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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.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Friends & Family

Misaki drifted in and out of unconsciousness, her dreams filled with fuzzy, phantasmagoric bears in all shapes and colors speaking gibberish. When her eyes finally cracked open for good, she felt like twelve dump trucks had unloaded their hauls straight into her brain, overloading it with garbage and stray thoughts. Even through the dumpster piles, however, her words from hours earlier rang dull in her ears. She had hoped the nap would have improved her mental state, but instead she only felt worse – not helped by her ailing physical condition.

The sound of light snoring now accompanied her. In the chair by her bedside was Kanon, who had fallen asleep in a sitting position. The wisp of her single pig tail bobbled slightly with her breathing, her anxiety-ridden face now at rest. She must have snuck back in at some point – was she that worried about her? Even through the thought-maelstrom, Misaki felt an intense gratitude. Everyone else in the band may have been hapless and unknowing, but Kanon… Kanon was always there for her. Misaki wondered if she knew just how much she meant to her.

A sudden judder and screech sent Misaki lurching back against her headrest. Kanon stumbled forward slightly, jerking awake with a soft squeak. The persistent and distant roar of the engine slowly quieted. The plane had landed – Misaki would have presumed somewhere in Central Asia to refuel, but the initial flight to Africa had taught her that whatever model of plane this was there had enough fuel capacity to go halfway around the world and then some. Tsurumaki money. Never doubt its limits.

“Mi-Misaki-chan,” murmured Kanon, half-dazed. “Um, how long have you been awake?”

“Only a few minutes,” Misaki replied. “Good timing, huh?”

Kanon nodded. “Did you rest well? You were out for a long time…”

“Y-Yeah, definitely,” said Misaki, purposefully ignoring the fatigue that scraped at the edge of her eyes. “Um, how’s everybody else doing?”

Kanon’s eyes trailed off from her own. “Well…”

The door to the room creaked open. Misaki expected the dummies to come barging in, scampering all over the place as usual – but instead the suits made their entrance, their black-shoed steps in perfect tandem. “Okusawa-sama. Are you feeling well? We may transfer you to the local hospital, if necessary.”

“I… I think I’ll be alright,” Misaki replied. She definitely wasn’t 100%, but she felt a need to reassure Kanon – and herself – that she was doing fine.

“Very well.” The bodyguards moved swiftly and without error, detaching the IV drip from her arm and handing her a fresh change of clothes. “We apologize for the graveness of the situation. Adjustments will be made to the Michelle suit as necessary. We can only hope that it doesn’t happen again.”

Yeah, I sure hope so, Misaki thought dryly. “Where’s Kokoro and the rest?”

“They have already deplaned. Their spirits remain high –  they expressed excitement about seeing you again.”

“…Did they?” Misaki was a little surprised. She had wondered if that artillery shell tirade of hers had somehow wormed its way into their steel-plated brains, but evidently that wasn’t enough. She was relieved they weren’t hurt by her words…

And yet… she was also a little annoyed. As much as she had overreacted, they had acted rather unfeeling towards her. The entire situation still stung.

“Should we go and see them?” asked Kanon.

“…Give me a moment to change,” said Misaki, rising shakily from the bed. Her legs felt like they were made of rice pudding. Her arms hung limp by her side, and her heartrate picked up pace just by standing.

“A-Are you sure you’ll be alright…?” asked Kanon, concern creasing her thin brow.

“Yeah,” Misaki reassured, her old persevering smile back on her face. “If you don’t mind…”

“R-Right.” Kanon wobbled on out the door, and the suits had already vanished. As Misaki changed out of her hospital gown, her mind clouded with what she’d say to the trio. Her first instinct was to apologize for her outburst. It was an overreaction to a typical misunderstanding, she reasoned. No need to be upset – just apologize and let it blow over. But the more she dwelled on it, the more her frustration took over. She may have said a little too much, sure, but she was the one who collapsed in the desert, on the other side of the world from where they live, with only a small handful of people who would even be aware if she bit it. That didn’t justify her actions, per se… but shouldn’t they apologize first? Then again, they didn’t know any better…

Misaki groaned. This was a recurrent problem with the three fools. They never meant poorly, and it was true that they were much more appreciative of her now than when she had started off in this merry band of madness. She still viscerally remembered the time where Kokoro didn’t even recall her existence, for heaven’s sake. Now they at leastacknowledged the managing, the arranging, the writing, the scheduling, and every other bit of work she did to keep them all afloat. And yet whenever she worked herself to death DJing in a bear suit they had no idea. There was no malice, of course – but wasn’t ignorance its own kind of hurtful?

She sighed as she redonned her trusty ball cap and hoodie. Misaki would probably get over it as soon as she saw the three of them cajoling about like normal. Their happiness was just too infectious… it even warmed the cockles of her own little wooden heart at times. She just had to make sure Kokoro didn’t plan any extravagant trips to an active volcano or the like in the future. Yeah. That was all. Take it easy.

Fully dressed, she exited the hospital room, passing a variety of extravagant interiors: a gym, a dance lounge, a movie theater, and – most incomprehensibly – a swimming pool to reach the plane’s front. As she stepped down the small set of marble-plated stairs, she spotted the rest of the band, gallivanting about in circles. She exhaled slowly, unsure whether to be relieved or not.

“Ah, the princess awakens,” says Kaoru. “Surely she was kissed by a passing prince? Ah, what a fleeting thought…”

“Mii-kun! You’re up!” Hagumi exclaimed, no less chipper than she was hours beforehand. “Did you get enough sleep?”

“I hope so,” said Misaki, feeling horribly jetlagged. According to her phone, it was 4 in the afternoon, and she felt like it was 3 in the morning. She guessed spending the end tail of her Golden Week vacation crossing the planet would do that to someone – even though the rest of the band (sans Kanon) appeared as energetic as ever.

“Enough of that,” said Kokoro. “There’s something more important we have to get to!”

Misaki’s ears perked up. Something important? …Were they going to confront her about the incident after all? Or… were they actually going to own up to their actions? She braced herself to apologize either way, knowing what she had done was wrong. “Look, I-“

“Where’s Michelle?!”

Once again, Misaki was stopped dead in her tracks. “I… she’s…”

“We’ve been worried sick,” said Hagumi. “She’s been missing for hours now, and we don’t know what kind of condition she’s in. Has she woken up?”

“Surely her comatose state will not last forever?” asked Kaoru.

“…She’ll be fine,” Misaki growled lowly. She knew better than to yap this time. But any amount of guilt now turned to pure cantankerousness, like milk immediately souring into sickly yogurt.

“Are you sure?” asked Kokoro, her usually-indefatigable grin nowhere to be seen. “We’ve been worried about her for hours.”

Misaki felt her spirit get stabbed again. Kanon must have sensed the tension, because she stepped between her and the rest. “W-We should just let Michelle rest. I’m sure Misaki-chan will let us know when she’s better.”

Kokoro swayed from side to side in contemplation for a moment before her smile returned. “Okay! I just have to believe in her.”

“That’s right!” Hagumi affirmed.

“Mmhmm,” Misaki offered flatly.

As this resolution came about, a black limousine glided up to the planeside, one of the suits emerging and opening the back. “Let us be on our way home, Kokoro-sama.”

The dummies climbed into the limo without hesitation. Misaki was about to begrudgingly follow when she felt Kanon grab her hand. “What is it?” she grumbled, sounding a little more discontented than she perhaps intended.

“Um…” Kanon again, before trailing off. “It’s… It’s nothing.”

Misaki shook her hand away and entered the car, the scribbles of her thoughts muddying all of the surrounding noise.

 

Fortunately for Misaki, her residence was closest to the airport. She spent the entire drive staring out the tinted windows, silently stewing in an unproductive manner. She could tell that Kanon was staring at her the entire time with worried eyes, which made her feel bad, but she wasn’t sure what to do about it. She had already made one scene earlier that day – she didn’t need another one so soon after.

When they finally reached the Okusawa household, the chorus of byes and see-you-laters mostly rang empty in her ears. It was only Kanon’s voice that reached her.

“Misaki-chan.”

She paused in her tracks, peeking over her shoulder to see Kanon’s eyes darting around through the window.

“R-Rest well tonight, okay?”

“…Yeah.” Misaki lazily waved behind her, too tired to muster even a smile, and dug out her keys before unlocking the door and hurling it open, the limo speeding away behind her.

Her immediate instinct was to drop everything and hurl herself into bed, but fate had other plans, because as soon as she opened the door a waist-high object collided with her legs, clasping her tightly around the knees.

“Big sis! Welcome home!” shouted Misaki’s sister.

“K-Koharu,” Misaki replied, somewhat dazed. “Were you waiting for me?”

“Uh-huh!” Her little sister bobbed her head up and down excitedly, flashing some of her missing baby teeth. “Mom had to go to the supermarket, so she left me in charge.”

“Ah… wonderful.” Misaki wasn’t a big fan of leaving her sister unattended without supervision. “How long have you been alone?”

“Um… an hour?”

That wasn’t too egregious. Misaki closed and locked the door, her shoulders relaxing a bit. “I thought you were staying at your friend’s house over the holiday?”

“Uh-huh! I slept over at Hanako-chan’s place last night.”

Oh right. The whiplash of the time zone change was such a mind warp that what had felt like one day had in fact been two. Misaki groaned at the thought of going back to school after that.

“Big sis, are you ok? You look pretty red…”

“I’m fine, Koharu,” Misaki assured her, not wanting her sister to worry. “Why don’t you tell me about your break?”

Koharu’s little gray eyes lit up. “Me and Hanako-chan went to the aquarium and saw the dolphin show!”

“Oh yeah?”

“Uh-huh! It went like, woooosh way up into the air! There was a giant ring like a bajillion meters above the ground but it still made it through easily! And then when it came back down, there was a biiiig splash, and we got super wet! And then, we went to go see the jellyfish…”

Misaki couldn’t help but smile as she listened. Koharu still had that unbreakable childhood whimsy about her, and the way she told stories was visceral and energetic. As the ten-year old talked about marine animals, slumber parties, and the most recent sentai flick at the theaters, Misaki felt the tension in her muscles deflate a little. Though her bubbly nature was just similar enough to Kokoro’s to keep the day’s troubles on the edge of her mind.

“…and then Sayuri-chan found a beetle the size of her head! It was so cool! Even if Akira-kun thought it was gross.”

“Sounds like you had a lot of adventures, huh?” asked Misaki.

“Yep! It was a total blast! What did you do, big sis?”

The picture of the African desert hung squarely in Misaki’s mind. “I just… hung out at Kanon-san’s place for a few days. Took it easy.”

“Oh.” Koharu sounded a little disappointed. “Well, at least you got some sleep.”

I wish, Misaki thought.

“And maybe you got to-“ Koharu cut off, her eyes breaking contact. “Um… nevermind.”

Misaki’s eyebrow perched. “What is it?”

“Nuthin’.”

“…Koharu.”

“I-It isn’t! Really!”

“So it is nothing or it isn’t nothing? Which one is it?”

Koharu’s attempted casualness was giving way to fright. “Pr-Promise you won’t be mad?”

Misaki took a deep breath. “I promise. What is it?”

Koharu swallowed hard, her tiny fists shaking. Her voice trembled as she confessed: “I-I-I… I broke Michelle!”

In her 90%-asleep mind, Misaki was horribly confused. Broke Michelle? Koharu shouldn’t have even had access to the suit. It was only kept in two places - at her workplace downtown, and in the Tsurumaki manor. But upon seeing Koharu run up to her room, her weary brain clicked back into place, and sure enough, the little sister returned with a felt pink bear with a torn seam, cotton flesh oozing out of the arms.

“I’m so sorrrrry!” Koharu cried, on the verge of tears. “Me and Hanako-chan were just having a slumber party, and I just- we were-“

“Now now, it’s alright, it’s alright,” Misaki soothed, examining the doll closely. “It’s a pretty clean cut. I should be able to fix it up in no time. Let me grab my sewing kit, okay?”

Koharu wiped her eyes and hiccupped. Misaki patted her reassuringly on the head and grabbed her hand before traipsing up to her room to find needle and thread. She opened the top desk drawer and pulled out a pink, glitter-colored box – decorated by Koharu herself years prior.

“Can you fix her?” asked the little sister, peering over her shoulder.

“Of course,” said Misaki. “I’m the felting master, aren’t I?”

After probing around the tear a little more thoroughly, she readied her sutures and got to work. It was a pretty simple matter to re-stuff the arm and sew it back up. Making sure to match the color of thread to the exact right shade of pink, she deftly patched up the wound and returned the felt Michelle’s arm to a proper position.

“There.” Misaki held the doll up and moved its arms to and fro. “‘Well, hello there! My name’s Michelle! I’m cute, fluffy, and always have a smile on my face! Can I get a smile on your face too, little lady?’”

Koharu’s face glowed like the sun. “That was so fast! How did you do that?”

“Felting. Master.” Misaki held her hands up and wiggled her fingers wryly.

Koharu hugged the Michelle doll tight to her chest. “It’s you, sis!”

Misaki laughed. “Yup. It’s me.” She had made no reservations about hiding her occupation from her family – especially when Koharu was so reverent of the position. She’d said it countless times: “When I grow up, I wanna be Michelle too!” If only the kid had known the mascot gig wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Still, Misaki never wanted to vanquish her tiny dreams, so she usually just smiled and went along with it.

The sound of a creaking door and rustling keys came from downstairs. “Mom’s home!” Koharu exclaimed, darting out of the room and down the stairs. Misaki envied her energy. She could barely remember the days where she had the vigor to so much as take a jog around the block. Nowadays she mostly just came home and collapsed. One of these days she’d have to force herself to take a vacation.

She was about to follow her sister when a buzzing perked up in her hoodie pocket. It was Kanon.

Matsubara K. – are you feeling ok? (#> <)

Misaki felt her heart fuzz up. She felt bad for worrying her so much. Against her true state of mind, she reassured her.

Okusawa M. – I’ll be fine.

Okusawa M. – Thanks for the concern.

Okusawa M. - (* ̄(エ) ̄*)

Matsubara K. - (@^◡^)

“Misaki! Can you come help with the groceries?”

“Coming,” Misaki called back, cramming her phone back into her pocket before sliding down the stairs. An assortment of paper bags were strewn about the countertops, being methodically emptied by her mother.

“Welcome home, sweetie,” she said, sparing a small glance and weak smile before returning to her unpacking duties. Emi Okusawa had her long black hair tied in a hasty ponytail, still adorned in the no-frills teal dress and simple makeup of an office secretary. Her harried eyes were currently tracked on the green onions she was storing in the vegetable drawer.

“You had to work today?” asked Misaki, striding up next to her and starting to deposit items into the pantry.

“I got called in early,” her mother sighed. “How was your sleepover?”

Ah, right. Her little sister wasn’t the only one she was hiding things from. “Alright. Not too exciting. Just… games, girl talk, everything you’d expect.”

Misaki expected to be too old to get away with that excuse, but her mother didn’t bat an eye. “Well, I hope you were able to relax a bit. I know how busy you are.”

You’re one to talk, Misaki thought, opening the fridge to put carrots in the drawer. It wasn’t uncommon for her mother to make it home long after she and Koharu had eaten dinner.

Her mother glimpsed at her, her expression furrowed. “Are you okay, honey?” You look awfully flushed…”

Misaki gulped. “I’m fine. It was just kinda hot today, that’s all. Got a bit overheated at one point.”

“It is rather warm for this time of year,” her mother replied. “Remember to stay hydrated, okay?”

“I know, Mom.”

“Especially when you’re working – it must be deathly hot in that suit.”

I know, Mom.” It had come out a bit terser than she had meant to, but her mother had accidentally prodded a nerve that had been on fire only hours before.

Her mother receded slightly. “Just… take care of yourself, okay honey?”

Misaki sighed, the guilt creeping back into her bones. “I will. Thanks, Mom.”

She felt a buzzing in her pocket. Kanon again.

Matsubara K. – Are you still mad?

Matsubara K. – at Kokoro-chan

Matsubara K. – and everybody

Matsubara K. – sorry i’m just wondering (>_<)

Misaki’s mouth pursed to the side. The groceries were put away, so she trudged on back to her room and closed the door. She considered calling Kanon to talk a bit more intimately and immediately, but decided messaging would probably be fine.

Okusawa M. – To be honest… I am.

Okusawa M. – I know they don’t mean bad ever

Okusawa M. – but their ignorance, for once, really stung.

Okusawa M. – I mean, I was the one who almost died…

Okusawa M. – Shouldn’t they be more concerned?

Matsubara K. – I understand (/。\)

Matsubara K. – I think they do worry about you

Matsubara K. – It just doesn’t come across well because they’re worried about Michelle too

Well, wasn’t that ironic.

Okusawa M. – I just wished they’d acknowledge how much I do sometimes

Matsubara K. – They do! Really! (⊃。•́‿•̀。)⊃

Matsubara K. – Kokoro-chan talks all the time about how much you help

Matsubara K. – The way you handle all the logistics

Matsubara K. – and keep everybody in check always

Matsubara K. – it amazes me

Matsubara K. – I could never do something like that

Misaki felt the red return to her face.

Okusawa M. – Thanks.

Okusawa M. – You’re right.

Okusawa M. – I guess the Michelle stuff just gets to me sometimes.

Okusawa M. – Especially since it’s something that just never seems like it’ll change

Okusawa M. – No matter how many times I tell them they just don’t get it

Okusawa M. – I should’ve accepted it by this point.

Okusawa M. – But there are times when I just wanna ditch that stupid costume and be myself, you know?

Okusawa M. – Sorry, maybe that’s too far.

Matsubara K. – I understand your frustration

Matsubara K. – maybe we can try talking to them tomorrow

Matsubara K. – work everything out

Matsubara K. - ✺◟( • ω • )◞✺

Okusawa M. – Yeah, that sounds good.

Okusawa M. – I do feel bad about what I did

Okusawa M. – and…

Okusawa M. - I want to apologize

Okusawa M. – But they need to apologize too, you know?

Dots appeared to show Kanon typing, but they were followed by radio silence.

Okusawa M. – Either way, I hope it goes well.

Okusawa M. - (/(エ)\)

Matsubara K. - ʕ ᵔᴥᵔ ʔ

Matsubara K. – My mom’s calling me for dinner, ttyl!

Matsubara K. - ☆ミ(o*・ω・)ノ

Okusawa M. – See you tomorrow!

Misaki breathed deeply as she plopped down on her bed, plunking her phone on her nightstand. The entire situation was making her antsy. She was never good about being honest, especially when it came to her own feelings. How many times had she denied how much she loved the band at first? She treated it like some mire she was engulfed in instead of a time she cherished. True, being Michelle wasn’t easy… but wasn’t it worth it, to make the rest of them so happy?

She asked herself that question sincerely. She had no intention of quitting the band, to be sure. But what was stopping her from just DJing as herself and foregoing the bear suit? She could probably come up with an excuse. Michelle had greener pastures to go to, another band to partake in. Surely they’d understand. But… they’d be so sad. And she couldn’t abide that. After all, wasn’t the point of Hello, Happy World! to make people smile? Besides, what would they do without her? The dummies just couldn’t handle things on their own. And Kanon would get stampeded if she tried to take charge. It was up to Misaki to bear the brunt of the logistics and babysitting. That’s just the way it was. It was all to make them happy.

The flash of their faces when she’d screamed at them now glued to her mind.

…I’ll apologize tomorrow, she thought. For real, this time. I mean, they should too… but I went too far. Didn’t I?

A knock on the door. “Misaki, dinner’s ready,” her mom said.

She didn’t have much of an appetite. And the wormhole of a flight – along with the continuing emotional toil – was digging its way into her cerebral cortex. “I… I think I’m going to go to bed, actually.”

Her mother cracked the door open. “Are you sure? It’s only seven o’clock.”

“Y-Yeah.” Misaki tried, for the umpteenth time that day, to sound like everything was fine. “I just… stayed up too late last night talking with everybody.”

“…Alright.” Her mother closed the door. “Good night, sweetie.”

“Good night.”

Misaki crawled into her pajamas before melting into her bedsheets. She looked about at the dimly-lit room about her, the threadbare walls painted white and gray, the single blue violet she half-remembered to water by her windowsill, the plain beige furniture. From the outside she heard the occasional careen of a passing car and the steady chirps of crickets.

Across from her bed, atop her desk, lay several photo frames – each one of her with the band. There was one of them during their first performance, a shot of them at the aquarium, even that one night on the luxury cruise liner. From one of the desk drawers, papers filled with notes and schedules overflowed. Underneath the counter lay a stack of records and a mini-turntable she practiced with on off-days. It was the only corner of the place that shone with any real vigor.

As she stared at the ceiling, Misaki thought to herself of all she’d done for the band. She got some credit, it was true – but never to the full extent.

Did that make her upset? Envious? Scornful?

She wasn’t sure. But it was the fear of dissatisfaction that crept above her as she fell into the deep abyss of sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: The Missing

*din-ding-dingaling, din-ding-dingaling, din-ding-dingaling…*

Through the twisted and unceasing void of slumber, Misaki heard the faint, trite jingle of an alarm.  She raised a half-dead arm and languidly hit the “off” button on her phone, her eyes creaking open with crusted unease. Despite sleeping for 12 hours straight, she had a splitting headache, like she had been punched in the head a dozen times before entering a washing machine. Nursing her temple, she stumbled out of bed, examining her phone with interest.

That’s weird… she thought to herself. I thought my alarm ringtone was-

She noticed the time and jumped a little. She must have unconsciously hit the snooze button a few times, because she’d be running late if she didn’t hurry. She threw on her uniform and hastily grabbed her things before plowing downstairs and out the door, sparing a split second to grab a banana and wave goodbye to her mother. By the time she was down the street on her way to Hanasakigawa, she was making fine time. Misaki sighed with relief – despite her perpetual exhaustion, she hadn’t been late to school yet, and that was one record she wasn’t about to break.

As she passed through neighborhood to reach the school gates, Misaki dwelled on her worries. The situation with Kokoro & co. was still biting at her, but at this point most of her doubt had gone away. She just needed to own up and say sorry, her own qualms be damned. She should’ve known better than to expect better from the dummies, anyway. If only they’d realize what they’d done. Oh well – she was content to be on the periphery, even if it didn’t exactly make her happy. But that was just the way they were. What could she do?

When she arrived in homeroom, the back of her uniform slicked with a thin sheet of sweat, she saw Kokoro in her usual spot, humming and doodling kindergarten-level scribbles by her lonesome. Her crayon was on fire, scrawling shapes of vague geometric cohesion in florid patterns. Was she composing a new song? Misaki couldn’t exactly get her band leader’s intent at the moment, but she could tell that Kokoro was in a good mood, and she wouldn’t want to ruin that with confrontation first thing in the morning, would she? Though Misaki had to admit the girl’s carefree attitude smarted a little. Yesterday’s incident wasn’t lingering on her mind, it seemed.

Throughout the day’s classes, Misaki kept glancing over at Kokoro, wondering what exactly was going through her goldilocks brain as she paid only half-attention to the lecture. Misaki thought of how to apologize – should she wait until the band was together? No, then she’d have to wait an extra day – she worked on Mondays, and Hello, Happy World! met on Tuesdays. Maybe she could call a special lunch meeting? But Kaoru was over at Haneoka, and it wouldn’t be easy to convene in such a short time frame… she just had to apologize to them one at a time, it seemed. Starting with the head honcho of the bunch.

When noontime finally ticked around and half the students absconded to the cafeteria or who knows where, Misaki rose from her seat with a steeled gut, ready to confront Kokoro. But just as she was about to walk over, Kokoro turned to the girl nearest her and asked a seemingly harmless question.

“Hey, you! What should I do today?”

The classmate seemed bewildered by the inquiry. “Um, why are you asking me?”

“’Cuz I’m trying to figure out how to have fun, that’s why!”

That was odd. Misaki hadn’t heard Kokoro interrogate people in that way for months. Then again, Misaki usually met up with Kanon for lunch, and didn’t really keep firm tabs on the other members’ activities – maybe it was something Kokoro did on the days without band practice. Undeterred, she walked over.

“Um… Kokoro?”

The golden-eyed girl twirled to face her, flashing her pearly whites. “What is it?”

Misaki straightened herself, preparing the speech she had rehearsed in her head. “Look, about yesterday… on the airplane…”

The pressure immediately made her forget her scripted thoughts. Kokoro just kept looking at her blankly, awaiting more words.

“I’m… I’m sorry, okay?” Misaki finally forced out. “I just… went too far, and I didn’t mean to say that about you. It was in the heat of the moment, and it wasn’t anything I actually believe. I went way too far, and for that… I’m sorry. I really am. Can you forgive me?”

The weight on her chest felt a little lighter, but the tom-tom of her heart was still loud in her ears. She looked at Kokoro expectantly, wondering how she’d respond to the clear-cut apology. She expected her to laugh it off, or even not remember it happening, but the words hung in the air for several moments, undisturbed by the shuffle of body language or the vibration of words. Finally, the Tsurumaki heiress – hands on her hips, eyes wide and bright, smile unmoving – spoke:

“Do I know you?”

…Huh?

“Have we met before?” asked Kokoro. “You do look a little familiar…”

Was this some sort of strange practical joke? No, those weren’t in Kokoro’s nature – she was far too brazenly sincere to attempt something like that. It was far more likely that she had somehow actually forgot who Misaki was. But that wasn’t possible – they were talking just the day before. And Kokoro wasn’t that dense.

“Oh! Aren’t you one of my bodyguards?”

Or maybe she was. “…No,” Misaki replied, both flatly and with great confusion. “Do you really not recognize me?”

“Nope!”

“Misaki Okusawa. Same class. All year. In a-”

“Misaki… Misaki…” Kokoro interrupted, muttering the name aloud. “Nope! Not ringing any bells.”

People were starting to stare and whisper. Kokoro had always had a bit of a reputation as the class oddball, but Misaki had talked to her enough times that it shouldn’t have been strange – yet here were classmates gossiping in the background, as if she had approached a cryptid. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m always serious! Especially when it comes to having fun.”

Misaki definitely wasn’t feeling very joyous right now. Perturbed, she pulled out her phone, ready to message Kanon to figure out if something unspeakable had happened in the limousine after she had gone home, but stopped dead in her tracks.

Kanon was not in her Line contacts.

Nobody in the band was.

The rest of the world – the people, the classroom, even the very atmosphere – seemed to vanish with the snap of a finger. Misaki was dumbfounded, her brain unable to process the most basic of information. Only one thought – a stray puzzlement – rang in her head.

She shakily opened her phone’s alarm app, and felt her soul plummet. For the past several months, she had set Worldwide Treasure – one of her favorite songs from HHW – as the tune that woke her up in the morning. But earlier that day, what had awoken her?

A royalty-free sample song called “Spring Breeze.” Pre-packaged on every phone.

Bland, banal, and boring.

She teared open the music app. Every single melody they had composed, arranged, and performed in the last several months… gone. Wiped away in the blink of an eye. As if they had never existed in the first place. Not even an empty space in the interface to remember them by.

Misaki unconsciously let go of the phone, the plastic gray case clattering on the table below.  Her hands had become moist and slippery with sweat. She only now noticed how ragged her breathing had become. Her headache was growing more intense, threatening to split her brain right between the hemispheres, her mind awash with questions, possibilities, uncertainties, fears, fears, fears…

“Are you okay?” asked Kokoro, her easygoing smile showing a strain of worriment. People were muttering incoherently in the background.

Her fight or flight response finally cut through the static of her brain. In a split second Misaki snatched her phone off the table and bolted, stumbling through the desks and out into the hall, tripping over her own feet as she ran, ran, looking for something, anything to help her comprehend the situation – Kanon’s name pounded in her mind, she’d know what to do, Kanon always understood what to do, she was the rock, the only one who kept her sane, the single tie that kept her relationship with the rest of the band afloat when things got too wild, the only person maybe in the entire world who understood the amount of effort she put in on a daily basis; Kanon would understand what was going on… the only other possibility was one Misaki couldn’t bear to think of – not now, not ever – and as her feet drummed rapidly against the ground in her mad dash towards the courtyard plaza where the two of them always ate lunch, she shed all other thoughts, doubts, and insecurities, pinning every last hope on the one person she felt she could rely on in this, her most confused and desperate moment:

“K-Kanon-san!”

She had called her name from across the courtyard, unrelenting in her sprint. Kanon had barely turned her head in Misaki’s direction by the time the latter had reached the former, sweat dripping down her chin, her hands clasped firmly on the drummer’s shoulders.

“Kanon-san, do you recognize me?!” Misaki shouted, looking straight into her with wide, frenzied eyes and shaking arms.

The blue-haired girl let out a soft, sharp squeal. Her usually anxious expression was a thousand times more apprehensive, her violet eyes darting around to everywhere that wasn’t Misaki’s face. “H-H-H-Huh?!”

Misaki felt herself calm down a single iota. “Do… D-Do you know who I am?!”

The hundred eyes of every other student in the schoolyard bore into her back, but they might as well have been ghosts to her in that moment. She was focused solely on Kanon, shaky Kanon, with trembling knees and a shocked face, barely able to string two sounds together. Somewhere in the back of her warped mind Misaki knew how manic she appeared. But the misgivings that tore at her drove her to not care. Only Kanon’s response mattered:

“Y-Y-You’re… O-O-Okusawa-san, r-right?”

Misaki’s heart, cleaved in two, went both heavenward and straight to the depths.

Kanon had recognized her, all right.

She had called her ‘Okusawa-san.’

Formal. Proper.

Distant.

“…Is it all gone?” Misaki’s voice was now deathly quiet, strained from the sudden onset of upheaval.

“Wh-what?”

“All of it – the band, the songs, the memories…”

“I-I, er, um…” Kanon looked to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

“The crazy trips… the dummies’ hijinks… the dumb plans to ‘make the world smile!’ Even Michelle! Gone like that?!”

At this, another emotion entered Kanon’s face. It was a different strain of anxiety, an expression not of sheer bafflement but of unfamiliarity.

“Who… Who’s Michelle?”

Within the depths of Misaki’s fevered consciousness, something finally snapped into place with a painful thud. She let go of Kanon, staring into space, her blood pumping at mach-14 in her eardrum. Once again she took off without thinking, charging out the school gates in the middle of lunch hour with the full force that her legs would offer her.

She careened past streets and alleys and parks and people and places and things while paying not one of those any mind, her bleeding thoughts narrowed in on one place, one small corner of the great wide world that she was well-seasoned with. She charged down boulevards, her lungs shrinking in her rib cage, her muscles slowly softening into jelly, her oxygen-deprived brain gasping for any lifeline of coherency or explanation – but no matter what, she had to see for herself. She had to know for sure.

After running for eternity, she finally ambled into downtown, past rows and rows of small shops and local businesses. There, tucked in an unremarkable concrete alleyway between a barber and a candy store, was a door. The same door she entered three days a week for her part time job. She sauntered, thrice dead, up to the door and punched in the access code, unsure it would even work. But it swung open without a hitch. Without even a breath to spare, she hobbled inside.

It was an unremarkable space. Eggshell walls with no patterns. Linoleum floors the color of stormclous. A sun-faded motivational poster featuring a cat hanging for life from a branch. And several lockers: one of which was labeled “Okusawa” in masking tape and Sharpie. It was very large, true to its purpose. Misaki knew what was supposed to be inside. Just like she knew that it wouldn’t be. With quaking fingers, she slowly pried it open.

Inside was a change of clothes, a pack of tennis balls, and some felting equipment. Much of the space within the locker was empty. It smelled vaguely of sweat and body odor, though not as much as Misaki did at that very moment. None of it registered with her, however, because she was far more focused on what was missing. Missing not due to theft, disposal, burning, damage, or any other mundane or extraordinary cause – missing because it never existed in the first place.

Her vision blurred. The gray-white room gyrated before her eyes, and a sudden flood of light shone in behind her. “Huh? The part-timer?” called a hazy voice.

She lacked the energy to respond, or even face the questioner. Only now did she feel her sandpaper throat, her marshmallow legs, her wilted lungs, and her collapsed mind. The world gave way below her feet-

“H-Hey!”

And in her last fleeting moments of consciousness, reality hit her in full:

Michelle – the fuzzy pink bear she had toiled away as for months on end– was now only a memory.

As was the happy world she had inhabited.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Bitter Taste

The ride home was a quiet one.

Misaki’s mother had tried to ask questions, of course. It was wholly uncharacteristic of her mild-mannered daughter to suddenly go on a maniacal run in the middle of lunch hour, exhausting herself to the point of what was almost an emergency room scare. And while it took some convincing on Misaki’s part to not check in at the hospital, her mom had made it clear that she would be spending the next day at home to recuperate. That was fine by Misaki. Everything in moderation, right? After you go insane for an afternoon, it makes sense to recover the next day. Unfortunately, her insanity wasn’t going away any time soon.

Misaki had spent every waking moment since regaining consciousness searching for clarification. A cause. An impetus. Something. But there was nothing normal or sensible to offer an explanation as to why everything had changed. Which left only the supernatural and fantastical… but surely even something of that nature required some sort of stimulus, didn’t it?

She clenched her jaw as she lay in her bed, staring at the dark, invisible ceiling above. Reasoning wouldn’t work in this situation. It defied any sort of rationale. In fact, searching for a reason at all at this point seemed futile – reality had already shifted, and even if she figured out the cause, she had no idea if she could return to her old world. Was it time travel? Dimension warping? Some other incomprehensible theory of quantum physics? She didn’t know, and she didn’t care. What mattered was the result. And dwelling on that result made her heart bleed.

It's all gone… she thought. Everything.

It seemed small, perhaps, in the grand scheme of things. She had made it a decade and a half in life without Hello, Happy World!, hadn’t she? But such a statement only belied the depths of her sorrow. She looked across at her desk – the same desk that, the night before, had been overflowing with sheet music, buried in band photos, with a small treasure trove of equipment buried underneath. Now it lay barren, a very basic photo of the tennis team now the only reminder that she had any other sort of social life. It was the stock desk you’d see at a department store – not the kind that populated a real person’s living quarters.

Her emotions tore her in five different directions. One side of her simply wanted nothing more than to wallow in her misery for the next week or two. Another wanted to scream very loud into her pillow without stopping. A third could only think back on her “idiots” comment on the plane and wonder if that was somehow responsible. A fourth was too tired to think and just wanted to sleep it all off. And the last was somehow the most calm and simple:

Can’t you fix this? it said.

That’s right. There was no curse, no universal law that she couldn’t make Hello, Happy World! a reality again… at least, not to her knowledge. The first time around she was the one to drag her feet on joining it. Everybody else was onboard from the get-go. Getting it going this time would be just as easy, right? Heck, she’d probably just have to wander over to Kokoro and casually suggest the idea, and the singer would cartwheel around with enthusiasm at the prospect. Not to mention the possibility that this was all some sick dream, and she’d wake up the next day with everything back to normal.

There was only one thing that made her hesitate. A sliver of knowledge that made her doubt. Kanon knew who she was. How would she, if the band never existed?

The scribbles clouding her thoughts only got denser and thicker. She frustratingly crammed her pillow over her face and groaned deeply, kicking off the covers. The trichotomy of rage, bewilderment, and grief was making her both emotionally exhausted and agitatedly awake. She stared at the uncomplicated, bare confines of her room as she slowly watch the walls lighten from an unquenchable blackness into a sorrowful blue and finally the dim orange glow of sunrise. Minutes appeared like millennia, and hours appeared like seconds. And sleep slipped through her fingers like pouring rain.

At some point, the chirping of spring robins convinced her that rest wouldn’t be coming to her anytime soon. She hauled herself out of bed, dragging her pajamaed feet down the stairs and to the fridge. She carefully poured herself a glass of green tea and sipped it, feeling the light and cold bitterness glide effortlessly down her esophagus. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted one of Koharu’s dolls – they had piled up in a corner of the living room, presumably as part of some grand fantastical play session the day before. She surveyed the battlefield, spotting a teal elephant, a Victorian girl, and a cartoonish suit of armor  – but no pink bear.

In that moment, she felt one instinct well up in her gut, undauntable and persistent:

I have to do something.

Despite the fact that she was supposed to stay cooped up inside, it didn’t take Misaki long to venture outside. She would’ve gone crazy if she simply paced around her barren quarters like she was in solitary confinement. She needed fresh air and a fresh perspective. The former was easy enough. But the latter… that was trickier. Who could she even explain the situation to? Anybody who’d hear her out would think she was a lunatic. Dimension hopping, time traveling, and history rewriting were all fabrications of fiction. And she had no inkling as to what the cause of the situation even was. Was she dreaming? Was this all a hallucination? That almost seemed like the simplest solution. But how could she get out of something like that?

She took a deep breath. The weather outside was perfect: the sun shining strong as a few fluffy clouds lazily swam through the deep blue sea of the sky. The spring breeze that lifted her hair and tickled her nose relaxed her muscles, invigorating her nigh-dead legs with enough energy to at least move about. The last vestiges of cherry blossoms littered the pathways, providing pink-tinged roads to traverse, the smell of fresh flowers permeating the light air. Most of the town was at school or at work. It was peaceful. Quiet. She hadn’t experienced serenity like this in quite a long time.

Her feet, consciously or not, ended up taking her to Hazawa Coffee. Given her 3 hours of sleep, she needed some way to stay alive for the rest of the day. And a hearty cup of joe lifted her spirits like little else.

The light ding-a-ling of the entrance bell rang as she opened the door, earthy aromas sifting into her nostrils immediately. The usually bustling café was still during weekday hours, undisturbed light boring through the windows and setting the mahogany confines aglow. The café’s proprietor put down his newspaper (old fashioned, Misaki thought) as she approached the counter. “Shouldn’t you be in school?” he asked.

“…There are, uh… ‘extenuating circumstances,’” Misaki groaned. Despite the refreshing atmosphere, her temples still throbbed.

Mr. Hazawa smiled. “What’ll it be?”

“Coffee with cream, no sugar,” she replied, ordering her usual concoction.

He handed her a number, and she took a seat right in the café’s corner, back against the wall. In her nook she shrank into a small, tired ball, finally relieving the tension in her joints and the aches in her sinews. The light descant of lounge music massaged her eardrums, and she eased her baseball cap over her eyelids, soaking in the ambience.

Her coffee arrived almost immediately, tantalizing her with a hardened fragrance of blackness. She raised the cup to her lips and drank deeply, the dark liquid gliding smoothly down to her stomach, where it hit her gut with warm, stoic comfort. Despite being the same drink she had ordered dozens, maybe hundreds of times in the past, it was the best coffee she’d ever had. She had to force herself to not drink all of it at once. Just the act of tasting it was like a jolt to the senses. It accomplished its duty – she let out a relieved, weary exhale, her fingers drumming on the table lightly.

So… what now? she thought.

Misaki leaned back in her chair, just barely raising the tips of its front legs off the surface of the ground. There was a lot about the situation she still didn’t know, details that needed clarification. It was clear, if nothing else, that she and Kanon knew each other somehow. Given that the two never really had the contextual ability to interact outside of the band, it seemed to imply that Hello, Happy World existed at some point… or was there some other explanation? It’d be simplest to ask directly, but Misaki was embarrassed at the thought. She had come across like a raving maniac to Kanon the day before– she’d be lucky to put in two words before her former bandmate fled in a panic. Who was she supposed to ask, then? Hagumi? She was so forgetful she sometimes didn’t recall what she ate for breakfast. Kaoru? She was arguably the most sensible of the dummies, but Misaki doubted she’d be able to decipher a word out of her mouth. And Kokoro? She didn’t even remember Misaki’s existence. And who else was there?

Misaki re-adjusted her hat, suddenly feeling the urge to spurn all worries from her mind. She had spent the last – Two? Three? Four? – days just fretting about. She needed some genuine R&R time. She wouldn’t be able to confront anybody about it until the next day at school, anyway… assuming she wasn’t socially dead in the water from her frenzy the day before. She needed to take the day off as it was – a day off.

She sipped more of the coffee, absorbing the atmosphere of her surroundings with a rare easiness. Misaki couldn’t recall the last time she had a full day like this to herself – much of the recent months had been devoted to HHW, and whenever she wasn’t rehearsing, scheduling, arranging, or otherwise wrangling the merry band of misfits about, she was participating in tennis club, working as Michelle, or taking care of Koharu at home. Most “days off” were spent making sure she was up-to-date on studying and schoolwork. Actual time off was almost a myth by this point. And yet, here she was, secluded in a cozy café with her cozy cup of coffee, able – however briefly – to be free of worries.

And then, from seemingly nowhere, a wayward thought struck, like a baseball bat to the skull:

Isn’t it better this way?

…Better? How? she responded.

No long days trapped in a bear suit. No corralling your bandmates like they were kindergartners. No baking yourself to death for nothing in return. Isn’t that better?

But… the band… she protested.

What about them? You never liked that group much anyway. Weren’t you always embarrassed to be seen with them? Weren’t you mortified at the thought of being sucked into their little world?

Shut up.

It’s the truth. They consumed your life. But now you can be comfortable. You still have club, and work, and hobbies. A perfectly balanced life. Everything in moderation, right?

Misaki wanted to dump the coffee all over her brain. Her own heated reaction to the reality shift was indication of how much it upset her. She had passed out from the stress of the moment – there was no way it was beneficial, as much as she wanted to convince herself otherwise. She was just being her usual cynical self. And she felt a twinge of self-loathing at the thoughts she was having.

Over the course of her inner debate, other customers began to trickle in, the late lunch hour melting into the afternoon. Misaki felt too lethargic to vacate the café in a timely manner, so she just continued sitting, eventually returning to the front to order a Danish. She watched old folk stream in, followed by patient parents bringing in children for an afternoon snack, and then students who had just gotten out of school. Tsugumi and Eve – band members from other units who had performed at CiRCLE – began their shift, though neither seemed to recognize Misaki. She wondered if the other bands still existed, or if they too had somehow been fraught with conflict – though in overhearing a conversation between the hardworking waitresses, it sounded like both Afterglow and Pastel*Palettes were going about their business as usual.

As time passed, the choppy sea of her thoughts began to calm. Whether she was trying to figure out a way back to her reality or a way to remedy things as they were here, she needed to take things slow and easy. Panicking would only worsen her mental state. I’ll worry about all this tomorrow, she thought. For now… I just need to take a deep breath and relax.

Just as this goal passed through her head, Kanon Matsubara walked through the entrance.

Misaki felt her chest crash into her stomach, scrambling to bury herself somewhere else, anywhere else. She thrust herself back into her seat, shoved her cap down over her eyes, and pulled her hood down hard over her face before squeezing the drawstrings, blocking her vision and her face. Through the tiny peephole that remained, she tried to casually glance over to see where Kanon was. She appeared to not have noticed her presence, casually conversing with a fellow Hanasakigawa student, whom Misaki recognized as Chisato Shirasagi. The two casually chatted with each other and with Eve, just out of Misaki’s earshot, before ordering drinks… and sitting one table in front of her. Misaki felt the temperature in her hoodie rising.

For better or for worse, Kanon was facing away from her, her expression unseeable. Chisato’s complaisant expression was plainly visible, her perpetual smile both reassuring and somehow intimidating. “What a nice little café. Do you come here often?”

“Not particularly,” Kanon replied. She didn’t sound particularly distraught, at least. Misaki prayed that she wasn’t traumatized by what she had done yesterday.

“I must say, it’s nice to relax a little on days off. I’m so busy these days I hardly have time to think.”

“Hehe, so I’ve heard. It’s because of Pastel*Palettes, right?”

“Yes, being in a band can be quite time consuming. Though, if I recall, you were in one for a little bit, weren’t you?”

Misaki’s attention-levels skyrocketed past their already stratospheric heights.

Kanon’s head dipped slightly. “Y-Yes. I was.”

Eve arrived with both of their drinks and a happy greeting before scurrying off to help another customer. “…Do you not want to talk about it?” asked Chisato, sipping her black tea.

Kanon didn’t say anything. Misaki desperately wished she could see her facial expression right now.

“Well, I won’t push the matter. I know you’ve had a stressful enough week already.”

“I-It wasn’t so bad…”

“Really? You were the talk of the school the past couple days,” said Chisato. “Or, that one person was, at any rate.”

Misaki felt her insides twist into little knots.

“Who was she, anyway?” asked Chisato.

Kanon made an unseen motion with her hands. “O-Okusawa-san. She was… er… involved in the band that you were talking about.”

“Oh? What did she say to you?”

“I-I didn’t really understand it… I think she was unwell, because that’s not how I remember her acting at all…”

Misaki appreciated the gesture, at least, though it did little to still her bass drum of a heart.

“What was she like, then?” Chisato asked.

Kanon stuttered and started for a few moments. “Um… well, er… serious. Stern. Stressed…”

“That certainly sounds like the one who accosted you.”

“No! Okusawa-san was…” Her sudden outburst quieted just as quickly. “…nevermind.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

Chisato – and Misaki – hung motionless, waiting for the answer. Eventually, Kanon spoke.

“R-Remember how I said I wanted to learn the drums, a while back?”

“Of course,” said Chisato. “You said you wanted to better yourself, yes?”

Kanon nodded. “But, I was really bad at it, so I was planning to return them to the music store… when this odd girl suddenly asked me to perform with her.”

“Odd girl?”

Kanon nodded. “Do you know Kokoro Tsurumaki?”

Chisato’s face was unflinching, yet her demeanor shifted. “Ah, yes… the local eccentric, so I’m told.”

“Right… w-well, she started singing and cartwheeling around, and asked me to drum along, and… we weren’t very good, but the crowd watching us seemed to be having fun. S-So she told me she wanted to form a band, so we could have even more fun. At least, that’s the way she put it.”

Misaki traced back the events of HHW’s formation in her old life. So far it sounded much like the scene she remembered witnessing all that time ago – though at that point in the story, she was just a stray (and snide) observer.

“Kokoro-chan was really enthusiastic… she recruited a girl from Haneoka, Kaoru-san, to be our guitarist, and then we went looking for a bassist. That’s when we met Okusawa-san.”

“She was your bassist?”

“N-No… she was just distributing fliers in the street. It was some sort of promotion for the commercial district. But since she was giving out all those leaflets, Kokoro-chan asked her to help find a bassist. Okusawa-san resisted it at first…”

Here was where things diverged. Originally, of course, Misaki had been inside Michelle, which prompted Kokoro to approach the loveable mascot in hopes of attracting a potential bandmate. But even without the suit, they had crossed paths. Was it some sort of fate? Misaki shook her head and kept listening – she didn’t believe in that kind of thing.

“It didn’t matter, because we found one – Hagumi-chan – before long. The next day we all met at Kokoro-chan’s house, and Hello, Happy World! was formed.”

The origin story, largely as Misaki remembered it. What had changed, besides the presence of Michelle?

“You all weren’t together for very long,” Chisato commented. “Only a few weeks, if I recall… it felt like you told me of your disbandment only a week after you informed me of its existence.”

Kanon nodded. “Mi- Okusawa-san showed up at first because Kokoro-chan really wanted her to come. She said it was because Okusawa-san had helped find Hagumi-chan, and that Okusawa-san was our friend. B-But I think she didn’t really want to join. She was a little put off by how… m-much Kokoro-chan and the others could be at times. But she still gave it her all, for a little while… I think she was worried about me, actually.”

It was true. Pretty much the only reason Misaki stuck around at first was because Kanon would be drowned in the nonsense without her.

“What happened?” asked Chisato.

“W-Well…” Kanon trailed off. “Nobody in the band was very good at their instruments at first, and Okusawa-san didn’t really have any role to play. She was just kind of our manager.”

This was new. She hadn’t DJ’d in this universe?

“And she kept getting fed up with everybody’s actions, so one day she… Okusawa-san…”

The pause thumped loud in Misaki’s ears.

“Kokoro-chan, Kaoru-san, and Hagumi-chan… she called them all idiots… and left…”

The world grew distantly close. She could hear every little clatter of tea cups upon saucers, the minute chatter of banal customers, the simmering boils of coffee. In her narrowed vision she saw only her cup – filled with only droplets at the bottom rim, black and bottomless, without even a reflection to stare back at her.

Chisato took several moments to reply. “…And then what?”

“We-We tried to keep the band together without her, but… it really stung everyone’s spirits. And none of us were good at music writing, or arranging performances, s-so at some point, we just… stopped. And I returned my drums.”

Each word was a gunshot to Misaki’s conscience.

“The day she left, I… she… she told me to leave with her, because I was ‘at least more reasonable than those dummies.’ But I didn’t want to do that… they were my f-friends. So… she told me to ‘get lost in their dumb little world’ along with them. I called out to her – ‘Misaki-chan, wait.’ And… And she turned around and s-said:

“‘D-Don’t… Don’t call me that.’”

Misaki felt nothing. Not even guilt or shame or regret. Only a vague emptiness.

“How rude…” said Chisato. “And to suddenly accost you out of the blue yesterday, after so many months? What was she thinking?”

In the periphery of her peephole, Misaki saw Kanon fidget slightly, but say nothing. How much did she Kanon fear and fret about her?  Misaki knew how anxious she was by nature. She couldn’t imagine the stress she had put her through.

“Regardless… I suppose not every venture can work out,” said Chisato plainly. “Some people click, and others never will. It’s the way of things.”

“R-Right…” Kanon murmured. “I just hope she’s okay.”

Chisato giggled. “Worried about her, after everything she’s done? That’s very like you, Kanon.”

Misaki expected to feel relief, or gratefulness, or some other sort of warm fuzziness at the concern. Instead the gulf of guilt grew ever vaster. She didn’t deserve that kind of consideration. Not after everything she’d done. Yet Kanon still cared. Kanon still had a shred of empathy for her miserable, standoffish self.

“Are you feeling better now?” asked Chisato.

“Y-Yeah,” said Kanon, her voice a little more chipper. “I guess getting that off my chest helped a little… heheh…”

“I know the feeling. Sometimes I just need to talk out my feelings in order to straighten them. Though I guess I wonder – what will you do if you see her again?”

All of Misaki’s organs clenched at once.

“I’d…” Kanon started, trailing off. “I guess I’d… act like nothing happened… that it was all water under the bridge… b-but I don’t know, really. I feel anxious just thinking about it.”

Chisato surveyed the answer before grabbing her purse and rising from her seat. “My apologies… I have some schoolwork I need to get done. I hate to cut the conversation short…”

“N-No, it’s ok!” Kanon insisted, standing up as well. “I have to head home too, actually.”

“Perfect. Let’s walk together, then.”

Misaki watched them go, unable to even muster the will to try and stop them. How could she, after a conversation like that? She wanted to shove her head into one of the coffee machines. She wanted to run away to place where nobody could see her shame. She pulled down her hood to sink her head deep into her folded arms on the table, unable to even muster a cry.

She had no idea how long she sat there, defeated and alone. She probably would have done it for the rest of time, if she didn’t hear the small tink of ceramic right above her head. She raised her chin to see a new cup of coffee steaming before her. Delivering the drink was Eve Wakamiya.

“It is not good to look so down,” she said, a resolute frankness in her voice. “Please, drink this and feel better!”

“…I didn’t order this,” Misaki muttered, barely audible.

“It is the job of any good samur- er, Samaritan to help someone in need. And right now, you look like you need a pick me up! So please, help yourself!”

Misaki looked into the cup. Latte art of a delicately detailed iris flower stared back at her, steaming and effervescent. “…Maybe you’re right. Thank you.”

Eve smiled, her teeth flashing a million watts, before returning to her duties. After contemplating the drink for a moment, Misaki gulped it down.

It was excessively saccharine, to the point where she could taste some of the individual granules of sugar that permeated the liquid. The musky aroma was clogged by sickly sweetness. It was like coffee mixed with cough syrup.

It was the bitterest drink she had ever tasted.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: The World Keeps Spinning

The next day, Misaki plodded her way over to school, her eyes affixed on the cracks within the concrete. Any resolve or determination she might’ve garnered had wisped away, exhausted by dwelling on the conversation she had eavesdropped upon the day before. “Can’t you fix this?” she thought back to herself, the soles of her buckled shoes scraping against the sidewalk. Yeah right. If it were that easy, I wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place… not that I have any idea how I got here, anyway…

She resisted the urge to groan. While not physically ill, there was no denying that she had appeared mentally unwell over the past couple days. It took a great amount of convincing on her end to get her mother to let her go to school again. She knew the best way to get herself out of her funk was to do something, anything. Another day at home and she’d have drowned in her own depression. So off to school she went, queasiness be damned.

From the moment she walked in through the gates of Hanasakigawa, eyes and whispers were trained in her direction.

“Isn’t that…”

“…ran like a madman…”

“…snapped all of a sudden…”

“…quit staring!”

Misaki was expecting all of it, and was less bothered than she thought she’d be. She knew that if she was in their position, she’d be one of them, muttering to herself about the strangeness of the girl that had temporarily lost her mind and gone on a tear through town. But gossip mills tended to run dry soon enough, so long as they were devoid of grain. She just had to act normal, and they’d leave it alone soon enough. Though she admitted that the snickers she heard did get under her skin a bit. However, she knew now not to blow up over inconsequential things like that.

When she reached her homeroom, her eyes instinctively locked on Kokoro, in the midst of her usual kindergarten scribbling. Her demeanor was the same as any other day – exuding pure, unbridled positivity. Not a hint of moroseness or worry. Just… happiness. Misaki was envious. But she knew resentment wouldn’t get her anywhere in this situation. She plopped down in her seat and pulled out her school materials.

The school murmurs still dogged the periphery of her hearing, but she was much more focused on Kokoro right now, looking for a sign – any sign – that she was distressed, distraught, or otherwise dismayed by Hello, Happy World’s disbandment. But it had been months ago in this reality, and she seemed completely normal. Two days before, Misaki had mistaken this Kokoro for her Kokoro, probably because they seemed very similar – no, the very same.

Kokoro turned towards a fellow student, proudly displaying her sophomoric scribbles. “What do you think?”

“Oh? Uh…” The classmate was caught off guard. “It’s, uh, very nice. I like the colors.”

“Hooray!” said Kokoro, with all of the 3rd grade pride the sketch warranted. She turned to her other sketchbook page and began a new masterpiece.

Misaki glimpsed over at the completed drawing. She was used to deciphering Kokoro’s art by now – a hyperspecialized talent she had developed over months of learning to speak the singer’s language. Her drawings always brimmed with good sentiments, but understanding the subtleties of the emotion and the nuances of her message took skill. Sometimes Misaki wondered how much of it was just her reading too deeply into things, but Kokoro always said that she got it down right. Misaki just had to take her word for it.

So what feelings was Kokoro expressing at that moment? Wayward shapes, vivid yellows, explosive scribbles… it was the usual Kokoro cheer, aimless and forceful. Expression for expression’s sake. Yet within the maelstrom of colors, there was a certain lack of… musicality. That’s right. Kokoro wasn’t composing music at that moment… she was just… drawing. Yet Misaki still felt the instinctive compulsion to whip the disparate canvas into sheet music.

The arrival of their teacher moments later quelled that desire. But throughout the day, Misaki kept glancing over at Kokoro, unable to shake the wonder of whether or not the girl even cared about Hello, Happy World! anymore.

***

Misaki eventually got to distracting herself with actual schoolwork, and by the time lunchtime had rolled around she had – for the first time in days – been able to get her mind off the issues at hand. Of course, one glimpse over at Kokoro’s luxury 5-star bento brought her troubles back. She considered striking up a conversation, but hesitated. She had no idea if Kokoro remembered or even cared about their talk the other day, and she was pretty sure that initiating contact would get everybody in class talking. She shouldn’t have been so self-conscious of what they thought, and yet… the thin ice below her feet was already cracked. If she got flustered or acted out again – which was a very real possibility – then she would be labelled an overemotional kook for the rest of her school days.

But besides all that… she was nervous. Kokoro didn’t seem bothered when they talked the other day, but that was because she had forgotten about Misaki’s entire existence. It was like the first few months in the band all over again. Was it just a natural course of Kokoro’s negative brain space? Or was she actively trying to forget what Misaki had done? She didn’t like either possibility. And the indecision was paralyzing.

Lunch passed. The hours of afternoon class ticked by. As the final bell rang, Misaki remained glued to her seat, unable to muster up the fortitude to go and talk to her former friend. Instead she just watched the golden-haired girl hum, pack up her supplies, and skip out the door without a care in the world, unable and unwilling to tamper with the good mood radiating before her. She felt bad about it. But the possibility of blowing up – of setting herself off again – was far worse.

Misaki’s mind turned towards the other members of the band. Kokoro was a potential hedge case – it was clear her brain didn’t operate like most people’s. Kanon was clearly at least a little distraught over what had happened. So what of the other two?

Before acting hastily in any direction, Misaki had to see what Hagumi and Kaoru were up to. Remembering Wednesday as a softball practice day, she gathered her things as headed over to the school’s baseball diamond.

Despite Hagumi’s captainship, Misaki hadn’t really been over to the ball field much. She and the rest of the band had observed a couple of games before, but Misaki was usually distracted by making sure Kokoro didn’t cause a scene. She knew Hagumi was a great athlete – she had borne witness to her physical prowess many times – but she wasn’t really sure about the details of her sport. Misaki didn’t know her position, her spot in the batting order, or anything about her performance or strengths… not that she knew much about the particulars of softball in the first place.

As she strode up alongside the cheap chain link fence that formed the field’s boundaries, Misaki spotted the softball team hard at work with fielding practice. The coach was popping fly balls, the girls practicing how to find the small yellow-green orb in the blinding daylight. There was a certain cadence to hearing the clang of the metal, watching everybody turn their heads skyward, and seeing the fielders align themselves in position to catch the sailing spheroid. It seemed almost effortless, the way they calculated its trajectory and sauntered on over to where it would fall. Misaki had pretty sharp eyes thanks to her tennis club, but she was still impressed by how efficiently they managed to consistently catch the ball.

At one point, the coach hit the ball at an off angle, sending it careening into foul territory… right in Misaki’s direction. Impulsively, she took off her baseball cap, adjusted her position just under the ball, and held her hat aloft. The green ball sunk into the cap, bobbing off of its initial impact before settling right in its center.

“Nice catch!” called a familiar voice.

Misaki turned. Standing just off third base was Hagumi.

She felt the urge to hurriedly toss the ball towards her and run away, but managed to contain the impulse – she had come to talk, after all. Ditching the place wouldn’t get her anywhere. So her desire to both meet Hagumi and get out of there froze her on the spot.

Hagumi jogged up towards her. “Here, I’ll take the-“ she stopped as she reached the fence, her facial expression shifting into a smile. “Oh, hey! Mii-kun! It’s been a while.”

Well, somebody else remembered her, at least. “Ha- Kitazawa-san,” said Misaki, catching herself, though it might’ve been better to just use a first name. “Er, h-how have you been?”

“Good! Really good.” Hagumi certainly looked pumped. Her white-and-tan jersey was covered with dirt, her flaming orange hair matted with sweat. She certainly appeared as chipper and lively as ever. “How about you? What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I’m just… passing by,” Misaki replied. It was a thin excuse, but Hagumi wouldn’t question it. “Practicing for the summer tournament?”

“Yup! We’re gonna make it real far this year!” Hagumi clenched her fists in shonen-esque vigor. “Just gotta keep practicing if we want to make it to the finals.”

Misaki surveyed her closely. Her mannerisms, speech, and movements all seemed like classic Hagumi. If she was hurt or hesitant to see Misaki, she didn’t show it. And in the same vein, she didn’t seem particularly worse for wear without the band. But still…

“Are you… doing alright?” Misaki asked.

Hagumi craned her neck at the question. “Whaddya mean? I’m fine! In fact, better than fine, I’m raring to go!”

“Captain!” called the shortstop in her direction. “What’s the hold up?”

“Ah, sorry!” Hagumi motioned towards the softball. “Can you toss that back to me?”

Misaki plucked the ball and casually lobbed it over the fence. Hagumi caught it with grace. “Thanks! Nice toss!”

“Y-You’re welcome,” said Misaki, forgetting all of the dozen things she wanted to say when she had first come over. “Um… see you around.”

“See you!”

Hagumi waved vigorously before running back onto the field. As she did, Misaki was filled with a strange sensation – not sadness, emptiness, or anything else negative, but some sort of curious tingling that gnawed at her brain, percolating through her synapses in a vague and intangible form.

Whatever it was, she didn’t like it.

***

Misaki moseyed on over to Haneoka in due fashion. She was fully expecting Kaoru to get down on one knee and pledge her undying devotion upon seeing her, as she did to nearly everybody she met. But she had to be certain.

Remembering where the theater was located, she navigated the semi-recognizable hallways to find the auditorium. A number of theater club members were practicing around the stage, rehearsing lines. Maya Yamato and several stagehands were assembling and configuring background elements. And in the center of it all was one purple-haired prince, the edges of her slim fingers pointed and aloft.

“O that this too solid flesh would melt! My lord, I think I saw your father yesternight. Would the night were come… mark me! Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Revenge my murther. My lord, this is strange… to be or not to be, that is the question… good my lord! Get thee to a nunnery! Now, speak the speech, trippingly on the tongue. Give o’ev the play, I’ll take the ghost’s work for a thousand pound. Now, Mother, what’s the matter? Thou wilt not murder me…! Help! Help! Help! How now, a rat! Dead for a ducat, dead. How, Hamlet, where’s Polonius? At supper. Where? Dead. Sweet Ophelia! Alas, poor Yorick! But soft, here comes the queen. Lay her in the earth… sweet to the sweet. Hold off the earth awhile. The devil take thy soul. Give us the foils. One for me – O! I am slain! O… I am poisoned. I follow thee… the rest is silence. Ah… how fleeting.”

Misaki watched the entire monologue with rapt bewilderment. What on earth is she talking about?

Suddenly, without cue, Kaoru locked eyes squarely on her. “What’s this…? A lost, stray kitten, come back after all this time?”

“Um…”

“Ahaha! Fair Misaki, fret not – I never forget a cute kitten’s face, and especially not her name.” She moved with the trademark Kaoru flourish, every movement somehow producing an inordinate amount of sparkles. “Though I must inquire as to why you’ve blessed this fair theater with your presence on this fine day.”

Misaki didn’t really have an excuse ready, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because words failed her at the moment. “What, uh,  play are you rehearsing?”

Kaoru stroked her chin philosophically. “Ah, a fleeting question… as you know, I am a great fan of the bard…”

As if you understand what any Shakespeare play is even about… Misaki thought.

“Yet, I realized that in my short tenure within these school walls, I would be unable to perform all of his wondrous productions. So I contemplated the matter long and hard, when inspiration struck, like Cupid’s wayward arrow… ah, yes! It was a most fleeting epiphany. If I could not do all the plays in full, perhaps I might do them in part… and thus, a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.”

Makes sense. Or doesn’t. Isn’t that a comedy instead of an actual abridgment? Either way, it appeared that Kaoru, too, was her old, typical self. “Cool. Uh, let me know when it’s going on so I can see it.”

“It debuts in but two fortnights,” said Kaoru. “I would be most honored if you could attend, my fair kitten.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” said Misaki, smiling agreeably.

 It was only now that somebody else noticed her. “Hey, aren’t you from Hanasakigawa? What are you doing here?”

“U-Uhm…” Misaki scrambled to come up with an explanation.

“Oh, wait, you’re one of Kaoru-senpai’s fans, aren’t you?” The stagehand sighed. “Look, come back later, we’re busy right now, okay?”

“Y-Yeah,” Misaki agreed, not liking the label she had been smacked in the face with, but seeing no good reason to belabor the point. “I have to go to work anyway.”

“Heheheh…” Kaoru chuckled, flipping a tuft of her hair with immense bombast. “I’ll be waiting in two weeks’ time, dear Misaki.”

I can’t wait, she thought dryly, turning to exit the theater without objection.

“Farewell, my precious kitten! Parting is such sweet sorrow, for you see… it is but that.”

Through her bemused irritation, Misaki felt it again – the unusual, persistent sensation from earlier, creeping its way through her veins. It gave her a slight pause before she shoved through the auditorium doors.

She walked quickly out of the school, feeling an unease settle into her stomach. The walk soon turned into a jog, her thoughts bouncing around inside her head like ping pong balls. Only now did she realize what the strange feeling was.

Familiarity.

Kokoro was the same. Hagumi was the same. Kaoru was the same.

Even without the band… they lived content, fulfilled lives.

What then, had changed, besides her?

The world below her feet kept spinning, unceasing and uncaring.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: The Same as Always

Misaki was halfway to the commercial district before the thought of what she currently did for a job crossed her mind. She clearly worked in the same location – the code and locker were, incredibly conveniently, the same as before – but the details of her occupation had to be completely different. She used to hand out balloons to passerby as Michelle, but what was the appeal of having a high school girl do that as opposed to a cuddly mascot? Her interest managed to temporarily override her anguish, so she opened the door to her workplace not with trepidation but curiosity.

Nobody else was around at the moment. Usually she’d take a packet of balloons, inflate them painstakingly by hand, squirm her way into the Michelle outfit, and begin handing out the multicolored bobbles, already exhausted by the time she had officially “clocked in.” If Misaki was lucky, somebody would be around to provide her with extra balloons and support. If she was unlucky, the arduous process of de-suiting, inflating balloons, and re-entering Michelle repeated at least a couple times a day. If nothing else, she could be grateful that she wouldn’t be donning the walking sauna anytime soon. Though Michelle’s absence still made her heart twang.

She inspected the inside of the locker. Nothing had been touched after the other day. Everything in the felting kit seemed to be in place. Besides the mascot’s absence, it was the same locker she’d always used. Sure, it reeked a bit, but at this point the smell of her own sweat was almost comforting.

“Okusawa?”

Misaki winced, lost in thought. She hadn’t noticed the manager come in. “Ah… good afternoon, sir.”

He looked at her with a mixture of wariness and concern. “Are you feeling better today?”

“Y-Yes, sir… I was, uh, a little under the weather the other day. That’s all.”

“Sounds like you just needed more sleep,” the manager scoffed. “Kids these days… they have one bad day and start acting like the world’s ending. Back in my day you had to grin and bear it.”

“I see,” said Misaki, not wanting to get into an argument with him right now. “Er, anyway…”

She trailed off. The manager opened his locker, grabbing his coat from the inside, not paying much attention towards her.

“Um… what am I doing today?” she asked.

“Hm? Ah, right, I haven’t given you your assignment…” He dug around in his briefcase before digging out a large stack of desaturated pink fliers, plopping them on the ground with a nice thud. “You’ll be posting these around.”

“…Where, exactly?”

Misaki could tell from the sharp gaze that the question wasn’t a smart one. “Light posts, bulletin boards… your face, for what it’s worth. They’re advertisements, Okusawa, not loadstones.”

“R-Right,” she replied. “And, uh, where’s the stapler and tape?”

Evidently, another dumb thing to ask. The manager exhaled and motioned towards a toolbox. “Okusawa, are you sure you’re fit to work? Because if not…”

“I am, I am. I’m just… a little foggy after what happened, that’s all.”

She didn’t sound convincing, but evidently the manager didn’t care much, because he just grunted and turned back towards whatever it was he was doing. Misaki had gotten the rough understanding that he was some sort of odd-jobs man, taking on and assigning tasks to the willing and able. She had one job before all this, of course, but now it seemed she had a wider variety of assignments.

With a sigh, Misaki picked up the stack of fliers – and stopped. She hadn’t paid attention to the text before. But now she stared at it with vacant eyes:

CiRCLE presents: 18th Monthly Girls’ Band Party!

Featuring the four premier bands around town:

The Stars of the Show – Poppin’ Party

The Radiant Rockers – Afterglow

The Upbeat Idols  – Pastel*Palettes

The Masterful Musicians – Roselia

Tickets on sale now! 1,500 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for children. Kids under 5 get in free!

Well, wasn’t that ironic? She couldn’t help but laugh a little. Life was so karmic for her at this point that she half expected a local brown bear to escape from the zoo, smash through buckets of pink paint, and come chasing after her. It was as if it was all trying to impart a lesson. What lesson? She had no clue. Treasure your friends? She did… or at least, she thought she did…

“Get to work, Okusawa.”

Her manager’s beleaguered sigh snapped her to attention. “Y-Yes, sir.”

She stuffed the papers under her arms and trod out the door.

By now, it was late afternoon. The rays of the sun beamed through half-blossomed trees and two-story buildings, dully illuminating the asphalted streets that bystanders meandered through on their way home from school or work. A stern wind blew the smell of baked goods wafting from Yamabuki Bakery and other local shops, stirring Misaki’s empty stomach. She suppressed the hunger and marched through the district, making sure to space out the posters at a reasonable spread – not on every telephone pole or barren wall, but on enough that anybody passing through would inevitably catch of glimpse of at least one. As she posted them, Misaki couldn’t help but feel the fliers were a bit retro – didn’t people make these sorts of announcements on the internet these days? Though there were enough older folk around that it probably still made sense to catch their attention… not everybody used social media, after all. She had started some accounts for Hello, Happy World! just a few weeks prior, actually – she intended to use them for formal announcements and the like, but it didn’t take long for Kokoro & co. to turn them into their own little blogs. She grew a smile at the memory, but it quickly dissipated.

There I go, thinking about them again… she thought. The “old times.” Even though it’s only been three days… why does it feel like so long ago?

It really had felt like months since she had been sucked into a new reality. She had spent so much time locked up in her head with nothing to do that time had crawled by at a snail’s pace. Even now, as she was winding about to put up posters, she just kept thinking about it. Even now, after everything she’d done.

As the papers perched beneath her arms dwindled, she began circling back to around where she began, making sure to double check that she hadn’t missed any obvious spots. As she was making the rounds, however, she came across a couple of familiar faces surveying one of the fliers:

“Ohh, look, Ran, we’ve hit it big time. Our names are all over town.”

“…This isn’t the first time they’ve put up fliers, Moca. Besides, our names aren’t even on them.”

“Ahh… I see how it is. Just another starlet who’s bashful about her newfound fame, hmm~?”

“Th-that’s not it at all!”

The lead singer and the guitarist of Afterglow were conversing before a telephone poll, their idle banter ringing out surprisingly loud in the evening bustle. Misaki felt a little strange, seeing members from other bands – the same uncanny familiarity was there, of course, but there was also… jealousy. Maybe even resentment. Everything was working out well for them. Why was it only her little corner of friends that was affected?

But of course, Misaki knew she shouldn’t have felt that way. She knew that it wasn’t their fault that she was in this predicament. In fact, the situation offered an opportunity. She had been keeping all of her feelings and questions pent up inside the past few days, and she needed somebody to talk to about them, directly or otherwise. So, with shaky feet and a deep inhale, she stepped towards them. “Um, e-excuse me.”

Ran and Moca both turned towards her, their repartee stopped. “What is it?” asked Ran.

Misaki evaluated their expressions. There wasn’t much in their faces to suggest that they recognized her. That told her one thing, at least – but she had one bigger wonder she had to get off her chest. “Y-You’re members of Afterglow, right?”

“What did I tell you~?” asked Moca to Ran, in that spacey sing-songy voice of hers. “Famous.”

“C-Cut it out,” said Ran, turning as red as her wayward strand of dyed hair. “We are in Afterglow, yeah. Why?”

“She probably wants an autograph,” teased Moca.

“No, that’s not it,” said Misaki, loosening up a bit with their back-and-forth. “I was wondering… how long have you been in a band?”

The two punk rockers looked at each other. “Years, now,” said Ran, looking skyward. “Since middle school. Though we’ve all been friends for way longer.”

“And lovers for just as long,” said Moca.

While Ran slapped her cohort on the arm, Misaki readied her next question. “So you’ve been together for that long… I was wondering, uh, er, well, do you ever get into, you know, fights?”

Both girls looked slightly surprised. “You mean, like, little spats, or… bigger stuff?” asked Ran.

“B-Bigger stuff, I guess.”

Ran nodded. “Yeah. Once or twice, here and there.”

Misaki wasn’t actually expecting that answer. “Really?”

“Yup,” said Moca, her carefree lilt gaining an edge of seriousness. “Ran is really bad at communicating, so she gets embroiled in her own angst until we have to save her from herself~”

“Hey!”

“Moca-chan speaks only the truth,” Moca said with mock-sagacity. “But no, it’s happened before for sure.”

“…I see,” said Misaki. “And when that happens, how do you, er, fix things?”

“Is there a reason you’re asking us, of all people?” asked Ran.

“W-Well…”

Ran sighed. “I guess it doesn’t matter. We just… have ways of working it out, you know? We all support each other. Tsugumi works hard to keep things afloat, Himari’s energy gets us moving, Tomoe always has a shoulder open to lean on… even Moca knows a lot about how to cheer me up when I’m down.”

“Of course!” Moca professed, thumping her chest. “I’m the world’s #1 Ran expert, after all~”

“Y-Yeah,” Ran muttered. “I guess we just always move past it, in the long run.”

The next question came out of Misaki’s mouth unfiltered: “But how do you know?”

Ran blinked a bit. “Know what?”

Misaki gulped. “Know that… that you won’t all someday just… break it off. Fight so hard that you have to split apart. Say something so bad that you can’t fix things.”

Ran seemed a little daunted by the question. Moca, however, was unfazed. “Why worry about that? We can work it out, if it ever comes to that. Moca-chan has her ways…” The guitarist gained a vacant grin that was somehow deeply menacing.

“She’s right,” said Ran, righting herself. “It’s always worked out before. Everything always goes back to the same as always. So I guess you just have to believe that things will return to normal at some point.”

Misaki wasn’t sure how truthful the advice rung to her at that very moment. But it was sincere and good-intentioned, and that was more than she could ask for. “Thanks. And, uh, sorry for asking you this kinda stuff out of the blue.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Ran, smiling. “You seem pretty down, honestly. I’m not sure what you’re going through, but… uh, hang in there, all right?”

“Yeah. I will.”

“Nooo,” Moca pouted. “Ran’s been stolen away by a wayward girl with a baseball cap… oh, the tragedy…”

“Oh, stop it,” huffed Ran, yanking her bandmate’s arm along. “We have to get bread before we go to Himari’s house, remember?”

“Oh, sweet puffy heaven…!” Moca muttered. “How I’ve longed for you…”

The two waved as they departed, Ran dragging Moca’s limp body with both arms. Misaki watched the two of them head off, something about their rapport reminding her of Hello, Happy World!’s antics. Tucking the dozen remaining under her arm and stuffing her hands inside her jacket pockets, she began walking the opposite direction.

The conversation had given her some food for thought. Believe that things will return to normal at some point… Misaki repeated in her head. What even counted as normal for her? Nobody would look at her daily activities in Hello, Happy World! as normal. She was a high-schooler whose alter ego was a giant pink bear who DJ’d for a band whose mission statement was total and complete utilitarianism. Wasn’t that abnormal? She certainly thought so, at first… but at some point it had become her new status quo. And now that it was gone, she didn’t know how to react.

Misaki stared at the fliers in her hand as she walked. She looked at the names of all the other bands, wondering if they ever went through anything even remotely similar to her own situation. Normalcy to them wasn’t normalcy to her. But did she even want “normal”? Could she even conceptualize what “normal” was to her anymore?

A sudden gust sent the fliers spiraling out of Misaki’s hands, scattering through the air. Cursing, she reached out, but the storm of papers fluttered just out of reach before settling behind the feet of a passing bystander, who turned to see the commotion:

In that moment, she locked eyes with Kanon Matsubara.

Misaki felt every cell in her body howl at once. She wanted to run away, to forget everything, to bury her head in shame and repentance and guilt, but her muscles were like concrete. She could only stare at her former bandmate with wide and fearful eyes, afraid to confront, afraid to move, afraid to speak. She wanted to scream, or throw up, or just cry, but instead her mouth simply hung dull and agape, unable to produce noise.

Kanon’s violet eyes met hers for what seemed like an eternity. Her little hands were balled up in fists of anxiousness. Then, in little shudders, she began to pick up the scattered papers, reaching out with quick and shaky hands to swipe them from the ground. Breaking out of her panic, Misaki scrambled to help, frenziedly snapping up sheets on her own, until there was one left.

They reached for it at the same time.

Both of their hands retracted instinctively.

Slowly, Misaki lay her hands on the sheet, almost crumpling it up when she stuffed it into her fists.

“U-Um…” Kanon finally said, extending the papers out in her quaking arms. “Y-You… you dr-dropped these.”

Misaki had so many things she wanted to say, to ask. How was Kanon doing? Was she still upset over what had happened? Could it even be possible for them to repair things? Did Kanon ever even want to see her face again?

But more than anything, Misaki just wanted to apologize – for everything. Even the things this particular Kanon hadn’t put up with or known. But Misaki knew she had already come across like a crazy person. She was amazed Kanon hadn’t just run off. What could she possible say in that situation?

After an eternity in five seconds, she gasped out a meek, pitiful “thanks,” taking the papers back from Kanon with her head hung low. She wanted to disappear from existence on the spot, but still she couldn’t move. And neither could Kanon.

“O-Okusawa-san,” she finally said. “Are you feeling better…?”

Unable to form complete words, Misaki nodded curtly.

“That’s good.” Kanon smiled, the softest, weakest smile Misaki had ever seen. Her fingers began twiddling together in delicate spirals. “I… I was worried about you, the other day…”

Why? thought Misaki.

“M-Maybe you’re worried about me, too? I’m doing fine, honestly…”

Why were you worried about somebody who hurt you?

“ A-And I don’t know what’s going on with you, exactly…” Kanon trailed off again. “B-B-But if you’re hurting, or in trouble…

Why would you care about me, after everything I did?

Please tell me, Okusawa-san.”

Why can’t you just hate me like I deserve?

“B-Because…” Kanon’s voice wavered. “I don’t want you to suffer.”

Misaki’s entire being was on fire. To be spurned, shunned, and scorned – that would have been merciful. But kindness, in that moment, was cruelty. She could feel nothing but uncomprehending agony, unable to determine why, just… why…?

Kanon’s hand began moving towards her, before falling limp at her side. She turned away. “I… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Kanon…” Misaki finally murmured.

“I-I’ll be going now.”

“…Wait!”

But it was pointless. Kanon had already sprinted off past her, going as fast as her twiggy legs would let her. Misaki was still glued to the earth, unable to come to terms with what had happened. She just wanted it to end – to go back, to before she had misspoken, to before she had messed up, to before she had said all the things she had regretted.

But she couldn’t change the past. And she would have to live with what she had done every time she saw Kanon, or Kokoro, or anybody else in the band – unable to forget, and unable to forgive.

Tears wouldn’t come. All Misaki felt in that moment was dread: vast and unconquerable, come to drown her joys and sink her in misery.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Goodbye, Happy World

Misaki sat in homeroom at lunch the next day with her head hung low, wondering how she could possibly reconcile at this point. She wasn’t even sure how to act after meeting Kanon again. All she could dwell on was how weak – how hopeless – she felt in that moment. She couldn’t live with Kanon, and she couldn’t live with herself. How was she supposed to keep going with this pain in her gut? This fear in her heart?

Part of her still just wanted to march up to Kokoro and say with gumption: “Let’s get the band back together! We haven’t made the whole world smile yet, have we?” But another part of her dreaded the very thought, for both herself and the others. How was she sure she wouldn’t be set off again? How could she know she wouldn’t screw things up this time?

How could she know that she wouldn’t hurt them?

As the stress continued to pound her skull into throbbing mush, she noticed that students weren’t returning back from lunch as they usually would. It was only five minutes before the bell for afternoon classes would ring. “Where is everybody?” she asked out loud.

“Did you forget, Okusawa?” said a classmate. “It’s teacher conference day. Study hall until they call us into the office.”

“Oh. Right.” Misaki hadn’t been paying much attention to school lately. The night before she had forced her mind off of her relationship troubles by completing everything she had missed on her day off, but she knew the work was sloppy and subpar. It wasn’t as if she were a superstar student – she generally maintained a steady B+ to A- score in most classes with only light studying – but she didn’t want to lag too far behind. Besides, it was a good way of occupying herself.

Students trickled in as the first ones were called to the teacher’s office. Without much actual schoolwork to get done, Misaki absentmindedly doodled in the margins of her notebook for a little while before busting out her felting kit. She had only just started knitting a pattern when her name was called.

The teacher’s office was nice and quiet. The western windows’ blinds were drawn so the glaring afternoon sun poked in through the cracks, giving the room a sort of tranquil glow. Misaki’s homeroom teacher sat at her desk, smiling as she arrived. “Okusawa. Good to see you. Please, have a seat.”

Misaki took the chair across from her. The desk between them was surprisingly barren, filled with only a couple of grade reports and an ordinary photo frame. She sat upright, making sure to make eye contact. “Good afternoon, sensei.”

Her teacher rifled through the papers on the desk. “Oh, right… you weren’t here on Tuesday. That’s when everybody turned their career surveys in.”

This was news to Misaki. “Oh. I didn’t realize.”

The teacher leveled the papers. “Well, I suppose we can just talk about it now, if that’s alright.” She neatly interlocked her fingers, looking directly at Misaki. “So? What are your plans after high school?”

Misaki had never really thought much on the subject. It surprised her, somehow – she was a bit of a stickler for plans. But as far as post-high-school life… “I guess I haven’t had much time to think about it.”

Her teacher scribbled something down. “Mm. Well, do you have any ideas off the top of your head? Will you go on to university? Or enter the workforce?”

“I… guess I’d like to go to college,” Misaki replied. “I’m not sure what I’d want to study, though. I don’t think there’s any subject I’m particularly good in.”

“You do well in a lot of subjects,” her teacher replied, looking over the sheet. “But what you should ask yourself is what you like doing.”

What I like doing…?

“Your passions, in other words. What do you do in your free time, for example?”

“Oh, uh…” Misaki took a moment to organize her thoughts. “I’m on the tennis team. And I do a bit of needlework for fun sometimes. But those are just little hobbies… I don’t think I could make a career out of them.”

More note-taking. “You have a part-time job, right?”

“Yeah. It’s just odd-jobs downtown though, nothing special.”

