She could feel the thump of her quickened heart, pumping blood at manic speeds due to the heat, the reality of it all emphasized in each pump. …This is it, huh.

“…saki-chan!”

Oh. How nice. She thought she could hear Kanon. That’s a nice hallucination to have in your last moments. Look, even the horizon has a little red-and-blue dot on it… along with some others…

Misaki’s brain puttered out its last dismal thoughts before shutting down, only the intensity of the heat persisting in her mind.

***

She creaked open her eyes. Her vision was immediately assailed by blaring white – if she didn’t know better, Misaki would’ve guessed she was in heaven. In seconds her vision adjusted, revealing the awash glare of fluorescent lighting. Her body felt like it was made of marble, heavy and delicate, the slightest movement sending pain down her veins. It took her a moment to realize she had an IV drip connected to her arm and a respirator covering her nose. Before she could fully gain her bearings, however, she felt soft, chilled hands clutch her right one tightly.

“Misaki-chan…!”

Kanon hiccupped the words out, her eyes watery and tinged with red. Misaki felt her haze dissipate almost immediately. “Kanon-san? What happened?”

“Y-you were… a-and I thought… you… I…”

She could barely muster words through her wilting voice, her calloused fingers wrapped shakily around Misaki’s own. Misaki gripped them tightly. She was lucky to be alive.

“Good. You appear to be alright, Okusawa-sama.” Misaki turned towards the clinical voice. She recognized the woman as one of the suits – the shadowy bunch of hyper-competent cronies that tended to Kokoro’s every need, no matter how ludicrous. She had traded her usual black get-up for a doctor’s scrubs – though the trademark sunglasses remained.

“Where are we?” asked Misaki. The room they occupied appeared like that of a fairly nice hospital, albeit fairly cramped and with a prevalent buzzing in the background.

“We’re currently flying back to Japan,” said the suit. “Fortunately we were able to attend to your medical needs quickly. You should make a full recovery soon enough.”

W-We’re on an airplane? thought Misaki. …Should I be surprised that the Tsurumakis have enough cash to afford something like this? No. No I shouldn’t…

“Michelle is also safe and sound, worry not.” The suit motioned to the room’s closet. From her position on the gurney, Misaki could see the Michelle suit propped up primly within, as fuzzy and friendly as ever. She wondered how it got repaired so quickly, and came to the realization that it ws better not to ask.

“Um… what happened to the concert?” Misaki asked, even though she already knew the answer.

“K-Kokoro-chan and the others were so concerned about Mich- about you that they called it off,” said Kanon. “Th-though I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to play a concert in the middle of the Sahara in the first place…”

Misaki didn’t either. She turned to ask the suit another question, but she had already absconded, presumably to the dark annals in which those of her profession always lurked. Misaki sighed. “How are the others doing?”

“We had to keep them out while those people took the Michelle suit off of you… um… should I invite them in?”

They were probably deeply concerned. Though Misaki wasn’t sure how much she could handle the three dummies in her current state. She had a difficult enough time keeping up with their hyperactive antics when she was hale and hearty. Still, it wasn’t good to keep them worrying. “Yeah. It’s only fair.”

Kanon nodded, wiping her tears from her eyes as she let go of Misaki’s hands and strode towards the door, opening it gingerly. “Y-You can come in, now-”

Kokoro & co. barged into the room before the last vowel had left Kanon’s mouth, hurriedly turning about.

“Michelle?! Are you okay?!”

“Where is she?! Is she hurt?!”

“Oh, such a fleeting creature… taken before her time! ‘Tis a tragedy on par with those of the bard…”

“C-Calm down, everyone,” said Misaki, wearing that patient yet weary smile that had become her trademark. “Michelle is fi-“

It was at this moment that Hagumi, who had been searching the room at mach-12, peeked inside the closet. “Wah! M-Michelle! Are you alright?!”

The bear suit, of course, did not respond. Kokoro and Kaoru crowded alongside Hagumi, the three of them clamoring to pull Michelle out of the closet. Misaki began moving to stop them, but she was still weak and woozy, while Kanon… just watched the scene with overwhelmed paralysis.

The trio of fools finally managed to pull the costume out of the closet. Kaoru put her fingers to the costume’s arm. “Alas… I cannot feel a pulse… oh, sweet Michelle…!”

“Michelle!” cried out Kokoro and Hagumi simultaneously.

Calm down,” Misaki repeated, feeling her spirit waning. “Michelle is, uh… fine. Just sleeping.”

“Sleeping?” asked Hagumi, hints of tears welling up in her eyes.

“Y-Yeah,” said Misaki. “She got really tired and drained in all the heat. You just need to let her rest in her room right there, and by the time we get back to Japan she should be fine. But don’t jostle her around anymore, alright?”

The three nodded and gingerly returned Michelle back to her original position, Kokoro imparting a great hug before closing the closet. Misaki sighed – she had gotten better at wrangling the dummies over time, but that never made it any less exhausting. As if she wasn’t drained enough as is. Not to mention she felt more than a little irked that they had ignored her own hospitalization in favor of seeking out her alter ego.

