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Bearing the Weight of Happiness

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Epilogue: What We Will Become (Zinnias, Part 4)

Green 4.

Green 2.

Green Skip.

“Awww, no fair!”

Yellow Skip.

“Tch! Such cruelty… ne’er was there—”

Yellow 1. “Uno.”

Yellow 7.

Yellow Reverse.

“Weee! My turn again!”

Red Reverse.

“My turn again too! Yaaay!”

Red 8.

A small quiver of hesitation. And then… Wild Card +4. “Blue.”

“D-Dame Kanon?” A clutch at the heart. “Are you truly capable of such malfeasance? Such brutality? Why—”

“Please draw, Kaoru-san.”

“Fueeee…”

Biting her lip, Kaoru did so… and continued on long after drawing 4, her hand filling up with Greens, Reds, and Yellows of all numbers, but not a single Blue. Eventually fate granted her blessed reprieve in the form of her own Wild Card. “Yellow.”

Misaki smirked at the one remaining card in her hand, letting it fall gracefully onto the pile. Yellow 5. “I win.”

Thunder all around.

“YOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”

“Congratulations, Misaki-chan!”

“Ne’er was there one more skilled at the art of anything than you are at the art of Uno, for you see—”

“Wow Misaki! You’re a card genius!”

Misaki chuckled weakly. “It’s really just dumb luck.”

“Nay,” said Kaoru breathlessly. “’Twas fate.” She dramatically picked the winning card up from the pile and held it aloft. “’Tis yellow, the signature color of our merry band, and the number five, of which is our true count…”

“I thought it was six,” said Hagumi, pointing and counting everybody in the room and murmuring. “…right?”

“I think both answers are right!” said Kokoro. “There are five of us, and Michelle makes six!”

“But isn’t Mii-kun Michelle?”

“She is, but she’s also Misaki! So there’s five of us, but also six!”

“Oh, that makes sense!”

Misaki had been with them for almost twelve hours by now, and she was still in total and utter disbelief at the words coming out of their mouth. Not just because they were terrible at math, but because they seemed to truly, once and for all understand the nature of her double identity. She had always thought it’d take a miracle to happen. But a long, painful dream of eight months’ time… what was that, exactly?

Eh, who cared.

None of that mattered when they were all in their fuzzy pajamas in the middle of Kokoro’s master bedroom, playing party games on the discarded remnants of the day’s activities. And what activities they were: pillow fights and forts that now formed cushiony monuments, sledding down improbably snow-clad May hills outside, epic games of freeze tag throughout the entirety of Tsurumaki manor… it was the sort of simple, childish whimsy that all adults craved, whether they realized it or not. And Misaki had realized it the whole time, given how wide the grin on her face had been.

Of course, after hours and hours of fun in and out of the snow, eyes were growing heavy. Kokoro curled up atop a particularly fuzzy pillow. Kaoru’s eyelids fluttered in exhaustion. Kanon stifled a yawn, gently nudging Hagumi – who had already dozed off in the past five seconds – off of her lap. “Looks like it’s lights out,” she said quietly.

Misaki nodded. “Bedtime for the bozos.”

She included herself in that description, of course.

Tucking Hagumi in was a simple matter of carrying her to bed, while Kokoro hopped in herself with the lightest prodding. After the smallest back-and-forth with Kaoru (“Fair maidens, I assure you I will remain awake to vigilantly watch over youzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”) they bundled the three dummies in Kokoro’s bed, each clinging to each other with blissful contentment.

“…I feel like a mom who’s finally gotten the kids to sleep,” Misaki muttered.

Kanon giggled. “They didn’t even put up a fight.”

“Well, that’s because it’s…” Misaki’s eyes widened as she checked the clock. “Holy crap, almost midnight. We’ve been at it for sixteen hours. I think it’s about time we sleep too.”

“Ah… right…” Kanon trailed off in that distinct way that said she had something on her mind but wasn’t sure how to say it. “But uh, don’t you need to brush your teeth first?”

Well, Kanon was right. Existential reality-shaking trauma or no, Misaki had to maintain good dental hygiene. “On it~.”

She brushed her teeth with typically lazy vigor, finally having a moment to think to herself after a full day of being occupied otherwise. At some point, the questions of what everybody remembered and what ripples the ‘dream’ had on their reality had faded from her mind, lost in the ecstasy of finally being happy with herself – if only for a fleeting instant. But now, in a single quiet moment, they began to creep back.

How had it happened? Why had it happened? Who caused it? Would she ever get the answer to any of those questions? And perhaps most importantly of all – did any of it matter? She was back home like nothing bad had ever even happened. The dummies knew she was Michelle now! Why look a gift horse—er, bear—in the mouth? If everybody else just thought it was an awful, strange dream, then she should’ve done the same, right?

Only one thing stopped her. The same thing that had stopped her from drowning, dying, and descending into her own despair more times than she could count. She stepped out of the bathroom, expecting to find that thing – that someone – already dozing off. Instead, Kanon was out on Kokoro’s balcony, looking out into the placid night. Misaki considered leaving her to her thoughts before realizing her own hand was already on the sliding door handle.

Kokoro’s balcony was stark white marble, frosted by a sliver of snow that after all this time was still falling – gently now, like rain. Somehow through the unseen clouds the moon poked through from above, casting the place in a deep azure glow. It was cold in that strangely refreshing kind of way – Misaki hardly lamented the fact that she could see her own breath, or that her cheeks were already tinged pink, or that her heart was screaming in her own ear what are you doing, you gay idiot?

As Misaki stepped out, Kanon turned to face her. “M-Misaki-chan.”

“Kanon-san.” Misaki’s voice was muted. Delicate. It carried a weight her bandmate couldn’t know. “Good to see you.”

“Y-You’ve seen me all day, though…?”

“Oh. Right.” Misaki reached up to grab her hat and cram it over her eyes to hide the embarrassment before realizing she wasn’t wearing it. “Y-You know what I mean, ahahaha…”

“Heheheh…”

Misaki joined her on the balcony’s railing, avoiding eye contact. Their relationship was back to square one, wasn’t it? The one thing from that world that Misaki wished hadn’t been reset. The times they had shared were difficult – disturbing – but they’d come out of it closer. With their feelings spoken. Could the same be true now?