“Hmm.” Her teacher stopped writing and put her pen down. “But you’re not sure what you want to do for a career?”

“No,” said Misaki, thinking does anybody, really?

The teacher tapped the desk with a long, thin finger. “This might be a strange question Okusawa, but… how do you like working with children?

Children? “Um… I play with my little sister a lot at home, and I’m pretty used to taking care of her when my mom isn’t around, so – I guess I like it all right?”

The teacher nodded. “The reason I ask is because – well, you don’t have to consider this if you don’t want to – but I think you would make a good schoolteacher.”

“A teacher?” Misaki murmured, trying to picture the image in her head.

“Yes. You’re very diligent, for one thing – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a late assignment from you. Even your late work from earlier this week arrived on my desk completed quickly. It’s clear from the essays you’ve written before that you’re also intelligent and well-spoken. And you’re always friendly and personable.”

…Am I? Misaki hadn’t noticed, really. She just assumed she was like everybody else – average. Normal. The complements did feel nice though, especially after everything she’d been through that week.

“But more than those things, you’re clearly a very polite and patient person. Those are rare qualities – and instrumental for an instructor, especially for younger kids.”

The patience to deal with children… wonder where I picked up that skill? Misaki thought dryly. However, the periphery thought of HHW soured her mood. Apparently, her teacher could tell.

“I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit out of sorts the past few days, Okusawa,” she began. “Is there a reason for that?”

Misaki wondered how she would be able to phrase her problems in a way that a sane person could understand. “I’ve… been having a falling out with some friends.”

“Oh my… that’s too bad. Who?”

“Er… I’d rather not say.” She knew that explaining the situation would just make things more complicated.

“Hmm… well, do you want to talk about it?”

Misaki took a deep breath. She hadn’t had the chance or opportunity to vent her feelings to somebody – especially somebody impartial, who had no idea what was going on in the situation. But she had to choose her words carefully. After a minute of thinking, she spoke: “I guess I’m just wondering whether I should try to keep being friends or not.”

Her teacher nodded. “How long have you known them?”

“Hm… several months. But we’ve hung out a lot in that span of time.”

“And how many people is it?”

“F-four,” Misaki stuttered. “We were, uh… thinking… of starting a band.”

“Oh! Like the other one around… what was it called… Boppin’ something?”

“Poppin’ Party,” Misaki corrected. “Yeah, kind of. But it… didn’t work out. And now I’m worrying that if I try to patch things up, they’ll just fall apart again.”

“I see.” The teacher paused before replying. “I obviously don’t understand the full context of the situation, but… do you and your friends see eye to eye on things?”

“No, not really,” Misaki replied with a sigh. “They’re a lot more energetic than I am. And a little…” she reached for an acceptable substitute for ‘stupid.’ “…A little dense.”

“So they may not understand what you’re going through, in other words.”

“…Yeah. They rarely do, honestly.” Her tongue felt bitter saying it.

“Well, if you feel like you can’t communicate…” the teacher paused for a beat. “Then it’s difficult to maintain a relationship.”

Misaki was torn between agreement and defiance.

“I’m sure they have many loveable qualities, too,” the teacher added hastily. “But some people are just… incompatible. And trying to force them together just… breaks things.”

She spoke with the weight of somebody who had experience. Misaki, guard down, let loose unfiltered emotions. “I guess I just feel… I don’t know. Lonely.”

“I’m sure you do. But that’s when you have to take a step back and look at yourself. And Okusawa, I think your resume is quite impressive for somebody your age.”

“…Really?”

“I do. Good grades, a dedicated extracurricular, part-time work, and managing family business at home – you’re multitalented beyond what you give yourself credit for. And I’m sure even if it doesn’t work out with this particular group of friends, that you have many more who love you and care about you. Your life is more than this one set of relationships. You just have to keep that in mind.”

It felt awfully discerning for somebody who didn’t know much about the situation. But even so, Misaki was grateful. “Thanks, sensei. I’ll, uh, think about what you’ve said. Both the friends, and the teacher thing.”

Her teacher nodded and checked the time. “I would love to chat more, but other students need a pep talk too. Thank you for your time, Okusawa.”

“Thank you, sensei. See you later.”

“See you.”

***

Misaki should’ve gone back to class, but instead her legs dragged her to the school roof. Now that it wasn’t lunch hour the grounds were still, only the rustle of tree branches and the soft croons of birdsong filling the airspace. From here she looked out northwest, in the direction of CiRCLE. It had felt like years since she had stepped inside for a practice session. Now the very concept seemed alien to her. She leaned on the railing, feeling the warm spring sunlight soak into her skin.

She pulled out her phone in an effort to distract herself. On her newsfeed, dozens of items flashed by as she scrolled: wars, famines, politics, territorial disputes, threats of annihilation, global warming. Real world issues far more pressing than her petty little problems. Issues that a high school girl like her had no capability of fixing. Even if she was in some silly band.

That’s right… she thought. Making the world smile was never really possible, was it?

She tried to reach out to those joyful memories, so long ago now that they were like grains of sand between her fingers, sifting ceaselessly into the emptiness of oblivion below. All the happy times spent goofing off and chasing the dummies around seemed like dreams now. Misaki felt only guilt, and regret, and fear – so much fear. Fear of hurting them again. Fear of hurting herself again. Fear that no matter how hard she tried, that she would end up with the same result.

She found it almost laughable how her attitude had been just a few days prior. She had really thought she could just snap her fingers and get the band back together. But life didn’t work out that way, did it? They had all moved on. Hagumi had softball. Kaoru had the theater. Kokoro had her usual whims. Even Kanon had said she was doing fine. Maybe it was just posturing to make Misaki feel better, but she knew deep down that only one person was traumatized by everything.

Voices from the past week replayed in her head, distant and tinny:

Do I know you?

Some people click, and others never will. It’s the way of things.

Your life is worth more than this one set of relationships.

B-Because… I don’t want you to suffer.

In that moment, the shield she had erected around her brain could no longer deflect the possibility she had been ignoring for days, the one that she kept shunting to the back of her brain in pure disgust for considering it, the one that she dreaded entertaining for even a moment – yet here it struck, resonant in her empty mind:

What if I do move on?

Her insides tore in every direction at the thought. She had cared for everybody in Hello, Happy World! so much. And yet she had hurt them. Not unwarily or by accident – she had, in two separate realities, told them off for their inconsideration. Despite whatever justification there may have been for that, it made her sick. The thought of coming to terms with that sent her into a deep, cruel despair.

Yet… what if she just… let it all go? The dummies had all blissfully forgotten the brunt of things. Kanon appeared to be doing well for herself. It was only her… only Misaki that was still caught up in her regrets. But it would be simple to fix. She just had to move on. Float her wishes away on a paper boat and not look back. No more long sessions wrangling band members like cattle. No more sweaty performances that threatened to send her to the hospital. No more stressful nights as she figured out how to juggle the myriad burdens of her responsibilities at once.

Just… a normal life.

The wind rustled her messy black hair. The silence rang loud in her ears.

Is this really a decision I’ll be happy with?

Awash with sentiment, she reached into her school bag, pulling out her trusty ball cap. Attached to the side was a monochromatic bear pin. She had gotten it a year or so ago because she thought it looked fashionable. It didn’t really have much to do with Michelle – a portent of things to come at the most, and a sheer coincidence at the least. Yet it felt like her greatest connection to her former self that she currently had. She unfastened the pin and held it in her hand, gripping the rounded edges tightly. A thousand voices in her head shrieked commands at her all at once:

Don’t do it.

It’ll hurt either way.

Nobody will be happy no matter what you do.

Just throw it all away.

What about them?

They’re fine without you.

You can be free of all this.

What would they do?

Do you even want to be with them?

Do it.

I thought you hated being associated with those weirdos.

I thought you cherished every moment with them.

I thought you wanted to be normal.

I thought you wanted to take everything in moderation.

Did you ever really love them?

Of course.

Of course not.

Don’t do it.

Do it.

Don’t do it.

Do-

The pressure reached the breaking point, and with a surge of emotion throughout her entire body, Misaki hurled the pin as far away as she could, screaming with all of her soul.

“HRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

The little bear face sailed into the daylight, its gleam melting into the sun’s rays in dazzling reflection, until it was lost in the sky, fallen to some unknown part of the courtyard below.

Misaki ached. She leaned against the roof’s handrail, steadying her shaking legs with quickened breaths. Her thoughts were a disorganized mess. Nothing was clear or coherent. But she knew, in the pit of her being, that a decision was made.

She grabbed her bag, suppressed the queasiness in her stomach, and turned her back on the vista. It was blindingly bright that day, the brightest day all year.

Yet, a couple stray drops of rain stained the front of her uniform.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 – Daze in the Life

Misaki Okusawa woke up the next morning, brushed her teeth, put on her clothes, grabbed her lunch, and set off for school.

At lunch, she figured out a new felting pattern that had been tripping her up for the past few days. She started knitting a jellyfish.

After school, she went to tennis practice for the first time in several days, but still won her practice match against a second-year. The coach liked her performance, and she felt a bit happy about it.

That night she hung out with her little sister Koharu and watched magical girl anime on the television downstairs while eating karaage. Despite not really knowing much about the show or its plot, she had fun seeing her sister get really into the transformation sequences.

On Saturday she found a 100 yen coin on the ground just outside her house, and tookit as a sign of good fortune for things to come.

She went to work and helped paint the Yamabuki Bakery a new shade of tan. She only got a few walls coated, but was diligent enough about it to impress the proprietors, who gave her a small bonus.

Her mother took her and Koharu out to a family restaurant that served really good fried rice, a little more eggy and meaty than usual.

On Sunday, since she didn’t have school, she went to the local music store and browsed the selection. She bought some Sakanaction music, tapping her finger to the rhythms when she listened to it at home.

She stayed up late to make sure her schoolwork was done, and spent extra time making sure that her English pronunciation was up to par, since she felt like her accent was too thick.

She helped paint the bakery again and this time got a nice big baguette as a reward. She took it home and gave some of it to Koharu, who described it as “the most tasty thing” she had ever eaten.

She hung out with some of her tennis club fellows after club for the first time, and discovered just how much they paid attention to the sport professionally. She didn’t really watch any tournaments, so she had a bit of trouble keeping up with their conversation.

She went to the shopping mall with some fellow tennis club members and picked out new outfits to wear. They chided Misaki for her fashion sense since she only really wanted hoodies, but she just shrugged it off.

She played house with Koharu several times, using a new doll that she had finished felting. The jellyfish she had been felting was coming along nicely.

The jellyfish was scrapped a few days later. Misaki just sighed and smiled. She had just made mistakes – she’d do better next time.

At her sensei’s request, she put in a career form to the front office. For the top slot, she put “Elementary School Teacher.”

A senpai at tennis club asked her if there was anybody she liked, and Misaki laughed it off without an answer.

She went back to the record store, this time browsing through the hip-hop section. While she liked a lot of the rhythms she heard, Misaki had a hard time understanding the mostly English lyrics. She bought an old album by Nujabes – who she hadn’t heard of before – and listened to it on the way home, her head bobbing to the beats.

She finished painting Yamabuki Bakery. Saya gave her tickets to the upcoming Girls Band Party live show as thanks.

In an exhibition match against a fellow school, Misaki won both of her sets handily. Her coach said she was a potential ace in the making.

Out of boredom, she started translating some of the hip-hop she had discovered into Japanese, and quickly discovered that a lot of what she had found was quite profane. She kept listening to it anyway.

She did not attend the Girls Band Party live show.

She spent an afternoon handing out tissues to passerby downtown, coming across a lot of other familiar band members in the process – Himari, Rinko, Tae, Aya, Tsugumi. None of them recognized her.

One evening Misaki's family went out to see a play called Starlight, about two goddesses torn apart by the whims of fate. Despite the fact that she hadn’t heard of it beforehand, she cried very hard at the ending.

She stubbed her toe on her bedstead while climbing into bed.

She found another 100 yen coin, this time on the way to her workplace.

At school Kokoro Tsurumaki came up to her one afternoon and asked “What should I do today?”

Misaki avoided eye contact.

“…I don’t know. Go to the moon or something.”

Kokoro seemed enthralled by the idea.

Misaki started felting a penguin out of gray wool. It was a nice shape, and fit squarely in the palm of her hand. Her sister walked by and complemented it.

She discarded that one too.

Using some of her savings, she bought some speakers for her room. The sounds of proto lo-fi reverberated in her room late at night.

She played some Super Smash Bros. with Koharu in spare moments. Misaki was cleanly defeated each round, as Koharu’s spacing and punish-game with Fox was impeccable for a fourth grader.

The midterm exams passed, and Misaki entered the Top 50 in her class for the first time. Her mother took them out to sushi to celebrate. The fatty tuna melted on Misaki’s tongue. It was one of the best meals she’d ever had.

On her way out the restaurant, she found another 100 yen coin.

On the ride home, her mother announced that a change in her work schedule mean more long hours at the office. Misaki took the news stoically.

That night she opened up her felting kit and hammered out a new doll for Koharu. It was a blue-haired girl with frilly clothes. Misaki told herself it was based on nobody in particular.

Misaki went to school. It was typical.

Misaki went to club. It was the usual.

Misaki went to work. It was standard.

Misaki went home. It was normal.

Misaki crawled into bed, letting out a long and satisfied sigh. She led a perfectly content and balanced life, full of nothing particularly intensive or demanding. She paced herself well, got nine hours of sleep, and ate three square meals a day. She felt healthier than she had in a good long while. Her teacher liked her career form. She was doing well in tennis club. Work got her decent pay for the light number of hours each week. It was, by all considerations, the kind of life she had idealized.

Her ears pressed against the pillow became attuned to the sound of her heartbeat. A healthy 75 beats per minute pulsed in her eardrums.

Steady.

Dull.

Cold.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: 楽しかった。

It was on a quiet Sunday evening after dinner that Misaki, slightly spaced out and careless, spilled iced coffee all over her sweater.

“Aw, sh- oot,” she said, stopping herself from cursing. Koharu was doodling on printer paper just a few meters away. With a sigh, Misaki pulled off the hoodie, assessing the damage; the brown liquid had seeped deeply into the front of the sweater, streaking the pure white design with deep splotches. With a grumble, she trod on over to the closet in the corner of their living room where they kept all the cleaning supplies.

“Where’s the stain remover…” she muttered to herself, groping the shelf above her eye level for a squirtable bottle. The closet was a perpetual mess, as it was also where the Okusawa family hung their assorted jackets – or at least threw them onto the floor next to boots and sneakers. Finally feeling a tall, grippable plastic bottle above, Misaki reached for it, and in the process knocked down a box of curios that had been precariously perched on the edge, sending miscellany sprawling over the closet floor with a crash.

“Just one thing after another, huh?” Misaki asked bitterly, staring at the even-worse pigsty that had now formed beneath her feet. She hastily tossed the disparate items back in the box – a small wooden horse, an old kendama toy, Christmas ornaments, a shoehorn, fake flower pens, a pair of drumsticks…

…Wait. Drumsticks?

She paused, staring down at the wooden rods in her hand. They were faded and worn, losing their lacquered smoothness and revealing bits of hickory splinters and frayed edges, but they were definitely drumsticks. That wasn’t all – marked on the side, in slightly smudged but perfectly legible permanent marker, was a name: Emi.

“M-Mom?” Misaki called.

“What is it, honey?” rang a voice from the kitchen.

Misaki had to stop herself from running. “Um… what are these?” she asked, holding up the items as she walked.

Her mother glanced at the items for half a second. “Those are drumsticks, sweetie.”

“I-I know that… but what are they doing in our closet? And why is your name on them?”

“Oh, they’re probably from college,” said her mother.

“College?” It then dawned on Misaki. “You… You were in a band?”

“At one point in time, yes,” said her mother, looking and sounding rather un-nostalgic at the memory. “Did I never tell you about it?”

“N-No. You didn’t.”

Looking over again, her mother gingerly grabbed the sticks out of Misaki’s hands. To her daughter’s surprise, she began twirling them around with great flourish, like any rocker would in the midst of a set. It only took a few seconds, however, for the stick to go clattering to the floor. She laughed. “Guess I don’t still have it, eh?”

Misaki was surprised by how much she was surprised. She had always thought of her mother as a fairly reticent, unassuming person… not the sort of person that’d be a drummer. Then again, the drummer Misaki had known best fit that image to a T. So why was she so stunned at the discovery?

“Come to think of it…” her mother began, “weren’t you talking about starting a band with some friends a while back?”

Panic struck Misaki. She hadn’t realized her mom knew about that situation – though back in the “old world,” she of course had a tangential knowledge of HHW’s activities, so perhaps it wasn’t too strange. “It, uh, didn’t work out.”

“Really? That’s too bad,” said her mom, now looking a little more wistful. “We had good times, way back when. Back when I was young and spry and… well, a bit of a dreamer.”

Misaki stared at her mother with wide gray eyes.

“We used to play down at the local coffee shop – the owner was our bassist’s grandfather. It was usually older folks who showed up, but they greatly appreciated our playing. They said it was loud enough to get through their poor ears.” She giggled. “It was cute, now that I think about it.”

Misaki felt the urge to ask questions. “How long were you together?”

“Oh, just a couple years. Not too long. We never ‘hit the big time,’ so to speak.”

“Why did you break up?”

Misaki had blurted it out without thinking. As she felt guilt creep up back inside her torso, her mom just smiled sadly. “I suppose… we just got too old for that kind of thing. That was all.”

“…Have you ever thought about getting back together?”

“Oh, gracious no. We haven’t seen each other in years. Besides, I’m terribly busy these days.”

Of course. It only made sense. They drifted apart – just as everybody does. Besides, who had time for bands when there were mouths to feed? Everybody had to grow up eventually.

“But…”

Misaki watched the melancholy in her mother’s grin turn into a sincere warmth.

“It was fun.”

The word rang in Misaki’s head.

Fun.

It sounded alien. As if she had never heard of the concept, or long forgotten its meaning.

“Big siiiiiiis,” cried Koharu, “come draw with meeeee!”

Her little sister’s voice cleared the fog in her brain. “S-Sure. I’m coming.”

Her mother smiled. “Thanks for finding these, Misaki. And if you ever want to use them or anything…”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Misaki replied hastily. “Um… it was nice to hear about that stuff though, Mom. M-Maybe tell me more sometime?”

“Of course, sweetie.” Emi Okusawa nodded and returned to doing the dishes.

Misaki gave her one last look before plopping down next to her sister. Taking a hold of a pink crayon, her hands went on scribbling auto-pilot as her thoughts became fixated elsewhere.

She couldn’t deny how much she had thought about Hello, Happy World! over the previous weeks. Every time she tried to actively forget them, her mind just became more occupied by the memories. Their dorky smiling faces were glued to her brain. She couldn’t do anything to get them unstuck. She had long resolved to let go. And yet here she was, mired in her sentiment.

Why couldn’t she be like her mom? Reminiscent and accepting that some things just pass? Why did she have to be hung up on “what could have been” when she couldn’t even accept what actually was? Why did the mere mention of bands make her head fuzzy and her stomach queasy? Why-

“Sis, who’s that?”

Misaki looked down.

She had been unconsciously doodling for several minutes, but the shape sketched before her in pink crayon was instantly recognizable – big and fluffy, with rounded ears, tubby arms, and the twinkle of happy stars in her eyes.

Misaki stared at her old self for a moment.

“This… this is Michelle.”

“She’s so cute!” Koharu exclaimed. “Mish-L! That’s a funny name.”

“Yeah,” said Misaki, smirking lightly. “She’s a funny bear.”

“Tell me about her, sis! Tell me!”

Misaki scratched the back of her head, nostalgically remembering the spiel she had rehearsed throughout her mascot career. “Well, she’s cute, and fluffy, and always has a smile on her face. She lives every day to the fullest.” She paused. “But…”

“But what?”

Misaki felt words tumble out of her mouth. “Sometimes… sometimes she has bad days, too.

“Sometimes she… she just doesn’t know if she’s really happy, deep down.

“Sometimes she feels all alone in the world.

“But she keeps smiling anyway, because… b-because she doesn’t want anybody else to notice how sad she is, ‘cuz then they’d be sad too, right? S-So she just… just…”

She couldn’t finish. She let out a small gasp of emotion before shoving the feelings back deep down inside. She clutched the crayon in her hand like it was a bit of flotsam keeping her tethered to reality as she lay adrift in her own emotions. It took every ounce of her strength to not collapse into a sobbing puddle on her living room floor.

Koharu waddled over and hugged her sister tightly. She didn’t say anything, instead wearing the plain expression of a child who knew Misaki was sad but didn’t understand why. For several moments they remained there, in a simple and loving embrace, no sound emitted between them.

Finally, Misaki wrested herself out of Koharu’s grasp. “S-Sorry. I’m not in the mood for drawing right now. I think I need to go lie down.” She injected as much false geniality into her voice as possible.

“Sis… are you okay?: asked Koharu.

“I’ll… I’ll be fine.” Misaki handed the sheet with Michelle on it to her, unable to look at it any longer. “H-Hang onto this, okay? It’s a gift. From me to you.”

Koharu accepted the paper, her dopy grin returning. “Wow! Thanks!”

Misaki smiled, patted her sister on the head, and rose to her feet. “How about, uh… you draw her, too?”

“Okay! I’ll draw the bestest Michelle ever! I promise!” She flashed Misaki a thumbs-up.

Misaki returned it with a tired smile. As she turned towards the stairs, she caught a glimpse of her mother looking over in her direction, eyebrows scrunched together in concern. Misaki hesitated, thinking of talking it over with her. Being honest about what she was going through.

She ascended the stairs with her head hung low.

***

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.

“Here… again…?”

Misaki collapsed to her knees. She looked off into the far distance in every direction, trying to see if anybody would come for her this time. Her only companions right now were the heat and the sand.

She was alone.

That’s right… alone…

She fell backwards, spread-eagle towards the sky.

How long have I been this way?

How many days did she spend in isolation, crammed inside that mascot outfit, bearing and grinning whatever discomfort she was put through? How long did she get strung along through wild schemes and dangerous acts? How many times did she tell herself that she was going to quit and leaving it all behind?

And now that she had… she realized it hadn’t mattered.

She was alone either way.

No.

She sat up.

That’s not right.

She was there for me.

That was right. Through all of the ridiculous stunts, the mundane insanity, the flashy performances… Kanon was there. Helping her. Guiding her. Providing her with the warmth of understanding and comfort. Even when nobody else cared for her…

…No.

That's not right, either.

“Mii-kun! The new song sounds really good!”

“Hmph… your skills have once again proven fleeting, kitten.”

“Wow, Michelle! What a great performance! I’m so happy!”

They were all there for her.

Through every practice, performance, and pursuit, Hello, Happy World! stood together.

And what had she done?

Thrown it away.

Like the coward she was.

Misaki rose to her feet. Far in the distance, she could make out four dots.

She reached for her neckline. With a mighty tug, she pulled off the Michelle head, hurling it into the sand. It sank into the dunes with a heavy thud, its permanent grin encouraging her onward.

She started running.

She remembered the first time they had performed. The entire time beforehand she was wondering how she had gotten roped into such a mess. The dummies were cavorting about in their new uniforms without a care in the world, Kanon looked ready to faint from anxiety, and she was baking nice and crisp inside Michelle. And then, despite all that, they performed. It was sloppy. It was shaky. It was ridiculous.

But… it was fun.

Misaki ripped open the torso of the mascot outfit, straight down the chestline.

It was fun!

She discarded it piece by piece as she ran, removing every last bit of furred clothing.

I had fun!

Every inch of pink had been cast off, leaving her in only a black tank top and shorts, charging through the phantasmagoric Sahara in her bare feet, the dream sand scorching them a soft red.

I want to keep having fun!

The dots came more and more clearly into focus, forming figures of four colors – gold, purple, orange, and blue. The glare of the sun set the sky on fire, turning blue into blinding white.

With the whole world!

Just as she reached the figures with her arms outstretched, her vision became fully blinded. With the last of her energy, Misaki screamed:

“Because that’s what we promised!”

In her last dreaming moments, the four other members of Hello, Happy World! turned around.

They were all smiling.

***

*din-ding-dingaling, din-ding-dingaling, din-ding-dingaling…*

Misaki practically smashed the Alarm Off button on her phone. With the greatest speed she’d ever known, she dressed herself, brushed her teeth, grabbed her lunch, kissed her mother good bye, and went charging down the street as fast as her legs would carry her. Every last tendon and muscle in her body roared with purpose.

She no longer cared about appearances. If the world at large thought she was some sort of impulsive crazy person, so be it. If “normal” people at school pegged her to be one of the local weirdoes, so be it. None of that mattered at that moment, or ever.

She blazed through the Hanasakigawa entrance so fast that skid marks were left behind. Classmates’ heads turned as she blitzed through the courtyards and halls, one singular objective throbbing in her skull.

She stumbled into her homeroom with shrunken lungs and a soaked uniform. She had to right herself on the doorframe for a solid ten seconds, gasping and grasping for air. But sitting there, off in her own little corner of reality, was the one she was looking for. The solid clop of Misaki’s footsteps thundered in her ears as she approached:

“Kokoro Tsurumaki.”

The heiress turned, her eternal smile as pronounced as ever.

“…Let’s do it.”

With a gulp of determination, Misaki clutched her hands tightly:

“Let’s reform Hello, Happy World!”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: The Pursuit of Happiness

Misaki’s voice thundered for what seemed like a thousand kilometers. Every cell of her skin was bristling with tension. Her heart was pumping at the speed of sound. And her eyes were fixated solely and squarely upon those of Kokoro, golden and unblinking, as she awaited a response.

“…Who are you, again?”

Just one day ago, Misaki would have been crushed by the reply. But this wasn’t one day ago. This was now – and now, her resolve was unbending. “I’m Misaki Okusawa. You got me and three other girls to start a band – Hello, Happy World! – several months ago. Our goal was to make the world smile. How could you forget?”

Kokoro’s face lit up in recognition. “Oh! Misaki! That’s right. You totally slipped my mind.”

Misaki grinned. She had been expecting Kokoro to be usual airheaded self. She just had to keep pushing through the density until she reached the single brain cell the heiress possessed. “So? How about it? Let’s get the band back together.”

Kokoro hummed to herself for a moment, still smiling. “Hmmm, sorry! No can do.”

Misaki’s smirk disappeared. “Huh?”

Kokoro went back to her sketchbook without a word, drawing a very round and orange sun in the upper-left hand corner.

“Hold on just a moment,” said Misaki, her eyebrows creasing. “Did you just say… no?”

“Yup! I mean, nope! Or…” Kokoro tilted her head in thought. “Which one is it?”

Misaki considered the grammatical issue at hand for a split second before eradicating it from her mind. “Doesn’t matter. Why don’t you want to reform the band?”

“Well, I do love playing music!” said Kokoro. “But I have other things to do right now. I’m busy!”

“Busy with what?”

Kokoro flipped a page in her sketchbook and proudly thrust it forward. The top three-quarters of the page were scribbled in with black and dark blue, save a small green and cyan ball in the corner and a sprinkling of white dots throughout. The bottom quarter contained a yellow half-circle containing several other slightly darker circles. And standing in the middle in some sort of silvery round suit was the crude stick drawing of a girl with scribbly blonde hair. Misaki realized what the picture represented right as Kokoro spoke:

“I’m going to the moon!”

Misaki blinked. “The… moon?”

“Yup!”

“The… moon.

“Uh huh!”

“The moon moon. The round thing in the sky. That moon.”

“Yepadoo!”

The gears in Misaki’s head turned, at once wholly understanding and completely baffled. Oh, the moon. That makes sense. That’s totally something Kokoro would do, isn’t it? Haha, her and her silly antics. What will she do next?

It took a full five seconds for her cerebrum to become unscrambled enough to actually consider what was said, coinciding with Misaki slamming her hands on the desk in disbelief. “What do you mean, the moon?!

“…It’s the moon!” Kokoro repeated.

I get that! Why in the world are you going there?”

Kokoro beamed. “Because it’d be fun!”

Misaki knew she shouldn’t have expected a more coherent answer than that from her. “W-Well, being in a band is f-fun too, you know!”

“I do know! But think about how much fun it would be to go to the moon! You could see the stars up close, and hop around without any gravity, and watch the whole wide world from space!”

Space travel was definitely a more extraordinary prospect than rebooting a dinky high school band. But Misaki didn’t care for a lunar vacation – she wanted her quintet of dummies back. “When are you going to the moon, anyway?”

Kokoro looked upward in thought. “The suits told me it’d take a little over three months to prepare everything.”

Misaki was astonished by how little time it would take to prep an inter-satellite flight. Then again, she knew better than to doubt the Tsurumakis’ infinite money pile. Even so… “Well, there’s plenty of time to play music before then, right?”

“Nope!” said Kokoro. “They told me a bunch of times that I have to do space training. Whatever that means!”

Oh, right. People can’t just… go into outer space unprepared. Will it really take up three whole months of her time, though? “Are you sure you can’t start the band again?”

“Sorry, Misaki, but I have other plans!”

“…Even if everybody else wants to?”

Kokoro’s expression shifted ever so slightly. “Hm? Everybody else wants to restart the band?”

“Er…”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Kokoro exclaimed. “I can’t leave friends hanging like that! I can just put off the moon ‘til another time. Then we can all go together!”

Misaki knew she had to clarify things now before they got worse. “Well, uh, I… I don’t know if everybody else is on board right nowbut if you give me some time to ask, I’m sure they would be! Definitely!”

Kokoro’s gullible gaze pierced her soul. “Really?”

Misaki nodded shakily. “It might take a while, but… if everybody else did want to rejoin the band, would you say yes?”

Kokoro hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before grinning. “For sure! We can all go to the moon together, then!”

Somehow, Misaki knew that was where her train of thought would end up. She extended a pinky. “Swear on it.”

Kokoro vigorously shook Misaki’s outstretched finger with her own. “It’s a promise!”

Misaki gulped. But her eyes wouldn’t break contact.

No matter what, she would get Hello, Happy World! back together.

She’d go to the ends of the earth and beyond to make it happen.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Orange

Misaki spent the entire school day spinning her pencil and thinking about her next step.

She had honestly expected Kokoro to enthusiastically go along with her plans to get the band back together, so the condition of getting everybody else on board first had been hasty move to salvage her efforts. If she had taken a little more time, she probably could have just convinced Kokoro to abandon her lunar escapades… then again, she had never been good at convincing Kokoro of anything. The girl was a juggernaut of will – if she wanted something, she got it.

Well, Misaki thought, it’s not a big deal. All I have to do is talk with Kaoru, Hagumi, and…

Her mind winced at the thought of Kanon. Compared to the others, Misaki had a lot more to own up to her about.

It’s fine. It’s fine. I just have to save her for last… I’ll talk to the other two first. Hagumi should jump at the suggestion, and Kaoru – well, she’ll probably say it’s “a most fleeting prospect” and tag along without question. Right?

She had a feeling that it wouldn’t be so easy. The universe had seen fit to thrust her into this situation in the first place – she could tell it wouldn’t let her get out of it without a fight.

By the time the last bell rang, Misaki had formed a rough plan. Go find Hagumi first and talk to her about band reformation. Assuming things go well there, hit up Kaoru over at Haneoka before the day ends. Assuming things go well there… start thinking of what to say to Kanon. And if she came across any snag in the road, she’d figure out a way past it when she came to it. Focus on the immediate obstacles over all else. Nothing was insurmountable. She’d find a way to solve any and all issues for the sake of getting HHW back together.

To her knowledge, softball practice wasn’t going on that day, so she’d have to hunt Hagumi down elsewhere. She swung by Hagumi’s homeroom, but the softball captain had already whizzed on out of there. So too was she absent from the shoe locker area or any other common meeting point on school grounds.

It had only taken her a few minutes to get off-campus… Misaki’s fingers stroked her chin thoughtfully. If Hagumi were darting away from school so quickly, and she didn’t have band or softball practice, where would she go? There was one location that seemed most likely – her family’s shop. With that as her only real guess to go on, Misaki headed downtown, and sure enough, right when she reached the street corner where the Kitazawa Butchery lay, Hagumi was manning the stall, handing piping hot croquettes to a pair of middle school girls.

Once again steeling her gut for things to come, Misaki approached the former bassist, whose eyes perked up in recognition.

“Hey, Mii-kun! Are you working today?”

“I have the day off, actually,” Misaki replied. Her arms were crossed, her hands clutching her own arms tightly.

“Oh, neat! So, what’ll it be? Our pork croquettes are really ‘in’ right now.”

Misaki opened her mouth to say she wasn’t here for food, before realizing that would probably come across as a bit rude. “I’ll take a couple of those, then.”

Hagumi took the yen from her hand and dispensed a few fried clusters of golden-brown crispiness. Misaki blew on the croquette before sinking her teeth into the mealy mass, feeling the familiar richness of deep-fried potatoes and meat barrel through her gullet. She hadn’t realized how much she missed the taste – Hagumi used to bring croquettes to practice all the time to snack on. The nostalgia only hardened her determination.

“Hagumi,” she said, quickly chomping through the croquettes and licking her fingers clean before grabbing a napkin from the counter. “I came here today for a reason.”

“For croquettes, right?”

“Um… no, actually,” Misaki deadpanned. “Though they are delicious.”

“Thanks, hehe!”

Misaki hastily wiped her mouth before staring Hagumi dead in the eyes. “I want to reform Hello, Happy World!”

She wasn’t sure what reaction she expected. Stunned shock? Overwhelming glee?

“…Oh.”

Either way, it didn’t match the dulled surprise of the girl before her.

Misaki felt her stomach do a tiny backflip at the muted response. “Do you not want to?”

“Oh, i-it’s not that! Not that at all,” said Hagumi, her carefree smile returning as quickly as it had disappeared. “It’s just… I’m, uh, really busy these days. The softball tournament’s coming up soon, and as the captain I have to keep track of how everybody’s doing. Plus my parents’ve been asking to help me more at the shop… I don’t know if I have time to be in a band.”

It was a more reasonably excuse than Kokoro’s, at least. But Misaki wouldn’t back down. “Are you sure you can’t be free for just a few hours a week? It won’t be much.”

“Coach is really making us put in the time,” said Hagumi with a frown. “We’re doing five straight days of practice starting tomorrow. Not to mention I have tapes and strategies and stuff to look at at home. And there’s still two weeks until our first match!”

“Well, what about after that?”

“I mean, if we keep winning, the tournament will go on for a few months… and our team’s pretty good this year. We have a real shot!”

Misaki felt her muscles tighten. Was this her fate? To be left waiting? She had already spent weeks in loneliness and despair. She couldn’t handle months of that. Yet she couldn’t think of how to convince Hagumi otherwise. “B-But… I…”

Hagumi smiled sadly. “It’s ok, Mii-kun! Maybe someday I’ll free up some time and we can do it. I just… can’t right now.”

Misaki stood there, soaking in the reality of the situation. Here she was, thinking she could just go back to her silly, carefree days goofing off without a shred of effort – by simply willing to go along with it. And yet here she was, reminded that her own wants didn’t matter in the face of other people’s lives. Wasn’t that how it always went? Her, pulled along by others’ whims, against whatever will she had?

No.

She punched her negativity into the ground.

“…Hagumi.”

She was sick and tired of feeling helpless and alone.

“If you don’t have the time for band practice…”

Didn’t she just tell herself that she’d get the band back together, no matter what?

“I’ll make time for you.”

She wasn’t going to let something miniscule like this get in the way.

“So let me help.”

Hagumi blinked. “Help with what?”

Misaki swallowed. “If I help out with your work, or your team’s softball practice, that would free up time for you, wouldn’t it?”

Hagumi looked legitimately taken aback by the suggestion. “Wh-What do you mean?”

“You’re the captain, right? Just tell me how I can help. I’ll become a manager. I’ll join the team. I’ll be a batgirl, even. Whatever you need… please, if I can regain your trust in any way-”

“Woah, woah!” Hagumi replied, throwing her hands up. “Mii-kun, I don’t know if-”

“Please, Hagumi.” Misaki bowed so deeply that the back of her neck was exposed. “I- I beg you.”

Misaki hung there, her head outstretched, unable to see her former bandmate’s expression. Once again her emotions felt on the verge of shattering, frailly pushing forward with every ounce of her paltry being. Every last neuron she possessed was being spent in prayer and in hope. Her memories of HHW replayed in her mind, tightening her hands into little balls of desperation.

At last, she heard a cough. “W-Well… I guess we can talk to Coach about it tomorrow?”

Misaki’s head rose, her eyes widened. “Then…!”

“I don’t know if I can spare much time before our first game, at least.” Hagumi grinned. “But if you help out, it’ll definitely make it easier on me!”

Misaki’s heart rose for what felt like the first time all year. “Hagumi… thanks. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

Hagumi looked at her quizzically. “Make what up? I thought you were helping me.

“O-Oh,” Apparently, Hagumi hadn’t remembered what happened when the band broke up. At least, not at the moment. “Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m grateful either way.”

Hagumi squirmed for a moment, emitting a high-pitched hum. She seemed utterly giddy about something. She couldn’t contain it for long – she hugged Misaki over the counter tightly. “Miiiii-kun!”

 “Wh-What is it?!” asked Misaki, taken aback by the sudden embrace.

Hagumi pulled back just as energetically as she had attacked. “Sorry! I couldn’t help myself. You just looked so happy!”

Misaki laughed. “Happy, huh? Yeah… I guess I am pretty happy right now.”

She let out a long, deep breath. It had taken an impossible amount of angst on her part, but she was finally starting to put the pieces back in place. The roadmap to reforming Hello, Happy World! was starting to come together. The way ahead of her was long, but she had started walking it. It was up to her not to stray from the path.

Her feet, pointed squarely towards the distant road, starting marching onward.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Duties at the Diamond

The stare.

Misaki could feel the hardened eyes of a 37-year old chemistry teacher turned softball coach bore into her: unblinking, unmoving, and unyielding. Misaki avoided eye contact, instead fixated on the tumbling motion of the coach’s jaw, chewing a triple-sized wad of bubble gum in the same manner that a cow munched grass. The sound of gnashing teeth against the mango-scented gum could be heard within the depths of her skull.

Finally, the coach blew a bubble, ballooning to the size of a grapefruit before softly and unceremoniously popping. “Explain to me why you want to join the softball team at this point in the year.”

“W-Well, uh,” Misaki stammered, tripping over her own thoughts. “I’ve, uh, always had a passion for the sport…”

“That so? You in any other clubs?”

“I am- er, was! I told them I was taking a, uh, short leave to join you all.”

“Uh huh. And what do you plan to do here, exactly?”

“Um…”

Misaki silently swore, her eyes darting around for any trace of Hagumi. She had promised to meet her immediately after school right next to the softball diamond dugout, but before the half-pint could arrive Misaki was accosted by the coach, who had immediately inquired as to her presence. Seeing no reason to lie, Misaki had told the coach of her plans, only to be immediately grilled.

“You think you can just wander here with your lily liver and join a softball team? It ain’t that easy, kid. There are these things called tryouts.”

“I-I’m aware,” Misaki said, trying to remain aground as the coach’s spittle flew towards her face. “I don’t want to take on a player position or any-”

“Oh? Then why in the Sam Hill would you want to-”

“Hey, Coach! Hey, Mii-kun!” Hagumi’s arrival cut off her hawing.

“Kitazawa,” spat the coach, still gnawing loudly on her gum. “She a friend of yours!”

“Yeah!” Hagumi motioned towards Misaki. “This is Mii-kun! She’s really smart, and sometimes I don’t understand what she says, but she wants to help out with the team!”

“N-Nice to meet you,” said Misaki, bowing politely.

The coach’s attitude seemed softened. Somewhat. “Well? What do you plan to do? Grounds keep?”

“Uh… I was thinking more along the lines of a manager, maybe.”

“We already have a manager.”

Just then, the coach’s phone rang. She picked it up and started jabbering instantly. “Hello, yes? …Uh huh… at an intersection…? An entire truck’s worth? Oh my… sounds terri- it ruptured how many times? Well, at least there’s – wait, did you mention kittens? …to shreds, you say… a silver-haired singer chasing them… a brunette prep with long nails… a purple-haired girl in a summoning circle hailing Satan… God almighty, that’s- oh no, please, don’t worry yourself. I completely understand. I’ve been in situations like that before. Please, wish her well, and tell her that she can return whenever ready. Yes. Of course. Take care.” She hung up. “Well, you’re in luck – the manager spot just opened.”

Part of Misaki wanted to understand what had happened. And another part dearly hoped she would never find out.

“Hooray!” cried Hagumi, squeezing Misaki tightly. “This’ll really help out, Mii-kun!”

Misaki smiled sheepishly. “I’m sure it wi- wait, didn’t you have a manager before? Was she just not helping you out or something?”

Like many of Misaki’s questions, it sailed straight through Hagumi’s ears. “Come on, I’ll show you around the dugout. How much do you know about softball?”

“Not a lot, admittedly,” said Misaki. “Still, I think I should be able to manage things well enough around here.”

“Yeah, definitely,” said Hagumi, fists pumped. “It’s pretty easy. You’ll get the knack of it down in no time!”

***

Two hours later Misaki’s hands were affixed to her temples as she stared down a small stack of papers, waves and waves of numbers bleeding off the pages. Unfamiliar acronyms like RBI, OBP, and ERA washed through her brain. She tried to match the names of the players on the stat sheets to the teammates she had been hastily introduced to by Hagumi a half-hour beforehand, attempting to discern some sort of pattern or method to understanding what the numbers meant, all to no avail.

I thought managing was just… getting players water and orange slices, she thought. Measuring their speed. Maybe making sure they’re here on time. Not a mountain of paperwork and terms I don’t get…

Out on the field, the team was practicing. About a dozen girls ran around the field in an attempt to catch pop flies. A few were sequestered in batting cages, refining their swings. The team’s two pitchers were just off in their own little area, tweaking their speed and control with each measured fling.

“Move your heinies!” the coach shouted. “We’re up against Rikujo Kyogi in the first round! I don’t need to tell you what that means!”

“Yes, coach!” shouted most of the players back in unison.

Misaki was a little surprised at just how hard they were working. The Tennis Club was generally relaxed – the members were there to have fun, enthusiasts more than competitors. But all the girls here were working their butts off, sweating and panting profusely in the strong afternoon sun. None of them looked lackadaisical or indifferent – they all wanted to be here, and they all wanted to play. After her past couple weeks of listlessness, it seemed almost alien to her.

I guess they really want to win that tournament, huh… Misaki thought, rifling through the pages. I wonder if they’re underdogs. I don’t remember hearing much about our school’s softball team before… not that I pay much attention to that kind of thing.

She casually flipped through the pages, skimming over the terms and acronyms she didn’t understand and instead looking for more easily discernable information. Besides names and a couple abbreviations she was able to make an educated guess on (like “HR” standing for “home run”) there wasn’t much to go off of – she wasn’t even sure what all the positions meant. She was starting to feel a little out of her league when she noticed a mundane yet unusual commonality between each player:

They’re all first-years?

She double-checked the pile. Sure enough, there were no upperclassmen on the softball team – everybody was fresh-faced and young. Maybe that explained all their exuberant energy.

Come to think of it, is that why Hagumi’s the captain? It’s pretty strange for a first year to hold that position…

In Misaki’s distracted periphery, the various team members huddled together around the pitcher’s circle.

Not my place to pry either way. Though I’m only now realizing how little I know about her club activities… I don’t even know what position she is, come to think of it. I should check.

“Mii-kun?”

The familiar nickname snapped her to attention. “What is it?”

Hagumi grinned. “Practice is over! Did you finish sorting through the players?”

“Uh… not yet,” said Misaki, straightening the stack before stuffing it in her bag. “I’ll do that tonight.”

“Okay,” said Hagumi with a nod. “We gotta clean up the field and organize the equipment now. You okay with that?”

“Well, that’s what I signed up for, so…”

Hagumi clapped her hands together. “Awesome! Just follow my lead.”

Misaki hadn’t known just what maintenance entailed, but she quickly discovered it was a lot more work than she realized. As far as the diamond went, she and Hagumi had to make sure the field was clear of debris and litter before raking over the dirt to make sure it was even and unhazardous. Then the two of them went through the various gloves, bats, and helmets on hand, making sure that everything was accounted for and stowed away properly before checking them off on a list. Finally it was up to them to make sure the dugout was clean before locking everything up for the day. None of it was particularly taxing, but it was tedious. Hagumi, however, tackled it with the gusto of a girl who hadn’t just gone through two grueling hours of grinding her skills away.

“Rake race!” she called out, furiously taking away at the dirt paths with the full motion of her arms.

Misaki, caught off guard by the sudden declaration, ate her dust. “Ah. You got me,” she said flatly. “Shouldn’t we focus more on quality than speed?”

“Oh, it looks fine!” Hagumi insisted, staring at the trampled yet orderly dirt she had left in her wake. “So, how was your first day?”

“I’m a little overwhelmed by the terminology,” Misaki admitted, continuing to rake along her section of the field. “Like, I get that ‘AVG’ means average, but average what?”

“That’s how many times you get a hit while at bat,” Hagumi explained. “So if it’s a .300 average, you get a hit three out of ten times you’re at the plate.”

Misaki was a little surprised that Hagumi knew something mathematical, and that she was able to explain it so well. “Um, so, what’s an RBI?”

“That stands for ‘run-batted in!’ Basically if you get a hit and in the process one of your runners gets to home plate, that’s an RBI.”

Misaki jotted down the notes mentally. “And what’s a ‘shortstop’, exactly?”

“That’s my position! You hang out between second and third base. The actual second baseman doesn’t really stick around second base – they hover around between first and second, so the shortstop helps cover the gap!”

“Why is it called a shortstop, though?”

Hagumi beamed. “I have no idea!”

Unfazed by the cluelessness, Misaki continued asking questions about the sport as they cleaned up, discovering that the softball captain, shockingly, knew a lot about softball. Misaki had always pegged Hagumi as not particularly bright, but when it came to this subject at least she had plenty of knowledge – even if she had the occasional gap, like different pitch types or why the seventh-inning stretch was a thing.

Right as they finished packing up the duffel bags with equipment, Misaki turned to face the field. Everybody else had already gone, including the coach. “Hey, why didn’t anybody else help clean up?”

“Oh, cleaning the field is my job,” said Hagumi. “I do it every day after practice.”

“B-By yourself?”

Hagumi nodded. “Yep! Captain’s duties! Wouldn’t be much of a leader if I left it to others, would I?”

“They could at least help from time to time,” Misaki pointed out. “I can’t believe they’d saddle you with that kind of responsibility.”

“Oh, they didn’t. I volunteered.”

“Really?”

“Uh huh!” Hagumi dug out a wad of keys as she they left the field, locking up the chain link fence behind them. “I’m not very good at all the ‘strategy’ stuff, so I figured I could at least do some of the nitty gritty work.”

Hagumi didn’t seem like one for tactics, to be sure. But if that were the case, why would they pick her to lead them in the first place? The more Misaki learned about her situation, the more questions she had.

The two of them began walking towards downtown, where they both had jobs waiting to do. “So, Mii-kun, we’re going to get Hello, Happy World! back together?”

Misaki was caught off guard by the topic change. “Uh, yeah! That’s the plan, anyway.”

“Wow! So you talked to Kokoron and the others about it?”

“No- well, Kokoro yes, but…” Misaki struggled to come up with a way to properly explain the situation before deciding to sidestep the matter entirely. “She said she wanted to make sure everybody else wanted to join up again first.”

“Ah, I gotcha.” Hagumi nodded in understanding. “I’m sure Kano-chan-senpai and Kaoru-kun will agree in a heartbeat!”

Misaki felt her heart twang. Hagumi had taken her idea of reunion well, but she had no idea of Kaoru and especially Kanon would be as receptive. She couldn’t help but feel like she was putting off having to confront them by agreeing to her deal with Hagumi… but having her onboard for the band was important, so she might as well get this business out of the way.

“Y’know, Mii-kun, I thought about getting the band back together before.”

Misaki was only half-surprised. “Really?”

“Yeah. I never went through with it ‘cuz I’ve been busy, but it’s funny – I thought you would’ve been the last person I’d have to convince!”

Misaki laughed, unable to mask the pain that panged in her chest. “Y-Yeah. You’d think…”

Inevitably, her thoughts drifted towards what Hagumi thought of her departure from the band previously. Surely she remembered it. She wouldn’t have said what she just did if she hadn’t. And yet she acted like in the old reality – as if nothing was wrong, and they were going about business as usual.

Misaki looked at Hagumi’s carefree disposition as she moseyed on down the road, hands lackadaisically resting behind her head. What’s she thinking? Is she still hurt, and just not showing it? Or is she actually fine? What’s going on in that head of hers?

“Hey, Mii-kun, do you think dinosaurs are real?”

Misaki found herself asking the same questions again, albeit in a much different tone.

Still, it did alleviate her worries a good deal – Hagumi wasn’t the sort of person who was good at hiding her feelings, after all. If she had reservations about her relationship with Misaki, then she’d be voicing them.

“Mii-kun? What do you think?”

“…Dinosaurs are definitely real, Hagumi.”

Hagumi nodded like a sage philosopher. “Ah, I see… so that’s the way it is, huh.”

The ridiculousness was almost relieving to Misaki. After weeks isolated from the dummies’ kookiness, she felt the relapse was welcome.

“Oh, that reminds me!Tthere’s something I should tell you about our batting order…”

Hagumi continued explaining minutiae of the team’s regimen until they arrived at the downtown crossroads. In-between listening to her jabber away, Misaki thought of how apprehensive she had been about rekindling this friendship. And yet here they were, as good as gravy, without a beat lost between them.

Would it really be so easy?

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Our Captain

By the time Misaki hobbled through her house’s front door that night, her limbs felt like brick. She had been out from seven in the morning to seven at night, and the 12 straight hours of school and work had drained her lifeforce. She barely managed to amble up the stairs before collapsing on her bed. Realizing that no good would come out of worrying over the pressing matters in her life in that state, all she could do was shower, soldier through her meager amounts of homework, and hit the hay.

Her body still felt like concrete as she lumbered through classes the next day. Misaki cursed herself as she felt her focus drift in and out during math. She had rested on her laurels a little too much the past couple of weeks – the old her wouldn’t have been done in by something like this. She had had days where she worked through school, band practice, scheduling, mascoting downtown, homework, and song arrangement long past midnight. Not that she missed that amount of labor, but a slightly longer day shouldn’t have tuckered her out as much as it did.

It crossed Misaki’s mind that the shift in realities probably affected more than just her relationships – it could have changed her entire physiology. She looked down at her arms, feeling the rough musculature of her biceps. Months of Michelle had once left her toned, strong, and with a steely stamina. Now her body was more like it was pre-HHW – in decent enough shape, but nothing extraordinary. Running around in a bear suit for months was a better workout than she realized, apparently. It was a minor issue, but she wondered what other seemingly minor things might have changed in her life that she hadn’t even considered.

Stifling her yawns, she headed to the softball diamond after school ended, hoping to be more acclimated to business there. She was a little more sluggish in her walk than she realized, because by the time she arrived the team was already jogging around the field doing warm-ups. Hagumi led them with her typical gusto, crying spiritedly of determination as they ran, while he coach barked commands from the dugout entrance.

Misaki quietly passed her to retreat into the dugout. She pulled out the stat sheets she had taken home the day prior. She had finally grasped what all the various little notations on the player sheets meant – now she just had to process how and why they were important. As she was trying to find a correlation between players’ stats and the batting order, the bellows of the coach penetrated her eardrums:

“Come on, you snapdragon-spined sods! Pick up the pace! You’ll never have a hope of beating Rikujo Kyogi with form like that!”

“Yes, coach!” replied the entire team in unison.

Rikujo Kyogi… Misaki had heard the name the day before, too. Curiosity got the better of her. “Uh, Coach?”

“What is it?” the trainer yapped.

“Rikujo Kyogi – is that the school we’re going against in the first round?”

The coach took off her hat and ran her fingers through her hair. “That’s right.”

“Um… are they notable in any way?”

The coach scoffed. “You don’t know much about softball, do you, Okusawa?”

“N-No, not really,” Misaki admitted.

The coach stepped into the dugout and approached her duffel bag, yanking out a stack of papers about three times thicker than the one Misaki had. “Take a look.”

Misaki peered through the papers. The numbers on the sheets were either much higher or much lower than those on Hanasakigawa’s team – and she had a feeling the lower ones weren’t necessarily worse. “They seem, er, pretty good…”

“You could say that, considering they’re the defending champions.”

Misaki was caught off-guard. “Ch-Champions?!”

The coach nodded. “A motley crew of freshmen versus the reigning queens in the first round. That’s what you get when you’re a bunch of upstarts, eh?” With that bitter note, she ascended the stairs into the field again. “Keep moving, ladies! I want your keisters in fielding positions in thirty seconds!”

“Yes, coach!” they responded.

Misaki filed through the figures more and more, feeling a sinking awe with each new player. Hits, runs, strikeouts… they were superior in every way. How could they every hope to win against such titans?

Suddenly, her brain caught up with what she had heard. ‘Bunch of upstarts’? she thought. I guess the softball team really is new…

She remembered what Hagumi said prior to her joining the team. “…Our team’s pretty good this year. We have a real shot!” It seemed like bravado, now that she knew who they were up against.

Misaki watched the players practice. She could tell how energized and motivated they were as they stretched and cavorted and leapt around the playing field, giving 100% in every motion. They had to be, if they had any hope of advancing. But how could they be so animated in such a situation? If she were a player she’d be demoralized beyond belief. Well, maybe that’s why I’m not cut out for competition… she thought. I tend to not give it my all that often.

An hour into practice, the players took a water break in the dugout. As Misaki handed out bottles to chatting teammates, inquisitiveness struck her once again, and compulsively she approached a pair of players slouching towards the back. “Um, excuse me?”

The two turned towards her. One was matted with a thick layer of sweat, her slicked brown hair going in every downward direction. The other was casually chewing on gun, her massive biceps crossed as she leaned against the wall. Misaki recognized them as the pitcher, Maeda, and catcher, Oyama, respectively. “Do I know you?” asked the latter.

“I’m, er, the temp manager. A friend of Ki- of Hagumi’s.”

Both of their dulled expressions lightened at that. “Oh, the captain’s friend?” asked Maeda, wiping her brow with a towel. “She told us about you. Said you’re real smart.”

Misaki considered herself pretty average – okay, compared to Hagumi she probably was rather bright – but that wasn’t the point of the conversation. “We’re up against the defending champions in the first round, right?”

“Yup, Rikujo Kyogi,” sighed Oyama, her jaw sliding as she grumbled. “It’s going to be a tough match.”

“Do you think that you – er, that we can win?”

“Maybe if they field enough third-stringers,” said Maeda glibly. “Chances are they’ll run circles around us.”

“Really? …Hagumi told me we had a good shot at going far.”

The battery looked at each other for a beat before bursting into laughter. “I-Is it really that funny?” Misaki asked.

“Nah, that just sounds like our captain, all right,” said Oyama, grinning ear-to-ear. “You’re her friend, right, manager? You should know just how gung-ho she is.”

“Yeah, definitely…” Misaki murmured, her compliant smile plastered on as she thought of all the time that same gung-ho-ness got her into trouble.

“For real, nobody’s got her beat when it comes to being upbeat,” said Maeda. “I saw her out jogging in the middle of a typhoon once! I asked her what she was doing, and you know what she said? That she didn’t feel like going home, so she decided to run instead!”

“That ain’t the half of it,” Oyama replied. “She told me that if we can try, we can make it to the World Series someday. The World Series! Like, that’s totally unreal, right?”

“To be honest, I almost believe her when she says it. Pretty sure she could convince me that we were going to the moon, if that were even possible.”

If only it weren’t… thought Misaki as Kokoro’s face cartwheeled through her mind.

“The captain’s always been like that,” said Oyama. “She doesn’t even fixate on the fact that we’re playing Rikujo Kyogi. She just says we’ll play and have fun like always. Funny, ain’t it?”

That definitely sounds like Hagumi. “How long have you two known her?” asked Misaki.

“Not long,” said Maeda. “She wasn’t on the middle school softball team.”

Misaki was mildly surprised. “Really?”

“Yep, she was in track instead,” said Oyama, eyes looking upward in reminiscence. “I remember watching her with a friend. She was really good. One of the best I’d ever seen. Ran faster than the wind.”

Hagumi was in track? This was news to Misaki. She knew that the orange-haired speedster was an all-around athlete, but she had assumed that mostly came into play during Sports Day and the like. Yet Hagumi had never mentioned the fact that she was a track runner in all the time they had spent together.

But this, of course, begged another question. “Why did she stop?”

Oyama shrugged. “No idea. When we got to high school, she wasn’t doing any sports.”

This one blindsided Misaki. “Huh?!”

Oyama nodded. “Crazy, right? We were asking around, trying to start up a softball team, and when we heard the all-star Hagumi Kitazawa was a free agent… well, we had to ask her to join up.”

“It took a little convincing, though,” said Maeda. “At first she kinda dragged her heels about it for some reason.”

Misaki was shocked. That didn’t sound like the Hagumi she knew at all. The girl jumped at nearly every athletic opportunity she knew of. “She didn’t want to play?”

“I don’t think it was that…” Oyama muttered. “She seemed happy to practice with us for a few days as a trial. But when we offered to have her join the team, she looked a little unsure.”

“But after a few weeks, she was onboard,” chimed Maeda, grinning. “And now she’s captain! Still not sure why she was hung up at first, though…”

Misaki closed her eyes in thought, going over all of her previous assumptions. Prior, she had just assumed that Hagumi was a softball enthusiast who had joined the team because she had been playing for ages – since childhood. But there was an element to the story that nagged at her a little. “You said she was a really good track runner, right? Like, Nationals level?”

“Well, that’s the thing…” Oyama grumbled. “She was really fast during practice. Pretty sure she broke a couple records. But when it came time to compete, she always choked.”

“Choked?”

“Yup. It was weird, too – it wasn’t like she tripped, or had false starts, or anything like that. She just… couldn’t run as fast. Never even made it to Regionals.”

“Maybe the pressure got to her?” suggested Maeda.

“When has pressure ever gotten to the captain? I don’t think she’s ever felt even a drop of anxiety.”

“Good point…”

Misaki stared over at Hagumi, who was talking with the coach over by the pitcher’s circle. Her disposition was as sparkly and bubbly as ever.

“Well, doesn’t matter much now,” said Maeda. “The captain’s our ace in the hole. We’re gonna need her this Friday.”

“Friday?” asked Misaki. “I thought our first game was next week.”

“Oh, you didn’t hear? We’re having a pick-up game against Haneoka,” said Oyama. “Coach says it’ll give us a good measure of how we’ll fare against the champs.”

“Haneoka’s been around a little while longer than us, so it’ll be good practice,” said Maeda. “If we can’t beat ‘em, we’ll have no hope in the big tourney.”

Misaki’s eyes were still locked on Hagumi, who was now jogging over to the dugout. She trawled through her memories of the bassist, remembering all the little moments they had shared in their collective past.

An odd question struck her. “Say, you two… do you want to win?”

“Um, of course,” said Oyama. “That’s what a tournament’s about, isn’t it?”

“I dunno if we can get that far,” said Maeda. “But if we could get even one upset, I think that’d be pretty special.”

“Mm… right,” Misaki replied. Hagumi, grabbing some Pocari from the other end of the dugout, waved in her direction.

In her gut, Misaki had an inkling of what was going on inside her seemingly-vacant head. But at the moment it was only that – an inkling. And she was afraid to intrude too far. Besides, was it even her place to? Hagumi’s business was Hagumi’s business. It wasn’t like Misaki to nose into it willy-nilly. She just needed to help out managing the team, not take on a life coach position.

But at the same time… Hagumi was her friend.

And Misaki had a feeling that whatever was coming, she would be a part of it, one way or another.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Pick-Up Game

Friday rolled around with little warning. After finishing up an English essay well past midnight, Misaki dragged herself through class the next day with blurred eyes. It was starting to feel familiar – the sensation of being dead inside half the time. Even so, it was a temporarily fatigue – she just had to make it through one more week, and she’d have the weekend off. Compared to some of Kokoro’s past shenanigans, this was a mild grind. Though maybe it’d be in her best interest to ask her boss for the week off.

The stands at the softball diamond were already filling up with spectators by the time she waltzed over after class. Misaki was surprised to see this many people turn out for a practice match – it wasn’t a packed house, but it was certainly better than a few wayward stragglers. Maybe there was some longstanding rivalry going on between the schools that she was unaware of. Or maybe they were just looking for something to do on a Friday afternoon. Misaki wondered if she’d be sitting there with them if she hadn’t brazenly volunteered herself for the managerial position.

She wandered into the dugout, a number of players already suited up in orange-and-black uniforms. It occurred to her that she had no idea what she was even supposed to do during the game. Maybe record player stats? That seemed most logical.

“Ah, Okusawa,” grunted the coach as she approached, slapping a wayward Hanasakigawa cap on Misaki’s head. “Show some team spirit.”

“R-Right,” she said, adjusting the hat so it fit her properly. “Um, what should I do, exactly?”

“Oh, forgot to tell you…” The coach pointed to the small structure behind home base. “You’ll be announcing.”

“Announcing?”

“Yup. Need someone to call out the names of the batters as they come up to the plate.” The coach shoved a couple of player rosters into Misaki’s hands. “It’s real easy, don’t sweat it.”

“Are you sure you don’t need me to like, keep notes?”

“You think I gave you a team spreadsheet so you could gawk at it?” The coach blew steam out of her nose. “You can multitask. Now get your butt in there, I need to show you how it works.”

“A-All right…” Misaki was already used to the coach’s prickliness, though she did wish she was a little less blunt at times.

The coach unlocked the little announcer’s booth and explained the P.A. system. True to her word, it wasn’t particularly complicated – Misaki wasn’t going to deliver a play-by-play, just announce a player’s position as they come up to bat. In the meantime, she was to keep an eye on hits, outs, and the like and jot them down on the score sheet. Other people were apparently helping out with the field’s score display, so she didn’t need to concern herself with that – and the second-stringers were filming everything from behind home plate, so she also didn’t have to worry about keeping a record for every last pitch or swing.

It wasn’t long before the players lined up and the game officially kicked off. The crowd raised a mild din as the teams retreated into their respective dugouts, surrounding Misaki’s little booth on all side with vibrant noise. After cupping her ears for a moment, Misaki looked at the player rosters, cleared her throat, and spoke clearly into the mic: “Batting first, Haneoka left fielder, Mari Kaneda.”

Mild applause was followed by tense silence as everybody focused on the at-bat, which resulted in a pop fly to center. Misaki read out the next batter, who managed to hit a dinker single. The third batter caught the ball high, sending it along the ground straight to Hagumi. She flipped it to second, who relayed it to first, resulting in a double play, and the end of the top of the first.

Misaki jotted down a couple notes on the pitcher’s performance as the teams switched places. Wow, this is really easy, she thought, drumming her pencil lightly on the announcer’s desk. She felt a little weight lift off of her chest, especially as she saw a familiar face stretch and swing around the batter’s circle. She smiled a little when she read off the first name for their school:

“Batting first, Hanasakigawa shortstop: Hagumi Kitazawa.”

A chorus of cheers greeted the captain as she took to the plate. Hagumi looked livelier than ever, barely able to contain her excitement as she strode up to the batter’s box. After being concerned for her a couple days ago, Misaki couldn’t help but feel that her doubts were misplaced – the short shortstop was focused, determined, and raring to go.

Hagumi had explained to Misaki that she was the “leadoff” hitter, which meant that she was quick and had a good batting average, even if she wasn’t the strongest. Her goal was to get on base and then get in position so that one of the more powerful hitters – around #3, #4, or #5 in the order – could drive her home.

On the very first pitch, Hagumi took a sharp swing on a fastball, lasering it into the centerfield for a single. Misaki quietly pumped a fist as Hagumi effortlessly crossed first base, marking down a “0-0 hit” and calling out the next batter.

Unfortunately, the next two players hit high flies to the outfield, and the third struck out swinging. The muted reaction showed the crowd’s disappointment, but Hagumi jogged back to the dugout with the same dopey grin on her face. Even from far away, Misaki could tell just how much fun she was having just playing the sport. She was a little envious – she enjoyed exercise and tennis well enough, but it never made her feel alive in the way it seemed to enthrall Hagumi.

The next innings passed with little incident. Both teams’ pitchers kept the opposing batters on lockdown, forcing them into awkward swings that usually resulted in easy outs. Things looked a little dicier in the fifth when Haneoka got runners on second and third, but a shallow pop fly and a bungled baserunning decision ended the inning.

It didn’t take long for Misaki’s chilled relaxation to turn to outright boredom. She still wasn’t sure about all the particulars of softball, and the game was beginning to drag along – not to mention saying everything in a monotonous voice dulled her already deadened state of mind. She felt her lack of sleep from the night before tug at her eyelids, as her hands magnetized to her cheeks and slumped over onto the desk. “Now batting seventh… Hanasakigawa third baseman, Rio Sakurano…”

Her eyes drifted thoughtlessly towards the crowd watching the game. Surprisingly, they seemed fairly engaged – some people were still cheering at every at bat. Misaki even recognized a couple of them.

That’s Toyama-san and Ichigaya-san, right? she thought, stifling a yawn. I haven’t talked to them in a while…

Kasumi cheered vigorously for both teams as Arisa tried to hush her, frustratingly shoving her back into her seat. Misaki felt a little funny watching them – it was a bit nostalgic. She remembered when she was doing the same thing with Kokoro. She didn’t miss that dealing with that handful in public places, of course… or did she? It was hard to say.

Intentionally or not, her gaze meandered to other parts of the crowd. Oh, there’s the Udagawa sisters… I can’t tell which one is louder. Wait, why is Ako’s eye bandaged up? Weird… Oh, and Shirokane-san is with them. I wouldn’t think she’d be into sports. Though there was that one time she was trying out clubs, huh… she seems to be having fun at least. Oh, and there’s Yamato-san and Wakamiya-san. Do they have the day off? Wow, Wakamiya-san is cheering so loudly. I wonder if-

Her roaming observation froze. The pencil she had been mindlessly twirling in her hand spiraled onto the floor. The chatter of the crowd grew distant. Everything on the edges of her vision became blurry and out of focus.

On the far side of the stands, long past first base, sat a girl with baby-blue hair hung in a single pigtail.

“Kanon…”

The name tumbled out of her mouth, falling onto the desk with limp defeat. From this distance she couldn’t make out anything – face, expression, even the direction she was looking in. But there was no mistaking it. Misaki would recognize that hair anywhere.

What’s she doing here? Did… did she come here to watch Hagumi? Or…

It was at this moment that Misaki realized that the next batter had not only come up to the plate, but was in fact receiving pitches. She clumsily reached for the mic. “U-Uh, batting eighth, p-pitcher Kuroko Maeda!” In her haste, she accidentally spoke right as the pitcher released the ball, throwing her aim off course. The catcher managed to awkwardly catch it, but it was almost a dropped ball. A number of eyes turned towards the announcer’s booth.

Misaki shrank into her chair. It was a minor mistake, but it had affected the game – would she get in trouble? Would the team get hit for cheating? Would it affect their actual tournament matches? Part of her knew she was making a mountain out of a molehill, and yet she still felt her spirit shrivel up in worry.

Even through all of that hyperbolic fretting, she was still concerned about Kanon the most. It had been weeks since they had met in the streets downtown, but it felt like millennia. Misaki was still pained at the thought of her kindness; the thought of that gentility that she had forced upon her face to hide how Misaki had hurt her. Because Misaki knew she had. She knew it was all a pleasantry designed to make her feel better. And that only made Misaki hurt in turn.

Swallowing her anxieties, she returned to announcing the game, her fingers dancing nervously across the table as she forced herself to have tunnel vision towards the field, ignoring the stands and anybody who might be in them. She locked her head into only vertical movements, rising and lowering to make notes and observe the diamond in dichotomous tandem. A small part of her wanted to bail in alarm, but her sense of responsibility – as well as her paralytic fear – quashed her panic. So she remained, dedicating every ounce of energy to the softball game. Deep breaths, Misaki… deep breaths. She doesn’t know you’re here. She just came to watch…

It remained scoreless until the very last inning, in which the Haneoka clean-up hitter smacked a solo home run to put them on the scoreboard. Applause erupted from the visiting fans as she rounded the bases, and the Hanasakigawa coach spat irately at the ground. Misaki (who had largely calmed down by then) felt a twinge of disappointment; it was an exhibition game, sure, but losing never feels good. She wasn’t the only one looking down. The dull game and last minute concession left a lot of Hanasakigawa players looking disgruntled –

Save one.

Before going out to bat, Captain Kitazawa pulled them all together in a huddle. Misaki wasn’t sure what she said – she was dozens of meters away, after all. But whatever it was, upon breaking up the circle the Hanasakigawa players had their heads held up and their eyes locked forward. It wouldn’t take a miracle, but it would take some work.

Fortunately, the first batter managed to hit a ball deep into the outfield for a double. The second hit a bunt that got the runner over to third at the cost of an out, and the next – at the bottom of the order – hit a deep sacrifice fly that brought her home, tying the game at one apiece. The crowd cheered politely as the numbers on the billboard shuffled.

Misaki recalled from the rulebook that, since it was an exhibition match, it would end in a tie if nine innings ran at equal scoring. Not the most thrilling outcome, but with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, it seemed unlikely that they would eke out a win. Even so, as Hagumi strode up to the plate, Misaki could tell that she was just as impassioned and determined as ever.

“Up next, Hanasakigawa shortstop Hagumi Kitazawa.”

The first pitch came arcing across the plate, smacking into the corner of the strike zone. Strike one. Hagumi slackened her stance, readjusted her grip, and squatted back down. A drooping ball sank below her knee line. Ball one. Her bat wiggled in little circles of anticipation as she waited for the next pitch, as if knowing this would be the one. It was a laser down the pipe, and following her intuition, she swung true, knocking the ball into the right field for a single. Hagumi dashed across first base, her gaze already locked towards second.

She’s the winning run, Misaki realized as she called the next batter. Either she makes it, or nobody does.

Even so, there was an antsiness to Hagumi’s movements that wasn’t typical of her game-day demeanor. She got in ready position, leg stretched out to stay on first while her body was prepped to charge along the baseline, like the cocked hammer of a gun. Only her eyes weren’t trained on her destination, but rather on the motions of the pitcher, who was just winding up to underhand a change-up…

Wait, is she-?

As soon as the green ball had left the pitcher’s fingers, Hagumi shot off.

Like a railgun projectile she zipped down the path with blazing abandon and one singular goal in mind. Unfortunately, Haneoka’s catcher’s throw was also a firearm – it beamed straight to the second baseman, who swung her hand down right as Hagumi dove headlong, slamming her fingers into the plate as the two collided nigh-simultaneously.

A mild cloud of dust kicked up as eyes fell upon the umpire. After a split-second of eternity, she crossed her arms – safe.

Misaki’s clenched breath escaped through her teeth as the stands cheered. Hagumi stood up, the entire front of her jersey stained brown with dirt. Misaki couldn’t make out her expression at that distance, but she waved to the crowd with vigorous enthusiasm

All that was needed was a solid hit. And sure enough, the next batter hit a line drive into left field, bouncing into the glove of an outfielder. Try as they did to hurl the ball back in time, it was fruitless – Hagumi had already bolted past third and straight to home, stamping across the white plate a split-second before the catcher caught the ball.

The home fans erupted as the Hanasakigawa players came out to rejoice, dogpiling both Hagumi and the batter who had driven her home. The Haneoka players slumped over, shaking their hands in resigned defeat. Misaki, glued to her seat, smiled with relief as she announced into the mic: “That’s the game. Hanasakigawa takes it, 2-1.”

Spectators immediately began leaving in droves as the players lined up to shake hands. Misaki gathered her things and was about to leave when she remembered that if she left at that moment she might run into a particular blue-haired former drummer who made her heart throb at the mere thought of her. So she waited patiently for the teams to finish and the stands to drain of fans. After about five minutes, with 90% of the outside noise dissipated, she creaked the door open, just to make sure the coast was clear.

Kanon was standing about five meters away.

Misaki slammed the door shut and pressed her back against it, her face soaked red. Wh-What’s she still doing here?! Is she- no, she can’t be waiting for me, can she?! Does she even know I’m helping out the softball team? There’s no way! Then why…?

She waited there, frozen, apprehensively anticipating Kanon knocking at the door or doing something else to show that she had noticed Misaki. But apparently she hadn’t – bending low to look under the crack in the door, Misaki saw the bottoms of her frilly blue boots fidgeting in place, bobbing back and forth as she leaned against the fence. She was definitely waiting for someone… but if not Misaki, then-

“Kano-chan-senpai!”

Misaki somehow both tensed up and breathed easy at the sound of Hagumi’s voice. The victorious captain’s sneakers trod into the thin horizontal frame, stopping in front of Kanon for what Misaki assumed was one of her classic glomps.

“Hagumi-chan! How have you been?”

“Great! Just…” she trailed off for a moment. “Well, I had a lot of fun during the game!”

There was a peculiar uncertainty to Hagumi’s voice, which was usually quite vigorous. Is something wrong? Misaki wondered.

 “That’s good to know,” Kanon replied. “I’m glad I was able to come watch. Thanks for inviting me.”

Inviting her? When did that happen?! Misaki supposed Hagumi could have just run into Kanon at school and told her… was it a set-up? …No, she could dismiss that possibility – Hagumi was nowhere near that calculating.

 “No problem! Hope you can make it next week for the big game!”

“I have work then, so I don’t think I’ll be able to, unfortunately…” Kanon said, sounding apologetic. “Um, you said you had a surprise for me?”

“Oh, yeah!” Hagumi chirped. “You wanna hear something crazy?”

“What is it?”

Somehow, from behind the door, Misaki could tell Hagumi was grinning ear to ear. “Mii-kun is helping out the team.”

Misaki’s blood pressure skyrocketed.

“M-Mi- O-Okusawa-san?” asked Kanon. “Really?”

“Yeah! Come to think of it, I didn’t see her during the game… she must be behind the scenes helping out.”

There was an uncanny familiarity to how Hagumi spoke. Misaki realized it was exactly how she talked about Misaki whenever she was performing as Michelle. The nostalgia was just enough to slacken her guard for Hagumi’s next line:

“Oh, right! Coach said she was in the announcer’s booth!”

Hagumi trotted up to the door and opened it with no hesitation, scanning in the inside. She didn’t see anything, save the clipboard stacked with notes and a stray school bag. This was, of course, because Misaki had dived behind the desk, covering her panting mouth, sweat dribbling from her pores, not daring to so much as glance around the counter.

“That’s weird… her stuff’s here,” Hagumi commented. Fortunately for Misaki, she wasn’t the brightest bulb in the shed. “Well, maybe she went to the bathroom! I’m sure she’ll be back soon.”

“Y-Yeah,” said Kanon, her voice striking a more melancholy intonation than before. Misaki’s chest prickled. “I-Is it okay if I ask why she’s helping out?”

“Oh, sure!” said Hagumi. “Didn’t she tell you?”

 “What is it?”

 Misaki wanted to leap from her place, to thrust herself between them, to scream at her to stop. But she couldn’t budge. She couldn’t do anything to stop the words from firing out of Hagumi’s mouth:

“She wants to get Hello, Happy World! back together!”

Misaki’s uvula was begging for air as every last vocal chord in her body wanted to scream. But somehow – impossibly – her terror of discovery overrode her agony of the moment. Once more she was meekly eavesdropping in wait, unable to see or discern Kanon’s reaction, waiting on a thousand pins and needles for her to speak.

“Mi…Misaki-chan does?”

Her voice was airy. Breathless. Quiet.

“Uh huh! She seemed really determined about it, too! So much that she asked to help me out with softball stuff so we could all get back together quicker!”

There was a slight pause. “I… see.” Misaki didn’t have the benefit of body language to parse Kanon’s feelings. Was she pleased? Reluctant? Ambivalent?

“Why don’t we go look for her?” asked Hagumi. “I’m sure she could tell you all about it.”

“Ah, um… I really don’t have the time… I should be heading home…”

“Oh, really? Well, take care of yourself! I’m sure I’ll see you again soon!”

“Y-Yes… sorry. Good-bye.”

The sudden and quickened clopping of footsteps burst from the doorway, before gradually fading into the background. They weren’t the steps of someone politely making their leave – they were the steps of somebody trying to make a quickened escape.

“What was her hurry?” asked Hagumi to herself. “I guess Mii-kun hadn’t told about that stuff yet, huh… did I say something wrong?”

“…Yes.”

Misaki rose from her position behind the desk, her uniform caked with perspiration. She probably should have been more tactful in her reveal. But she wasn’t exactly in the best mood at the moment.

“Oh, hey Mii-kun!” said Hagumi, as if her sudden appearance was nothing unusual. “Did you see the game? We did really well! …Say, you don’t look-“

“Why did you tell her that?” interrupted Misaki.

Hagumi scratched her head. “Tell who what?”

Why did you tell Kanon about the band?” Misaki’s voice was as pointed as a spear.

“W-Well, I thought she’d be happy!” said Hagumi. “I mean, I was happy when I found out…”

“Yeah, well, she’s not you!” spat Misaki. “Not everybody just accepts things like that so easily! What makes you happy doesn’t necessarily make everybody else happy!”

Hagumi’s fingers twiddled together, her gaze locked to the floor. “I-I’m sorry, Mii-kun. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Yeah, you weren’t, you-!”

Misaki’s blood flatlined. The word passed through her head.

Idiot.

It all came surging back.

The desert. The plane. The outburst. The aftermath. The loss. The pain. The hatred. The fear.

Her lips quivered and shuddered, her lungs suddenly short of breath. “I’m… I’m sorry.”

Her body convulsed. She couldn’t stay there. She couldn’t face Hagumi, or anybody, in that moment. Trembling, she snatched up her bag and ran past Hagumi, who attempted to intercept her.

“M-Mii-kun, wait!”

Misaki couldn’t hear her. She couldn’t hear anything but the vile loathing in her head, the pulsing regret flowing through every inch of her veins as she ran, ran from someone she thought she cared about but had once again belittled.

Yet no matter how far she ran, she could never escape from the true idiot.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: Home

It was fortunate for Misaki – or perhaps anything but – that there was no softball practice over the weekend.

After Saturday classes she quickly and quietly gathered her things before making her way downtown. As she collected litter off slowly and diligently off of the sidewalk, she made sure to avoid the intersection where Kitazawa Butchery lay. Of course, no matter how much she tried to avoid engaging the issue in person, the incident weighed heavily and persistent in her thoughts. It took every ounce of her will to not relapse into her lethargic despair.

What have I been doing?

The thought simmered for days, like soup that lay on the burner so long the water evaporated and leaves only stock and scraps. She had told herself she would rectify her past mistakes, but here she was repeating them. As if she assumed that she just had to get together with the band without changing even one little bit of herself. As if she had learned nothing.

And really, what had she learned? Hagumi was the same as ever. Misaki had taken it, however subconsciously, as license to do the same. But it couldn’t work like that – otherwise, she’d end up hurting herself and others again, and again, and again. Nothing would change. And she’d end up drowning in her loneliness and guilt forever.

On Sunday she wasted away in bed, holed up in her room and mulling over the dilemma boiling in her brain. The more she thought about it, the more she realized Hagumi really hadn’t done anything wrong. The way she had handled telling Kanon about the reformation was unideal, maybe, but she had good intentions. And it definitely didn’t warrant indignation. Yet no matter how much she rationalized it, Misaki couldn’t fully quash her grudge. Was she really so petty?

She flopped over beneath her sheets, burying her face in her pillow. She was sick and tired of keeping all her emotions stewed up inside. She needed somebody to vent to… but who? Her mother was busy with work, Koharu was too young to understand, and everybody else… well, her relationships with them had changed irrevocably.

In the old world, she would’ve talked to Kanon. Kanon would have known exactly what to do. She’d understand where Misaki was coming from and help her sort through her feelings, patiently and gingerly, before offering advice. The old Kanon knew her – the traces of her perspective, the particulars of her personality, the little pet peeves that prickled her skin. Misaki could tell that Kanon anything. What could she tell her now?

It hit her, for perhaps the first time, that the Kanon she now thought of was in fact a completely different person than the Kanon she knew. Perhaps they were 99% the same, but that tiny 1% – the part that knew her – made all the difference. It made her thoughts downspiral even further. Was Hagumi like that, too? Another person entirely? Were Kaoru and Kokoro the same people she had cherished? Her family, her classmates, herself… how could she be sure any of it could be trusted?

As day turned to evening and evening to night, Misaki curled up under the blankets, the solitude striking her with a ferocity greater than any previously. Before, she wanted to fix things, to right her wrongs. Now, she just wanted to go back – back to where her friends were, in their happy little band in their happy little world, where the joy of each other’s company outshone any piddling trace of bitterness. Secluded beneath her sheets, she shut her eyes, whispering tiny prayers in her head:

I want to go home… home to where they all are… please… take me back…

***

The stock alarm chime blared.

Misaki stared at the date. June… it had already been almost a month since her new life began. And what did she have to show for it?

Wallowing and half-hearted ambitions?

The night before had brought grief. Now, there was only determination – determination to stop hating herself and do something. She had already spent weeks mired in her own inactivity; she didn’t need to waste any more. So she strode to school with her head raised, ready to do the responsible thing: apologize, be self-effacing, and strive to never slip up again. Part of her was tenuous at the idea of facing Hagumi. Another was certain that her former bandmate – her friend – wouldn’t be so apprehensive.

Even so, her gut was a whirlpool as she arrived at the softball diamond after class. She was fairly certain Hagumi would be her usual, chipper self, but there was the possibility she’d be a little more down. It didn’t matter either way – she’d bow, say sorry, and explain herself. That was all there was to it.