“It is wonderful to hear that Michelle will be fine,” said Kaoru, her daring smirk having returned to her face. “When she was carted out of the desert, I truly feared the worst.”

“Yeah,” said Hagumi. “We’re lucky those Bedouins found us! We might’ve been in real trouble if they hadn’t!”

“I-I’ll say…” Kanon agreed, smiling politely.

Silently, Misaki thanked the anonymous Algerians for probably saving her life. She cleared her throat. “Well, regardless, now that you know Michelle is okay…”

“We should practice!” exclaimed Kokoro, not missing a beat. “Come on, our instruments are set up a few rooms over – though I guess we won’t have Michelle to help us…”

“Fret not, my dear Kokoro,” said Kaoru. “Misaki can take her place, just as she’s done before.”

That patient smile. “Um… I’m not exactly in condition to practice, you know…”

The trio looked at her curiously for a moment.

“Why’s that?” asked Kokoro, with her unbreakable and vacant grin.

“Wha-“ Misaki motioned the stand her IV fluid was hung up in. “What does it look like?”

“I’ve seen such an implement before…” mused Kaoru. “It was on one of Chisato’s television programs… ah yes, I believe that’s a water bottle for doctors. They get rather thirsty during all of their hard work.”

“Oh!” said Kokoro. “I’ve never seen one like that before. Why is it shaped like that?”

“I-It’s an IV bag…” Kanon explained. “Misaki-chan got hurt…”

“Oh no!” exclaimed Hagumi. “…How did that happen?”

“I thought you stayed behind on the plane,” asked Kokoro. “Did the air conditioning break? Or did you end up in the desert somehow?”

Indeed, as one of her many pretenses to not bother explaining why she and Michelle were never in the same place at the same time – as if the trio would need an explanation in the first place – Misaki had claimed to be staying behind while the rest of the band parachuted into the Sahara. Of course, it would be difficult to explain how she had gotten heatstroke within an air-conditioned, luxurious private jet that probably cost more money than Misaki would ever own.

“Did you perhaps trip, my kitten?” asked Kaoru, striking one of her many gallant poses. “No, I see no bandages upon your person… perhaps you fainted due to a broken heart?”

“…It was heatstroke,” Misaki reiterated, the corner of her enduring grin quivering.

“Ah! No doubt due to the inflammation of love… I myself have suffered such misfortune before, when I first laid eyes upon you…”

“Mi-Misaki-chan was overheated and collapsed,” said Kanon, trying to corroborate. “She could’ve been really hurt, or… or…”

“Well, she looks fine now, doesn’t she?” asked Kokoro. “She just needs a little encouragement. Remember Akari? You just have to believe in yourself!”

“No no no, that is not the same,” said Misaki. “Believe me, once you give me a few hours of rest, I’ll be fine, but in the meantime-“

“Just like Michelle, then?” asked Hagumi.

Just like Michelle.

Like… Michelle?

Something about the question flipped a switch inside Misaki. A switch that hadn’t gone off in months, one that she knew was better off undisturbed and forgotten, something she should’ve tidily put deep in the corner of her mind and moved on from. But seeing the vacuous, seemingly carefree smiles before her, and hearing that exact sequence of words, set off a firing of the synapses and a movement of the vocal chords that she had not borne for months –

“…I am Michelle.”

Kanon’s face turned from gentle appeasement to concerned shock. But the dummies at hand heard the same thing as ever.

“What are you talking about? Michelle is a bear, silly!”

“Honestly, Mii-kun, what’s gotten into you?”

“I, too, wish I was as wild and impassioned as a roving bear… but nay, kitten, you are but a flower, soft and-“

I. Am. Michelle.

Each word slipped off her tongue, delivered with the enunciation and intensity of bullets. They were sharp and pointed enough to pierce the thickest of skulls, hitting with all the bombast of artillery fire. Yet the three girls in front of her had craniums made of diamond.

“I mean, I understand that Michelle is your friend…” said Hagumi. “I mean, I wish I could be as fluffy and sweet as she is, too!”

“Perhaps she means it in the metaphorical sense?” asked Kaoru. “As in, ‘we are all Michelle, in this fleeting moment’… yes… you are correct, Misaki! We all share in her pain and suffering. How mature of you to say.”

“Does that mean I’m Michelle too?” asked Kokoro, her eyes aglow.

Kanon opened her mouth to speak, but Misaki was far ahead of her, her mouth moving at the speed of her own thoughts: “Listen here, you three. I have been trying to explain this to you for months, and at some point I think I gave up because I figured you were all too dense to ever get it into your heads, but I’ve had enough. I didn’t end up hospitalized only to be belittled more and more, so let me make it crystal clear: Michelle wasn’t the one who nearly died in that desert – it was me.

The three of them gasped. “Misaki! How could you say that about Michelle?” asked Kokoro. “She was so badly hurt!”