Misaki didn’t want to assume that this Kanon loved her just like the other one did. It wasn’t as if they were distant in this world, but their closeness wasn’t the same. The other Kanon, the one of the dream, was hurt by Misaki’s actions, but that ended up paradoxically bringing them closer together. This Kanon… Misaki hadn’t done anything to reject her, to her knowledge. She could only pray that this assumption was true, because she was afraid to ask. Hell, at the moment, she was afraid to so much as speak. But if she just stayed out here without a word, that’d be uncomfortable, wouldn’t it?

“Um…” “Er…”

Their mumbles collided face-first.

“You first,” Kanon said.

Misaki laughed hoarsely. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

“Take your time.”

“I’d need too much of it. I’d end up taking yours.”

“Take as much as you need.” Kanon laid her hand over Misaki’s. “After all… I told you, didn’t I?”

Misaki’s embarrassment at feeling Kanon’s smooth fingers was combined with perplexity at recognizing there was something being placed atop her hand.

“Whichever ‘you’ you are… I feel the same.”

Kanon’s hand pulled away to reveal…

A bear pin.

“Because you’re Misaki.”

In the moonlight, Kanon’s smile glimmered a soft blue.

“And whichever ‘me’ I am… I hold the same feelings. Because I’m Kanon.”

Neurons fired throughout Misaki’s brain all at once like artillery. Her hand unconsciously clutched for the green ribbon tied around her arm – the same as the one that currently adorned Kanon’s baby blue hair – just as her other grasped tightly around the pin – the same as the one affixed to Misaki’s hat indoors. She could barely form the thoughts to respond, let alone the words. But Kanon continued, gently and knowingly.

“I had a dream last night.

“I was me, and yet not me. I could see myself fighting for her life… through pain, isolation, desperation, and every emotion in-between. Filled with doubt and fear for myself and those I loved… there were moments where I was drowning in my own despondence. And in those hazy, fearful visions… I cried out. Told myself to be strong. To be brave. To believe in myself and my feelings. And through all that grief, I saw something beautiful.”

Tears began rolling down her cheek.

“I saw myself falling in love with you all over again.”

“Kanon…” Misaki was too stunned to even process the phrasing of ‘all over again.’ “You were there…? You were watching…?”

Kanon nodded. “How many times did I yell at myself – th-that other version of myself – to not give up? How many times did I have to plea? Not just to her, but to you?”

“I…” Guilt washed hot down Misaki’s skin. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said Kanon, choked up. “You’re here. I’m here. We’re safe. Together. And I remember our promise. Don’t you?”

Misaki couldn’t forget. Even in the throes of her despair, she had clung true to it. “I’ll love you. Until the day you can love yourself. And you’ll do the same for me.”

Kanon nodded, now clogged up beyond words.

But Misaki, repeating that vow, couldn’t help but chuckle a little bitterly. “At this rate… I don’t know if I’ll ever love myself, you know. Today was good. But can I say the same for tomorrow? The day after? What about the day after that?”

Her reflection was broken by Kanon rubbing her shoulder. “In that case… I’ll just have to love you forever.”

Blood sang through Misaki’s veins. “Kanon…”

Even in the dark, she could make out a patch of pinkness on Kanon’s face. “S-Sorry, was that too much? Fuee… I just thought about what Kaoru-san would say, and I--”

“I’ll love you forever and beyond. To the moon and back again.”

The words came resolutely now. Misaki looked straight into her without turning away.

“Because you are Kanon Matsubara.”

At that moment, words, thoughts, and memories melted away. It was two girls in the moonlight. Together. Close. Only now realizing that their hands were touching.

Their lips met as the moon grazed the horizon.

There was no description for the taste, the smell, the feeling. She was Kanon, and she was Misaki. Sensation was the only sense. The world was contained in that moment – wide and whole and happy.

And zinnias fell all around them.

They separated, still relishing the moment. But a second later, their spirits returned to themselves.

aaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

fueeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

Moments of internal screaming gave way to attempts to empty themselves of thought. Their tomato-red faces steamed in the snowy spring night.

“Ha… ahaha…” Misaki squeaked. “W-We really have been taking after K-Kaoru-san, haven’t we?”

Inside, an unconscious Kaoru pumped a fist in her sleep.

“Heh… heh… m-maybe…” Kanon mewed. “Oh heavens, th-that was my first kiss… e-except for all the ones in that dream? B-But I couldn’t feel those, so maybe they didn’t count…”

“…Want to make all of them up?”

“…I can’t. I’d explode.”

Misaki knew she would too.

“B-But maybe we can keep holding hands?”

Misaki had long forgotten they were doing that. “W-Won’t you explode?”

“…Not if you won’t.”

“I-I already have.”

The absurdity of their conversation lingered in the air for a moment before they burst out laughing.

“I’m such a mess,” said Misaki, wiping away a tear.

“We’re a mess,” said Kanon, squeezing her hand tighter. “Together.”

There was such sweet simplicity in the word. Together. It melted on the tongue and in their ears. Misaki realized that she’d been staring into Kanon’s eyes for several moments, unbroken. Kanon stared back, her expression awash with every elation imaginable.

“I still can’t believe it,” she breathed. “It’s like I’m still dreaming.”

Her phrasing drew the subconscious wonder in Misaki’s brain to the forefront, her gaze drifting towards the full moon.

“Kanon… was what we went through really a dream?”

Kanon blinked. “Huh?”

“I mean… I experienced it all,” said Misaki. “All 8 months of it. It sounds like everybody else caught some part of it too… but was it all a product of our imaginations? Or some other reality? Was there really another you and another me?” Misaki couldn’t shake the image of M̶i̸s̸a̵k̴i̶ from her mind – dead-eyed and soulless in the desert, the worst parts of herself on full display.

“A-Are you saying it was another world?” asked Kanon. “That we weren’t just dreaming, but witnessing another version of our lives?”

“Maybe,” Misaki replied, staring into the inky distance. “I guess I can’t say for certain one way or another.” But it had felt so visceral that she had trouble believing it was just some fantasy. And if it wasn’t… what had become of that world? Had the other Misaki returned? Had she woken up after the concert? Would she repair her relationship with Kanon and the rest there? Was it even any of this Misaki’s concern now? Why was she putting so much thought into half-baseless speculation?

“I-If it was another reality…” Kanon said, leaning on the balcony rail. “Then they’ll be ok. I’m sure of it.”

“You sound confident,” Misaki replied.

Kanon nodded. “If I believe in you… and want to believe in myself… then I want to believe in them, too.”

Misaki smiled, leaning on Kanon’s shoulders. “In that case, I’ll do the same.”

Kanon wrapped an arm around Misaki, pulling her close.

The cold felt so warm with her.