Misaki was third to arrive in the dugout. She waited by the entrance, keeping a hawk’s eye out towards the direction of the school building for players coming in for practice. They filtered in, one by one, starting stretches and making small talk.

Captain Kitazawa was nowhere to be seen.

It began as a little fear – a mild suspicion that Misaki dismissed as paranoia. But that paranoia soon grew into an intense worry. Had she actually hurt Hagumi more than she realized? Had she left a lasting wound upon her psyche? There was no way she would just miss a softball practice with less than a week until the first tournament game…

Misaki wasn’t the only one who noticed her absence. “Where the hell is Kitazawa?” yapped the coach as the players gathered in the dugout.

“She wasn’t in class today,” said one of Hagumi’s classmates. “I think she’s sick.”

Sick? We can’t have our captain sick with four practices ‘til doomsday! Do you have her phone number?!”

“I tried calling, but she didn’t pick up.”

Misaki’s anxiety twisted further. Hagumi wouldn’t avoid a phone call like that unless something was seriously wrong.

“Of all the-“ the coach cut herself off with a growl. “Does anybody know where she lives?”

Nobody spoke up. Apparently, nobody had visited the Kitazawa home address before. Yet there was one person there who had learned it long beforehand – for emergency contact purposes, in case, say, she got stranded in the Sahara.

“U-Uh…” Misaki stuttered, slowly raising a hand. “I do.”

For maybe the first time, the coach looked relieved to see her. “Okusawa, I need you to find out why Kitazawa isn’t here. We won’t stand a chance against Rikujo Kyogi without her.”

“R-Right.” Misaki felt the strain on her spirit intensify further as she threw her bag over her shoulder.

“Oh, manager, wait,” called Hagumi’s classmate, digging papers out of her backpack. “Could you take today’s homework to her? There’s some graded papers.”

“Yeah, of course.” Misaki took the sheets from her and filed them away. “Thanks.”

“Get to it, Okusawa!” The coach smacked her encouragingly on the shoulder before sending her skedaddling.

Misaki walked away from school and in the direction of Hagumi’s house, her trepidation rising with each step. She had expected the company of other people to make things easier on her, but now it would be a one on one conversation. At her house. Not exactly a lion’s den, but Misaki wondered how Hagumi’s family would react if she suddenly unloaded drama bombs willy-nilly. She’d have to be even more tactful in a situation like this.

Fifteen minutes later, she came to a stop in front of an utterly ordinary two-story house painted eggshell with sky blue trimmings. Misaki had passed by Hagumi’s abode a couple times when walking home from band practice, but had never stepped inside. In fact, she didn’t know much about Hagumi’s home life at all. She knew that her older brother taught her to play guitar once upon a time, and that they ran a butchery. Otherwise? A blank slate. Though Misaki imagined that the parents of somebody like Hagumi were probably cut from the same vibrant cloth as her.

Misaki slid up to the door, her finger outstretched towards the buzzer, but couldn’t work up the will to press it. She had done so much mental preparation for this minor reunion that she had worked herself into a tizzy. Her inner script was a jumbled mess of situational prompts and asides, and she was both reluctant and afraid to confront Hagumi. What could she possibly say as an opener to relieve the tension?

CRASH

Her turbulent thoughts were broken by the thunderous smashing of ceramic from within the door.

Misaki’s already jittery heart became stricken with panic, and it activated her primal instincts – hide. She thoughtlessly dove into a large, unkempt shrubbery just to the left of the door, her veins bursting with dread and alarm. Through an ajar window above, booming voices sailed:

“Don’t you dare talk to me about diligence, you son of a-!”

“Honey, please, I’ve had a long day…”

“A long day? At 3:30 in the afternoon? I’ll bet. Tell me, is that why you came in reeking of you-know-what last night at 2 in the morning?”

“…I was at a party with some of the other downtown business owners. That’s all.”

“Oh? And when were you planning to tell me about it?”

“I messaged you at least twice! They just didn’t go through, for some reason…”

Misaki didn’t recognize either voice, but she could tell two things – they were adults, and they were ravenous.

“Tell me, how are you planning to put food on the table when the shop is closed? Hm?”

“I don’t know… how am I supposed to put food on the table when it’s so damn filthy?” A great shattering rung out once again, causing Misaki to recoil.

“Well, I’d have time to clean it if I wasn’t so busy managing the workplace – a job that’s supposed to fall to the man of the household!”

“Maybe I’d be more encouraged to work if you didn’t henpeck me every time I walk in the door. Never a ‘how was your day’ or ‘what did you do’ – always a ‘why haven’t you done this’ or a ‘get your act together!’”

“Am I supposed to ignore your misbehavior? You’re not setting a good example for our children, you know-“

“What? And lobbing dishes at my head is? Practice what you preach, darling, or else-“

Another smashing noise clattered throughout the airspace, this one much louder than the others. For a second, only the sound of elongated panting could be heard from inside.

“That’s it.”

The male voice uttered that simple declaration and began stomping in Misaki’s direction.

“Oh? Running away again, I see! How many times this month – four? Five? I’ve lost count!”

The door slammed open, and Misaki retreated further into the bush. She couldn’t make out much of the gruff figure that emerged began jogging away, but she recognized the silhouette as the one who sometimes stood at the Kitazawa Butchery when Hagumi wasn’t there. From behind him, a willowy, cankerous figure shouted: “You’ll come crawling back! You always do! Get your damn act together, or I swear to God-!” Frustrated, she punched the doorframe and whammed the door behind her, cursing virulently as she paced back inside.

Misaki then heard the clopping of somebody descending stairs.

“Mom? Is everything okay?”

Misaki gulped. The voice was hoarse, but it was unmistakably Hagumi’s.

“Oh, your father’s just gone out on one of his famous runs again. He’ll set the world record at this rate! Maybe you should follow him! Would be good for your lungs, eh? You like exercise, right? That’s what you want, isn’t it?!”

“I never-“

“Shut-!” Hagumi’s mother snapped, cutting her off. “Just… don’t talk right now, honey. Don’t.”

“…Yes, ma’am.”

Misaki felt the world below her feet spiral and rupture. Hagumi’s voice – the tone, the cadence, the energy – was so… subdued. Completely unlike the garish, energetic tempo that was her trademark.

The front door clicked open again. Hagumi meandered out, looking towards the direction her father had run off in. Her face carried no trace of her usual vigor. It was… resigned. Wistful. Focused on a place not in front of her.

It was at this inopportune moment that Misaki, who had been awkwardly and unnaturally propped up in the shrubbery and had been forced to maintain her position by actively pushing against the stems, succumbed to her thoughtless inertia, and tumbled out of the bush into plain sight.

Hagumi turned, her placid expression turning to shock. “M-Mii-kun?!”

“Shh!” Misaki hushed.

Hagumi pointed vigorously. “Y-You came out of the bush! …Do you live there?”

“Of course I-“ Misaki stopped. Her feelings had already been scattershot before she stumbled on the previous scene, and now she was emotionally tapped out from trying to process everything that happened. “Look, does it matter?”

“What did I just tell you, Hagumi?” called a tired voice from inside.

Hagumi’s serious expression returned. “Let’s talk in my room,” she loud-whispered, motioning towards the door.

Misaki hesitated. She felt like she was about to intrude into a space where she had absolutely no business being. But what could she do at this point? It would be ruder to make a break for it, and she needed to talk to Hagumi about… things. Bracing her gut, she crossed the threshold into the Kitazawa household.

Dirt and discordant pairs of shoes were splayed across the entryway. The walls, painted a muted olive, were chipped and faded, one bearing a fist-sized hole in the plaster – Misaki dared not ask how it got there. As she slipped out of her shoes, she took a glance into the neighboring kitchen, where yellowed light flickered throughout the linoleum interior covered with grime. A tower of dishes piled in the sink hung unmoving, their sauce-crusted exteriors long dried and faded. Mold oozed over the ceramic sink, staining the pure white interior with splotches of black and sickly green. The table was covered with newspapers, bills, and a host of other papers that Misaki couldn’t determine the identity of. At the head of the table sat Hagumi’s mother, head in her hands, the tip of her rounded nose poking from between her fingers.

Misaki turned away, not wanting to think about what she had seen. She hastily followed Hagumi into the living room. A browned rug was spread unevenly across the small confines, like a protozoa clamoring to absorb its surroundings. A couch – the pitiful, sole piece of upholstery – was torn and covered with crumbs, angled slightly off center as it faced a decrepit, cracked CRT television. The dusty blinds that covered the rusted window were broken, forever locked in a three-quarters down position. The smell of rotted milk emanated from the corner, signaling a wayward spill some time ago. Misaki could almost taste the three week-old snacks whose aura emanated from every inch of the interior. This was no lion’s den – it wasn’t even a pigsty. It was something much, much sadder.

And Hagumi? Hagumi waded through it all without so much as blinking, only stopping to sneeze. She started climbing the stairs before turning around and motioning to Misaki, who had become frozen in astonishment at the environment. Misaki ascended behind her, still soaking in the destitution that unabashedly lay before her.

The hallway upstairs was comparatively barren, with only dust bunnies populating its narrow confines. They passed a couple doors on their way down the hall. One had a colorful name placard reading ‘Souma’ and was slightly ajar, showing a colorful interior and wallpaper peppered with zoo animals. Misaki presumed that one belonged to Hagumi’s younger brother. The other was shut tight, with no markings or other indications. As they passed, a faint sense of emptiness crept through her spine.

They entered Hagumi’s room. It was, unsurprisingly, a mess – clothes, magazines, and schoolwork lay scattered around the floor and atop a cramped desk, with only a small cleared space showing any fraction of cleanliness. Trophies and toys lay scattered about her shelves, largely bereft of books or pictures. The air had a vague yet omnipresent smell of dried sweat about it. Hagumi speedily decluttered the floor with a couple coughs, yanking out the chair positioned next to her desk and unceremoniously shoving the pile of papers on it off before patting it welcomingly, emitting a small puff of mushrooming dust. “Sorry it’s a mess! You can take a seat here.”

Misaki lowered herself into the chair, feeling it instantly creak under her weight. Motioning back and forth a little too hard would snap the legs in half. But she was too appalled to make any sudden movements – her mind was caught up in one, singular question:

This is how she lives?

Hello, Happy World! had always met at the Tsurumaki manor. It made sense – the mansion was a far more luxurious locale than any other member’s residence could hope to be. Misaki once laughed at the idea of hosting a practice or hang out at her house, slightly mortified by the humility she would feel having her average abode compared to Kokoro’s opulent chateau. Now, she just felt ashamed, knowing that one of her bandmates was living in conditions like this without telling anyone. An offhand comment from one of the softball players days earlier resurfaced:

“I saw her out jogging in the middle of a typhoon once! I asked her what she was doing, and you know what she said? That she didn’t feel like going home, so she decided to run instead!”

Misaki watched as Hagumi plopped down on the bed, an untroubled grin returning to her face. “So? What did you come over for?”

Misaki had five things to say at once, which all got caught in her esophagus at the same place, forming gibberish with her mouth. “Uhhhhhm, er, I, uh… well… yeah.”

Hagumi nodded. “It’s okay. Take your time.”

That was awfully understanding of her. After recombobulating her brain, Misaki started with the smallest matter first. “I, er, came here because you weren’t at practice, and you weren’t picking up your phone…”

“Makes sense.” Hagumi smiled sheepishly. “I lost my phone charger yesterday, so…”

“Gotcha. Do you have the same model as I do? You can borrow mine.”

“Really? Thanks, Mii-kun!”

Misaki dug out the charger from her bag and handed it to her. “But you’re sick, huh?”

“Y-Yeah,” said Hagumi, suddenly coughing lightly.

It seemed conveniently timed – embellished, even. Misaki crossed her arms. Hagumi doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would skip school over something little like this, she thought. But why would she miss practice, then? She knows they don’t have much time before the tournament…

“Is that all?” Hagumi asked.

Misaki remembered the other task she had been assigned. “Oh, right… I was supposed to give you schoolwork.” She pulled out the papers, but in the process accidentally banged her arm against the back of the chair right against her nerve, unclutching the sheets and sending them scattering across the floor.

“Ah, sorry!” she yelped,  gathering up the papers herself before Hagumi could leap to it. As her eyes scanned the various tests, quizzes, and worksheets that had been graded, however, she slowed.

  1. 41. 29. 50. Numbers scrawled in big red ink at the top of several pages. Scarlet words accompanied them: “Make-up needed.” “Inadequate.” “Re-test.”

“Mii-kun?”

Misaki scrambled to gather them and shove them into Hagumi’s arms, attempting to play it cool. “S-Sorry again. My arm slipped, and, uh…”

“You saw the scores, didn’t you?”

Misaki felt her heart rattled against her ribcage like a xylophone. “U-Uh…”

Hagumi laughed dismissively. “It’s okay. It’s not a big deal.”

“I…It isn’t?”

Hagumi shook her head. “I mean… I know I’m not that smart. These grades are pretty normal for me. So why hide it?”

“Hagumi…”

She flipped through the papers, pensively smiling at the red marks. “I really suck at studying, you know. Every time I sit down with a textbook I get bored or distracted and stop after a couple minutes. So, you know… that’s just the way it is!”

She tried to laugh it off. But Misaki wasn’t feeling jovial in the slightest. “Have you… always struggled?”

“What? With school?” Hagumi said. “I mean, yeah… I’ve never been great. I’m amazed I got into Hanasakigawa, honestly. You have no idea how hard I studied for the Entrance Exams! It took months of hitting the books like my life depended on it. Luckily for me I had some extra time, since…” she trailed off. “Never mind.”

Misaki got an hunch that she shouldn’t drop the point. “Never mind what?”

“I-It’s nothing! Really.” Hagumi’s eyes darted around, avoiding Misaki’s. She connected the dots in her mind, taking her previously compiled information and making a small leap of logic:

“Could it be because you quit the track team?”

Hagumi’s eyes widened to golf ball size. “H-How…? A-Are you psychic?”

“Just resourceful,” Misaki deadpanned. “But it would make sense. Not doing sports gives you more time to study, doesn’t it?”

“Y-Yeah,” replied Hagumi. “B-But-! I quit just to st-study. That was all. Honest.”

“…Did I ever suggest otherwise?”

“Er…”

Misaki sighed. “You’re a really bad liar, Hagumi. It’s really obvious when you’re hiding something.”

“Th-That’s not true!” Hagumi professed, poking her fingers together. “I’m just, uh, bad with words…”

“Maybe. But the fact stands that you stopped doing track for other reasons than just freeing up your schedule. And I think I know why.”

“You… You do?” Hagumi was breathless. “You really are psychic!”

In this case, Misaki might actually have been so, considering she was pulling her reasoning not from interactions with this Hagumi, but from recollections of her Hagumi. And the memories of Sports Day and sweat reverberated strong in her mind. So it was with great surety and conviction that she spoke:

“Hagumi… you don’t like competition, do you?”

The softball captain was uncharacteristically quiet.

“It may be surprising, but I actually know you pretty well,” said Misaki. “You don’t like the ideas of ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ – you just want to have fun with everybody on the field. But not everybody else feels that way, of course. People usually don’t want sportsmanship; they want victory. But you can’t have victory without defeat, can you? And you don’t want anybody to feel bad for losing.”

More silence.

“You were the fastest runner around… so fast you could break records. But you didn’t want to do that. You just wanted to run, without thinking about the consequences of winning and losing. So you stopped, and never looked back. You didn’t even want to do sports in high school, ri-“

“…Please stop.”

Misaki felt like cold water had been splashed all over her body. Hagumi’s voice was low and deathly soft. No longer was she panickily avoiding eye contact, but instead staring into her hands, unmoving.

“I… You’re right,” said Hagumi. “I don’t like thinking about that stuff. When people lose, they… they get hopeless. Like winning was all that mattered, and they don’t even like playing. I saw it when we played Haneoka the other day, when I made that last run… even though it was just a pick-up game… they looked so sad. I don’t…” She breathed in deeply. “I don’t want people to be sad.”

Misaki leaned forward. “…Is that why you didn’t show up at practice today? Because you felt bad about your victory?”

“No! I- I already know I’ll have to play to win on Friday, it’s just… I mean, I’ve been sick, so…”

Misaki only now noticed that Hagumi was cradling her left hand. “Is something wrong?”

“N-No!” Hagumi said, forcing a smile onto her face. “Of course not!”

“…Show me your hand.”

Hagumi shook her head vigorously.

Hagumi…

Bashfully, the shortstop slowly outstretched her arm. Misaki took it, delicately and lightly prodding her fingers. As she grazed the pinky, Hagumi took a sharp intake of breath, wincing intensely.

“…Did you injure yourself?” Misaki asked.

“I-I-It’s just a pinky sprain!!” Hagumi declared, “It’s not a big deal! I can still compete!”

It’s probably from when she stole that base… she slid headfirst, didn’t she? Misaki let go of her fingers, now in full reprimand mode. “Then why didn’t you go to school today?”

“Well… I… if Coach finds out, then…”

“She’ll bench you?”

Hagumi nodded.

Misaki exhaled. “Well, it’d be for the best. You don’t want to hurt yourself even more-”

“But if I don’t play, then we’ll have no chance against Rikujo Kyogi!”

She said it with sudden fire and no trace of reluctance. Misaki, though she knew the logical comeback, couldn’t reply.

Hagumi stammered on: “If… If I don’t play… then everybody on the team will be crushed. They won’t even wanna play. It’ll be worse than if we lose. So… So…!”

“So what?”

Hagumi looked up at Misaki, her eyes strained. The temp-manager wore an expression of both anger and worry.

“You’re going to hurt yourself, just to make other people happy?”

Hagumi stuttered again. “I… I…”

“And what will happen when they find out that you’ve been playing through pain, just for their sake? What will happen when you – in all likelihood – lose, and have to confront that sadness anyway?”

Hagumi mouthed something inaudibly.

Misaki sighed unhappily. “Please, Hagumi. Take care of yourself, at least. I mean, you can’t make everybody happy. That’s just the way it is.”

The only noise that drifted through the air was the lull of passing traffic outside. Light sifted through the trees, spotting the room with freckles of sunshine. Everything was very still, save for the mechanical motions of breathing from both girls. Misaki felt her heart, still tied up in knots, squirm in uncertainty at her own words.

Until, finally, Hagumi, head hung above her knees – laughed.

“You’re right, Mii-kun.” Her voice was frail – like a leaf dangling by a half-torn stem in the wind. “I can’t make everybody happy.”

Hagumi…

“I-In fact…”

She raised her head. Tears were pouring down her cheeks, melting into her pained smile as she sobbed.

“I… I can’t make anybody happy.”

“Ha…” The sound got caught in Misaki’s throat. The sight of Hagumi, wiping away snot and tears in great gulps and heaves… it was too much for her to bear.

“M-Mom and D-Dad, th-they don’t li-like me very much… th-they yell at me whe-whenever I *hic* make too much noise… so I d-don’t stay home much. S-So I thought I c-could be good a-at *hic* sp-sp-sports! G-Get outta the *hic* house! But… But I was too good, and everybody else g-got upset whe-whenever they ran against m-me… so… so I stopped. Wh-When they a-asked me to join the s-softball team, I… *hic* I didn’t wanna. But I was g-good at it! I had so much fun! I just… I just wanted everybody to have f-fun…!”

Misaki’s own eyes started to well up.

“B-But no matter what I *hic* do, somebody gets h-hurt… I know I’m stupid, and dumb, and not very aw-aware of *hic* stuff, but… even with you, Mii-kun… the other day, with K-Kano-chan-senpai… and wh-when you left the band, I *hic* sc-screwed up! Every time, I upset the people I care about! I… I…!”

Time seemed to halt. Hagumi began to collapse forward, teetering off the edge of her bed. The world became cold and grayscale, the atmosphere clogged with fear and tears. Everything seemed to be falling into dust and despair.

Misaki was paralyzed. Dread had grasped her heart, clutching it until it had become still and muffled. No breath entered or exited her lungs. She could do nothing but watch Hagumi stagger off the bed side, the devastating weight of guilt pressing upon her shoulders. Misaki had caused this. She had prodded Hagumi on. She had prompted her pain and suffering. It would have been better if she had never brought any of this up. It would have been better for her never to have rekindled their relationship.

She had walked the path, and now crossroads lay before her. It was as if the universe itself questioned her:

What will you do?

Misaki knew the answer.

She leapt forward and caught Hagumi, embracing her in her arms.

“It’s not your fault.”

Hagumi sniffled. “H-Huh?”

Misaki breathed in deeply, fighting back tears. “The only idiot here… is m-me. And me alone. You didn’t do anything wrong, Hagumi.”

“B-But-“

“It was my decision to leave the band. My decision to lash out at you back then, and just a few days ago. I… I was hurt, and stupid, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. And I… I took it out on you, like a coward…!” The floodgates opened. “I’m so sorry, Hagumi…! I’m so, so sorry…!”

“M-Mii-kun…!”

The two girls stoodthere in each other’s arms, crying their eyes out, for indiscernible amounts of time. The swell of catharsis spilt over them, sinking them to their knees. Minutes passed as their hands rubbed across each other’s backs. Slowly, their eyes dried, and they simply sat there, hugging each other tightly.

It was Hagumi who released, her hands drooping off before sinking onto the floor. “M-Mii-kun… can you ever forgive me? For all those things I did?”

“That’s my line,” Misaki laughed, a couple sobs still clogged in her throat. “I never realized I caused you so much hurt, Hagumi. You… You don’t deserve any of that.”

Hagumi giggled and wiped away her tears. “I-It’s okay. I’m f-fine now! See? Just needed to cry it out a little, haha!”

Misaki smiled back, rising to her feet. She knew they had just gotten through some emotionally raw territory, but questions still plagued her. “Hagumi, what are you going to do for the game?”

Hagumi’s eyes narrowed with determination. “I want to play.”

“But-“

“Please. Mii-kun. Just once… I don’t want anybody to be disappointed in me. Please.”

Misaki couldn’t bring herself to put her foot down. “…Fine. But don’t do anything risky. Play it safe. Even if it means you lose.”

Hagumi opened her mouth to protest, but acquiesced. “A-All right.”

Well… there’s that. Unsure what to say next, Misaki clumsily patted her on the shoulder. “Um… you doing okay?”

Hagumi nodded. “I’m feeling a lot better. Thanks!”

“Phew… I’m glad.”

Hagumi’s eyes traced over to her closet. “Hey, Mii-kun? Can I… show you something?”

“Uh… sure. What is it?”

Hagumi walked over and opened up the closet door. She pulled out a long, black object decidedly uncovered with grime – a bass guitar case.

“I… pull it out from time to time,” Hagumi admitted. “I’m not very good, but… well, I guess I should start practicing, right?”

Misaki’s lips curled into a smile. “Yeah. Definitely.”

Hagumi busted open the case, removing her black-and-white bass and tuning the chords. As she twanged out a few basic riffs with her plucky fingers, Misaki’s eyes unconsciously focused on Hagumi’s left pinky, carefully positioned in such a place as to not nudge the body. Anxiety, subtle and unwary, struck her.

Will everything really be okay?

But seconds later, her worries melted in the calm, quiet rhythms of Hagumi’s bass. She definitely wasn’t as practiced here as she was in Misaki’s old world, but she wasn’t a complete novice, either. Her hands glided up and down the four strings, slapping and strumming a progressively upbeat groove after some initial stumbling. She looked almost nostalgic as she played, looking off into the hallway as she thrummed. “Man, I wish Ryou were here to see this!”

“Ryou?”

“My older brother,” Hagumi explained. “I think I told you – he taught me how to play guitar!”

“Oh. Is he out right now?”

“Ah… well…” Hagumi’s voice petered off. “He’s not around anymore.”

“O-Oh. Not around as in like…” Misaki’s voice softened. “Passed?”

“Oh! No, not like that. Just… not around.”

Misaki could sense that there was something there. But she had neither the stamina nor the courage to pry.

After a little while listening to the jam, Misaki felt that it was time to head home. Koharu would need dinner soon, after all. Making sure to message the coach about Hagumi’s absence, she packed her things. Hagumi offered to take her to the front door, which Misaki immediately agreed to - she wasn’t sure she could pass through the house on her lonesome.

They made their way down and out the front door, Hagumi’s mother having disappeared to somewhere unknown. Hagumi looked off into the horizon. “I wonder where Dad went.”

“You sound pretty unruffled about it,” Misaki commented.

“Oh, it happens all the time. He’ll be back in a couple days.”

“A couple days?!”

Hagumi nodded. “That’s just… how things go around here.”

Once more, Misaki felt the awkward urge to speak out. But she was tired of bottling herself up. “Um, Hagumi… if you’re ever in a bad spot or anything…”

“What is it?”

Misaki stabilized her thoughts. “Just… know that I’m there for you, all right? If you need to get out of the house for a night, just let me know.”

“Aw, thanks, Mii-kun! But I’ll be fine.” Hagumi thumped her chest. “I’m tougher than I look.”

“Heh…” Misaki chuckled. “And you look pretty tough as is.”

Hagumi beamed. “See ya tomorrow, Mii-kun.”

“See you.”

It had been a rocky visit. But Misaki understood Hagumi more than ever. All they had to do was get past the game on Friday… the game against Rikujo Kyogi.

Win or lose… it didn’t matter. Somebody would be upset.

And she would do her damnedest to make sure that somebody wasn’t Hagumi.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: All-Star

Misaki lay mired in her concerns that night, her mind fixated on Hagumi as Koharu thoroughly trounced her in a round of Super Mario Party. After the events earlier that day, her home seemed so much cleaner, so much more orderly, so much more… whole. Only now did the destitution of the Kitazawa household firmly sink into her mind, like a ghost town populated with lonely husks. She wished she could help fix it somehow… and yet, she felt as if she could do nothing but appreciate what she had.

Of course, Hagumi’s family situation wasn’t the only thing weighing on her mind. The softball captain may have been one of the three dummies, but the decision to play through an injury at greater risk to herself was one of the stupidest decisions Misaki had ever seen her make. But in the aftermath of their conversation, she felt powerless to stop her, as if doing so would be a betrayal of Hagumi’s desire, and with it, their friendship. Misaki wanted to not be overbearing, but if Hagumi wasn’t going to hurt herself, wasn’t it her responsibility to step in?

She reclined on the couch, watching Koharu’s Rosalina run circles around her own Luigi, racking up stars and coins with an uncanny combination of skill and luck. Before the reality shift, Hagumi was probably the band member she knew the least well – Kokoro required more time-management, Kanon was amicable and understanding, and Kaoru… well, she was so theatrical that anybody in a hundred-meter radius knew what she was about. Misaki had assumed that Hagumi was like the other numbskulls – a bit dense, gung-ho to the extreme, and without a care in the world. But it was just the opposite: she cared far too much about what other people thought. How could Misaki ever hope to change that? Should she hope to change that?

Misaki lay her controller down in resigned defeat, shutting the console off before escorting Koharu to bed. As she tucked her little sister in, she wondered just what she had the capacity to do in regards to Hagumi’s situation. She couldn’t fix a broken home, but she could prevent a broken hand. But how could she convince Hagumi not to play?

If only there was somebody I could talk to about her… Misaki mused, pacing back to her room. Somebody who knows her well, and who I’m not on sketchy terms with. But who…?

***

“Toyama-san?”

At lunchtime the next day, Misaki found herself staring at the cat-ear-esque brown hair of a particular singer-guitarist, whose starry-eyed gaze turned to drill into Misaki’s own, her lips curled into a wide and vacant grin.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

Misaki scratched her cheek. “Uh… I suppose not.”

The members of Poppin’ Party were situated in their usual courtyard spot, enjoying their bentos and their typical rapport. As Saya handed out buns and Tae swiped a weenie from Arisa’s lunchbox, Misaki took in the scene with cold comfort. It was strange, to see something so exactly familiar, yet so strangely alien. But she came here with a particular mission in mind, and it was her duty to see it through.

“My name is Misaki Okusawa. I’m, er, a fan of yours, I guess.”

“Woah!” Kasumi explained, her eyes twinkling. “Do you want, like, an autograph or something?”

“We’re not famous enough for that,” Arisa sighed.

“You don’t need fame for an autograph,” said Tae. “All you need is a pen and some paper.”

“Well, you’re right about that…”

“I’m not here to fangirl,” Misaki clarified. “I actually had something very specific to talk to you about?”

“What is it?”

Misaki took a beat to consolidate her thoughts. “You’re childhood friends with Hagumi Kitazawa, right?”

Kasumi’s eyes went wide in shock. “H-How’d you know? Are you psychic?!”

Great minds think alike, eh? Misaki thought, remembering Hagumi saying the same exact phrase yesterday. “I’m just a friend of hers, and she mentioned you… that’s all.” It was too much effort to explain herself – without the presence of Hello, Happy World! in this reality, she had never gotten to know the members of other bands, after all.

“Yup, I knew Hagu a long time ago,” said Kasumi, eyes drifting up in reminiscence. “We used to run around the playground a lot and play chutes and ladders and stuff… ah, those were the days!”

Isn’t that a board game? Misaki thought.

“Isn’t that a board game?” Arisa asked.

Kasumi ignored her. “I didn’t see Hagu much in middle school, but we ended up in the same class in high school, so we started hanging out! It was really fun to see her again!”

“So you didn’t know her when she was in track?” asked Misaki.

“…Eh? Hagu was in track?!”

Well, that answers that question… Misaki supposed she could work backwards regardless. “Did anything about her seem… different when you found her in high school? Compared to when she was a kid, I mean?”

“Hmm…” Kasumi crossed her arms in thought. “Nope! Not really. Hagu’s always been Hagu, y’know?”

“I don’t think she does,” said Arisa with a huff.

“Be nice, Arisa-chan…” said Rimi.

“I-I’m just pointing out the obvious!”

Misaki didn’t have time for schticks, so she ignored them. “And what would you say ‘Hagu’ is like, in your own words?”

“Oh, y’know…” Kasumi made a number of inscrutable motions with her hands. “Full of… ker-pow! Razzle-dazzle! Oomph-badoomph!”

“Oomph-badoomph, huh?” said Saya with a laugh.

“What does that even mean?” asked Arisa bitterly.

“It’s an oomph that also has a badoomph,” said Tae astutely.

“No, no, I understand perfectly,” said Misaki, who, despite not gaining the full nuance of Kasumi’s gestures, understood Hagumi as a child to be very similar to how she was now. “Has she always liked sports?”

“Yup! We played kickball and t-ball a lot when we were little. She was always super-fast and would go zooming around the bases really quick.”

No surprises so far. Now came the trickier questions. “Did you ever go over to her house much?”

Kasumi thought for a moment. “Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever did. We always went to the playground or around the neighborhood. Maybe to my place a few times.”

So has her family always been like that? Misaki wondered. Or maybe…

“Hold on a second,” said Arisa. “If you’re her friend, then why are you grilling Kasumi for information instead of just asking her?”

Misaki was struck by the logical question. “W-Well…”

Arisa’s eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to get dirt or something?”

“I-It’s not that…”

“I think she’s just curious, Arisa,” said Saya. “It’s not easy to ask somebody about their past, you know?”

“Yeah, Arisa,” said Kasumi. “Like, if I asked you about that play you put on in elemen-“

Don’t mention that, you idiot!” Arisa snapped.

“I-I don’t think Okusawa-san means anything bad,” said Rimi. “Th-Though I’m not sure why she’s asking, admittedly…”

Misaki took a pause. What reason was there to not tell them about the situation? In non-specific terms, at least – she’d have to word things carefully. “There’s a reason I’m coming to you all.”

“Oh? And what is it?” asked Arisa.

“Well…” Misaki’s head drooped a little. “Hagumi is… going through a rough patch right now. And I’m not sure what to do, exactly. She keeps putting other people before herself, and it’s going to hurt her – no, it has hurt her. And I need to figure out how to help.”

The bubbly atmosphere turned to contemplative silence. Rimi and Kasumi fidgeted quietly. Arisa adopted an expression of sudden guilt. Saya looked around, fingers on her chin, a frown etched on her face. Only Tae seemed relatively unperturbed, methodically chewing through a mouthful of rice.

“…Sorry,” said Misaki, the heavy climate crushing her. “I didn’t mean to lay it out like-“

“Wh…What’s going on?!” asked Kasumi, suddenly leaning in towards Misaki. “Is Hagu all right? Is she hurt?””

“U-Uh…”

“Ease up, Kasumi,” said Saya. “She’ll be fine. Right?”

“Right,” said Misaki, instilling more confidence than she had.

Kasumi sighed. “Oh, no… what happened to her? She was always so bright and energetic…”

“She still is, don’t worry,” said Misaki. “It’s more… complicated than that. But anything you could tell me about her would help me out a lot.”

“Anything, huh…” Kasumi crossed her arms in thought. “Hmm… besides sports, and stargazing, and all that stuff… what was there… oh!”

“What is it?”

Kasumi’s fist clasped on her open hand. “Her brother! I forgot about him.”

“The question was about Hagumi, not her brother,” said Arisa. “What does he-“

“Wait,” said Misaki, her pulse picking up tempo. “You knew her brother? Er, which brother?”

Kasumi mulled over her memories. “Ryou? He was a few years older… I think he was in middle school back then. Hagu followed him everywhere. She was his number one fan.”

“And what kind of person was he?”

“He was really… wooooah, you know?” Kasumi made a grand arc with her hands. “Like, everything he did was super cool and slick. He knew how to put yen on a string to fool vending machines, and how to sneak snacks into the movie theater.”

Doesn’t that just make him a petty criminal? Misaki thought.

“But he doted on Hagu a bunch, too,” said Kasumi. “I saw them together a lot, actually. I can’t believe I forgot about him.”

“So they were close…” Misaki muttered. She remembered the bereft way in which Hagumi described what happened to him: He’s gone now. But not dead, apparently. So where was he?

“I don’t think I remember much more than that, unfortunately,” said Kasumi. “But if I think of anything else, I’ll let you know!”

“Well, thanks,” said Misaki. She wasn’t completely satisfied with the way things had turned out, but she had another avenue of discussion to open with Hagumi, at least. She gathered her things and stood up” “Have a good day.”

“Hold on a moment.”

The voice didn’t come from Kasumi, but from Tae, kneeling quietly, whose eyes were closed in mute contemplation. Misaki stared at her in mild confusion.

“Oooh! O-Tae’s in sage mode!” Kasumi exclaimed. “She’s about to dispense wisdom!”

Sage mode? Misaki asked silently. What the heck does that mean?

“You asked for advice, right?” said Tae. “I have some.”

She breathed steadily, inhaling and exhaling with great focus and control. After several moments of meditation, she opened her eyes and looked straight at Misaki, speaking clearly:

“Before you fix others, you must first fix yourself.”

Misaki blinked. “Um… okay.” It felt a little presumptuous to get that advice from her, but it seemed like a decent enough nugget of wisdom. How was she broken, exactly?

Kasumi and Rimi seemed enthralled by the statement, as Saya chuckled and Arisa rolled her eyes. Misaki waved by to them before finding a bench of her own to plop down on. Her direction wasn’t any clearer than before. If she didn’t do anything, Hagumi would keep pushing herself, until she crumbled under the weight.

All Misaki could do was push forward herself.

***

The tinge of anticipation crept through her spine as she made her way to the softball diamond after class. Misaki wasn’t sure whether she wanted Hagumi to attend that day or not – no, she definitely didn’t want it to happen, but she did wish she could talk to the shortstop and sort out their woes. Upon arriving at the field, however, she was filled with relief – and tension – to see that Hagumi was nowhere in sight.

The rest of the team was doing warm-ups, though not as vigorously as usual. They seemed distracted, languishing in certain stretches for minutes on end and only going through the motions of their jogs. The coach hadn’t arrived yet to snap at them for their sluggishness, but Misaki had a feeling it wasn’t mere laziness that was slowing them down.

After fifteen or so minutes, the coach finally appeared, carting a duffel bag and smacking gum as usual. “Oy, what’s with this snail convention? Move your keisters!” She looked around again as everybody lined up to greet her. “Kitazawa still not here?”

“No…” said the center fielder. “Wasn’t in class, either.”

“Tch… what, she afraid to show herself? Too humble to celebrate a victory she snatched up herself?”

Misaki knew that wasn’t the issue at all. But she was afraid to speak up – what did these people know about Hagumi’s situation? Would it really be right for her to mention the injury?

“Doesn’t matter,” mulled the coach. “We’ll practice twice as hard without her, right?”

The usually spirited replies of the players were nowhere to be seen. Instead, they awkwardly dug their feet into the ground, avoiding eye contact, offering a half-hearted agreement.

“What’s the matter?” asked the coach. “Can’t move a muscle without Kitazawa around?”

“What if… the captain’s hurt?” asked one of the second-stringers.

This whipped up a flurry of whispers. The coach gritted her teeth. “If she was injured, she’d tell us. Okusawa messaged me yesterday – she’s got a nasty cold, that’s all.”

Misaki, on the periphery, froze up further, her ambivalence tearing her desires in two.

“What if she’s sick through the week?” asked somebody else.

“We can’t play Rikujo Kyogi without her! They’ll kill us!” cried another.

“There’s no way we can win without our ace…” lamented a third.

Misaki could see the cloud of hopelessness descend over them all at once. Only now was it clear to her just how much Hagumi was the cornerstone of the entire team – not just as a player, but as a leader. If she doesn’t play… Misaki thought. Then…

“Guuuuuuuys!”

Like a thunderbolt through the blue, a familiar voice pierced the sky. Everybody turned towards the chain link fence on the opposite side of the field, where Hagumi was sprinting and waving as fast as her little limbs could manage. At once the dreary atmosphere cleared, as she sped towards the team with plucky abandon.

“Captain! Are you okay?”

Hagumi thumped her chest. “Fit as a fiddle! Sorry for worrying you all… I had some stuff to do the past couple days, but now I’m raring to go!”

Her teammates and even the coach sighed with relief as she took to the field, as lively and upbeat as the day of the game. She batted, ran, and fielded as normal. No casual onlooker would glimpse even a trace of doubt or fragility.

But Misaki was hyper-fixated on one area – her left hand. Like a hawk, she watched to see if it was babied, studying every swing, throw, and dash with a fervid intensity. And every now and then, she spotted it – a twitch of the pinky, a tic of the hand, an intake of breath.

Yet Hagumi said nothing.

Could Misaki really do the same?

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: Full Count

Game day.

Misaki exited her last class early to make her way to the softball diamond, where she schlepped duffel bags full of equipment over to a pure gray bus parked just off of the school grounds. As she hauled bats and balls to and fro, her mind couldn’t shake the unshakeable ill portent that nipped at her heels, as if ready to drag her into misfortune at any moment. It gnawed at her – the sense that no matter what happened, the day would not go well.

Once the bus was loaded up proper, she dipped into the nearest restroom to change into a softball uniform for the first – and last – time. Hagumi had given her one of their extra sets the day prior – she was part of the team, if only for a brief time. Misaki looked herself over in the mirror. The tan, black, and red color combo complemented her hair well, and the cap, emblazoned with a scarlet “花”, fit her head perfectly. It was strange, but Misaki always felt comforted when she wore a baseball hat. Even though this wasn’t her tried and true monochromatic one, it still relieved the tension in her tendons, if only for a moment. She stared back at her reflected blue-gray eyes for a moment, surveying the uniform.

That’s right… I’m not just here as a friend, but as a teammate.

With a light slap on the cheek to pump herself up, she stepped out and made her way back to the buses.

Misaki had expected the team to be in a state of doom and gloom, but their spirits were surprisingly tempered. The trip to the field where they’d be playing was filled with lighthearted chatter and a few invigorated chants, courtesy of Hagumi’s cheerleading. There were no muted whispers, no cloud of anxiety hovering in wait. Misaki wished she could share in the optimism, but her role as The Cynic kept her fretting right until the bus screeched to a halt in front of the new diamond.

Compared to Hanasakigawa’s field, this one was of a noticeably better quality – the grass was of a greener hue and more evenly trimmed, the dirt was a healthy shade of chocolate, and the stands could accommodate twice as many people. I guess the big fish can’t play in a small pond, Misaki thought as she exited the bus, spotting the gold-and-green clad Rikujo Kyogi players already warming up on the field. They had taken three buses compared to Hanasakigawa’s one. Coordinated assistants and managers spoke didactically and confidently to seasoned veterans. Even their exercises seemed more trained, more precise, more vicious.

“Quit lookin’ and start movin’, Okusawa,” said the coach.

“R-Right,” Misaki replied, reaching into the open cargo bay and yanking out the duffel bags. “Rude to stare, huh?”

The coach shook her head. “That ain’t it. If you keep looking at the other side, you won’t be able to see what’s in front of you.”

The words gave her pause. …What’s with that sudden bit of motivation? Misaki wasn’t used to the coach giving tough love so much as raw toughness. She shrugged it off and carted the equipment down to the field as the players began to jog down in light formation, Hagumi leading the charge.

“Hana!” she called.

“Saki!” the team replied.

“Gawa!” she cried.

“Play!” the team bellowed.

“Hana!”

“Saki!”

“Gawa!”

“Fight!”

“Hana!”

“Saki!”

“Gawa!”

“Win!”

Misaki felt the cold pessimism in her soul warm at seeing them run. Maybe it was a slim chance, and maybe they were the underdog, but… doesn’t the underdog always win? She laughed silently. Only in movies. This is real life…

There was, of course, one matter she needed to resolve before the game began. Misaki patiently waited for the team to finish warm-ups as she filed the equipment into the proper places, making sure helmets, gloves, bats, and everything else was accounted for. When the players began to slow down their exercise and begin making small talk as the stands filled with spectators, Misaki stood up, dusted herself off, and trod over to Hagumi:

“Captain, do you have a moment to chat?”

Hagumi tilted her head quizzically. “Well, sure, but… what about?”

Misaki didn’t want to specify with others around. “You’ll see.”

She dragged Hagumi to a spot below the bleachers, where only a few stragglers wandered about in search of a bathroom. Misaki tried not to gawk at the litter strewn about as she pulled Hagumi to a secluded area.

“What is it?” she asked, pep in step.

Misaki knew she couldn’t address the matter head-on – she’d have to approach it from a more tactful direction. “I just wanted to say… good luck. It’ll be a tough game, and I know it’s not gonna be easy.”

“Aw, Mii-kun…” Hagumi nodded with determination. “We’ll do great! Just you see!”

Misaki nodded back. “Listen, uh… you didn’t have to let me help out with the team. I know it was a pretty sudden request, after all. And you didn’t have to agree to the whole… band thing. So…” She extended her left hand. “I just wanted to say thanks. Thanks for letting me join, if only for a little while.”

Hagumi laughed. “I should be thanking you! You’ve helped out a whole bunch!”

Misaki smiled. “You’re welcome.”

They stood there for a moment, Misaki’s left arm dangling out perpendicular to her body.

“Well?”

“W-Well what?” asked Hagumi, her eyes fixated in the distance.

“Aren’t you going to shake my hand?”

O-Oh, that’s what you meant, haha…” Hagumi chuckled weakly. “Um, do you mind switching hands?”

“What’s wrong with the left hand?” asked Misaki pointedly.

“N-N-Nothing… I guess…”

Misaki sighed. “It still hurts, doesn’t it?”

Hagumi didn’t reply.

Misaki knew this would be the case, and had been preparing for this scenario all week. But even with that in mind, she hesitated. The fork in the road was evident. If she stopped Hagumi from playing, it would help her in the long run, but lose the team the game, and potentially damage their relationship irrevocably. But if she let Hagumi play, then there was the very real possibility that the injury could become permanent – and she didn’t want that stain on her conscience.

She rolled the choices around in her skull. Friendship and victory, or health and safety… which was more important?

She opened her mouth to speak.

“Hagumiiiiii!”

A voice like sparklers soared through the air. Misaki creaked her head ninety degrees to see perhaps the last person she expected at that moment.

“Kokoron!” Hagumi cried.

Kokoro and Hagumi leapt into each other arms, glomping each other with sugary sincerity. It was saccharine enough to warm the cockles of any stone-cold heart that witnessed it. Misaki watched with frozen veins.

“You made it after all!” Hagumi said, jubilantly bouncing up and down in her embrace.

“Well, of course! It sounded like fun, so I didn’t want to miss it!” Kokoro replied, matching her hops. “I’ll be cheering you on with all I have!”

“Thanks a bunch!”

Misaki coughed. “Um… excuse me.”

The two let go of each other. “Oh… you look familiar,” said Kokoro. “Do you go to Hanasakigawa?”

What, the uniform didn’t give it away? Misaki thought bitterly.

“You don’t remember Mii-kun, Kokoron?” asked Hagumi.

“Oh, right, her!” Kokoro enthused, looking at Misaki with an elastic grin. “How have you been?”

“…Can I talk to you in private?” Misaki asked back. “And stay put, Hagumi – I’m don’t done with you.”

“R…Right,” Hagumi replied, looking a little uneasy at the sharpness in her words. Misaki felt bad, but she had a more pressing matter as she yanked Kokoro a few meters away and began loud-whispering at her:

What are you doing here?

Kokoro’s smile didn’t budge. “I’m gonna watch a softball game!”

“I kn- aren’t you supposed to be preparing for a space flight?”

“I have been!” said Kokoro. “But you need a break every now and then. Spend too much time working and you’ll exhaust yourself!”

“I don’t need that sensible bit of life advice from you, of all people,” Misaki hissed. “What happened to being too busy for band?”

“Band is fun, but it’s also hard work! You gotta balance your hobbies properly so you don’t get burnout!”

Misaki was far too riled up to listen at that point. “Look… whatever. Just – you remember our deal, right?”

“Of course!”

“Good, then just…” Misaki exhaled. “Just enjoy the game, okay?”

“Will do!” Kokoro waved enthusiastically to both her and Hagumi. “See you guys! Good luck!”

“Thanks!” Hagumi called back.

They watched Kokoro scamper off towards the grandstands, Misaki still trying to put her scattered emotions back in order.

“Mii-kun?”

After a moment of leaning her head back in agony, she confronted the Captain once more. “Look, Hagumi… I know you’re still injured.”

Hagumi’s expression grew testy again.

“Are you sure you want to play? Because if not…”

“I’m playing,” Hagumi said with a huff.

“But-”

“But what?” Hagumi replied. “I told you, didn’t I? We don’t stand a chance otherwise!”

“So you’re just going to play through pain without anyone knowing?” asked Misaki, her voice rising.

“If I tell the coach, then she’ll bench me,” said Hagumi. “And everyone will lose hope. I can’t have that.”

Misaki crossed her arms, feeling a sweltering indignation rise throughout her gut. “So that’s it, then? You’d rather play the silent hero? The quiet martyr?”

Hagumi’s face was scrunched in an uncharacteristic frown.

“What are you doing this for? Recognition? Glory? Pride?”

“…I’m doing it so nobody’s upset.”

“But somebody will be upset, Hagumi. That’s just the way the world works. And I don’t want you to be that person.”

“And you think me being on the bench will make me feel better?” Hagumi replied.

“No, but you’ll be safe.”

“…And everybody else will be sad.”

Misaki slammed her fist into the nearby support beam.

The clang was the only sound that reverberated for a few seconds.

“You just don’t get it,” Misaki spat. “Maybe you think that if you just put yourself on the line for other people that you can get by. That you can do what’s best for them, without them understanding what you’ve gone through. But that doesn’t fill you with honor, or glory, or good feeling – it just makes you bitter. Bitter that you’re hurting and nobody cares, because they don’t even know. Bitter that you’ve put in so much and they don’t even acknowledge it. Bitter that because there’s nobody to stop you, you just keep sacrificing and sacrificing… and for what? Others’ happiness, at the sake of your own? That’s no way to live.”

Hagumi was slow to reply. “…How would you know?”

Misaki took a sharp intake of breath. “I know because-!”

And the epiphany, long realized in her subconscious, suddenly broke the dam of her cognizance, knocking the wind out of her sails and the fire from her eyes, the thought pulsating through her grey matter as the outline of a fluffy pink bear sharpened in her mind.

I know because I was the same.

She thought the words as loud as she could; but her lips, trembling, couldn’t form a sound. Hagumi, eyes glued to the floor, spoke:

“You don’t know, do you? You just think that’s how it is.”

No, that’s not true…

“Look, I get it.” Hagumi’s voice was tinged with resentment – but much more than that, downheartedness. “I’m dumb, and stupid, and I do things I’m not supposed to. But, just this once… I don’t want to make anybody disappointed in me.”

I’d never be disappointed in you for that, Hagumi! Misaki screamed internally. You… I just…

“So please, Mi… Misaki… just let me play.”

And with one last forlorn look in her eyes, Hagumi turned and walked away.

Misaki petrified on the spot. Her mouth clamped shut as her hands refused to ball into fists of frustration. Internally she was bellowing with all of her might, and yet her vocal chords remained motionless.

Slowly, defeatedly, she toppled over to her knees, coiling into a tight ball of agony on the asphalt, with only discarded Styrofoam and dirty peanut shells as companions.

The echoes of the past resounded. All the days being Michelle. Struggling in solitude. Baking in silence. And whenever Kanon asked if she was fine, Misaki would reply: “Yeah. As long as everybody’s happy.

What if nobody was?

She clutched at her knees like a lifeline, choking back tears, as the thunder of spectators from the bleachers above announced the game’s start.

***

Misaki finally drummed up the will to slump over to the dugout sometime around the 3rd or 4th inning. As she finally reached the stone stairs into the small bunker, she received a predictable tongue-lashing.

“Okusawa! Where the hell have you been?” The coach barked. “The players have been thirsty, and getting’ ‘em water is your job.”

“S-Sorry…” Misaki mewled. “I’ll get on it.”

Evidentially she came across as depressed as she was, because the coach sighed and patted her on the shoulder. “Lighten up. We’re only down three runs – that’s great, for the gap between our skill levels.”

Oh, right… the game. Misaki had almost forgotten. Not that she was sure she cared anymore. She grabbed water bottles from the cooler and distributed them to the players, who saw it fit to try and invigorate her:

“Come on, manager! Don’t look so down!”

“We still got a chance!”

“Believe in us, will ya?”

Misaki desperately wanted their optimism to infect her. But she couldn’t remove her attention from Hagumi, warming up in the batter’s circle, her eyes intensely focused on the field. Her usual lighthearted vigor was nowhere to be seen – instead, her aura was one of tenacity and focus.

As she went up to bat, however, the fire didn’t translate into proficiency. In big, sloppy motions, she struck out in three swings. It was obvious from her form that she was off her game.

“Nerves must be getting to her again,” said the catcher, shaking her head.

“Maybe she’s still sick?” suggested another player.

“She seemed fine at practice… though now that you mention it, she didn’t seem 100% then, either.”

“I hope the Captain’s okay…”

Misaki felt the unliftable weight of responsibility press down on her sensitivity for Hagumi’s feelings. With just a few words to the coach she could stop her. She could get Hagumi out of the game and into safety. But it would tear apart their friendship even more than it already had. It would ruin the already nil chances of Hanasakigawa winning. And what right did she have to do it? She felt like the biggest hypocrite in the world. Otae’s words from days before suddenly came bouncing back:

Before you fix others, you must fix yourself.

And Kokoro’s:

You gotta balance your hobbies properly so you don’t get burnout!

It was as if the universe were speaking to her directly, imparting a lesson that she had tried desperately to ignore.

Because that was the sort of person she was, wasn’t it? Even when it came to joining the softball team, it wasn’t out of a genuine love for the sport, or out of an earnest desire – it was to help Hagumi. To alleviate the worries of another. That was supposed to be a virtuous thing, wasn’t it? That’s what she told herself when she toiled away in Hello, Happy World! – that it was for the better. That she would give anything to make them happy. But that attitude had simply led to her bottling her frustration in the name of virtue, until it came exploding out in a scalding out stream of anger. And then, here she was – ready to do the same thing again, laying her own time, energy, and responsibility out for the sake of another. How magnanimous of her, right?

Yet Misaki didn’t feel generous.

She felt horribly, all-consumingly selfish.

But here it was – another person who put too much of themselves on the line, and Misaki could do nothing but watch her potentially self-destruct from her own sense of responsibility. With every missed swing at the bat, every ground ball sent in Hagumi’s direction, Misaki felt her entire being clench, wondering if this would be the time, this would be the instance in which the ball collided with her hand and sent her bones shattering into nothingness. And that paralysis kept her locked into the game, unable to move, think, or feel beyond a lurking and omnipresent dread.

What could be done?

What could be done?

The question panged in her mind as the 9th inning boomed.

Hanasakigawa had, with a combination of luck and perspiration, put two runs on the board. Unfortunately, Rikujo Kyogi still maintained a three-run lead – and in the top of the inning, their cleanup hitter hit a solo dinger out of the park to make it 6-2. It would require an intense rally for Hanasakigawa to emerge victorious And it was evident on the faces of every player that they knew the jig was up.

“We gave it a good try, right?” laughed the center-fielder halfheartedly in the dugout.

“Honestly, we didn’t get creamed as bad as I thought we would,” chimed another.

Even the coach, so grizzled as to be hocking sunflower seeds throughout the game, wore a muted expression. “Well, we got three more outs. Let’s make the best of it, y’hear?”

A couple of meager “yeahs” chorused from the throng of defeated players. But, as ever, there was one who was completely undeterred by the situation at hand.

“Hold on a sec,” said Hagumi Kitazawa. “We can still win this.”

“C’mon, Captain,” moaned the third baseman. “We gave it a shot, but-”

“We’d be way closer if I was doing better,” said Hagumi. “It’s my fault we’re behind.”

Misaki desperately knew that wasn’t the case, but she, for once, didn’t have to say it.

“It’s not, captain!” objected a reserve player. “You’re working just as hard as the rest of us.”

“Yeah,” agreed another player. “You’ve been givin’ it 110%, and we’re grateful.”

“Well, I can go higher!” Hagumi hollered. “I just need one more shot at the plate.”

“We’re starting fifth in the order,” the coach growled. “We’d need a lot of hits to get to that point.”

“We can do it,” said Hagumi. “If you get me up to bat, I promise – we’ll win!”

She said it without the slightest trace of hesitation. Her unfaltering claim was met with dumbfounded stares from every teammate. After seconds of silence, the coach laughed. “That so, Kitazawa? Well, you’re too honest to lie.” She clapped. “You heard the woman! Run through the lineup, and we’ll have a shot at this thing!”

“Yes, ma’am!” cried everyone in unison.

Misaki’s eyes were locked on Hagumi, whose gaze wasn’t directed on any one person or place. It was narrowed in on one singular prospect – victory. The thing that Hagumi had at one point been wholly ambivalent about. Misaki wondered how much she was tearing up inside. To anybody else, this would have been a charismatic display of leadership, but for Hagumi… how much distress was she working under?

The fifth batter went up to the plate. After fouling several times, she hit the ball at a clumsy angle, grounding it straight to the pitcher for an easy out.

Misaki remembered all the pains and frustrations she had gone through as Michelle. How did she ever resolve them?

The sixth batter was patient, watching each pitch carefully and swinging conservatively. It paid off, as with only one strike she took an easy walk to first.

How did she ever make it through all of those grueling misunderstandings to reach the moment she cherished?

The seventh batter hit an infield fly. Two outs.

Kanon’s face lit up in Misaki’s mind.

The eighth batter strode up. With bunts off the table, she took a swing at the first strike that came her way, getting a solid single to left field. Runners on first and second.

…I’m such an idiot.

Hagumi strode up to the batter’s circle, as intensely determined as before. But Misaki no longer watched from a distance – instead, she trod straight up to her, her brain on fire.

“Hagumi, wait.”

Hagumi didn’t turn towards her. “…What is it?”

“Look I-” Misaki paused. “I’m not going to stop you. I… I can’t, really. Not in a situation like this. And – and if you don’t even want to see me ever again after this, I completely understand. But…”

“But…?”

Misaki steadied her trembling breath. “Please… just… know that it’s okay to be upset, sometimes. Because not everybody can always be happy. And… sometimes, you have to consider yourself before you consider other people. Maybe that sounds selfish, or inconsiderate, or just plain wrong, b-but…”

Hagumi didn’t reply. Misaki gulped:

“I’m your friend, Hagumi. And if you hurt yourself… I would be hurt, too.”

Hagumi’s face was masked by the batter’s helmet as she swayed the bat. Behind her, the bottom of the lineup hit another single to right field, loading the bases.

Misaki could do no more than watch as the orange-haired shortstop strode up to the batter’s box, all the eyes of the stadium waiting on her, as the professional lilt of an announcer boomed from on high:

“Now batting: Hanasakigawa shortstop, Hagumi Kitazawa.”

Misaki felt as if she had shoved a cannonball off of her chest. But she had no idea if Hagumi would listen. All she could do now was… wait.

The first pitch was a high ball, whizzing by Hagumi’s head. 1-0. The next sunk low into the corner of the strike zone. 1-1. The third curved artfully in midair, gliding just to the left of the plate. 2-1. The next arced similarly low, trying to bait a swing, but Hagumi remained statuesque. 3-1. The fifth came, grazing the side of the strike zone, which Hagumi hit off into the stands for a foul. Full count.

It was the stuff of any proper sports fiction – a situation pushed to the absolute brink. The final moment on which every future rested upon. Everything hung on the next pitch. The entire stadium held its collective breath as the Rikujo Kyogi pitcher sent a fireball hurtling down the pipe –

CLANG

The green orb sailed deep, deep into the corner of the left field, where everybody waited to see where it would land. Misaki and the rest of the team silently and fervently prayed: Clear the fence, clear the fence, clear the fence…!

The sphere drooped low just enough, hitting the middle of the low-back wall and bouncing down at an angle towards the left corner. The base runners were already hurtling down the track as the left fielder came up to spear the ball, but its angle was bizarre, pinballing off the corner and bouncing past her into left field. What would have been a simple double got an extended life.

“GO! GO! GO!”

As the outfielder scrambled for the ball, each of the base runners made their way home, scoring once, twice, three times. Just as Hagumi reached the halfway point between second and third, the left fielder finally got a hold of the ball. Misaki felt her spirit come alive as Hagumi sprinted towards third for a satisfactory and clean triple –

Only she didn’t stop.

To the shock of everybody else in the stadium, Hanasakigawa’s captain hurtled past third base, sprinting with the full force of her stubby, muscle-bound legs, as the reality of her intent sunk into Misaki’s mind.

An inside the park home run?!

The left fielder fired her arm like an artillery shell towards home, sending it on a collision course with the fastest shortstop alive.

With thunderous roar, Hagumi ran.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18: Hagumi Kitazawa

She was always running.

She couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t.

From her earliest memories on the playground she flailed her arms about in chaotic abandon as she totted back and forth, bursting with vivacity and giggles. Her little tuft of orange hair flopped in the breeze as she scuttled along, her chubby hands outstretched in a whirling attempt to balance herself. Even then, she felt the slight give of the ground beneath her feet, the mild incline of the asphalt, the gentle push of the breeze sending her onward with gusto. In that primordial state of mind, before concrete thoughts and complex cognitions took root, she felt a simple, unadulterated happiness – just as she felt a sharp sting of sadness when her mother barked at her to stop running and settle down already.

But even so, Hagumi Kitazawa loved to run.

~~~

 She remembered that day clearly. There was a neighborhood t-ball game. She was eight years old. It was the dead of summer, filled with soupy weather, fresh watermelon, and the omnipresent chirps of cicadas. The parents crowded around the tiny field with cameras and sun hats while cheering their children on. Most kids were simply happy to hit the ball into fair play and jaunt on over to base. Hagumi did more. Already she was faster than every other player, hurtling down the baseline like a wildcat on the hunt. She roared and giggled as her foot stamped on the base, the opposing fielders still clumsily handling the ball in their youthful discoordination. She ran circles around the diamond once, twice, three times… racking up points and stomping the other team. But Hagumi didn’t pay much mind to winning. She just liked to run.

That was, until she saw the other players’ faces at the end.

“She creamed us…”

“Not fair! Not fair!”

“Why is she better than us?”

“Next time, I get to pick Hagu-chan for my team!”

It was the petty bickering of sore losers. But infantile whines were biting to infantile ears. As her father came to pick her up – neither of her parents had bothered to watch – she asked him questions.

“Why is everybody so sad?”

“Because they lost,” replied her dad gruffly.

“But weren’t they having fun?”

“Hard to have fun when you lose.”

Hagumi twiddled her thumbs in the backseat of the car. “I had fun… even if we lost, I would’ve had fun.”

“Yeah, well… you aren’t like other girls, honey.”

From anybody else, it might be an affirmation of specialness. But he said it in the way one talked about a zebra with horizontal stripes. Not like other girls… Hagumi rolled the phrase around in her little head, trying to understand just how she was different.

She never really did.

~~~

“Tag, you’re it!”

Ryou had booped her straight in the forehead as she dangled upside-down from the monkey bars. “Hey, no fair!” she cried, righting herself before falling to her feet with simian-like agility. “We weren’t playing tag!”

“We are now,” joked her brother. “Come on, catch me if you can!”

“You’re on!” Hagumi replied, chasing him around with immediate vigor.

They darted around in a simplistic game of cat and mouse. The eldest Kitazawa sibling chuckled, his frizzy orange hair shooting out in every direction as he ran just out of her grasp. “You’ll never be an Olympic runner at this rate!”

“What are the Ol’ Lympics?”

“I dunno exactly. Some kinda big race? They have it every four years.”

“Woah! Sounds like fun! I wanna try!”

“Me too! But we gotta train for it. I don’t think they’d let us in now.”

“Aww… well, we better start runnin’ more then!”

 “You’re on, Gumi.”

Without stopping for a single beat, they bolted for the swing set.

Ryou Kitazawa, three years her elder, was the only person she knew who was faster than her. His stride was natural, his pace rapid, and his sweat never seen. But more than that, he always smiled as he ran – every time, without fail. If she was the wind, then he was the light.

“Tag!” he gloated, touching the swing set a full second before her.

“Wow!” Hagumi slapped her knee, grinning. “You’re so fast, Bro!”

Ryou ruffled her hair, exposing the gap in his front teeth. “You too, Gumi! But we can’t stop practicin’ if we wanna run with the best. We both gotta lot of growin’ to do!”

“I’m gonna be a beanstalk someday!” Hagumi enthused. “And when I’m old, then I can be in the Ol’ Lympics!”

“Haha, lookin’ forward to it!”

It was a matter of seconds before they scurried off again, the breeze at their backs.

By the time their parents came to pick them up, they were sweaty, sore, and smiling.

And when they got home, they were silent.

~~~

The very first day of middle school, Hagumi had to try to stop herself from dashing over to the Track & Field team’s table for sign-ups. She failed. The gust created by the force of her arrival was so impressive they accepted her without tryouts on the spot.

She was a local legend within a week. The coach had to double check the stopwatch to make sure it wasn’t broken. With little training or refinement she was handily beating the third-years in practice. Her teammates stared at her runs with a mixture of awe and envy. But Hagumi didn’t really pay attention to any of that. She just liked to run.

The day of their first inter-school meet, she was pumped, jogging in little circles around the track well before the racing began. Classmates, neighbors, and even teachers had come to witness her mythical legs in motion. Runners from other schools spoke of her in hushed whispers, daring only to steal casual glances at the most fearsome half-pint the junior high track had seen.

As she stretched and cracked her joints in preparation for the run, Hagumi overheard a nearby competitor talking with her parents. She didn’t know her name, her school, or her year. Later, she would barely be able to remember her appearance. But the conversation carried clear as day:

“I’ll be fine, Mom. She’s tough, but I got this!”

“I know you do, honey. You’ve been training every day for a reason.”

“That’s right! I’ll take the top pedestal for sure this time!”

Hagumi thought to herself. Training every day? Hagumi ran a lot, but when it came to out and out training… her talent had been great enough that the coach and upperclassmen had let her slide. It didn’t matter, though, did it? She’d probably win anyway. She was the fastest person there, after all.

And then, a thought crossed her mind.

Is that fair?

This girl from another school had been giving every last bit of her effort to running. Hagumi looked over and saw her legs covered with bandages and compresses. She wanted to win so badly. And Hagumi would likely leave her in the dust, without expending nearly the same amount of energy. That didn’t seem right. Shouldn’t the person who had worked hardest win?

Hagumi lined up for the 100m dash, the doubt settling in her mind. Before, she was planning to give it her all, but… it didn’t really matter if she won, did it? She was there to run and have fun. She didn’t really care about the top position, personally. So if she just slowed down a little…

The starting pistol sounded.

Hagumi, distracted, started a hair later than everybody else. But with her legs, it would have been effortless to catch up and surpass them.

She followed behind at a crisp jog.

The girl she had overheard crossed the finish tape.

Hagumi’s pace slowed, as a single trickle of sweat dropped down her chin. She smiled as she shook the hands of the other competitors. The winner was elated. The others looked frustrated, yet determined. Inwardly, she was feeling good. It had worked out for the better after all. She still felt the wind at her back and the pulse of the earth below her feet. She still loved to run.

She turned, and saw the expressions of her teammates.

Once again she had dumbfounded them.

Just not in the way she usually did.

~~~

“Honestly… how long is she going to keep this up?”

The voices in the Kitazawa household were as loud as ever.

“She spends so much time on sports that she doesn’t have any time to study. Have you seen her latest test?”

“Hmm? No, I haven’t…”

“Hey, you’re listening, aren’t you?”

“Yes, yes…”

“Then put the newspaper down.”

A sigh. “What is it?”

“I’m worried about Hagumi.”

“And…?”

“And?! We need to do something about it!”

“Well, she seems to enjoy physical activity, so-“

“So what? It’s bringing her grades down. I think she should quit.”

“But it gives her something to do, doesn’t it? She doesn’t make as much of a ruckus here nowadays like she used to.”

“You’re right, but what’s the point in competing if she doesn’t even do well? That won’t get her any scholarships.”

“I suppose you’re right… it won’t help her get into high school unless she performs.”

“Exactly. She needs to put more time into schoolwork if she wants a future.”

“Agreed. So… are you going to talk to her about it?”

“Well, I talked to Ryou just this week, so I believe it’s your turn.”

“Honey, I had a long day today, do you mind-“

“Being the only parent around here worth a damn? Why yes, I do mind. Very much.”

The two launched into their usual squabbling. Hagumi sat hidden against the wall of the staircase, hugging her knees close to the chest. She could hear it in their voices too. Just like her teammates. Just like the spectators. The tinge of disappointment.

She quit the next day.

~~~

“Knock, knock.”

Hagumi pulled her head up from its resting position atop her open algebra book. Ryou stood in her bedroom doorway, sporting a new mohawk.

“Woah, you got a haircut! Super cool!”

Ryou smirked. “Think it fits my look?” He wore an open leather jacket, slightly torn jeans, and a crusty old Nirvana t-shirt. A single red stud lay snapped in his one pierced ear. A light bit of stubble grazed his chin. He was, without a doubt, the raddest dude Hagumi had ever seen. “How’s the studying going?”

Hagumi chuckled. “It’s, uh, not great… but I’m working on it! If I hunker down enough, I should get into high school, no prob.”

“Right on! You got this, Gumi.”

He reached in for a fist bump, which she met in kind.

“Oh yeah, do you have a concert tonight?” she asked.

“Aw, nah, the livehouse was booked,” Ryou grumbled. “Can’t play in the park no more either, the cops busted us last time for not havin’ a permit. Screw the man!”

“Screw the man!” Hagumi parroted.

Ryou laughed at her mimicry before his expression shifted. “Oh yeah, I came to ask if you wanted another guitar lesson. If you’re not busy…”

“I can’t study now anyway,” said Hagumi, wiping off the little dribble of drool that had spilt onto a parabola equation. “Let’s do it!”

She scampered on over into his room, filled with grunge and alt-rock posters that were around a decade or two out of date. The whole place smelled of processed snacks and boy sweat, and countless guitar magazines filled the shelves. Despite the pure aura of male adolescence that dripped from every corner, Hagumi loved their little jam sessions. They had been practicing intermittently for about a year now, though Hagumi didn’t feel very good about her skills.

“Nah, nah, the fret goes right there,” said Ryou, adjusting her fingers.

Hagumi strummed. “How’s that?”

“Better, better… though you’re holding it a little too hard. Be looser.”

“Looser. Got it.”

She strummed arpeggios and basic melodies as Ryou listened with an attentive smile. “Hey Gumi, you ever think of joining a band?”

“Hm… not really. Why?”

“Aw, just wonderin’. You been gettin’ good lately.”

“Hehe, thanks!” Hagumi looked down at the instrument. “Though I feel kinda awkward playing, honestly…”

“Really? Hmm… why’s that?”

“I’m not sure. I guess it just doesn’t feel…” Hagumi motioned with her hands. “Quite right.”

Ryou thought to himself. “Weird idea, but… maybe you’d be good on bass.”

“Bass? That’s the one that’s kinda like a guitar, right? Or a fish?”

Ryou laughed. “Yeah. It’s got four strings instead of six, and it’s usually less about the melody and more about… well, the bassline.”

Hagumi nodded in understanding. “Why do you think I’d be good at it, though?”

Ryou looked for the right words. “I guess it just fits your personality? Like… you’re always really nice, and considerate, and lookin’ out for others. And that’s what bein’ a bassist is about – supportin’ everyone else and making sure they don’t fall behind. See? Perfect for you?”

“You think so?” said Hagumi with a laugh. “Wow! That sounds great. Maybe I’ll try the bass someday.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

~~~

She couldn’t believe it when she got into Hanasakigawa.

After months of cramming every last bit of information she could into her tiny little skull, she had managed to make it into high school. She teared up a bit when she saw her number on the accepted list. But soon, the gratitude was replaced by an imminent question: what now? All that studying confirmed that she didn’t really like schoolwork much. And the thought of sports still stung. At least, for the first couple weeks.

“H-Hagumi Kitazawa?”

She turned to the sweating freshman who had ran up to her, leaning on the end of a staircase. “You know me?”

“Of course! You were the fastest track runner in the entire prefecture back in junior high.”

Hagumi’s heart swirled. “A-Ah… right.”

“I heard you weren’t running in high school, though. In fact, you’re not in any sports club?”

Hagumi shook her head. “Nope! I wasn’t planning on joining any.”

The girl looked shocked. “Really? But you’re so good! Do you just not… want to?”

It was a thousand times more complicated than that. Hagumi wanted nothing more. And at the same time, nothing less. “It’s not a biggie. Was that all you wanted to ask?”

“Oh, well…” the girl shuffled her feet. “Me and some others were looking to start up a softball club.”

“Softball? I-“ Hagumi stopped. She wanted to say she loved softball, but…

“W-We were just wondering if you wanted to join! That’s all.”

Hagumi crossed her arms. “I dunno… I have to think about school and, er, stuff…”

The girl sighed. “I understand. Well, if you want to take a look, we’re having open tryouts this Thursday.”

Hagumi nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind!”

Inwardly, she weighed the decision. The faces of her teammates and the voices of her parents still rung in her mind.

But so did her love for athletics. For running with the wind, far out of sight and beyond her thoughts.

She showed up at the diamond on Thursday, and after wrestling with her feelings one last time, signed her name on the tryout form.

It took one at-bat for the coach to make her a starter.

~~~

It was a perfectly innocuous day of practice. The team was settling into recently assigned positions, fresh-faced and raring to go. The date of their first practice game – against a neighboring private school – loomed. And thus, Hagumi found herself with a question.

“Do you guys like winning?”

She said it to no one in particular. Three players – first baseman, right fielder, and a reserve pitcher – responded.

“I mean, sure. Who doesn’t?”

“Yeah. It feels good to come out on top.”

“Though I guess as long as we fight hard, I’m satisfied.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s a good way of putting it.”

Hagumi thought. “But, if we win, the other team gets sad, right? Because they lose?”

“I… yeah, I guess that’s right.”

“But if we lose…” said Hagumi. “Then, even if we had fun, we’ll still be a little disappointed, right?”

“Uh huh…”

“So how is everybody supposed to feel good?”

Nobody had an answer.

~~~

“What is this?”

Hagumi’s mother stood in her doorframe. In her hand was a brown softball glove, well-worn, the leather fraying and threading out near some of the seams.

“It’s… a softball glove,” said Hagumi.

“…You joined the softball team?”

“…Yeah.”

Hagumi hadn’t told her parents about it. She hadn’t really thought about why she didn’t want to. But she hadn’t.

“What about studying?”

“I… I can still find time…”

“In-between what? Good for nothing games that you’ll throw like in middle school?”

Hagumi winced.

Her mother sighed. “Sorry, honey, I didn’t me- look, I’m just concerned about your future, all right? You can’t spend all your times on such… frivolities. You have to think about what you want to do with your life.”

“…What if that is what I want to do?”

“What?”

Hagumi swallowed. “What if I want to play softball? Like, beyond high school?”

Her mother was silent for a moment. Then she laughed. “Well, if you had the ambitions of a sports star, I think you would’ve done better by now… do you realize how few people make it to that point? I’m sorry, sweetie, but unless you’re some sort of Olympic prodigy, that just isn’t a viable career option.”

Hagumi didn’t reply.

“I’m just trying to be realistic, dear.” Her mother patted her saccharinely on the shoulder. “Do you need help with studying? I can-“

“I’m fine, Mom.”

“All right. Well, get to it – don’t want to stay up too late.”

She stepped away, leaving Hagumi staring at the ceiling. She wasn’t sure she actually wanted to go into sports, and yet…

Another figure appeared in her door. It was Ryou, a bottle of Pocari in hand. “’Sup, Gumi?”

“Oh, hey, Ryou…” she replied.

“What’s wrong? It’s not like you to be so down.”

Hagumi sighed. “She was asking me about what I wanna do in the future. She told me I have to study, or else I won’t get a good job.”

“Aw, man…” Ryou plopped down in her chair, propping his feet upon her bed. “Screw that noise! You can do whatever you want, Gumi.”

“Really?”

“Hell yeah. Look at me – I’m in a band, we’re awesome, we play shows every week. We’re livin’ the dream. And someday, we’ll get outta this Podunk town and hit the big time. What could be better?”

Hagumi rolled over to face him, her smile returning. “Yeah, you’re right! You guys play so well!”

“We do… wish pops and ma would get off my case about it, though. Keep askin’ me to get a ‘real’ job, or take over the butchery… what do they know?”

Hagumi shook her head. “You should do what you want, Bro.”

“Don’t worry, I already do.” Ryou grinned. “It’s what I’ve wanted since I was seven.”

A question came to Hagumi. “Hey, Bro? What do you like about music so much?”

“Oh man, tons,” he replied. “The rumble of a crowd, the pump of a good jam… it’s all so tasty, y’know? But if I had to put it simply… I think it’s cuz music makes people happy.”

“It does?”

“Hell yeah it does. When you’re up there roarin’ out riffs and the fans are screamin’ your name… it’s heaven. I always have a good time.”

“Always…?” Hagumi’s voice perked up. “Every time?”

“Yup. Without fail.”

Hagumi grinned. “Wow… I wish I was in a band.”

“You can always start one, y’know.”

“I guess… I dunno anybody who’d really be interested, though.”

“I’m sure you’ll find ‘em someday. Maybe somebody on your softball team?”

The thought of sports at that moment filled her with ambivalence. “I guess I could ask, yeah.”

Ryou ruffled her messy orange hair. “Cheer up, Gumi! It’ll happen sooner than you think.”

She grinned. “Hehe. Thanks.”

~~~

A week later.

She was helping some local kids with softball practice. As many reservations as she had about competing, she loved coaching the tykes during their afternoon practices. It was in the course of wrangling them from elementary school to the neighborhood diamond that she came across an unusual scene.

“Join our band!”

A golden-haired and eyed girl was cartwheeling around the downtown plaza as disparate spectators looked on. To her side, a sharp-faced, princelike figure was striking gallant poses and handing out fliers alongside a meek blue-haired lass. But that wasn’t the most attention-grabbing sight – standing in the midst of it all, balloons and fliers in hand, was…

A girl with a papier-mâché bear head.

Hagumi was so transfixed on the kindergarten-quality mask that the elementary schooler she was watching almost slipped away. “Woah, hang on, Akari!” she shouted, grabbing the girl by the scruff of her neck. “We gotta get to practice, you little…” she trailed off, still absorbed by the paper bear. She was so mesmerized, she didn’t notice the golden girl bob up to her.

“Hello!” she trilled. “Are you interested in this bear?”

“Isn’t that a person in a bear hat?” asked Hagumi.

The girl in question said something, but it was muffled and inaudible under the ursine construct.

“Hmm… I guess you’re right,” said Kokoro. “I think she said her name was Micaiah…?”

“Micaiah! That’s a cute bear name,” said Hagumi. “Hey, wait a sec… I know you! You’re Kokoro-chan from 1C! We go to the same school.”

Kokoro’s eyes lit up. “Oh? Wow! You’re right, I think I’ve seen you before… perfect! Have you thought about joining a band?”

“A band? My brother’s in a band! I’ve been kinda interested myself, but… what does a band even do?”

“They play music,” said Akari. “Don’t you know even that?”

“W-Well of course!” Hagumi stammered. “I just, don’t know rules, or how to beat other bands, or stuff like that…”

“There’s no rules, and no competition!” Kokoro hummed. “All we need to do is have fun and enjoy ourselves! The rest we can decide as we go along!”

Hagumi couldn’t believe her ears. “No rules… no competition… just have fun and enjoy…?”

Kokoro nodded vigorously.

Hagumi thought of the pained faces of her track teammates. The defeated eyes of the losers. The muted voices of her parents when she told them she had lost again.

“C-Count me in…! I wanna join!”

~~~

“I’m done with you idiots.”

The door shut behind Misaki with a colossal thud.

“Mi-Misaki-chan, wait!” Kanon cried, thrusting open the door to chase her.

The remaining members of Hello, Happy World!, for once, didn’t say anything. They simply stared at the wooden door, shut tight, unmoving.

Hagumi wasn’t sure what had happened. They were just laughing and having fun as usual. And then, Misaki exploded.

What had she done wrong?

Hagumi didn’t know.

She never knew.

But once again, she had brought only misery to those around her.

~~~

She wanted nothing more than to go home and cry in the hopes that somebody would understand her.

Softball, band, school… none of it was working out. She needed somebody to vent to. Somebody who could understand what she was going through.

She unlocked the front door, took a deep breath, and called out weakly:

“Big bro?”

The house was silent.

She plodded up the stairs. Her parents weren’t around, and Souma was still at school. She tiptoed in front of his door, knowing he would be home around this point. She knocked furiously. “Hey, uh, Ryou?”

The usual sound of grunge blaring from his closed room was absent.

“Um, listen, I’ve, uh, had a rough day, so… mind if I come in?”

No response. Was he napping?

She opened the door.

It was a little less messy than usual. Rock magazines and discarded bento boxes were strewn about, but the piles of clothes had disappeared. So too had his beloved Stratocaster and stand, perched against the closet wall. His bed was, for the first time that she could remember, made. Atop his comforter lay a white envelope with no markings.

Hagumi snatched it up, pulling out an unsealed letter.

She read it.

Line by line.

Word by word.

And then,

she ran.

Ran out the front door,

through streets,

between alleys,

over hills,

by the river,

under tunnels,

past cars and buildings and people and blurs that became unrecognizable

as words from times past spilt through her head.

Honey, what are these grades? You’ll get held back at this rate.

She ran a little faster.

Hey, keep it down! If you want to roughhouse, do it outside.

Her mother’s voice became mixed in.

Honestly, sports again? It’s a waste of time.

And others’.

You need to apply yourself better. Less time running, more time studying.

Kitazawa, why do you run so bad during meets? You’re nothing like that during practice.

I thought you were better than this.

She was now in a full sprint.

What, don’t you want to win?

You’ll never make a living this way.

I’m done with you idiots.

She howled past asphalt and grass and concrete and mud, the world becoming smears and blurs of bright colors, the sounds melding into breathy pants and screaming wind. Yet one voice was louder than the others – and it wasn’t a voice at all.

Hey Gumi –

I’m sorry.

Her legs were on fire.

I didn’t mean to dip out on you so quickly. It just kinda happened that way.

But I can’t stick around.

I got dreams.

Sweat seeped from every pore.

You got ‘em too, don’t you Gumi?

Dreams, I mean.

You should follow ‘em.

The soles of her feet berated the pavement.

You’re always thinking about everybody else, Gumi.

It’s what makes you a good person.

But sometimes… you gotta do something for yourself too, you know?

That’s what I’m doing.

I care about you… but I care about me, and my dreams too.

Her lungs squeezed into tight lumps of collapsed air.

You can make it. I know you can.

Someday…

She screamed his name with every breath.

We’ll run together again.

The wind pushed against her back, forcing her onward, and in that moment she wanted nothing more than to soar, to walk upon the air and sail out of sight into the great blue horizon, to escape to where she could run and be free and be herself, with nobody to disappoint, nothing to do but express the joy she felt from the act of moving, nothing to do but ascend above this earthbound plane…

She collapsed in the mud of the waterfront.

Liquid poured from her skin, nose, and eyes.

She stared up at the great blue sky, and knew that she could never walk on the clouds.

All she could do was run.

Run until her feet crumbled into sand.

Run until her muscles withered into putty.

Run until she was sobbing his name in great big heaves of incomprehension.

Crying, from the middle of the afternoon until long after the sun had set, when the blue turned to black and stars poked out from the night, her tiny figure still collapsed by the riverbank.

The only trace left of him was dust in the wind.

And no matter how far she ran, she would never catch up.

~~~

She crossed third base without even thinking to stop.

Time seemed slow and boggy. In her periphery she could see the people in the stands standing up, their eyes alight with fire and thunder. Her teammates were waving their arms, both shocked and elated to see her run onward. Kokoro cheered her on with the volume of a banshee. Misaki looked on with a visible uvula. But her eyes were directed on only one thing – home plate.

She felt the cyclical motions of her limbs, cycling in perfect rhythm; the individual spikes of her cleats sinking into the dirt before slowing lifting and spraying up flecks of dust; the slight weave of her sprigs of hair in the air as she bobbled ever so slightly in her furious dash.