Misaki felt her blood boil to a degree hotter than it had been when she was in the dunes. The dam of her patience was cracking at the foundation, and liable to burst with the slightest of nudges.

“E-Everyone,” said Kanon, weakly attempting to be diplomatic, “let’s all take a deep breath…”

“Mii-kun, I think you should apologize,” said Hagumi. “Michelle is your friend, and you don’t say that kind of thing about a friend.”

Misaki felt one of her blood vessels pop behind her eyes.

“I understand that you were also injured, somehow,” said Kaoru. “But I urge you – empathize. Think of how Michelle feels.”

Her fortitude crumbled, and the tide of rage surged through her body like a lightning bolt, bringing from the pit of her diaphragm a mighty roar:

GET OUT! YOU DIM, CLUELESS, SIMPLE-MINDED, THICK-HEADED… IDIOTS!”

The last word rung throughout the room, penetrating every last consciousness with full force.

“…Idiots?” repeated Kokoro, much quieter than usual.

For a split-second, Misaki’s fury flickered, the response nearly blowing out the flame. But a second later it proved oxygen for the fire, and her outburst intensified. “I said, GET OUT!

She pointed forcefully towards the door, her face purple and tight with emotion. Just as quickly as they had initially surged in, the three dummies bolted, their expressions crestfallen. Hagumi scrambled to close the door behind them, its thud reverberating in the now quiet room.

Misaki felt the tidal wave of anger turn immediately into a sea of regret. She plopped back against her head rest and let out a deep breath. Why did she do that?

“Misaki-chan…” said Kanon softly. She wasn’t on the verge of tears, but there was a strained quality to her voice.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Misaki replied. “I went overboard. I, I just-“

“I-I understand where you were coming from,” Kanon replied. “They’re… a little slow on the uptake, sometimes. But they didn’t mean anything bad.”

I know, it’s just- I was-“ Misaki kept looking for a flotsam of an explanation, but found nothing, adrift in her own remorse. Her explosion was unwarranted. Now that image of their fallen faces flashed throughout her brain, the word idiots echoing in her soul.

“I’m… I’m just glad your not hurt,” said Kanon. “Ph-Physically, I mean. I don’t know how I – or they – or any of us – w-would… u-um…”

Once again in her life, Misaki thought about how lucky she was to have Kanon by her side. “It’s… It’s nothing. You’re not hurt yourself, are you? Did you drink enough water? You didn’t get overheated?”

“I’m fine,” said Kanon, shaking her head. “Th-thank you for asking. But… I’m sorry about…” her eyes turned towards the door to the ‘hospital room.’

Misaki felt her frustrations against herself and the others clash within her. “I definitely went too far, but… I just wonder how they don’t even realize I’m Michelle. Like, how does it not occur to them? Do they even know how to read? …Sorry, that was too far.”

“I think… they just think differently from you and me. That’s all.”

Misaki groaned. “I wish I understood why they care more about Michelle than they do about me.”

“They do care about you!” Kanon protested. “You write our sheet music, you book our shows… you do so much for the rest of us, and they really appreciate that.”

“And that’s why I’m treated like a phantom sixth member sometimes, huh?”

“Misaki-chan…”

“Believe me, I’ve accepted that fate,” she replied, with no small amount of bitterness. “But I would think that they’d me a little more concerned about me in a situation like this.”

“I think they just misunderstood, that’s all…”

That, she knew, was the truth of the matter. Misaki buried her face in her hands, rubbing her temples with great agony. She’d have to apologize to them later. She had acted horribly. But… hadn’t they, by neglecting and putting down how much she had been hurt? It was honestly unlike them to be unfeeling like that. They just didn’t understand. But wasn’t ignorance in itself a kind of harm, even if it wasn’t malicious? Who bore responsibility in this incident? Who-

“Misaki-chan?”

Kanon’s voice snapped her out of her torrid thoughts. “What is it?”

“I’m… I’m just worried. You look, um…”

“Probably deathly, huh?” Misaki chuckled, a resigned smirk returning to her face. “It’s been a long day… I should get some sleep.”

“Um…” Kanon murmured, her fingers twiddling with strands of her baby-blue hair, “I can stay here with you, if you’d like… keep you company.”

“Thanks, but I think I should be alone. I appreciate the offer, though.”

Kanon nodded. “Er, what should I say to the others?”

The mere mention of them already stung Misaki. “Just… don’t worry about them. It’s my issue to deal with. Alright?”

A flash of unease simmered in Kanon’s eyes, but she simply said “Okay. Rest well, Misaki-chan.”

“You too, Kanon-san.”

As she left, the drummer turned off the lights, leaving Misaki alone in the gurney, the soft rocking of the plane through the African skies preying upon her exhaustion, lulling her into a dulled consciousness.

Where there had moments before been a tumult of words and feelings storming in her brain, there was now a blunted emptiness, a hollow feeling.

Yet the venom from those callous words remained in her mouth – vile, sickening, and impossible to wash out.

She stared at the faintly glowing ceiling for an eternity before finally succumbing to sleep.