 

 

 

“W-We should probably turn in for the night…” Kanon whispered.

Misaki stood up, not letting go of Kanon’s hand. “You’re right. But, uh, I need to ask something first…”

Kanon looked at her with a face that said she would do anything in the world for her. “What is it?”

Misaki sighed. She knew she had to say it tonight, for her own peace of mind. But saying it out loud was almost as hard as keeping it in. She stumbled over herself. “I… well… I thought a lot today, and…”

“Take your time,” said Kanon.

Deep breaths. Misaki had finished one journey, but in another sense, she was just continuing another. Summoning her remaining emotional energy, she managed to eke out the words.

“I… I need help.

“After everything that happened, everything I’ve been through… I-I’m afraid I’ve only just taped myself together, and that with the littlest push I’ll shatter into a hundred pieces again.”

Kanon listened intently.

“I don’t – I never want to hurt you or anybody else again. But there’s a chance it could happen. S-So… I want to find someone – er, a professional, I mean – to talk to.”

“A therapist, you mean?”

“Y-Yeah.” Misaki only now realized she was reluctant to say the word aloud. “But… I’m scared. S-Scared to… I don’t know. I just am.”

She expected confusion, or doubt, or some other frustrated reaction. But Kanon just nodded. “I understand.”

Misaki smiled weakly, unable to look her in the eye. “S-So… could you help me find one? A-And maybe c-come with me to the first s-session?”

“Of course,” said Kanon. “I’ll help out in any way I can.”

Misaki felt her head decompress. “Th-thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do,” Kanon replied. “You’ve helped me out so much. I should return the favor.”

“That’s my line,” Misaki muttered. “How will I ever repay you?”

“This isn’t a favor or a gift, Misaki-chan. It’s me doing something important for someone I love. And I know you’d do the same.”

Misaki didn’t. But Kanon sounded sure of herself, and if Misaki could believe in that at least. “I don’t deserve you.”

“Yes you do. Every last piece.”

“Kanon…”

She yawned. “I’m sorry, Misaki-chan, but I’m getting really sleepy…”

“Y-Yeah, of course.” Misaki coughed. She’d have enough time for self-doubt tomorrow. “We should sleep.”

“Yeah. B-But…” Kanon’s eyes darted inside. “There’s no more room on the bed.”

“Ah.” It was true – Kokoro’s bed was currently occupied by three dozing dummies, and they probably wouldn’t be able to squeeze in without pushing someone out. Misaki considered sleeping on the floor, but Kanon deserved better than that. “Should we look for another bedroom? There must be a million around here…”

A Suit appeared. “Okusawa-sama. Matsubara-sama.”

“AAAAGHHH!” “FUEEEEEE!”

They clasped their own hands over their mouths, eyes glancing inside to make sure their sudden screaming didn’t wake any of the children. Hagumi turned over in her sleep and scratched her behind, but the three were otherwise motionless.

“Where in the seven hells did you come from?” Misaki whisper-yelled at the Suit.

“We have ears set up at all points around the manor 24/7 to attend to our guests’ every potential need,” the suit replied smoothly.

The color drained from Kanon’s face. “Does… does that mean… you heard our conversation?”

The Suit cleared her throat. “We were instructed to prepare a bedroom for the two of you. Please follow me.”

Too dazed and confused to question much, Misaki and Kanon followed, entering the dark master bedroom and tiptoeing through as the dummies’ sleep talk meandered through the air.

“Monkey… zzz… you’re really warm tonight…”

“Ah, fair Chisato… zzz… your heel upon my sternum feels most gratifying… zzz…”

“zzz… Misaki, are you one of those ‘furries’ I’ve heard about...? zzz…”

Actively blocking what she’d heard from memory, Misaki grit her teeth and slinked into the hall, holding onto Kanon’s hand for emotional support the whole way. The Suit led them down a couple corridors, stopping before a (relatively) modest oaken door. “We have furnished the guest quarters for the evening. Enjoy your rest.” Before they could ask for explanation, she poofed into the shadows.

“S-She said someone asked for this?” said Kanon, hesitantly opening the door. “Was it Kokoro-cha—”

They stopped in the doorway, agog.

The room was awash in gaudy shades of pink and blue, the same color as Michelle’s fur and Kanon’s hair, respectively. Heart-shaped throw pillows topped the similarly-patterned bedsheets, littered with phrases like “I love you beary much” and “Are we compatible? Tell me ursine”. The centerpiece was a banner strewn from wall to wall in such elegant penmanship that it became overbearing, both Misaki and Kanon fixated upon it in rapt bewilderment:

Just bear-ied! Congratulations on coming out (of the clawset bear) Misaki!

“…I don’t think it was Kokoro who asked for this,” Misaki uttered.

In her sleep, many rooms over, Kaoru struck a most fleeting pose.

“…Did she realize how ‘just bear-ied’ sounds when you say it out loud?” Misaki muttered. “And she just scribbled in “(out of the bear)” in the margins! Not to mention this place is so… trans-colored. What the hell was she—”

She stopped. Kanon was unconscious on the bed, curled up tight around a throw pillow that said  “Waiting for you is unbearable”. She must have truly been exhausted to fall asleep so quickly.

With a smiling sigh, Misaki closed the door and joined her, grazing the hair that framed her face. The green ribbon tied around her wrist grazed Kanon’s cheek, inches below her own.

“I love you.”

Kanon looked so blissful it was hard to tell if she was truly asleep. She squeezed the pillow even tighter, drawing Misaki’s eye to it.

“…The wait really was unbearable,” said Misaki. “But I’m here now. And I will be, for all of our days.”

The room began to dim. Only now did she realize the toll taken by it all. The day had been so busy – and so fun. She only hoped more would follow.

“Sweet dreams.”

The tiding, just as much to herself as to her beloved, carried her off into a light slumber.

 

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***

 

Aoko hates going to the doctor.

The clinic walls are cold and white and the floor’s so clean she slips on it once per visit. All the weird machines and computers she sees beep and chirp with cold incomprehension. The doctors always prod and poke her, sticking depressors on her tongue and hitting her knees with rubber hammers. And they didn’t even have any stuffed animals to hug. Her mom had to practically drag her into the office today. So when the doctor – a new one she’s never seen before – says that she’s going to give Aoko one of those “vaks-seens,” she understands exactly what they’re trying to dupe her into.

“No. I don’t wanna.”

Her mother, sitting crosslegged, pets her shoulder. “Sweetie—”

“I don’t wanna!!!” Aoko scrambles away, up to the head of the examination bed. “I don’t care if my breath stinks forever or I get sunburn everyday! I don’t wanna vaks-seen!”