She could make it.

If she dived for it… she could make it.

And then, she felt it.

Like a tiny needle jabbed into her pinky. A sliver of pain.

If she slid headfirst… she might break something.

And then there would be no more softball. No band reunion.

But they would win.

And winning made people happy, right?

I’m your friend, Hagumi.

Misaki’s words crept into the wrinkles of her brain.

And if you hurt yourself… I would be hurt, too.

If they won… then Misaki would be hurt.

But if they lost, then… then…

Hagumi was never good at thinking. It tired her out. She was a woman of instinct.

And as she crossed the decision-making threshold, she did the first thing her body told her to.

She fell backward, cradling her arm as the glove of the catcher snatched the softball and arced down to collide with her leg right as her foot speared home plate

A cloud of dust erupted from the batter’s box. The entire stadium whipped their eyes towards the umpire, who stared at the two players with stern and unflinching eyes. With a fist of certain judgment, he called it:

“Out!”

Chapter Text

Chapter 19: Cinderella Story

There were no cries of triumph from the opponents.

No electric ecstasy pouring from the stands.

No upheaval of fortune in which players stormed the field and hauled a hero to the dugout, caps tossed to the wind.

There was only deflation. A sigh of relief from Rikujo Kyogi. A grunt of dissatisfaction from the spectators. A choked silence from the Hanasakigawa dugout.

And one orange-haired shortstop, hunched and sobbing in tiny-big hiccups, unable to look her teammates in the face.

They all came to comfort her, one by one, assuring her that she had done her best and that they were grateful for even making it this far. They squeezed her in sincere appreciation and affection, some of them stifling tears of their own.

But Misaki could do nothing but look on.

She had told herself she was a part of the team. That she had just as much a place here as any of them. And yet she was an alien, divorced from their struggle and their pain. She didn’t feel crushed or exasperated by the victory – she was numb, as if expecting this to be the outcome. In the face of the aching before her, she couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t cry in frustration. She couldn’t look inward to improve herself. She couldn’t comfort Hagumi – she couldn’t comfort anyone, least of all herself. She was an outsider masquerading as a comrade. She suddenly felt horribly, consumingly filthy, wearing the uniform as she did. What had she cared? It was all just a game to her, wasn’t it? A means to an end?

And now, it was over.

Hagumi wasn’t injured any further.

Misaki had fulfilled her end of the deal.

She should’ve been happy, right?

She felt sick at the thought.

The team lined up to shake hands. The expected atmosphere of sportsmanship was tempered by the cloud of dread that hung over the Hanasakigawa players’ heads. The Rikujo Kyogi players, for their part, tried to be encouraging, offering good will and not reveling in their victory. But the whiff of a potential victory had left a stench of defeat too foul to dispense of.

The losers huddled around their coach with eyes locked on the ground and their hands behind their back. Hagumi was still crying, unable to muster any more words than “I’m sorry.” Each time she said it, Misaki felt herself grow just a little more uncomfortably distant.

The coach assessed the players. Her eyes were hard and unflinching. No crease of emotion or defeat wrinkled her stern expression. And yet, the voice she spoke with was the softest Misaki had heard from her:

“We lost.”

It was the most benign statement one could make, and yet it struck with the force of an artillery shell. We lost. There was no spin or embellishment, no attempt to turn the narrow defeat into some sort of symbolic victory. One team had won, and one had lost. It was the unavoidable truth.

“That’s how it goes,” said the coach. “Real life doesn’t work like in the movies. Plucky upstarts usually lose to the better players. But…”

She held up one finger.

“You brought it within one run. One run, against defending champions. As a gaggle of first-years.” She smiled softly. “That may not be a Cinderella story. But it’s damn impressive.”

The players rose their heads a little higher.

The coach clapped her hands twice. “Chins up! There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” She motioned towards Kitazawa. “Especially you, Captain. You gave us that shot at victory in the first place.”

 “C-Coach…” Hagumi breathed, still hiccupping. “I-I’m sorry…”

“I told you that you’ve got-“

“N-No!” Hagumi shouted. “I, I played, even though I *hic* was in-injured, even though I know I shouldn’t have, and when I was *hic* running home, I couldn’t slide l-like I wanted to, b-but… *hic* if I had just r-rested for a few days, then, m-maybe…”

Misaki wasn’t sure how the team would react to the revelation. With indignant anger? Bittersweet gratefulness? Neither – the coach rubbed Hagumi on the shoulder, patting her gently.

“Injured, eh? That’s something you’d do, isn’t it?” She smirked. “I can’t say I’m surprised. But that’s no way for a captain to act, you know…”

“I…I…”

“Did you hurt yourself any more today?”

Hagumi shook her head vigorously.

The coach sighed with relief. “Well, that’s good. But don’t ever do it again, got it?!”

“Yes, m-ma’am!” Hagumi replied, sniffling.

The coach nodded back and addressed everybody. “Listen up, girls! We nearly pulled off a big upset with only first-years and an injured captain. Which means, come next tournament, we’ll be in even better shape! So cry it out today while you can – because tomorrow, we’ll be working to get even stronger! Got it?!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

The rousing speech didn’t dissipate all of the darkness. But the abyss looked a little more distant in that moment. And maybe, Misaki thought, that’s what was most important.

And with that realization, within her conscience, something imperceptibly tiny and world-changing clicked.

***

Misaki had ridden to the field sitting alone in her pair of seats on the bus. At first, she assumed it would be the same going back.

But upon seeing Hagumi, scrunched up in the corner by her lonesome, an impulse took her.

She sat down without a word. Hagumi turned, eyes flat and distant.

“Sorry, am I bothering you?” asked Misaki. “I can sit somewhere else.”

“It’s fine,” Hagumi mumbled.

They didn’t exchange words for several minutes. The rest of the team shuffled into their seats with muted murmurs. Eventually, the engine revved to life, and the bus puttered along back home.

Misaki looked past Hagumi into the window, watching the light greens and hills of the suburbs mesh and blend with gray concrete and black asphalt. Telephone poles blipped by as wayward sparrows flited through the air, the bright blue sky becoming tinged with orange in the late summer evening. She stared, unblinking, still searching for the right words to say. But she wasn’t the first to speak.

“Are you happy?”

Hagumi spoke, her voice cracked and low. Misaki almost didn’t register what she said? “I’m sorry?”

“Are you… happy, Mii-kun?” asked Hagumi. “I… I didn’t hurt myself. At the end, I slid so that I wouldn’t. So… you’re not hurt, either, are you?”

“...No. I’m not.”

“Then, are you happy?”

It was a strange question. One with a lot of potential baggage. And yet, Misaki felt her answer came easily.

“Am I happy? No, Hagumi…” she sighed. “But I am relieved. I was really worried about you for a while.”

“Oh…” Hagumi looked out the window too. “I see.”

Misaki bit her lip for a moment. “…Can I ask you the same question?”

Hagumi nodded faintly.

“…Well?”

“I’m… also not really happy,” said Hagumi. “But… I don’t know if I’m relieved, either.”

“Then let me ask you this,” said Misaki. “Would you have been happy or relieved if you had won? If you had caused the other team to be sad, or if you hurt your hand?”

Hagumi’s face turned back towards the seat front. It was filled with a pensive expression.

“Hagumi, I… I wanted to say it earlier, but I wasn’t able to,” said Misaki. “But… whether we won, or lost, or did well, or did poorly… I don’t think any of that mattered to me.”

Hagumi’s eyes widened slightly.

“A-And at first, I felt pretty scummy about that, but…” Misaki squirmed in her seat for a moment. “At some point I realized that… maybe not caring is a good thing, sometimes.”

Hagumi absorbed the words without any of her own.

“I-I mean, empathy is great. It’s one of the best qualities anybody can have.” Misaki continued spilling her thoughts as they came to her. “But if you care too much about other people’s feelings, to the point of disregarding your own… that’s not healthy either.” Michelle’s figure sifted through her mind. “That… just wears on you after a while. So you have to pick and choose who and what you care about.”

“Mii-kun?” said Hagumi, noticing the downturn in her voice.

“So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, um… it didn’t matter to me who won or who lost, because the person I was focusing on the most was… well, you.”

For the first time since that morning, Hagumi’s eyes met hers. “…Me?”

“Yeah, you.” Misaki swallowed. “I told you, didn’t I? You’re my friend, Hagumi. I may get fed up every now and then, but… I care about you, and I don’t wanna see anything bad happen to you. And I would never, ever, be disappointed in you over whether you won or lost a sports game. Got it?”

She expected Hagumi to perk up immediately, for the glow of unabashed positivity to beam once more. But instead, she just nodded stiffly. “…Yeah. Got it.”

The rest of the ride was silent.

They didn’t talk again until it was time to bid farewell at Hanasakigawa.

And Misaki couldn’t help but wonder what Hagumi was thinking.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20: Home Run

Saturday was quiet.

Students grumbled over studying for upcoming midterms. A scheduled fire drill broke the monotony of history class. Misaki ate lunch on the rooftop, by herself, as she had been doing for some time now. It was the same as any other day… well, any other day in the past month or so.

Still, she had business to take care of. Immediately after class ended, she marched over to the teacher’s lounge, right up to the cluttered desk of the softball coach, who looked downright bizarre in a cardigan and sweats as opposed to a sports uniform. With a flinch of hesitation, Misaki thrust a thin eggshell envelope in her direction.  The coach took the envelope, slicing it open and cracking a smile at the contents within. “What is this?”

“A… resignation letter,” Misaki replied.

“I get that,” said the coach with a chuckle. “It’s just… I already knew it was a temporary position, Okusawa. You could’ve just told me with your mouth.”

“Oh. Right.” Misaki hadn’t felt very good with her words lately, so she had opted to write out her decision instead. But she didn’t need to tell the coach that.

“Just got a call from our old manager this morning – she’ll be back at school Monday,” said the coach. “Was devastated to hear about the game, of course. Broken up that she couldn’t be around to help.”

“I’m…” Misaki suddenly felt awash with guilt. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do more.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the coach replied. “You did well enough for a newbie. More than I could’ve asked for, honestly.”

“I feel like I didn’t help at all, honestly,” said Misaki, unsure if she was being modest or just self-deprecative.

“That’s all right. I got the inkling that you’re not exactly the biggest softball gal, anyway.”

“Y…Yeah,” Misaki admitted. “I joined the team for different reasons.”

“Like Kitazawa, right?”

Misaki was mildly surprised.

“She was practically the only person you talked to,” the coach said. “You two old friends?”

“You… could say that,” said Misaki, unsure how to explain it. “I was doing a favor for her, I guess.”

“Figured. Could tell you weren’t really the sports enthusiast type anyway.”

Misaki suddenly felt the urge to get something off her chest. “Um, Coach?”

“What is it?”

“You’re right, about the sports stuff… to be honest, I didn’t even feel that bad when we lost. I mean, I did, but… I didn’t feel horribly crushed. Even though I was a member of the team.” Misaki struggled to put her feelings into words. “Does that make me an inconsiderate person?”

The coach tossed a stick of peppermint gum into her mouth. “Honestly? I don’t think so.”

Misaki wasn’t expecting that reply. “Really?”

“Of course. Softball ain’t your thing. That’s why you’re not invested.” The coach motioned with her hands. “It’s like if somebody asked me how I felt about the latest karuta tournament. Do I know a flippin’ thing about karuta? Heck no. I can barely even remember the rules. So it doesn’t really matter to me who wins. Maybe if it’s a real good match, I’ll give it a watch, but otherwise, I couldn’t care less. Obviously, if it’s your own school, or a friend, or maybe your hometown team, you want to cheer ‘em on, but you can only put so much emotional investment into something.”

“Oh…” Misaki muttered. “I guess I understand that.”

“But-” the coach began, “if somebody asked me about softball, I could go on for a while. ‘Cuz that’s my passion. It’s what I do care about. So surely you got something you care about too, right, Okusawa?”

Misaki paused. “I – yeah, I guess I do.”

“And what is it?”

Misaki hadn’t really thought of the question before. What was she passionate about? And yet, without sparing a single neuron, she knew the answer.

“…My band.”

The coach raised an eyebrow. “You’re in a band? Really?”

“Yeah. With… with Hagumi, and some others.” A certain vigor snuck into her voice. “We’re not very proficient, things never go as planned, and we always make a mess of things, but…” She smiled. “We have fun.”

The coach smirked. “See? There it is.” She pointed directly into Misaki’s face. “That fire. The same fire Kitazawa has, every time she’s at the plate, or running the bases… you gotta cherish it. Never lose that flame, Okusawa.”

Misaki nodded. “I won’t. Thanks, Coach. Er, I mean…” She stared down at the placard on the desk. “Ms… Makino?”

“…What’s that grin about?”

“N-Nothing,” said Misaki. “I just realized I never heard your actual name before now…”

“Well, you’ll hear it a lot if we’re mixing chemicals together next year.” Coach Makino pointed towards the door. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have papers to grade.”

“Of course. Bye, Coach.”

“Happy trails, Okusawa.”

***

Misaki wasn’t quite sure what to do about Hagumi.

She had fulfilled the original end of her agreement, true, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Hagumi even wanted to follow through with it. Heck, Misaki wasn’t sure Hagumi even wanted to see her again. After the conversations they had the previous day, she couldn’t be sure. But upon reaching the shoe lockers by the school exit, the maelstrom in her brain was swept away by who was waiting for her.

“Yo!” said Hagumi. On her left pinky was a sky-blue covered cast. She had evidentially made a visit to the doctor.

“Y-Yo,” said Misaki. “Did… did you wait for me?”

“I did!” Hagumi replied. “Is that a problem…?”

“No, not at all,” said Misaki. “Um, about yesterday-”

“Mii-kun.”

Hagumi spoke tenderly. With warmth, and yet reservation. It was strangely mature sounding. Misaki yielded to her.

“Can we talk at the softball diamond?”

A small voice in Misaki’s head wanted to flee. She was tired of that part of her. “Yeah. Sure.”

Hagumi grinned. Her smile was as Misaki remembered it – bright, carefree, and determined. Nothing like the moroseness of yesterday. Had she really bounced back so quickly?

It was then that Misaki remembered who she was dealing with. Of course she had, she thought wryly.

They traveled to the softball diamond, now devoid of players. The field looked so much lonelier now that the season had ended prematurely – the bases covered with dust, the splayed lines of the pitcher’s circle, the slightly unkempt grass of the outfield. Hagumi trod inside the dugout to pull out a glove, a bat, and several balls.

“Should you be playing?” asked Misaki, her eyes locked on Hagumi’s hand.

“I can do one handed,” Hagumi replied confidently.

Misaki, not wanting to make things tenser, accepted the condition. They fell into position: Misaki in the pitcher’s circle, Hagumi at the plate, swinging the heavy aluminum bat with one arm. Despite the handicap, she still hit just about every amateurish pitch Misaki threw her way.

For a few minutes, that was all they did. Throwing and hitting. A casual bit of exercise in the early summer sun. The half-gray sky cast gleaming rays in splotches around the field as Hagumi hit pop flies, fouls, and grounders in equal measure. Soon, they fell into a wordless, harmonious rhythm of catch and release.

Finally, Hagumi spoke.

“I did a lot of thinking last night.”

Misaki wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “Is that so?”

Hagumi giggled. “I’m not really good at that kinda thing, you know.”

Misaki threw a pitch her way, which skirted Hagumi’s swing and sunk into the fence behind home plate. “Don’t sell yourself too short.”

Hagumi continued grinning. “I thought about what you said… about caring. And… what was that word? En-pa-see?”

“Empathy?”

“Yeah! That one.” Hagumi swung at another pitch, sending a line drive deep into the outfield. “My bro always said I had a lot of that.”

“Ryou, you mean?”

Hagumi nodded. “He was always there for me as a kid. Whenever Mom and Dad yelled at me for getting on their nerves, he stuck up for me. He was the best brother you could ask for. But…”

“But?”

Hagumi swung, missing the pitch by a mile. “He ran away. Chasing his dream.”

“His dream…?”

“He was going to be a rock star. That’s what he always told me.” Hagumi lowered the bat, her eyes fixed on the ground. “I didn’t really get it, as a kid. But then, when he left… I realized how lonely I felt.”

Misaki, absent a softball, began walking over to her.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Hagumi shook her head. “I knew I loved him a whole bunch, but… I didn’t think about how important he was to me until he was gone.”

Misaki kept listening.

“I thought a lot, after we lost yesterday… about what’s important to me now. Is it sports? Is it my teammates? Is it something else? And… I couldn’t really find an answer.” Hagumi sighed. “I guess I really am an idiot, huh?”

“…Let’s switch places,” said Misaki, wanting to get off that train of thought. “I’ll take the bat.”

Hagumi handed it to her, a mildly quizzical expression on her face. She took to the pitcher’s mound and tossed a few wayward pitches Misaki’s way, all of which she swung and missed at.

“Hagumi,” she began. “What do you love?”

“What do I love…?” she parroted.

“Do you love playing, like we’re doing now?” Misaki asked. “Do you love sports in general? Your friends? Making other people happy?”

“I… I guess…” Hagumi stammered. “I love all those things!”

“See? It’s simple,” said Misaki. “You find what you love, and you never let it go. Whether that be a team, a friend, or-” she whiffed on another pitch. “…A band.”

“Mii-kun…”

“Look I – I already apologized, I know,” said Misaki. “But when I talked about getting everybody back together… I meant it. Because-“

She finally connected with the ball, sending it spiraling high in the sky.

“You all are who I love.”

Hagumi’s face cracked into a shimmering beam. “Mii-kun…!”

“I know I can’t make you rejoin,” Misaki began, “but-“

“But what?” asked Hagumi. “Do you think I’d say no?!”

“Well, er…”

“I loved playing the bass,” Hagumi exclaimed. “Every day in Hello, Happy World! was the most fun I’d ever had! The only reason I ever stopped was ‘cuz…” her voice softened. “’Cuz…”

“Because of me, right?”

Hagumi twiddled her fingers together.

Misaki took a deep breath and pointed far, far into the outfield. “Hagumi. I promise: from now on, I’ll never blow up on you or anybody else again.”

“R-Really…?”

Misaki nodded. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did. Just like I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t have the band around. So… what do you say?”

Hagumi turned the softball around in her hands a few times, studying the stitches closely. Then, without warning, she fireballed it right to Misaki, who instinctively swung at it with all her might:

KREEEEN

The green orb careened far, far into the air, becoming a twinkle lost in the afternoon sun. It exited their fields of vision, as well as the field of play. Where it landed, neither of them knew. It might have shot off into space, for all that mattered.

But as it soared into the stratosphere, Hagumi followed its rough trajectory, her head arcing as the ball sailed into the distance. And then she turned again to face Misaki. Snot dribbled down her quivering upper lip as tears waterfalled across flushed cheeks. And then, in a split second, she was in Misaki’s arms, embracing her tightly.

“L…Let’s do it, Mii-kun…!” She sniffled loudly. “Let’s get Hello, Happy World! back together!”

Misaki resisted the urge to tear up too. “Yeah. We’ll make it happen… no matter what.”

The summer sun baked the field to a crisp. It took ages to find all the wayward balls and put them back where they belonged. In a rush to work, Misaki exhausted herself and forgot to punch in on the calendar worksheet, leading to a chew-out from her manager later. When she got home, there was only instant ramen for dinner. But none of that mattered to her.

Because she knew she wouldn’t be eating lunch alone on the rooftop ever again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21: Violet

Misaki took a day off, in order to more totally relax the muscles that had borne a thousand tons of emotional weight the past couple of weeks. She lounged in her room all Sunday, kicking around in her pajamas and indulging in instant noodles as she watched Netflix on her phone. While not completely alleviated of worries, she felt most of them melt away as she soaked in the bath for an hour, the warm water seeping into her cracked and weary skin.

Despite doing her best not to dwell on the task in front of her, her mind inevitably drifted towards thoughts of Hello, Happy World! She almost felt foolish in retrospect, doubting Hagumi would rejoin, but she had overcome the snags in their relationship and emerged stronger for it. One member down, three to go.

Next – Kaoru. Misaki was hopeful that convincing her would be quick and easy, but she felt that same knot lurking deep in her intestine – the one telling her the path forward would be scattered with as many hindrances as possible.

She sunk her chin into the water, her exhale forming a spray of bubbles that fizzled out on the water’s surface. Here I am, overthinking things again… I need to talk to her before jumping to conclusions. She closed her eyes and cleared her thoughts. I’ll see this through – no matter what.

***

Misaki planned to go to Haneoka after school on Monday. While she offered Hagumi a chance to tag along, the bassist was busy managing her family’s butchery, so she had to pass. Misaki felt herself tense at the mention of Hagumi’s family, but Hagumi’s smile assured her everything would be fine – she just had to focus on the job at hand.

It had technically only been about a month since she had visited Kaoru previously, but it had felt like years. Misaki almost missed her casual flirtations and haphazard yet somehow accurate quoting of Shakespeare.  Her pseudo-intellectualism was always reciprocal to Kokoro and Hagumi’s more straightforward stupidity. Even now, Misaki anticipated her response to her request: Oh, my dear kitten… did you miss me so? Well, far be it from me to keep such a young maiden waiting, in fleeting agony… of course I will rejoin the band. At least… Misaki hoped she’d respond that way. Well, minus the theatricality, perhaps, but she knew better than to pipe dream.

Unfortunately, Misaki didn’t know her way around the neighboring school particularly well. The theater – the place she’d assumed Kaoru would be located – was shut tight, and she didn’t really know where else to look. After wandering the halls for a while, she asked passing students as to the actor’s whereabouts, to little luck. Just as she was contemplating postponing the search until another day, she spotted a familiar purple ponytail wiggling around a corner.

“Kaoru-san!” Misaki called, giving chase. “Wait a sec-“

Misaki rounded the corner and stopped.

She could immediately tell something was… off.

Kaoru, usually poised and of refined stature, stood slouched over, her hands stuck in her pocket lackadaisically. Her typical vacant grin was nowhere to be seen, instead replaced by a cold stare of stoicism and distance. Even her hair wasn’t as gussied up as normal, as the frayed and frazzled ends showed an unkempt attitude. Upon seeing Misaki, Kaoru didn’t enunciate her trademark light chuckle – instead, she scoffed.

“Ah, Misaki… haven’t seen you ‘round these parts in a while.”

The person standing before her was so remarkably un-Kaoru that Misaki could do nothing but gape. “Um…”

“Tch… what’re you standin’ around like that for?” Kaoru asked brusquely, flipping her hair with a turn of her head. “If you’ve got somethin’ to say, say it.”

“I…” Misaki cleared her throat. “Sorry, I lost my train of thought. Are you… okay?”

Kaoru smirked – it was much more pained an expression than Misaki had ever seen from her. “I’m not the same woman you knew. In fact…” she looked off distantly into the unseeable horizon, smoldering. “Maybe I never was.”

…What the heck does that mean? thought Misaki.

Kaoru tousled her hair once more. “Hmph… I guess you wouldn’t understand… how fleeting I feel, in this moment… no, maybe it’s not fleeting at all…”

The appearance of the F-word at least assured Misaki that she was still speaking to their former guitarist – though she was still too nonplussed to process things properly. Before she could sort out her thoughts, however…

“Kaoru-senpai!”

A trio of girls appeared, led by Himari Uehara. Misaki recognized them as members of Kaoru’s unofficial fan club – a body of schoolgirls that she was perhaps too familiar with. All three of them looked downtrodden as they addressed the object of their affection.

“Kaoru-senpai… what’s happened to you?” asked Himari, her eyebrows scrunched together in determined sorrow. “You’ve changed recently, and we don’t know why!”

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“Did you break up with somebody?”

…There’s an ulterior motive behind that question, Misaki thought dryly.

Kaoru turned away, leaning her shoulder on the rows of lockers to her left. “Well, now… who would’ve thought some strays would show up?”

There was something about the way Kaoru emphasized “strays” that aggravated Misaki even further.

“Senpai, please!” Himari begged, closing the distance between them. “If there’s something troubling you, we want to know!”

Kaoru, uncharacteristically, said nothing.

Himari stepped in closer. “Kaoru-sen-“

WHAM

It happened in an instant. Kaoru spun her body around and thrust her arm out, slamming the wall and pinning Himari between herself and the lockers. She looked down on the pink-haired fangirl with hollow eyes, her ragged bangs masking much of the expression on her face. Everything was silent, save the sound of throbbing hearts.

“Don’t…”

Kaoru whispered low, her eyes turned away.

“Don’t come near me. If you do…”

She bit her lip.

“I might hurt you.”

And with that, she brushed her hair to the side and strode off, an ominous breeze wafting in through the window.

Himari trembled for a moment, collapsing to her jellyed knees. “K-K-Kaoru-senpai… that was… you were…”

The three fanatics screamed in unison:

“SO HOT!”

“Ohmigosh! The way she pinned her against the wall like that!”

“I thought my heart was gonna explode~!”

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh! Kaoru-senpaaaaaaaaaaaaaaai!”

…What the hell is going on? Misaki thought, watching the schoolgirls roll around in glee as hearts burst forth from their eyes. Is this what happens when I’m not around? The world just grows more insane?

“Hm? A Hanasakigawa student?” asked a slightly nasally voice.

Misaki turned. Maya Yamato was there, looking marginally less confused at the gaggle of girls squealing in delight. “Ah, Kaoru-san was just here, wasn’t she…?”

“You’re quick on the uptake, Maya-san,” said Misaki with a sigh.

Maya looked perplexed. “Do I… know you?”

“Oh, uh…” Misaki scrambled for an explanation. “You’re a member of Pastel*Palettes, right? I catch you on TV sometimes. Sorry if I was too forward.”

“Oh, that’s how! It’s alright, huhehe.” Maya laughed it off with her trademark chortle. “Do you know Kaoru-san, too?”

“Yeah, she and I are… old friends,” said Misaki, unable to come up with a better way to define her relationship. “I remember her being a lot… different though.”

“Yes, this is a bit of a recent development…” said Maya, her expression falling. “She’s been like this for a week or two at this point.”

“What happened?” asked Misaki.

“Well, did she tell you about our most recent production? The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged?”

Misaki remembered, for the first time since she had heard of it. “Yeah, she invited me to a performance, but I kinda… forgot. Did something go wrong? Was it a bomb?”

“No, it was actually really successful!” said Maya. “The audience really had a great time. We got a lot of laughs, and most of the Theater Club had a fun time putting it on. But Kaoru-san, well…”

“Well what?”

“I think she didn’t quite realize what the play was,” said Maya. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged isn’t actually the complete works of William Shakespeare, abridged, it’s more of a variety comedy with some improv thrown in. But I guess she was under the impression that she would actually be performing all of Shakespeare’s greatest roles at once.”

Oh boy, Misaki thought.

“She really put her all into practice, and wrung every ounce of emotion she could have out of the lines. Of course, that just made them funnier, and the audience thought it was hilarious. But Kaoru-san didn’t understand why they were laughing, and so she thought she was tanking…”

Kaoru, being dumb enough to misconstrue a comedy as tragedy, and take uproarious laughter as jeering mockery? Misaki wished she could be surprised.

“She simmered about it for a few days. We tried explaining things, but I don’t think it helped… and eventually, the Dark Prince emerged.”

“The… Dark Prince, huh…”

“Yup,” said Maya. “She’s usually so chivalrous and stately, like a prince, but now she’s got some sort of bad boy act going on. Hence the name.”

“And yet, she’s as dumb as ever…” Misaki muttered.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” Misaki crossed her arms. “Do you have any idea how long she’ll be like that?”

“No clue. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so frazzled…” Maya looked troubled. “Maybe the pressure’s gotten to her, too. She’s played the lead in our last four productions.”

“Wow, that many?”

Maya nodded. “She’s talented, popular, driven… she nails every role we give her, even if she can get typecast every now and then. She draws a big crowd, too. And since we’re going to be planning our next show soon, we need her in good condition. It’ll be hard to prepare if our star performer is in a sour mood.”

“No kidding,” said Misaki. Internally, she doubted she’d be able to convince Kaoru to rejoin the band in her current state… if Misaki could even manage a conversation with the ‘Dark Prince’ without wanting to perish. “What play are you guys doing next, anyway?”

“We haven’t decided,” said Maya. “We’ve thrown a few ideas around, but Kaoru-san’s shot most of them down, and nobody’s really had a passion project in mind. We’re meeting this week to come to a consensus.”

“Gotcha. I’ll, uh, try to attend this one if I can.”

“Sounds good, huhehe. We should be on track to perform in mid-August.”

Mid-August? Misaki thought. That’s around when Kokoro’s space escapade should be happening… I’d like to get Kaoru on board before then, if possible.

“Everything ok?” asked Maya.

“Hm? Yeah, just thinking about stuff. Thanks for the info, Maya-san.”

“No problem. I hope Kaoru-san’s mood improves soon…”

Misaki stared at the trio of fangirls, only now recovering from the encounter minutes prior. “So do I. For all our sakes.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 22: Much Ado About Something

“Kaoru-kun is feeling down?!” asked Hagumi.

Misaki nodded, her mouth full of rice. They were sitting on the rooftop at lunch the next day. After mulling over Kaoru’s current disposition at home, Misaki decided to talk to Hagumi about it, regurgitating what Maya had told her the previous day. Even having someone to bounce ideas off of could help her figure out a course of action.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her unhappy…” Hagumi muttered, frowning. “She’s usually so upbeat and cheerful.”

“That’s true,” said Misaki. “I was caught a little off-guard by how she expressed it, though…” She shuddered as the visage of the slouched, cocksure drama queen entered her mind.

“Is there any way we could help her?” Hagumi asked.

Misaki tilted her head in thought. “I’m not really sure, off the top of my head. We’d need to talk to her, I guess.”

“Hmm…” Hagumi crossed her arms and closed her eyes, concentrating hard.

Misaki took the time to think herself. She felt strangely reluctant to ask Kaoru about her troubles, despite openly comforting Hagumi with her problems only a few days earlier. Part of it was annoyance with Kaoru’s current personality, perhaps, but there was something more to it. Something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

Suddenly, Hagumi’s fist clasped in her open palm. “I’ve got it!”

“What is it?”

“You said a play made Kaoru-kun feel bad, right?” said Hagumi. “So all we have to do is put on a play that makes her feel good!”

“I’m… not sure how that works,” said Misaki, grinning compliantly. “How are we supposed to put on a play with just the two of us, anyway?”

“Good point,” said Hagumi, her determined smile unbroken. “Maybe we can take her to a local showing? Are there any musicals in town? Those always perk me up!”

“I don’t think attending a showing of Oklahoma! is going to help her much,” said Misaki. “Although, maybe…”

“Maybe what?”

Misaki nodded. “Maybe you’re onto something with this play idea.”

“Really?” Hagumi sounded elated to have been helpful.

“Yeah. Maya-san told me they’re putting on a new production soon, but they haven’t decided what it is. So maybe we can help them pick out one that Kaoru-san will like.”

Hagumi clapped her hands. “I see! That’ll perk her up for sure! Although…” She stroked her chin. “Will they listen to Hanasakigawa students?”

“Good point – they probably don’t care too much for what we think,” said Misaki. “At the very least, we can make suggestions to Kaoru-san, and see how she’s doing.”

“Gotcha! So are we going to meet her after school, then?”

“Let’s save that for tomorrow,” said Misaki. “We should probably come up with at least a few ideas first. Which means we’ve got research to do.”

“Research?”

Misaki cleared her throat dramatically. “Hagumi… we’re going to the library.”

***

Misaki had read the occasional novel or two in her spare time, but she wasn’t a bibliophile by any stretch of the imagination. Nor was she particularly versed in the ways of the theater. She had no idea what was popular, or even considered a classic. This made the goal she had set for herself and Hagumi rather difficult. Even so, they pulled out a stack of scripts, cracked open a laptop borrowed from the front desk, and got to searching.

“Oh, what about this one?” asked Hagumi, picking out a copy of Hagoromo. “It looks fancy.”

“That’s a Noh play, I think,” said Misaki. “I’m not sure they’re equipped for that. Haven’t they only done Western-style theater?”

“Western-style, huh…” Hagumi dug through the pile a little more. “Waiting for Godot… Who’s Godot?”

“No idea,’” said Misaki. “Maybe we’d find out if we read it.”

Hagumi read the description on the back. “Weird. It’s just about them waiting for a guy who doesn’t show up? I don’t get it.”

“Guess it’s one of those artsy ones or something.”

Hagumi set it to the side and flipped through more. “Oh, I know this name! Motz-art!” She was holding a libretto for The Marriage of Figaro.

“I don’t think a high school has the ability to put on a production of a full opera…” Misaki said, though she knew that Kaoru would probably jump at the opportunity.

The two continued searching, going through everything from Faust to Mamma Mia!, setting aside anything that they recognized. By the end, they had a fairly short stack, and nothing they felt particularly confident in.

“This is harder than I thought…” said Hagumi, flipping through a script for Wicked. “I don’t actually know that many plays.”

“Me neither,” said Misaki, tossing a collection of rakugo stories onto the table. “Maybe we need to tackle this from a different angle.”

“What angle’s that?”

“Well…” Misaki, instead of thinking about what plays they had found Kaoru would like, tried to think of the kind of play that she would enjoy. “Which author does Kaoru-san like the most?”

“Oh, I know! It’s the one she quotes all the time!” said Hagumi. “The… ‘Bard,’ right?” She craned her head. “What’s a bard?”

“A poet, basically,” said Misaki. “But The Bard refers to one man – William Shakespeare.”

“So you think we should try one of his plays?” asked Hagumi.

“That’d be a good plan, but…” Misaki began searching up info on her laptop. “They’ve already performed some of them, haven’t they?”

“Oh yeah… I remember their performance of Romeo & Juliet. Kaoru-kun was so dashing!”

“They’ve done Hamlet and a couple others, too…” Misaki muttered, pulling up a list of Shakespeare’s works. “Will she even want to, after their last performance? She may have bad feelings about Shakespeare now.”

“Kaoru-kun’s love of the Bard is real!” said Hagumi. “We just have to remind her of it!”

Misaki chuckled. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

But how do we do that? she wondered. If she thinks she was mocked the last time she was played, she may be reluctant to put on another production of his. Not that it has to be Shakespeare, I suppose, but…

Misaki mulled over more of what Maya had told her. The Complete Works… a comedy… always playing the lead…

Hagumi peered over the laptop. “Hey, Mii-kun, do you know many of these plays?”

“A few. Why?”

“What does this title mean?” asked Hagumi, pointing at the screen.

“Oh, that’s…” Misaki stopped.

She clicked on the link, reading the summary of the play, production notes, casting directions...

It seemed to fit together all at once.

“Mii-kun?”

“Hagumi, there should be a book somewhere around here with all of Shakespeare’s comedies,” Misaki replied. “Can you find it?”

“Sure! Is that what we’re going with?”

Misaki nodded. “Yeah. I think… I know just what kind of play Kaoru-san would like right now.”

***

 The two of them arrived at Haneoka the next day, hefting a thick brown tome titled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Vol. III – Comedies. Misaki felt like they were being a bit presumptuous, waltzing in without even talking to Kaoru first. But she had a feeling conversing with the ‘Dark Prince’ likely wouldn’t make her emotions any clearer, anyway. Kaoru always was an inscrutable one. Misaki had her hands full dealing with her sometimes. Well, all of the time.

With still no set direction to go in, they headed to the theater. Today the double doors swung open effortlessly, and upon entering they found the two dozen or so members of the Haneoka Theater Club staring back at them with inquisitive eyeballs. Immediately, Misaki was filled with second thoughts.

“Hanasakigawa students?” one asked.

“Oh, I recognize you,” said Maya, fanning herself with her cap. “From yesterday. I didn’t catch your name…?”

“Misaki Okusawa,” Misaki replied. “And this is Hagumi Kitazawa. Good to meet you.”

“Is Kaoru-kun here?” asked Hagumi.

Kaoru leaned against the stage from the auditorium, arms crossed lackadaisically. She smirked upon catching sight of her former bandmates. “So you finally showed up, kittens. Heh. Kept me waiting.”

Since when? Misaki wondered.

Kaoru began striding towards them, hands holstered in her pants pockets. “Did you miss me, Misaki? Hagumi? Heh… there’s no need to reply.” She stopped in front of Misaki, stroking her finger across her chin. “Your face says it all.”

A few theater members swooned. Misaki felt slightly flush at the sudden flirtation, but more so very, very tired. “Can we just… talk? Outside?” she asked, batting Kaoru’s hand away.

Kaoru chortled as she pulled her bangs back with her hand. “Where’s the need for privacy? You can bare your soul to me right here… these kittens won’t bite.”

“There are cats here?” asked Hagumi.

“Okusawa-san, is it something urgent?” asked Maya. “We’re trying to settle on a decision for our next play, and Kaoru-san’s input is important.”

“I guess it’s actually related to that,” said Misaki. “Though I feel a little presumptuous just barging in here…”

A few club members murmured amongst themselves. Misaki fully realized how audacious she must have seemed in that moment, and while she would have preferred to simply make the suggestion to Kaoru elsewhere, it wasn’t a big deal. At least, she hoped it wasn’t.

“Tell me, Misaki…” said Kaoru, staring deep into her gray-blue eyes. “What’s your gambit?”

Misaki suddenly felt the pressure of mass attention bore into her. “W-Well, uh…”

“We heard you were feeling down, Kaoru-kun!” Hagumi said. “So we wanted to cheer you up!”

Hagumi’s bullheaded gusto was both a blessing and a curse at that moment, as it loudly proclaimed their purpose to the whole congregation. Kaoru’s expression turned to a light simper. “Oh? I’m the same as ever, really…”

Anybody could look at you and notice that’s not true, thought Misaki. “Kaoru-san, I heard about your last performance-“

Now Kaoru’s expression turned to a full melancholic grimace. “Tch, that sorry display? Not worth even a mention.” She clutched her face with her hand. “The laughs of the masses still ring in my head… permanent and un-fleeting…”

“Y-Yeah, so, er,” Misaki stuttered. “We figured that maybe a new performance would be the thing to get you out of your funk.”

“That’s what we’ve been trying to tell her,” piped up one drama club member. “But she hasn’t liked any of the plays we’ve suggested.”

“’Course not,” said Kaoru. “They’re all missing something. None of them have that quality… the ability to express my rage.” She said this with a sorrowful lilt, absent of any anger.

“…Right,” said Misaki. “I guess I understand the need to vent every now and then, but… it’s good to get some laughs in too, right?”

“What are you suggesting?” asked Kaoru.

Misaki nodded to Hagumi, who handed Kaoru the book. A few pages were dog-eared, but one was marked with a velveteen bookmark. Kaoru flipped it open and read the title out loud.

Much Ado About Nothing…?

“You like Shakespeare, right?” asked Misaki. “Well, he didn’t just write tragedies. He wrote a lot of more comedic works, too. Though from what I’ve read, they’re all kinda similar…”

“We just did a Shakespearean comedy,” said one club member. “Doing another one right afterwards sounds like a drag.”

“That was a little different, though,” said another. “That was a parody, while this is a classic romcom.”

“Wait, which one is Much Ado About Nothing?” asked a third.

“It’s one of Shakespeare’s more well-known comedies,” said Maya. “It’s about a soldier, Claudio, who falls for a young maiden, Hero. He woos her with the aid of his confidant Don Pedro, but Pedro’s jealous brother, Don John, tricks both of them into thinking she’s unfaithful, leading to Claudio and Don Pedro denouncing her at the altar. Meanwhile, there’s another pair – Benedick and Beatrice – that constantly taunt and belittle one another, but end up falling in love when they’re deceived into believing they’re the object of each other’s unrequited feelings. In the end, the misunderstandings are cleared up, and everybody weds. Like the title implies, it’s a lot of hubbub and activity over hearsay, rumors, and other things that… well, amount to nothing.”

“Thanks for the summary, Yamato-san,” said Misaki.

“No problem,” said Maya. “But why Much Ado About Nothing instead of, say, Twelfth Night or Comedy of Errors?

“W-Well, it’s just a suggestion,” Misaki began, “But… I was thinking about the kind of roles Kaoru-san usually plays. She’s always a gallant princelike figure in the lead, right? I mean, she does it really well, but it can’t feel good to be pigeonholed all the time.”

“I guess, but…” began a club member. “Wait, how do you know her?”

“Old friend,” Misaki explained. “Back to my point – even though Claudio and Hero are the main couple, the side characters Benedick and Beatrice tend to be bigger draws due to their bickering. Er, at least, that’s what the internet said.”

“It’s true,” said Maya. “Those two are the parts of the play that are best remembered by most people.”

“Right. So when Hagumi and I saw that, uh…” Misaki wasn’t sure how to phrase it. “I guess… we thought Kaoru might like a shot at playing Benedick?”

The theater was silent.

“I-It’s just a suggestion,” Misaki clarified. “There are other plays to consider too. And I know we’re just outsiders barging in out of the blue. W-We were just thinking of ways to cheer her up, that’s-“

“…Heheheh.”

It began as a chuckle. But soon, it erupted into a boom.

“Ahahahaha!”

Kaoru was laughing with the full force of her diaphragm, a confident smirk returning to her face.

“I see… another of the Bard’s magnificent works. I am more accustomed to playing the tragic hero, but to have a chance at performing as the buffoonish, lovestruck lout…! A most fleeting prospect indeed!”

Oh. The old Kaoru’s back, Misaki thought. That’s… great.

“Fair Misaki… Dear Hagumi… I thank you for the consideration,” said Kaoru, back to her usual level of erudite chutzpah. “I can already envision the performance in my head… alas, last time I wore the crown of a jester as a mark of shame, but now, it shall be a badge of honor!”

“Um… don’t you still have to vote on it?” asked Misaki.

“If the idea’s gotten Kaoru-san jazzed up,” said Maya, “then I’m all for it.”

“Yeah, I guess that sounds pretty interesting, actually,” said one club member.

“Why not?”

“We haven’t done a romance in a little while.”

“I don’t have any better ideas, so…”

Misaki was a little stunned that the club at large had accepted the idea so readily. Hagumi pumped her fist excitedly. “Great job, Mii-kun! They loved it!”

“Y-Yeah,” Misaki replied. “I’m glad.” She turned back to Kaoru. “Um, Kaoru-san? There’s something else we wanted to talk to you about, actually-“

“Say no more, my little kitten,” said Kaoru, striking one of her gallant poses. “I know exactly what you’re going to ask.”

Misaki was taken aback. “H-Huh?”

“You do?!” asked Hagumi.

“But of course. The question is written all over your faces,” said Kaoru. “I am not so foolish as to think you would offer such a shrewd suggestion without an ulterior motive.”

Misaki hadn’t realized Kaoru could be so perceptive. Was it really so obvious? She hadn’t even mentioned the band yet. “S-Sorry. We wanted to be upfront about it, but-“

“I understand. It’s difficult to come forward with these things, no?” Kaoru nodded wisely. “I’ll have your answer in but a moment. I simply need to discuss things with Maya and the rest first. You may wait outside, if you wish.”

Misaki and Hagumi looked at each other and nodded, exiting the auditorium. As the oaken doors slammed shut behind them, they could hear faint, muffled conversation through the cracks, unintelligible.

“How did she know about the band?” asked Hagumi.

“No idea,” said Misaki. “Kaoru-san knows how to surprise us, I guess.”

“Yeah. Why would she need to discuss it with the club, though?”

“Probably for scheduling reasons,” said Misaki. “It’s difficult to juggle two activities at once, isn’t it? Especially for someone as involved as her.”

“You’re right. Let’s hope she can hash it out!”

Misaki nodded, sighing with relief. It had gone incalculably better than she thought it would. Not only did the mere suggestion light up Kaoru’s spirit, it was accepted by the rest of the club, too. So long as she settled any scheduling conflicts, Kaoru could rejoin the band nearly instantly, greatly expediting the time needed to reconvene. Misaki hoped that would be the case.

After a solid ten to fifteen minutes of discussion trickling through the cracks, the auditorium doors opened. From within came Kaoru, alone, a look of triumph plastered across her face. “I bear good news, little kittens.”

“Good news?!” Hagumi asked, vibrating in place.

Kaoru’s smirk grew. “The answer is… yes!”

Hagumi jumped up and down in glee, running to glomp Kaoru at full throttle. Misaki couldn’t believe the words out of her mouth. “Th-Then, that means…”

Kaoru nodded. “That’s right – you both can have parts in the play!”

Misaki’s encouraged, stunned smile twisted into a distant, glazy-eyed stare. “…Excuse me?”

“Oh, do not be so coy, Misaki,” said Kaoru, stroking her own chin with intellectual vigor. “Why else would you make the suggestion of a play if you did not wish to partake in it yourself?”

“B-But that’s not… I don’t…”

“At a loss for words? I understand,” said Kaoru. “But rest be assured, you have a role.”

 “H-Hold on a second!” Misaki stuttered, trying to collect her scattered thoughts. “I don’t even go to this school!”

“Yes, fret not, we are meeting with student faculty from both Haneoka and Hanasakigawa to discuss a cross-school collaboration. I foresee things going swimmingly.”

“B-But that’s not why we came here!” said Misaki. “W-We… we came to…”

“Merely make a suggestion?” Kaoru tutted and shook her head. “I’ve been keyed in to your intentions the entire time, little kitten… do you really think me foolish enough to believe that you come here out of pure concern for me? While I appreciate the kindhearted gesture, I understand your underlying machinations. And worry not – I’ve already discussed the matter with the rest of the club, and they’ve approved.”

Misaki was too frustrated and bamboozled to form a coherent sentence, so she instead turned to Hagumi. “Say something!”

“…Do I get a part in the play, too?” asked Hagumi.

“But of course!” Kaoru replied. “It would hardly be fair otherwise.”

“Yaaay!” Hagumi cheered. “That sounds like so much fun!”

“It will be a delight to all,” said Kaoru proudly. “Ah, what a fleeting day… I must thank you two once again for the idea.”

Misaki’s hands wrung into maelstroms of fingers and joints, gibbering incomprehensible noises with her mouth.

“Overcome with emotion?” asked Kaoru. “That is quite reasonable – I am enthralled as well. But there are preparations to make before we begin rehearsals. Come back in, say, two days, why don’t you?”

“Sounds good to me!” Hagumi said.

Misaki screamed lightly.

“Then it’s settled.” Kaoru saluted with two fingers, winking as she opened the door back inside. “Adieu, mon chatons.

And with another thud, she was gone.

“Oh yeah, we forgot to ask her about Hello, Happy World!” said Hagumi, as if remembering she had worn mismatched socks that day. “Guess we can do it next time. Right?”

Misaki’s head was buried in her knees, the preceding charade locking her in a state of perpetual agony.

And deep within her wizened soul, she felt that the farce was only beginning.

Chapter Text

Chapter 23: Casting Call

After several hours of heavy breathing and a couple aspirins, Misaki was able to lower her blood pressure enough to reevaluate the situation with a more level head. She had been so caught up in the inanity of the misunderstanding that she had been unable to actually explain herself to Kaoru, and as a result, was now beholden to returning to Haneoka yet again, despite the fact that she likely could have cleared up the matter in a few seconds. She decided to accept the error as her own, and subsequently resolved to tell Kaoru at their next meeting that she wanted no part in any drama – theater or otherwise. She was concerned with the band first and foremost, and she didn’t want to get tangled up in another activity which she had little knowledge or interest in.

Hagumi, meanwhile, was positively ecstatic.

“I’ve never been in a play before!” she enthused the next day at lunch. “I wonder what kinda role I’ll have. Maybe I’ll be able to show off some backflips or something!”

“I don’t think that sort of thing is suited for Shakespeare…” Misaki pointed out. “It’s a lot more flowery language and human drama.”

Hagumi grinned. “Well, I like flowers just alright too, so I think I’ll still have fun.”

Misaki was honestly jealous of her can-do attitude. Here Hagumi was, relishing an opportunity to try something new, and what was Misaki doing? Grumbling about it as usual. Maybe the shortstop had the right idea. Yet Misaki knew her own talents weren’t suited for the stage. Any time she had tried acting in the past felt more wooden than a sequoia. Even if she was only cast in a minor role, she’d probably flub every line she was given.

Although…

Not every role in a stage production was acting, necessarily. There were plenty of technical and behind-the-scenes positions that would be needed to make sure the show ran smoothly. Director, stage manager, sound and light design… even ushers. Misaki wasn’t sure if she was cut out for any of those positions, either, but it felt at least a bit more appealing than getting up on stage before hundreds of critical eyes.

“What kinda role do you want, Mii-kun?” asked Hagumi, as if in responding to her thoughts.

“Hmm… well, I don’t really want to be in the play, but…” Misaki’s eyes flicked upward. “I guess I could… take an assistant role. Like, makeup or something.”

“You don’t wanna act?” asked Hagumi, looking just a little disappointed.

“Well… not really, no,” said Misaki. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just… I don’t know if I feel comfortable with it.”

“Hmm… I guess that’s fair,” said Hagumi. “But I think Kaoru-kun was really looking forward to it.”

She certainly seemed that way, given her attitude yesterday. Misaki wanted to be on Kaoru’s good side for the sake of the band, and rejecting the offer outright seemed more likely to harm than help. Perhaps… being in the play was actually an okay idea. After all, she had just ended a tenure managing a softball team; what was stopping her from taking on another administrative position?

But even thinking that, she couldn’t help but simply want to get the band back together as quickly as possible…

***

Misaki’s mind swung back and forth with the decision like a yo-yo until the time came to trek back to the Haneoka Theater once more. She set off alone, Hagumi delayed by an errand she was running for her parent’s butcher shop.

In the end, she decided to be diplomatic – if Kaoru couldn’t be convinced to let her out of the deal, then she’d attempt to bargain for a smaller position in the production. She doubted she’d be able to land any sort of prominent role in an audition, anyway. And she could always negotiate a trade deal – her help in the play for Kaoru rejoining HHW – just like she did with Hagumi. It’d be simple enough.

As Misaki came upon the oaken double doors once more, however, she was surprised to run into a face she hadn’t seen in months.

“Sayo-san?”

The student council member turned at the mention of her name, her eyes flickering with curiosity. “A Hanasakigawa student…? What are you doing here?”

“That’s my line,” said Misaki.

Sayo surveyed Misaki up and down, her brow sharpening. “Have we… met?”

“Oh, er…”

“Sis!”

Misaki was saved by the interruption of a similarly long-absent voice. Hina Hikawa bounded down the hall and before her sister like a lost puppy. She wasn’t alone, either – Aya Maruyama and Eve Wakamiya were close behind, respectively appearing slightly tuckered and brimming with optimism.

“Oh… Hina,” said Sayo curtly. “I should have expected to see you here.”

“How ya doin’, sis? And what’re you up to here at Haneoka?”

“I’m all right, thank you. I’m here on student council business for Hanasakigawa. Though I feel obligated to ask what you and your bandmates are doing here.”

“Kaoru asked us to come!” Hina replied. “At first she asked me, but then kinda laughed and was like ‘nay… bring all the lovely flowers of Pastel*Palettes, so that I may beg a boon of them.’ It was a really funny thing to say!”

“Kaoru-san is always brimming with energy!” Eve stated.

“Y-You didn’t need to drag me by the arm here, though, Hina-chan,” Aya muttered, flustered. “I would’ve come anyway…”

 It was only now that Hina seemed to process Misaki’s existence. “Who’s this?”

“I think I’ve seen her before…” Eve commented.

“Mi-Misaki Okusawa,” Misaki replied, trying not to sound too awkward or upfront. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Sayo. “Were you told to come by Seta-san as well?”

Regrettably, thought Misaki. “Yes, that’s right.”

“It appears she inquired of many Hanasakigawa students,” Sayo muttered. “But why?”

Misaki didn’t have the chance to answer Sayo’s question, because at that moment the theater doors creaked open. Maya emerged. “Oh! I didn’t realize you all would show up so soon… sorry about that. Please, come inside.”

“Hello, Maya-san!” Eve chimed, hugging her friend before walking inside.

“Afternoon, Maya-chan,” said Aya.

“Right behind ya!” hummed Hina.

Sayo smiled awkwardly and followed her sister. Misaki had always considered Sayo of the more reasonable people she knew – somehow her presence comforted her a bit, as if assuring her she wasn’t the only level-headed one in the room. Especially as the situation was becoming more and more clogged with people.

The auditorium was much emptier than the other day. A few club members Misaki didn’t recognize scrambled around the curtain, drifting between backstage and plain sight. They appeared embroiled in other matters – only one woman turned to face the newcomers, and it was the princely figure Misaki had been expecting to see.

“Ah, welcome, my little kittens,” said Kaoru, striking a great flourish with her left hand. “I trust I have not left you waiting?”

“Not for long, no,” said Sayo.

“It’s good to see you, Kaoru-san!” said Eve.

“Hm? We seem to be missing a few wayward souls…” Kaoru remarked.

“Hagumi’s running late,” Misaki explained, “she’ll be-“

“Here I am!” On cue, Hagumi burst in through the theater doors, panting and caked in sweat. She skipped down the aisles of the auditorium to where everybody else was. “Sorry for the hold up!”

“Heh… your timing is impeccable, my bounding little bunny,” said Kaoru. “As the Bard would say, you teach the torches to burn bright.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever even met a torch,” said Hagumi.

“Do torches need to be taught how to burn, Aya-san?” asked Eve.

“I-I think it’s just a figure of speech,” said Aya. “Though… maybe?”

“Can we get down to business?” asked Misaki. “Look, Kaoru-san-“

“Save your breath, fair Misaki,” said Kaoru. “There are matters we must discuss.”

I know that! That’s what I’m trying to- Misaki bottled up the annoyance and released it in the form of a deep sigh. “All right. You go first.”

Kaoru nodded. “Very well. As you all have been informed, we have resolved to put on a performance of one of the Bard’s greatest tales of laughter and love, Much Ado About Nothing – a play that I will be directing, producing, and starring in.

Oh dear god, thought Misaki, horrified, She’s got auteur license! Who let that happen?!

“I heard as such,” said Sayo. “You wanted to make it a cross-school collaboration?”

“Indeed,” said Kaoru. “For in order to bring about the performance I envision in my head, there are some crucial players who must take a stand.”

“Are you talking about… us?” asked Aya.

“Yes, in part,” said Kaoru. “Though there are more I require than just the lurid petals of Pastel*Palettes.”

“Hanasakigawa doesn’t have a theater club,” said Sayo. “I don’t know if there are many students who would be suitable for the task…”

“Fret not. I only have a select list in mind. You can think of it as a Haneoka production featuring Hanasakigawa students, if that pleases your fancy.”

Sayo thought for a moment. “I suppose there’s no real reason to oppose it, so long as the students themselves find it agreeable. Who did you have in mind?”

Kaoru smirked, closing her eyes with grandeur. “Why, my loving Sayo, you are one of them.”

Sayo’s generally stern frown broke into a look of surprise. “Huh? Me?”

“Yes – the thought came to me at once. You and your sister would be perfect fits for the roles of Don John and Don Pedro. For who would be better to play conflicting brothers than two lovely sisters such as yourselves?”

Sayo still looked perplexed. Hina, however, was enthralled. “Wow! I don’t think I’ve done theater before! That sounds super interesting. Whaddya say, sis?”

Sayo’s frown settled back onto her face. “I- I’m not sure…”

“If you don’t want to do it, Sayo-san, you shouldn’t feel obligated,” said Misaki, hoping to inspire resilience in not only Sayo but herself.

“Of course,” said Maya. “It’s completely up to you.”

Sayo said nothing for several moments, her eyes transfixed elsewhere in thought. Finally, she took a deep breath and nodded. “Very well. I’ll do it.”

Misaki was stunned. Hina, Eve, and Hagumi all cheered in unison. Kaoru, Maya, and Aya all smiled contentedly.

“You’re in too, Hina-san?” asked Maya.

“Of course!” said Hina. “I’d never miss the chance to do something together with my sis!”

Sayo still looked slightly unsure, but not enough to say anymore. Misaki wondered what she was thinking.

“Moving on…” said Kaoru, turning to Aya. “You, Lovely Aya, I find well suited for the role of Leonato.”

“O-Oh!” uttered Aya, looking both excited and apprehensive. “Is that… one of the leads?”

“It’s a vital character – the father of Hero and uncle to Beatrice, who stands up for his daughter’s honor once it is slandered. It is a role that requires conviction and determination, which are qualities you are replete in.”

“R-Replete…?” asked Aya, clearly not sure what the word meant. “Er, well, anyway, I haven’t done a play before, but it sounds like fun, so… I’ll do my best!”

“Do I get a role as well?” asked Eve.

“But of course, gentle Eve,” said Kaoru, flourishing. “Your warm nature and kindness are perfect for that of Margaret, chambermaid to Hero.”

“It’s a bit of a smaller role,” admitted Maya. “Sorry, Eve-san… I wish we could give you something more to do.”

“Not at all!” said Eve, beaming. “I feel blessed just to be asked to appear in this play with Maya-san and everybody! I’ll do all that I can to help…!”

“Aww… Thanks, Eve-san,” Maya replied.

“Oh! Oh! Kaoru-kun!” chimed Hagumi. “How about me?”

“You, Hagumi, are well suited to the role of Constable Dogberry, in charge of the night watch. He’s an amusing character, full of pomp and vigor… Perfect for your limitless energy.”

“Dogberry…” Hagumi repeated the name, taking in the oddity of it. “Sounds funny! Thanks!”

“You are very welcome,” said Kaoru. “And now you, dear Misaki-“

“Ho-Hold on,” said Misaki, cutting her off before Kaoru could progress. “I never said I wanted to join the play, did I?”

Kaoru craned her head upward. “Did you, now? I cannot recall…”

“I didn’t,” Misaki replied flatly.

“Oh? But then why did you propose said play in the first place?”

“Because…” Misaki sucked in a sharp intake of breath, preparing to just spill it. “I wanted you to reform the band with us.”

“The band?” asked Kaoru. “You mean… ah. I see.”

Sayo, and the members of Pastel*Palettes all looked quizzical, but Misaki could explain to them later. “You were feeling down, and I… well, I guess I feel kind of scummy about it, but… I saw you feeling down, and I-“

“Very well. I’ll do it.”

Misaki blinked. “H-Huh?”

Kaoru smiled. “You have done me a favor regardless. I would be more than willing to reform Hello, Happy World! with you all.”

Misaki fluttered her eyelashes, not believing what she was hearing. Hagumi exploded with joy. “Kaoru-kuuuun! Thank you!”

“Heh… ‘Tis nothing,” said Kaoru. “For in my soul burns a guitarist, and I would ne’er deny it.”

Misaki didn’t know about that, but she was pleasantly shocked by the ease it took to convince Kaoru. Was that really it?

“Now, my dear Misaki…” she began again, “I’ve agreed to join the band. And that will happen, mark my words. However – that does not mean the matter of the play is settled.”

“…What do you mean?” asked Misaki.

“I envisioned a very particular cast for the type of play I wished to put on, and that includes you in it,” said Kaoru. “The issue of Hello, Happy World! is irrelevant to the matter, in my opinion. Whether or not you that was your original intention, I would implore you to join the production regardless. For the sake of my vision… I will beseech you without end.”

Misaki understood. HHW wasn’t a bargaining chip – it didn’t have any bearing on Kaoru’s intentions. But did the play have a bearing on hers? “…What role did you have in mind?”

Kaoru stroked her chin. “You are a truly talented fellow, Misaki – I could tell that in the short time I have known you. Which is why I found it only fitting that you should take on a position deserving of your talents.”

“Which is?”

Kaoru stared directly into her. “Why, the protagonist, Claudio, of course.”

“Th-The pro-!” Misaki cut herself short. “You’ve lost your mind.”

“I assure you I am quite sound,” said Kaoru. “You are best suited for-“

“Nope!” said Misaki. “I could handle maybe a background character, or a stagehand, but the lead? Have you ever even seen me act?!”

“But of course,” said Kaoru. “For all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”

“Forget this,” said Misaki. “Look, I’m grateful you’re willing to join the band, but I just… don’t really care about the play, okay?”

Her voice rang sharper and louder than she intended it to. Sayo looked on stoically. Maya and Hagumi appeared a little apprehensive. Aya and Eve looked down glumly. Hina observed her inquisitively.

But Kaoru?

Kaoru kept smiling.

“Dear Misaki, before you make your final decision, I intreat you to wait just a moment. After all…” She tutted and shook her head. “Not all the strays have arrived.”

Once again on cue, the theater doors burst open. The sudden influx of light on the dim auditorium temporarily blinded Misaki, whose eyes had now adjusted to the low lighting of the theater. Two figures appeared through the brightness – Misaki strained her vision to make out their blurry shapes.

Eventually, they coalesced into recognizable forms.

“Sorry for the delay. I had a meeting before this.”

The first was Chisato Shirasagi. Her ironclad smile was slightly worn, but without a single crack. The second, meanwhile…

“I-I… got lost on the way…”

Well, who else could it be?

Misaki’s heart froze for the umpteenth time at seeing her. She told herself it’d get easier each time. And yet, somehow, it never did. No matter how often she saw Kanon Matsubara’s face, the feelings – the pain, the hesitation, the ambivalence – came washing over her like a flood. And she could do nothing but stare, unfocused, as her demure shape sharpened in her eyes. Upon seeing Misaki, Kanon’s eyes widened for a split second before turning away, her mouth a light squiggle of nervousness. Misaki felt herself do the same.

“Ah, Kanon… Chisato,” said Kaoru, her voice softening. “Good to see you’ve arrived.”

“Happy to be here,” said Chisato courteously. She turned to her bandmates. “Hello, everyone.”

Eve and Hina waved. Aya and Maya smiled in greeting.

“I’ve been informing the others of their roles, should they choose to accept them,” said Kaoru. “I trust you both are here for the same reasons?”

Kanon nodded. “A production of Much Ado About Nothing, right? What do you want me to audition for?”

“No need for that, fair Kanon,” said Kaoru. “I know your prowess firsthand. The role of Hero’s is yours, should you want it.”

Misaki’s heart combusted into a sun-like blaze.

Hero… Hero was Claudio’s love interest.

They… they would be…

“Hero…?” said Kanon. “Well, if you want me to, Kaoru-san, I would be happy to.”

“Yaay! Kano-chan-senpai!” Hagumi cried, hugging her tightly. “We get to be in the play together!”

Kanon smiled. “Looking forward to it, Hagumi-chan!”

“Excellent,” said Kaoru. “As for you, Chisato…”

“Say no more,” she replied. “I know exactly what you mean to ask.”

The two looked intently at each other. Neither of them bore their usual grins.

“You want me to play the part of Beatrice, don’t you?” asked Chisato.

“Of course,” replied Kaoru. “There can be no other.”

“…Do you truly believe that?” asked Chisato, with her arms crossed.

“With all my heart.”

Their eyes remained locked for seconds. It was an intense contest of wills without a shred of movement. Until finally, one broke the connection.

“Very well,” said Chisato. “Benedick has his Beatrice.”

Kaoru smirked. “As I knew he would.”

Chisato smiled back. “I look forward to sharing the stage with you once more, Kaoru Seta.”

“As do I, Chisato Shirasagi.”

The members of Pastel*Palettes cheered. They appeared genuinely happy to be working together, without a hint of animosity or tension between them. It was a foreign feeling to Misaki.

“Uh, Um…” Kanon uttered, looking around. “Who is everybody else playing?”

“Kaoru-san is Benedick,” said Maya. “I’ll be taking on the role of Borachio, an underling. Hina-san and Sayo-san will be Don Pedro and Don John, respectively. Aya-san will be playing Leonato, while Eve-san will be playing Margaret, a chambermaid. Kitazawa-san will be playing Constable Dogberry. And Okusawa-san…”

Misaki was in the spotlight. Every soul present was looking upon her and her alone. She glanced around – at Hina and Sayo, at Maya and Hagumi, at Aya and Eve, at Kaoru and Chisato… at Kanon. In their faces was the inscrutable quality of breathless waiting; that fixated anticipation that awaited either pleasant news or immeasurable disappointment. And yet, which answer would elicit which response?

Misaki looked at Kanon one last time, closed her eyes, and swallowed.

“I… I'm Claudio.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 24: Cold Read

Scripts were passed out some time later. To Misaki’s whirlpool mind, it might have been thirty seconds, or ten millennia. She couldn’t be sure which. All of her effort was concentrated on not looking at Kanon, not succumbing to the ill feeling knotting in the pit of her intestines, not appearing like the nervous mess she felt like in that moment. She wondered for a solid minute or two if she’d actually faint from the anxiety. But nonetheless, she persisted, quiet, stationary, her eyes locked on the carpeted floor as people shuffled around her, unaware of whose feet belonged to whom, fixated on only her own thoughts.

She should have been happy. No, ecstatic. Kaoru had agreed to rejoin the band, no strings attached. And then, without a shred of effort, an opportunity to talk to Kanon on a regular basis had fallen into Misaki’s lap. It should have been blessed. It should have been the sort of serendipity that she could have only dreamed of weeks prior, when she still was mired in the darkness of her deepest despondence. But instead, here she was, wrenching her emotions into little knots, trying to figure out how to unwind the rope she had tangled up in her mind. If she could manage to stay cool, it could be done – but how could she, in such a situation?

Kanon was different from Kaoru or Hagumi. She didn’t wear the carefree expression of someone who had moved on from Misaki’s actions. Instead, the look she bore always contained a tinge of melancholy, of awkwardness, of an attempt to reconcile that which couldn’t be solved. Even in the glimpse of Misaki’s periphery, the only amount she could bear to glance with, she saw Kanon’s eyes scanning the script with a bittersweet mien, her true feelings inscrutable. Misaki would give anything to understand her mind in that moment. And at the same time, she would fear nothing more.

“We’ll start with a cold read,” said Maya. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get through it all today, but we can at least get things moving.”

“My apologies – what’s a cold read?” asked Sayo.

“We just read our lines through the script without worrying about movement or direction,” said Maya. “It helps us get familiar with the characters and the rough outline of the play.”

Sayo nodded. “Understood.”

“Wow!” shouted Hagumi, squirming excitedly in her seat. “There’s so many words! I’m gonna have trouble memorizing them all!”

“You won’t have to worry about your part for a while,” said Maya. “In fact, Kitazawa-san, Eve-san, do you mind helping me and the stagehands out with moving stuff? We won’t have lines for a little while.”

“Of course!” Eve replied.

“You got it, captain!” Hagumi puffed her chest, saluted, and ran with Eve to help the production staff with chores. Their enthusiasm as they dashed back and forth across the stage was even livelier than normal.

“Somebody’s excited, haha!” Hina remarked.

“Ahaha, Hagumi hasn’t changed…” mused Kaoru, shaking her head theatrically. “Alas. Let us begin.”

Everybody flipped to the first page of dialogue. The play began with Leonato conversing with a messenger about the exploits of Don Pedro and his men in war.

“Um…” Aya began, “I l-learn in this letter that Don Peter of Arragon…” She lifted her head. “I thought it was ‘Don Pedro’?”

“’Tis a quirk of the craft,” said Kaoru. “Pay it no mind.”

“O-Ok, then.” Aya cleared her throat. “I learn in this letter that Don Peter of Arragon comes this night to Messina.”

She was clearly a bit stilted and nervous. Somehow, this calmed Misaki. The realization of that, however, coursed guilt through her veins, sending her emotions right back to where they started.

 Following a short conversation with the messenger, Leonato, Hero, and Beatrice, Don Pedro and his cohorts – his brother Don John, as well as his men Claudio and Benedick – made their entrance. Hina spoke:

“Good Signior Leonato,” she began, with mirth, “you are come to meet your trouble: the fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it!”

Woah, Misaki thought. She’s already really into it…

“Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your gr-grace,” Aya replied, smiling, “for trouble being gone, comfort should remain; but when you depart from me, sorrow abides and happiness takes his leave.”

“You embrace your charge too willingly,” said Hina, turning towards Kanon. “I think this is your daughter?”

“Her m-mother hath many times told me so!”

Kaoru chuckled. “Were you in doubt, sir, when you asked her?” Her voice carried her trademark smoothness, along with a layer of tactless humor.

Does she sound a bit different than usual? Misaki thought, as the next few lines played out. Less chivalrous, more… brazen? I guess that’s the character.

“I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick,” spoke Chisato, with a curt grin, “nobody marks you.”

“Why, my dear Lady Disdain!” Kaoru exclaimed, with faux glee that somehow sounded wholly sincere. “Are you yet living?”

“Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?” asked Chisato, with a wry sigh. “Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.”

“Then is courtesy a turncoat,” said Kaoru, tutting. “But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly… I love none.”

It sounded wrong for Kaoru to say that last part.

“A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor.” Chisato brought an ‘anguished’ hand to her forehead. “I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

“God keep your ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.”

Chisato smoothly shook her head. “Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.”

Kaoru chuckled, slightly less confident this time. “Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher...”

“A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.”

Misaki watched the two of them quip back and forth, as naturally as if they had rehearsed the exchange a thousand times beforehand. She refused to believe this was the first occasion they had spoken these lines to each other – their barbs were as pointed as any thespian performing at the Globe. She could believe every word of sneering mockery that escaped their lips as genuine feelings. For the first time, she realized she wasn’t just working with friends or fellow students: she was working with actors.

In the midst of her amazement, some dialogue had passed. “Let me bid you welcome, my lord:” said Aya to Sayo, “being reconciled to the prince your brother, I owe you all duty.”

“I-I thank you,” replied Sayo rigidly. “I am not of many words, but… I thank you.”

Misaki silently sighed. Sayo was having a tough time too. Again, she was glad to not be the only awkward one there.

“Please your grace lead on…?” asked Aya to Hina.

“Your hand, Leonato; we will go together,” she replied, bowing in her seat.

There was a pause for the exeunt. And at last, it was Misaki’s turn to speak. She took a deep breath:

“B-Benedick,” she began, “didst-st thoust note the daughter of Signior Leonato?”

She recognized her stumble and immediately felt ashamed. Kaoru, however, laughed it off. “I noted her not; but I looked on her.”

“Is she not a…” Misaki paused at reading the end of the line. “m-modest… young… lady?” She wondered if this would be how she died.

“Do you question me, as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment; or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?”

“N-No; I pray thee speak in sober judgment.”

“Why, i' faith,” Kaoru began, stroking her chin, “methinks she's too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise and too little for a great praise: only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome; and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.”

Misaki was only vaguely following what the characters were actually saying. “Thou thinkest I am in sport: I pray thee tell me truly how thou likest her.” How do all these actors handle these thees and thous?

Kaoru smiled at her. “Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?”

Misaki gulped. “Can the world buy such a j…j…j…” She trailed off.

“Are you okay?” asked Aya.

Misaki could see the final word of the script in her shaky hands. It was the most mortifyingly cheesy thing one could say, especially about a woman Claudio hadn’t had so much as a conversation with. And here she was, expected to say it of Kanon without breaking a sweat. How did anybody make it through one of these plays without dying of humiliation?

“O-Okusawa-san…?” Kanon asked, concerned.

“…jewel?” Misaki finally squeaked out.

Kaoru didn’t miss a beat. “Yea, and a case to put it into. But speak you this with a sad brow? Or do you play the flouting Jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you, to go in the song?”

Misaki had no idea what any of that meant. Her brain didn’t work properly anymore. But the last remaining neurons in her skull did, unfortunately, have the capacity to read her own line. “In mine eye, she… sh-she is the sweetest lady that… that ever I l-looked on.” Her face was the color of lava, and felt twice as hot.

Kaoru shook her head. “I can see yet without spectacles and I see no such matter: there's her cousin, an’ she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December. But I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have you?”

Misaki had to stop herself from hyperventilating. “I would scarce tr-trust myself, though I had sw-sworn the contrary, if Hero would be… would be my… m-my…”

The four-letter word stared up at her from the page. Taunting. Chiding.

Wife.

Bold, barefaced, and brash. Misaki, in spite of her best efforts, couldn’t help but look in Kanon’s direction to see her reaction. The blue-haired girl was as red as a strawberry, her face buried in the pages.

In that moment, Misaki could only obey her body’s first instinct.

She leapt from the auditorium chair and hightailed it through the aisle and out of the theater, hearing but not listening to the concerned shouts that pelted her back. She soldiered down the Haneoka hallways, steam erupting from her ears as she looked for a pit of sand to bury her head into. With nothing of the sort around, she found the nearest water fountain and thrust her face into the stream of liquid, the cold water doing little to douse the fire coursing through her blood. She tried to straighten out her thoughts, but her brain was like a sparkler spinning at a million rpm, sputtering sparks in every direction.

She took a good, long moment to right herself with the water fountain, feeling the chilled metal absorb the extra heat from her arms until they cooled down. Her rapid pants evened to labored breaths, as the marching snare of her heart slowed from a thunderous drumroll to a steadier tempo. Just as she felt like she had calmed down just a bit, she heard footsteps behind her, dreading the possibility of who they might belong to.

“Are you all right, kitten?”

Misaki sighed – whether with relief or irritation, she wasn’t sure. “I’m… I’m fine.”

Kaoru didn’t sport her usual vapid grin, instead showing genuine concern. “That was quite the spectacle… are you sure?”

Misaki crossed her arms in a huff. She obviously wasn’t fine, but saying as such would make her sound petty or ill-tempered. “Look, I- I told you, all right? I’m not cut out for this acting stuff.”

Kaoru clicked her tongue in disagreement. “On the contrary, you are far more suited for such a thing than you realize. To become so impassioned from merely reading the script… alas, I only wish I contained the same earnest flame as thee, Misaki.”

“W-W-Well what do you expect of me?!” Misaki asked, growing flustered again. “You can’t just ask me to say that kind of thing out loud! So… shamelessly!”

“Why ever not?” asked Kaoru. “It is the work of The Bard – the greatest writer the world has ever known.”

“I know that, but…” Misaki grappled with how to put it into words. “Can you really expect me to say something so corny to K-K-Kanon like that?!”

Kaoru looked perplexed for a moment before her face settled into an eased grin. “Ah. I see the issue at hand. As clear as day.”

“Wh-What is it?”

“You read those lines as Misaki Okusawa… not as Claudio of Florence.” Kaoru nodded. “’Tis a world of difference.”

“Is… Is it?”

“Indeed. Tell me, Misaki…” Kaoru looked back towards the theater. “Do you know what acting is?”

“…What is it?”

Kaoru made a flourishing hand motion towards her forehead. “It is the donning of a mask. The assuming of an identity that is not your own. The fulfilling of a role that is wholly another’s. ‘One man in his time will play many parts…’ such is acting, an extension of life as well…”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” said Misaki. “You might be onto something, but… don’t try to bring your usual weird philosophy into it, ok? It just makes things confusing.”

Kaoru chuckled. “I understand. There are times where my moral musings are difficult for others to comprehend.”

I wonder why that is, thought Misaki.

“However…” Kaoru continued, “I want you to understand that you have the very makings of a quality thespian within you.”

“…And what makes you say that?” asked Misaki. “Why did you want me as the lead in this play, anyway? There are plenty of people in Theater Club more talented than I am. I’m sure one of them would make a better Claudio.”

Kaoru smiled and began walking towards the theater. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them… I wonder, which one are you, my kitten?”

“I…” Misaki exhaled. “I don’t know. Does it matter?”

“Truly. For those who know only greatness do not understand the struggle of attaining it… nor do those who strive for it understand the pressure it inherently brings.”

Misaki blinked. Kaoru sounded almost profound, for once. “What are you getting at?”

“What I’m saying…?” Kaoru laughed. “Well, you see…”

A long silence.

“Ahem…” She flipped her hair dramatically. “It is but that.”

“…I’m leaving.”

“H-Hold a moment, Misaki! I understand your embarrassment, b-but surely you can give the play another try, yes?”

Misaki rolled her eyes. But then she considered what would happen if she walked out. Not only would she be reneging on her word, Kanon and the rest would be disappointed in her… again. She’d feel like a jerk for the umpteenth time, and probably stew about by her lonesome… again. That was the last thing she wanted.

But… was going back really the right option, too?

For a moment, she thought she had settled on an option.

Then, from the theater, Kanon appeared.

“I-Is everything all right…?” she asked.

“Ah, dame Kanon,” said Kaoru, wiping a single bead of sweat from her chin. “Fret not – Misaki had a spot of trouble, but is… er, fine.”

Misaki was able to look Kanon in the eye, somehow. She no longer felt the deluge of needles across her nerves, but a vague numbness. She wasn’t sure if she preferred it.

“Are you doing okay, Okusawa-san?” asked Kanon. “Y-You seemed distressed…”

“I… I’m fine,” said Misaki. “Are you okay, Kanon-san?”

“‘Kanon-san’…?”

Misaki’s innards did a backflip. She had messed up – sounding so familiar… what was she thinking? She opened her mouth to correct herself, but stale breath was all that emerged.

“Regardless, we should jump back into things,” said Kaoru, hoping to shuffle them along. “Come now, there’s still quite a bit of play to work through.”

“…Do you not want to, Okusawa-san?” asked Kanon.

It was like a sniper bullet to the skull. She always knew exactly what Misaki was thinking. Somehow, without fail. And Misaki never knew how to respond.

“I-I understand,” said Kanon. “This is a new experience for you, and you m-may not be comfortable with it, so… do want you want to do.” Her eyes tracked to the ground. “I don’t want you to feel bad about it.”

Her words reached back into Misaki’s memory over a month. To the last time they had talked, face to face, in the middle of the street.

I don’t want you to suffer.

Was…

Was that all Kanon did?

Make Misaki hurt?

“…Impossible.”

Misaki’s voice surprised everyone present, including herself. Her hands had balled into knuckled white fists without her realizing it. Both Kaoru and Kanon looked at her expectantly.

“I’ll do this thing,” said Misaki. “I said I would, and I don’t flake on my obligations. Not anymore.”

Her words sliced through the thick atmosphere that had entangled them. The air suddenly felt crisper in her lungs. Her gaze wasn’t locked to the ground. Her insides didn’t feel rotten. Kanon’s expression was soft and light. And Kaoru:

“I see,” she chuckled. “Greatness has been thrust upon you – and you have risen to meet it.”

“…Is that so?” asked Misaki, 99% sure that Kaoru had no idea what she was saying.

Kaoru didn’t reply, instead striding up to the theater door. “I eagerly await the form you take upon the stage, Claudio.” And with a florid motion, she thrust open the door and proceeded inside.

I’ll never quite get her… Misaki thought. But now…

They were alone again. Just the two of them.

“Um…” Kanon began. “L-Let’s do our best, Okusawa-san.”

“R-Right,” said Misaki. “Oh, and, er…”

“What is it?”

Misaki swallowed. She knew what she wanted to say, but she had no idea how to say it. Her mouth hung open, her lips twitching lightly in anticipation.

Kanon frowned. “O-Okusawa-san…?”

“You… can call me… Misaki…” she mewled silently.

“Hm...? Sorry, can you repeat that?”

“N-Nevermind!” Misaki yelped. “Let’s get back into practice, okay?”

“Oh, er… right.”

Misaki once again faced away from Kanon, unable to look her in the eyes without sweating. She had found an inner resolve she hadn’t realized she possessed… but how long could she last?

She hadn’t even made it through seven lines.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25: Getting Into Character

Misaki spent every remaining second of rehearsal that day on edge, tripping over her lines and shoving any amount of embarrassment – whether from the candidness of the writing or the awkwardness of her performance – deep into her bowels. Despite her constant apprehension, no other incidents took place. They got a little ways into Act II before calling it a day. Misaki didn’t want to linger – avoiding eye contact with Kanon, Kaoru, and every other cast member, she walked home quickly, only sparing paranoid glances behind her back to make sure nobody was chasing her in concern.

It wasn’t until she was five blocks from Haneoka that she was finally able to decompress, finally gasping out breath she had unconsciously been holding in. While a burst of willpower had kept her going, she still felt thoroughly shamed and overwhelmed by the task in front of her. The last time she was in a play, it was kindergarten, where she played a bear (to her eye-rolling chagrin) with three lines. How was she supposed to perform an entire play’s worth of iambic pentameter with that amount of theater experience? The question was beginning to feel cyclical, at this point – whether or not she wanted to do it, Kaoru had asked her, and she had determinately agreed to it. Her bed was made, and she had to lie in it – even if she’s probably end up kicking off the sheets in frustration.

She arrived home, slinking past her sister playing Zelda in the living room to retreat into her quarters, where she considered her strategies. The first thing she had to worry about was simple memorization – she had plenty of time before opening night, and they hadn’t even finished their initial read-through, but considering the difficulty of the language and her woodenness she needed to use every opportunity to its fullest. After a brief break for homework and dinner, she dove back into the script, reading it front to back for the rest of the night, conjoining it with online notes to bettergrasp the events of the play.

It took some hours, but upon reading through the whole thing she felt a little better. Claudio wasn’t a Hamlet type who had soliloquy upon soliloquy – in fact, he didn’t even have the most lines. Not to mention that, despite his abrupt courting, the play didn’t contain kissing scenes or anything else humiliating. Misaki breathed easily when she realized that – the last thing her heart needed was pecking on-stage.

Still, as she read through and got a better handle on Claudio’s character, she couldn’t help but wonder why Kaoru was so adamant on having Misaki play him. Nothing about his character really spoke to her – if anything, she actually disliked him. So why did she have to be the one?

The smirking visage of Kaoru’s princely face haunted her sleep.

***

The rehearsal schedule consolidated over the succeeding days, as Misaki and the rest of the Hanasakigawa students travelled to Haneoka five times a week for after-school practice. After finishing the cold read, they began blocking out action on stage in groups, as others memorized their lines throughout the auditorium. While Misaki had eased into things by the time the read-through was done, her initial ventures into memorization were proving difficult.

“‘O, my lord,’” she repeated, beginning her first extended speech, “‘when you went on onward’… er, onward on…? Let me check…” She looked at her script. “Onward on… okay then.” She cleared her throat. “‘O, my lord, when you went onward on this ended action, I look’d upon her with’… with…”

She was already blanking. She reclined in the plush auditorium chair, secluded in a remote corner of the amphitheater, from which she could see the cast peppered throughout rehearsing their lines. Kaoru and Chisato were on stage, working through one of their early bickering scenes. Kanon and Aya were walking through the wedding portion. Hagumi was sequestered around her own little group of watchmen. They were all as busy as bees, buzzing around with enthusiasm and effort. Even as Misaki saw those like Sayo struggle to adapt, she felt that she was lagging even farther behind.

“Having trouble?”

Misaki turned. Maya sat down behind her, offering a supportive glance. “Yeah,” Misaki admitted. “Getting the lines down is rough.”

“I know what you mean,” said Maya. “Lodging it all in your head so you can repeat it word for word takes a lot of hard work. And that’s before you get to emoting, enunciation, quartering out, beats…”

Misaki only vaguely understood what she was talking about. “All this acting stuff is even harder than I thought… yeesh.” She splayed her hands out over the armrests, her eyes drifting towards the ceiling. “What am I gonna do…?”

“Do you have a particularly bad memory, Okusawa-san?” asked Maya.

“Not really,” said Misaki. “I’m pretty good at remembering dates and schedules and that kind of thing, although I usually have a planner.” Being the one-woman manager of HHW had forced her to develop a good amount of organizational skill.

“Well, I think getting your lines down might be easier than you think.”

“Really?”

Maya nodded. “Look at it like this – are you just regurgitating the lines on the sheet, or are you actually thinking about their intent and meaning?”

Misaki thought. “Hmm… at the moment, I guess it’s more the former.”

“Then there’s your problem,” said Maya. “Shakespeare’s dialogue may be flowery and antiquated, but it’s just that – dialogue. You can’t think of your lines as just words to say: you have to put them in relation to one another, like a conversation.”

That… made a lot of sense, actually. But that didn’t solve all of Misaki’s troubles. “The issue is that I have a hard time actually understanding the meaning sometimes. I went through the script with online notes, so I got the gist of the play down, but…”

“You don’t understand every individual monologue very well?”

Misaki nodded.

“I can’t blame you, huhehe,” Maya giggled. “To be honest, it takes a lot of study and practice to get to this point. Most people have to take their time with lines like these. Which is why they amaze me so much.”

Maya pointed to the stage. Kaoru and Chisato were going through the scene where Benedick has been fooled into believing Beatrice secretly admires him, while she was none the wiser:

“Against my will, I am sent to bid you come in to dinner,” sighed Chisato, arms crossed.

“Fair Beatrice… I thank you for your pains,” breathed Kaoru, smoldering.

“I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me,” said Chisato plainly, “if it had been painful, I would not have come.”

“…You take pleasure, then, in the message?” pried Kaoru, quietly inquisitive.

“Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife's point and choke a daw withal,” Chisato spat. “You have no stomach, signior: fare you well.”

She turned and sauntered off stage, as Kaoru launched into a fanciful monologue, misinterpreting Beatrice’s casual disdain for deeply-suppressed passion. It was as practiced as if it were dress rehearsal, and yet it was the first time they so much as blocked it.

“I guess that’s what pros are like, huh?” asked Maya.

“…No kidding,” Misaki muttered. “I feel even more out of my element, now…”

“Well, I don’t think you should look to them as a standard,” said Maya. “Take Aya-san or Sayo-san. They’re struggling just to get their lines in the right order.”

It was true – the two girls were in corners of their own, murmuring their lines aloud and tripping over themselves. Misaki’s cynical brain couldn’t let herself off so easily, however. “What about Hina-senpai?”

“Well, uh… she might have memorized the entire play front to back already, but I really don’t think you should compare anyone to her,” Maya said. “She’s a bona fide genius.”

“I know, but….” Misaki finally felt some of her deeper anxieties bubble to the surface. “I guess I just feel over my head, that’s all.”

“That’s perfectly natural,” said Maya. “The important thing is to get out of your own headspace. Acting isn’t about thinking – it’s about doing.”

“Doing, huh…” Misaki suddenly remembered Kaoru’s advice from a few days prior. “Say, do you think I should be reading the lines as… er… ‘not myself’?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well… Kaoru-san told me that since I was reading the lines as ‘Misaki’ and not as ‘Claudio,’ I was getting too caught up in my own actions. Do you think that she was onto something?”

Maya laughed. “That sounds like something she’d say… well, I guess you can consider that perspective, if it helps.”

“Yeah,” said Misaki. “I guess I’ll try that. Thanks, Yamato-san.”

“Don’t mention it. And let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.”

With that, Maya left to go talk to Eve, presumably about stage directions or something else. Misaki stared back at the monologue she was practicing earlier. The overall meaning was quite clear – Claudio was explaining his feelings towards Hero to Don Pedro. How often he thought of her before going off to battle, and wanted to take her hand now that he was free of his duties.

Misaki looked up at Kanon. She was talking with Chisato just below the stage, smiling as she chatted away without stopping. She looked so… content. Misaki gulped, and looked back down at the paper. She had to think of herself as Claudio… Claudio, talking about his love…

“Oh, my lord…” she began, quietly. “When you went onward on this ended action, I… I look'd upon her with a soldier's eye, that liked, but had a rougher task in hand than to drive liking to the name of love… but now – I am return'd, and that war-thoughts have left their places vacant, in their rooms come thronging soft and delicate desires, all prompting me how…” Her gaze turned up towards Kanon again. “…h-how fair, young Hero is, saying, ‘I liked her… ere I went to wars…’”

Her voice came forth softly, and with little effort. She still felt stiff and awkward and flush with emotion. But, for the first time… there was a tinge of hope at the bottom of her stomach.

Bravo!

The sound of erupting applause behind her ear sent Misaki hopping out of her seat. She turned, tomato-faced, to her lone admirer. “Wh-Wh- Were you listening?!”

Kaoru chuckled. “But of course. ‘Twas a most beautiful performance, my kitten… there is a thespian in you yet. We must simply awaken her.”

“I-I didn’t ask for your opinion!” Misaki sputtered. “When did you get here, anyway? Oh god, why did somebody have to overhear…” In the depths of her heart, she could at least be thankful it wasn’t Kanon.

“Why do you wear the blush of a dainty maiden?” asked Kaoru. “Nay, it should be the redness of a proud woman, for to speak so boldly and impassioned… ah! How fleeting…”

“D-Don’t you have something else to do, Director?”

“Alas, you are correct,” said Kaoru, tsking herself. “But whatever mentality you bore in that moment, Misaki, channel it – make it your very persona! For then Claudio shall burst forth on stage, for all to see…”

“Get out of here!” Misaki snapped, shooing her away.

Kaoru smirked one last time before prancing off. Misaki slumped back in her seat and shoved her baseball cap over her eyes, hoping nobody was watching… chances are, her outburst had gotten everybody in the theater looking her way. Maybe she’d have to practice lines at home alone, and focus on movements and direction during group rehearsal, just so she could avoid making a fool of herself.

She peered from under the lid of her hat in Kanon’s direction. She was quietly sitting by herself, reading the script and jotting down notes. Misaki still hadn’t worked up the nerve to try talking to her. And she wasn’t sure if she would even be able to. She had barely made it out of her last encounter unscathed – how hard would she crash and burn if she tried to start up a conversation out of the blue? If only there were a way she could close the gap she had formed between them…

“Okusawa-san?”

Misaki lifted up her ball cap in dull surprise. To her left, peering down with a perpetual smile, was…

“Shirasagi-san?” asked Misaki. “What is it?”

“Rehearsal for the day is almost done,” she said. “Kaoru wants us to convene near the front.”

“Ah, roger that,” said Misaki, rising to her feet and cracking her fingers.

“Oh, and by the way… I hope this isn’t too sudden, but…”

“Hm? What is it?”

Chisato looked her in the eyes, expression unchanging. “Might you be free for tea sometime?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 26: Coffee, Tea, and Ice

Ten minutes, and still no sign of her…

Misaki kept compulsively checking her phone. She was waiting in front of Hazawa Coffee, dripping in sweat and fanning herself with her cap. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the dead of summer bore its full heat upon her without mercy. The usually bustling streets of the shopping district were more sparsely populated in the high temperatures, with families and window shoppers consigned to air-conditioned interiors. Misaki told herself she could probably just wait indoors, where the earthy aromas of the coffee and the cool air spilling from the vents would welcome her, but she felt compelled to stay outside. For what reason? She wasn’t sure. But coming here had made her anxious, and she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to sit still at the moment.

It had been several days since Chisato had invited her out for a drink. Misaki was so caught off-guard by the request that she had agreed without really thinking it over. Due to the actress’s busy schedule, of course, this was the earliest opportunity available – a Sunday afternoon, where the urban sprawl had turned into a searing black-and-gray desert of despondence. Oh well, Misaki thought. At least the iced coffee will taste extra good, once I get my hands on it…

At fifteen minutes past their agreed meeting time, just as she was beginning to graze her finger over the “Call” button on her phone, Chisato appeared. “Hello, Okusawa-san.”

“Hey, Shirasagi-san,” Misaki replied, relieved to be free of the heat.

“Sorry I’m late,” Chisato huffed, smiling and soaked in sweat as she opened the door. “My schedule is as packed as ever. Shall we?”

Misaki nodded and followed her inside. The blast of the A/C hit her like an ocean breeze, cooling her simmering skin and compelling her to reflexively sigh. The line was packed, as expected of such a blistering day, so the duo took their place in the back, the clatter of mugs and chatter of patrons filling the air.

“Which kind of tea do you like?” asked Chisato, gazing at the chalkboard menu hung above the counter.

“Oh, uh, I’m more of a coffee person,” Misaki replied. “I’ll just get it iced.”

“Ah. Understood.” Chisato didn’t turn her head or change her expression at all. It felt like courteous small talk more than genuine curiosity.

Misaki glanced at her from the side, trying to hone in on her thoughts lurking behind the idol’s easy smile. She had been trying to wrap her head around the purpose behind Chisato’s invitation for days – it had come completely out of the blue, with the two of them barely exchanging words beforehand. Even in the “old reality,” Misaki knew her primarily as Kanon and Kaoru’s friend, and hadn’t interacted with her much face to face. So why would she call her out to tea like this? Misaki looked for answers in Chisato’s expression, but her easy smile was more impenetrable than Kokoro’s skull.

The line milled through quickly, and soon enough the two ordered and found a table near the back corner. Back here, the robust smell of coffee grounds was stronger, and the activity of the kitchen could be heard poking through double doors. Misaki took a moment to survey her acquaintance more closely – the dainty particularity in which she sat, the delicate polish of her nails, the silken ease with which she cleared the hair from her eyes. They were the movements of someone who’d had eyes trained on her for her entire life – every action was measured and considerate, with no carelessness spared between them.

“I love this cafe,” said Chisato, setting down her purse and taking in the atmosphere. “It has a quality about it that makes me feel… nostalgic.”

Nostalgic? That wasn’t the first quality that came to Misaki’s mind – the clean interior and spruced walls felt a bit too modern to evoke memories of the past. “Did you come here a lot as a kid?”

“Not particularly,” said Chisato, grinning.

Then why would you say that? Misaki thought, mildly bewildered. She brushed it off – she was used to far stranger comments.

Chisato tapped her fingers on the table, looking directly at her. “So, Okusawa-san, you might be wondering why I asked you to come here.”

“W-Well, yeah,” Misaki replied, trying and failing to not sound nervous. “I mean, we’ve never- er, haven’t talked much, right?”

“Correct. Though I have heard things about you before.”

“You… you have?”

“Indeed. From Kanon.”

That made sense. Although… “When was that?”

Chisato’s looked straight through her. “Are you sure you don’t know?”

Misaki, for a split second, had no idea what she was saying.

Then she realized where, exactly, she was sitting.

The same spot that Chisato and Kanon had sat at, months earlier, the day after Misaki’s world had changed, where she had eavesdropped on them one table away.

Misaki looked deeply into Chisato’s fuchsia eyes. Their glimmer betrayed nothing.

“Is something the matter?”

In her voice, Misaki could sense it –

The smallest, most intangible drip of venom.

Back then, she… she…!

“Chisato-san! Hello!”

The cheery arrival of Eve with their drinks cut the tension. Chisato removed her paralytic gaze and smiled at her. “Eve-chan! You’re looking well.”

“As are you!” said Eve, handing her a glass of Darjeeling tea. “And good day to you too, Misaki-san!”

“H-Hi, Wakamiya-san,” said Misaki, silently thankful for her timely arrival. She wondered if she would have died of a coronary otherwise.

“What are you two doing meeting here today?” asked Eve.

“Oh, I simply had some things to discuss with Okusawa-san about the play,” said Chisato. “Would you like to join us?”

“I appreciate the offer, but I have work to do. A true samurai never shirks her duty!”

“Ahaha, of course. Good luck, Eve-chan.”

“Farewell, Chisato-san, Misaki-san!”

As the white-braided girl skipped off, Misaki almost wanted to plea with her to stay and keep the atmosphere light. But now an uneasy aura seethed around the table, and she couldn’t escape it.

“Okusawa-san-” Chisato began.

“Th-The play!” Misaki stammered, wresting for control of the conversation for fear of what would happen if she let it out of her hands. “You wanted to talk about the play! R-Right?”

“Yes, of course,” said Chisato, without resistance. “This is your first time acting, isn’t it? I thought I might provide some pointers.”

Pointers? Was that really all? Oh well – no need to turn away from the topic. “Y-Yeah, it’s been a struggle so far. I’m not really used to all the little things you have to do.”

Chisato began drinking her tea. “I see. Have you memorized all your lines, at least?”

“I’m getting there, but… I still feel pretty stiff. Especially since I have to spend most of my energy remembering what lines I have to say at which points.”

“That’s very understandable, especially for a lead,” said Chisato. “You need practice and experience if you want to perform well.”

“Yeah…” said Misaki. “I wish I was a natural like you or Kaoru-san.”

Chisato took another sip. As her lips peeled away from the porcelain, her smile disappeared. “…Do you think it’s easy for me, either?”

Misaki immediately felt panic claw at the back of her eyes, but she couldn’t speak.

“When Kaoru asked me to join her for a play,” Chisato began, “I immediately asked about which one, as well as the role she wanted me to perform. Then, the night I learned of it, I studied the script for hours. I analyzed Beatrice’s character – her wants, her perspective, her fears – and how her opinions fluctuate from scene to scene. Then I studied lines out loud in front of a mirror several times, to better understand how I might get inside her head.” She put down the cup on her saucer. “This was all before the first day of rehearsal. Tell me – does that make me a ‘natural’?”

Chisato’s eyes pierced her. Misaki was stricken numb. She was terrified to speak, lest her words be twisted and stabbed through her heart, so she simply sat there, quivering. Her eyes became fixated on the porcelain cup and saucer, the intricate blue patterns carved into their bases, whatever wasn’t her companion’s face at that moment.

Chisato stared for a few seconds. And then, her smile returned. “Ahaha… sorry. I didn’t mean to ramble like that. But I wanted to show that this business doesn’t come easily to anyone.”

“I-It r-really doesn’t, huh?” asked Misaki, laughing nervously. “E-Even for someone like you or Hina-san.”

“Heheh, she might be a special case,” said Chisato, laughing genuinely. “But I ask that you don’t put me or anybody else on a pedestal. That will only make it harder for you to put in the will needed to succeed.”

The sincere advice finally eased some of the pressure that had skyrocketed in Misaki’s chest, but she was far from relaxed. “I-I’m sorry. You and Kaoru-san are just so good, it intimidates me a little.”

“I can understand that,” said Chisato. “But we use tricks and techniques, just the same as anyone else.”

“Like that thing about studying the character, you mean?”

Chisato nodded. “For example, have you considered Claudio as a person? His dreams, his needs, his emotions? How can you begin to act as Claudio if you don’t understand him?”

Misaki saw where she was coming from. Once she got lines down, it would be hard to emote properly if she didn’t really get Claudio’s character. But… “I think that’s the problem.”

“What is?”

“I… don’t really like Claudio as a person.”

For whatever reason, Chisato’s smile widened. “Oh? Please explain.”

Misaki organized her thoughts before speaking. “Well, he doesn’t seem to have any real good qualities. He’s extremely gullible, and believes Don John at the drop of a hat, swallowing all his lies without really thinking about it. He doesn’t woo Hero himself, relying on Don Pedro to court her in his place, and then thinks he’s taken her for himself without any evidence. Then, after being led to believe that Hero has been unfaithful, instead of so much as asking her for her side of the story, he publicly shames her in front of the entire wedding congregation. And by the end, he hasn’t really done anything but say he’s sorry for doubting her. He’s insecure, stupid, and quick-tempered… what’s there to like?”

Chisato looked pleased. “So you have been studying the play after all. That’s good of you.”

“Thanks… I don’t think it’s helping, though,” Misaki sighed. “How am I supposed to be Claudio if I don’t even like him…?”

“Perhaps you’re viewing things from your own perspective too much,” said Chisato. “Have you considered how he feels?”

“At… times, I guess,” said Misaki. “But it’s hard to when I don’t like him. Maybe Kaoru-san was right…?”

Chisato looked inquisitive. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, right. Kaoru-san gave me a bit of advice a while back – she said that I should start reading the lines as Claudio, not as myself. To ‘wear the mask’ and become the character: stuff like that. Kind of like what you’re taking about, I guess.” Misaki shook her head. “I sort of understand what she meant now, but-“

“Pfft…” Chisato exhaled. Suddenly she burst into a fit of laughter. “Ahahahaha! Did she really say that?”

“U-Uh, yeah?” asked Misaki, unsure what was so funny. “It’s not that different from what you’re saying, is it…?”

“I suppose not,” said Chisato, stifling her giggles. “It’s just… well, there are certainly many actors who adopt that sort of attitude, but Kaoru Seta is not one of them.”

Misaki was a little lost. “Really?”

“Mmhmm,” Chisato confirmed. “Picture it like this: let’s say there are two ways an actor can adopt a persona on the stage. The first is to mold themselves to fit the character, as I do. The second is the other way around – to mold the character to fit themselves. And that is what Kaoru does.”

“Huh. I’ve… never noticed.”

“Perhaps it’s not as obvious to a beginner,” said Chisato. “But consider Benedick: a lout and a chiding womanizer, albeit with a hint of respectability, foolish enough to fall for rumors as fact. And then, look at her version – where there was buffoonery, is now a spot of gallantry; where once was only a smidge of decorum, he now overflows with compassion. Although…” Chisato laughed. “The foolishness remains.”

Misaki was at least thankful that somebody else recognized how dumb Kaoru could be. “I guess I haven’t noticed. I’ll pay more attention next time we rehearse.”

“You might do well to study her,” said Chisato. “Who knows? Perhaps that method of acting suits you better. Perhaps instead of twisting yourself into Claudio, you should turn Claudio into Misaki Okusawa.”

How do I do that, exactly? Misaki thought. This was all interesting and well when talked about in the abstract, but when it came to adopting personas or things like that, she had no idea how to actually go about it. What qualities of hers could match up with his without completely changing the script? If Misaki was in his shoes, she would have gone about things completely differently…

…Wouldn’t she?

In her moment of hesitation, Chisato digressed. “There was something else I wanted to ask you, Okusawa-san.”

A bad feeling buzzed at the end of Misaki’s fingertips. “…What is it?”

Chisato’s smile vanished. “Why did you decide to do this play?”

It wasn’t the first time Misaki had been asked such a question, and yet she still didn’t have a clearer answer. But throwing her hands up here wouldn’t help – she had to bluff. “Because… Kaoru-san asked me to, I suppose.”

“Really?” asked Chisato. “I didn’t realize you were that dedicated to her.”

“I mean...” Misaki scampered for a response. “Isn’t that why you did it?”

Chisato, for a beat, looked mildly surprised. Her smirk returned. “I suppose that’s a large part of it, but… there are other reasons for me to perform too, of course.”

“I get that,” said Misaki. “But it’s not that different, is it?”

“Perhaps not,” said Chisato. “But something tells me that’s not the sole reason. After all, you were against the idea at first, weren’t you?”

Misaki gulped. How did she know that? Chisato wasn’t around when she was protesting – it was after her arrival that Misaki finally agreed to it.

“Maya-chan told me,” she said, as if reading Misaki’s thoughts. “You resisted the role when Kaoru first told you about it, but suddenly jumped on board after we arrived… now, why was that?”

“I…” Misaki’s shoulders scrunched together before crumbling down. “I don’t know. Ok? I was going back and forth on the idea, and… you know…” She hastily brought her mug up to her lips to silence herself.

Chisato crossed her arms. “It was for Kanon, wasn’t it?”

Misaki nearly choked on her coffee.

Chisato simply looked at her, unblinking, as Misaki klutzily wiped up the bits of black liquid that had spewed out of her mouth. “I-I don’t know what you mean – er, well, I guess I do, actually – but it’s not like that, see – Kanon is just- just…”

“A friend?” asked Chisato. “Do you even have the right to call her that?”

The question struck Misaki’s like a haymaker to her gut.

“…She told me about what happened, you know. About the things you said to her, and everybody else.” Chisato’s voice was low and pointed. “Though at first, she wouldn’t tell me what was going on. When I tried to ask her, she simply hid away, and shut herself off for weeks. It was months before she could talk to me about it without curling into a little ball of anxiety. And then, right when she was getting back on her feet, you show up in her life again?” She scoffed. “If I were in your shoes, I don’t know how I’d be able to show my face in front of her without feeling disgusted with myself.”

Misaki stared into the infinite abyss of her drink.

 “And then last week, Kaoru told me you were planning to reform your band…” Chisato sighed. “Honestly… are you incorrigible, or simply brainless?”

Guilt seared through every last cell.

“I don’t know what kind of ulterior motives you might have had in mind, joining this play. Perhaps you truly are doing it as a favor. But I’ll tell you this much: if you’re simply in this production as some sort of ploy to get close to Kanon…” Chisato glared directly into her being. “Quit. You’ll do her – and everybody else – no good.”

Silence, like a dagger, plunged into her aorta.

Unceremoniously, Chisato picked up her purse and stood up. “Do what you like with these band dreams of yours. But I won’t let you hurt her again.”

And with that, she departed.

Misaki didn’t even watch her walk off. She could only lie there, mired in her seat, sunken deep in the words that had monsooned over her, hating the truth they carried. Chisato, Kanon, Kaoru, and a billion other things flashed through her tormented memories. The last vestiges of her consciousness pulsated with one miserable thought:

What am I doing?

What am I doing?

Chapter Text

Chapter 27: By Any Other Name

Stubbornness drove Misaki to Haneoka the next day, but fear – thrice as strong – spurned her away from the theater. Wandering listlessly, she eventually found herself on the rooftop, overlooking the grounds below. She bent down to her knees, picking the gravel from between the cracks in the concrete and flinging them thoughtlessly over the edge. She didn’t dare to look at the time on her phone – she knew rehearsal would be starting any minute. Every time her mind so much as considered going downstairs to practice, Chisato’s penetrating glare froze her on the spot.

Misaki’s fingers wormed around the links in the fence, her gaze locked onto a horizon she paid no attention to. Just how pathetic was she? At the first sign of conflict, she was capitulating without resistance. Was she just looking for an excuse to duck out? Was that little show of resolve to Kaoru and Kanon just posturing? It felt like her willpower was on a rollercoaster, zigzagging between obstinate determination and resigned surrender, leaving her mired in a gray zone of reluctance, becoming propelled only by her own inertia.

Perhaps if it was only herself who had reservations, then she’d be able to slap herself on the cheeks and return to practice. But Chisato had lasered in on her true intentions with uncanny accuracy. Misaki really didn’t care about the play, did she? It was just a means to an end for her. An end that she had been moving towards without thinking. The previous day’s diatribe still rung in her head.

A friend? Do you even have any right to call her that?

I don’t know how I’d be able to show my face in front of her without feeling disgusted with myself.

Quit.

Misaki’s fist clenched tightly around a pebble, the jagged frame digging deep into her whitened palm. She hated how every single word Chisato said held true in her own mind; how she couldn’t muster even a single word in her own defense; how she hadn’t been able to start one conversation with Kanon in over a week. Previously, her only demon had been herself… but now, she had another to contend with. Could she even manage that?

The heavy click of the rooftop door opening interrupted her torpor. Misaki lay to the side of the block it connected to, and thus was out of sight… initially. She poked her head around the corner, briefly panicked, but calmed once she saw one who emerged:

“Mii-kun!”

“Hagumi…” Misaki muttered, surprised at the relief in her own voice.

Hagumi jogged over, her face awash with concern. “Is everything okay? Rehearsal’s been going for a while, but you didn’t show up… I thought I saw you walking over, though, so I went looking.”

“…Thanks,” said Misaki. “I’m just… not feeling well.”

“Oh no! Are you sick? Do you need medicine?”

“I’m fine, don’t worry,” said Misaki. “Just a little out of it.”

She expected Hagumi to yank her up and vigorously drag her back to the theater, but instead the orange-haired girl knelt alongside her, tracing the cracks in the concrete with her finger. “Are you okay? …Did I do something wrong?”

“N-no no no, you’ve been just fine,” Misaki sputtered, not wanting Hagumi to feel guilty. “It’s… personal stuff.”

“Do you… not like being in the play?”

Misaki opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t answer. Both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ felt like equally wrong answers. “I… I don’t think that’s the issue.”

“What is, then?”

Misaki stared forlornly beyond the fence. “Hagumi… do you think we can really bring Hello, Happy World! back?”

“Huh?” asked Hagumi.

“I mean… I know Kaoru-san agreed, b-but…” Misaki trailed off. “I guess I just don’t know if Kanon-san will. I haven’t been able to talk to her, and-”

“Of course she will!”

The gusto in Hagumi’s voice sent Misaki staggering.

“Kano-chan-senpai loved being in the band as much as the rest of us,” said Hagumi. “We just have to ask her, and I know she’ll be onboard!”

The storm of Misaki’s thoughts began to calm. Could it really be so easy? “But… how can you be sure?”

“I just am!”

Hagumi clutched Misaki’s hands, looking her head-on with spirited eyes.

“Mii-kun… I know you tend to think about a lot of stuff,” she continued. “And that’s great. I’m not very good at that kind of thing. But if you think too much, then your brain gets a stomachache, and you feel sick!”

You mean a headache? Misaki thought.

“But sometimes, you don’t gotta think. You just gotta do!” Hagumi tightened her grasp. “And if you just ask her, everything will work out great!”

Chisato’s deathly grimace drifted through Misaki’s mind. “…It’s not that simple.”

“Yes it is!”

“No, it’s not…”

“Yes! It! Is!”

Hagumi spoke with force and clarity. She sounded a million times more confident than Misaki did. She wondered where that sort of conviction sprang from – was it really just from a lack of thinking things through? Or did it stem from some greater well of self-esteem? She wanted nothing more than to dismiss it and languish in her excuses, and yet… Misaki couldn’t help but feel, against all odds…

“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “We won’t know until we try, right?”

Hagumi nodded. “That’s right!”

The two rose to their feet, Hagumi’s infectious grin lifting the corners of Misaki’s mouth. “Hagumi… thanks.”

“No problem!” she replied, thumping her chest. “You helped me out a lot, Mii-kun, so it’s only right that I do too!”

Misaki laughed. “C’mon, let’s head back-”

It was at that moment that the rooftop door opened once more.  From their position, Misaki caught a glimpse of light blonde hair shimmering in the afternoon sun, and felt a thousand icy needles dig into her skin.

Wordlessly, she shoved Hagumi back into a corner, putting a finger to her lips.

“Okusawa-san? Kitazawa-san?” called Chisato. “Are you here?”

Hagumi looked confused, but Misaki silenced her with her hand, giving her a ‘please for the love of all that is holy stay quiet’ glare. While she doubted anything bad would come out of Chisato seeing them at that moment, she had reservations about talking to her right now – especially since she had just resolved to defy the pastel bassist’s ultimatum from the day before.

Of course, it probably wouldn’t be long before Chisato found the two of them – the rooftop was only so big, after all. But before she could engage in a sweep, the sound of the heavy-set doors clunkering open repeated.

“Ah, my fair Chisato. What brings you to this gray terrace on such a gorgeous afternoon?”

Misaki wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or annoyed that Kaoru had shown up. Probably both.

“Oh, Kaoru. Kitazawa-san went looking for Okusawa-san earlier, but hadn’t returned, so I was wondering if either of them were here.”

“Ah, a most astute observation… alas, they appear to be absent. What rotten luck.”

“Truly…” Chisato sighed. “Honestly, is she going to keep wasting time like this?”

Misaki knew exactly who she was referring to, and that knowledge sent a spear into her stomach.

“Such slanderous tone does not beget you, Chisato. Of whom do you speak?”

“Come now, Kaoru, you know that I haven’t liked Okusawa-san as Claudio from the beginning.”

Well, at least it’s nice to hear it directly stated… Misaki thought bittersweetly.

“Yes, it’s been clear from the expression on your dainty little face,” said Kaoru. “Yet what’s to dislike? Misaki has as much heart as any fine actor.”

“Maybe, but where does that heart lie? Upon the stage? I don’t think so.”

Kaoru chuckled. “Indeed, perhaps it does lie elsewhere… however…”

A beat.

“I think that is precisely the reason she will shine.”

Misaki felt like she should have been inspired in that moment, but she was honestly confused. What did that mean, exactly? She chalked it up to Kaoru engaging in her usual grandiose platitudes. Hagumi, at least, looked moved.

“Good grief…” said Chisato. “She’s only doing this play as a favor to you, you realize.”

“Heh. I am simply so devilish that she couldn’t resist my beguiling charm… that is all.”

“Mii-kun…?” Hagumi whispered. “Why do you look so angry?”

“I don’t imagine she’ll hold out much longer, anyway,” said Chisato. “Soon she’ll realize the task she’s taken is far more difficult than she thought.”

“Oh? Do you truly believe so?” asked Kaoru.

“Yes. I’m afraid you’ll have to find another Claudio before long.”

“Tsk, tsk… I thought you a more savvy woman than that, Chisato.”

“You think I’m wrong?” she asked politely.

“You underestimate the fire in her spirit… the fervor within her heart.” Kaoru’s voice rose with impassioned zeal. “She is like a bear – dormant, passive, averse… but when stirred, she will roar louder than any other.”

Again, any amount of flattery Misaki might have felt was lost in the metaphor. Hagumi wiped away a single tear.

“Is that truly what you believe?” asked Chisato.

“Yes. Misaki Okusawa will see this play through to fruition… mark my words.”

Chisato chuckled. “That would truly be a sight to see. Perhaps if she does… then I will have to reevaluate my opinion of her.”

The gears began whirring in Misaki’s head. If she could nail her part in the play, then not only would get ample opportunity to talk to Kanon, but Chisato would acquiesce. Suddenly, what was once her albatross now seemed like a perfect solution to all her problems – but was it really that easy?

“You surely will,” said Kaoru. “She is one of the finest little kittens I’ve seen… her heart is as fleeting as any I’ve witnessed. I will vouch for her, time and again.”

“Honestly,” said Chisato, half-chuckling. “How long are you going to keep this up?”

“Misaki will be in the play as long as she desires to be. That is my promise.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Chisato paused, out of sight. “How long are you going to keep this act up, Kaoru Seta?”

Kaoru was quiet. Misaki could sense a change in the atmosphere – though whether it was becoming darker or lightening up, she couldn’t say.

“…What act do you speak of, milady?” asked Kaoru.

“Oh, you well know,” said Chisato. “The girl I knew back then is different from the one who now stands before me.”

“I know not what you mean,” said Kaoru, as confidently as ever. “You and I are the same as we ever were.”

“Is that so…?” asked Chisato. Suddenly, something shifted in her voice. “Will you not tell me who you are?”

Kaoru chuckled, and her voice shifted too. “Not now.” Misaki recognized the lines – they were from the play.

“‘That I was a gracious princess, and nobler defender, and one who always looked out for my dearest friend’ – well, this was the Kaoru Seta that I knew who said so.”

“What’s she?” asked Kaoru.

“I am sure you know her well enough,” said Chisato.

“Not I, believe me.”

Chisato giggled. “Did she never make you laugh?”

Kaoru chortled. “I pray you, what is she?”

Chisato spoke long and breathily. “Why… she was the frailest creature in all the land, who could nary look over a steep cliff or betwixt the spokes of a spider’s web without cowering in fear: her only gift was in shrinking behind me with small frame, quivering in fright at all manner of God’s creatures, possessed only of foolishness and tears. Never was she a sharp-tongued prince, nor a chivalrous philanderer, but a soft-souled maiden of the most delicate disposition on this green earth, clinging to my coattail like a chick doth follow her mother hen.”

The monologue was completely unfamiliar to Misaki. It wasn’t part of the play – it was, to her knowledge, improvised on the spot. And yet, she could only surmise the basic meaning – and that meaning completely stupefied her. Kaoru, a shrinking violet? It seemed unfathomable.

Kaoru laughed, a bit nervously – whether it was genuine or acted, Misaki couldn’t tell. “When I know the gentlewoman, I’ll tell her what you say.”

“Do, do: for I haven’t seen her in many a year. Oh, how I would long to hold her and hail her spirit by that cherished epithet once more… oh, my dear, sweet Kao-chan.”

A guttural choking noise erupted from the direction of Kaoru’s voice. Misaki repeated the nickname in her head. Kao-chan…?

“What’s this? You’re blushing,” said Chisato mirthfully. “You’re still embarrassed, after all this time?”

Kaoru gasped for air. “Kn… Knock it off, Chii-chan…!”

Misaki’s entire world ground to a halt. Kaoru’s voice was completely different – pitched, nervous, and whimpering. There was no trace of the bombast that sailed alongside her flowery speech. She was almost inclined to believe that she was actually a different person, it was so shockingly out of character.

“You’re so fun to tease,” said Chisato, more chipper than Misaki had ever heard before. “How would the people of Messina react, if they saw the boisterous bachelor Benedick act so meekly?”

“I-I’ve told you not to use that n-nickname before…” Kaoru muttered, her usual confident cadence nowhere to be seen. Misaki could practically hear the steam coming out of her ears. “It’s so… childish…”

“Oh, come now, Kao-chan, we’re still children,” said Chisato. “And there’s nobody else around! It’s still our little secret.”

“W-W-Well, that’s good…” Kaoru cleared her throat, regaining some of her usual steam. “Heheh…heh… it is not in my nature to be caught off-guard so readily… I must be a more steadfast sentinel, for your sake, of course…”

“Hmm, I suppose you are the same person I knew after all…” Chisato murmured lightly. “Well, sometimes.”

“Y-Yes, yes, let’s not dwell on it, hmm?” asked Kaoru. “If Misaki and Hagumi are not here, then we must return posthaste.”

“But, of course,” said Chisato. “Lead, the way, Kao-chan.”

A loud banging sound came from the direction of the door.

“Oh my… did you hit your head? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for that to happen...”

“Ch-Chii-chan, I told you not to…!” Kaoru squealed at a high pitch. “N-Never mind.”

The two departed, as the sound of Chisato playfully nursing Kaoru’s welt faded through the double doors. Misaki peeked out to make sure they were gone before the air collapsed out of her lungs.

“Um… Mii-kun?” asked Hagumi. “What just happened?”

“I have no idea,” said Misaki. “I don’t think it’s really our business.”

“Oh… I see.”

“But I do know one thing.”

“What’s that?”

 “I’m going to finish this play if it’s the last thing I do.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 28: Beneath the Mask

After waiting five minutes as to not arouse suspicion, Misaki and Hagumi crept on back to the theater for practice, the former stating she was delayed due to a stomachache. The cast and crew accepted the excuse without question – Chisato eyed her with suspicion, but said nothing.

Having already churned through her emotions enough for the day, Misaki resolved to sort through her issues tomorrow and focus on the play in the meantime. While still struggling, she was beginning to at least get most of her lines memorized. It almost felt like a reprieve, focusing on acting as opposed to the issues brewing in the back of her consciousness, which came to a boil every time she so much as looked in Kanon’s direction. Part of Misaki truly and earnestly did want to do as Hagumi stated, and just go over and talk to her like an adult. But every time she considered the thought, icy panic gripped her heart, and a recollection of Chisato’s tirade blew through her head:

…At first, she wouldn’t tell me what was going on. When I tried to ask her, she simply hid away, and shut herself off for weeks. It was months before she could talk to me about it without curling into a little ball of anxiety.

Misaki knew how much pain she had caused. But, whether willfully or ignorantly, she had forgotten it in her shameless quest to reform the band. It hadn’t occurred to her that maybe Kanon didn’t even want to consider rejoining the band ever again. Misaki remembered her running away when Hagumi mentioned it, after the practice game… nobody who wanted to get Hello, Happy World! together would have a reaction like that, would they? Not to mention, if she did want things to smooth over, why hadn’t she talked to Misaki? At most, Misaki saw Kanon peek a glance in her direction, only to quickly turn away when she was noticed. Her expression was consistently anxious and fretful. Her fingers twiddled. Her legs quivered. Her eyelids fluttered. It all sent one message directly to Misaki’s brain: she doesn’t want to talk to you.

So no, Misaki couldn’t simply go talk to her so directly. Not just for fear of how it would affect herself, but how it would affect Kanon. As much as she wanted to take Hagumi at her word, she knew better than to assume things would work out so simply. Especially with Chisato around – Misaki suddenly felt her hawk-like stare peering into her at all moments, even when she was clearly elsewhere. If Misaki so much as stepped within five feet of Kanon outside of rehearsing a scene, she had a feeling the blonde bassist would swoop in from the shadows and gut her in a second. And of course, in between all her agonizing, she still had to worry about the play.

Kanon, Chisato, and acting… who could she turn to in order to sort out her troubles?

***

“Why, hello, kitten.”

Misaki grit her teeth as she stepped into the costuming room, where Kaoru was trying on her Benedick outfit. She was draped in a very ruffly white collared shirt, with the top button unfastened and the sleeves rolled up near the end. The dark pants she donned were tight fitting, and the belt she had tightened around her waist complemented her lean figure. In her hands she wielded a prop rapier, bending and prodding its plastic blade around as if it were a child’s toy. She looked less like a Messinian noble and more like some sort of swashbuckling lesbian… though Misaki realized that Kaoru’s personality bore a closer resemblance to that descriptor than she hoped to think.

“What brings you back here?” asked Kaoru, swinging the prop around fancily. “Do you have some inquiry as to your own costume?”

“Not right now,” said Misaki, not wanting to think about how her own outfit would probably look similar to this crinkled catastrophe. “I need to talk to you about… things.”

“And what things might those be?” asked Kaoru, looking over herself in the mirror as she continued to brandish her sword.

Misaki struggled to think of where to begin. “…You want to get Hello, Happy World! back together, right?”

“But of course,” said Kaoru. “Now that you have put forward the prospect, I am just as eager to reconvene as you are.”

“Right… well…” Misaki’s eyes darted around, to make sure nobody else was around. Chisato was nowhere in sight. Most cast and crew members were on stage – they had total privacy. “There might be an issue with that.”

“Oh? Pray tell.”

Misaki swallowed her nerves and explained how she had met with Chisato, as well as the ultimatum issued. She skirted by the details of what Chisato had said about Kanon – not intentionally, but when her mouth was starting to form the words she felt her arteries begin to clog with guilt, and stopped.

Kaoru absorbed the account with an easy grin. “Ah, Chisato… how dignified of her, to show such concern for her dear friend. She is truly worthy of my grace.”

“Worthy of your…?” Misaki shook off the question. “Never mind. How are we supposed to get Kanon back if she’s going to interfere?”

“Chisato’s heart is in the right place,” said Kaoru. “She simply wishes for what’s best for Kanon… and truly, who would not?”

“I… I get that.” Misaki silently wondered if Chisato was right, and if it was herself who was wrong.

“And yet, I doubt she would listen much to you,” Kaoru admitted. “Hmm… fret not. I shall deal with her myself.”

Misaki still felt uneasy. “Are… Are you sure? Maybe she… she’s got good reason to interfere.”

Kaoru clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Come now, Misaki, of course she does… but so too do we have good reason to bring our illustrious drummer back into the fold, do we not?”

“I-I mean, yeah, but…” Misaki’s words stopped in her throat. How could she put it?

“Do you burn at thoughts of Kanon?”

Misaki was caught off-guard by her perceptiveness. “H-Huh?”

“Heh… it is writ all over your face, my kitten,” said Kaoru. “You struggle to find the words to convey your passions to her, do you not?”

“Passions…?” Misaki asked. “I d-don’t know what you’re talking about, but I am trying to think of a way to talk to her about the band.” She took a deep breath. “So I was wondering if, um…”

“Yes?”

Misaki swallowed the lump in her throat. “C-Could you maybe talk to her about it?”

Kaoru blinked for a moment before erupting in laughter. “Hahaha… what bashfulness! No need to be so embarrassed, Misaki.”

Misaki released the tension in her breath. She was feeling uneasy about asking Kaoru, for some reason… maybe because she assumed she would take it like some sort of admittance of… passion, as she put it? But the jovial reaction slackened the tension in her gut.

“That said… I refuse.”

Misaki blinked. “Huh?”

“You must be the one to ask her,” said Kaoru, tossing the rapier in the air and catching it fancifully in her other hand. “This is your battle to bear, and I’ll have no part in it.”

“What are you saying?!” asked Misaki. “You just said you wanted Kanon back in the band too, didn’t you?!”

“Yes, I did,” Kaoru replied, smirking. “But I am not the one who needs to tell her of it.”

“What do you – arrrgh!” Misaki growled in sudden frustration. “Can’t you give me a reason, at least?!”

“…This is for your benefit, my kitten,” said Kaoru. “If I told her of Hello, Happy World!, and she consented to rejoining… what would happen?”

“We would all be together again,” puffed Misaki. “Isn’t that what we want?”

“Incorrect,” said Kaoru flatly. “Nothing would be resolved in the slightest. Not unless you are the one to ask her.”

Misaki was struck blind by her stubbornness. She had assumed Kaoru to be a relatively accommodating person, willing to help out without much begging… why was she suddenly so obstinate? “Well, how am I supposed to ask her with Shirasagi-san watching her?”

“I told you, I will deal with Chisato. You don’t need to concern yourself over that-”

“Then deal with Kanon-san, too!” Misaki spat. “If you really want her to rejoin the band, then why aren’t you willing to just ask her?”

“…Why aren’t you, kitten?”

The furious machine whirring in Misaki’s head hit a snag. But her blood was running too fast for her to take a breather. “I… She… I can’t figure out what to say to her, okay? Every time I so much as think about it, my stomach gets queasy and I feel short of breath. I just…” She swallowed. “I’m afraid of what she’ll say. What she’ll do.”

Kaoru said nothing. She simply leaned in closer, focusing.

“Kanon-san… I… she’s a wonderful person. And I don’t… I don’t want to upset her any more than I already have.” Misaki paused. “That’s all.”

“…Tell me how you feel about her.”

“H-Huh?”

Kaoru repeated the question, clearly and enunciated. “Tell me how you feel about Kanon Matsubara, Misaki. In detail.”

How Misaki felt about Kanon… where could she even begin? It was a tangled web of emotions that she couldn’t unwind if she had ten hours to do it. There were two versions of her, the old one that Misaki knew, and the new one that she had barely understood. One she was unspeakably close with, and one that she – or at least, another version of herself – had pushed away. What could she possibly say?

Kanon’s face hung in Misaki’s face for a moment. Kanon’s face, fully of softness, of anxiety, of courage… Kanon as a captive princess aboard the cruise ship, Kanon rescuing the escaped penguin from the aquarium, Kanon staying with Misaki to help her take off the Michelle suit after practice, smiling tenderly…

Kaoru looked at her expectantly, encouraging Misaki onward with those sharp crimson eyes of hers. She wouldn’t drop the point until Misaki spilled her guts. The charcoal-haired girl twiddled with a sprig of her hair before inhaling deeply:

“K-Kanon-san is… unbelievably kind, and generous, and thoughtful. She… She always gives it her all, no matter what, even when she’s anxious or afraid. Whenever I had a problem, she was… she was there to listen to me, and offer advice, and encourage me onward. And there were times when, wh-when I wasn’t sure if I could keep going, but she… she stood by me. And I don’t know if I could thank her enough.”

Kaoru nodded, as a sage would upon hearing the answer to a koan. “I see. Such great sentiment, built in such a small frame of time…”

Misaki’s cheeks reddened – she probably sounded crazy, going by the events of this universe. “Wh-Why’d you want to hear it, anyway?”

“It’s elementary, dear Misaki,” said Kaoru, grinning. “Simply tell her what you have told me. She will listen, and then she will understand your feelings. I imagine she’ll be more than eager enough to reunite then.”

Are you crazy?!” asked Misaki, heat rising to her face. “There’s no way I could say all that to her face!”

“And what is so different about saying it to mine?” asked Kaoru. “Honesty is a most fleeting virtue, my little kitten, and if you want her to understand your intentions, then you must bare it all to her.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Am I one to jest?” asked Kaoru, playing with her rapier again. “Revealing your feelings may be difficult, but it is imperative, if you wish her to see the true you.”

Something snapped inside Misaki at that moment. Whether it was due to anger, annoyance, or sheer exhaustion with Kaoru’s antics, she couldn’t be sure. But she had little control over the next words to drip out of her mouth:

“Is that what you really think… Kao-chan?”

The plastic prop went clattering to the floor.

In Kaoru’s face, Misaki saw emotions that she had never witnessed in the purple-ponytailed prince’s dopey grin before: panic, dread, mortification. Just as quickly as they flashed across her pained visage, her usual sanguine expression returned. “A-Ah, forgive me… I thought I misheard something for but a moment. Hahaha!” She wobbily bent down to pick up the sword. “Silly me. What were you saying?”

Misaki couldn’t be deterred now. “I was asking if you’re one to talk when it comes to being your true self, Kao-chan.

This time, the sword went flying into the air, spinning after being suddenly upheaved from the hands of its owner.

Kaoru shriveled up into a ball immediately, her face collapsing into a humiliated mess of redness. “Y-Y-Y-You… whwhwhwh-where did you h-hear that n-n-name?!”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Misaki. “All that matters is that you’re not exactly the most sincere person yourself, are you?”

“A…hahaha… I have n-no idea what you m-mean,” said Kaoru, her voice cracking as she tried to avoid eye contact. “Wh-who is this p-person you’re addressing? S-Surely it is not I…”

“You can’t even talk straight right now,” muttered Misaki. “Is this the real you? The one Shirasagi-san was talking about?”

“Wh-what did Chii-cha- er, Chisato say a-about me?” asked Kaoru. “Surely she w-wouldn’t mention me without reason…?”

Misaki didn’t feel like explaining her eavesdropping at that moment. “So, what’s up with this whole prince persona, Kao-chan? Is it all an act?”

“St-St-Stop calling me that…!” Kaoru squeaked, shrinking further.

“No, I think you need a taste of your own annoyance for once,” Misaki retorted. “Now answer my question. Can you really be preaching about honesty when you hide your real self away?”

“R-Real self? I, I never…” Kaoru cleared her throat. “I-I haven’t the foggiest idea what you speak of, m-my kitten. I am Kaoru Seta, just as I always have been, just as I always shall be…”

“Good grief…” Misaki murmured. “How do you think your little fan club would react to this?”

“R-React to what, dear Misaki?”

It was at this point that Misaki realized she wouldn’t get anything else useful out of her anytime soon. “You know what? Never mind. I don’t need your help.” She began turning to walk away.

“W-Wait, Misaki-“

“Stop!” Misaki barked. “Just… stop, okay? I don’t want to hear any more nonsensical pieces of advice from you.”

Kaoru appeared speechless, for perhaps the first time Misaki had seen. Suddenly, her chest felt heavier.

“I… I appreciate what you’re trying to say…” she muttered. “But… I can’t just be myself to Kanon, alright? Because…”

Kanon’s terrified gaze from that day – the first day she had “crossed over” – hung in her mind.

“Because… she wouldn’t like me for who I am.”

She stormed over to the door and thrust it open, tramping down the hall with ulcers in every organ. In her determination to not look behind her, she came upon the most coincidental passerby.

“O-Okusawa-san…” said Kanon, avoiding direct eye contact.

Misaki didn’t say anything. She simply marched on past, looking dead ahead, trying to crush the butterflies in her stomach.

Neither of them spoke another word.

Chapter Text

Chapter 29: The Green-Eyed Monster

She found herself on the Hanasakigawa roof after school one day. For once in a blue moon, there was neither rehearsal nor work, so her schedule was empty. A part of her considered messaging Hagumi to see if she was busy, but her phone remained snug in her purse pocket, untouched. She looked out into the distance, where she had hurled that long-lost bear pin and resolved to leave the band behind months prior. She couldn’t even stick to that, could she?

Days had begun to blur together. Tuesday became Wednesday, which became Friday, and then some other day of the week Misaki couldn’t even be bothered to remember. She had thrown herself into rehearsal, staying up a little later than usual each night just to make sure she remembered her lines properly, and in these midnight sessions finally managed to start getting them down – but whenever she returned to the stage, she kept flubbing. Moving, emoting, and responding while trying to intonate the iambic pentameter correctly sent her brain into a perpetual tailspin. Despite her frustration, it just made her want to practice harder. She wondered when her fuse would finally run out.

Of course, rehearsal was rough due to bigger issues than her lack of talent. Kaoru appeared to be back to her usual princely persona almost immediately, but she exchanged few words with Misaki outside of directing. She could feel Chisato’s watchful eye boring into her back at all moments, assessing her worth without mercy or consideration. And Kanon… Misaki obviously hadn’t spoken to her any further outside of their roles as Claudio and Hero, but the rift between them seemed even wider than before. Hagumi was basically the only person she regularly spoke to, and even then it was mostly in a dismissive manner. The bassist remained encouraged about their mission, and was apparently striking up casual conversation with Kanon, but Misaki could tell that any chat the two of them would have wouldn’t make matters as a whole much better. They were stuck. All of them, but especially her.

She asked herself why she was like this. Why she couldn’t just take advice and run with it. Maybe hashing things out with Kanon herself would be a good idea! Just like maybe it would end in a giant trash fire that would make her want to crawl into a corner and rot. She could tell Kanon didn’t want to talk to her… she had been avoiding Misaki outside of rehearsal since the first day. There was no way she would be comfortable with that. Misaki was just doing what was best for her, wasn’t she? Wasn’t she trying to consider her feelings?

Maybe Chisato would get her way after all.

Misaki shook off her ills. She should be practicing. She pulled out her highlighter-gouged script and flipped through to the last part they had been running through – the wedding scene, where Claudio indignantly accused his betrothed of adultery.

“O Hero… what a Hero hadst thou been…” she began dully. “If half thy outward graces had been placed about thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart. But fare thee well, most… foul, most fair… farewell, thou pure impiety and impious purity. For thee, I'll lock up all the gates of love, and on my eyelids shall conjecture hang, to turn all beauty into thoughts of harm, and never shall it more be gracious…”

She sighed. She was supposed to be full of irate rage, but right now she couldn’t manage anything more than listless melancholy. Opening night was only a couple weeks away now. She was going to bomb on the stage before a packed house and become the laughingstock of two separate schools. And for what? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. She should’ve refused Kaoru in the first place.

Her brooding was disrupted by the sound of thickset doors opening behind her. Considering her previous rooftop encounter, she expected to be Hagumi, or one of the half-dozen others stuck in her thoughts. Instead, it was one of the last people she expected.

“Oh, Okusawa-san,” said Sayo, mildly surprised. “What are you doing up here?”

Misaki wasn’t even sure herself. Maybe she just had a habit for sulking on rooftops. “Sorry, Sayo-senpai… I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Hm? You’re not bothering me,” said Sayo, joining her by the railing. “I usually come up here to practice, but…”

“To practice?” asked Misaki. “Isn’t there a better place to play guitar?”

“I was talking about the play,” said Sayo. “…Did I ever mention the fact that I played guitar to you?”

“O-Oh, um… I’ve been to Roselia shows before!” Misaki stammered hurriedly. “Yo-You guys always look really cool on the stage.”

“Ah… I see.” Sayo sounded satisfied enough with the explanation. “There’s no need to get flustered, though.”

“I kn-know…” Misaki mumbled. Why did she have to make things awkward, even here? Couldn’t she just make it through one interaction without messing something up?

“It’s all right. Do you want to practice with me, since you’re here? We can run through our Act III scenes – I know Hina’s not around, but…”

“I… I think I’ll pass,” Misaki replied, despite the fact that she was soliloquizing only minutes earlier. “You said you come here often?”

“Yes. I don’t really like going over lines at home… Hina gets a little too excitable about them, and it makes it difficult to focus properly.” Sayo made that strained smile she got whenever she talked about her sister. “And I feel awkward doing it during band practice, so I have to make do somehow.”

“Is the normal rehearsal schedule not enough for you, either?” asked Misaki.

Sayo shook her head. “Unfortunately not. I’m the sort of person who needs a lot of practice to get things perfect.”

“I know what you mean…” Misaki replied. “I’ve been going over my lines every day for a month now, and I can’t seem to get any better at it.”

“Indeed…” said Sayo, staring off the railing. “We’ll just have to nail it by the time the curtain rises.”

Misaki suddenly felt the urge to ask a question – one she had technically had for a while, but not dwelled much on. “Um, Sayo-senpai? Why did you agree to join the play?”

Sayo didn’t seem particularly perturbed by the inquiry. “I suppose I just thought it would be a nice experience. Is that so strange?”

“Well, no,” said Misaki. “You’ve just always struck me as the business-type, that’s all.”

Sayo gave her a “what gave you that idea” look.

“Er, well, I mean, during school you’re always laying down the law on truants and slackers, so, um…”

Sayo sighed. “I suppose I do give off that impression, don’t I?” She sounded disappointed in herself.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean anything bad by it.”

Sayo didn’t say anything. And then, she spoke, rapidly and heightened:

“I wonder that thou, being, as thou sayest thou art, born under Saturn, goest about to apply a moral medicine to a mortifying mischief. I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man's jests, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man's leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and tend on no man's business, laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humour.”

It was one of her monologues from the play – Misaki knew from the few lines she recognized. “Um, are we rehearsing after all…?”

“…Sorry,” said Sayo. “I think I’m beginning to understand why so many theater people love Shakespeare so much.”

“Because his writing is so elaborate?” Misaki guessed.

“No,” said Sayo, crossing her arms and resting on the railing. “Because it’s real. You can feel the emotions of the character resonate in your own soul.”

Misaki was beginning to understand what she was getting at. “Do you… relate to your character, Sayo-senpai?”

She sighed. “…Yes, though I feel a little silly saying it.” She began picking at some of the flaying paint on the fence. “Don John the bastard is a paper-thin villain, after all. He says that he commits wicked deeds simply because that is the sort of person that he is. He has little motivation beyond sheer petty contemptuousness. And yet, when I understood what he meant with his words… I couldn’t help but understand him.”

“Are you saying you’re like him?”

Sayo thought for a long moment. “No. Not anymore.”

“Anymore…?”

Sayo’s head turned away. “You probably don’t want to hear about it.”

“N-No, please, if you feel like talking…” Misaki trailed off. For some reason, she felt an earnest desire to hear what Sayo meant. Was it because she didn’t relate to her own character? Or was there something else?

After looking out over the school grounds for several moments, Sayo took a deep breath. “You know Hina, of course.”

“I don’t know if there’s anybody in town who doesn’t,” said Misaki, grinning weakly at the thought of Kokoro’s astronomical compatriot. “She’s a real… firecracker.”

“Truly. Intelligent, dynamic, and strong-headed… the very epitome of a genius.” Sayo shook her head. “And yet, she’s also my twin. Growing up, she was always who I pitted myself against… and no matter how hard I worked, she would always come up on top. No matter what I did, Hina Hikawa was there to outshine me – in sports, academics, and even music.”

A question hung in Misaki’s mind: Did you hate her for that? But she didn’t dare ask it.

“I didn’t understand her,” said Sayo. “She operates on a different wavelength than other people… always going on about what’s ‘interesting’ or not. I felt like we never connected. When we entered different high schools, I told myself that I wanted to break away from her shadow – to prove myself as better in some respect. But no matter what, I couldn’t shake my own mind of the chains of comparison.” Sayo smiled bitterly. “Even as she tried to love me.”

Suddenly Sayo retreated from the railing, towards the middle of the concrete rooftop. The sky above was clear cerulean. She raised her head towards the sun, and spoke, pointed and quiet:

“…I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in her grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any…”

She reached her hand towards the sun, as if seeking to grasp it.

“In this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest woman, it must not be denied but:”

She clutched her hand into a fist.

“I am a plain-dealing villain.”

An echo. Brief, and eternal.

“I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore, I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking: in the meantime, let me be that I am…” she sighed low, “and seek not to alter me.”

The wind whipped softly in their ears.

“Don John recognizes that compared to his brother, he is nothing,” Sayo continued. “And yet, he cannot simply accept himself as a shade of his greatness – he must break away. And to do that, he feeds into own his ugly jealousy.”

“Did…” Misaki spoke quietly. “Did you do that? Did you… feel that way?”

“For a time,” said Sayo. “I nourished my envy, whether I was aware of it or not. I told myself that I could never understand Hina, that she wasn’t worthy of being understood, that it was my duty to surpass her. And yet…”

Sayo looked back towards Misaki.

“How long did it take to realize that the one I didn’t understand was me?”

The sentence chimed in Misaki’s head, reverberating far beyond its utterance.

“Don John was wrong,” said Sayo emphatically. “Being a rose in another’s bush – even a delicate little one – is so much better than trying to flourish alone. That’s what everybody in Roselia taught me…” She turned back towards the parapet. “So when Seta-san asked me to be in a play, with Hina and everybody else… I wanted to join. Not to prove my superiority, or even my worth…” She smiled sincerely. “But to show to myself that I am more than just a sister, or a guitar player, or any one thing – that I can enjoy something regardless of my abilities in it.”

In that moment, the sun seemed to shine a little brighter.

Something within Misaki stirred. It was warm and chilled, soft and stiff, knowable and unknowable. At first, she feared it. But then…

“That was probably a lot you didn’t care to hear…” Sayo murmured. “I’m not even sure how much you understood. Sorry. I should have vented about this to Hazawa-san or somebody else…”

“No, I… I think I needed to hear that,” said Misaki. “Th-Thank you, Sayo-senpai.”

Sayo looked a little perplexed, but didn’t pursue the question. “Now, since I answered… why did you join the play, Okusawa-san?”

Misaki thought. It was a question she had tried to dodge so many times, partially because she didn’t understand it herself. She still didn’t.

But for the first time… the lack of understanding didn’t frustrate her, somehow. It simply felt like a fact of the matter – a mystery to unravel, a sentiment to unbox. And when she unwrapped her emotions… what did she find?

“I… I don’t think I can say the same thing as you, Sayo-senpai,” she finally said. “I’m not doing this play for myself.”

“Is that so?” Sayo tapped her finger against her bicep. “Then for whom?”

Faces flashed through her mind – Not just Kanon and Kaoru, but Hagumi and Kokoro. She remembered the airiness of their laughter, the energy in their movements, the joy in their songs. Doing this play wouldn’t bring any of it back, on its own. And yet…

“I’m doing it… for those precious to me,” said Misaki. “To prove to them – and maybe to me – that we can fix things. That we can make things go back to the way they were.”

Sayo cocked her head, clearly not getting the full context. Then, her shoulders slackened. “Well, I suppose I don’t understand the full reason, but… that’s not my place.” She appeared to shake off her mild confusion. “As long as you know your own reasons, Okusawa-san, I think you’ll be just fine.”

“You’re right,” said Misaki, bobbing her head in agreement. “Sayo-senpai, since we’re both here…”

Sayo looked at her expectantly. Misaki took the last traces of hesitation within and crushed them, speaking clearly:

“Do you want to practice after all?”

Sayo smirked. “I was waiting for you to ask.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 30: An Honorable Woman

Misaki practically kicked down the Haneoka Theater door the next day.

It wasn’t as if she was eager, or energized, or furious – she wasn’t sure what to pin the emotion down as, exactly. It bubbled in her gut, tingled in her fingers, and frizzled in her brain, propelling her feet forward with sharp and steady steps. Yet, she somehow didn’t want to understand this feeling. For the first time she could remember, she felt like she didn’t have to have a reason for feeling the way she did – she simply could. And the liberation of that thought only pushed her on with greater gusto.

She was greeted by the hardworking smiles of the production cast and crew, who were as busy as ever. Eve and Maya welcomed her cheerily into the theater again. Hagumi came dashing over to say hello, which Misaki reciprocated with a high five. As she strode down the aisle she locked eyes with Sayo on stage, who gave her an encouraging nod. Misaki nodded back.

She wasn’t in some hopeless confusion now – her purpose was clear. Even if she didn’t fully grasp it… she wouldn’t be blinded by her troubles.

Evidentially, the pep in her step was well-perceptible, as a certain flamboyant director smirked upon seeing her step up to the stage. “Well now, kitten. You’re looking lively today.”

Misaki’s throat clogged. She knew what she had to do, but finding the right words would be difficult. “Kaoru-san, I-“

“Speak no more,” she replied, holding a hand up grandiosely. “I know exactly what you mean to say. And I will preempt you by stating my feelings thusly – there is no need to beg forgiveness.”

Misaki’s emotions untangled. Could she truly be let off so easily? “Kaoru-san, are… are you sure? I mean-”

“Of course I am,” said Kaoru. “After all…” She flicked a strand of hair from her face. “Why would you need to apologize for being so devilishly cute?”

“…Huh?” Misaki replied, deadpan.

“Heheh, I understand that bashfulness of yours…” mused Kaoru, stroking her chin thoughtfully. “But taking pride in one’s own charms is not vanity – nay, we all need our own slivers of self-esteem every now and then! So relish in your own adorability, I say… although…” She extended a hand. “I would love to see such a handsome face up close.”

Misaki felt it again – the swirling concoction of confusion, misunderstanding, and hyper-flirtation, brewing in her intestines. The mixture boiled up in the root of her stomach, coiling around her esophagus, before finally escaping through her teeth:

“Pffffffffthahahaha!”

It was Kaoru’s turn to look befuddled. “What is it, kitten? Did you mistake my compliment as a jest?! I can assure you I am only serious…”

Misaki let the chuckles get out of her system before speaking. “I-It’s just… I’m glad you’re the same as ever, Kaoru-san. That’s all.”

Kaoru grinned. “But of course. Though I must say laughter does your face well, my kitten… if only I could examine those fine dimples face to face.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” said Misaki, her voice drooping from cheer to restraint almost instantly. “Um, and…”

“Hm? What is it?”

The word sorry still couldn’t emerge from her vocal chords. But she decided not to work herself into a tizzy over it at the moment – the time would come when she would apologize. She didn’t want to force it out awkwardly right now. So instead: “Thanks for all your hard work, director.”

“Heh… anytime, my dear Misaki,” Kaoru replied. She clapped her hands together, calling to the entire auditorium. “Hark! Rehearsal is about to begin. Let us commence with the brothers and Claudio, when Don John lies to them about Hero’s infidelity.”

Sayo and Hina were already in position on stage. Misaki hopped over to join them.

“Is everything all right, Okusawa-san?” asked Sayo. “You look anxious.”

“I’ll be fine,” said Misaki, cramming her emotions back down her gullet.

“Hahaha!” Hina laughed. “You sure are an interesting person, Misaki-chan.”

“Th-thanks.” As far as Misaki could tell, this was how Hina complemented people, so she decided to feel flattered.

“Now then…” Kaoru began. “This scene is a tricky one. Don John deceives his brother and Claudio into believing Hero has been unfaithful, and offers to show them proof.”

A pivotal scene in Act III, where the play’s core conflict erupts. Misaki had gone over it many times on her own, and usually came up frustrated.

“I’ve been practicing,” said Sayo. “Desperation and false sincerity should be what I focus on, yes?”

“Exactly, my dear Sayo,” said Kaoru, snapping her fingers. “You carry the weight of the scene, as it is up to you to convince the audience – and these two gentlewomen – that you speak the truth.”

“About that…” said Misaki, “this scene has been bugging me for a while.”

Kaoru looked mildly curious. “Oh? Is something off about my direction?”

“N-No, it’s not you, Kaoru-san,” said Misaki hastily. “It’s more with the script. Don John was caught lying to Claudio only a short time ago, and yet he’s so quick to believe him – why is that?”

“Hmm…” Kaoru thought for a moment. “I suppose it is particularly gullible of him.”

“A little too much, wouldn’t you say?” asked Misaki. “I think I should act a little bit more disbelieving of Don John during this part, so that way when I see ‘Hero’s’ misdeeds, I’m beyond crushed.”

“Ah… a most fleeting idea!” Kaoru hummed. “Let us try that interpretation, then.”

Sayo looked at Misaki and smiled before getting into place. The two of them had discussed scenes heavily up on the rooftop, and thrown around some suggestions – it was good to see that Kaoru liked the ideas, too.

Kaoru clapped her hands and she stepped down from the stage. “Now, from the line ‘Why, what’s the matter?’ Get into position… ready, set, action!”

“Why, what’s the matter?” asked Hina to Sayo, as Don Pedro to Don John.

“I came hither to tell you; and, circumstances shortened, for she has been too long a talking of…” Sayo sighed mournfully. “The lady is disloyal.”

Misaki scoffed. “Who… Hero?”

“Even she; Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero!”

Disloyal?” Misaki wrung every ounce of incredulity out of her voice.

“The word is too good to paint out her wickedness; I-I could say she were worse: think you of a worse title, and I will fit her to it!” Sayo begged and rambled desperately onward. “Wonder not till further warrant: go but with me tonight, you shall see her chamber-window entered, even the night before her wedding-day: if you love her then, tomorrow wed her; but it would better fit your honor to change your mind!”

Misaki shook her head, expression flat. “…May this be so?”

“I will not think it!” exclaimed Hina.

Sayo pleaded further. “If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know! If you will follow me… I will show you enough; and when you have seen more and heard more, proceed accordingly.”

Misaki took a beat to purse her lips to the side, as if grimly contemplating the manner. “…If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her tomorrow in the congregation, where I should wed…” She sighed quietly. “There, will I shame her.”

Hina grit her teeth. “And, as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join with thee to disgrace her.”

Sayo nodded. “I will disparage her no farther till you are my witnesses: bear it coldly but till midnight, and let the issue show itself.”

“O day, untowardly turned…!” Hina cried.

“O mischief, strangely thwarting…” Misaki exhaled.

“O plague, right well prevented,” Sayo chimed. “So will you say when you have seen the sequel.”

With that, the scene had concluded. Kaoru, who had been watching with rapt breath, adopted an even more grandiose look of ecstasy than usual. “Magnificent…! That was the finest rendition of that scene yet. Especially from you, Misaki.”

“I agree!” said Hina. “You pull off the ‘disbelieving’ thing really well.”

Well, if there’s one thing I know… thought Misaki, harkening back to the misadventures of her halcyon Hello, Happy days, It’s how to sound incredulous.

“After that is the constable scene, yes?” asked Sayo. “And then the morning of the wedding.”

“Indeed,” said Kaoru. “I suppose it is time for young Hagumi and her company to take the stage…”

“Before that, Kaoru-san,” said Misaki, “I had another concern.”

“What is it?”

“Well…” Misaki crossed her arms. “They make a big deal out of going to make sure Hero is unfaithful, but then the audience never actually witnesses it. The next we see of Claudio and Don Pedro, they’re at the wedding, ready to denounce her.”

“Yes… it does seem a strange gap,” said Kaoru. “Might you seek to fill it?”

“I think that would be a good idea,” said Sayo. “Getting to see the characters’ reactions in the moment could be quite impactful.”

“I see your point…” Kaoru mused. “And yet, it’s not within the script… and I’m unsure I, or any other, could write dialogue to match the pure fleetingness of the bard’s poetry.”

Misaki had expected Kaoru to jump on the opportunity quickly, but she had a good point. She thought for a moment. “Maybe… we don’t need dialogue?”

“Whatever do you mean?” asked Kaoru.

“Have us just watch silently,” said Misaki. “We can stare up at the couple that Don John leads us to believe is Hero and her cohort, and look on in shock and horror.”

“Ooh, I get it!” said Hina. “I go from angry to angrier, you go from suspicious to heartbroken, and Big Sis tries to look sad, but is just barely hiding her evil smile. Sounds boppin’!”

I don’t know if a scene that’s supposed to be so grievous should be described as “boppin’”… Misaki thought.

“Boppin’ indeed!” Kaoru agreed. She called out behind her: “Dutiful Maya, lovely Eve, we require your presence.”

The two Pastel*Palettes members scampered onto stage, and soon the added scene was blocked. It took a few tries to get the hang of it, but it wasn’t long before Misaki had delved more deeply into the emotions at play – turning from anxious doubt to soul-broken grief upon realizing Don John has spoken the truth… well, a falsity disguised to look as truth. She even tossed in a melodramatic fist clench at the end, which she worried would be overdoing it by a lot, but the studly director was enamored by it.

“Yes… yes… the emotion on display is …!” Kaoru began, before chuckling. “Yes, it is but that. Ahahaha…”

Pleased to please you, Misaki thought dryly.

“I must commend you all for your work today,” said Kaoru. “Before we conclude, I would like to run through the wedding scene once – the first parts, at least.”

“That’ll require most of the cast,” said Maya. She cupped both her hands around her mouth. “Everybody in the wedding scene, please assemble!”

As half of the theater scrambled into position, Misaki approached Kaoru face to face. “Kaoru-san, I actually had something I wanted to talk to you about with this part, too…”

“My, little kitten, you’re quite active today,” she noted. “I adore it.”

Misaki ducked her casual flirting and proceeded. “You think Claudio should be angry in this scene, right?”

“But of course,” Kaoru replied. “He is exposing his bride to be as a wanton harlot, full of rage and conviction.”

“Yeah, I get that,” said Misaki. “But I don’t know if I…” Kanon’s figure walked through her field of vision. “I-I can be super angry very easily.”

“I see. Then what do you propose?”

Misaki explained her take on Claudio’s character as everybody sorted into position. Kaoru listened and nodded. “Ah…  worth a try, at the very least.”

Misaki flashed a thumbs-up and took her place – right across from Kanon. She gulped deep breaths and stilled her pulsating veins. Fortunately, it was currently in character for her to be unable to look Hero in the face, albeit due to indignance rather than shame. Her eyes locked to the ground, and she endeavored to replace any thought of Kanon with that of Hero. From the top of her periphery, she could see the blue-pigtailed girl gazing in her direction – what she was thinking of, Misaki couldn’t say. She never could. If only she could read minds.

“Beginning from the top,” said Kaoru, standing in position as Benedick. “Your line, fair Aya.”

“R-right!” said the pink-haired vocalist, before clearing her throat. “Come, Friar Francis, be brief; only to the plain form of marriage, and you shall recount their particular duties afterwards.”

The theater club student playing the friar turned to Misaki. “You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady.”

Misaki exhaled long, staring deeper into the floorboards of the stage. “…No.”

“T-To be married to her: friar, you come to marry her!” Aya clarified. It was unclear whether the jitters were in-character or not.

“Lady, you come hither to be married to this count,” said the friar to Kanon.

“I do,” said Kanon, clearly and quietly.

The friar nodded in acceptance. “If either of you know any inward impediment why you should not be conjoined, charge you, on your souls, to utter it.”

Misaki rose her head to look at Kanon. The curly, sky-colored hair that tumbled down her shoulders,  the soft pink lips squiggled in a tightened line, her dainty fingers clutching at one another nervously. “…Know you any, Hero?”

The words that escaped her mouth were even quieter than intended. She told herself to project more.

Kanon shook her head. “None, my lord.”

Her voice was so delicate. As if it were a rose made of glass, ready to tumble out of its vase any moment. 

“Know you any, count?” asked the friar.

And yet, Misaki couldn’t tear her eyes away from the fingers – those fingers, without a trace of calluses or splinters, that trembled in her sight.

“I dare make his answer none…” said Aya, looking at Misaki with anticipation.

In that moment, she felt the well of despair return, suddenly and without mercy. And yet, somehow, her mouth moved on its own:

“O, what men dare do… what men may do…! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!!!”

Her voice cracked, spilling misery with every word. She wasn’t even sure why she was saying anything anymore, and yet… somehow, she felt compelled to continue.

Kaoru laughed. “How now! Interjections? Why, then, some be of laughing, as, ahahaha!”

Misaki reacted with no hint of cheeriness. “Stand thee by, friar,” she heaved, turning to Aya. “Father, by your leave… will you, with free and unconstrained soul, give me this maid, your daughter?”

“As- As freely, son, as God did give her me,” Aya replied, shaking.

 “…And what have I to give you back, whose worth may counterpoise this rich and precious gift?” She spoke with sorrow, unsure whether she was being sincere or sardonic.

“Nothing, unless you render her again,” Hina snarled, stepping in.

“…Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.” Misaki paused, for but a moment – her monologue was here. Before she continued, she peeked at Kanon, watching confusedly, just once more, before she turned away.

“There, Leonato…” She pointed at her. “Take her back again. Give not this… rotten orange to your friend; she's but the sign and semblance of her honor. Behold, how like… like a maid she blushes here… o, what authority and show of truth can cunning sin cover itself withal…? Comes not that blood as modest evidence to witness simple virtue…? Would you not swear, all you that see her, that she were a maid, by these exterior shows? But she is none… she knows the heat of a luxurious bed; her blush is guiltiness, not modesty!”

Her last word thundered throughout the entire auditorium. Instead of moving onto the next line, she simply stood and stared at the rest of the cast, panting heavily in place, her body rising and falling with breath like a snarling beast. From the audience, Hagumi – one of the few cast members not in the scene – began applauding grandiosely. Others joined in.

“Incredible, Misaki-san!” said Eve. “I had no idea you could speak so well!”

“That was the best performance I’ve ever seen from you!” said Maya, mouth ajar in wonder.

“Woah, Aya, are you crying?” asked Hina, laughing.

“Th-That was intense…!” Aya shrilled, wiping away tears.

The entire cast was in a murmur over the sudden dramatism. Misaki was still catching her breath, shocked at how shocked everyone else was. There was more to the scene, but she had apparently delivered a real showstopper. How was she supposed to continue with everybody chattering away like this?

Kaoru clapped her hands together. “Bring it together, everyone! Misaki, words cannot express how fleeting you were today; that monologue was excellent. Aya, you must be careful not to react too much, lest you overdo it. Kanon, you did excellently – your expressions as she spoke were poignant and consistent.”

Expressions? Misaki whipped her head to look at Kanon, who was currently neutral-faced. She ratcheted her head back around just as quickly to avoid meeting her stare. Misaki hadn’t been paying attention to Kanon’s expressions at all during the monologue… how had she been acting?

“I think that’s about all the time we have for the day,” said Maya, checking the time on her phone. “Pack it up, everybody!”

The people around Misaki began to frantically filter about, looking for props and set pieces to store and put away. She was still too spent to move, or really put much energy into anything but thinking at the moment. And even that took it out of her.

But she wasn’t the only one standing still.

Kanon stayed in front of her, eyes scanning the crowd, her head low. Her script was raised high in her arms, covering the end of her smooth little chin. Misaki tried to cycle through the hundred things she wanted to say in her head, evaluating how each one could possibly go over with Kanon in her current state. Each train of theoretical conversation fizzled out before reaching its destination, as her doubt and second-guessing continued to get the better of her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Chisato, poking out of the backstage wing, arms crossed, gazing at her. She wore neither grin nor grimace – her expression was that of pure anticipation. Pure curiosity. As if silently asking: So, Okusawa-san – what will it be?

Misaki gulped. She had expected to get cold feet – to dart away, and avoid the issue as always – but not this time. She would confront Kanon – and herself – without running.

“Ma…”

Her mouth formed the first syllable of Kanon’s surname, before she swallowed it back down. Gritting her teeth, she spoke with conviction:

“Kanon-san!”

Kanon yelped, hopping in place at the sudden shout. She clutched at her script tightly as her head rose to meet Misaki’s gaze – and upon doing so, her cheeks became flush, her mouth drew agape, and her eyes widened in apprehension. “O-Okusawa-san? Wh-What is it?”

A dozen thoughts wrestled around in Misaki’s mouth, each vying to be the ones uttered to her in that moment. She looked into Kanon’s eyes, as deep as amethysts, and in the process gradually let slip from her mind every single topic she had prepared internally. So she fell upon the one last, measly sentence she could muster:

“G…Good work, today!”

She said it with the fire and aplomb of someone pleading for the life of another. It felt as if she had spoken with every atom in her entire body at once. And yet, upon hearing the simple platitude that she had vomited out, Misaki couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. She had required that much willpower just to squeak that out?

Yet still, Kanon’s face relaxed. Her cheeks dimmed and she lost the deer-in-the-headlights gaze that she had borne only moments before. And now – for the first time that Misaki had seen in literal months – the corners of her mouth curled upwards. “Y-Yeah. Good work.”

Misaki felt something ignite in her chest. Her mouth wanted to move, but she kept her lips clamped shut as she quickly turned and ambled on away from the stage, her insides quivering.

She had only lasted about ten seconds, but… she had said something to Kanon!

One on one!

Finally!

She was ashamed of how proud she felt about it.

The sound of singular applause suddenly erupted behind her head. She whipped around to see Kaoru, clapping as if she had witnessed the conclusion of a grand opera. “A wonderful performance. Bravo!”

“Sh-Shut up,” Misaki hissed as she hopped off the stage. “I don’t need you chiding me.”

“I assure you I am being completely truthful,” said Kaoru, following her. “And I must profess I am pleased to see you following my advice.”

“Your-?” Misaki stopped. “What do you mean?”

Kaoru chuckled. “…The mask slips, day by day. Soon enough, Claudio shall become Misaki, and Misaki…? Who will she become?”

“I don’t know,” said Misaki, officially done with her nonsense. “Why don’t you guess?”

“Guess? Oh, what devilish games you play…! Very well…” Kaoru mused to herself for a moment. “Perhaps you shall become… a dove, to fly off and send my heart athrobbing?”

I was joking… Misaki thought.

“No, wait – perhaps a lily, fragile as snow, burning with love for a fair maiden?”

“…See you tomorrow, Kaoru-san,” she replied, waving.

As Misaki left, in the periphery of her vision, she caught Chisato smiling in her direction – inscrutably, as ever. Whether it was genuine or masking a deep antipathy, she couldn’t be sure. But Misaki could tell one thing.

There was no going back now.

Chapter Text

Chapter 31: Heart Upon the Sleeve

The pivot was almost instantaneous. Misaki went from dreading the very notion of drama practice to counting the minutes until the next one on her schedule. She realized that it was practically the only extracurricular activity she was doing as of late: work was as stagnant as ever, and as opening night ticked closer and closer she had taken yet another leave of absence from the tennis team – she was beginning to wonder when they were going to kick her out for her perpetual absence, but she couldn’t deny to herself that she was much more involved in this play than she had ever been at tennis practice.

It wasn’t as if she were 100% gung-ho about the production – far from it. She still felt a twinge of fear every time she so much as set a toe on stage, still stumbled over every other line with both feet, and still felt a cocktail of emotion swirl around in her liver whenever she saw Kanon or Kaoru. But… it was starting to become familiar. Familiar in a way she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She’d never acted before – well, besides that one “performance” on Kokoro’s cruise ship so many months ago, which she’d rather forget – so why was she feeling nostalgic?

The question lingered in her mind as she entered the theater on the last day of July, exactly one week before their first showing. Dress rehearsal would be the day beforehand, and they were starting to enter “full run-through every practice” territory, but there was still a lot to work on. Upon making her way towards the stage, she did the first task she had assigned for herself every day for the past week or two:

“G-Good afternoon, Kanon-san!” she stuttered.

“G…Good afternoon, O-Okusawa-san,” Kanon replied. She was fidgeting frenetically in the front of the auditorium as she looked through her script.

Misaki blinked rapidly. “Let- Let’s do our best today!”

Kanon smiled awkwardly. “R-Right.”

Misaki waltzed past towards the opposite end of the auditorium and released the breath she had been subconsciously holding. She had still said nothing more than greetings and goodbyes to Kanon, but even those plain platitudes emotionally exhausted her each time. Every now and then she opened her mouth in an effort to say something else, but her throat croaked at the impetus, and she always ended up traipsing away steaming. Misaki had inwardly resolved to talk to her after the play concluded – at this point, trying to hash things out would just distract from the work in front of them.

And Misaki had a lot of work. Despite her progress, she still felt woefully underprepared to play Claudio, to the point she was spending just about every waking second going over the lines in her head and thinking of how to deliver them. After that initial surge bouncing back from her troubles, she hadn’t been able to wring out her emotions quite as well ever again… though she had certainly tried. Each repetition of the lines simply felt flatter and flatter with each go. And though she had tried tapping into the feelings she felt in the heat of that moment, it just wasn’t enough.

She fell into one of the auditorium chairs, looking towards the stage. Oh well… at least she wasn’t the only one having trouble at the moment.

“Wherefore!” cried Aya, with attempted indignation. “Why, doth not every earthly thing c-cry shame upon her? Could she here deny the story that is pr… printed in her blood? Do… do not live, Hero; do n-not ope thine eyes- for, did I think thy – er, thou wouldst not quickly die, thought I thou – er, thy spirits were stronger than thy sha… sha… shames! Er, shames, myself would, on the rearward of reproaches, strike at thy… thy…”

The strawberry-haired idol was suddenly tearing up right on stage, her eyes darting around rapidly. Kaoru and Maya watched with crossed arms. “A-Are you alright, Aya-chan?” asked Kanon, from the seats.

“Th-The monologue keeps tripping me up…” Aya admitted, sighing. “Just- what kind of father would say those things about his own daughter?! That seems so cruel!”