Her mother turns and smiles apologetically at the doctor. “I’m sorry… she’s been in a bad mood ever since this morning…”

The doctor appears unfazed by Aoko’s outburst, writing on her clipboard with all the gravitas of a medical drama. “I see… well, it’s very understandable. Nobody likes sticking a needle in their arm.”

“Yeah!!!” Aoko shouts. “So you should just give me a lollipop and scram.”

“Dear!” her mother yelps. “Apologize to the doctor!”

Aoko sticks out her tongue in response, though the doctor pays it little mind. “So, Aoko-chan, you don’t want a shot today?”

“Never!!!”

“Never ever?”

“Never ever in a gajillion years!!!”

“Oh my. That’s quite serious.” The doctor removes her stethoscope with a sober expression. “In that case, I’ll have to call in a specialist.”

Aoko’s mother fidgets in worry. “A-A specialist?”

“Why, yes. For such a serious matter, only one will do.”

“Please, doctor, she just doesn’t understand how vaccines work—”

“Yeah I do!” Aoko protests. “Hiro-kun from school said that parents stick a needle in your arm full of icky viruses!”

“W-Well…” her mother stammers. It technically wasn’t an inaccurate description, if poorly worded and incomplete.

The doctor remains unfazed, coolly stepping to the door. “Worry not. My associate will be over in just a moment and fix the situation right up. Good day.”

The doctor leaves right as Aoko bursts into tears. “I DON’T WAAAAANNNNNAAAAAAAAAAA!!!”

“Dear…” her mother mewls, “I-It won’t give you bad breath, I promise…”

“WAAAAAAAAAAAHH!!!”

Right as Aoko clutches onto the pillow, wax paper bed-covering growing wet with tears, the door bursts open, revealing a positively bewildering sight:

“Hey-hello! It’s everybody’s favorite doctor, Michelle~!”

A giant pink bear in a doctor’s coat.

Aoko’s mother stares blankly as her daughter’s sobs are cut short. The only thing Aoko loves more than bears is the color pink.

“You must be Aoko-chan.” Michelle steps forward and kneels before the bed so their eyes line up. “How are you today?”

Aoko rubs her eyes. “Bad.”

“Oh, that’s no good indeed. It’s hard to smile when you’re not feeling good, isn’t it?”

Aoko nods. Michelle’s voice is so gentle.

“I bet you’re feeling pretty scared right now, huh?”

Another nod.

“Well, I’ve got just the thing right here for you.” Suddenly she reached behind Aoko’s ear. “Just tucked away back here.”

“Huh?”

“Hmph… fwah!” Michelle pulled her hand back, revealing a fuzzy stuffed bear. “Here you are! A friend just for you!”

Aoko took the bear, gazing into its eyes for just a moment before clutching it tight to her chest.

“And… what’s this?” Michelle reaches behind Aoko’s other ear. “I think there’s something tucked away back here, too…”

“What is it? What is it?!” Aoko yelps.

Michelle pulled back to reveal… a pencil. “Huh! You must be a little bookworm who forgot to tuck it away.”

Aoko blinks. “That’s not mine.”

“Oh? Well then, how about this?” With a flick of the wrist, the pencil turns into a bouquet of flowers, accompanied by a burst of confetti.

Aoko giggles.

“There’s the smile we like to see!” Michelle says, handing her the bouquet. “You gotta do your best to keep that smile up, even getting a shot.”

Aoko’s grin runs right away. “No. It’s g-gonna hurt, isn’t it?”

“Not at all,” Aoko’s mother interjects. “You’ll hardly—”

“It won’t be awful, but it’ll hurt a bit,” says Michelle, honesty belied by tenderness. “But it’s so you can stay healthy. You want to be healthy, right?”

Aoko clung tightly to the stuffed bear. “But the icky virus stuff—”

“It’s only a little, so your body learns to fight off the really icky viruses if they ever get you.”

Aoko looks down. “B-But it’ll hurt, you said…”

“It will. I don’t want to lie to you. But it’ll only be for a second. And you can make it through if you smile.”

Aoko blinks. “Th-That’s what my music teacher says when I’m having trouble with a song.”

“Your music teacher? Do you go to Egao Elementary, Aoko-chan?”

“Uh-huh.”

“So you have Tsurumaki-sensei for class?”

Aoko’s eyes go wide. “You know her?”

“She and I are old pals. She’s awesome, isn’t she?”

“I love her! She lets me play the tambourine and—”

“Honey,” her mother interjects. “We need to focus.”

“B-But I don’t—”

“Remember what Tsurumaki-sensei told you, Aoko-chan. Can you show me a smile?

Her lips tremble for a moment before Aoko forces a grin.

“Good girl,” says Michelle, putting on a fresh pair of surgical gloves as she pulls out a syringe. “Just bear with it a little longer.”

Aoko shakes, but tells herself to stay strong. K-Keep smiling… keep smiling…

The needle glints in the fluorescent lights of the office. Aoko turns away, but keeps her face up.

Keep smiling! Keep smiling!

She feels the prick of pain shoot through her arm. And then…

It’s over.

“Good job, Aoko-chan,” says Michelle, disposing of the needle and gloves in the appropriate bins. “You were very brave.”

“Th-That didn’t hurt at all!” Aoko blusters, her fear sublimating into bravado. “I-I could do a gazillion more!”

Michelle laughs. “Lucky for you, that’s the only one you need today. But I hope you remember those words for next time. Now…” She reaches into her coat. “Lollipop?”

Aoko not only smiles: she beams as Michelle hands her a bright pink strawberry lollipop, tearing off the cellophane and sticking it straight in her mouth. In moments, she’s discarded the teddy bear and leaped up to hug her physician. “Thank you Michelle! I love you!”

Michelle pats Aoko on the head. “You’re free to go. Be good and listen to your mommy now, okay?”

“I will!!!” Aoko speeds towards the door.

“Dear…!” Her mother nabs her with a little huff. She turns and gives a smile as she opens the door. “Thank you for everything, Okusawa-sensei.”

Within the suit, Misaki smiles. “No problem.”

“I was amazed by your technique… you’re every bit as advertised.”

“Professional pediatrician, amateur magician, and licensed clown.” Misaki rubs the back of Michelle’s head. “I can assure you that last one is no laughing matter.”

 That joke is always a coin flip between a big chuckle and a cold stare. Today, Misaki gets the latter.