“Haha, is that what’s getting to you?” asked Hina, gleefully watching from stage right. “I would think you’re just having trouble memorizing it.”

“W-Well, that too, but…”

There was something oddly reassuring about Aya’s stumbling – more than just the fact that Misaki wasn’t alone in her struggle. She reasoned that it might be the sheer earnestness of the performance – the fact that the vocalist was clearly making an effort and giving it her all, despite her reservations. Misaki could relate to that, couldn’t she? Maybe this is the power of an idol…

“Having fun?” said a delicate voice, directly into her ear

Misaki jumped. She swerved her head around to see Chisato, courteously smiling in the next seat over, legs and arms both folded neatly before her. “D-Don’t scare me like that!”

Chisato giggled. “Are you on edge, Okusawa-san?”

“M-Maybe a little bit…” Misaki replied, scratching an itch on her neck. “Though watching Maruyama-san perform makes me feel a bit better, somehow.”

“Yes, she does have that effect on people, doesn’t she?” said Chisato. “Something about the way she flounders about, in spite of it all…”

“I-I can hear you, you know!” Aya cried.

Chisato laughed louder before turning back to Misaki. “Now then, if you don’t mind, Okusawa-san… can I steal you for a moment?”

Misaki gulped. She knew exactly what was coming. “…Hallway?” she mumbled.

“Yes, that will do.” Chisato turned. “Kaoru, Okusawa-san and I will be back in just a moment.”

“Very well,” the director replied, not even glancing over. “Be back soon… now then, dear Aya, please try once more. I know you can do it.”

“I-I know I can, too…!” Aya said, clenching her fists.

Misaki followed Chisato out of the theater, making sure to avoid so much as looking in Kanon’s general direction as they departed. Misaki could only wonder what the former drummer thought of them as they passed. Did she even notice? No, she had to… there was no way she wouldn’t. Not someone as anxiously perceptive as Kanon was. But how could Misaki even get into her headspace?

Pushing the matter out of her mind, they stopped just outside of the theater’s double doors, in the little alcove fork where the water fountain harkened to restrooms on both sides. Chisato twirled around, as measured as ever. “Now then, where were we?”

“Um… you were the one who called me out here,” said Misaki, feeling sweat coagulate on the nape of her neck.

“Oh, of course.” Chisato leaned down to take a drink from the water fountain, wiping her mouth as she rose. Somehow, even this normally casual action seemed dignified. “I came here to compliment you.”

Misaki felt the words duck under her mental guard to strike her square in the brain. Compliment? It must have been a ploy to lower her defenses. “…Is that so?” she asked, unable to mask her skepticism.

“Now, now, don’t be like that,” said Chisato, grinning and shaking her head. “You’ve made some remarkable improvements in the past few rehearsals, and I wanted to commend you for it. Honestly!”

Misaki could buy that, but she also knew that Chisato wouldn’t ask for a private conversation just to bald-facedly sprinkle praise on her. “What did you really want to talk about?”

“…You’re a shrewd one, aren’t you?” asked Chisato, her smile unflinching. “Very observant. More so than I gave you credit for, at first.”

Just how dumb does she think I am…? Misaki wondered.

“And yet, that same perception is sorely lacking when it comes to other people…” Chisato crossed her arms. “Do you have any idea who I’m talking about?”

Misaki wondered for a split-second if she could possibly mean Kaoru, but it was obvious who she was really talking about. “…Kanon-san.”

“So you do recognize it, then…” Chisato sighed. “How unfortunate. Before, I could attribute it to ignorance, but now… I have no choice but to assume you’re truly just a bad person.”

Misaki’s arteries froze over. And yet, she wasn’t ready to take Chisato’s words lying down. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t said anything to her about the band – I’m just making small talk.”

“Small talk…” Chisato rolled the words out of her tongue, as if weighing their veracity. “Yes, I suppose it might just be ‘small talk’ to you. And yet, have you considered for even the slightest moment what that might come across like to her?”

“…I’m just being friendly,” said Misaki.

“Friendly? Yes – but tell me something. Does anybody want to be friends with the person who threw them away? Who told them they were a hopeless idiot?”

“I-I never said-!”

“No,” continued Chisato, unfazed. “They do not. They simply grin and bear it in hopes that the moment will pass.”

Reeling from the dread swarming through her intestines, Misaki readied her counter-argument. “Kanon-san always has a smile on her face whenever I talk to her. I’m sure she’s nervous about it – I am too – but that doesn’t mean-”

“So what?” asked Chisato. “Do you want her to break into tears, instead? Do you want her to reveal the pain and unease she goes through every time she so much as sees your face? Is that what you’d prefer?”

Misaki didn’t have a rebuttal.

“People put up walls,” said Chisato. “Kanon-chan is strong, and more importantly, kind. She knows how to hide her apprehension – though why she keeps doing it for your sake is beyond me. But know that any amount of contentedness you see in her is just a mask – a way to hide her true fears from you.”

Misaki didn’t feel the same freezing despair as the last time Chisato had sniped at her; the same deathly grip that seized her lungs and made her choke on air. Now, she only felt a surge with emotion; her veins sparking with daring and righteousness. Which is why she didn’t hesitate to say the next words that came out of her mouth:

“A mask of smiles? Isn’t that you?”

Chisato’s face darkened.

“You talk a lot about facades, but I don’t think you’re exactly one to talk,” Misaki snapped. “I’ve seen the Chisato Shirasagi on TV, the one on the stage, and the one before me –they may all wear the same smirk, but I know there’s more to you than just sunshine and rainbows.”

“…What of it?” asked Chisato. “My own life has nothing to do with matter at hand.”

“Maybe that’s what you think,” said Misaki, “but maybe you shouldn’t apply your own standards to other people so easily. Don’t you know what kind of person Kanon-san is? Straightforward and honest… she doesn’t hide her feelings. Not the Kanon-san I know.”

“…For her own sake, perhaps,” said Chisato. “Yet for others? She’ll bury it all.”

“And who is the other person, in this case?” asked Misaki. “If she was upset, she’d be straightforward about it.”

Chisato’s face turned from sour to outright contemptuous. “Do you truly not understand? Are you really so blind, so foolish? Of course she’s not hiding it for herself, she’s hiding it for-”

The sound of the double doors creaking open cut her off. Aya poked her head through the door. “Um, Chisato-chan?”

Without missing a beat, Chisato returned to her typical, agreeable expression. “What is it?”

“Kaoru-senpai wants us to run through the last scene… so we need both of you to do it.”

“O-Of course,” said Misaki. “We’ll be right there.”

Aya nodded and retreated back inside. Misaki fully expected Chisato to return to her tirade, but instead she trod forcefully towards the door. “…Never mind that last point. If you’re too shortsighted to see it for yourself, then you don’t deserve to know. But know this…” Her eyes stared daggers into Misaki. “My warning still stands. Get any closer to her, and I will not hesitate.”

“…Hesitate to do what?” asked Misaki, calling out the ambiguity. “Scold me? Stab me? Murder me?”

Chisato chuckled, low and hollow. “Oh, Okusawa-san…

“You’d be wishing for mere death.”

And on that threatening note, she departed, leaving a bony chill in Misaki’s spine. Just as she was about to lapse into overthinking worriment, Aya popped through the door in her bandmate’s wake. “U-Um, Misaki-chan?”

“What is it, Maruyama-san?” asked Misaki, a little perplexed as to her presence.

“I-Is everything between you and Chisato-chan all right?” Aya twiddled her fingers together. “It sounded like you were arguing.”

Misaki sighed. Of course she would’ve overheard at least part of their conversation. “It’s… fine. None of your business, at least. Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, worrying is one of the things I’m best at, unfortunately…” Aya laughed tensely. “Even after becoming an idol, I still get stage fright and… and goosebumps, and even acne rashes sometimes. Isn’t that pathetic?”

“I… I think that’s perfectly normal,” said Misaki, caught unaware by the sudden digression. “That’s just the sort of person you are, and you shouldn’t have to change that.”

“You think so…?” Aya actually sounded pleased to hear it. A moment later, however, her expression stiffened. “E-Er, I don’t know what you were arguing with Chisato-chan about, but… please don’t think she’s a bad person.”

“H-Huh?” said Misaki.

“I-I mean…” Aya scrambled for the right words. “I think to some people who know her a little, but not a lot, she may come across as a bit too… professional?”

I don’t know if that’s the word I’d use… Misaki thought, the wound left by Chisato’s piercing glare still oozing in her mind.

“B-But her heart’s always in the right place!” affirmed Aya, her face alit with passion. “She works harder than anybody else I know, and her passion for everything is totally sincere! I swear!”

“Aya-san…”

“And…” Aya stammered, “And she’s so much nicer than she looks! And she already looks really nice as is, so please, don’t think bad of her! Please…”

Misaki hadn’t really dwelled much on Chisato’s character. In her purview, she had been thinking of the bassist as a sort of sentinel, an obstacle between her and reconciliation with Kanon. She hadn’t spared much thoughts for Chisato’s feelings themselves.

But now that she did…

“…I believe you, Maruyama-san. Don’t worry.”

Aya smiled. “O-Oh. Good! Good. Hahaha… I thought I might get in another long argument with you, or something…”

“I’m not that argumentative, am I…?” Misaki muttered.

“A-Anyway, as long as you know…” Aya sighed. “Oh, crud… we’ve got a week left, and I’m still a mess…”

“Do you always get this nervous before a show?” asked Misaki.

“Not always! …But usually, yes.”

Being an idol must be rough…

“Well, nothing to do but give it our best!” Aya said, sounding more like she was trying to convince herself than Misaki. “We can totally work everything out in a week, r-right?”

“…We’ll do our best,” said Misaki weakly.

Aya’s lips squeezed together. “It’d be more assuring if you were a little more confident…”

“Sorry about that. I tend to be on the more cynical end of things.”

Aya’s eyes shone. “W-Well that’s okay! I’ll provide enough optimism for both of us!”

Misaki couldn’t stop the snicker that escaped through her teeth.

“H-Hey!”

“Sorry, sorry…” said Misaki. “You’re just so… straight-laced, Maruyama-san.” There was no way she’d be able to say something so unabashedly cheesy herself.

“So I’m told…” Aya tilted her head back in despondence. “Why does everybody have to make fun of me for it, though…?”

Misaki was starting to feel guilty. “If it makes you feel better, I think it’s pretty admirable.”

“…You think?”

“Yeah,” said Misaki nodding. “I’m… not very good at being open about my own feelings, so…”

Aya looked her in the eye for a moment before smiling. “Being honest can be hard, but… it makes you so much more comfortable, you know? With yourself, and with other people. To have somebody love you for who you are… that feeling is irreplaceable.”

Misaki felt her heart stir, just a little bit. Maruyama-san…

“So, if I can tell you just one thing, Misaki-chan…” Aya clasped her hands together, almost as if she were praying. “Please, be yourself! No matter what! Because I’ll – no, we’ll be there to support you!”

In the face of this encouragement, Misaki… hunched over, covering her giggles with one hand.

Hey!

“Sorry, sorry…”

***

Misaki considered what Aya had told her all throughout practice. In retrospect, it was a bit strange for her to try and give her advice so suddenly… then again, it wasn’t much weirder than when Sayo did the same previously. A lot of people seemed eager to help her, honestly. Why was that? What had she done to deserve their kindness, their trust? In this reality, she didn’t know them in the slightest, and yet they were willing to offer a hand like they were old friends. It didn’t make much sense.

The questions continued to gnaw at her as she made her way home, the summer sky still a vivid shade of baby blue as she drifted through the neighborhood streets. The color reminded her of Kanon – a lot of things did. But thinking of Kanon made her think of Chisato, which made her think of Kaoru, and so on and so forth in an endless chain of tumult. No matter how much thinking she did, of course, her problems never got solved. Dwelling, speculating, brooding… they just exacerbated her woes. If she wanted to actually fix things, then she needed to do something. But what? The very thought paralyzed her.

Man… I wish the solution to all my problems could just fall out of the sky.

“Misaki-san!”

She stopped. The voice calling her name sounded familiar, but there wasn’t a soul around. The only thing lining the streets were houses, bicycles, and trees. A single wayward leaf glided on the breeze. She clutched her bag and shrank back. “Wh-Who’s there?”

Suddenly, from the tree right before her eyes fell Eve Wakamiya, landing on the ground with both feet and feline dexterity. Her hair and uniform were sprinkled with leaves and twigs, and there were some light patches of dirt across her arms and legs. In her hands was a tiny calico cat, whose head cocked about warily, nonplussed after the fall.

“Good evening!” said Eve cheerily. Her nose sounded a little clogged. “I didn’t expect to find you here!”

“I…could say the same,” said Misaki, briefly speechless. “What were you doing up there?”

“I had to rescue this kitten!” Eve proclaimed, nuzzling the cat with her cheek. The calico nestled up tighter in her arms. She sneezed in response.

“Oh… is it yours?”

Eve shook her head. “I saw it meowing up in the tree, and I just had to help! It looked so alone up there…” She gingerly set the calico on the ground. “But now it’s safe!”

The cat mewed softly at her before turning and scampering back up the tree to where it originally sat. Misaki and Eve silently watched it scratch behind its ear, the breeze whistling in a taunting hum.

“…Rough luck,” said Misaki eventually.

“I… I suppose not all kittens need rescuing…” said Eve contemplatively. She sneezed again.

“Are you allergic?” asked Misaki.

“A little bit,” said Eve. “But cats are simply so cute! I can’t resist.”

The calico meowed again.

“It’s a vocal little furball…” Misaki said dryly. “I don’t see a collar or anything, so I’m guessing it’s a stray.”

“Ah, I see…” Eve nodded firmly. “I wish I could adopt it… oh well.”

“Why’d you go charging into that tree, anyway?” asked Misaki. “I mean, you’re allergic, and it’s not even that high off the ground…”

“Helping those in need is the way of bushido!” Eve stated. “If I ignore every animal in need, then I’ll never be a real samurai!”

Oh, right. Eve and her ronin aspirations. “Is rescuing stray cats really what samurai do?”

Eve thought for a moment. “Perhaps it does not define a bushi to rescue a cat. However, I think a good warrior would help out anyway. Don’t you agree?”

“I guess…” Misaki probably wouldn’t bother, if she were in Eve’s shoes. Then again, she tended to not like sticking her nose out, regardless of circumstance. For some reason, thinking that about herself made her feel awful.

“Are you all right, Misaki-san?” asked Eve. “You look sad.”

“I-I’m fine,” she replied, starting to walk off. “I should be going…”

Eve caught up to her. “It’s not good to hide your troubles! If something is bothering you, please let me know!”

The keyboardist’s overflowing consideration melted into her soul. Again, someone was reaching out to her, with almost no provocation… why was that?

“…You’re a good person, Wakamiya-san.”

Misaki uttered it without thinking. She felt a little embarrassed at the sudden sincerity, but Eve’s face lit up. “Thank you very much! I think you are a good person too, Misaki-san!”

Misaki stifled a laugh at that one. “I wish I could say that about myself….”

“You always work so hard, though!” said Eve. “Even Chisato-san says so.”

Misaki wasn’t expecting to hear that. “Really? She’s said that…?”

“Yes! Though not everything she says about you is flattering…” Eve clasped her mouth shut. “I shouldn’t say any more.”

“I figured as such,” said Misaki, sighing. “I wasn’t expecting her to compliment me in private, though.”

“Chisato-san sometimes has problems being open with her feelings,” Eve admitted. “She is very passionate and kind, but it’s difficult for her to speak her mind – though I’ve gotten better at figuring out her feelings as time goes by!”

The mark of a true friend, huh… Misaki thought. She could certainly understand Chisato’s hesitation to just come forward and say something like that to somebody she disliked. She would do exactly the same in her situation.

“You have many other wonderful qualities too, of course,” said Eve. “I may not know them yet, but if we become greater friends, I would love to learn about them!”

Misaki felt blinded by the pure geniality radiating from the saint before her. Again, she felt genuine feelings beginning to slip through her lips. “Eve-san… I’m jealous.”

“Jealous?”

Misaki’s eyes began tracking the cracks in the sidewalk. “You’re just so honest. I don’t know how you or Maruyama-san do it… every time I try to speak my mind, I just… my throat clogs up.” She began picking at the threads on her bag strap. “I mean, what if I say something wrong? What if I set somebody off and I don’t realize it? What if…” The smiling faces of Hello, Happy World! drifted into her mind. “What if I hurt somebody close to me?”

“Misaki-san…” Eve said sadly, before her brow furrowed in determination. “This is what I mean!”

“Wh-what is?” asked Misaki.

Eve grabbed Misaki’s hands tightly. “You are a good person!”

Misaki felt heat rise in her cheeks. “H-Huh?”

“Aya-san and I – we are very straightforward, it’s true,” Eve continued. “But sometimes we end up saying something rash, or embarrassing, and we may not even realize it.” Her determined frown morphed into an encouraging smile. “But people like you, or Chisato-san, or Maya-san… you are always thinking of other people’s feelings, and worrying about their well-being. I only wish I could be so compassionate!”

Misaki was only getting more flustered. “I-I really don’t think I’m as nice as you think I am…”

“But you are! That’s why you make sure to say hello to Kanon-san every day, isn’t it?”

Misaki’s insides did a triple axel. Somebody else had noticed?! She wanted to perish on the spot. “I-I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t…?” Eve somehow took the paper-thin excuse seriously. “Well, perhaps even if you can’t see it yourself, listen to me when I say it – you are a very caring person!”

“W-Wakamiya-san…” Misaki mumbled. “Please don’t say anything else. I think I’m going to have a heart attack.”

“Hm? But I was just complimenting you…” Eve shook her head. “Well, if you insist!”

Mercifully, they came upon Misaki’s house just at that moment. “H-Here’s my stop,” said Misaki quickly, shuffling to the door. “Nice chatting with you, really, truly…”

“Yes! I agree!” said Eve.

Despite her humility, Misaki smiled. “…Thank you, Wakamiya-san.”

“You are very welcome!” Eve replied. “Let’s do our best in the play!”

“Yeah. We will for sure.”

As she waved goodbye, Misaki suddenly felt a lot less turmoil within. None of her problems had been sorted out, perhaps, but the gratitude she felt at receiving such genuine praise did warm the cockles of her long-frozen heart.

And, somewhere deep within, she began to feel that maybe… just maybe… this play would work out after all. Wouldn’t it?

She could get those lines down.

She could tap into her inner Claudio.

She could smooth things over with Kanon.

All she had to do was keep practicing, and not panic… keep practicing, and not panic…

Chapter Text

Chapter 32: Fleeting

Opening night.

Crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap…

Misaki was panicking.

She repeated mantras to herself as she dared to peek one eye through the stage curtain at the massive audience buzzing on the other side. She had expected a fairly reasonable turnout of families and friends – what they had gotten was an avalanche of attendees, including relatives, faculty, businessmen, and even some professional camera crews.

“What the hell is with this turnout?” she whispered aloud. “Isn’t this just some garden-variety high school play?”

“It didn’t quite end up that way…” said Maya, who was adjusting set pieces behind her. “Apparently word got out that the entirety of Pastel*Palettes would be performing, and the media got whipped into a frenzy.”

“But you guys aren’t even all starring…” said Misaki.

“True,” said Maya, taping a loose branch to a tree. “I don’t think that’s going to stop some people, though. Especially after those posters Kaoru-san put up.”

Misaki knew exactly which ones she was talking about – drenched in gaudy hues of magenta and emblazoned with overly cursive font: “The Bard’s greatest tale of love and lunacy! Much Ado About Nothing, featuring the famed Chisato Shirasagi as Beatrice and the illustrious Kaoru Seta as Benedick! Complete with wild twists!” What twists was she even talking about? Misaki had asked, but Kaoru’s only response was a vacant chuckle and her typical explanation: “It is but that.”

She grumbled and peered through the curtain again, scanning the crowd looking for her family – she had begrudgingly invited them after her mother had pried into her after-school activities over the past month, and she was afraid they might have been muscled out. To her relief, Misaki found her and Koharu in the second row, right near the center. She was blindsided, however, when she noticed who was sitting in front of them.

“K-Kokoro…?!”

Indeed, the gilded girl was sitting in the front row, draped in a bright yellow frock and matching pearl necklace, humming chipperly as she watched the stage. To each side of her was a suit-clad bodyguard, keeping a sharp lookout  She looked like a six-year old gussied up for a high society gala – vastly overdressed for a high school rendition of Much Ado About Nothing.

Well, she looks pretty excited to be here, at least… Misaki sighed. Come to think of it, I shouldn’t really be surprised she’d show up. Hagumi probably invited her again. It occurred to her that this would technically be the first time in months that everybody in Hello, Happy World! would be in the same place, but it was such a strange thought that she pushed it out of her head just as quickly as it appeared.

As she pulled away from the curtain, Eve appeared, motioning over to her pastel compatriot. “Maya-san, it’s time for your make-up!”

“O-Oh, I’ll come in a second,” replied Maya awkwardly. “I have to finish up this prop…”

“It looks wonderful as it is!” Eve grabbed her arm and began dragging her off. “We need to hurry – we do not have many kits on hand.”

“E-Eve-san, please…”

Misaki watched the two of them disappear into the green room, wondering if she’d be next in line. She picked up a nearby hand mirror and looked herself over: her bangs had been partially slicked back, while the back of her hair had been tied into a loose ponytail. The white renaissance tunic she wore was tied up at the top of her chest, though the buttons at the end of her sleeves lay undone. Slim black pants hugged her legs tightly, which, even in the air-conditioned confines of the theater, made her feel unbearably sticky and sweaty. Hagumi, who had helped costume her, had called the ensemble “dashing.” Misaki wasn’t sure she liked that descriptor – she felt unsuited to the princely aesthetic.

She was thinking too negatively. Hoping to stifle her nerves, she ran through lines in her head. Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato? Is she not a modest young lady? No; I pray thee speakinsoberjudgmentthouthinkestIaminsportIpraytheetellmetrulyhowthoulikesthercantheworldbuysuchaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! She dropped the mirror to the table and buried her face in her hands. God, it’s going to be a disaster! I’m going to make an idiot of myself not just in front of the school, but the freaking national news! My life is over…

All the improvements she had made over the past month seemed to melt away. She was once more filled with dread, regret, and the question of why, oh why she agreed to do this in the first place. She was a walking disaster just waiting to happen – it wouldn’t be a question of whether or not she bombed, but just how badly she would. Even with all the progress she had made, and all those hours practicing in front of a mirror… now that she was here, the anticipation was killing her.

“O-Okusawa-san?”

She lifted her head, and her heart pumped faster.

 Kanon stood before her, wearing a Florentine dress of a deep, royal blue, accented with silvery flowers across the skirt and bodice. Her hair was tied up beneath a small, pure white bonnet, a little stray band of baby blue just barely wisping out of the front side. Even through the thick contouring of stage makeup, her soft, rounded cheeks pinkened.

Misaki lay stuck, staring at her for several moments before remembering to think. “Wh-what is it, Kanon-san?”

Kanon hesitated before speaking. “I… I just wanted to wish you g-good luck, Okusawa-san” she said. “That’s all.”

“O-Oh.” Misaki swallowed. “Thanks. Though, uh, I don’t think you’re supposed to say that in theater…”

“Y…You’re not?”

“No. You’re supposed to say ‘break a leg’ instead.” Misaki chuckled nervously. “Some sort of superstition, I guess.”

“Oh, I see… w-well, at the risk of sounding mean, break a leg, Mi-“ She stopped herself. “Okusawa-san.”

Misaki’s heartstrings twanged. She wanted to speak – to tell Kanon that it was okay to call her by her first name. That it was okay to not, if that’s what made her comfortable. That she was sorry for everything. That she just wanted to make things right. That she wanted to speak, to shout, to scream, but couldn’t find the words. She never could.

Why not?

“O-Okusawa-san? Is everything all right?”

“I-I’m fine!” Misaki said, trying to sound reassuring. “Br-Break a leg, Kanon-san. You, er… look really nice.”

The genuine compliment barely escaped her lips before the two of them both reddened. Kanon twiddled her fingers together, her eyes swirling. “Th-Thank you… O-Okusawa-san, you look han- …nice, too.”

Misaki desperately needed water to put out the inferno tearing through her arteries. “Th…anks…” she squeaked out.

The two stared into space together for what seemed like hours. Finally, without another word, Kanon stumbled towards the other side of the stage, lowering her head to hide her expression. No sooner had she trod off than Misaki released the air compressed into her lungs, gasping for a railing to right herself with.

Sh-She… was she going to call me handsome?! Misaki took big gulps of air. There’s no way… I would’ve had a stroke on the spot. Oh, man… ‘you look really nice’? Why did I say that out loud?! What the heck am I doing…

Singular applause erupted behind her ear. Startled, she tripped forward, turning to find a familiar gadfly.

“Ah, how magnificent!” larked Kaoru, nodding approvingly. “What valiant courage you have displayed, my little kitten.”

“Wh-Why do you keep sneaking up on me like that?!” asked Misaki, struggling to keep her voice down.

Kaoru ignored the question. “And yet, it seems you still have yet to bare it all… hmm… well, such things take time. Remain vigilant, dear Misaki – the hour will come soon enough.”

Misaki groaned. “As usual, you don’t even listen to me… I’m stressed out enough as it is, all right?”

Kaoru’s face turned to concern. “What has you so troubled, little kitten?”

“What do you think?” asked Misaki, motioning to the stage, bustling about with actors and stagehands. “I’m about to go out and humiliate myself before a live audience.”

“Nonsense!” said Kaoru. “Your spirit will surely shine through. Why, your soul’s character will be so blinding as to render them speechless.”

“Uh huh. And what is my ‘soul’s character,’ exactly?”

“Yes, well… hm… ah… you see…” Kaoru’s face struck a thousand different expressions in the span of a second. “It is but that.”

Misaki couldn’t stop the disgruntled sigh that escaped her throat. “Should’ve known better than to expect a coherent explanation from you.”

Kaoru seemed unfazed. “Do you truly fear the stage, Misaki?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess,” she admitted with a huff. “I’ve told you from the start that I’m not really cut out for this ‘acting’ thing.”

Kaoru clicked her tongue disappointingly. “A true shame. I, for one, love the stage… it’s simply… how do you say? Fleeting…”

Fleeting.

Fleeting?

Fleeting.

“What in the world do you mean fleeting?!

Once again, Misaki’s mouth had fired off without warning. Kaoru looked taken aback by the outburst. And yet, her tirade was just beginning.

“Fleeting this, fleeting that… everything is ‘fleeting’ to you, isn’t it, Kaoru-san? The birds, the trees, a hot dog, it’s all so flipping fleeting, isn’t it? But if everything’s so fleeting, then nothing is! Don’t you get it?!” Misaki crossed her arms, puffing. “Like you even know what that word means… good grief.”

Her brain realized the gravity of what she had said, and immediately sought to apologize. But her body wouldn’t budge. The fire in her belly was raging out of control, and no matter how much she wanted to quell it, it blazed on. And where it burned, the ashes of guilt began to seep in once more. She began having flashbacks… to the café, to the softball stadium, to the airplane hospital room…

It just kept happening.

Would she never stop making this mistake?

Would she never stop hurting those important to her?

What she had said was absolutely hurtful.

…Yet, it was strange.

Kaoru…

Kaoru took the words with a stoic expression.

Calm. Dignified. Considerate.

And, with greater grace than Misaki deserved, she spoke:

“Do you know what makes things precious, Misaki?”

The war in Misaki’s soul ground to a halt. The grandness of the question gave her pause. Kaoru looked at her without a hint of her usual boisterous mirth – but neither was there any trace of malice or cruelty.

“I will tell you, then,” she continued. “Precious things are found in all walks of life, in every ray of the sun. Gorgeous, sonorous, cherished things. People, places, items, art… there is so much worth loving in this world – so much beauty, and artistry, and grace. And yet, it is all curtailed by one hard, cold truth.”

“…Truth?” asked Misaki quietly.

Kaoru’s eyes closed, somberly:

“Nothing lasts forever.”

The chatter of the audience was suddenly very loud in Misaki’s ears.

“You, I, the trees all around, the clouds in the sky, even the very earth we walk… it is all subject to that uncaring impermanence. There will come a day when the sun doesn’t rise, when the world doesn’t spin, when reality as we know it ceases to exist. Nothing is eternal. Everything is temporary. But…”

The purple prince smirked.

“Isn’t that what makes it all so beautiful?”

Misaki’s eyes flinched. She could have sworn she was crazy, or feverish, or outright hallucinating, but in that moment…

Kaoru seemed to glow.

“A day in the sun, a walk in the woods, a trip to afar… they are as lasting as soap bubbles, popped with the most delicate of touches. And yet, the memories of them remain treasured for lifetimes. Tell me, if one visited the moon every day, or painted a masterpiece on every canvas, would such things hold the same wonder and magnificence as they currently do?”

Misaki didn’t have to answer the question.

“So it is, too, with the stage.” Kaoru turned to face the grand layout before her. “Each performance lasts but an hour or two, repeated only so many times before fading into oblivion. Unlike with film, or literature, or video games, one cannot revisit a stage production as many times as they please – it can only be burned into memory, beloved for what it left behind.”

“What if you videotape it?” asked Misaki.

Kaoru chuckled. “’Tis not the same. It’s as comparing a studio recording to an orchestra: the recording will play back the same songs at the same intonations at the same speed, always and without fail… but the symphony? It will play music with vigor, with aplomb, with life – imparting those very notes with a mellifluous grandeur that no playback could ever match.”

Misaki couldn’t rebut her.

“So too is the stage temporary for the performer – the very players that descend upon its florid floorboards to communicate the depths of human emotion. Each night holds a tale slightly different from the last – a softer intonation of the voice, a monologue more drawn out, a prop wielded with greater fancy. Yet, no matter the occasion, the actors must take their bows, and the curtain must always fall. Thus, the play is transient, ephemeral…”

Kaoru turned to look straight into her eyes.

“Fleeting.”

Misaki had no words. She couldn’t begin to process the emotional shock she was experiencing: not because she had borne witness to such a profound thought, but because it was Kaoru – vacuous, haughty, thick-skulled Kaoru – who had said it.

Nothing lasted forever… what was she getting at?

“So tell me, my kitten,” she continued. “What kind of fleeting performance will we see tonight? Will it be as lovely as the hue of your eyes – nay, the tenor of your skin?”

…And she ruined it again. Misaki wanted to groan, but she didn’t have the energy. And as much as she wanted to discard it, she couldn’t shake the purple prince’s monologue out of her head.

“No, perhaps it’s the sharpness of your cheeks, so cutting… or the darkness in your raven hair!”

“Give up on the flirting, Kaoru-san,” said Misaki. “I’m not interested.”

Kaoru chuckled. “You misunderstand, kitten. Such compliments are not idle wooing, but genuine laudations…”

“Right.” Misaki shook her head. “You know what? I’m going to see if I can get my makeup done now.”

“Ah, a most fleeting idea… for one’s cosmetics, too, must someday be removed…”

Misaki now actively ignored her, retreating to the green room door. “Break a leg, Kaoru-san.”

“And you as well, brave Misaki.”

The door slammed shut soon afterwards. Kaoru watched Misaki go, an content expression plastered on her face. Nonetheless, she grazed her chin with her finger, closing her eyes deep in thought.

“You look pleased.”

Kaoru opened one eye. “Ah, my dear Chisato. Have you finished your preparations?”

“Yes, quite.” Chisato wore a vivid red tunic flourished with gold fleur de lis patterns, twirling to show off its elegance. “That was quite the speech you gave.”

“Ah, you were listening?” Kaoru chuckled. “I didn’t intend for a large audience…  alas, my magnetic charm simply attracts such onlookers. I wonder what other kittens heard my words of wisdom.”

Chisato was unmoved by her floridity. “Honestly… first a prince, now a philosopher? I hardly know what to make of you these days.”

“There is nothing to make. As I have told you, I am Kaoru Seta – nothing more, nothing less.”

“Is that so?” asked Chisato, sitting down on a nearby folding chair. “You know, that speech of yours reminded me of a story I once knew.”

“A story, madame?”

“Yes,” said Chisato, brushing her hair aside. “A fairy tale.”

Kaoru looked boldly onward. “Ah, I see… a tale of magic and mischief, then?”

“Hardly.”

“Of gods and glory?”

“Please.”

“Of dungeons and dragons?”

“I grow drowsy at the very thought,” said Chisato. “Come now, Kaoru, I’m sure you know the fable.”

“I’m afraid your meaning eludes me, my dear Beatrice,” said Kaoru. “Please, enlighten me.”

Chisato closed her eyes, folding her fingers together neatly. With the cadence and weight of a proper yarn-spinner, she began recounting the tale.

Chapter Text

Chapter 33: Kaoru Seta

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there lived a princess.

“Ch-Chiiiiii-chaaaaaaan! Saaaave meeeeeee!”

“Kao-chan… it’s the monkey bars. You’re barely off the ground.”

Kaoru stared at the abyss of dirt and woodchips that yawned open below. What was in reality a meter away felt like a thousand mile drop into the maw of the earth. She dangled there, halfway across the playset, arms quivering as her stamina rapidly depleted and her life flashed before her eyes. She had made the mistake of glancing down to say to Chisato that “it wasn’t so hard,” only to lock eyes with the looming chasm beneath.

The princess was a dainty, delicate little maiden. Which is to say…

“I’m gonna diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie!”

A complete and total coward.

Chisato didn’t look very concerned. “If you just keep going, you’ll be fine.”

“I’m gonna diiiiiIIIiiIiIIIIIIiieeeEEEeeeeeuhaughauhaaaaaaagh!” Kaoru’s anguished scream of terror devolved into an indecipherable blubber of snot and tears.

“Calm down Kao-chan, you’re gonna be fi-”

At that moment the clammy fingers of Kaoru’s left hand gave way, and her arm began swinging downward. The sudden gravitational yank was enough to slacken her other grip, and within a second she was free-falling, forever in a second.

Thwump

She collided with the ground feet first. Her knees buckled under the sudden force, sending her tumbling onto her butt. Despite the sudden fall, she was completely unscathed.

“…waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!”

The princess, so small and slight of frame, was not fit to survive in such a cruel, violent world.

Chisato looked at Kaoru, sniveling hopelessly on the ground, and sighed.

However…

 “Come on, Kao-chan…” she said, consoling the weeping girl with a tight hug and a pat on the head. “You gotta be braver, you know that?”

“I-I-I-I was so *hic* sc-sc-scared!” Kaoru whimpered back.

“I hear you, I hear you,” said Chisato. “Where’s it hurt?”

The sound of Kaoru’s sobs slowly dissipated. “U-Uhm… i-it doesn’t hurt, actually…”

Chisato busted out in a fit of giggles.

“H-Hey! Don’t laugh!”

“You’re so funny, Kao-chan,” said Chisato. “It was just a little fall, but you started crying right away.”

“I-I thought I was gonna die!”

Chisato shook her head. “Nuh-uh. You never will.”

Kaoru blinked, drying her eyes. “H-Huh?”

The knight looked into her liege’s face, and smiled.

“’Cuz I’ll protect you, no matter what.”

~~~

The princess and the knight had known each other longer than either could bear to remember. From the moment they met, in those earliest years, they could not be less alike – and more attached.

“Hey hey, what’s with your hair?” asked a classmate.

Kaoru clutched at the ends of her glossy locks with her tiny hands. “Wh-What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s such a weird color,” said another snottily. “And the way you tie it in the back… it kinda looks like an eggplant.”

“Oh man, it totally does!” chimed a third. “Eggplant hair! Eggplant hair!”

“Eggplant hair, Eggplant hair!” chanted the other two in unison.

The trio’s laughter descended on the princess like a swarm, drowning out her thoughts. In mere moments she had started bawling out of sheer confusion, wondering why these girls would ever compare her hair to a vegetable. She cried out, and her knight came galloping in.

“Hey! Stop bullying Kao-chan,” commanded Chisato, swooping in between Kaoru and the bullies.

“Oh, look, it’s Dororo,” said the first girl. “Like on TV.”

“Why is she blonde, anyway? Is she foreign?”

“Blondie! Blondie!”

Hearing the cruel monsters taunt her dear friend so viciously only made the princess cry harder. The knight, however, remained steadfast.

“Have you looked in a mirror lately?” asked Chisato, pointing to each of the assailants in turn. “Your hair looks like toothpaste, yours is bright pink, and you… I dunno even know the name for that color! Teal?”

“Y-Yeah, so?” said one of the bullies defensively.

“None of us have ‘normal’ hair colors,” said Chisato. “So stop making fun of Kao-chan for hers!”

The gaggle recoiled at her words. Their leader kicked the dirt.

“Wh-Whatever!” she spat. “It’s no fun making fun of her, anyway.”

“Yeah!” agreed the other two, sniveling.

As the goblins sauntered off, the knight tended to her charge.

“Are you okay, Kao-chan?”

Kaoru sniffled. “Ch-Chi-chan… my hair doesn’t look like an eggplant, d-does it?”

Chisato shook her head. “Nope! Not at all.”

Kaoru sighed with relief. “Oh, thank goodness… I thought somebody might try to eat it.”

The knight surveyed the princess, frowning.

“Kao-chan… you’re pretty dumb, you know that?”

~~~

The princess admired her knight more than any other.

“S-S-So d-dark…”

“It’s just past sunset,” said Chisato. “We’ll be fine.”

The princess clutched her paladin’s hand tightly. The woods they were camping in were dark and knotted with trees, the thick canopy above blocking the moonlight. With nothing to see, she could only rely on the voice of her companion.

“Ch-Chi-chan, aren’t you sc-scared?”

“Not really,” said Chisato. “I’m sure our parents will find us any minute.”

“B-But what if we run into a bear, or wolves, or…” Kaoru gulped. “Gh-Gh-Ghosts?”

“Ghosts don’t exist, Kao-chan. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“Nuh-uh! They totally do, just like Santa Claus! My dad told me!”

“Kao-chan, there’s nothing to be afraid-”

At that moment, the wind whistled through the trees, creating a low, gloomy hum. At the sound, the princess leapt to the ground and curled up tight into a ball.

“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

“Kao-chan? Hold still – I need to-“

We’re gonna get our souls sucked outta our bodies!

“Please stop crying, we’ll be-”

The princess wept, louder and louder, so earsplitting that their parents found them within moments. When they shone their flashlight upon the two lost girls, the knight was consoling the shaking figure of the princess, who was frightened like a lost little kitten.

Perhaps the knight could not be considered a mere knight to the princess. Perhaps she was welly and truly a hero in her eyes.

~~~

Of course, the princess was not bereft of good qualities. For one, she loved to read.

“Hey, hey, Chi-chan, look at this,” said Kaoru, pulling out a tome half her size. “I found this book in my dad’s shelf. It’s so big!”

Chisato looked at the book with wide eyes, reading aloud the cover. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare… I think I’ve heard of him.”

“Who’s that?”

“I think they called him… ‘the Bard.’ Though I’m not really sure what a ‘bard’ is.”

Kaoru opened the book, flipping to one of the dog-eared pages, and began reciting what was written. “‘To be, or not to be – that is the question… whether 'tith…’ ‘tiz? ‘tizth?” She shook her head. “What’s with the ‘tiszthth? It’s so hard.”

Chisato laughed. “You’ve barely read any of it. It can’t be that bad.”

“I’m not used to stuff this hard…” Kaoru arbitrarily turned to another page much later in the book. “‘What poor an instrument may do a noble deed… He brings me liberty. My resolution’s placed, and I have nothing… Of women in me.’ I didn’t realize there was a break there…”

The knight laughed at her monarch’s intonations. Undaunted, the princess continued:

“‘Now from head to foot, I am marble-constant… now the fleeting moon no planet is of mine.’” She lifted her head quizzically. “What does ‘fleeting’ mean?”

“I’m not sure,” said Chisato.

“Well, if she’s talking about the moon… then maybe she means ‘beautiful’ or ‘big’ or ‘round’?”

 “We can just look it up, you know…” Chisato giggled. “Maybe that book’s too smart for you.”

Kaoru puffed up her cheeks and her chest. “Yeah, well, I’m gonna read it all! And then I’ll know what all those big words mean!”

Chisato smiled. “I’m looking forward to it.”

The princess took to her mission with great aplomb. Even as she grinded and grit to understand the meaning of the sentences before her, she kept soldiering on. She took to reading the book at any given opportunity, dedicated to proving herself to her own knight.

However, it wasn’t long before she realized the task before her was far too daunting, and she took to material more befitting her grade level, becoming very invested in the medical findings of one Doctor Seuss.

As she read of cats in hats and foxes in boxes, the princess looked out lamentfully towards the horizon. She knew she wasn’t particularly smart. Nor was she particularly handsome, charming, strong, or brave… not like the knight. The knight could do anything.

But, perhaps if the princess showed that she could accomplish something… then perhaps she would be worthy of her champion.

Was that not strange?

A princess, who sought to serve her knight?

~~~

Of course, the guardian could not always be there for her liege.

“Kaoru?” called her mother.

“What is it?” she replied, looking up from the copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar that she was reading.

“I just got off the phone with Shirasagi-san. Unfortunately, Chi-chan won’t be able to make your playdate – the TV show she’s working on shuffled her schedule around.”

Kaoru’s spirit plummeted. “Again? That’s the third time this month!”

Mrs. Seta looked empathetically at her daughter. “I know, dear… Chi-chan is upset about it too. But that’s just how it is.”

Kaoru sank her face into the book, dejected. “Now what am I supposed to do…”

Her mother consoled her, rubbing her softly on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, sweetie… we’ll try to arrange another one soon.”

This did little to lift Kaoru’s crestfallen face. “…Okay.”

With a weak smile, her mother moseyed away, leaving Kaoru alone with her thoughts. No longer in the mood to read, she hopped out of her bed and towards the television.

The knight was often away, serving the people at large as a symbol of chivalry and beauty. There were many in the land who knew her name.

Yet without her knight, the princess became terribly lonely.

She had few other comrades. After all, she was scrawny, emotional, and cowardly – who would possibly want to associate themselves with one so puny?

Kaoru turned on the TV, changing the channel to her favorite anime. She was still upset, but getting her mind off of things would help… probably.

The princess watched the drama unfold in front of her – the tale of a pink-haired girl, who dared to become a prince and revolutionize the world, just to protect the one she loved. The princess stood there, enraptured by the romance, and wondered if she, too, could become such a royal.

She imagined herself as a princely figure – so valiant, so chivalrous, so handsome. One who did not cower before imaginary specters or half-meter drops. A gallant woman who loved and cherished all things with dignity and sensitivity, as eloquent as she was strong. The vision in her head was so numbingly majestic…

Kaoru looked down at her gangly, muscleless arms, attached to her miniscule frame, and suddenly began to tear up.

And yet, so cruelly fleeting.

~~~

The knight’s mission, while renowned, taxed her greatly.

“Chi-chan, are you okay?” asked Kaoru, as the two hovered near the top of the playground slide.

Chisato smiled, as clearly as ever. “I’m fine, Kao-chan. Why do you ask?”

The princess could sense what was imperceptible to others. The languor in her gait. The shadows beneath her eyes. The strain in her expression. She knew her knight better than anyone.

“You look so tired… are you getting enough sleep?”

The implacable grin of Chisato Shirasagi slowly fell. “I had to stay up late doing homework… I didn’t get back from filming last night ‘til 10.”

“10?! That’s practically the next day!” Kaoru protested. “How can they work you that hard?!”

Chisato chuckled lightly. “That’s just my schedule, Kao-chan. Don’t worry about me.”

It was the knight’s duty to be vigilant, no matter what. Yet her liege’s heart sank at her troubles.

“Chi-chan… you’ve been working so hard lately,” said Kaoru. “We’re only in grade school. I don’t even have a job yet. Why do you do it?”

In a rarity, the knight gave pause, as she considered her answer.

“Kao-chan… do you have a dream?”

 “I… I dunno,” said Kaoru. “I guess I wanna eat a lot of miso soup someday. Like, an adult-sized bowl. That’d be nice.”

“I… see. Well, I have a dream,” said Chisato, her eyes turning starry at the thought. “Do you know what it is?”

“What?”

The knight smiled, displaying a feminine elegance that far outshone her majesty’s:

“I want to be a princess. A pretty princess, who’s kind, and brave, and always does the right thing.” She sighed dreamily at the thought. “Doesn’t that sound great?”

The princess heard her knight’s earnest wish, her heart alit at the pure enthusiasm contained within.

“Right now, I have only little roles on TV,” Chisato continued. “But maybe someday, if I keep working really hard, then I’ll have the chance to be a princess. That’s what I want!”

At listening to her friend’s dear desire, the princess recalled her own fanciful thoughts days before. And upon doing so, a thought alighted within her mind.

“Chi-chan, if you’re a princess…” Kaoru began, “Then…”

“Then what?” asked Chisato.

Kaoru’s face glowed with excitement. “Then I’ll be your prince!”

The knight looked upon the princess with bafflement, before breaking out in a fit of laughter.

“Kao-chan, aren’t you a girl?” asked Chisato. “You have to be a boy to be a prince. If you’re a girl, then you’d become a princess, like me.”

“N-Nuh-uh!” Kaoru protested. “It’s all about the attitude! If I can be daunting and daring and dashing, then…”

Chisato snickered. “Hey, Kao-chan…”

“What?”

“Boo.”

Kaoru’s spine ratcheted in place as her eyes went wide in fear. “Ch-Chi-chan, what did I say about saying that?! Th-The ghosts might hear and want to come haunt us!” Her head darted around. “Qu-Quickly, hide!”

She dove into the slide face-first, gliding down the staticky plastic and crashing into the rubbery playground floor below. Chisato laughed at seeing her tumble unceremoniously down into the ground. “You’ve got a ways to go before you’re daunting and daring and dashing, Kao-chan.”

The princess lay there, defeated and indignant. Of course the knight wouldn’t understand.

Such things came so easily to her, after all.

“But…”

Kaoru lifted her head from the warm rubber. Chisato’s smiled had warmed.

“That’s what I like about you.”

The princess’s cheeks became red as roses.

~~~

The princess dwelled on those words for many seasons: ‘That’s exactly what I like about you.’ She didn’t understand. As she was, she was a weak, spineless little noble – what value could someone see in a royal as meek as her?

And yet, the knight never sought escape, or freedom from her burden. What answer could there be, other than a genuine admiration?

Years passed, and the answer did not clear. They both grew – the knight more so than the princess – and matured, arriving upon the cusp of adolescence with their dreams still fervent in their hearts. Until one day…

“Kao-chan!”

The knight came charging towards the princess with gleeful eyes and a tender face.

“The play! There’s gonna be a play!”

“Slow down, Chi-chan,” said Kaoru, who had dropped the philosophical treatise she was reading – Goodnight Moon. “What play?”

“At the arts festival,” Chisato continued. “They’re going to put on Romeo & Juliet! It’ll be my first chance at a princess role!”

“Wow! Incredible!” cried Kaoru. “…What play is that?”

“It’s from Shakespeare – remember him?”

“Oh, right, that ‘Bard’ guy.” Kaoru chuckled. “He was pretty easy for me. I’ve moved on to tougher material now.”

“…I can see,” said Chisato flatly, glancing at the illustration-laden book that Kaoru picked up from the ground.

Kaoru looked upward in thought. “But Romeo & Juliet, huh… are you gonna be Juliet?”

“I’m gonna try out,” said Chisato. “I’m not sure if I’ll get the part, but I’m pretty confident.”

“I see…” Kaoru stared emptily at the pages of her book. “So, who’s going to be Romeo? He’s the prince, right?”

“Well, they’re technically not prince and princess exactly, but… close enough. I imagine some boy will try out for it.”

The princess felt her heart sink at the words. Why did it plummet so?

“W-Well… good luck.”

Chisato smiled, more brightly than the sun had ever shone. “Thanks, Kao-chan! I’ll do my best!”

Outwardly, the princess bade her knight good fortune upon her quest.

Inwardly, she was hatching a scheme of her own devices…

~~~

“M-My name is Kaoru Seta, and I’ll be auditioning for the role of Romeo!”

The elderly sage in charge of the selection adjusted his glasses, and frowned upon seeing the princess’s face.

“…Aren’t you a girl?”

Kaoru fidgeted. “Y-Yes, sir, but I would like to try out for the part of Romeo.”

The theater director sighed irately. “Well, I suppose you do have a rather sharp face… don’t know about that size of yours, though. Romeo should probably be taller than Juliet.”

“C-Can I just audition, please?”

The director threw his pen on the table with a clatter. “Fine. Go ahead.”

The princess had silently smirked. She knew better than to charge towards such an opportunity with only sheer brazenness – she had come well-prepared. She had toiled night after night, seeking to memorize each of Romeo’s lines to a perfect degree… and now that she was at the crossroads, she took a deep breath, and released:

“Is the day so young? Ay me sad hours seem long was that my father that went hence so fast not having that which having makes them short out out of her favor where I am in love alasthatlovewhoseviewismuffledstillshouldwithouteyes-”

“Stop stop stop!” commanded the director, waving wildly. “What in the world are you doing?!”

“…Auditioning for Romeo,” said Kaoru plainly.

“And how are you doing that, exactly?!”

“W-Well, if I’m trying out, then I have to know the part by heart, right?” asked Kaoru. “So I memorized it all. But I realize reciting every word takes a while, so I thought I’d speed things up a bit.”

The director stared at her, speechless. “You… you memorized the part already?”

“Y-Yes…?”

“…And you were planning to audition using every single one of Romeo’s lines?

“I… don’t see what the issue is, frankly.”

The director stared for a moment before straightening the papers on his desk. “Ms. Seta, was it? You may go.”

“B-But what about-”

Now.

The princess, heavy of heart, meandered away, her shoulders hung with regret.

Her quixotic attempt to fulfill her dream had ended in failure.

What recourse did she have but to rest her head upon her balcony and weep?

~~~

Yet, even in the midst of her gloom…

“Kao-chan!” shouted Chisato, pink-faced in class. “I got the part! I’m going to be Juliet!”

She couldn’t help but be glad for her dear knight.

“Wow, that’s great, Chi-chan!” said Kaoru, before her smile lowered. “I wish I had made it…”

“It’s okay,” said Chisato, laughing. “It’s sweet of you to try, but… your acting abilities aren’t exactly top class.”

“I-I was doing my best!”

The princess wondered why the knight loved to tease her so. It was never meant with cruelty, and yet her taunts seemed never-ending.

“But still, Kao-chan…” said Chisato, her eyes shimmering with light. “This is it! I’m finally going to make my dream come true!”

“Aw, Chi-chan…” said Kaoru, beginning to tear up. “I’m just… just so… waaaaaah!”

Chisato sighed happily. “Crying again? You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Buhut I’hm juhsht sho hahpy fohr yoooouhuhuhuhuuuu!” wailed Kaoru, snot dribbling from her nose.

“…Thanks, Kao-chan,” said Chisato. “I’ll give it my all.”

With euphoric waterworks, the princess watched her knight take up the mantle of royalty, face aglow with beauty and joy. And, despite her jealousy, she cheered her paladin on with all her heart.

At first, the knight was beyond jubilant in her new duty. She arrived at her station each day with bright eyes and an invigorated spirit.

But… time took its toll.

Her burdens grew heavier with each day.

And gradually

Bit by bit

The light disappeared.

~~~

            The knight and the princess began to see each other less and less. The former was so laden with tasks that she could only meet at lunch hour. The princess was fretful for her only friend.

            And yet… the knight had been so happy to be crowned. Was the princess in the right to fuss?

“…Are you okay, Chi-chan?”

Chisato beamed easily. “I’m alright, Kao-chan. Don’t worry.”

The knight’s body betrayed her grin. The heave, the blinking, the torpor… the princess could tell how spent she was.

“A-Are you doing too much work lately? D-Do you need a break?”

“I can take care of myself, Kao-chan… worry about yourself before me.”

Kaoru’s worries weren’t alleviated. “W-We’re going to be going to different middle schools, you know… will you be all right on your own?”

“…I said I’m fine.”

“But-”

“I said I’m fine!

The knight’s voice boomed. It was uncharacteristic of her to bellow. The princess silently trembled, holding back her emotions. Finally, her sentinel took a deep, mournful sigh.

“You’re lucky, Kao-chan.”

 “Huh?”

Chisato picked at her fingernails. “You… you still get to be a kid.”

Kaoru didn’t understand. “B-But you’re a kid, too…”

“…Do you know what the kids on the playground call me?” asked Chisato. “They call me Dororo, or Dodger, or Anne of Green Gables. People I play on TV. Nobody ever wants to know about me. Even the teachers. I’m just… that face they know.”

The princess’s heart bled, but no words came to her.

“I wonder…” Chisato continued. “When I’m done with this play… are they just going to call me ‘Juliet,’ too?”

“Ch-Chi-chan…”

Chisato continued stoically staring into the distance before breaking out into a smile. “Heheh, just kidding. People know my name really well by this point, after all. I’m Chisato Shirasagi, after all. The entire country knows me… right?”

The knight forced a giggle. But the princess couldn’t bear to laugh.

How could she possibly do so, after seeing a soul laid bare?

The princess ached day and night in her efforts to try and help the knight.

She wanted nothing more than to grab her by the hand and run away with her, to let her escape the burden of her own destiny.

But how could she?

She was just a lowly, useless monarch.

All she could do was watch as the knight prepared for her coronation, and hope that it would pass without incident…

~~~

It was the day of the ceremony. The knight and the princess were playing on the swingset, hours before the festivities were set to begin. The sky was clear and blue.

Suddenly, a teacher came running towards them.

“Chisato-chan!”

Chisato deaccelerated, bringing the swing to a halt. “What is it, sensei?”

“I-It’s Kazu-kun… he fell off the monkey bars and hurt his arm!”

The knight’s face darkened with shock and mournfulness. The princess gasped.

“K-Kazu-kun? Isn’t he Romeo in the play?”

The teacher nodded. “It looks like it’s broken. He…” She paused. “He won’t be able to take part.”

Dread set in upon the scene. The 6th graders had no understudies to speak of.

Without a prince, the coronation was as good as ended.

And yet, the knight…

“Is Kazu-kun all right?”

The teacher’s expression remained downtrodden. “He-He’ll be fine – it’s not life-threatening, but…”

Chisato smiled tenderly. “I’m glad. I hope he gets better soon.”

“W-Wait, Chi-chan,” asked Kaoru. “What about the play?”

“…What about the play?” asked Chisato. “It’s not happening, Kao-chan.”

“B-But you worked so hard!”

Chisato’s expression remained strong. “That’s true. But… that’s just how it goes. Sometimes…” She took a deep breath. “Sometimes you work really hard, and you don’t get anything for it. That’s just how it is.”

In that moment, the princess could see it.

Masked by a smile, hidden away so the knight wouldn’t have to show it.

That terrible, terrible sadness.

And in that moment, within her fragile little soul, so small and spindly…

Kaoru gulped. “I-I’ll…”

 A spark was lit.

“I-I’ll be Romeo!”

Chisato and the teacher were both taken aback at the outburst. “You?” asked the teacher.

“I memorized all his lines!” said Kaoru. “I know them by heart! So please, let Chi-chan – let the play go on!”

The knight was rendered speechless. The teacher frowned, but did not shake her head.

“…I’ll discuss it with the director,” she said. “I don’t know if we even have a costume that fits, but… can I take your word on that, Kaoru-chan?”

Kaoru steeled her jellied legs. “O-Of course! I’ll be the best Romeo you’ve ever seen!”

The teacher scurried off to consult with her peers. But the knight remained still, affixed on the princess’s face. Her eyes were empty of light.

“Kao-chan… you dummy.”

The princess flinched at the word.

“Do you really have the play memorized?”

Kaoru bobbed her head rapidly. “Y-Yeah. I do.”

The knight’s ironclad smile was broken. A disheartened gaze tracked from her eyes.

“…Ok. Fine. Let’s… Let’s do our best.”

She ambled off, not bothering to hear her liege’s reply.

The princess’s heart pounded in her ears. A thousand emotions bubbled in her stomach. She wanted little more than to find a secluded closet and hide within.

But resolve became her armor, and courage, her sword.

Thusly, she swore:

This time… she would be the one to protect the knight.

~~~

The curtain rose, and the choir sang:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”

The princess paced nervously in the wings, stuffed into a hastily-constructed tunic three sizes too big. With trepidation, she watched the opening brawl between Montagues and Capulets play out, anxiously looking for her first cue.

On the other side of the stage, she saw the knight, beholding the audience with crestfallen eyes.

She clenched her fist at the sight, making her entrance with giant, theatrical strides.

“Good-morrow, cousin,” said Benvolio.

“G-G-“ Kaoru cut herself off, remembering that she wasn’t supposed to reply with ‘Good-morrow’ herself. “Is the day s-so young?”

“But new struck nine.”

“Ay me… sad hours seem so long. Was that was my father that was w-went so hast? Er, hence so fast?”

The onlookers whispered amongst themselves, taken aback by the meek, unsure Romeo before them. Line after line she stumbled through, like a bumbling old dotard without a wit about her. And yet, she braved the first act.

“Wh-What lady is that, which doth enrich the hand of yonder knight?” she asked, looking in Chisato’s direction.

“I know not, sir.”

“Oh! She does teach the torches to burn bright, it seems she, uh, hangs upon the cheek of the light- er, night, like a rich jewel in an…” Kaoru blanked, her mind suddenly skipping to the end of the monologue. “D-D-Did my heart love ‘til now? F-Foreswear it, sight! For I never saw true beauty until this night.”

The disappointment of the crowd became tangible before them. A pallor of unease descended upon the players. The knight’s expression looked more and more hopeless. So did the princess reach the balcony scene, her fevered brain straining to recall the lines of Romeo’s most famous words.

“B-But soft! What light through younder- yonder window br-breaks? ‘Tith the east, and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and, uh, drown out the moon, for the moon is… not as bright as you, so… I, uh, wish that I was a glove upon that cheek, I do.”

“Ay, me…!” cried Chisato, sounding legitimately distressed.

The princess took note of her knight, dressed in a vivid dress of violet and lace, resting her face so somberly upon her arm. Just as Romeo said: she was as the sun. Never had the princess seen such an adorable girl in all her life – yet it made remembering her lines all the more difficult.

“Sh-She speaks – oh, angel, speak again, for you are- thou art as… gl-glorious to the night as, uh, a… wing is to an angel, and…”

The princess silently grieved. She was making a fool of herself, and the knight was suffering for it. Even now she lay upon the balcony, despondency emanating from every pore. The princess wished for nothing more than to make her knight smile at that moment - smile as she always did…

“Oh, Romeo, Romeo…” Chisato sighed. “Wherefore art thou, Romeo? Deny thy father, and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

The princess’s line lay forgotten, as she gazed upon her knight, radiant upon the balcony. How melancholy in disposition she lay; how miserable in spirit. The princess felt a sorrow well up inside, vast and unconquerable.

“'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name!”

Some other name, thought the princess. How the people knew her knight by so many of them. And yet, who cared for the face beneath the helm?

“What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.”

Perfection? No, the princess was far from perfect. Not like the knight. The knight, like a yellow rose upon that balcony, draped in the raiment of a goddess… even in such an ignominious situation, she bore with her pain, showing nothing of it.

“Romeo, doff thy name,and for that name which is no part of thee… take all myself.”

The princess, so entranced, could not so much as muster one brain cell to recall her line. And yet, she knew she could not be idle in that moment. And so, her mind spoke what it could muster:

“Who even cares about names?!”

The Bard surely rolled over in his grave upon the sound.

“Ka- R-Romeo?” stuttered Chisato, startled.

“Look, Ch- Juliet!” Kaoru exclaimed, scampering up the molded pillar towards her level. “M-Montague, Capulet – none of that matters!”

“I-It doesn’t…?”

“Nuh-uh!” said Kaoru emphatically. “’Cuz… ‘Cuz I’m me, and you’re you! And we love each other, don’t we?! Who cares what anybody else thinks!”

“R-Romeo…” said Chisato, her face reddening.

Kaoru leapt onto the balcony from the top of the pillar, scurrying past the railing with a light thud. Upon standing up, it was now humiliatingly obvious how much scrawnier she was than her opposite. But this didn’t deter her.

“B-Because… I like you for you, Juliet! No matter what your name is!”

Chisato’s mouth hung agape. “Romeo…”

The knight and princess stood there, without words, without movement, simply staring into each other’s eyes of pink and red.

And then, the hastily-constructed glued-together balcony beneath them gave a sudden lurch.

“…What was that?” asked Kaoru.

In mere seconds, the floor gave way.

CRAAASSHHH

 The set toppled over, crashing into every piece of scenery, and leaving a wreckage of rubble and carnage in its wake.

The curtain hastily closed, and the audience never got to witness the end of this ignoble rendition of the Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet, which bore a very different fate for its eponymous lovers – face down, on the theater floor, lying amongst the broken pieces of papier-mache and old lumber.

~~~

None were hurt in the disaster, thankfully – at least on a physical level, for the princess cowered backstage, her entire being trembling in embarrassment. The other actors looked upon her with pure scorn and derision. The director lambasted her thoughtlessness and candor.

But even as she began to cry over her pains, there was one she was truly afraid to confront. And that one’s shadow soon darkened her own.

“Ch-Chi-chan…”

The knight gazed down at her princess. Her face was flat and expressionless.

“I-I’m *hic* sorry… I’m s-so sorry!” Kaoru tried to stifle her bawls, to no avail, burying her face in her knees. “I… I just wanted to *hic* help, but I ruined your b-big day! Y-You should’ve become a princess, but I… I messed up. Like I always *hic* do!”

The princess sobbed into herself, unable to so much as bear a glance in the knight’s direction. The shame ran hot and guiltily through her body. She felt the icy grip of death claw at her lungs. Her heart was melting into a puddle of emotions.

It was at that moment,

that the knight decided to do something

most unknightly.

She walked up to her princess,

bent over,

and

touched her lips to the princess’s cheek.

Kaoru lay in breathless disbelief, her hand reaching for the small wetness that had sprouted on her face. “Wh-Wha…?”

Chisato choked back her feelings for a moment, stifling her sobs, before tears of her own began streaming down her face. “Kao-chan… Th-thank you.”

“Chi-chan…?”

Chisato smiled, liquid spilling over her upturned lips. “Thank you for everything.”

And in that split-second, the princess somehow understood.

She could not stay.

The knight fled, leaving her princess reaching out to take her hand.

But the audience soon flooded the backstage, and her glittering brilliance became dust in the wind

Every day afterwards… no matter how often they interacted… they never spoke of the incident.

Months later, their paths separated.

The knight and her princess, together since the earliest years, were parted.

The princess understood. She wasn’t worthy of her protector’s affection, after all. Even if she was grateful, the knight couldn’t stay. Who would love such a boorish, unhandsome fool?

If only she could be anybody else.

If only she could change.

No.

She could.

To become the figure she had envisioned… she had already taken the first step.

She had swallowed her fears and stepped upon the stage of destiny.

She would refine her knowledge ‘til she knew all the wisdom man could offer.

She would polish her charm ‘til every last lady fawned in her presence.

She would bolster her boldness ‘til not even the most frightening specter haunted her.

The power to become a proud prince lay within her grasp.

So long as she kept striving… to sharpen her wit, hone her allure, and strengthen her valor…

Then, someday, she would be worthy.