“Michelle-sensei, you’re a clown?” Aoko asks.

“Yes, ma’am. Have been since birth.”

“Wooooah… so if I’m not a clown now, then I can’t be one ever?”

“Anybody can be a clown if they try hard enough,” says Misaki. “But others just… are.”

“Wow!” Aoko turns to her mom. “Can I be a clown when I grow up, mommy?”

“Clowns are frightening, dear. You should become a doctor like Michelle here.”

“Awwwwww…”

“Follow your dreams, Aoko-chan,” says Michelle. “They’ll take you to amazing places.”

Aoko salutes. “Absolutely! Thank you, Michelle-sensei.”

“And make sure to eat your vegetables.”

“…No promises.”

Misaki laughs dryly. With a gracious bow, Aoko’s mother took her daughter and left.

Deep exhale. Another job well done… though cleanup, as usual, would be a pain in the ass – sweeping the confetti off the floor, finding a vase for those flowers… and worst of all, sterilizing the entire mascot suit. The price she pays for her little Patch Adams routine, she supposes… Doesn’t want to leave all that to her nurses and janitors.

Thankfully, that was her last patient for the day. Good thing, since she has important business tonight.

---

A half hour later, she’s out of the bear suit and turning in her charts, ready to take a load off for a few hours. “Here you are, Nurse Ushigome.”

Rimi takes the charts. “Good work today, Misaki-chan.”

“Call me that when I’m all the way clocked out.” Misaki yawns and stretches her arms upward. “It was a rough one today.”

“Was it?”

“Had to give some patients unsavory news today. Even Dr. Michelle can only soften some blows. And I’m a bit anxious about tonight.”

“Oh dear… is there anything I can do for you?”

Misaki smiles. “Just make sure you attend.”

Rimi giggles. “It’d be hard for me to miss it.”

The laughter eases Misaki, if only slightly. Fortunately, she still has a little bit of time before crunch hour, so she could proverbially put her feet up for minute. Not deigning to sit on one of the bright chairs lining the walls of the pediatric ward’s reception room, she instead leans on the nurse’s desk, her eyes drawn to the television popping with bright toddler programming. Of course, when Rimi’s manning the station, there’s only ever one show on.

~*It’s Kaoru’s Clues, come on, grab a seat*~

~*Don’t be blue, just hop on your feet!*~

~*Solvin’ mysteries wherever they be leadin’*~

~*The show we’ve got in store is sure to be--*~

~*FLEETING~!*~

The last word is always shouted by a choir of kindergartners, loud enough to wake dozing parents who might have fallen asleep during other, lesser programming. The graphics on screen of a purple horse and its various critter comrades is pleasant and sweet, and yet, upon seeing the familiarly garish host on screen – clad in striped shirt and khakis – Misaki still feels her eyes involuntarily twitch.

“Salutations, younglings!” calls Kaoru on the television. “Art thou ready to deconstruct the human condition?”

“YEAH!” cried the kids’ chorus.

“Fleeting! Let us sally forth and delve into the depths of human psyche!”

“Yaaaaaaaaaaaay!”

“Do three year olds really watch this…?” Misaki wonders.

“It’s for all ages,” Rimi replies defensively.

In the show, the doorbell rings. “Egads!” Kaoru yelps. “That must be our special guest I invited over on this most wondrous autumn day! Come hither to the door with me and answer, younglings!”

She makes a beckoning motion towards the TV screen. “This reminds me of this thing I’ve been reading up on called parasocial relationships—” Misaki begins.

“Shh,” Rimi says. “I want to see where this is going.”

Misaki hides her eye rolls as Kaoru saunters over to the front door of her fictional house, opening it to reveal the most consistent smile in all of media.

“Hello everyone.”

“Why, it’s Chisato Shirasagi!” Kaoru motions to her and to the whole audience. “Say hi to Chisato, everyone!”

“HIIII CHISATO!”

Rimi’s jaw hangs slightly ajar. “I thought she retired a few years ago?”

“She, er, did,” says Misaki. “Probably here as a favor to her wife.”

“Oh right, they’re married…”

“…why do you sound so disappointed? And how did you forget?”

“It’s wonderful to be here today,” says Chisato, facing Kaoru while cheating out towards the camera. “How are you, Kaoru?”

“Why, most elated, my dear… er… extremely platonic best friend of yesteryear. And yourself?”

Chisato chuckles. “Feeling very refreshed, thank you.”

And she looks it, too. Misaki is not Chisato-expert, but by this point she knows her well enough to tell that the smile isn’t forced, at least. Retirement’s been good to her, it seems.

“Wonderful. Now let’s – oh my.” The purple horse, Violet, delivers a letter to Kaoru. “Why, we have our first conundrum! Violet asks ‘why are the curtains around the door blue, Kaoru-kun?’”

“They’re a lovely color,” Chisato remarks. “The color complements the pink wallpaper quite well. It’s because they’re nice to look at, isn’t it?”

“Alas, dear, you could not be more mistaken,” says Kaoru. “For you see the blue curtains represent the depression of the human spirit, and our lack of will to carry on…”

“…Don’t you think that’s rather complex for a child to grasp?”

“Is life itself not difficult to grasp? Is not the question itself a mockery? ‘Why are the curtains blue’? Why is the SKY blue? Why are our souls without the touch of another reduced to blue? Why is Gershwin’s rhapsody in blue? Why are the blue meanies blue? Why is Mario red? And why is my hair a striking shade of purple?”

Chisato tunes her out about halfway through. “How many of you children have blue as your favorite color? Raise your hands!”

“Answer me, Chisato!” Kaoru cries. “My soul bleeds for wanting!”

Before Chisato’s steel smile could crack even an inch, the screen suddenly flashed to an BREAKING NEWS screen.

“Ah!” Rimi yelps. “I wanted to know the answer…”

Thank god, because I didn’t… Misaki thinks. She feels guilty about the silent remark only a moment later, as soon as the report begins.

“Breaking news – a fire has broken out at a local chemical plant. A number of laborers were trapped inside—”

“Oh no!” Rimi shouts, clasping her hands over her mouth. “How awful!”

“They said ‘were trapped,’” Misaki points out. “So maybe—”

“Fortunately, the fire was contained within a matter of minutes. Thanks to the heroics of one intrepid firefighter, there are miraculously no fatalities, with about a dozen reporting minor injuries.”

Misaki and Rimi breathe a sigh of relief as the footage cuts to a soot-covered worker.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. She scampered up a whole story on the outside of the building by herself. She was like a monkey. And then she carried out three people at a time, even though she was on the smaller side of things. It was downright superhuman.”

“Sh-She held me tight and said everything would be okay,” says another worker, a young woman holding a shock blanket. “If she moved even a second slower, I might be asphyxiating right now.”

“Remarkably, the firefighter has declined to reveal her identity,” the reporter narrates. “The only known comment on the situation she gave is, strangely, ‘Support your local softball teams!’ Whether that remark is flippancy or humility, we leave that to the viewer to decide…”

Misaki knew it was the latter. Hagumi would never treat people’s lives with anything but the utmost importance. That said… holy god, she was a legitimate hero. Would she even be on for tonight? …She almost laughs as soon as she has the thought. Hagumi probably wouldn’t miss it even if she had an arm torn off.

She was still processing this sudden influx of information when she caught the time.

“5:30…! Shit, I’m gonna be late.” Misaki straightens up and makes for the elevator in about three strides. “Sorry to dart, Rimi, I gotta—”

“Say no more,” Rimi calls as the elevator doors ding open. “I’ll make sure everything’s filed properly. See you soon!”

Misaki spends the whole elevator down sprucing herself up, restless and frazzled. It isn’t even like it’s suddenly do or die time, she just hates making Kanon wait on her. At least today she was meeting her here… Misaki doesn’t have to worry about bringing home dinner or who has chores schedules for the night. She should loosen up and relax.

But she can’t rid herself of the excitement as she steps out of the elevator and into the hospital lobby. There, seated in one of the starchy white leather chairs right by the front windows, is Kanon Matsubara – along with the most important person in Misaki’s whole world.

“Mommy!”

The little waddling tangle of navy blue hair collides with Misaki’s shin, and she feels her heart melt into that little point of contact. She kneels down and holds her daughter tight before hoisting her up in her arms, nuzzling her with all the tenderness of a mother bear. “Hey there, little cub. How was your day?”

Kumako Okusawa’s hair hangs over her eyes, the same light blue as Misaki’s. She clings to Misaki’s torso like a koala, hanging tightly even as Misaki relinquishes her own grip. Her smile is wide and shows off her missing baby teeth. “Super! How was yours?”

“Super duper,” Misaki replies, completely genuine even if she knows that that isn’t true. Even if she had the worst day of her life, now that her family is here there’s no way she can feel that bad about herself.

As Kumako eventually climbs down from her perch, still clutching tight to Misaki’s pant leg, Kanon, watching them both with immense love, walks over and kisses Misaki casually.

“Hello to you too,” Misaki replies with equal parts dryness and sweetness. “How was your day?”

“Getting better,” Kanon says with a smile. “And it was already good to begin with.”

“You’re just saying that”, says Misaki, holding Kumako’s hand as the tyke observes her surroundings. “Everything good at preschool today?”

“She did better with talking to the other students today,” says Kanon. “Her teacher was very proud.”

“Mommy, I made something for you!” Kumako reaches into her pocket and pulls out a brusquely folded piece of construction paper. Misaki unfolds it to find a crude brown scribbling of the three of them and a smiley heart, accompanied by the text ‘I luv yu mamee’. “Do you like it?”

“I LOVE it,” says Misaki, smooching her daughter on the crown of her head. “Your art is my favorite in the whole world, did you know that?”

“Really?!”

“Really really!” Misaki ruffles her hair affectionately. “It always makes me smile.”

“Yay!” Kumako bounces up and down in excitement. “You always make me smile too, mommy!”

Sometimes Misaki is embarrassed by how much she loves her. But only sometimes.

Kanon grasps Misaki’s free hand, their brass rings meeting with quiet comfort. “Shall we?”

Misaki nods. “Come on, cubby.”

She gently pulls Kumako along, the three of them drawing a number of gazes as they pass. Most of them are fawning, at least. Misaki actively ignores the other ones.

They enter the elevator, heading right back to where Misaki came from. Kumako tries to read the label on the elevator guide, but can’t grasp any of the kanji. “Mama, what does that say?”

“It says ‘pediatric ward,’” Kanon replies. “It’s where your mommy works.”

“What’s a pee-dee-asterisk?”

“It means someone who takes care of kids when they’re sick.”

“Woah…” Kumako looked up at Misaki. “So if I ever got an owie and died, mommy would be there to help me?”

“Well, uh… Y… Yes,” Misaki replies, unsure how to clarify the situation.

“And if I ever get a mean scary bully mommy will chase her off?”

“O-Of course!”

“And if my heart ever hurts, you’ll be there to make it better, right?”

“…Yes, honey. I promise.”

The elevator doors open right as Kumako buries her face in Misaki’s thigh.

Rimi greets them as they enter. “Hi Misaki-chan, Kanon-chan, Kumako-chan.”

Kumako hides behind Kanon with a little jump, peeking out at Rimi. “S-Sorry, she’s still shy…” Kanon explains.

Rimi kneels down. “We’ve met before. I’m your Aunt Rimi, remember?”

“I… I only have five aunts,” Kumako squeaks. “Not you.”

“Ok, ok, I understand…” Rimi laughs, retreating so as to not pressure the tyke too much. She faces Misaki and Kanon. “Is it time to set up yet?”

“Will be soon..” says Misaki. “Should wait for the others to arrive first, though. When we go to change, that’s when you should get our audience ready.”

“What ho, and what an audience it shall be! Lonely hearts seeking but a moment of respite… how fleeting…”

The bombastic voice nearly sends Misaki shooting out of her lab coat. Kumako turns, elated. “Auntie Kaoru!”

She runs up to Kaoru and hugs her knees. Rimi looks on dreamily from the distance. Kaoru pats Kumako’s head lovingly. “My, dear Misaki, dear Kanon, your progeny continues to be the most delectable child in my sight.”

“If you call my daughter ‘delectable’ again I’m going to make sure your tongue’s connection to the rest of your body is… how do you say it? Fleeting.”

Kaoru pales. “S-Surely you understand the measure of expression? Wh-Why, I merely say I could simply eat her up…”

Kumako’s eyes begin to water. “Auntie Kaoru… you wanna eat me?”

Kaoru chortles. “Wherefore…! Do not twist the words from my own mouth, madame…!”

Kumako begins crying and runs back into Kanon’s arms. Misaki is moments away from throwing Kaoru against the wall like it’s a medical drama, but an icy grip on Kaoru’s shoulder precedes her.

“And just what do you mean to say for yourself, darling?”