Worthy of the knight she so dearly loved.

~~~

“So?” asked Chisato. “Do you remember now?”

Kaoru listened to the tale with uncharacteristic quietude. “…Yes. How familiar. I’ve heard it many a time.”

Chisato laughed. “Why, I’d daresay you’ve lived it yourself.”

“I’m afraid I know not what you speak of,” said Kaoru. “That was a simple tale of love between a prim princess and her chivalrous cavalier… nothing more, nothing less.”

“Is that so?” asked Chisato. “Well, if that’s what you want to consider it to be… I suppose I cannot stop you.”

“…Chisato,” said Kaoru. “Why bring up that story now?”

“Oh, I suppose the situation has me feeling nostalgic,” said Chisato. “I can’t help but feel as if there’s another tragedy waiting to happen.”

Kaoru chuckled. “You underestimate Misaki and the rest. They will deliver a most fleeting performance… of that, I am sure.”

“Hmm… I suppose we’ll see,” said Chisato. “But keep in mind that not everything has a fairy tale ending. After all…” She looked wistfully to the side. “Sometimes the lovers are destined not to be.”

Kaoru said nothing in reply.

Chisato stood up and dusted herself off. “Good luck… Kao-chan.”

Shivers shot through Kaoru’s skin. “Pl-Please don’t… n-not right before the show.”

Chisato smiled politely and walked to the opposite side of the stage.

Kaoru took a moment to collect herself. Sixth grade had seemed so long ago… and yet, the memories were so fresh in her mind… ah, how fleeting…

Still, she had realized something crucial while listening – there was a lesson within, whether or not Chisato intended for there to be. Of course, it wasn’t meant for herself: rather, she was to impart it on another. That was her duty.

Misaki emerged from the dressing room, fully outfitted in stage makeup and plastic rapier. “Phew, that took a while… Wakamiya-san can be surprisingly aggressive with that stuff.”

“…Misaki.”

“Hm? What is it, Kaoru-san?”

Kaoru, thinking back on her youthful experiences, looked at her with great sagacity.

“Tonight, I have but one request of you. This above all… to thine own self, be true.”

Misaki smiled awkwardly. “Um… what the heck are you talking about?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 34: My Hero

The groundlings hushed in their seats below.

The time had come for the stage to alight.

There were no more players to be seen – only men and women of Messina.

The curtain rose, and the lights flared.

In the grassy knoll before them, a maiden sang:

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.

    Men were deceivers ever,

One foot in sea, and one on shore,

    To one thing constant never.

Then sigh not so, but let them go,

    And be you blithe and bonny,

Converting all your sounds of woe

    Into hey nonny, nonny.

 

Sing no more ditties, sing no more

    Of dumps so dull and heavy.

The fraud of men was ever so

    Since summer first was leafy.

Then sigh not so, but let them go,

    And be you blithe and bonny,

Converting all your sounds of woe

    Into hey, nonny, nonny.”

Beatrice, blonde and beautiful, concluded her ditty of dry ironicism, as her cousin and father applauded. Onto stage jogged a messenger, who bore good tidings – on that night, Don Pedro of Aragorn, along with his company of men. Among them was his brother, Don John, his righteous man Benedick, and of course, the promising young lieutenant, Claudio of Florence, who was currently watching the action unfold upon the stage from the wings, waiting for his entrance.

Claudio had heard Beatrice’s song many a time, but he had never fully grasped its meaning. He never was good at the antiquated language in which they spoke. He had asked his fellow Benedick many a time as to the meaning of the words he was to speak, only to receive equally byzantine replies: “They mean exactly what they say.” Well, why would I ask you if I already knew them? Claudio thought.

He’d had many ill dealings with Benedick as of late. So too, had he, with Beatrice, the silver-tongued damsel who watched his every move, and with Hero, the maiden he… well, what did he think of her? He was never certain himself. Every time he sorted out an answer he realized that he had blundered on the equation used to solve it, and frustrated himself in the process of trying to remedy it. Remedying things was all he had seemed dedicated to doing lately. Never moving forward, or evolving. Just taping old pieces back together.

Claudio soon dispelled his digressing thoughts, and focused in on the scene playing out before his eyes, lined up next to his compatriots as they waited with bated breath for their cue. All he had to do was play his part, no? Play his part, and be free from his charge. He had been diligent in his efforts. Resigned to his mission. Beholden to his words.

All he had to do was be himself – be Claudio.

Was that truly so difficult?

“Don Pedro is approached!” harked the messenger.

The four army men strode onto stage in their ruffled shirts with lighthearted strides. Bright-eyed Don Pedro walked as light and smoothly as ever. The envious sibling Don John maintained a simpering scowl as he moseyed on. Benedick, purple and pompous swaggered into the scene with a bluster befitting his reputation. And Claudio, raven-haired… could do nothing but remain transfixed on Hero, gentle, blushing Hero, as he entered.

“Good Signior Leonato!” called Don Pedro, approaching his addressee with open arms. “You are come to meet your trouble: the fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it!”

Leonato giggled, embracing him tightly. “Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your grace: for trouble being gone, comfort should remain; but when you depart from me, sorrow abides and happiness takes his leave.”

The two chatted back and forth as old comrades did. Within moments, Benedick and Beatrice had set about on their customary bickering. Don John leered on from the background, conniving with wiry fingers. But Claudio could not tear his eyes away from Hero. It was his duty, after all – to make moony eyes at her, to appear like the smitten fool he was meant to be. And such an act was hardly difficult – how she shone in the lights! He had already remarked upon her glowing visage before the curtain had risen, but now… here, with her gemstone eyes, perfect poise, and warm expression, he truly understood his given infatuation. It was effortless.

So lost did he become that his head tracked her departure without a second thought, and, upon noticing her absence, only then realized he was to speak.

“Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?” he asked.

Benedick chortled, somehow both arrogant and gallant. “I noted her not; but I looked on her.”

Claudio’s eyes chased the direction she had left in. He sighed softly. “Is she not a modest young lady?”

Benedick tracked his gaze. “Do you question me, as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment; or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?”

“No; I pray thee speak in sober judgment.”

“Why, i' faith, methinks she's too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise and too little for a great praise: only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome; and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.”

Claudio crossed his arms. “Thou thinkest I am in sport: I pray thee tell me truly how thou likest her.”

Benedick raised an eyebrow. “Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?”

“Can the world buy such a… j-jewel?”

He hesitated at the last word. Why? They were how Claudio felt for Hero, well and truly. He had known this for so long. So why did his lips waver?

“Yea, and a case to put it into,” replied Benedick. “But speak you this with a sad brow? or do you play the flouting Jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you, to go in the song?”

As usual, Claudio had no idea what Benedick was talking about, so he kept along. “In mine eye, she… she is the sweetest lady that I ever looked on.” Again, with the pause. He cursed his own tongue.

“I can see yet without spectacles and I see no such matter: there's her cousin, an’…” Benedick looked off into the distance, “she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December. But I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have you?”

The suitor gulped. He reminded himself of his station. He was Claudio. She was Hero.

“I… I would scarce trust myself, though I had sworn the contrary, if… if Hero would be my wife.”

That was all there was to it.

Of course, Claudio lacked the courage to face her alone. How could he ever come face to face with such graceful beauty and find the proper words? He knew that Don Pedro would swoop in and offer to court her in his stead. Claudio would croon of how much he loved fair, gentle Hero, and Don Pedro would gladly step in for the masquerade, wooing Hero for his sake. A perfect arrangement. Why, he didn’t have to lift a finger.

But is this right?

The wayward thought struck a nerve. Claudio had questioned it before. Why was he so actionless? Why did he do nothing to speak to the one he cherished? Why did he thrust all of his responsibilities upon his fellows? He thought he had shunted such worries to the attic of his mind, and yet… as he exited the spotlight and waited for the ball to begin, he couldn’t pluck it from his brain. Perhaps…

Perhaps it would be best to speak with Hero himself?

He almost slapped himself at the thought. No, that wasn’t what was meant to happen! Don Pedro was supposed to entice Hero, not him… even if such an arrangement seemed so bizarre and malformed in his present state of mind. As Claudio watched Leonato converse with his brother, and Don John plot with his henchman, and the ladies prepare for the masquerade, all from the shadows… a feeling swelled within his chest. It was neither melancholy nor rage; pity nor regret –what was it called? If only he could name it…

“Are not you Signior Benedick?”

Claudio snapped to his senses. The revelry had long begun. Don Pedro had absconded to flirt with his Hero. Benedick and Beatrice had engaged in another one-sided battle of wits. And here was Don John, to convince him of traitorous infidelity…

“Y-You are right; I am he,” said Claudio, flubbing his words ever so slightly.

Don John stared, oily and cankerous. “Signior, you are very near my brother in his love: he is enamored on Hero; I pray you, dissuade him from her: she is no equal for his birth: you may do the part of an honest man in it.”

“…How know you he loves her?”

“I heard him swear his affection,” replied Don John.

“So did I too; and he swore he would marry her tonight,” said Borachio, his bespectacled underling.

“Come,” said Don John, motioning forward, “let us to the banquet…”

Claudio knew the words to be false, yet he had to act as if he believed in their truth. How ridiculous that he should be so gullible. And yet, perhaps it was fitting. If he lacked the wits and courage to confront Hero himself, then surely he deserved such bare-faced duplicity.

So he cursed the very fellow he had entrusted with his own abilities, aloud for all to hear, as he was supposed to. Claudio could not help but feel that he was the most foolish person upon the stage… the same stage where Benedick and Constable Dogberry stood. It made him feel almost glib. Perhaps he’d don a jester’s hat and cartwheel about, just like Koko-

Claudio disciplined his unfocused thoughts. His role was all he needed to worry about;  anything else was just a distraction.

He trod away bitterly, recalcitrant and uncertain. In that brief moment before returning, he emptied his mind of all things that were not Claudio… Claudio or Hero. Those were the two items he allowed himself to dwell upon as he stepped back into the sun.

“Why, how now, count!” exclaimed Don Pedro, worry-faced. “Wherefore are you sad?”

“…Not sad, my lord,” he replied. However, he could not help but wonder if this was a lie.

“How then? Sick?”

“Neither, my lord.” And yet, his stomach churned like the sea.

Beatrice smirked. “The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well; but civil count, civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion.”

Beatrice was much more genial to him at the moment. That would change soon enough, when he was to slander Hero… dear heavens. He was going to ruin this poor girl’s life, the poor girl he loved, out of his own ignoraminity. How could he bear with himself?

“I' faith, lady, I think your blazon to be true;” began Don Pedro, “though, I'll be sworn, if he be so, his conceit is false. Here, Claudio, I have wooed in thy name, and fair Hero is won: I have broke with her father, and his good will obtained: name the day of marriage, and God give thee joy!”

Leonato stepped forward, taking his daughter’s hand. “Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes: his grace hath made the match, and an grace say Amen to it.”

It was meant to be a revelation of utmost ecstasy for him: that Don Pedro was staying steadfast and true, that Leonato had assented to the arrangement, and that Hero was his. In that moment, Claudio knew he was meant to feel unabashed joy – his friend was unbetraying, his love was his own. He looked into Hero’s bright face, blemish-less and vibrant.

“Speak, count, ‘tis your cue,” commanded Don Pedro.

For a moment, the verse he was to recite did not come to him. All that entered his mind was a single, callous thought:

I don’t deserve this.

“…Count?”

Claudio swallowed. His breath was suddenly shortened. His back was wet with sweat. But in the midst of this desperation, the words finally settled. “S-Silence is the perfectest herald of joy… I were but l-little happy, if I could say how much. Lady, as you are mine, I am yours: I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange.”

In response, Hero smiled. Dear gods, how she smiled! The sun would appear as cold night in comparison to her lustrous beam.

And yet Claudio was not stirred.

No, instead… he felt hollow, devoid of gratitude or pride.

How low could he be?

Fortunately, the jubilant atmosphere swept him away from his dark discourse, as he and his allies schemed to get Benedick and Beatrice to confess their loves to one another through subterfuge. Claudio had always thought that Benedick stared at his particular mortal nemesis with a tender gaze – more befitting a wounded philanderer than a spiteful adversary. In truth, he wondered if the Casanova bore feelings for Beatrice beyond… well, Beatrice, but that was a thought to be entertained another day. For now, they were to merrily deceive.

“Come hither, Leonato,” said Don Pedro, sure that Benedick was eavesdropping. “What was it you told me of today, that your niece Beatrice was in love with Signior Benedick?”

“O, ay: stalk on. stalk on; the fowl sits,” said Claudio dully. “I did never think that lady would have loved any man.”

“No, nor I neither;” said Leonato, “but most wonderful that she should so dote on Signior Benedick, whom she hath in all outward behaviors seemed ever to abhor.”

Benedick watched on in rapt wonder. “…Is't possible? Sits the wind in that corner?!”

Claudio always considered him to be one of the most thoughtless people he knew. How fitting, that he had to be tricked into love… and that such a thing were even possible. He wondered if he would take some small amount of joy from tricking his old friend so, but instead he reignited that old sense of disbelief, the tried and true thoughts of I can’t believe this is working… How long had it been since he had bore witness to such sincere tomfoolery? Since she had last been in Hello, Happy-

Claudio had to fight the urge to slap himself in the face. Now was not the time! He simply had to make it through this… engagement. He could worry about the ones lurking beneath the masks of Benedick and Beatrice later. For now, he was to continue with the dramatic connivery, until it was his own turn to be deceived.

And said turn came, soon enough.

“My lord and brother, God save you,” hailed Don John.

“Good den, brother!” called Don Pedro.

Here it comes…

“If your leisure served, I would speak with you.”

“In private?”

“If it please you: yet Count Claudio may hear; for what I would speak of concerns him.”

“What's the matter?”

Don John turned to Claudio, grave of expression. “Means your lordship to be married
tomorrow?”

Claudio knew the answer to be yes. And yet, he suddenly wished to scream the contrary. Fortunately, it was not his turn to speak. “You know he does,” said Don Pedro.

“I know not that, when he knows what I know…” said Don John quietly.

“…If there be any impediment, I pray you discover it,” said Claudio.

Don John sighed wearily, injecting false honesty into his voice. “You may think I love you not: let that appear hereafter, and aim better at me by that I now will manifest. For my brother, I think he holds you well, and in dearness of heart hath hope to effect your ensuing marriage – surely suit ill spent and labor ill bestowed.”

“Why, what’s the matter?” Don Pedro repeated.

“I came hither to tell you; and, circumstances shortened, for she has been too long a talking of… the lady is disloyal.”

Claudio readied himself. He was supposed to be incredulous. And yet…

“Who… Hero…?”

It came out bleak. Hopeless. Pathetic. Like a cowed rat, ready to scurry away without so much as a crumb.

“Even she; Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero:”

“Disloyal…?”

Hero could never be. She knew. But Claudio did not.

Don John continued. “…The word is too good to paint out her wickedness; I could say she were worse: think you of a worse title, and I will fit her to it. Wonder not till further warrant: go but with me tonight, you shall see her chamber-window entered, even the night before her wedding-day: if you love her then, tomorrow wed her; but it would better fit your honor to change your mind.”

“May this be so?” asked Claudio. He sounded as if his soul were in a million pieces. How fitting, and yet improper.

“I will not think it,” scoffed Don Pedro.

“If you dare not trust that you see,” said Don John, “confess not that you know: if you will follow me, I will show you enough; and when you have seen more and heard more, proceed accordingly.”

Claudio grieved. “If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her tomorrow in the congregation, where I should wed, then…” He swallowed. “Then there will I shame her.”

Don Pedro patted him on the shoulder. “And, as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join with thee to disgrace her.”

Don John nodded coldly. “I will disparage her no farther till you are my witnesses: bear it coldly but till midnight, and let the issue show itself.”

“O day untowardly turned!” cried Don Pedro.

“O… mischief, strangely thwarting…” moaned Claudio.

“O plague right well prevented,” said Don John. So will you say, when you have seen the sequel…”

Night came in an instant.

The three men came upon Hero’s balcony, dimly lit by the flickers of candles. For a moment, they merely looked on above, where two shadows embraced and called names in love-locked passion. Cries of ‘Hero’ punctured the darkness. Sounds of scandal ruptured the silence.

Claudio was devastated. At least, he was meant to be. Of course, he knew that it was in reality Hero’s maid, Margaret, and Don John’s lackey, Borachio, who by trickery made their romantic rendezvous appear to be one of Hero’s. And yet, he stumbled to his knees all the same, for that was his role. Don Pedro came to console him with a clenched fist. Don John looked on, his smirk cloaked by the night. The atmosphere was awash in tragi-comedic woe.

And yet, Claudio couldn’t feel the resentment asked of him.

Not towards Hero.

How could he ever think such a lovely, innocent creature would commit such acts? Didn’t he love her? Didn’t he wish to marry her? Was he really so capricious as to accept such falsity with so few reservations? Didn’t he believe in her?

And that’s when the answer became clear.

Of course he didn’t.

Claudio didn’t care about Hero at all.

He was naïve, vain, impetuous, ungrateful, and self-centered.

He’d rather take the self-righteousness of being dishonored over trusting the woman he loved.

He had to be guilt-tripped into feeling remorse, and accepted what he believed to be another woman as a bride, as if she were a consolation prize for his repentance.

He hadn’t even talked to Hero alone once. He made someone else do it in his stead.

And he thought he was the one who was wronged?

What a lowlife.

He lay there, mired in self-loathing, as Don Pedro helped him to his feet. For the first time all day, his mind felt empty. Vacant.

Then, without warning, without announcement, Benedick’s words from earlier floated through, pulsating:

Tonight, I have but one request of you. This above all… to thine own self, be true.

Thine own self? Claudio would never want to be his own self.

That’s right, thought Misaki, as she stood up.

Nobody would ever want to be Claudio.

Which meant… there was only one thing left to be done.

“W…Wait.”

Everything seemed to pan out at that moment. Beyond the simmering lights she could make out the engaged, worried expressions of the audience. The sounds of Maya and Eve congregating above had all but disappeared. Sayo and Hina both looked at her with wide, dulled eyes. The already dimmed lamps had begun darkening further, only to halt with her words. They had been just about to make their way off stage when she spoke. There were no lines in this scene, after all.

“…Wait just a moment.”

Part of Misaki’s brain immediately burst into flames. What in the seven hells are you doing?! It asked her. But it was drowned out by impulse – stupid, heady, unstoppable impulse.

“He-Hero… I haven’t talked to Hero.”

Iambic pentameter had been cast to the wind like dry confetti. Sayo looked at her with deadened surprise, completely at a lost as to what she was doing. Yet Hina – whether by pure, instinctive intuition, or some other curiosity – adjusted without missing a beat. “What is there to speak of? You’ve seen your infidelity for yourself, have you not?”

“M-Maybe,” said Misaki, wishing she could have Hina’s improvisational skill herself.  She had no choice but to keep charging onward. “Yet… am I supposed to expose her to the congregation tomorrow, without her getting a chance to defend herself? Is that fair?”

“She has been faithless,” said Hina. “My good brother here has shown us. What does her word matter?”

“You don’t understand, m-my lord,” said Misaki, doing her best to keep up her pretenses. “She’s… she’s the woman I love, is she not? I can’t bear to distrust her so easily.”

A murmur had risen in the audience. The handful of onlookers who were familiar with the play must have been horribly confused. She didn’t dare to look towards the backstage wings – she would be turned to stone on the spot if she happened to meet Chisato’s eyes. Misaki’s soul quivered at the thought of how she would be reacting to this.

“…You are a good man, Claudio,” said Hina, “But-”

The platitude got under Misaki’s skin. “No, I’m not. But…” She stood up straight. “That doesn’t mean I can’t try to be.”

“What are you-” began Sayo, breathless.

Misaki whipped back around towards the balcony, compulsion commanding her every movement. “H-Hero! Hero, are you there?”

She kept her eyes locked on the parapet’s window. Maya and Eve would have long descended the stairs behind the set’s façade. What she was doing was beyond a gamble – it was sheer ludicrousness. The actions of a madwoman.

“Hero! It’s me, Claudio!”

Still, the window above was dark. The howling, rational part of her brain was growing louder and louder. She would have to start scrambling for contingencies any moment.

“Hero… please, Hero… I just…” Misaki’s voice grew quieter, as she barely remembered to project outwards. “I just want to see you. Talk to you. …Explain myself, like I couldn’t before. So please…”

Darkness, for another three beats. And then…

“…Claudio?”

She alighted, like the sun of the east.

The lighting crew hastily cast a spotlight on the tower. In the blinding white shine so far above Misaki could barely make out her figure, but there was one certainty – Kanon’s face was flushed a deep crimson.

“Cl-Claudio, what are you doing here at this hour?” asked Hero. “It’s… It’s so late!”

Now that Kanon had shown herself, Misaki almost didn’t know what to say. But instinct was still at the driver’s wheel, and her mouth ran off unfiltered. “I just… I came to see you. B-Before the wedding.”

“B-Before…? Is it urgent?”

“Yes! Yes… extremely urgent.”

Misaki suddenly felt a horrible vertigo. Kanon seemed so far away, millions of meters up in the air… it made her dizzy. But her body, instead of looking to right itself on a piece of the scenery, took a completely different train of logic – it started to climb a nearby pillar, scrambling up to Kanon’s level.

“Mi- My lord Claudio?! What are you doing?!” she asked.

Misaki’s honest thoughts were I’m not sure. But she had the single remaining brain cell of prudence left to not utter that. “I… I told you I want to see you, s-so…” Halfway up the pillar, her hands slipped on the smooth surface, and she slid back to the ground. “H-Hold on a sec, I’ll be right there.”

“Wait, Lord Claudio, please d-don’t do that… you’ll hurt yourself!”

Misaki knew that, but her mind had taken “caution” and slam dunked it into a dumpster fire. She scurried three-quarters up the pillar before her foot snagged and she tumbled to the ground, right on her tailbone. She heard a couple snickers from the audience.

“Oww…”

Kanon looked on, her worried expression suddenly hardening into a furrowed brow. “My Lord Claudio… I can trust you, yes?”

“Of…” Misaki straightened herself. “…Of course you can.”

Kanon stepped back from the railing. “All right, then. I’m coming down.”

Misaki frowned. Coming down? What does she mean by –

It was at that moment that Kanon Matsubara, with sudden vigor and a mighty squeal, leapt over the balcony.

Time seemed to stutter to a standstill.

Misaki, for a split-second, could only stare dumbfounded. Then, the last remaining neurons that worked commanded her arms to extend, as her legs unconsciously stepped forward…

Fwump

Kanon landed in her arms, in a perfect princess carry.

Misaki’s knees buckled in absorbing the impact as needles of pain shot through her legs. The throbbing subsided just as quickly, however, and she rose to her feet. She took a deep breath, trying to still her thumping chest – Kanon was a lot lighter than she had expected…

…Wait a second.

Kanon?

Kanon Matsubara?

In… her arms…?

Misaki’s gaze met hers, their faces mere inches apart.

For an eternal second, they looked into each other.

Then, they turned the color of tomatoes, and in the flurry of their panicked arms both stumbled onto the ground, hyperventilating.

Kanon picked herself up and dusted herself off, cheeping lightly and steadying herself against the pillar. Misaki struggled to get to her feet, as she silently yelled at her heart to start beating slower, for the love of God.  For several seconds, they looked in exact opposite directions, afraid to turn around.

“Y-You… you didn’t have to do that,” said Misaki shakily.

Kanon released her pent-up breath with her trademark ‘fueee’ squeak. It had been so long since Misaki had heard it. She had never realized how much she missed it.

“Cl-Claudio,” said Kanon finally, sparing a glance over her shoulder. “Wh-What did you want to talk to me about?”

Misaki almost couldn’t remember. “Don John, the prince’s brother… he says you’ve been unfaithful.”

“U-Unfaithful?!” replied Kanon, with mock (or was it sincere?) disbelief. “Why would he say such a thing?”

“H-He showed me and Don Pedro a horrible scene just ten minutes ago, of you and another copulating at your window.”

“I and…?” Kanon shook her head furiously. “That wasn’t me. I only stopped by this window when I heard you call for me.”

“Is that so?” asked Misaki. “Do you swear it to be true?”

Kanon nodded. “With all my heart.”

The Hikawa twins, who had been watching in stunned silence, suddenly started up again. “Well, now, brother,” said Hina, eyeing Sayo with suspicion. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I, er, um…” Sayo stumbled. Fortunately, her bewilderment at the situation felt appropriately in-character.

Hina looked downcast. “You have some explaining to do.” She grabbed Sayo’s hand and turned to Misaki. “Dear Claudio, I leave the lady to thee. I’ll deal with this… canker.”

“W-Wait,” said Sayo weakly. “I-I can explain…”

The two absconded, leaving Misaki and Kanon alone right at center-stage.

“O-Oh, merciful gods…” said Misaki, trying to imbibe her voice with some dramatism. “I knew you wouldn’t do such a thing, Hero.”

Kanon smiled softly. “Thank you for believing in me, my lord… I knew I could trust you.”

Misaki half-smiled, half-grimaced. “So you could, hahaha…”

“Hahaha…”

Their awkward laughter petered out. The conversation was beginning to run out of steam. But Misaki knew things couldn’t end there.

“Hero, I… I’m sorry,” she said mournfully. “I truly am.”

“What are you apologizing for, my lord?”

“I… I’ve been avoiding you, truth be told,” said Misaki, unable to look her in the eye. “Don Pedro courted you for my sake, yet I couldn’t so much as bear to hold a private conversation with you before we wed. What kind of scoundrel am I?”

“M-My lord…”

“I… I was afraid,” Misaki continued. “I know, er, before I had returned to Messina, the… the things I said to you, before departing… I regret them, so much. Every day I dwell on them, and feel horrible guilt for my actions. For ever saying such things to you, I… I am beyond sorry.”

“Claudio-”

“I don’t even have the right to speak with you,” said Misaki. “I… I think I could see it, in your eyes. The pain you had when speaking to me. The agony you must have gone through, just to see the one who hurt you… and what did I do? I kept getting closer and closer, without regard for your feelings. All I ever did was cause you grief.” She closed her eyes. “If… If you want to call off the wedding, I-”

“M-My lord, stop…!”

Misaki’s rambling ceased.

Kanon’s eyes were tainted with tears.

She choked them back, and spoke:

“When… whenever I looked your way, I saw that same pain… I-I thought that you must have ached at every thought of me.” Kanon sniffled. “I… I could not bear with that sorrow I caused you. What you said to me, all those months ago… I realized then that I had wounded you. Wounded you so deeply… and before I knew it, you were gone, before I could apologize.” She shook her head. “Whatever anguish you caused me was insignificant compared to the torment I felt knowing I had hurt you.”

Misaki felt emotions pile in her chest, heaving with each breath. “No… No, Ka- Hero… you never caused me pain. It was me who couldn’t stand knowing that I had hurt you. I can’t reconcile with that. I just – can’t…”

“…W-Well,” Kanon mewled. “Perhaps we can. If we both feel the same way…?”

Misaki smiled, her own eyes beginning to dampen. “Can you ever forgive me, Hero?”

“You don’t need forgiveness from me, Claudio,” she replied. “But, can you forgive me…?”

“You don’t need forgiveness from me, either,” said Misaki. “Maybe the only people we need to forgive… are ourselves.”

Kanon looked at her, with red eyes and red cheeks. Suddenly, she clasped Misaki’s hands tightly. Her palms were warm and fuzzy, bristling with earnest emotion.

“Claudio… l-let’s put it behind us.” She nodded resolutely. “From now on… we-we’ll be kinder. To each other, and to ourselves.”

Misaki nodded. All the emotions she had ground up inside – all the pain, the longing, the wondering – flooded out, as tears began rolling down her cheeks. “…Yes. It’s a promise.”

The two muffled their tears, their fingers intertwining around each other. Misaki couldn’t get past how soft her hands felt… how delicate of touch, how smooth of skin. She could feel the crinkles along her joints, the suppleness of her knuckles, the light wisp of Kanon’s breath against her skin. She saw the rough, frayed edges of her cuticles, and wondered if Kanon chewed on her fingernails. For a moment, they simply breathed, the sound of their sobs reverberating throughout the auditorium.

But quietude soon turned to total silence.

“C-Claudio…”

Misaki gulped. “H-Hero, I…”

No words came. They were both spent. Misaki’s brain had been running on fumes and fancies. The entire conflict of the play had been snapped in two. The cast, crew, and audience were likely confused beyond belief. The synapses in her head roared to life, trying to find a parting thought, a transitory sentence, anything… but it was empty. Empty of everything except Kanon Matsubara, clutching her hands with delicate force.

Unconsciously, her eyes finally wandered to the wings of the backstage.

She could have seen anybody at that moment. She could have seen Aya, weepy and frazzled out of her mind. She could have seen Hagumi, complaisantly befuddled and encouraging. She could have seen Chisato, able to de-soul her with just one scowl.

Instead, she saw Kaoru Seta.

Smirking.

Misaki turned back to Kanon. She had never been this close to her before. At this distance she could make out the exact shape of her button nose, the roundness of her puffed cheeks red with feeling, the little curls of her blue tufts of hair that peeked out from under her bonnet. Her violet eyes, like little galaxies, drawing her into another universe of infinitesimal infinity. Misaki could have stared into them forever, getting lost in their lilac endlessness. The stage around them turned to stardust, twinkling with all the glittering lights the world could contain.

She clasped her hands tightly.

To thine own self, be true.

She didn’t have the energy to think.

She simply acted.

Misaki Okusawa leaned her head in, shut her eyes, and

kissed Kanon Matsubara, right on the lips.

Chapter Text

Chapter 35: Sing Thee to Thy Rest

Misaki’s mind spontaneously combusted.

Her brain cells fired off in scattershot directions like drunken and wild boars, stampeding over each other in a wrestle for power. Cognizance wept. Emotion soared. Rationale burned. And even as the riot in her skull became a pulse-pounding insurrection that throbbed throughout her entire nervous system, her maligned neurons could only approximate one singular thought:

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Her cerebral cortex roared with the impulse to pull away, to stop right that moment, to be understanding of the fact that everybody was watching her right do you understand what you’re doing you absolute buffoon? And yet, the rest of her body – the heart, the lungs, the blood that sang through her veins as every inch of her skin tingled with fervor – was blissfully content, unable to process anything but the feeling of Kanon’s lips against her own, warm and delicate and tender and soft and tasting like… cakey wax. Stage makeup was made to be practical, not flavorsome. But this tiny sliver of realism was the only thing that convinced Misaki that she wasn’t in some wild dream.

They might have lain frozen in that position for centuries, for all Misaki knew. It certainly felt longer. But after a dozen eons had passed, she saw the brightness past her closed eyelids fade into total blackness. The crew had finally killed the lights. From the audience erupted a scattering of confused applause.

The transition finally dulled Misaki’s fever pitch enough for her brain to wrestle back control of her body. She slowly pulled herself away from Kanon, finally opening her creased eyes to see… well, nothing. Only the dim glow of blacklights to the side illuminated their surroundings, and Kanon’s face was imperceptible. What emotion was she bearing in that moment? Shame? Elation? Ambivalence? Misaki couldn’t tell. But in the split-second her thoughts spent wondering, instinct kicked away her logic and jumped back in the driver’s seat.

She fled.

Misaki didn’t realize she could run so fast. She tore into the backstage wing behind her faster than Hagumi stole bases, diving past appalled stagehands to tuck herself away in a small dark corner, as every inch of fuzzy contentedness within her turned to blind panic, paralytic fear doused her entire being upon comprehending the gravity of what she had done.

Kanon – no, the entire play – I, I, I – oh my god, I am so screwed, the entire thing is going to bomb, what the hell was I thinking what was I thinking what was I-

“Okusawa-san.”

Misaki’s breath stopped.

The voice. Sickeningly sweet. Politely enunciated. Disturbingly quiet.

Unable to stop the shaking that spasmed throughout her entire body, she painfully lifted her head to see the smiling visage of Chisato Shirasagi, and for the first time in her life she felt the fear of God, Buddha, or whatever other devil ran the world rend through her heart.

“It’s quite fleeting, isn’t it?” asked Chisato.

The sudden articulation of that word, of all words, from her, of all people, stilled Misaki’s quivering for an instant. “Fl-Fleeting…?”

Chisato, still smiling, cracked her knuckles. “Your life, that is.”

Somewhere far in the distance, Misaki heard a funeral organ begin its plodding dirge. She didn’t have the capacity for dread or sorrow anymore – instead, she felt the same grim acceptance as any mortal being who had come to terms with their impermanence. So this was how she would go. She wanted to laugh. Looking at the chain of events that led her here, it was almost farcical. She’d always known her existence was just one big joke. Silently, she thanked her mother, her sister, and all the members of Hello, Happy World! for everything they had done for her. She’d be sure to remember them in the next life.

Before Chisato could fell her in one blow, however, a prince intervened. “Alas, Misaki…! That was magnificent. Grand! So… fleeting!”

“Y-Yeah, fleeting…” Misaki mumbled, rocking back and forth on the ground. “I know I don’t have long left on this earth, don’t rub it in…”

Kaoru seemed perplexed by her reaction. “Why do you languish so? That was-”

“Stop talking,” Chisato commanded. “Do you realize what she’s done?”

Kaoru chuckled. “Why, she lay her soul barren, for all to-”

“Your ad-lib has completely gutted the second half of this play,” said Chisato, indefatigable. “Without a misunderstanding between Claudio and Hero, all of the last two acts has gone up in smoke.”

The stagehands muttered amongst themselves. Within moments, the stage was luminous once more, as Hagumi and the members of the watch were shunted on to play out the next scene. Miraculously, Misaki realized, the rest of the third act would be unaffected by the change in direction, but post intermission… well, basically nothing would make sense. Misaki cradled her temples in her palms, still coming to terms with the extent to which she had messed things up. Dozens of cast and crew members were scrambling around looking for a solution, all because of something she had done, by pure whim. Yet even past the play, she was preoccupied with whatever Kanon was thinking most of all. The blue-haired Hero was nowhere in sight. Somewhere inside her smoldering lava pit of a chest, Misaki irrationally wondered if she’d ever even see her again.

A number of other actors had crowded around her. “O-Okusawa-san, are you all right?” asked Sayo, leaning down to look at her.

Misaki could only groan-yell incoherently in response.

“That was quite the show you put on out there!” chimed Hina, eyes humming. “Super boppin’! Normally I’d expect somebody like Aya-chan to lose composure and go out on a limb like that.”

“I’m right here, you know…!” Aya quietly squealed.

Eve peered out at the stage, watching Hagumi bombastically arrest Maya and her cohort. “Aya-san, Chisato-san, our scene will be starting soon!”

Chisato looked down on Misaki one last time, her domineering poise giving her even greater menace. “What do you imagine us to do, Okusawa-san?”

Deathly silence.

“You are the one who caused this situation. I expect you to be the one to fix it.”

Misaki felt a hideous revulsion lurch throughout her bowels. Get through this play. That was the one thing she had to do. Play her part, and don’t make a scene of herself. And once again, she had blown it. Blown it just like she had blown her relationship with Kanon. Things had finally patched up between them, and she had to go and do… that. She was ashamed. She was afraid. She was…

“Hold, Chisato.”

Kaoru spoke, her expression oddly serious. Misaki’s head didn’t budge from its hung position. Chisato sighed. “Now is not the time, Kaoru.”

“There is life yet in the play,” she replied. “Claudio and Hero are not the only ones who misunderstand each other’s feelings, after all.”

It took Misaki a second to realize what she meant, but Chisato appeared to get it immediately. “…You would hoist the entire production on your back?”

“Not mine,” said Kaoru. “Ours.”

On-stage, the lights dimmed. The next scene would begin as soon as the scenery was shuffled around. Chisato brooded for a brief moment, before scoffing. “I suppose this is my fate for letting a novice take the lead role with such little supervision, isn’t it?”

“Nay,” said Kaoru. “The responsibility there is mine alone.”

Chisato smiled as she stepped towards the stage. “Then I’ll suppose the punishment shall be yours, then.”

Peering through the cracks of her fingers, Misaki could swear she saw deep horror creep through Kaoru’s face for just a moment. An uneasy grin replaced it just as quickly. “C’est la vie, que sera sera… yes, it is so…” she muttered to herself.

Still unable to speak, and trying to steady her nerves, Misaki turned her attention to the next scene. As the lights flared to life, Kanon and Eve stood, fussing with the former’s dress in front of a mirror. Kanon had adopted a pure white gown in-between scenes – the theater club didn’t have the budget to go for an actual wedding dress, but it was still luridly silver enough to send Misaki’s heart pattering even faster.

“Truth, I think your other rabato were better,” said Eve, frowning.

Kanon stared into space for a moment before realizing she was spoken to. “U-Uh, No, pr-pray thee, good Meg, I’ll wear this.”

“By my truth, ‘s not so good,” said Eve, rubbing Kanon on the shoulders, “and I warrant your cousin will say so.”

Kanon didn’t reply this time. She seemed transfixed on something invisible.

“M-My lady?” asked Eve. “Are you all right?”

“Er… y-yes, quite,” said Kanon quietly. She was barely projecting. Misaki couldn’t tell exactly what was going on inside her head, but she did know who was responsible for the stupor, and shriveled further into her corner of destitution.

“Well, good!” said Eve. “Very good, indeed…”

She trailed off. They had already gotten off-script. Eve attempted to jump into a monologue about the dress Kanon was wearing, but the bride-to-be continued to listen with dulled eyes. Just when the scene was beginning to become painful, Chisato stepped in ahead of cue. “Good morrow, sweet Hero,” she heaved wearily.

“G-Good morrow, ‘coz,” said Kanon, appearing to stir at her arrival. “Wh…Why how now…? Do you speak in the sick tune…?”

“I am out of all other tune, methinks,” said Chisato. “As are you, it would seem.”

Kanon shrank in her seat, Misaki mirroring her off-stage.

Fortunately, Chisato and Eve had most of the remaining dialogue, and the scene progressed without much further issue. Following that was a brief interlude with Aya and Hagumi, and then… intermission. Sweet, merciful intermission.

Of course, there was no time to rest. As soon as the audience lights hummed to life and the familiar chatter returned, Kaoru clapped her hands together, loud enough for all to hear. “To the green room – at once!”

Nobody was in a position to refuse – including Misaki. After languishing for one final moment of misery, guilt drove her to the backstage preparation room, where all the cast and crew crowded around racks of costumes and boxes of sound equipment in a flurry of conversation.

“What happened out there?”

“Nobody planned for that, right?”

“I think it was all Okusawa-san…”

“What in the world was she thinking?”

Misaki knew it was her responsibility to own up to her actions, but her feet just happened to be frozen in place and wouldn’t move no matter what she did. What a shame, she thought, dryly sweating. I can’t step forward, and I can’t run away… guess I’ll just become a statue here. Nobody ever wants to hurt statues, right? Just let me live a sedentary life, free of conflict…

Her manic thoughts were dulled by Kaoru cutting through the throng, calling for attention. Unlike the disbelieving bewilderment of the rest of the room, she exuded pure enthusiasm. “An excellent start, everybody! I can hardly imagine a better three acts.”

Where there was loud confusion was now a stunned silence. “Was… was that supposed to happen?” asked one stagehand.

“Not in the slightest,” said Kaoru, chuckling. “But it is that very spice that gives the production zest, is it not?”

Misaki expected the theater club members to explode with incredulity at the statement. Instead, most of them wore expressions of resignations.

“Kaoru-san would say something like that, huh…”

“Well, it’s not like I ever expect these shows to go by normally.”

“Still not as strange as the time we did Hamlet in Danish accents.”

…Just what kind of plays has this school been putting on? Misaki wondered.

“Well, what do we do from here?” asked Maya. “If the conflict between Hero and Claudio has already been resolved, there’s not much to fill in the last two acts with.”

“Especially since Don John’s already been taken away by his brother,” said another crew member. “That subplot’s now a wash, too.”

Amidst the worriment, Kaoru looked on boldly. “Fret not, my little kittens. I shall take care of everything.”

“Everything?” asked Aya.

Kaoru nodded. “First, we have the wedding. Let it go on, without delay or objection. From there, we shall go through the scenes as planned – simply replace the original lines with improvisations that fit the situation.”

“And how will we know what fits the situation?” asked Sayo.

“Quite simple.” Kaoru motioned towards Chisato. “Follow our lead.”

Quite simple, indeed. Too simple, in fact. How were they supposed to know what to do? But as Misaki wondered, the theater club appeared resolute in their mission.

“If it’s Kaoru-san and Shirasagi-san, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“They’re pros, after all.”

“Who knows? Maybe this’ll turn out better than the original!”

Misaki was almost daunted by their optimism… and the fact that nobody was raking her over the coals for what she had done. Though given the glares Chisato was giving her – and the glazed gawp in Kanon’s eyes – perhaps any more shellacking would just be salt on the wound.

Still… was there any way that the play wouldn’t end in disaster? It seemed an impossibility. Growing frustrated, Misaki committed to shaking off her concerns – she just needed to worry about getting through one scene at a time. She’d star with the wedding scene, progress from there, and then, everything would be fine…

…Wait.

Wedding scene?

***

The last thing Misaki Okusawa needed was to once again come face to face with the girl she had abruptly and impermissibly kissed not half an hour ago. Especially when at both points she was before a crowd of a couple hundred people. But perhaps this was her punishment – if this sort of discomfiture kept happening to her, then she’d keel over out of shame.

At least she wasn’t alone in that respect.

When the curtain rose and the wedding chapel on stage illuminated with life, both she and Kanon had their eyes locked on the ground, unable to move them even one millimeter out of mortified fear. Everybody on and off stage was watching them and them alone. She felt like an exotic animal in a glass enclosure – she wondered if the pandas at the zoos ever got stage fright.

Aya cleared her throat, experiencing a good amount of secondhand embarrassment herself. “C-Come, Friar Francis, be brief… o-only to the plain form of marriage, and you shall recount their particular duties afterwards.”

“You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady?” asked the friar to Misaki.

This was supposed to be where Misaki began her denial; her indignant rage at the notion of wedding a wanton harlot. But she couldn’t do that now. Nor would she ever want to. In fact, it almost felt liberating… if not for the fact that a million frogs had hopped down her throat. Eventually, she summoned up the one speck of willpower she still had left rolling around her wizened spirit, clenched her breath, and croaked: “I do.”

The on-stage audience wore glimmering smiles. Hina patted her on the back with encouragement and faith.. Aya was beginning to cry (again), Eve comforting her with gentle back rubs. Sayo, who was supposed to be a villain, could not hide the pleased smirk that naturally bloomed on her face. Chisato, despite clearly showing some reservations, still beamed in their presence. And Kaoru looked upon both of them, tall and proud, as if knowing that this moment was coming all along.

“Lady,” said the friar, turning to Kanon, “you come hither to be married to this count.”

Misaki could hear her tinny and squeaking voice with every breath. “…I do.”

“If either of you know any inward impediment why you should not be conjoined, charge you, on your souls, to utter it.”

Her head still lowered, Misaki rose her eyes to look at Kanon’s hands, knotted together in a pretzel of anxiety. “…Know you any, Hero?”

“…None, my lord.” She nearly whispered it.

“Know you any, count?” asked the friar.

“I-I dare m-make his answer n-none,” said Aya, sniffling.

Misaki smiled awkwardly. “Y-You would be correct, Lord Leonato… I could…” She turned away from Kanon. “I could never deny my Hero, a-after all.”

“Very well,” said the friar. “In that case…”

The pause felt everlasting.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Wedding bells chimed through the sound system. Applause rang across the auditorium. Eve cast rose petals into the air, softly dancing around the wedded couple. The stage lights were hot and overbearing on Misaki’s suit, exacerbated by the pure sweat dripping down her back. She instinctively closed her eyes, wishing for the moment to end.

And then, someone grasped her hands tightly.

Misaki’s lungs melted.

There was only one person it could be.

It took every ounce of willpower not to jerk her head up and look. Or was that her instinct, fighting back against her desire to gaze back into those deep, lavender eyes? She couldn’t tell. But everything beyond her hands – the feeling of those soft, supple fingers enfolding her clammy flesh – became static, vague and scattered, a churning chaos of blank noise.

She must have mentally blacked out for who knew how long, because the next thing she knew Kanon was tugging her offstage, a procession of cheerers leading the two of them onward. Misaki wasn’t sure any part of her worked anymore – mentally, physically, or emotionally. She was around 80% sure she was drooling, her mouth agape like some kind of moron. Though in that moment, if she were fully conscious, she definitely would consider herself one.

As they stepped into the wings, Kanon released her breath in a long and mighty “fuee.” She somehow seemed composed – relatively speaking. “A-Are you all right, Okusawa-san?”

All Misaki could utter in response was a dopey “Bwuh?”

Kanon finally let go of her hand, and Misaki once again remembered that the outside world existed. She might have sublimated into a vapor of pure humiliation, if not for the fact that  her brain had become so overcharged with emotion that it momentarily forgot her entire identity and sense of being. Misaki blinked once. Twice. Oh, right. That was what breathing felt like.

She heard talking from behind her, on the stage.

“Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?”

She turned. Ah, the play. That’s right. They were performing a play. How neat. Kaoru and Chisato were alone on stage: the former kneeling with a concerned expression, the latter lying recumbent on the ground as she heaved.

“Yea, and I will weep a while longer.”

Kaoru bit her lip. “I will not desire that.”

Chisato wiped away her tears, smiling. “You have no reason; I do it freely.”

“They are tears of joy, then? For such merry occasion?”

“…Yea, a married occasion indeed,” said Chisato, sitting up. “I feel such bitter happiness for my ‘coz, and yet, such sweet sorrow.”

Kaoru nodded. “To have one so near become so far… aye, ‘tis the most poignant of all man’s ventures.”

Chisato laughed. “And yet, what could I know of a man? I have not his nerve, nor his temperament, nor his wit… I have much greater faculties than these. Perhaps that is why I cannot see my Hero go off with dry eyes.”

“Could a man do it?”

Chisato looked at Kaoru, her lips curled. “It is a man’s office, but not yours.”

They beheld each other, for a beat.

“Beatrice…” said Kaoru. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?”

“…As strange as the thing I know not.” Chisato sighed. “It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you: but believe me not; and yet I lie not; I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing.”

Kaoru’s eyes lit up. “By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me!”

Chisato picked at her dress, downcast. “Do not swear, and eat it.”

“I will swear by it that you love me; and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.”

“Will you not eat your word?”

Kaoru shook her head. “With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.”

“Why, then, God forgive me!” Chisato cried out.

“What offence, sweet Beatrice?”

“You have stayed me in a happy hour… I was about to protest I loved you.”

Kaoru’s face softened. “And do it with all thy heart.”

Chisato hesitated before speaking. “I… love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.”

Kaoru offered a hand. “Come, bid me do anything for thee.”

In the space of a second, Chisato’s clear smile twisted into pure, poisonous grimace.

“Kill Claudio.”

Misaki, for the second time that day, envisioned the pearly gates before her.

Kaoru snickered. “Ha! Not for the wide world…” She cleared her throat. “Although I must inquire as to why you would seek your new cousin-in-law’s demise…?”

“…You kill me to deny it,” said Chisato, rising to her feet. “Farewell.”

Kaoru grabbed her by the wrist. “Tarry, sweet Beatrice-”

Chisato attempted to break away, shouting: “I am gone, though I am here: there is no love in you: nay, I pray you, let me go!

“Beatrice-”

In faith I will go!

“We’ll be friends first-?”

Chisato stopped pulling for but a moment. “You dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy?”

Kaoru stared, confused. “Is Claudio thine enemy?”

Chisato took a moment to think.

“He has not slandered your kinswoman, or taken her in ill-begotten manner,” said Kaoru. “What reason have you to dissent?”

“…He is a villain not by words, but by action,” Chisato replied. “How he swears by her love, yet considers not her thoughts! I know my cousin to be a valorous woman, deprived of all foul depravities that fog the souls of wretches: bereft of sin, abundant in care, and yet pardoning of misdeeds.”

“And what offenses might those be?”

“Why, know you not?” asked Chisato. “You were one he maligned most of all; I heard it for myself: Benedick the buffoon, touting about with pomp and circumstance, one of the great three fools in all of Messina!”

It was only now that Misaki realized they weren’t actually talking about “Claudio” any more.

The last five minutes started to make more sense. And her brain was rested enough to bring guilt crashing back in.

“And yet, he has the gall to impugn upon my coz’s fortunes once more, believing one meek apology to be deserving of reconciliation; an instant of humility has the worth of a half-year of agony, in Claudio’s clouded vision! Am I to watch her be carried off in his vile grace, and speak not a word?”

Kaoru’s face sobered. Chisato finally broke her arm out of her grasp.

“…Have you no defense? I thought not,” she said. “And if you shan’t slay him, then this hand is stayed.”

Kaoru crossed her arms. “The words you speak… aye, I heard them from his very tongue. The rage was alive in him that day. But…” she nodded. “It was a fleeting anger.”

Misaki’s breath slowed.

The word, again… this time it calmed her, somehow.

“Good Claudio has his faults, ‘tis true,” said Kaoru. “And yet, in passion, in savvy, and in vigor, I know no greater. He has tongue of silver, stomach of iron, and heart of gold… yet most of all, he possesses that rare faculty of man: that self-efficacy and humbleness that allots him the acute ability to look inwardly, and become greater; for in a moment of weakness, he does not succumb, but instead thrives – just as thee.”

Kaoru-san…

Chisato looked disgusted at the words. “Princes and counties! Surely, a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect; a sweet gallant, surely! O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.”

Kaoru clasped a hand to her chest. “Tarry, good Beatrice – by this hand, I love thee!”

Chisato scoffed. “Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.”

“Think you in your soul the Count Claudio is not worthy of Hero?”

“Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.”

Kaoru took a moment to steel herself. “Enough, I am engaged; I will question him. I will kiss your hand, and so I leave you.” She did just that, bending down to peck at Chisato’s hand. “By this hand, Claudio shall render me a dear account. As you hear of me, so think of me. Farewell.”

And the lights dimmed.

If Misaki’s emotional state was a wreckage before, then another tornado had just passed through. She was starting – more like continuing – to struggle distinguishing between fiction and reality. Chisato and Kaoru had exited towards the other side of the stage, as Hagumi and her lackeys once again engaged in comedic banter with the criminal Maya. Misaki wondered what the couple on stage had been thinking the whole time.

“Misaki-chan?”

Oh, right. Kanon.

…Kanon.

Kanon?

Misaki jerked around, eyes wide as the moon, only to realize that the person talking to her was Aya, not Kanon. She must have been wearing a truly frightful expression, because Aya jolted when she did. Hina, two feet behind her, had a good chuckle.

“A-Are you okay?” Aya whispered. “You’ve been staring into space for half an hour now…”

Misaki was definitely Not Okay. But the show had to go on. “I’ll be fine. We’re on in the next scene, right?”

“Uh-huh,” said Aya, nodding. “But what are we going to talk about? We’re supposed to get in an argument because of what you said about Hero, but…”

“That doesn’t work anymore,” said Hina. “I guess we’ll just have to improvise!”

Misaki could hear Aya’s gulp from a meter away.

As Hagumi carted Maya off in handcuffs once again, the lights dimmed. Aya stepped onto stage with the theater club kid playing Leonato’s brother Antonio, doing her best not to look panicked. She wasn’t doing a very good job.

“Wh-What a fine wedding that was!” she said to her “brother.” “S-Such a lovely occasion. Er, verily…!”

“Y-Yes, I agree,” said Antonio.

The two stood there on stage for a solid ten seconds without speaking. Sensing the growing sense of terror, Hina turned to Misaki. “Let’s go. I’ve got a boppin’ idea.”

“O-Okay,” said Misaki, following behind her. She felt dread blossoming inside her ribcage – what was Hina plotting?

“A-Ah! Good Don Pedro and Claudio!” Aya cried. “What fortunate, blessed day!”

“Good day, Sir Leonato!” said Hina confidently. “What fortune indeed! Ne’er has my heart been filled with so much generosity…” Her smile fell just a bit. “Though I do weep for my brother’s ill deeds.”

Inwardly, Misaki sighed with relief. Hina seemed self-assured enough to ad-lib on the spot. One of her many genius qualities, she supposed.

“Y-Yes, truly regrettable,” said Aya. “B-But at least the marriage went without trouble! I only wish we could have such happy occasions so often.”

“Oh?” asked Hina, raising her eyebrows. “Perhaps… we could.”

“…Huh?”

With a sudden slam, Hina pinned Aya between herself and the wall, looking on with a suggestive gaze. “Good Signior… I never noticed how adorable you were before now,” she said, tracing the edge of Aya’s chin with her finger.

“H-Hin- er, D-Don Pedro!” Aya squeaked.

What the heck is she doing…? Misaki thought, too tired and perplexed to intervene.

“Such happy marriages can continue, you know…” said Hina, low-voiced. “You always have been a most… magnanimous man.”

“I-I’m already married!” Aya protested. “Uh… at least I think I am…”

“Oh, what damnable misfortune,” Hina lamented. “That said, there’s always divorce, hm?”

“A-Aren’t we supposed to be Catholics?” asked Aya. “I don’t know if that’s in our laws at this point in history…”

That’s this issue you have?! Misaki thought.

“We’ll make it happen anyway,” said Hina, winking. “You’re just that worth it.”

“D-Don Pedro-sama…” said Aya, slipping on a Japanese honorific, intentionally or not.

“Halt!” cried a familiar voice.

Suddenly, from nowhere, Sayo appeared on the stage. Misaki’s throat clogged – she wasn’t supposed to be in this scene. What was she doing?

“Why, my dastardly brother!” called Hina, releasing Aya from the kabedon. “You’ve escaped your prison already?!”

“Y-Yes,” said Sayo, somewhat stilted. “And now I will say what I have always meant to – for I swear vengeance upon thee, brother!”

“Vengeance?!” Hina parroted with boisterous indignation. “Ha! You and what army?”

“Th…The army at the city gates!” cried Sayo. “Yes, the, uh, Army of Blue Roses, ready to assail Messina at any moment! At my command, they’ll storm the walls!”

“Why, you fiend!” Hina boomed, shaking her fist. “I’ll apprehend thee before you have the chance!”

“You must take hold of me, first!” bellowed Sayo, before dashing off-stage.

“Get back here, you devil!” shouted Hina, grabbing Aya and Antonio’s arms. “Come, Signior, Signior’s brother, let us give chase!”

“Wh-Wha?” mumbled Aya, as the three of them absconded.

“…I have no idea what’s going on,” said Misaki, to no one in particular.

The audience laughed, but she couldn’t tell if that was a good thing.

She was alone on stage for but a moment before Kaoru entered. “Good day, my lord.”

“Uh, good day, Benedick,” Misaki replied. “Er, how fare thee?”

“I came to seek you,” said Kaoru.

“Oh? For what reason?”

Suddenly Kaoru brandished her rapier, gallivanting it about with heightened fury. “You are a villain; I jest not! I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare. Do me right, or I will protest your cowardice. You have stolen away a sweet lady, and her burdens shall fall heavy on you. Let me hear from you with foil! En garde!”

Misaki didn’t have the energy to be startled. Wasn’t she just defending my honor two scenes ago? “Um… Benedick, what are you doing?”

“Why, jousting with a wanton criminal!” cried Kaoru, fake-lunging forward. “Now will you be a coward? Or a man?”

“…Neither, I suppose,” said Misaki dryly, to more laughter. “What villainy are you referring to?”

“…I confess that I forget,” said Kaoru, her weapon suddenly drooping. “But for mine lady’s honor, I must strike thee down.”

“You speak of Lady Beatrice?” asked Misaki. “Surely there’s a better method to steal her heart than to strike me down.”

“Nay; that was the condition she proposed, and thus it must be fulfilled.” Kaoru raised her rapier sky high. “Now hoist your weapon, or flee!”

Misaki didn’t budge. Seeing no other recourse, Kaoru thrusted forward, plunging the tip of the sword straight into Misaki’s armpit. She didn’t react in the slightest.

“Signior Benedick,” she said flatly. “Thou should know that violence is not the answer.”

“Wh-What devilry is this…?!” breathed Kaoru. “I strike, but you do not bleed… are you a demon?!”

“No, just… exhausted,” said Misaki, resting against the back of the stage. “The day has been long, hasn’t it?”

“Y-Yes, you speak true…” said Kaoru, lowering her guard.

Seeing that she had calmed down, Misaki spoke honestly. “My good Signior, do you remember what you told me before our venture?”

“Hm?” Kaoru shook her head. “What you speak of escapes me…”

Misaki closed her eyes. “‘To thine own self, be true.’ And so…” Recollections of the past hour sifted through her sweltering mind. “I was. But… perhaps you require your own advice?”

Kaoru’s expression shifted from mild confusion to muted contemplation. “I see. You say I should bare it all to Beatrice?”

“Every last word,” said Misaki.

Kaoru looked away. “…And what if she detests it? The face beneath the mask? The jester behind the prince?”

“Perhaps she will,” Misaki admitted. “But… you’ll never know, if you don’t show her that face.”

Silence. And then…

“Heheheh…” A deep chuckle. “You truly are a shrewd one, Signior.”

Misaki scoffed. “If only. I haven’t a wit about me.”

Kaoru’s laughing boomed louder. “Onward, then, brave Claudio! I must confess myself in full to dear Beatrice at once!”

“Onward, then,” said Misaki, shooing her off. “Uh, ‘flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,’ or whatnot.” She had tacked on the first Shakespearean quote she could think of.

Kaoru chortled as she galloped away. Seeing no other real course of action, Misaki followed.

No sooner had the lights dimmed than Kaoru did an about-face and returned to the stage. Misaki watched her go off in anticipation and wonderment. Could she really save the play singlehandedly?

Kaoru took a seat, protracted against the prop fountain, and looked towards the opposite end of the stage – where Chisato would enter. She sighed deeply. With a longing lilt, she began to sing:

The god of love,
    That sits above,
And knows me, and knows me,
    How pitiful I deserve –
I mean in singing; but in loving, Leander the good
    swimmer, Troilus the first employer of panders, and
a whole bookful of these quondam carpet-mangers,
    whose names yet run smoothly in the even road of a
blank verse, why, they were never so truly turned
    over and over as my poor self in love. Marry, I
cannot show it in rhyme; I have tried: I can find
   out no rhyme to 'lady' but 'baby,' an innocent
rhyme; for 'scorn,' 'horn,' a hard rhyme; for,
   'school,' 'fool,' a babbling rhyme; very ominous
endings: no, I was not born under a rhyming planet,
   nor I cannot woo in festival terms.”

And, from the wing, descended her love.

“…Sweet Beatrice,” said Kaoru, “Wouldst thou come when I called thee?”

“Yea, signior,” she replied, eyes cast downward, “and depart when you bid me.”

“Oh, stay but ‘til then!” Kaoru pleaded.

“'Then' is spoken; fare you well now: and yet, ere I go, let me go with that I came; which is, with knowing what hath passed between you and Claudio.”

Kaoru’s face flatlined. “Only foul words; and thereupon I will kiss thee.”

“Foul words is but foul wind, and foul wind is but foul breath, and foul breath is noisome; therefore I will depart unkissed.” Chisato turned to leave.

“…He is a righteous man,” said Kaoru softly. “I challenged him, and he bore the brunt of it, with nary a flight or fear.”

“May that be?” asked Chisato. “…He’s a better man than thought, then.”

Kaoru rose and walked over to her. “I pray thee now, tell me for which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?”

Chisato chuckled weakly. “For them all together; which maintained so politic a state of evil that they will not admit any good part to intermingle with them. But for which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?”

Kaoru paused. And then, her hands clutched at her chest:

“Oh, how could I recount it?

“When I first lay eyes upon these, ten years hence… I saw only the number of femininity and strength – keen and graceful and wise, devoid of any blemish of character, brimming with all of God’s gifts. As well-spoken as thou were chivalrous; as dignified as thou were brave. Aspiration took root like old Yggdrasil, vast and unbendable. Oh, how I longed for thy hand, and thy heart, and that mine own could beat as brightly as yours.”

Something shifted in Chisato’s face – Beatrice disappeared, and her natural self took root. “…Do you speak in truth?”

“Aye, as the sun doth rise in the east and set in the west, I have loved thee since I was small as the peasant’s hen.”

Chisato absorbed the news with a sober expression. Resting a hand upon her cheek, she sighed:

“For how long did I imagine thee like an ant, so pitiful and meek as to cower in sight of a passing cloud? One so fragile that a passing zephyr would shatter thy spirit…? And yet, there is naught but sincerity in such frailty, bearing with it a geniality that older men and women have long discarded. I knew few so brazen, and none so sweet… I could find no other course but to taunt and tease, so that I might see more of your face, so appealing in its fluster. If only I had reached out to meet that hand, so pure and tender.”

In a rare sight, Kaoru’s face reddened. “D-Do you speak in truth?”

“Aye, as the moon doth cycle from darkened new to whitened full, I have cherished thee since thou wert as short as a chair’s leg.”

Their eyes were both drilling into their feet. Suddenly, Chisato’s arms wrapped around Kaoru’s waist.

“…How fare thee, fair Benedick?”

“…Very ill,” Kaoru replied. “And how do you?”

“Iller still,” Chisato replied.

“We be sick with love,” Kaoru mused. “There is but a single remedy for such disease.”

“Know you the name of such a panacea?” asked Chisato.

“Yea, ‘tis matrimony,” said Kaoru. She enfolded her hands around Chisato’s shoulder blades. “Come dawn, dear Beatrice, wilt thou pledge thyself to me?”

Chisato smiled, and pulled Kaoru in closer. “Only if thou doeth the same first.”

Kaoru chuckled, clasping her in turn. “’Tis only fair, my lady. I would do anything for thee.”

Chisato shook her head. “Even if it is known, to hear is to believe.”

Kaoru closed her eyes. “Then believe you shall – for we shall be as one.”

The two swiveled there, locked in embrace, as the lights faded.

A mild and intense clamber followed.

Moments later, a second wedding lit before them.

They had truncated, butchered, and even omitted some scenes entirely, but the cast had – somehow – arrived at their destination with some shred of cohesion. Misaki wiped the sweat from her brow as she stood next to Kanon, putting her attention on the bride and groom above that of her real-life worries.

“Oh, what happy day!” cried the friar. “To wed once more, so soon after another joyful couple.”

“Even as my brother doth storm the gates,” spat Hina. “Alas! We shall not sour such glee with his ignobility!”

Why are you bringing back that plot point now…? Misaki moaned silently.

“W-We shall quash him soon enough, good Don,” said Aya, stuttering. “For now, we must celebrate such a union, hm?”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Pedro!” cried Hagumi, thumping her chest. “We’ll capture him lickety-split! It won’t be a problem!”

“Yes, indeed!” said Eve, face alit. “It would not be good to make much ado about nothing!” She turned to the audience and winked as she delivered it, to substantial applause.

…I give up.

Kaoru pulled back the veil that Chisato had hastily donned. She spoke with sheer sardonicism. “Oh, Beatrice… Do not you love me?”

Beatrice chuckled. “Why, no; no more than reason.”

“Why, then your uncle and the prince and Claudio have been deceived; they swore you did.”

Chisato clicked her tongue. “Do not you love me?”

“Tr-Truth, no; no more than reason.”

Everybody laughed.

“Why, then my cousin, Margaret, and Ursula are much deceived; for they did swear you did,” said Chisato.

“They swore that you were almost sick for me!” Kaoru glibly protested.

“They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me!” Chisato cheekily objected.

“'Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?”

“No, truly, but in friendly recompense,” said Chisato with a wink.

“C-Come, cousin, I am sure you love the gentleman,” said Aya.

“And I'll be sworn upon't that he loves her,” said Misaki, somehow remembering her lines, “For here's a paper written in his hand, a halting sonnet of his own pure brain, fashion'd to Beatrice.” She pulled out the prop parchment, which she dangled playfully in front of Kaoru’s face; the beanpole groom attempted to snatch it away, to no avail.

Kanon spoke next. “And here's another writ in my cousin's hand, stolen from her pocket, containing her affection unto Benedick.” She pulled out a similar letter, which Chisato simply rolled her eyes at, though she could not hide her blush.

“A miracle!” cried Kaoru spiritedly. “Here's our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity.”

Chisato chuckled, and – in a most Chisato-like fashion – grabbed Kaoru by the collar, yanked her in close, and whispered in a flirtatious fervor:

“Peace! I will stop your mouth.”

And with those words, their lips met, before the sight of the whole congregation.

An ovation once more thundered through the streets of Messina.

A breeze of flowers descended upon them, and, with a shuddering shuffle, the curtain fell upon the scene.

It rose once more, and the actors took their bows, to great acclaim.

And then, with a final flash of scarlet, the stage became cloaked, the act ended.

Much ado had been made, but now… there was nothing left.

All the players let out an deep exhale of breath all at once. “We m-made it…” Aya moaned.

“At last…” Maya muttered.

It’s over… Misaki thought, never more comforted by an emotional release.

Now, after months of toil, months of grinding and grieving and giving it her all, she could finally rest easy…

“Wow!” squealed Hagumi. “That was amazing! If this is opening night, I can’t wait to see what the other six performances are like!”

…Misaki changed her mind.

Maybe she’d beg Chisato for death after all.

Chapter Text

Chapter 36: Plaudite, Acta est Fabula

Misaki had entered a deep fugue state by the time she stepped out into the school foyer. Crowds of parents and teachers milled about in search of their little actors and actresses to congratulate them on a job well done. But in her fatigued vision, everything seemed blurry and out of focus. She just wanted to change clothes, go home, and forget any of this had ever happened. Emphasis on the last point. She had a feeling that the universe would have other plans, however.

“Big Sis!” Koharu shouted, bounding up to Misaki with an giant grin. “You were amazing! Wow!”

Misaki’s arms instinctively encircled her as she ran up. That was right… her family had been watching the trainwreck unfold. There would be… questions.

“You did great, honey,” said her mother, handing her a bouquet of tulips.

Did I? Did I really? Misaki wondered. “…Thanks. It was tough work.”

Her mother nodded in understanding. “I have to admit that wasn’t like any other Shakespeare play I’m familiar with… some of the scenes towards the end were rather different, weren’t they?”

“W-Well…” Misaki scavenged her empty chest of a brain looking for an explanation. “Th… The director was going for a different kind of adaptation. Just like the poster says – ‘wild twists.’ Tr-Trying something new, you know…?”

Oh, I see,” said her mother, accepting the explanation immediately. “That makes more sense. Although… you didn’t tell me you’d be kissing anyone.”

Misaki’s soul longed to abandon its mortal flesh.

“But I should have expected that, considering it was a romance.” Her mother hugged her, leaning over Koharu, who was still wrapped around Misaki’s leg. “I’m proud of you, sweetie.”

Misaki reciprocated the squeeze with the last of her strength. “…Thanks, Mom.”

She had expected that to be the final modicum of praise she’d receive that night, or maybe ever. But as a particular choppy blonde head of hair gleamed in her periphery, she realized that she was mistaken.

“Misaki!” called Kokoro, somehow finding the space to cartwheel up to her. “What a wonderful performance! It made me so happy!”

Misaki continued to be at a loss as to how anybody gleaned enjoyment out of such a disasterpiece. But maybe it was just in Kokoro’s nature to appreciate things, regardless of quality. “G-Glad you like it…”

“Is this a friend of yours, honey?” asked Misaki’s mother.

“Her hair is cut funny,” said Koharu.

“Koharu!” their mother scolded. “Don’t be rude.”

“Ahaha! It is, isn’t it?” Kokoro replied, beaming. “I’m Kokoro Tsurumaki! Nice to meet you!”

Koharu giggled. “Your voice is funny, too! Are you and Big Sis friends?”

A lump formed in Misaki’s throat. Long-discarded scenes from months back started to resurge now, at the worst of times.

“Yup!” Kokoro replied. “Great friends!”

Misaki was startled at the response. “Huh?”

“Oh my,” said Misaki’s mother. “You didn’t tell me you’d made a new friend, honey.”

“U-Uhm…”

“I apologize if my daughter’s caused you any trouble, Kokoro-chan,” said Misaki’s mother, bowing. “She may seem a bit distant and stiff sometimes, but she means well.”

Mo-om…

Kokoro chuckled. “That’s okay! I know Misaki is doing her best! Just like we all do!”

Misaki wasn’t sure how much more of this she could take. “Er, I, uh, have to go change out of my costume…”

“Okay, sweetie,” said her mother. “We’ll wait for you out here, then.”

“Got it,” said Misaki, ducking away before Kokoro and her mother could gossip further. She had underestimated how embarrassing the two of them could be when teamed up; maybe it would be in her best interest to split them up, but her mind was gasping for the sweet release of oblivious sleep – the less conversation she had, the better.

She passed by a throng of reporters stampeding around the members of Pastel*Palettes with questions and cameras to the back hallway. Along the way, she kept an eye out for Kanon, hoping to say… something to her, but she was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it was for the better. Misaki probably wouldn’t be able to string together three words in her current state, let alone coherent sentences.

She finally reached the green room, largely absent of crew – most were still out greeting people in the lobby. She let the tension in her muscles relax as she began to unfasten the buttons on her costume.

“Okusawa-san.”

Misaki felt air involuntarily escape her lungs as the familiarly sharp voice stabbed her in the spine. She creaked around to see Chisato glowering at her with crossed arms, one finger tapping apprehensively against her bicep. There were no potential witnesses in sight… alas. So here was where they’d find her body. In a local theater department’s costuming room. She wished she could have picked a more picturesque location. Oh well – time to make peace with any higher beings out there.

“…Why do you look so frightened?” asked Chisato. She had already changed out of her costume.

You know exactly the reason, you-! Misaki thought, unable to speak. Yet, she was so tired… the idea of a quick demise sounded almost appealing at that moment.

Chisato sighed. “You know, you and Kaoru are a lot alike… pulling such maddening stunts on the whim of emotion. I can’t tell if it’s annoying or endearing.”

Being compared to Kaoru probably should have insulted Misaki, but she was too drained to be offended.

“Or…” Chisato’s lips curled into a weak smile. “Maybe I’m just jealous.”

Misaki blinked. …Jealous?

“At any rate, I originally intended to give you your comeuppance, but…” she shook her head. “You’ve been spared.”

“Sp-Spared…?” Misaki squeaked out.

“Yes. Though I hope you know that if it were up to me, you would be dust on the wind right now,” said Chisato, still smiling. “You should thank your little knight for protecting you.”

“Little knight?” asked Misaki. “Do you mean… Kaoru?”

Chisato stared at her for a few moments before scoffing and muttering inaudibly.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, nothing…” said Chisato. “At any rate, I think the matter is settled.”

Misaki wasn’t sure she was relieved at that. Though it was probably because she had been grinded into apathetic dust. She wasn’t sure if she could feel anything after that debacle.

“That said…” Chisato leaned in menacingly. “I trust we won’t be seeing a repeat performance of tonight anytime soon, hm?”

O-Of course not!” Misaki yelped. “I mean, I wouldn’t, I er, I could never-”

“Good,” said Chisato, smiling again. “I think I’ll go home and take a nice long bath. That sounds nice.”

“G-Good luck with the paparazzi,” said Misaki. “They’re swarming out there.”

“Oh, yes…” Chisato sighed. “Perhaps I’ll ask Kaoru to carry me away from them.”

Misaki couldn’t tell whether or not she was joking.

“See you tomorrow, Okusawa-san.”

“S-See you, Shirasagi-san.”

And with that, Chisato – and the tension in Misaki’s tendons – disappeared.

***

Misaki slept the deepest slumber she’d ever had that night. Koharu practically had to drag her out of bed to get her going to school. Unfortunately, there was no time to rest – another performance was scheduled for that night, and there was no telling what would go wrong this time.

Yet – whether it was from experience, over-preparedness, or simply a pounding desire to not make the same mistake again – the second night went through as planned. As did the third. And the fourth. Indeed, the chaos of that first performance seemed to pass into the memory of all involved, recollected only in the spicy, scandalous headline of tabloids: Pastel*Palettes Heart (and Wall) Pounding Encounter! Vocalist and Guitarist Too Close for Comfort On Stage? Misaki thought that that, of all moments, was a strange one to fixate on, but she never did understand the workings of celebrity gossip. She thanked the heavens every day that she wasn’t famous, and that her improvised turn as Claudio quickly faded into obscurity.

Each night before the show, Misaki tried to find the right words to say to Kanon, but nerves stopped her brain from functioning properly. Each night after the show, Misaki tried looking for the would-be drummer, but she always vanished from the premises within minutes. Misaki couldn’t help but feel that Kanon was avoiding her. And yet, Misaki couldn’t blame her for that – she wasn’t sure she could chat with somebody so easily after all that transpired. She told herself she’d confront her after the last night’s performance, when they didn’t have anything else planned.

She ran to the theater after work on that last day, delayed after helping her manager clean up a paint spill in their locker room, her heart pounding in one last round of anticipations. She rushed through the theater doors, her mouth already forming the words “Sorry I’m late,” only to halt upon seeing that the place was completely dark.

“H…Hello?” she called out.

A single spotlight blazed to life. In its center was a particularly princely person, leaning casually against a prop rock, eyes closed contemplatively. A deep chuckle boomed from her diaphragm.

“Ahaha… so you’ve come at last, my dear little-” she paused as she opened her eyes. “Hm? Oh, it’s you, Misaki.”

“…What the hell is happening?” she replied. “Where’s everybody else? Aren’t we performing soon?”

“What do you mean? Our last showing was last night.” Kaoru smiled. “Our performances are ended, once and for all… as fleeting as they were grand. We even had a wrap party – which I recall you declining to attend.”

Misaki had to resist the urge to slap herself in the face. She had gotten so caught up in the cycle of performances that she had miscounted? She felt like the world’s biggest idiot for only the thirtieth time that week. She had missed her chance to talk things out with Kanon, too… this had to be the most terribly ridiculous screw-up she’d ever made. Her brain must have been running on the last of its piddly fumes, although the current situation did beg a question. “What are you doing here, then, Kaoru-san?”

“Waiting for someone.” Kaoru was dressed differently than normal. Her ponytail was hung lower and looser, and she wore a lacy, canary yellow sundress alongside white sandals and sky blue bangles. Even her makeup was lighter, with thinner contouring, no lipstick, and only a touch of blush. She looked much more feminine than typical. Even so, she brimmed with the same quixotic aura as always.

Somehow, Misaki had a good suspicion about who she was waiting for. “Well, I guess if there’s no reason for me to be here, then I’ll get out of your hair…”

“You can stay a moment, if you’d like.”

The air between them was dead for a moment. And then…

“Kaoru-san, I… I’m sorry.”

 “Whatever for?”

Misaki stumbled towards the stage, plopping in one of the front auditorium seats with a lamentful sigh. “I… I never apologized for the things I said to you a few weeks back, when you just tried to give me advice… you were right. I just needed to be honest.” She scoffed weakly. “Though I picked a pretty cruddy time to do it…”

Kaoru laughed. “The heart wants what the heart wants. As much as we vaunt of logic and reason, they are forever slaves to our passions.”

“B-But it’s not just that,” said Misaki. “I also never said sorry for the…” She swallowed. “The things I said a few months ago. At the manor. Look, I, I was stupid, and short-tempered, a-and-”

“Misaki.”

Kaoru’s voice was gentle. She looked so at ease upon the stage, reclining upon the rock with a graceful poise like a mermaid bathing in the sun. From her lofty, illuminated position, she could have very well been an angel – a fruity, melodramatic, overly verbose angel, and yet, one full of empathy and conviction.

“I accept your apology,” said Kaoru. “And in turn, I thank you for your own words of wisdom.”

It took Misaki a few seconds to realize what she meant. “I… I don’t know what you’re talking about, that was j-just part of the play.”

“Aye, and a play bares the hearts of all,” said Kaoru. “Up here, before the eyes of the world, one can breathe life into words ne’er uttered, bring forth the passions of men centuries past, express sentiments dormant since time immemorial. And in those moments of pure clarity, honesty springs forth, like the first cherry blossom of spring – for none can ever hide from the stage, just as one can never hide from oneself.”

Misaki was starting to lose the metaphor. “A-Anyway, I’m sure what I said wasn’t that big a deal.”

“Nonsense,” said Kaoru dismissively. “You’ve helped me a great deal – as well as dear Hagumi. She told me of your tenure as softball manager, you know.”

Misaki felt her ears pinken in the darkness. “D-Did she, now…”

“No need for modesty, kitten,” said Kaoru, tutting. “You should be proud for what you have done.”

Misaki didn’t have the time to be proud – other matters lingered in her mind. “Kaoru-san… um… do you… do you still want to rejoin the band?”

Kaoru looked at her blankly for a moment before chortling. “Why of course! I agreed to it long ago, did I not? Why ever would I change my mind?”

“W-Well, I just needed to make sure, you know…” Misaki’s feelings began swelling up in her lungs, coagulating to spill out of her mouth. “I mean, I might… I might snap again. I might hurt you. I might hurt-”

“Perish the thought,” said Kaoru, her expression suddenly serious. “I can see it plain as day. The Misaki Okusawa before me would never do such a thing.”

Misaki pressed her thumbs together. “…Do you really believe that?”

Kaoru didn’t reply immediately. She adjusted her position on the rock, staring into the spotlight. “People… are perhaps the most fleeting thing of all, Misaki. They are constantly growing, changing – evolving. Without even realizing it. Within years, months, even weeks and days… we fluctuate from one to the next.”

Misaki soaked the words in, mulling them over. “But… there’s always some parts of people that never change, right?”

“Hahaha… you might be right,” said Kaoru, reaching her hands dramatically towards the lights. “But, so long as you find the strength to carry on, you can always change for the better – discarding your ugliness, and discovering the beauty within.”

Misaki sighed – confusedly, and happily. “I think you just might be too smart for me, Kaoru-san.”

“My, my. Was that a joke, Misaki?”

“I have no idea,” she replied, grunting as she rose to her feet. “But, I feel like I’ve started to understand who Kaoru Seta really is.”

“Oh?” said Kaoru, leaning forward, chin on her fist. “And pray tell, who is that?”

Misaki waltzed on over to the door. “Hmm… I’m not sure if I could put it into words. My image of her is so… oh, what’s the word?”

She gripped the door handle, cocked her head, and smirked.

Fleeting.”

She thrust open the wooden portal one last time, and sank into the outside light.

Kaoru stared off, mildly stunned, before chuckling. “Ah, my dear Misaki… you’ve become such a fine woman. Although…”

Images of their opening night performance flashed through her mind – of two girls, with hair of black and blue, locked in love.

“…The road ahead of you is sure to be a stony one.”

She pondered over the matter for several minutes, basking alone upon the stage. Time seemed to melt in the lonesome darkness – until, at last, the heavy creak of hydraulic hinges was heard once more.

A second spotlight struck the entrance, falling upon the figure of a blonde bassist.

“You’re late, my dear,” said Kaoru. “Were you delayed?”

“Not particularly,” said Chisato, stepping lightly towards the stage. “I just had to mull over whether or not to accept your invitation.”

“Hahaha… you jest as sharply as ever.”

Chisato brushed a stray strand of hair to the side as she ascended to the stage center. She was dressed in slick black pants and a collared dress shirt, with matching straps and a deep lavender tie. Her hair was tied tightly in an orderly bun, without only a light dab of makeup to accentuate her features.

“What a lovely outfit,” Kaoru commented.

“Thank you… I came straight from work,” said Chisato. “I got assigned lead actress on an upcoming mob drama. Not my usual style, but I suppose it has its charms.”

“Heh. And here I thought you had come here from a high-society ball.”

Chisato rolled her eyes. “Your flattery is as effective as your flirtations. Why did you call me here?”

Kaoru moved from the rock and extended a hand, bowing. “I would like to ask you for a dance.”

Chisato examined the hand warily. “A dance? Just the two of us?”

“Yes. A waltz.” Kaoru bent deeper. “Do you accept?”

Chisato took a moment – not to think, but to smile. She grabbed hold of Kaoru’s hand firmly. “I’ll lead.”

Kaoru coughed. “You know, I’m quite a bit taller… are you sure that’s for the best?”

“Come now, Kaoru,” said Chisato, with fake scolding, “can’t you play any part?”

Kaoru couldn’t help but grin. “Very well, my lady. If that is what you wish, I’ll fulfill my duty.”

Chisato’s right hand curled around Kaoru’s back, resting just above the waist. Kaoru’s left arm circled behind Chisato’s neck, lying upon her left shoulder. Their other hands clasped together, warm, soft, and tight. They looked long into each other’s eyes.

From the ether, a melody began to play.

Chisato stepped airily, guiding Kaoru along with gentility and ease. Kaoru let her body be guided along – stepping in rhythmic harmony with the peaceful oom pah pah of the music, spiraling in dainty circles around the starlit stage, the end of her sundress flittering elegantly with each turn and twirl. The world beyond the stage grew even dimmer. Everything outside of the spotlight became pure blackness, empty space devoid of matter. Yet all within their radius gleamed with a greater brilliance than the most blinding stars in the sky, each step leaving twinkling dust in its wake.

“You’re a much better dancer than I remember,” said Chisato.

Kaoru smirked. “The last time we did this was… fourth grade? Fifth?”

“You tripped over your feet every three steps,” said Chisato. “It wasn’t long before you started bawling as usual.”

“I was quite the crybaby back then, wasn’t I?” Kaoru mused. “I couldn’t so much as peer over a hillside or hear a ghostly sound without breaking in two.”

“I think that still might be true, actually.”

Kaoru cleared her throat. “Yes, well, I suppose we truly are the same, even as we change… as paradoxical as it sounds.”

Chisato nodded. “That’s true, isn’t it, Kao-chan?”

Kaoru’s face became the color of cherries. Her grip on Chisato’s shoulder blade tightened. But in that instant… neither her step nor her smile broke.

“Oh? You’re awfully composed,” said Chisato, surprised. “Usually just calling you by that name turns you into a geyser, billowing steam from your every orifice.”

“I’ve… I’ve accepted it,” muttered Kaoru. “I tried to put it behind me, but K-Kao-chan… Kao-chan is a part of me, too.”

Chisato giggled. “Well, that’s awfully mature of you, Kao-chan. I guess you’ve grown up after all.”

“Y…Yeah.”

While she mumbled her response, Kaoru’s heart overflowed with pleasure at the compliment.

The music grew louder in their ears, plucking their veins like harp chords.

“You know, Chi-chan…” said Kaoru. “I meant what I said the other day.”

Chisato looked down, towards Kaoru’s chest. “…What do you mean?”

“During that first performance… I…” Kaoru swallowed her words. How many times had she uttered sweet nothings to the masses, only to choke upon her true thoughts? “Wh-What I said… I meant it.”

Chisato’s eyes rose to meet her face. A tiny sigh escaped her nostrils. “You know, Kao-chan… I envy you.”

“Envy? Me?”

“That’s right,” said Chisato. “You’re always able to speak your own mind. You’re always  honest with yourself and with others. But more than that… you’re sweet. So sweet. I hear the little woos you pitch towards other girls, and I know they’re not just playful enticing – they’re genuine.” Chisato smiled bittersweetly. “More genuine than I’ve ever been.”

Kaoru almost doubted the words she was hearing. That anybody would call her, of all people, sincere… it was laughable. “Chi-chan… I feel the same way.”

“The same way…?”

Kaoru nodded. “I, too, was envious of you. Your strength. Your passion. Your smile. I could only dream that I could mold myself in your image, so stalwart and just and… beautiful.”

Chisato was quiet for a moment. “Is that why you adopted this… persona?”

“What can I do but confess it?” asked Kaoru. “That day, when you ran from me… I realized how unworthy I was to be in your grace, how desperately I wished to be as resolute as you, and that you would never accept me as I was.”

Chisato shook her head emphatically. “That wasn’t it at all, Kao-chan… I ran away because I didn’t know how to reconcile with myself. I wanted nothing more than to cherish you in that moment, for all you had done for me, and yet… if the crowd of onlookers saw… the very people who expected so greatly of Chisato Shirasagi… what would they say? What would they do?”

“Chi-chan…”

“The fault is mine,” said Chisato firmly. “I… I have always appreciated you for who you are, Kao-chan. Not some… tacky prince full of frivolous gestures.”

Kaoru’s face softened. “You… you would love such a cowardly being?”

The warm eyes Chisato gave her were answer enough.

Their dancing slowed. No longer did they whirl about in vigorous adoration, but shuffled about listlessly – yet still in perfect sync.

Chisato rested her head in Kaoru’s breast, closing her eyes. She could feel the little heaves of Kaoru’s breaths, the distant throb of her pulsing heart, the tenderness of her bosom – all lulling her to silence. Kaoru could sense the warmth of Chisato’s breath through her light clothing, the lightness of her silken hair, the soft flesh of her flushed cheek… all as dazzling as the day she had realized her feelings so long ago.

“…What do you love about me?” Kaoru asked.

Chisato rubbed her thumbs gently against Kaoru’s palm. “How easy it is to embarrass you… the fact that your favorite food is miso soup, but try to put on airs and say something fancy when asked… those dramatic little flourishes you pose with… it’s all so adorable. Like a princess.” She pulled Kaoru’s back in tighter. “What do you love about me?”

“…Can I count the ways?” asked Kaoru. “That unbreakable and steadfast expression… your undying devotion and dedication… how staunchly you value those you care for. The fact that you bear through any pain for the sake of others… just as a knight does.”

Chisato smirked. “I chose a good metaphor, didn’t I?”

Kaoru smiled back. “The very best.”

Chisato’s expression dampened. “I don’t feel very knightly any more, though… it’s as if I’m made of porcelain, ready to shatter with the gentlest of prods.”

“That’s just because you’ve become a fine princess,” said Kaoru. “While I lack the very charm you speak of… in truth, I feel rather boorish.”

“That’s just because you’ve become a great knight,” said Chisato. “We’ve both changed so much, haven’t we?”

Kaoru’s gaze lifted, to stare off into the infinite space around her. And then, quietly, she recited:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As You Like It,” Chisato cited, smiling. “I always liked that monologue.”

“As did I. Jacques was a wise man indeed,” said Kaoru. “And yet… was he not also mistaken?”

“…What do you mean?”

Kaoru’s head bent down to lean on Chisato’s own. “We may play many parts, true… but there are several roles we simply never abandon.”

“Mm… you think so?”

“Of course,” said Kaoru, stifling a laugh. “You and I are the same as we’ve always been. The Chisato Shirasagi you are, the Chisato Shirasagi the world sees, and the Chi-chan I know… they all spring forth from the same person. As does the Kaoru Seta I am, the Kaoru Seta the world sees, and the Kao-chan you know… we come from one, unchanging root, you and I.”

Chisato pulled her head upright. “I guess the two of us aren’t so ‘fleeting’ after all, then.”

They locked eyes. Eyes of deep crimson and light magenta, the color of blooming roses and burning hearts. Their dancing slowed to a nigh-standstill. The music became louder still, and yet no longer resonated in their ears.

Kaoru leaned closer. Her expression bore a thousand different subtleties. She whispered gently.

“You’re right. The two of us… our feelings for each other… they are forever.”

Chisato’s nose brushed against hers. Her lips pursed together in crimson affection. Her eyelashes, long and sleek, fluttered with every breath.

“…You really are the sweetest, Kao-chan.”

Their eyes closed, and their lips met –  knight to knight, and princess to princess, enfolded in an everlasting love that no cold impermanence could break.

For in that moment, their dreams – as fleeting as they seemed – came true.

Chapter Text

Chapter 37: Kind of Blue

Friday, mid-afternoon, late August.

Wayward cars veered down the city streets, blurs of silver and black and red and blue. Heat rising from the concrete sidewalks baked pedestrians alive and roasted their shoe soles. Thick clouds – the telltale sign of a coming storm – airbrushed the edges of the horizon. In the midst of downtown, surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers and blaring car horns and the mundane shuffle of everyday life, Misaki Okusawa stood before the glassy doors of a fast-food restaurant, its reflective sheen warping the images of the patrons and staff. She clutched her baseball cap in her hands tightly, her fingers curling firmly around the lid.

This was it.

This was finally the day where she would talk to Kanon about everything.

Upfront. In person.

Woman to woman. Face to face.

Without running. Without hiding.

Yep. This was the time.

…Any minute now.

She just had to put one foot in front of the other.

It would take ten seconds.

Easy as pie.

No problem.

She released the compressed air inside her lungs, propping her forehead against the warm window. How many times had she had this conversation with herself? Weeks had passed since the play wrapped up its production, and she had done nothing but mull, sidestep, and excuse herself with ‘maybe another day.’ It wasn’t as if she were looking for excuses, it was just – the right opportunity to confront Kanon never presented itself. At school? They’d be surrounded by gossiping onlookers. At home? If Misaki went to Kanon’s house uninvited that would be overstepping her bounds by a country mile. Even texting her out of nowhere would feel inappropriate – assuming Misaki even had her contact info. She hadn’t gotten the chance to reacquire it after all these months, and the thought of asking anybody else for her number stuck a golf-ball sized lump in her throat.

So she had chosen to meet Kanon at her part-time job. It wouldn’t be anything too grandiose. Pretend like she had just come to get some food and didn’t know Kanon was working there. Test the field. Play it cool. Crack a joke. See how she reacted. Ask to friend her on Line. Casually suggest hanging out sometime. And no matter what, don’t mention the band. The directions were well-rehearsed – Misaki had been repeating them to herself for a week – but even now, inches from her destination, she was getting cold feet.

Her phone buzzed. It was Hagumi and Kaoru, offering words of encouragement: Misaki had let slip her plans by accident, and now they were cheering her on with all their might. She swallowed her reluctance and faced the door.

If not today, then when?

Her lack of answers to that question spurred her to grip the handle and toss open the door, stepping onto the washed, polished linoleum of the restaurant floor. The smell of grease and salt sent her stomach growling, but she was too tense to be hungry. She staggered towards the counter-space with half shut eyes, peeping them open to see a familiar face.

Just… not the one she was looking for.

“Welcome to WcRonald’s! Home of the Big Wack!” said Aya, in a practiced customer-service voice. “Oh, Misaki-chan! Good to see you.”

“G-Good to see you, Aya-san,” she replied, the tension – and the hope – leaving her shoulders. “Um, is Kanon-san here?”

“Kanon-chan? Her shift ended a half hour ago,” said Aya. “I think she was going on a little city exploration? She seemed a bit distracted today.”