Chisato peers out from just about Kaoru’s collarbone, causing Kaoru to quiver like her legs were gelatin as Kumako wipes her tears. “H-Hi Auntie *hic* Chisato…”

Chisato’s smile turns from deathly to pleasant in a snap, all without moving an inch. “Hello, Kuma-chan! Say hi, Momoka.”

A small presence shrinks behind her.

“Don’t be shy, sweetie. She’s a very nice girl.”

Slowly, a pair of cerise eyes poke out from behind Chisato (and Kaoru’s) legs, covered by a stream of violet hair.

“Ah…!” Kaoru cried. “There is my little angel! Queen of Queens, Empress of Empresses, the most loving and tender creature upon the face of—”

Kumako trots over, completely oblivious to whatever Kaoru is saying. “Hi.”

Momoka wilts the closer Kumako gets. “H… Hi…”

“Wanna be friends?”

Momoka eeps and shrinks further.

Kumako stops. “Do you not wanna?”

“Um…” Momoka fiddles with her fingers. “I…”

“Momoka is just quiet today, Kuma-chan,” says Chisato. “She’s very nervous about kindergarten.”

“Aww,” says Kanon. “Hopefully we can give her some courage. Right, Kumako?”

“Uh-huh!” Kumako makes a fwooshing motion and sprinkles it out towards Momoka. “There! I gave you my courage!”

Momoka blinks. It’s a little hard to tell whether she’s stunned or just befuddled. Perhaps both.

“Well, now we’re just waiting on—" Misaki begins.

As if on cue, her vision is suddenly covered by a pair of hands. “Guess who!”

Misaki sighs. “There’s only one person who’d do that to me in their thirties. Well, two, but Hina Hikawa is on Mars right now. Which just leaves—”

“Auntie Kokoro!” Kumako cries. She outright leaps towards Kokoro, causing her to drop her hands around Misaki’s eyes in order to catch her.

“Wo-hoh! Howyadoin, Kumako!”

“Super di duper!” Kumako replies. “Happy! Lucky!”

“Smile! Yay!” Kokoro completes, as naturally as breathing. “You’re so good at that!”

Kumako beams as Kanon glances around. “Where’s Hagumi-chan? She’s with you, right, Kokoro-chan?”

“Yup! Hagu’s just in the bathroom.”

The toilet flushes just as she says it. Everybody turns down the hall to see Hagumi exit the restroom… covered with soot.

“Howdy y’all!” she says with complete nonchalance.

Misaki attempts to process how someone could look that dirty after washing up as Kumako charges towards her. “Auntie Hagu! Hug time!”

“Hug time!” Hagumi repeats, squeezing Kumako tight in her ashy embrace. Before Misaki or Kanon could stop them, Kumako is covered in dirt from head to toe. “Are you ready for the show tonight?”

“Super di duper double excited!” Kumako says. “I’m so happy I get to see all my aunties again!”

It had certainly been a while. Kaoru’s production schedule made many outings between the five or six of them quite rare, and Kanon’s own marine biology work put a wedge in many more. And they hadn’t performed in a long, long time. Misaki had almost forgotten what it was like.

“Hagu!” Kokoro cries, cartwheeling towards her.

“Koko!” Hagu cartwheels too. Somehow they finish their motions right as their arms latch around each other with perfect synchronicity. “It’s been so long!”

“Do you mean five minutes…?” asks Misaki. “You see each other constantly.”

“Yeah, but five minutes is too long!” says Kokoro, squeezing tighter.

“Fair enough. Anyway, we’re all accounted for…” Misaki mutters, turning to Kanon and Rimi. “Is it time, then?”

The two of them nod as Misaki feels a tug on her coat. She turns to see Kumako look up at her confusedly. “Not everybody’s here yet though.”

“They’re not?”

Kumako’s eyes are wide and pleading. “Where… Where’s Auntie Michelle?”

Ah. Right. Of course. Always that little rub, wasn’t there?

Misaki motions to her bandmates. “You all can start getting ready. I just need to talk to her for a sec.”

The rest of the band nods in understanding, Kanon giving the two of them a long look before heading off with everybody else (sans Chisato, who hovered a few meters away around the reception tv with Momoka in tow, clearly scrutinizing her own televised performance).

Misaki knelt down before her bright-eyed, ash-covered child, looking gently into her. “Don’t worry about Auntie Michelle. She’ll be out here with everybody else in just a few minutes.”

“Are you sure?”

Misaki nods. “She’s our DJ. She wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“But where will you be, mommy?”

Misaki chews on her lip. “We’ve talked about this, honey. I work backstage—”

“But I never see you and Auntie Michelle at the same time…” Kumako kicks the air. “Can’t you come out and watch the show with me? Please?”

Misaki wishes dearly to say yes, but knows it’s a physical impossibility. “You’re… gonna have to be without me for a little bit, champ…”

“But… I miss you when you’re not here.”

How do such simple phrases wring out her heart so thoroughly? She searches for the right words. “I am here, though. Whether or not you know it.”

“Really?”

“Yup.” Misaki takes Kumako’s hand and lays it on her chest. “In your heart. That’s where Michelle comes from, and it’s where I come from too. We’re sisters, did you know that?”

Kumako nods. “That’s why she’s my auntie!”

Misaki smiles. “As long as I’m here, Michelle’s here. And as long as Michelle’s here, I’m here. So don’t get scared, okay? I know you can smile.”

After a moment of pensiveness, Kumako does.

“Attagirl. I’m so proud of you.”

Kumako hugs Misaki, spreading the dirt all over her doctor’s coat. Not that she cared at all in the moment. “I love you mommy.”

Misaki hugs her back. “Love you too, sweetie. Be good and listen to Auntie Chisato, okay?”

“I will!” Kumako promises.

She scurries off to join Chisato and Momoka in the corner. Misaki gives Chisato a sheepish smile as thanks before retreating to her office.

---

How many times has Misaki put on the suit by now? It seems to get heavier each go. Maybe it’s all that anxiety bubbling up inside her. Maybe it’s the increasing expectations she sets for herself each day. Or maybe it’s just her sweat soaking into the fabric. Either way… it’s a lot to deal with.

She’s sitting in her office chair, staring out the window with a perfect glimpse of the setting sun. She’s rolling something around subconsciously in her hands, feeling its shape and weight without really focusing on it. She’s waiting for Rimi to come in and give her the green light to head on stage – er, “on stage” – but in the calm before the storm, everything is unnervingly quiet, even as she hears the sounds of children clamoring in the distance.

Her mind fixates on Kumako. She’s not the most anxious child in the world, but she struggles sometimes. Misaki knows that she and Kanon want nothing more than for their daughter to grow up free of the mental chains that had ensnared them, in complete health and happiness. They’ve done their best so far – at least, that’s what she likes to think. But there’s only so much they could do for her. So many things outside of their control.

Agh, she’s being negative again. She should try to distract herself. Moving her fidget to her offhand, she pulls out her phone and looks through the news. This, as it often is, is a mistake:

WHO warns another global pandemic may occur within the decade

New study shows wealth gap continues to widen since recent deregulations

Last month officially hottest September in recorded history

Antifa and rightist forces clash as downtown protests flare

Uptick in mental illness diagnoses not just due to wider awareness of conditions, study concludes

Generation Z sees highest depression rates of any age group – “What is there to live for?”

Doom and gloom at every turn. Little to feel good about or look forward to. A world growing darker and colder by the day.

It’s then that she realizes what she’s been toying with in her hands.

It’s her antidepressant bottle.

…She took her dose today, right?

She has to check her pillbox to make sure. But she did. That’s good. Her brain doesn’t quite work as well without it. Guess she needs to borrow some chemical happiness, since she can’t quite make her own… Does that make her broken? Incomplete?

She stares over at Michelle’s head, vacantly grinning at her. The question from so long ago lingers in her head:

Hey, Michelle… can you make me happy, too?

And, in response, another echo:

“I AM MICHELLE! There wasn’t any playing pretend! When she was happy, I was happy! When she was there for people, I was there for people!”

An answer that was hers… and yet not her own.

How many years had it been since that Misaki had said that to her?

The one who had come from another reality, righted her wrongs, and returned to her own world… leaving this Misaki, the one who had thrown it all away, to get it all back. Much of the job had already been done for her. But not messing it up again took much more willpower and effort than Misaki could dare to admit. It really did feel like walking from the Sahara to Japan… but she had somebody else’s footsteps to follow at least.

Misaki always wondered about that Misaki. What was her world like? Was she a doctor too? Did she and Kanon end up together? Did they have a child? A happy life? Would she ever know these things, or would she forever be left to guess and wonder what had happened?

Perhaps wondering was simply the natural course of things. But if she ever did see her again, Misaki knew what she would say:

Misaki smiles at Michelle’s expression, gazing upon her like the omnipotent visage of some almighty god. “Sorry. And thank you.”

Michelle doesn’t say anything back.

A light knock on the door. Misaki expects Rimi, but instead sees her wife poke her foot in, already costumed. “Are you ready, Misaki?”

Misaki picks up the bear head, leaving her pills on the table, right next to the bouquet she had produced via her little magic trick – zinnias. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Kanon smiles, sweetly and softly. “Nervous?”

“We both are, I bet.”

“Fueee… you know me too well.”

“That’s my line.” Misaki plops the head on top of herself. “How do I look?”

Kanon moves close to Misaki’s body. “Like the happiest bear in the world.”

Misaki laughs. “I am, with you here.”

And they kiss, right through the mesh of Michelle’s mouth.

“…We’re in this together, you know.” says Kanon. “All of us.”

“I know. You keep it in mind too, alright?”

“Of course. Now, let’s go.” Kanon steps towards the door, holding Misaki’s hand as tightly as she ever has. “Our world is waiting.”

---

 The pediatric ward is decorated in streamers of orange, half to celebrate the season, and half to celebrate the band that had charitably decided to play for the numerous sick children who had to stay overnight at the hospital. Dozens crowd into the same small hall to have one night where they had a reason to smile. There isn’t an astronomic number of them – about a hundred in total. But that’s a whole hundred people that they make smile. And surely that means something.

There’s no dramatic lighting or magnificent staging. The band members simply walk out to their waiting instruments, facing the crowd with million-watt grins that they mean with every fiber of their being. And the exuberance flows from the first words spoken into the mic:

“Hello, everyone! We are Hello, Happy World!”

The children cheer, forgetting whatever pains that ailed them, overtaken by the small yet joyous comfort that now lay within their grasp

“First up! Our vocalist!”

She’s long chopped her hair down to a hacked bob, ignoring her fortune to teach the wonders of music to children throughout Tokyo. She moves just as sprightly as she did in her teens, unencumbered by the coldness of maturity or the sorrow of reality. Or perhaps it’s simply that the world she inhabits is brighter than others’.

“Kokoro Tsurumaki! Happy! Lucky! Smile! Yay!”

But either way, when folks see her flip, they want to do the same themselves.

“Second! Our guitarist!”

Her once iconic ponytail now lies at a short pixie cut, even as her debonair demeanor hasn’t shifted one iota. Once reigning as a local star, she’s since grown to become an icon of children’s television across the country, even retaining her core demographic of fawning teenage girls in the process. One with such a dazzling, theatrical persona might have seemed fake, but to anybody who knows her, she’s wholly real.

“Kaoru Seta. Good evening…”

Even if that realness, however cogent, is fleeting.

“Third! Our bassist!”

Her muscled arms grip her bass loosely and proficiently. Her long, tied up hair swishes with an energy she carries in every facet of her being. Once having believed she could not save herself, she devotes her life to saving others. She wants nothing more than to make the people around her safe and content.

“Hagumi Tsurumaki! Let’s have fun!”

And right now, she’s fulfilling that dream with flying colors.

“Fourth! Our drummer!”

She wields the drumsticks with a confidence accrued slowly, through years of trial and anguish. With every step forward, she fears she’ll take ten back. But she knows that she can push past anything in her way – especially with the gleaming eyes of her daughter in the front row upon her.

“Kanon Okusawa! Thank you for having us!”

Courage marches forward to the beat of her drum.

“Annnnnnd… last, but not least!”

The DJ decks feels smooth and familiar. She scratches and mixes as naturally as she breathes. Every noise and signal is attuned to her heart, bursting with energy and joy, knowing that she’s in the place where she truly belongs, her favorite place in the world.

It’s not always glamorous, of course. Performing is exhausting when it takes twice as much energy to move. Her suit smells like perspiration and chlorine and likely won’t smell like anything else for the rest of her life. And the thing was so heavy: the older she got, the more each motion took out of her. But despite all the pain, all the effort, all the burdens that cause her to heave and wheeze and push through with every last ounce of energy – emotional, physical, and mental – inside the suit, she’s smiling.

Because she knows.

“Yo yo yo! DJ Michelle is in the house!”

That’s a weight she can bear.