The thought of Kanon on an ‘exploration’ sent only one image into Misaki’s mind – the drummer lost in the urban jungle, squealing in fright and confusion as the unfamiliar streets swallowed her whole. “Where did she go?”

“Um, I think she mentioned Hazawa Coffee…”

“Got it. Thanks.” Misaki started turning to leave.

“W-Wait!” said Aya. “Aren’t you going to order something? W-We’ve got WcChickens, and WcTurkeys… or maybe I can interest you in a Sappy Meal?”

Misaki sighed. She was already feeling drained – some quick carbs might give her some much needed energy. “I’ll take, uh, medium fries, I guess.”

“Fries it is!” hummed Aya, punching in the order on her register. “That’ll be 160 yen.”

As she paid for the snack, a thought crossed Misaki’s mind. “Aya-chan, you’re an idol, right?”

“Well, yeah!” Aya replied, giggling happily. “It’s taken a lot of hard work, but… I’ve finally achieved my dream. If only someone would recognize me in public…”

“Right… but, why do you work at WcRonald’s?”

Aya blinked. “Um, because I need to make money?”

“…Don’t they pay you for your idol work?”

Aya’s fingers began poking at one another. “W-Well, they do, but it’s not that much…”

Misaki was incredulous. “Not that much? Aren’t you a nationally famous idol group?”

“W-We are, but we don’t get paid for training, and the production company takes most of the money spent on concert tickets… I don’t think we even get many royalties on merchandise.”

“Holy cow, they’re really nickel and diming you,” said Misaki. “Did you read the contracts you signed carefully?”

Aya avoided eye contact. “I… I let my parents take care of it…”

“Well, you should probably give it another look. And, like, unionize while you’re at it.”

“U-nion-ize?” Aya repeated, as if hearing the word for the first time.

“You know, collective bargaining?” asked Misaki. “Ensuring your rights as workers? All that stuff?”

Aya’s blank expression told her she had never thought much of the concept.

Misaki opened her mouth to explain right as her number was called. “Just… look it up at home, okay? It should help you out.”

“O-Okay!” said Aya.

Misaki grabbed the bag of fries and crammed a handful in her mouth as she walked out the door back into the busy afternoon streets, wondering how she had gotten into such an odd discussion now, of all times.

She walked quickly towards the direction of Hazawa Coffee, downing the fries as she tried to mentally map the area. Misaki was pretty good with directions, but with only a vague sense of where Kanon was heading she didn’t have much to go off of – hopefully she’d be able to ask somebody else if they’d seen her.

She arrived at the coffeeshop’s intersection. For a moment, she considered popping inside to ask Tsugumi or Eve if they’d seen her (assuming they were around), but she got distracted by an unordinary scene outside: dozens of canopies and stalls lay half-built across the street, as gruff adults hauled boxes to and fro in preparation for… something. But what?

Misaki’s questioning was broken by a 2x4 missing her head by centimeters.

“Woah! Careful!” she yelped reflexively.

“Ah, sorry!” replied a recognizably vigorous voice.

Misaki turned to face a tall, red-headed drummer carrying several planks of wood. “Udagawa-san?”

Tomoe nodded. “Oh, you know me? But I don’t – wait, I do know you!”

For some reason, Misaki’s gut started lurching. “You… do?”

“Yeah! You were Claudio in the school play!”

“Ah… I see…” Misaki’s soul heaved, wishing that her performance could be left to the dustbin of history. It’d been a month already – she didn’t need any more reminders.

“Yeah, you were really cool,” said Tomoe. “Especially that moment where you caught… what was her name… Hero? From the balcony? And then you-”

“St-Stop, please!” Misaki’s face burned with embarrassment. She hadn’t realized Tomoe was there on opening night.

“Hahaha, you’re just like Ran-“ Tomoe began, suddenly careening off-balance as the planks tilted to one side.

Misaki helped steady her. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, just… a bit… heavy!” Tomoe grunted,  plopping the wood on the ground vertically before propping it against her shoulder. “We’re prepping for the festival tomorrow, but we’re short-staffed, so I’m trying to ease the load as much as I can…”

“Festival?”

“Yeah, the yearly summer festival,” said Tomoe. “You’ve been to it, yeah?”

Oh, right – the summer festival was the next day. Misaki remembered her mother casually mentioning it earlier that week, but it had largely slipped her mind. Taking another look at the heavy planks resting on Tomoe’s collarbone, Misaki felt a sudden sense of duty. “Do you, uh, need a hand?”

“Woah, are you serious?” asked Tomoe, her face lighting up. “That’d be super helpful!”

Misaki nodded. “Just let me know what to do.”

Tomoe directed Misaki to the festival organizers, who instructed her on which crates to lug where, and which stands were highest priority for set-up. Misaki carried boxes, set frames for canopies, and tied signs to stand fronts, all while her conscience actively questioned her intentions: you’re distracting yourself on purpose, aren’t you? Misaki told her conscience to shut up.

Half an hour later, and preparations were much further along. “Alright, I think we can take it from here!” said Tomoe, surveying the street with a wide and weary grin. “Thanks for your help, Claudio.”

“It’s Misaki, actually…” Misaki murmured, her smile twitching. “Um, I meant to ask earlier, but did you see Kanon-san – er, the girl who played Hero – pass through here?”

“The blue-haired gal? Nervous-looking? Yeah, I saw her.”

Misaki’s heart picked up the pace. “Where?”

“She stopped by Hazawa Coffee for a bit… I saw her in there when I went to chat with Tsugu. I think she left a while later; not long before you rolled around, actually.” Tomoe put a finger to her chin in thought. “I’m pretty sure she went north, towards Ryuseido?”

Ryuseido? Misaki wasn’t sure what business Kanon would have at a pawn shop, but if that’s where she went… “Thanks, Udagawa-san.”

“Hey dude, good luck looking for her!” Tomoe called, as Misaki sprinted away. “You two are, like, super cute together!”

Misaki nearly choked to death as she ran, too embittered and far away to shout back. What kinds of assumptions was she making?

…Oh well. Nothing to do about it now.

The sky was beginning to clog with clouds by the time Misaki made her way north. The residential streets surrounding the shop were becoming sparser as the weather worsened, with Misaki hurriedly whirring around each corner in hopes of glimpsing a bobbing blue pigtail. She soon entered Ryuseido itself, but according to the owner Kanon hadn’t stopped by. Just as Misaki was planning to widen her patrol area, she noticed a slumped-over figure meandering through the street, sighing with every step.

“…Rimi?” asked Misaki, approaching the petite girl.

“Oh… Misaki-chan,” Rimi moaned flatly.  Her eyes barely lifted from the ground. Her arms sank weakly, as if hooked to the pavement by invisible chains.

“Are you okay?” asked Misaki. “You look… depressed.”

“Oh… it’s nothing. It’s just…” Tension crept into Rimi’s voice. “Y-Yamabuki Bakery was out of chocolate cornets…”

Oh. Was that all? “You look pretty dejected… is it really bugging you?”

“Well… at first, I didn’t think it was a big problem,” said Rimi, her eyes drifting. “But then I realized that my day felt worse just because I had a chocolate cornet. And that wasn’t all – I got a low score on my test today, and practice was cancelled, and just… it’s been a rough day.”

“…Oh.”

“And now it looks like it’s gonna rain,” said Rimi, her voice becoming strained. “I was really hoping that I could just get my favorite snack and relax, but… now I’m overthinking everything in my life again.”

“Uh…”

“I think about those times at lunch where I say something awkward and everybody in the band looks at me funny, or when I flub bass lines during performances, or when I get stuck in my songwriting process, and I begin to wonder… do I have any redeeming qualities…? Does anybody really like me…?

“P-People do like you, Rimi!”

Misaki’s outburst finally seemed to lull Rimi out of her stupor. “Wha…?”

“You have lots of good qualities!” Misaki emphasized. “You may be timid by nature, but you always try really hard to overcome it. You write all of Poppin’ Party’s songs, and everybody in the band loves you a whole bunch. Not to mention your sister, and me, and… Kaoru-san…"

“Misaki-chan…?”

“Wh-what I’m trying to say is, we all have bad days sometimes!” Misaki grabbed Rimi firmly by the shoulders, looking straight into her eyes. “So don’t despair… because tomorrow will be better.”

Rimi clasped her hands together tightly, her mouth cracking open in a squiggly smile. “Misaki-chan… you’re right! I just need to make it through today – because tomorrow, the chocolate cornets will be restocked! Thank you for encouraging me.”

“You’re welcome.” Misaki relinquished her grip and ran a hand through her hair, relieved that Rimi was doing better. “Phew… now then, have you seen Kanon-san?”

Rimi frowned. “Kanon-chan? Sorry, no, I haven’t…”

Misaki’s spirit sank. She assumed that she’d be able to find another lead at least, but… was this where the trail ran cold?

“Are you looking for her, Misaki-chan?”

“Y-Yeah,” said Misaki, hiding her face with her cap. “It’s… it’s not a big deal though. I can always find her another day.”

“Oh, okay.” Rimi nodded. “Well, um… I hope you find her.”

Misaki managed to put up a smile. “Thanks, Rimi. See you later.”

“Bye!”

Misaki turned and started walking back south, towards downtown. After all these distractions, she was starting to feel hopeless. Why did she keep getting caught up in other people’s business? Did she really want to see Kanon again?

She shook off her troubles and focused on the task, trying to figure out where to go next. Maybe Kanon had taken a turn and gotten lost in the neighborhood somewhere. Maybe she had returned to Hazawa Coffee for some reason.

Or maybe… she had just gone home, to where Misaki had no business intruding.

The first drips of cold rain smacked into her shoulder.

Her gait was slow, steady. Even as the drizzle turned into a heavy shower she maintained her pace, plodding through barren streets of wet asphalt. The deluge in her ears picked up from a light trickle to a nonstop symphony. Chilly water soaked through her shirt and deep into her muggy skin. The musty smell of waterlogged leaves filled her nostrils. There was no thunder or sirens to punctuate the weather – only tears of heaven, cruelly sinking into her bones.

She came upon the river, berated by a billion bullets of rainfall. Oblong puddles reflected twisted telephone poles and tangled wires, rippling with every single slug of water. Her feet slushed through the shallow pools that littered the street, her socks quickly becoming chillily dampened. She stepped onto the bridge, slicked to the railing, and stopped halfway across, staring out at the endless expanse of gray that stood before her.

Misaki removed her hat slowly, feeling the raindrops dig into her scalp with merciless abandon. Water streamed down her face, from the top of her forehead to the tip of her chin. She leaned her elbows against the railing, dotted with dewdrops, and remained still.

The rain grew louder.

She looked up. The last trace of blue sky had gone.

…She really should have been getting home.

But here she was. Standing in the middle of a storm. Watching the precipitation burn into her eyes. Unending. Unrelenting. Uncaring.

“…What am I doing?”

She said it with a chuckle. The most pathetic little laugh in the world. It skipped along the river and into the horizon, heard by no one but herself. Her feet locked to the ground, glued by the torrent, cold to the veins.

Stuck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She heard shoes paddle through puddles far in the distance.

From her right, the sound of sloshing slowly crescendoed, the cadence upbeat – running. At moments it paused, before reigniting in another dash. It grew louder. Closer.

Her eyes remained fixed on the distance.

The splashing became a melody. Through the wading, Misaki started to hear something else: a panting, a gasp  – a voice.

Suddenly, right as it became loud enough to drown her empty thoughts, it stopped. All she could hear was breathing and the torrent. Misaki turned her head, and…

The rain stopped in midair.

There she was.

Drenched to the marrow. Droplets dancing from her frizzled hair. Wisteria eyes, the only color left in the world.

In those ten seconds, a thousand different words crossed their minds. But in the end, they could only manage one.

“H…Hey,” said Kanon.

Time, long frozen, now resumed.

Misaki breathed again. “…Hey.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 38: Shelter

The downpour drenched their figures for what felt like hours before either of them spoke again.

“I-”

“Er-”

The stutters came simultaneously, ramming into each other mid-air.

Kanon’s mouth crinkled into a thin smile. “M-Maybe we should get out of the rain?”

Misaki forced a weak laugh. “Y-Yeah. Good idea.”

They sauntered off south across the bridge, ducking under the nearest overhang they could find to try and dry off. Of course, their clothes were soggy enough to squeeze a kiddie pool’s worth of water out of, and they still had to walk home through the storm at some point. But Misaki wasn’t exactly thinking clearly at that moment; every part of her – body, mind, and spirit alike – felt tinglingly numb.

She watched Kanon wring out the end of her skirt, rivulets of rain dripping off the tips of her fingers. Her summer frock was drenched to the last strand of cotton, its blue and cream flower patterns darkened by the murky stains. Hair hung over her face like ocean tides, masking whatever plaintive expression currently wrinkled her cheekbones. Mud, leaves, and grass were slathered across the bottom of her shoes – a marker of the breadth of her travels.

The question escaped Misaki’s mouth before she could think. “…How long were you walking?”

“Umm… a couple hours,” Kanon replied. “I… got lost…” She peered towards Misaki. “What were you doing on the bridge?”

Misaki twiddled a lock of hair, soaked to the cuticle. “Oh, just… thinking.” It wasn’t a lie. Even if it wasn’t the truth, either.

“W-Well, uh…” Kanon put on a bright face. “Wh-What a coincidence! Running into each other like this!”

“Right. Haha.”

“Hahaha…”

The giggles squirmed out of their mouths like worms on the sidewalk. They turned away from each other, eyes locked on the cracks in the concrete.

Another question bubbled to the surface. “Hey, Kanon-san…”

“Y-Yeah…?”

“Where were you going?”

No response.

Misaki whipped to face her, emotions boiling over. “I-I’m sorry, you don’t have to tell me, it’s fine, really, ok-”

Kanon swerved around, her hands waving apologetically. “N-No, it’s a fair question, s-sorry I didn’t say anything, I was just-”

They both cut themselves off, realizing that they were looking into each other’s eyes for the first time that day. And then…

“Pfft…”

“Snrk…”

The dam broke.

“Heheheheheh…!”

“Hahahahahaha!”

Laughter sprouted forth, natural and cleansing, ringing from their stomachs like bells, enveloping them in warm comfort. Kanon doubled over, her stomach gigglingly vibrating with each breath. Misaki had to put a hand against the building to right herself, her head bobbing with glee and relief as she realized:

Kanon was still Kanon.

All the negativity – the doubts, fears, and second-guesses – evaporated in an instant. She’d never had anything to worry about, did she? Things had been awkward between them for a while, but… of course they would end up better. For the first time in months, Misaki remembered the old Kanon – her Kanon, with all of the tremulous courage and steadfast support that one could ask for – and recognized that she was looking at her once more. Like seeing a old friend after so many years apart.

Kanon rose, still pealing with every chuckle. “It’s… It’s good to see you, Okusawa-san.”

“Y-You too, Kanon-san,” said Misaki. “Why don’t we find someplace to get drinks and take a load off? Hazawa Coffee isn’t too far from here.”

Kanon nodded vigorously. “Yes! I would love to!”

“Great,” said Misaki, exhaling the last of her woes. “Oh, and, um…”

“What is it?”

Misaki grabbed her cap, lowering the lid over her eyes. “Y-You can, er…”

Kanon gazed at her expectantly, her soft purple eyes glowing in the gray day.

Misaki swallowed the lump of spittle in her throat. “Pl-Please… call me by my first name.”

Kanon looked into her for a moment, her curled eyelashes fluttering in rapid blinks. “Mi… Misaki-chan.”

She said the name as if testing it: the pliability of its syllables, the genuflection of her voice, the enunciation with which it rolled off her tongue.

Kanon’s face brightened into a pure ray of warmth. “Misaki-chan!”

It hung in Misaki’s ear, clear and crisp, like morning dew after a pouring night. She felt her entire body grow fuzzy with heat, the ends of her hair bristling with pleasure at the sound. Her expression erupted into some messy, garbled display of happiness, and she felt her heart clench inside her chest – not out of apprehension, but pure joy.

“L-Let’s go, Misaki-chan!” Kanon squeaked out.

She grabbed her hand and pulled her back into the rain, the clouds overhead parting to shower them in light. And as the water sloughed gently off their backs, Kanon tugging her through the muggy alleys and puddled streets, Misaki smiled – that old, worn, slightly taxed grin – as she sighed with familiarity:

“Kanon-san… we’re going the wrong way.”

***

Once Misaki took the lead on navigation, they were able to make their way to Hazawa Coffee without much trouble. She realized upon entering that Kanon had been here only a short time prior, but she wasn’t supposed to know that, and Kanon didn’t seem to mind – at any rate, she wasn’t speaking up about it.

The café atmosphere was abuzz with those taking shelter from the rain. The two girls took seats by the front window, the multitudinous aromas of brews mixing with lively chatter as they stared out into the steely gray afternoon. Misaki ordered her usual – coffee with cream, no sugar – while Kanon picked out a new persimmon green tea colorfully advertised on the back chalk board. As Tsugumi came over with their drinks, Misaki struggled to come up with the right way to ease the tension between them. “So, uh… how are you?”

She felt it was a limp platitude, but Kanon was eager to respond. “I’ve been well! Things have been a lot quieter since the play ended.”

“O-Oh right… that whole thing.” Embarrassment came surging back into Misaki’s spirit. “Uh… sorry about… everything.”

Kanon’s eyes darted to the side. “Wh-What do you mean?”

“Well, y-you know…” Misaki didn’t dare to say the k-word. “Opening night…”

“O-Oh!” said Kanon, with faux-realization. “Th…that.”

“Yeah. That.” Misaki repeated it, still dancing around addressing the matter directly. “I don’t know what came over me. I think I forgot my lines and it just, er… spiraled out of control. Big time. I, uh… was just doing the first thing that came to mind, so, um, y-you can just forget about all that stuff… I said… yeah.”

Her voice spiked like an ECG meter with each syllable. She could hear Kanon’s gulp as she nervously guzzled down her drink. After an awkward pause, she cleared her throat. “A… Alright, then.”

Misaki’s neck slackened – that was another worry down. Eager to change topics, she  jumped to the first thing in her frame of vision. “How’s the tea?”

“O-Oh, it’s good!” said Kanon, clasping the ceramic cup lightly. “Do you want to try some?”

“Sure.” Misaki grabbed the drink and took a sip – the light bitterness of the tea was matched well with the sweet, tangy aftertaste of persimmon. “Mm… yeah, I like that.”

“Yeah. The flavor’s mix together well, don’t they?”

Misaki nodded, extending the cup back towards Kanon, who was reaching out to grab it – when suddenly, her body jolted forward, her arm crashing into Misaki’s hands.

THUNK

The cup hit the table handle-up, spilling cool tea all over the tablecloth and Misaki’s jacket. “Ah, nuts…”

“I-I-I’m so sorry!” Kanon yelped, bowing profusely. “M-My hand slipped, and I, I-”

“It’s fine, Kanon-san,” said Misaki, taking her napkin and wiping off her front. “It’s just a little-

“Please forgive me! I didn’t mean to!”

“Ka-”

Why am I always like this…?!

Kanon’s voice rung out above the chatter of the café, drawing attention from fellow patrons and staff members. Her arms, eyes, and lips were all shivering with guilt. Misaki could see the corners of her eye sockets begin to moisten. Something clenched within her. “K-Kanon-san, It’s – I’m okay. Really.”

The glazed panic vanished from Kanon’s expression just as quickly as it had appeared. “O-Oh, g-g-good… good.” She fell back against her seat rest. “S-Sorry again.”

“Seriously, it’s cool,” said Misaki, still trying to soak up as much liquid as possible.

“Is everything all right?” asked Tsugumi, who had swooped in with extra napkins and a worried frown.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” said Misaki, trying to sound as calm as she could manage. No tableware had broken, and she had been thoroughly soaked by the rain beforehand anyway, so all that was really lost was Kanon’s drink. Even so, the girl in question trembled silently, as if she had committed a far more heinous act.

“All right,” said Tsugumi. “Just let me know if you need more napkins.”

“Will do.”

As the brunette barista left to take care of more orders, Kanon clutched at her elbow weakly. “I’m… I’m such a klutz, aren’t I? Hahaha…”

Misaki didn’t feel like laughing. “Kanon-san, are you okay?”

“Wh-What do you mean?” Kanon asked, shaking her head. “I didn’t spill any on me.”

“No, I mean…” The words became lost in Misaki’s throat. Kanon’s behavior was worrying – but they had just reconciled, and she wanted to stay away from weighty topics as much as possible. Yet if Kanon was struggling with something and she didn’t want to show it…

“Mi-Misaki-chan, I’m all right,” said Kanon, smiling weakly. “I’m just… a little tired. I overreacted… th-that’s all.”

Despite the concern currently kneading her heart, Misaki didn’t want to press the issue. “If you say so,” she said with a sigh. “Here, you can have some of my coffee. Since you spilled your drink, and all.”

“R-Right.” Kanon jitteringly took a sip, causing Misaki to worry that she’d cause another spill, but the mug was lowered to the saucer without issue.

The fleeting easiness between them had disappeared. Misaki struggled to get her casual attitude back. “So, uh, got any… things… coming up?”

“Things…?” Kanon replied.

“I dunno… movies you wanna see, trips you’re gonna take… stuff like that.” Misaki leaned on the table, her finger tapping against the wood to fill up space. “…Y’know.”

“Um… I don’t think I really have much going on,” said Kanon. “Just… school, my fast-food job – the usual.”

“Ah, cool,” said Misaki. “Pretty much the same with me. Tennis season has wrapped up, and I just got part-time work now. Not much else going on.”

“Uh-huh. That’s nice.”

“Yup.”

The clatter of dishes. The scrapes of chairs against the floor. The smell of spilt tea wafting up from her windbreaker. The moistness of her clothes seeping into her skin. The earthy and diluted aftertaste of coffee. All of this served to distract her from the unspoken issue that hung in Misaki’s mind – the ultimate question that she strived to ask:

Do you want to rejoin the band?

Kanon knew about it. Misaki wasn’t supposed to know that she knew, though. That memory – of Kanon outright fleeing when Hagumi told her of Misaki’s plans – was as fresh as the day it had happened months ago. Their relationship was still on tenuous ground. If Misaki sprung the question now, how would she react? There was no way of knowing. And uncertainty was much scarier than the surety of denial.

The other three band members were easy. Hagumi, Kaoru, and Kokoro all had an earnestness that Misaki could place some amount of confidence in. Those dummies would obviously want to play music again after just a little prodding – heck, in her old life, she was the outlier, the sourpuss who had to be roped into tagging along for the wild, wacky ride that was Hello, Happy World’s existence. Kanon had been one of the most essential parts of convincing her to stay – the sole member of the group besides her with any sense, the only one who knew (or rather, believed) that she was Michelle, at times the foundation of her very sanity. If Kanon hadn’t been around, Misaki would have blown up on the others much sooner than she had.

And… this was the same Kanon, right? The same jellyfish-loving, fuee-spouting girl that Misaki had grown close to? All accounts seemed to say so.

So why was she hesitating?

She found herself staring out the window,  overlooking the dusky, overcast streets of the downtown district. In spite of the rain, the festival decorations that had been set up still stood strong, droplets bouncing off the white canopies in little streams.

“What are they setting up for?” asked Kanon, tracing Misaki’s line of sight.

“The summer festival tomorrow,” said Misaki. “I think there’s going to be fireworks and games and stuff.”

“Oh, that’s nice.”

The idea clicked in Misaki’s head before her brain could think through the implications:

“Wanna go?”

Kanon blinked. “To the festival?”

“Y… yeah.”

Kanon’s mouth fidgeted. “Just… the two of us?”

“Uh…” Misaki nodded dully. “Uh-huh.”

Her neurons finally caught up with her mouth. What was she thinking? True, inviting the other HHW members would probably put more pressure on Kanon, but the idea of just the two of them perusing the booths together was… well, crazy. Misaki was talking with her face-to-face for the first time in months; there was no way-

“Okay.”

Misaki’s jaw hung open in disbelief. “O…Okay?”

Kanon nodded. “I… You asked, didn’t you?”

I didn’t think you would agree! Misaki sputtered inwardly.

“I mean, w-we haven’t seen each other in a while, s-so…” Kanon pushed her index fingers together. “I-It would be nice to catch up.”

That was, theoretically, what they were supposed to be doing right now, even if Misaki was too much of a disaster to let that happen. But Kanon was correct – they needed to get on the same page relationship-wise before Misaki had any notions about getting the drummer back on board.

“Do… do you not want to?” asked Kanon.

“No, I – I asked for a reason,” said Misaki. “Yeah. Let’s do it. Tomorrow. The festival. Just… Just the two of us.”

Kanon smiled. “It’s a da-” She caught herself. “A… u-uhm…”

Outing!” Misaki smirked back forcibly. “It’s… an outing.”

“R-Right,” said Kanon. “An outing. That’s all.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 39: Little Lights

24 hours later, and Misaki was standing under the white-and-orange arch of the downtown district, skittishly checking her phone to make sure she had gotten the time right. Her navy blue, flower-and-pinwheel-patterned yukata simmered under the sunset-tinged glow of paper lanterns, her other hand nervously adjusting the floral hairpin dangling on her temple. Behind her, townspeople milled through the streets full of booths, food, games, and other attractions, their babbles enveloping the evening in rich liveliness. Her sandaled feet tapped impatiently against the pavement, her mind running through thoughts of everything that had occurred over the past day.

She and Kanon had parted amicably enough – or at least, as amicably as they could, given the situation. After venturing home with a stormy stomach, she asked her mother if her old summer yukata was still around, drawing questions of if she would be going to the festival, what her plans were, and if she could please take Koharu along because she needs to get out of the house more and she really enjoyed it last year when they went. Misaki didn’t want to leave her little sister out to dry, but she had already promised Kanon that they’d be alone, and saddling the outing with watching an elementary schooler didn’t seem appropriate – it’s why she hadn’t invited Kokoro, either. Of course, Hagumi and Kaoru had asked about Misaki’s plans too, though luckily for her they both had ones ready-made – Hagumi with some softball friends, and Kaoru with Chisato – so she didn’t have to feel bad about turning them down.

Of course, she was starting to wonder if companionship wouldn’t be a bad idea, considering how anxiously she was spiraling around internally. Kanon might have agreed to the get-together, but the awkwardness hanging between them when they last parted was still thick enough to touch. Misaki was hoping things would go smoothly, but… well, she couldn’t erase her doubts as much as she would’ve liked to. Still, she was determined to make it a relaxed evening – which is why Kanon’s lateness was making her so tense.

She probably got lost, didn’t she? Misaki thought, compulsively checking her phone for the third time that minute. I should’ve met her at her house… gah, why didn’t I think this would happen? I’m such an idiot. Or maybe… she’s getting cold feet? No, she would tell me if she wasn’t coming… right?

She stared blankly at the time. Maybe… maybe she’d message her. It wouldn’t be a big deal. Just a mild “Hey, I’m under the downtown arch”. Not even questioning. Just a little prompt. Nothing pressuring… right?

Her finger was itching over the Line button on her home screen when a familiar voice hailed her. “Yo, Claudio!”

Misaki lifted her head. Tomoe stood to the side, dressed in her taiko drum outfit – complete with rope headband. “It’s… Misaki,” she corrected again.

“Ah, sorry, slipped my mind.” Tomoe chuckled, leaning against the pillar supporting the arch. “You waiting for someone? Hero, I’m guessing?”

Misaki’s face burned. “Yeah. You?”

“Kinda. Killing time before the taiko show starts.” Tomoe put her hands behind her head, smirking. “Then me and my bandmates will hit up the rest of the festival, I guess.”

“Sounds like fun,” said Misaki sincerely.

“Yeah… might try to hang out with my sister too,” said Tomoe, her voice softening. “I’m a little worried, though…”

“Worried?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Tomoe, waving it away. “Not your problem.”

Misaki coughed. “You can, uh, tell me about it, if you want.”

“Well… we had a little fight recently, that’s all,” said Tomoe. “Things have smoothed over, but… I guess I’m worried that maybe things aren’t all fixed, you know? Like we’ve got stuff hanging in the back of our heads that we don’t wanna talk about.”

It was a surprisingly relatable sentiment – almost as surprising as the fact that Tomoe was opening up so casually. “So… you don’t know how to handle it?” asked Misaki.

“Yeah. I guess… I just wanna show her that I still love her, despite the spat? ‘Cuz we’re sisters, and I’d do anything for her, and a little argument ain’t gonna stop that. If I could just figure out how to say that… hmm…”

Misaki looked down the stalls, subconsciously evaluating the baubles on display. “Say, Ako likes theatrical stuff, right?”

“Yeah, she – ” Tomoe stopped. “Wait, how do you know that? And her name?”

“U-Uhm…” Misaki’s eyes darted back and forth. “S-Sayo-san told me! While we were working on the play. Sh-She talked about her bandmates sometimes, and it came up in conversation. That’s all.” Her excuses were becoming more elaborate, but she wasn’t sure how to curtail them.

Even so, Tomoe seemed to swallow it without issue. “Ah, makes sense. But yeah, you’re right. What about it?”

“Well…” Misaki began, getting her thoughts back on track, “she seems like the sort of person who would like those masks they always sell at these things.”

“Oh, you mean like the ones with Pikachu and Hello Kitty and stuff?” asked Tomoe. “Yeah, she’s a fan… oh! Good idea! I should buy one for her! Though she might think it’s kinda childish, haha.”

Somehow, Misaki imagined Ako wouldn’t mind. “Hope it goes well.”

“I think it will! And hey, thanks for helping – not just now, but yesterday too…” Tomoe appeared to be ruminating on something. “Wait, lemme tell you a little something as thanks.”

“What is it?”

Tomoe nudged her and motioned to a nearby office building, several stories tall, easily the largest in downtown. “See that tower? The festival organizers gave me a special access code to get in and use the elevator up to the roof – best place to view the fireworks.”

Misaki caught her drift. “And you’re giving it to me?”

“Yeah! Figure it’s the least I can do,” said Tomoe, palming Misaki a small piece of paper with an eight-digit code on it. “I don’t think we were actually planning to head up there anyhow – we don’t trust Moca in high places any more, not since… the incident.”

The word was said with such gravitas that Misaki dared not ask for an explanation.

“Anyway, thanks again.” Tomoe’s eyes panned to Misaki’s side. “Oh hey, I think your friend’s here.”

Misaki turned. Pacing down the street was Kanon, walking side-by-side with Chisato. The two soon came to a stop in front of the arch, panting lightly. “S-Sorry I’m late!” said Kanon.

“Y-You’re fine,” said Misaki, looking over her attire – a pale yellow yukata decaled with Japanese maple leaves, her signature ponytail tied by an ornate pink-and-white barrette. The bright, pastel colors complemented her perfectly. “Um… you look nice.”

“Th-thank you!” said Kanon, her face lighting up at the complement. “Y, You too.”

The late summer evening suddenly felt a lot warmer.

Kanon turned to Chisato, bowing. “Thanks for walking with me, Chisato-chan.”

“It was no problem.” Chisato looked the two of them over with her usual polite grin. “I have my own agenda to attend to, so I hope you two have fun.”

“See you!”

Chisato walked towards the stalls, flashing Misaki a complicated expression as she passed. Misaki wasn’t quite sure what the nuances in her stare had meant, but she personally interpreted it as a “don’t screw this up or I will end you where you stand” glare and took the message to heart.

“So…” murmured Kanon, stepping up to Misaki. “Sh-Shall we?”

Misaki took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

Waving briefly to Tomoe, they set off into the stalls, becoming swallowed by the festivities.

***

Misaki’s mind and feet meandered among the booths, glazing over each one with cursory interest before becoming distracted by another. She didn’t fully process any of the savory scents or scintillating sounds that bombarded her – she wasn’t really thinking in general, really. She was just… moseying along, Kanon by her side.

“Um… do you want something to eat?” Kanon asked.

“Oh, uh – sure.” Misaki wasn’t particularly hungry, but maybe food would inject some energy back into her system.

They lined up at a nearby yakisoba stall, soon indulging in a Styrofoam bowl full of the cheaply stir-fried noodles. Misaki slurped them up slowly as they walked, being careful not to splatter – her kimono was rather nice, after all, and she didn’t want to stain it.

“Do you like festivals, Misaki-chan?” asked Kanon in between bites.

“I… guess,” she replied. She wanted to smack herself – how limp could she sound? A dead fish would sound more energetic.

“Ah, that’s nice,” said Kanon. “I… always get a little anxious in crowds, so I never stay long.”

“O-Oh…” Regret crashed into Misaki all at once. “Sorry for inviting you, then. We can go somewhere else, if you’d like.”

“N-No, no, it’s okay! We should walk around at least a little.”

Misaki giggled nervously. “As long as you’re comfortable with it…”

Finishing off the last of her noodles, Kanon peered around. “Um… want to try goldfish scooping?”

“Sure, if that’s what you want.”

Dumping their trays into a nearby trash can, the two approached the goldfish stall, where after a modest fee they were handed paper scoops for hunting. They bent low to the pool, watching the little orange fish zoom around thoughtlessly.

“I’ve always been pretty bad at this,” said Kanon with a chuckle. “I’m not very coordinated, so I can’t move the scoop very well.”

“Mm.” Misaki was still lost in non-thought.

Kanon’s eyes traced the surface of the water. “Did you, um, not want to do this?”

“Hm? Oh, no, no, that’s not it…” Misaki kicked herself again. Now wasn’t the time to space out – she needed to do away with her listlessness and focus.

“O-Okay…”

 Kanon dipped her scoop into the water, lingering long enough that the paper film broke easily. Despite her best efforts, the little fish consistently eluded her, and her scoop soon became unusable. “Fuee…”

“Tough luck, miss!” said the stall attendant. “Want another one? It’s only another 100 yen.”

“H-Hold on a sec, Kanon-san,” said Misaki, rolling up her sleeves. “I’ll get some for both of us.”

“Really…?”

Misaki nodded, leaning close to the water, holding the scoop almost parallel to the surface. Last summer, she and Koharu had spent a long time mastering the art of goldfish scooping (due to the latter’s insistence on catching at least a half-dozen by herself) – and now, she was a bona fide expert. “Leave it to me.”

Kanon nodded, peering in close.

Misaki narrowed her vision. The trick of the trade was to make darting motions: gliding the scoop under the fish quick enough to snag it. but slow enough so as not to tear the paper. After some initial rustiness, she began making catches with relative ease, snagging one, two, three, four, five fishes before her scoop tattered to uselessness.

“Wo-hoh! An expert!” chimed the attendant, impressed. “Lemme bag those up for you, young lady.”

Within moments, Misaki held a tied-up plastic bag filled with the captured fishes. Three of them zipped around their clear confines with impressive energy. One hung towards the bottom of the bag, quivering in anxious circles. And the last hung towards the center, motionless, so still that Misaki thought it might be deceased. She couldn’t help but feel as if the scene reminded her of something…

“Wow, you did great, Misaki-chan!” said Kanon. “Are you going to take them home?”

“I’m not a big goldfish person,” Misaki replied. “Do you want them?”

Kanon shook her head. “I’m not very good at taking care of pets…”

They hung there for a moment, unsure what to do with the acquisition. Eventually, Misaki bashfully handed them back to the stall attendant. “Just… hand these to the next kid who can’t scoop any, please.”

“Haha, all right!” the attendant cackled.

Bowing, Misaki stepped away from the stall, feeling a little more clear-headed than before. “Sorry about earlier – I was a bit dazed.”

“I-It’s all right,” said Kanon. “What do you want to do next?”

“Hmm…” Misaki’s eyes skipped from stall to stall, looking for an activity they might enjoy. “Let’s walk around a bit more, I guess.”

“Okay!”

They strolled along, Misaki becoming embroiled in her own thoughts again. So far things were off to a decent start – rocky, but salvageable. Even so, the lump in her intestines persisted. Tomoe’s voice from earlier echoed in her head:

I guess I’m worried that maybe things aren’t all fixed, you know? Like we’ve got stuff hanging in the back of our heads that we don’t wanna talk about.

She scratched at her cheek, trying to quash her inner turmoil. Denial may not have helped anything, but suddenly getting raw and emotional in the middle of the street didn’t seem like the best idea either. How could she make things better without delving into uncomfortable territory?

In the midst of her contemplation, a nearby stall prize caught her eye – a small penguin plushie, no bigger than her hand. It sat in the middle of a shooting gallery with open, waddling little arms. And just as she remembered Tomoe’s troubles, so too did she remember her own advice.

“Mind if I try this?” she asked, motioning towards the booth.

“N…Not at all!” said Kanon.

Misaki shelled out to the handler and picked up her cork gun, leaning carefully on the countertop as she lined up her shot. The penguin was hardly the fanciest prize, nor the most difficult to snag, but she wasn’t exactly a markswoman – in comparison to her scooping mastery, she was a complete novice at the shooting range. She took her time carefully in lining up the shot, holding her breath to steady her hands, but accidentally jolted it right as she pulled the trigger:

PLUNK

The cork missed the penguin by centimeters. Cursing her jitters, Misaki lined up her sights again, much more hastily this time – unfortunately, her lack of care made her imprecise, and she missed the doll again. Inhaling deeply, she commanded herself to take it slow, and this time got the penguin right in the belly – only to barely move it an inch. Objects had to fall off the bannisters in order to be won, so she was out of luck.

That’s right… she thought with a bitter smile. I forgot these things are rigged.

“Tough break,” said the attendant. “Want another go?”

She considered giving up, but before she could make a decision Kanon stepped forward with change. “C-Can I try, actually?”

“Go right ahead, miss!”

Kanon took the rifle from Misaki and leaned over the railing. Her hands were much shakier than Misaki’s, but she had surprisingly good posture – she positioned her elbow for support, closed one eye, and after cautious consideration, fired. The first cork plinked right off the penguin’s chest.

“G…Good shot,” said Misaki, impressed.

Kanon smiled before returning to position, scrutinizing the angle with a hard squint. Her second shot grazed the top of the penguin’s head, harmlessly bouncing off the rear wall. Mildly frazzled, she took a whole minute to concentrate on her final try – and, with one last clenched breath, sniped the doll right in the forehead, sending the monochromatic plushie tumbling onto its back and off the railing.

“I’ll be!” exclaimed the attendant, handing the penguin to Kanon. “The prize is all yours, kid.”

“Th-Thank you very much!” Kanon gingerly took the plushie before offering it to Misaki. “Here you go!”

Misaki stared at the doll, blinking. “Um, why are you offering it to me?”

“Huh?” Kanon looked confused. “W…Weren’t you trying to get it?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Misaki itched at her arm, turning away. “I was, er… trying to win it for you.”

“For me…?”

“Yeah,” said Misaki. “Penguins always remind me of you, you know? ‘Cuz of that one time-”

The words died in her throat. But it was too late. “What time?” asked Kanon, her mouth quizzically pursed.

“N-Never mind,” said Misaki, wishing she could bury herself in the sand. This Kanon hadn’t helped rescue the escaped penguin from the aquarium. Nor had she experienced Misaki’s awkward acted love confession aboard a cruise ship, fallen down a dark and damp pirate cave slide, or been along for any other of the dozens of wacky adventures that Kokoro had concocted in her tenure as band leader. All of those events… might as well have been false memories at this point.

Kanon looked curious, but didn’t seem keen to press the issue. “I… I see. So I should just hang onto this, then…?”

“Y-Yeah,” said Misaki. “I, uh, meant it to be a present, but I guess it doesn’t really count, does it? Hahaha…”

Despite her awkward laughter, Kanon smiled. “I appreciate the thought, Misaki-chan. So… thank you.”

“Y-You’re welcome.”

Kanon held onto the plushie as they continued walking, its little figure bobbling as they marched along.

Towards the end of the strip, they stumbled upon a public tea ceremony display, where a number of elderly folk took turns sipping matcha from a cup. Kanon’s face lit up at the sight. “Misaki-chan, look!”

“Yeah, pretty neat,” said Misaki. “You’re in the tea ceremony club at school, right?”

“Uh-huh!” said Kanon, sounding the liveliest yet that night. “I know it sounds a little antiquated, but… I actually really enjoy it.”

Sensing her enthusiasm, Misaki decided to inquire. “What’s tea ceremony like, anyway? It’s always just looked like really slow tea drinking to me.”

“Well, there’s a lot more than just the tea,” said Kanon. “There’s a lot to pay attention to – the season, the layout of the room, the flower arrangement, the meal, the calligraphy you’ve chosen to decorate the wall… all of it contributes towards the theme of the ceremony, whatever it might be.”

Misaki now realized that the ‘really slow tea drinking’ was much more complicated than she gave it credit for. “You… gotta think about all that, huh?”

“Mmhmm,” said Kanon. “There’s a lot to consider when you’re trying to communicate with your ceremony.”

“Really? What kind of stuff can you even say with tea?”

“Well…” Kanon thought for a moment, before pointing to the tea bowl. “Do you see the cup they’re drinking out of?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you think it looks pretty?”

They had a front row seat, so it wasn’t difficult to make out the details: the tea bowl had a dull coloring and more than one misshapen side – not exactly the height of aesthetic cleanliness. “I wouldn’t say so,” Misaki replied. “It looks a little decrepit, honestly.”

“That’s intentional,” said Kanon, sounding proud to educate her. “You see, the ware is prized for its imperfections – little nicks or asymmetries are much more valuable than a perfect form.”

“Huh,” said Misaki. “Why is that?”

“Well… um…” Kanon played with a bit of her hair. “Have you ever heard of wabi-sabi?

The word sounded vaguely familiar yet inscrutable, in the way ‘ontology’ or ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ might. “I’m not familiar with it, no.”

“It’s a traditional Japanese aesthetic of beauty,” Kanon explained. “Eve-chan told me all about it; it’s an expression of Zen precepts: impermanence, suffering, emptiness. The idea goes that if we focus on and celebrate our imperfections, then we’ll strive to improve ourselves, and more easily attain enlightenment. Wabi-sabi about realizing the authentic: ‘nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.’”

“Sounds like a pretty grim worldview to me,” said Misaki glibly. “If I focused on all the ways I’d messed up in life, I think I’d just get depressed.”

“W-Well…” Kanon laughed nervously. “The actual idea is a l-lot more complicated than what I said… but it’s what tea ceremony is all about.” She motioned towards the tea bowl again. “You look at the ware, notice the little flaws in its make-up, but also its more finessed points… like finding a diamond in the rough. So that way you learn to love things, as imperfect as they are.”

Woah, thought Misaki. Who thought passing around a bowl of matcha could be so profound?

“It might sound complex, but…” Kanon’s voice took on a wistful tone. “I really do love it.”

She looked pensively upon the ceremony. Sensing the mood shift, Misaki decided to pry. “You doing okay?”

“O-Oh, yeah…” Kanon nodded. “I was just remembering something.”

“What?”

Kanon tugged at the sleeves of her kimono, gazing downwards. “There was a time a few months back, when I, um… a-actually missed a lot of club meetings.”

Something curled inside Misaki’s stomach. “Really?”

“Yeah… I g-got really worried,” said Kanon, smiling meekly. “I thought they would hate me for skipping so much, but… when I got back, they greeted me as warmly as ever. It was so kind of them.”

Misaki listened silently.

“And when I said sorry for my absence… Eve-chan… she just laughed and said: ‘that is okay, Kanon-san! We are celebrating your imperfections!’” Kanon chuckled. “And then, she hugged me, and I asked her why everybody was being so forgiving. And you know what she said?”

The world seemed to hang on her breath.

“‘It was so sad to see you gone. The club felt empty without you. So please don’t leave again, because…’”

Kanon closed her eyes, her hands clasping over her heart.

“‘This is where you belong.’”

The five words circled Misaki, knelling with every syllable.

“I almost cried with relief,” Kanon murmured. “I thought I might be scolded, but it was like greeting an old family member. Eve-chan is amazing.”

“Yeah,” said Misaki. “She’s something else, isn’t she?”

“Uh huh. Er…” Kanon motioned to the ceremony display. “D-Do you want to try it?”

Misaki considered it for a moment before realizing that she didn’t have the energy to think about aesthetic beauty right now. “…No thanks. I’m more in the mood for something sweet. Although… um…”

“What is it?”

Misaki took a deep breath. “Maybe… y-you can host a ceremony for me sometime.”

Kanon cheeks flushed, her fingers entwining into happy ribbons. “I would love to!”

Misaki smiled. “C’mon. Let’s get some cotton candy.”

Kanon nodded, and they strode off, their steps a little lighter than before.

They found the stall selling the sugary floss within moments. Misaki ordered two bunches, handing the blue one to Kanon. “It matches your hair,” she explained.

“Heehee, it does.” Kanon surveyed Misaki’s own cone. “I think pink suits you, too.”

“Does it…?” Misaki couldn’t stare at the bright hue without thinking of Michelle – the dopey creature seemed almost imaginary at this point. Of course, Kanon had no knowledge of the mascot bear now... so maybe she really did just think the color fit Misaki.

Either way, they happily sank their teeth into the treats. “It’s good!” said Kanon.

It’s just cotton candy, thought Misaki, though she admitted the pure sugar hit the spot at that moment. An idea crossed her mind. “Hey, do you mind if we take a selfie?”

“A selfie? S-Sure!”

Misaki lined up her phone camera for a shot, snapping a pic just as she and Kanon were taking a bite. Shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes forward, their heads at exactly the same height. In the ethereal orange accents of the festival lanterns, the image came out wonderfully.

“S-Send it to me later,” said Kanon.

“Oh, uh… okay.” Misaki stared at the picture in her camera roll. At her and Kanon’s expressions, both smiling.

Happy.

It was… a strange feeling.

She savored it.

They continued their stroll for another hour: picking up trinkets, trying snacks, and soaking in the atmosphere. They listened to Tomoe’s taiko show, witnessed Eve engage in a mock kendo battle, and beheld – much to their mutual surprise – a dramatic kabuki performance by Kaoru and Chisato. As they walked, Misaki felt the tendons in her legs loosen, the tightness in her muscles ebbing out of her body like carbon dioxide from her lungs. Kanon pointed to stalls with gleaming eyes, leading Misaki to various attractions without a hint of hesitation. The long, hot, summer night sizzled above them, but the warmth wasn’t unwelcome.

Because for the first time in what felt like forever, Misaki didn’t have a single worry on her mind.

 

Not long after putting their feet up on a bench near Hazawa Coffee, a voice came in over the speakers.

“Attention. The fireworks show will be starting in 30 minutes. The fireworks show will be starting in 30 minutes.”

“Whew…” said Misaki, looking pleased. “Almost done.”

Kanon looked around at the throng of festival-goers, which had ballooned exponentially over the past hours. “It’s getting pretty crowded…  where should we watch the fireworks from? The riverbank, maybe?”

“Well…” Misaki picked at the little slip of paper she had stuffed inside her yukata sleeve. “I actually have a pretty good location in mind.”

“Really? Where?”

Misaki explained what Tomoe had told her. “A nice quiet rooftop to watch the fireworks from sounds nice, doesn’t it?”

Kanon nodded. “It does! Let’s get over there, then.”

The two headed towards the office building, ducking under the kitschy festival barricades to reach its massive, glassy front windows. Misaki found the corresponding keypad and punched in the code, hearing the hydraulic door open with a satisfying click.

They stepped inside. The building’s interior was almost oppressively plain – stark, fluorescent lighting illuminated a vacant lobby, the previously overbearing sounds of the festival now muted by glass. Their colorful clothes struck a harsh contrast to the luridly white interiors; Misaki almost wished a plainclothes businessman would pop his head up from behind a desk just to show that it wasn’t some sort of ghost building. The sudden shift in atmosphere was pretty disorienting.

She punched the up button on the elevator, folding her hands in front of her as they waited. “I’ve gotta say, I’ve never done anything like this.”

“Me neither,” Kanon replied.

The two stood there in silence. In the previous caterwaul of the crowd, such stillness was acceptable, but now it lay heavy and thick between them. Misaki felt some of the old tenseness well up in her spine, but she was able to thrust it deep within as the elevator door opened. They’d cap off the evening with a nice, simple fireworks display. No need for anything more.

They entered the square confines of the elevator, Misaki smacking the “R” button unceremoniously as the doors glided to a close. “I wonder what the roof will be like.”

“Y…Yeah,” said Kanon.

The elevator began shunting upwards. Misaki stood parallel with Kanon, feeling their arms brush against one another. Her body heat suddenly felt a lot more pronounced than before… warm and friendly, like a campfire. Misaki looked down at Kanon’s left hand: soft, empty – lonely.

What if she held it?

No. She shouldn’t be so bold. They were here for a nice, eventless outing. Any further and she’d be stepping on Kanon’s proverbial toes. It wasn’t as if it would be embarrassing – there wasn’t anybody around, after all – but the idea made her queasy. She should get permission before doing something like that. Yup. The very thought of holding Kanon’s hand unasked was making her insides shake.

 

vrrmblevrrmblevrrmble

 

…Hang on.

 

vrrmblevrrmBLEVRRMBLE

 

It wasn’t her insides that were shaking…

 

BRLMBRLMBRLMBRLMB

 

 It was the whole elevator.

 

RLMBLRMBLBMLBRMLRBLMBRLM

 

“Mi-Mi-Mi-Mi-Misaki-ch-chan!"

The box car shuddered and groaned and thrashed about, sparks sputtering from the washed-out ceiling light as the two girls crumbled to the floor, a single word penetrating Misaki’s panicked skull:

Earthquake.

The fuse on the lamp snapped into shadow. Quaking moans quieted to nothingness. And the writhing vibrations stilted to a stop – leaving them in cramped, motionless, cold darkness.

Chapter Text

Chapter 40: Fireworks

Misaki only now realized that she was gasping for breath.

It took her several moments to even register what had happened. The quake had come so swiftly and suddenly that she almost wasn’t sure it was real; it seemed just as likely that she had been knocked unconscious or dead by some cruel twist of fate. That would certainly explain the absolute blackness clouding her vision – the murky, looming shadows the melted and sifted around her. Getting dizzy from the shaking was one thing; becoming dazed without a single mote of light around with which she could gain her bearings was another.

She took her scrambled brain and tried to recombobulate it. The first thing that came to mind was her companion. “Kanon-san, are you okay?”

“I-I’m all right!” Despite speaking in whispers – compelled to quiet by the gloom – Kanon voice was clear and close.

Slowly, Misaki’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. She glided her hands across the floor slowly until her fingers brushed against the wall, positioning her body so she could lean her back against it. On the opposite end of the room, she could make out several faint LED lights, dotting the area where she assumed the elevator buttons were – the sole source of any illumination, like laser pointers against the night sky. Kanon’s figure hung in her view, present but unrecognizable. She witnessed the amorphous mass of dusk that was the drummer’s arm reach out until it, too, hit a wall, skittering to rest against it.

 “Wh-What are we going to do?” asked Kanon, her voice quickly becoming strained. “W-We… I…”

“T-Take it easy, Kanon-san,” said Misaki, doing her best to calm her (and herself) down. “Panicking won’t do us any good.”

“R-Right…” Kanon took willful gulps of air, slow and deep, before suddenly stopping. “Do… do we have to worry about oxygen?”

“I don’t think so. There’s enough ventilation that we should be fine for a couple hours,” said Misaki. At least, I hope there is… I actually have no idea.

She did her best to recall what to do in a situation like this – ‘how to save yourself in a stopped elevator’ wasn’t exactly a regular safety drill at school, but she remembered some basic procedures. First up: call for help. She busted out her phone ready to dial 119 – no service. While she silently cursed, the bright blue glow of her screen reminded her they had a method of illumination, and subsequently turned on her phone’s flashlight. Seeing Misaki lighten up her device, Kanon did the same, revealing her silently shaking, curled up figure on the opposite wall.

Misaki moved towards the elevator buttons, figuring it would make sense to try and get the car to another floor. She attempted the ‘Door Open’ key first – no response, to little surprise. After getting similar results from every separate floor option, she slammed the ‘Call for Help’ button with a sigh. “Guess we’ll just have to wait to get rescued.”

“Sh-Should we try opening the doors ourselves?” asked Kanon.

“Nope, too dangerous. Even if we could somehow force it open, it’ll probably just lead out into the elevator shaft, and, well…” Misaki didn’t want to imagine what it was like to look down from their position.

“I-I see.” Kanon sounded anxious, but not much more than usual – she was surprisingly dependable under pressure. Misaki recalled the many troubled situations she had soldiered through back in her old world, and admiration welled up inside her. She felt the urge to let Kanon know it, but quickly suppressed it; it felt inappropriate to let something like that slip right then.

After one last round of trying the buttons, Misaki plopped back down on the floor, resting her head against the elevator handrail. “Of all the rotten luck… why’d this have to happen now?”

“D…Don’t worry, Misaki-chan,” said Kanon, unable to mask her own concern. “I’m… I’m sure somebody will come along soon enough.”

“I hope so…”

Their words bounced around the cramped elevator, its walls so reflective they might as well have been mirrors. If the downstairs lobby was eerie, then this place made a graveyard seem serene.

“Um… do you have service?” asked Kanon. “I’m don’t have a connection, but...”

Misaki shook her head. “What’s your battery at?”

Kanon glanced at her phone. “Er… 29%. What about you?”

“41%. It should last us a little while, at least.”

“Right. Right…”

A lull. Misaki hated how she could hear her heartbeat palpitate in her ears. She sought to fill the air however she could. “Hey, uh… sorry we’re gonna miss the fireworks.”

“Oh, i-it’s not your fault!” Kanon stammered. “I mean, I don’t think either of us expected this to happen.”

“No kidding. Though… maybe they’ll delay the show because of the earthquake… or something.”

“Do you think?”

Misaki honestly didn’t have a clue. But she certainly hoped so – if they could just get out of here and watch the fireworks without any more commotion, the day could still be marked a victory. And hey, it would make a funny story, when all was said and done. We got trapped in a dark elevator for hours by freak accident. Hilarious, isn’t it?

“Fuee…” Kanon exhaled. “I’m all jittery.”

“I can’t blame you,” said Misaki. “Do you, uh, want company?”

“Company…?” asked Kanon. “I mean, you’re already here…”

“N-No, I meant-“ Misaki coughed. “L, Like… do you want me to move closer. That kind of thing.”

“O-Oh. Oh.” Even in the poor lighting, Misaki could make out the flitting of Kanon’s eyes. “S…Sure.”

Misaki rubbed her neck, unsure about the confidence of that answer. “I mean, if you don’t want me to…”

“N-No! Please, go ahead.”

Doing away with her last bit of cowardice, Misaki scooted over to Kanon, who was now hugging her knees tightly, her entire body illustrated by stark blue-white, her fringes soaked in shadows.

“You doing all right?” asked Misaki.

Kanon nodded. “A… A little afraid, but… I’m relieved you’re here with me.”

Misaki was glad that her blushing couldn’t be seen right now. “W-Well… I’m relieved you’re here with me, too.”

A tiny giggle escaped from Kanon’s throat. She leaned her chin on her knees, closing her eyes in rest. Misaki patted her on the shoulder encouragingly, but didn’t go any farther than that. She splayed her feet out before her and let her tendons loosen.

And then they just – sat there.

Not in awkwardness, or discomfort, but… peace.

It had been a long time since Misaki had known the feeling – of being able to simply exist in the same space as a person without feeling pressured to speak, to act, to prove the validity of a bond through some tired gesture or conversation. They could simply be, and that was okay. Realizing that made her happier than words could describe. So happy… that she felt she could finally be honest.

“You know, Kanon-san, I’m… I’m glad.”

“Gl-Glad?” asked Kanon. “That we got stuck in an elevator?”

“No, not about that,” said Misaki, chuckling, her eyes locked on her feet. “I’m… I’m glad that… you’re still my friend.”

“Misaki-chan…”

“I…” Misaki swallowed the last of her hesitance. “I was really afraid at first. That you wouldn’t want to speak to me ever again… after everything I did.”

Kanon was quiet.

“I… I really messed up,” said Misaki. “No, it was worse than that, wasn’t it? What I did is worth cutting ties over. But you… even after all that, and what I did during the play, and everything… you gave me a second chance. And a third… and so many more.”

A pause.

“What you said, on opening night, as Hero… about forgiving myself…” Misaki bent back towards the walls. “That’s really hard to do. I thought I might never get to move past it. But tonight… I felt all those kinds of thoughts melt away. Being with you, I was just… happy. So-”

“…Misaki-chan.”

Kanon’s voice was soft. Gracious. Misaki’s thoughts stopped churning, and became stationary, listening.

“You’re… a good person, Misaki-chan,” she continued. “I’m glad that you’re not afraid any more. Because I… I want you to be happy. “

Something pricked Misaki’s heart, like a threaded needle had just started sewing up her aorta. “Kanon-san…?”

“Yesterday…” said Kanon, eyes locked on the floor. “Y-You asked where I was going. And I didn’t reply.”

Well, yeah, but… it wasn’t really Misaki’s business. Not a big deal. Right?

“I… I was looking for your house.”

Misaki’s blood solidified. “My… house?”

“I… I wanted to talk to you,” said Kanon, weaker. “F-For the longest time, since the play, and even b-before then… I needed to tell you something. But my throat clenched every time I thought of it.”

Misaki moved to comfort her, rubbing her shoulder tenderly. “You can tell me anything, Kanon-san. It’s okay.”

Kanon breathed in little bursts, her fingers clenching into tight pretzels. Her voice, weak and clammy, cracked as she spoke:

“Y-Y…You’re trying to get the band back together, a-aren’t you?”

Misaki’s spirit swerved. But with a steadfast will, she righted it just as quickly. “I… I am. Sorry for not telling you sooner.”

Kanon’s face sank into her knees. “You… did you want me to rejoin…?”

Misaki almost sighed with relief. Kanon was just anxious because she wasn’t sure if the band wanted her back – a completely understandable sentiment. Misaki regretted not telling her right away. “…Of course, Kanon-san. Hello, Happy World! wouldn’t be the same without you. I can’t imagine getting a different drummer. So, please… won’t you join us?”

Her question lingered in the air. Kanon remained facedown, her expression masked by her knees. Misaki, filled with apprehensive hope, consoled her again, imbuing her soothing hand with as much vigor as possible.

Suddenly, Kanon’s chest began rising and falling in shudders. Like a laugh, or…

“M-M-Misaki-chan… you’re…”

She tilted her head. Her face was tightened by pain, cheeks wet with tears.

“Y-You’re… s-s-so unbearably kind.”

Misaki felt her stomach plunge into her entrails. Her hand retreated from Kanon’s shoulder blades, her eyelids flickering. “Kanon-san?”

Kanon hiccuped, sobbing grossly into her lap. She murmured something inaudibly.

Misaki’s voice frayed with concern. “What is it, Kanon-san? What’s the matter?”

She dug her head into the pit of her gut, choking with every breath.  “I-I’m sorry, I, I can’t…”

She cried out with pain and fear and deep, dark regret:

“I c-can’t r-r-r-rejoin…!”

Misaki’s lungs stopped. Her vision dimmed. She could feel her thoughts grind to a halt. “Why… Why not?”

“I…” Kanon sniffed. “I broke up the band in the first place…! It was all my fault!

It all came crashing down at once – every inkling, every presumption that Misaki had made over the past several months, reduced to dust and rubble. Her soul longed to reach out and embrace Kanon, to assuage every fear that poured from her eyes like rain, but her body remained frozen and stiff, unable to utter a single syllable of comfort. “What… What do you mean, Kanon-san…?”

Kanon’s hands clasped over the back of her head, her body becoming tighter and tighter with every sob. “I… It’s because of what I did… what I said to you, and to Kokoro-chan, and the others… without even realizing it, I… I ruined all of it… because I’m w-weak, and pathetic, and useless, and…and-!”

A gag cut her off. Misaki, unable to comprehend, jumped to her first frenzied instinct. “I-It’s okay, Kanon-san! You didn’t do anything wrong-”

“I-It’s all because of me!” Kanon interjected. “It’s… it’s always been my fault… if I had just realized what you were feeling, Misaki-chan… if I hadn’t pushed you away, then… then…!”

“N-None of that matters, Kanon!” Misaki cried, dropping the honorific out of panicked begging. “That’s all in the past! We… We can start over! I wanted to start over! I was the one who messed up! So we can-”

“It doesn’t matter!” Kanon shrieked. “It doesn’t matter, anyway, because… b-because…” She swallowed down a mouthful of phlegm. “I… I can’t play…”

Misaki felt her innards plummet further inwards. “Wh-What do you mean…?”

Kanon looked at her hands, quaking violently in fright. “When… Whenever I try picking up a drumstick now, I… I remember. Re-Remember all the horrible things I’ve done… all the damage I caused… and my hands won’t stop shaking…” Her head trembled as she fell back into her stomach. “I… I couldn’t carry a beat or f-follow a t-t-tempo if I tried. I was w-worthless before, and I’m worthless now.”

Misaki’s thoughts struggled to wrap around the breadth of what Kanon was saying. “You… you can’t play…?”

Kanon shook her head furiously. “A-And even if I could… I wouldn’t deserve to. I’m the worst scum of the earth imaginable.”

Misaki couldn’t resist any more. She leaned in to hug Kanon with all of her might-

Only to be batted away.

“Misaki-chan… don’t,” Kanon wept.

“Kanon, you-“

“It… It hurts, Misaki-chan,” she heaved. “That you would be kind enough to forgive me… it hurts so much.”

“I-”

“Every time I saw you…” Kanon’s eyes shut in agony. “Every time, I thought… ‘She must hate me so much. That’s why she’s always trying to avoid me. To forget me. I get… nobody would want to spend time with someone like me, after what I’ve done.’”

Misaki was at a loss for words. “Kanon, no, I never- y-you were always…”

“That’s why you ran so much, isn’t it?” asked Kanon. “Why you always shuffled past while glancing away. Why you always sounded so reluctant to talk. Why you never looked me in the eye while speaking. I understand. I… I hate me, too.”

Misaki was on the verge of tears herself. “I… Th-That was…”

“Even yesterday, and tonight… you took pity on me. You let me call you by your name… take you around the festival… it was almost enough to make me forget how I didn’t deserve any of this. That’s… j-just how kind you are, Misaki-chan…”

“But you didn’t do anything, it was all-!”

The phrase sunk into Misaki’s bones, fully realized at last.

It was all my fault.

Of course. How could she have forgotten?

The one who had berated her friends and stormed away…

The person who had insulted the band and caused them to split up…

The monster who had made this poor, sobbing girl believe that she was the sole person responsible for her own heinous acts…

It was Misaki Okusawa who had done all that.

And she thought she could just be forgiven?

That with a casual little night at a festival, a mild apology, a sheepish grin, that her slate could just be wiped clean?

No. She had- she had done all of this. Kanon… Kanon had never been this way. Even when she was anxious and afraid she had been so bright – so full of compassion and support and bravery, more than anybody else Misaki had ever known. And now she was reduced to a puddle of emotions: self-loathing and filled with nothing but remorse… and what had caused all this?

She had.

She, who loved Kanon Matsubara from the bottom of her heart… had hurt her on a level she could scarcely comprehend.

And she hadn’t even known it.

Her veins knotted into tight curls. The ends of her hair recoiled with disgust. Every last one of her organs, from her shriveling gallbladder to her bloated liver, wrenched at the thought of what she had done – at the realization that over the past months, the past weeks, the past days, Kanon had been carrying this guilt, this shame around deep inside, tearing away at her every time Misaki had interacted with her… and what had she noticed? A little awkwardness? A tiny hesitancy? Not the intense emotional distress that she was causing Kanon every time they so much as looked at each other?

She felt her spirit writhe out of her body, clawing at the walls in a desperate urge to escape; it pried at the elevator doors, yearning to break out of the other side and away from this decrepit place, from this horrible remorse she bore; it wailed at the walls, pleading with the solid metal frames to let her out, and down, and far away from here, to where Kanon would no longer be hurt by her very presence, to where she could waste away in shame and indignity at the wretched things she had done, to the world she had come from long ago where everything was fine and good and fixable and the band was still together and the most she had to worry about was dehydration and not the fact that she had ruined the life of the person she cared about most-

But her body could only lie there. Decaying and withered. Ragged and ashamed. Crude matter bound by an iron cage, entrapped alongside a presence that hurt more than any blade or illness ever could. And even if she could leave this place, she would never – never – be able to leave behind the feelings she bore within.

They remained there, in silent agony, for a dismal amount of time. Kanon’s heavy heaves turned to silent sobs. Misaki’s spotty vision panned into white noise. Their phones began to flicker from lack of battery life. The walls tightened in on their languid frame, crushing them in closeness. They were engulfed by shades, drowning in air, sinking into shame.

Together, and alone.

Drowning deeper and deeper in the depths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’m… sorry…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’m, so, so sorry…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I… I never meant to…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neither was able to process the deluge of light when the elevator door finally shuddered open.

Two firefighters appeared through the frame, silhouetted by a flood of office lamps behind them. “Sorry for the delay! Are you two all right?”

The girls looked up at the firemen in stupors, unable to speak.

“Oh my, they’re shivering awfully,” said the other fireman. “Hang on, young ladies, we’ll get you some blankets.”

“What happened?” asked the first. “Earthquake?”

Misaki opened her mouth to speak, before registering that she no longer understood how to form words. Kanon was similarly silent.

“It must have been a terrifying ordeal…” said the first fireman, smiling reassuringly. “Well, you’re safe now. And good news: the fireworks haven’t started yet, so you’ll still get a chance to see them.”

Misaki didn’t feel relief. She didn’t feel… anything. Not even numbness. The very idea of ‘feeling’ seemed alien now. As if she were a maggot wriggling out of the dirt to see the wide open sky for the first time. She crawled out of the elevator by instinct, dizzied by the sudden influx of sight and sound and other sensations, no longer safe in her shell.

The next few minutes were a blur. Travelling downstairs. Consolation from the firefighters. Calls home to their mothers, just to explain what had happened. Blankets and pats on the back. Nothing in the building was damaged, and they were let go shortly, thrust out into the festival streets. The chatter was still warm and lively – as if time had stopped inside the elevator, and now resumed. But the talking sounded garbled, fuzzy: distant.

She and Kanon exchanged no words. They walked to the downtown arch, their sandals clopping lightly against the pavement. The million lights of the festival were vague and blurry in her periphery. In proper lighting, Misaki could now make out Kanon’s bloodshot eyes, her jittering hands, her stilted pace. Like a caged animal afraid of the outside world. And again, the phrase stabbed her in the brain:

I did this.

They came to a stop outside the arch. Somehow, without trading words or even glances, they had come to a mutual understanding that this is where they would part. Misaki wondered if Kanon could make it home on her own; how lost she would be trying to navigate without a friend by her side. But the thought of what distress Misaki would cause by accompanying her felt like a far more fearful prospect, so she dared not offer.

They hung, unmoving, unspeaking, unblinking. Misaki felt the urge to run away, but her leaden heart was too heavy for that. So she squeaked out the one, solitary word she could manage. “…Bye.”

“B…Bye,” Kanon replied.

With that pathetic farewell, Misaki began sauntering off into the night. She didn’t think of the nice long bath she would take at home, the warm food still working its way through her digestive tract, the fond memories she had made hours earlier. All of it was tainted now. She realized that her quest had been foolish from the onset – that she had never matured beyond her failings, that she was still mired in her own grievances, that she couldn’t change the cynical, lackluster killjoy that she was-

“W-Wait.”

Kanon called out weakly behind her. Misaki didn’t have the strength to deny her – she turned slowly, watching the wave-haired girl trod slowly over, clutching her yukata pouch tightly.

“I… I meant to give you something,” said Kanon. “B…Before the end of the night.”

A gift? Misaki didn’t deserve that. Not after everything that had happened. But before she could refuse it, Kanon had unfurled the pouch wrapping and extended the item meekly out towards her.

It was… a bear pin. Round. Steel. Monochromatic.

The same one Misaki had hurled off the Hanasakigawa rooftop three months prior.

“I… I found it in the courtyard, o-one day, by the bushes…” Kanon nudged it forward. “I… I thought you lost it.”

Misaki hung speechless. She dazedly reached out towards the pin, clasping it in her hand like the relic of some long-lost civilization.

“I’m… sorry I didn’t give it to you before now…” said Kanon. “I wanted it to be a nice surprise… like seeing an old friend again, or something. But that was just another dumb move on my part… aha…haha…”

Misaki stared at the accessory, closed-mouthed.

“Um… it… it’s important to you, isn’t it? You… always wore it, so I thought… um… just…” Kanon looked her in the eyes, for the last time.  “D-Don’t lose it again, okay?”

Before Misaki could understand what was happening, Kanon had fled, running down the street without looking back, her hands covering her pain-stricken face. But still Misaki stood there, glued in place, affixed on the pin’s nostalgic gleam.

Behind her, the first firework bloomed in the night.

One after one the rockets burst in midair, sputtering into fantastical smoke, forming iridescent spirals in the darkened sky. They turned and boomed and fizzled and twisted and gushed and blazed, blazed so bright, so bright they could blind. Like an orchestra, the blasts harmonized with one another, conducting a symphony of fire, each explosion bringing with it a ringing pain; a glaring burn.

The glint of the pin reflected the colors of the sky: reds and oranges and pinks and yellows, a chromatic carnival of joy, dazzling in all the happy hues of the rainbow.

The image wavered, distorted by tears, until long after the flares had bled into ashes.

Chapter Text

Chapter 41: Lost at Sea

She didn’t remember walking home. Shedding her yukata. Slinking into bed. Staring at the ceiling through milky eyes. Wishing that she would wake up from this nightmare. The next thing she knew, it was 6:37 in the morning and she was in the kitchen, nursing a cup of cold tea, trying to get some semblance of control over her thoughts. But Misaki never had control. That was the thing about bad dreams – you couldn’t dictate what happens in them.

She slumped over on the dining room table, her arms arching over her head, feeling exhaustion tug at her muscles but repel from her eyelids. Consciousness was hazy. Hearing was mellow. Breath was drawn out. Lungs, head, and heart alike pounded away without mercy.

Her deadened gaze subconsciously wandered to the windows, where dawn was just beginning to peek over the eastern horizon. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen a sunrise – the soft pinks and oranges were so much more beautiful than she remembered. She could tell even through her clouded vision.

She… would’ve really liked to look at it with everyone.

The sound of creaking doors, running faucets, and jingling keys did nothing to distract her. Minutes later, footsteps wandered up to the foyer, and stopped. “Misaki? What are you doing up?”

Oh, right. Her mother. She was probably worried. “I… just couldn’t sleep.”

Her mother stepped hurriedly up to her, mouth hung in a deep frown. “You look terrible, honey… are you still shaken up from last night? That situation with the elevator sounded awful.”

Misaki shook her head limply. “I uh… had some stuff on my mind. That’s all.”

Her mother took a seat. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“…Don’t you have work?”

“Please, honey. What’s troubling you?”

Misaki looked over her mother, already dressed in her functional cardigan and plain lipstick. “I’m… fine, Mom. We can talk about it when you get back.”

“I’ll be on call at the hospital tonight. Can you tell me now?”

Where could Misaki even begin? Explaining the situation would take a novel’s worth of context; not that she’d even be able to work through specifics in her current state. The most she could manage was being as vague as possible. “What do you do when you mess up?”

Her mother’s lips flattened. “Well… apologize, of course. Own up to your mistake and say you’ll do better next time.”

“No, I mean…” Misaki sighed. “What do you do when you mess up really bad? Over and over again? And… and you don’t even realize it?”

Her mother folded her hands neatly in front of her. “What do you mean, you don’t realize it?”

“Like…” Misaki struggled to find the words. “You say something to someone, and it hurts them. But they don’t tell you it does. So you end up saying it again. And again… and again… until they break. And suddenly you realize what you’ve done… how are you just supposed to say ‘sorry’ and move on from that?”

Her mother considered the issue momentarily before speaking. “That sounds difficult. Why didn’t they tell you it hurt?”

“I…” Misaki struggled to find an explanation. On one hand, she couldn’t understand why Kanon would do such a thing, and on another, she understood her intentions on a level more visceral than she could ever describe. “I don’t know.”

“Hmm…” Her mother closed her eyes. “Well, this may not be what you want to hear, but... if somebody has an issue with what you’ve said, but they don’t tell you, then that’s their responsibility. After all, you can’t know you’ve done something wrong if they don’t speak up, right?”

Something stabbed Misaki in the spleen. It had been so many hours since she had felt an emotion besides vague lethargy that she wasn’t sure what it was.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened, sweetie, but don’t take it too hard.” Her mother smiled. “I know things may seem bad now, but everything will work out eventually. Right?”

Misaki could feel the wound twist in her organs, and now recognized it. “…Won’t you be late for work?”

Her mother’s expression soured as she checked her watch. “Are you sure you’ll be all right, honey?”

“Weren’t you the one telling me everything will work out eventually?” asked Misaki, unable to hide the causticness in her voice.

“Well, yes, but-” She stifled herself. “A mother worries, you know.”

“Mm,” Misaki grunted.

Her mother walked over and kissed her on the forehead. “Love you, sweetie.”

Misaki didn’t reply. Nor did she watch her mother exit out the front door, throwing one last fretful glance behind her before departing. After a minute of staring at the dining table’s wood grain, she groggily rose and meandered over to her living room couch, groaning with great aggravation.

She knew it well, this bitterness. Toxic and all-consuming, draining every inkling of positivity from the surroundings. Like a fog blotting out the sun’s rays, drowning her in gray.

It sucked. Everything sucked. She hated it.

Almost as much as she hated herself.

***

She must have finally fallen asleep on the sofa, because she regained consciousness half past noon. Her head felt like someone had knocked her skull around with a sledgehammer before trying to hastily rearrange the pieces back together. She rose, instinctively reaching for her phone, the indicator light’s blink informing her of a message:

 

-Seta K: How do you fare, kitten? ✨

Misaki’s head fell back against the couch cushion. She hadn’t told Kaoru or Hagumi of her escapade at the festival, but she wouldn’t be surprised if either one of them had spotted her with Kanon in the crowd the night before. Of course there would be questions. Or maybe Kaoru was just checking in? Either way, Misaki wasn’t equipped with the stamina to handle their personalities right then.

 

-Okusawa M: Not great, honestly

-Okusawa M: Got no sleep

-Okusawa M: Just woke up

She decided to leave it at that for the moment. The way she had phrased it contained no lies, and implied that her main issue was tiredness – perfect for averting snooping. Of course, Kaoru was never one to take news in silence.

 

-Seta K: Ah, how dreadful! My sincere apologies. 😔

-Seta K: Please partake in rest if need be. 🛌

-Seta K: I simply wished to inform you that Hagumi and I are currently perusing the selection of the shopping mall at this fine hour. 🛍️

-Seta K: We were wondering if you wished to join us. 💖

Misaki slouched over her hands, vainly attempting to sort out her thoughts. The emotion-driven side of her brain wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and waste the Sunday away. The rationale-driven side… also wanted to do that, but recognized that staying cooped up alone in her room may not be the best move for her mental health. Then again, would seeing the two of them really make her feel better? Chances are she’d just end up more exhausted.

Images sailed through her consciousness. Hagumi crying as she told her they would get the band back together. Kaoru backstage as she encouraged Misaki to be true to herself.

Her fingers hovered over the keyboard for several moments before typing.

 

-Okusawa M: Yeah sure

-Okusawa M: I’ll join you guys in a bit

-Seta K: Wonderful. 🌹

Misaki felt something vaguely positive stir within the still cockles of her chest. It faded just as quickly. Just as she was about to stuff her phone back inside her pocket, she saw another message. It was from her mother:

 

-Okusawa E: Hey honey I’m really sorry about what I said this morning. I think I didn’t say what I meant to very well. Can we talk tomorrow?

Misaki stared at the static words for a few second before dimming her screen. She’d worry about it later.

Clambering back into her room to throw on clothes – striped shirt, light overalls, and gray beanie – she trundled out of her house, hands diving deep inside her pockets for warmth as she realized it was much brisker than the day before.

***

The end of August – and their brief summer vacation – was nigh. The humid heat been replaced by nips of cold wind overnight, making Misaki double back for a sweater before she made it even three blocks. She was shivering lightly by the time she arrived at the shopping mall, where workers were already tossing up autumnal leaf decorations. Somehow, the sudden change in season made her feel even glummer.

She found Hagumi and Kaoru in the food court, enjoying dessert crepes with their usual vigor. As she made her way over, their characteristically loud conversation drifted through her ears:

“Hey, Kaoru-kun, how are crepes so delicious?”

“Heh… do you not know? They are made with the secret culinary zeal that only the French possess.”

“Secret culinary zeal? Whaddya mean?”

“Well… crepes, ratatouille, baguettes, escargot… they all burn with the same spirit.”

“Woah! Amazing! You know so much, Kaoru-kun!”

Misaki normally would have had a more pronounced reaction to their bizarre conversation – a tiny, pained smile to herself as she thought What are they doing? – but now, she just listened dully, her arms dragging towards the floor as she sat down. “…Hey.”

“Hello, Misaki,” said Kaoru, parting her hair with flourish. “We were just discussing philosophical matters.”

 “Wow, Mii-kun!” said Hagumi, her eyes flopping from her chair excitedly. “You’re dressed like Kokoron today.”

“I am?” Misaki looked herself over. Now that she took another glance, the striped shirt and overall combo was indeed a classic Kokoro outfit – strange, considering the girl was about the last thing on Misaki’s mind. Come to think of it… “Wait, is she coming today, too?”

“Alas, she is occupied,” said Kaoru, a hand clutched to her chest. “Preparations for her space flight mission are well under way.”

“Oh, right… That.” Misaki had almost forgotten about Kokoro’s plans to go to the moon – such a fantastically lunatic idea seemed somehow quaint now. But thinking about Kokoro made her realize that she hadn’t exactly reconciled with her, either – not that things were strained between them, but they didn’t really talk in class or anything. Another broken relationship… how many had she left behind now?

“We were talking about seeing a movie,” said Hagumi, downing the last bite of her whipped-cream-covered crepe. “We weren’t sure which one, though. Kaoru-kun wanted to check out the latest rom-coms, but I was in the mood for something more actiony. What do you think?”

Misaki head hung towards the floor, still entangled in her woes.

“Mii-kun?”

“Is something the matter?” asked Kaoru.

Of course there was. But Misaki hadn’t come here to dwell or vent – if anything, she had tagged along to get her mind off of things. Hagumi and Kaoru were clearly enjoying themselves; did she really want to muck up their day by spilling her feelings? She just had to bottle it up and soldier on until the right opportunity presented itself. She rose her head up, forcing a smile. “I… I’m fi-”

She met their gazes. Concerned. Attentive. Piercing. The denial died in her mouth.

“Mii-kun…” said Hagumi sadly, pushing her fingers together. “You look like you’re going to cry. What’s wrong?”

“Please, do not hide your feelings,” said Kaoru, clasping a hand on Misaki’s shoulder. “If something ails you, tell us.”

In spite of herself, she wanted to laugh. Pathetic. She had come here to escape, and couldn’t even make it five minutes without breaking. Her head plummeted to the table, landing with a dreary thud. “I can’t hide anything, can I…?”

Hagumi and Kaoru rushed to her at once. Hagumi hugged her tightly, stroking Misaki’s arm with warm encouragement. Kaoru patted her on the back, grazing her shoulder blades gently. Neither demanded answers; if anything, they were almost frustratingly quiet. Despite being in public, they spared no ounce of affection or attention – there must have been a whole crowd of onlookers gawking. But Misaki was below embarrassment right now.

She struggled to fill the silence. “I…”

“Take it easy, kitten,” said Kaoru softly. “Speak when you’re ready.”

Her lips tightened. They were so patient. Understanding. Without her even doing anything. She wanted to sob, but she didn’t have the energy. What had she done to deserve such goodwill?

“Does… Does it have to do with Kano-chan-senpai?” asked Hagumi.

Misaki felt her throat constrict, as if a serpent had coiled its way around her windpipe. She couldn’t affirm it with words or action – her silence was answer enough.

“I saw the both of you touring the festival together,” said Kaoru. “It seemed as if all was well at the time.”

It was. But it hadn’t taken long for Misaki to muck that up either, had it? If only she hadn’t taken Kanon on that elevator… if only she hadn’t brought up her emotions…  if only, if only, if only. The phrase echoed in her mind like a musical round.

“Did she get hurt in that earthquake?” asked Hagumi. “It was a big one! I felt everything rumble! A couple of my friends even toppled over!”

“She’s not injured, is she?” asked Kaoru.

Misaki couldn’t let them work themselves up any longer. “She’s… not hurt. At least, not physically.”

Relief washed over their faces. “Well, that’s good,” said Hagumi. “But whaddya mean, ‘not physically’?”

How long could she hide it from them? Not much longer. It would come leaking out of her eventually. And then it would hurt them, too. Why had she come here?

“Misaki?”

“Mii-kun?”

Her head lay sunken between her arms. Despite the omnipresent chatter of the food court, she could hear nothing – not even her own breath. She spoke, so hushed it was nearly a whisper:

“Kanon… won’t be rejoining the band.”

Hagumi and Kaoru both recoiled in surprise. Their faces, initially flabbergasted, settled into unconfident smiles.

“Wh-What do you mean, Mii-kun?” asked Hagumi. “Kano-chan-senpai would… she’d love to play music with us, wouldn’t she?”

“Yes, o-of course,” said Kaoru. “If this is a jest, then it is a cruel one.”

“…Does it look like I’m joking?” asked Misaki acidly.

An uncomfortable beat.

“Maybe… Maybe you misheard!” Hagumi suggested. “I mean, there’s no way… no way that she’d refuse, r-right?”

“Perhaps we are the ones who have misheard,” said Kaoru. “Why, Misaki spoke with such grave temerity that I could scarcely make out the syllables. Could you repeat what you said, my dear?”

Misaki felt the knots again. She lifted her head, speaking with clear, deathly enunciation:

“She’s not coming back.”

Hagumi and Kaoru’s boldfaced cheeriness now crumbled, replaced by deflated unease.

“Y-You can’t be serious…” said Hagumi. “I mean… Kano-chan-senpai cares about us, doesn’t she?”

“Of course she does, Hagumi,” said Kaoru. “I cannot fathom why she would refuse.”

Misaki understood. More than she could bear to. But explaining it here, now, when it was still so fresh in her mind… it would be tearing open the wounds just as they’d scabbed over. But the thought of that didn’t sting half as much as what came next:

“M-Maybe we should ask her again!” said Hagumi. “If we all do, then… she’ll change her mind, right?”

…What?

“A- A capital idea, Hagumi!” said Kaoru, snapping her fingers. “Perhaps she was just nervous in the heat of the moment… I can think of no other expla-”

Are you insane?!

Misaki was suddenly on her feet, her hands slamming against the table with tremendous force. The volume of her outburst attracted attention from everybody in the surrounding tables. Hagumi and Kaoru stared at her with gaping mouths, stunned by the sudden shift in her demeanor. “M-Mii-kun…?” asked Hagumi.

“Kanon – Kanon is already hurting enough as it is!” shouted Misaki. “She’s hurting because she can’t join, not because she doesn’t want to, okay?!”

“She… can’t?” asked Kaoru. “Then perhaps we can help her. I’m sure that we can remedy-”

Shut up!

She felt her veins twisting and turning on themselves, her fists trembling. But still she stood there, ragged and afraid, clutching at her palms tightly.

“Sometimes trying to help people doesn’t work out!” she bellowed. “Sometimes you just end up hurting them more and more without even realizing it! You poke and prod and pry to try and figure out what’s wrong, only to end up pushing the knife in deeper! Don’t you see? I can’t… We just can’t help her!”

She remained there, affixed on nothing, her vision growing hollow.

“I… I don’t understand,” said Hagumi.

A flare welled up from within. “Of course you don’t, you thickheaded dumba-”

Her voice cut off.

Hagumi was crying. Kaoru was crestfallen. Both bore the same anguish.

The memories flooded into her. The airplane hospital. The announcer’s booth at the stadium. The backstage dressing room. The elevator. All the places where she had exploded, causing pain to the ones she loved.

And here she was again. Hurting people.

The noises of the food court rung in her ears, tinny and static. Her hands were slicked with sweat and fear. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t feel. She… She…

 

She couldn’t breathe.

 

THUNK

 

“M-Misaki!”

“Mii-kun!”

She fell to her knees, her hands clutching at her chest. A dark fog slowly smothered her body, enveloping it in an oppressive dread. Everything swirled and sputtered around her in a dizzy haze. Her heart skipped and throbbed in her ears – not the simple pound of nervousness, but an erratic thump with no beat or rhythm. She gasped for air, acutely aware of the drops of sweat that fizzled across her numb skin, hot and cold and every temperature in-between. In her pulsating vision she could make out disconnected events: Kaoru rushing to prop her up –  Hagumi rushing away to get help – a crowd of bystanders looking on in aghast curiosity – herself, wheezing for life on dirty tiled floor. And as she grasped at her throat, coughing out squeaks through choked air, an unfounded realization set in:

This is the end.

I’m… I’m going to die.

The fear was all-consuming, all-powerful. Never had such an intense, cataclysmic dread felt so true, so visceral – she could feel the vitality ebb from her lungs. She was watching her body be escorted away, like her soul had left her body; it was a heart attack, a stroke, some other malaise that was beyond her limited comprehension. Even if she was left alive, it might as well have been the end – she had nothing left, after all. No purpose. No affection. No frie-

“Misaki. Can you hear me?”

Somehow, through the stilted sludge of existence, she could make out Kaoru’s voice. It bore a sliver of tension, but was overall… still. Focused. Clear.

“You’re going to be okay. We’re taking you to a safe place. Try to breathe – slowly.”

Breathe? She couldn’t – her throat was jammed. With what, she didn’t know. But it was impossible. She couldn’t. Not after everything she did.

“Don’t worry. Hagumi and I are here. We’re not going to leave you.”

Why not? She had berated and abused them for so long, hadn’t she? Why did they put up with her cruelty, time and time again? Weren’t they suffering in silence, just like Kanon? Didn’t they resent her, just like she resented herself?

 “Misaki… we love you. You are cherished beyond words – always. So please… relax.”

Suddenly, she was in her body again.

Misaki barely recognized the surroundings – eggshell walls and lockers, with a few plain chairs surrounding low-set tables. It looked like some sort of break or prep room; presumably they were in some backstage area. Besides Kaoru and Hagumi, who looked on with frightful expressions, there were two adults she didn’t recognize – employees, judging by the lanyards around their necks. Her body was still slicked with sweat, her chest was still clamped with unease, and her heart rat-a-tat-tatted at a million miles a minute, but…

She could breathe.

“Deep breaths, miss, deep breaths,” said one of the employees. “Do we need to call an ambulance?”

Taking a moment to properly parse through his words in her woozy state, Misaki shook her head. “I’ll… I’ll be fine.”

The employees looked concerned, but acquiesced. “Stay here as long as you need to,” said one, depositing a first aid kit on the table. “We’ll be back to check on you in a little while.”

They moseyed off elsewhere – Misaki wasn’t really sure where. She was too unwired to cognize everything correctly, like she had been put through a washing machine and was now in the dryer.

“Mii-kun…” said Hagumi, her voice cracking. “How are you feeling…?”

Not good. But she couldn’t say that – the two of them had already been through enough. “I’m… doing better.”

Unable to hold it in any longer, Hagumi ran leapt over and embraced her, sinking her small frame into Misaki’s weary body. “I-I’m sorry, Mii-kun… I didn’t mean to upset you, I-”

“No, Hagumi… it’s my fault,” said Misaki. “I was in a bad place and I lashed out. Can you forgive me?”

“Of – Of course!” Hagumi squeezed her tighter. “I’m so glad you’re okay…!”

In all honesty… Misaki was, too. Now that the fear was passing, she was starting to get a grip on her emotions, however tenuous.

“It’s good to see you safe, kitten,” said Kaoru, her usual grandiosity replaced by muted honesty. “I was truly frightened for a moment.”

“Th-Thanks,” said Misaki. “S… Sorry for what I said to you too, Kaoru-san.”

“Think nothing of it. I can tell you were under a great deal of pressure.” Kaoru leaned in. “Perhaps you would prefer some space?”

“No, it’s fine…” Misaki swallowed. “Besides, I… we need to talk about Kanon.”

“Is- Is that a good idea?” asked Hagumi, pulling back. “I mean, you were all… y’know…”

“It’s fine.” Misaki was going to stress about it no matter when she talked about it – better to rip off the band-aid now than later. Besides, Kaoru and Hagumi deserved to know.

“Then tell us, Misaki,” said Kaoru. “What happened?”

Sparing the personal details, Misaki offered an abridged account of the events the night prior – getting stuck in the elevator, how Kanon professed her inability to rejoin the band, and the silence that followed. In her recount, Misaki omitted a good deal of the emotional tension that had occurred between them, though that was perhaps for the best – she didn’t have the strength to revisit those feelings, and it would just muddy the waters.

“So… she can’t play the drums?” asked Hagumi sadly.

Misaki shook her head. “I think she’s got a sort of mental block in place. The fact that she hasn’t played for months is making her think she doesn’t know how.” There were other factors at play in the struggle, but Misaki couldn’t think about them. Not now.

“Well, the matter is simple then, is it not?” asked Kaoru. “We must simply teach her how to play again.”

“Umm… how?” asked Misaki. “None of us know a thing about the drums.”

“Come, Misaki,” said Kaoru. “Do you not feel the beat within your soul, beckoning you to the snare? To bang the sticks with the utmost celerity… ah, how fleeting…”

“I… don’t think that’s going to work,” said Misaki, too tired to be exasperated.

“Hey, hey,” began Hagumi, “what if we asked someone else, though?”

“Someone else…?”

“Yeah! Like Saya or Ako-chin! They play the drums a lot, so they could help her out!”

Misaki crossed her arms. “Well… I guess that could work… But what if they’re not available?”

“I could inquire with Maya and Tomoe-chan as well,” said Kaoru. “Given how many percussionists we know, I’m sure at least one would be able to provide assistance.”

It was a sound enough plan. But Misaki’s apprehension couldn’t be shaken so easily. “Will that be enough…?”

“Perhaps it will, perhaps it will not,” said Kaoru. “But either way, we won’t rest until Kanon’s ills are resolved. This, I swear.”

Misaki’s chest lightened.

“Mii-kun,” said Hagumi, patting her on the shoulder. “Kano-chan-senpai is our friend. Earlier, you said that we might hurt her if we try to help, but… but I don’t believe that.”

“You don’t…?”

Hagumi shook her head, smiling. “If she’s worried that we don’t want her in the band, then that means we have to show our love for her now more than ever, right?”

It made logical sense. But Misaki remembered her conversation with Kanon all too well – the depth and breadth of dismay and regret. Would this plan really work?

“It will take some time,” said Kaoru. “As the great bard said, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’”

“But it will happen!” said Hagumi. “So please, Mii-kun! Let us help!”

Kanon’s tear-stained face drifted through her face. The grief of being trapped in that cold, dark room for hours lingered in her mind. Deep down, she doubted it could be fixed so easily. But… it had only been a day. One day. How much could change in several?

“…All right,” said Misaki. “Let’s ask around for an instructor. And then, when we find one – we’ll talk to Kanon again.”

Hagumi and Kaoru’s faces lit up. “We’ll get her back for sure!” said the former. “Just you wait!”

“It is indubitable,” said Kaoru. “For time heals all wounds, no matter how fleeting…”

In spite of her trepidations, Misaki smiled. “Thanks, you two. For… for everything. Especially a few minutes ago, when I, uh-”

“Think nothing of it,” said Kaoru. “I’ve seen enough kittens with stage fright to know a panic attack when I see it.”

Something about the phrase prickled her. Panic attack. Misaki had never had one before – never known the full blown assault of her own nerves against her. Such a horrible feeling… had Kanon experienced it? Had Misaki caused her to experience it?

If… If Misaki continued to be around her…

“Mii-kun? You there?”

Misaki blinked, shaking off her thoughts. “Sorry, I’m dead tired. I think I need to get home.”

“We’ll escort you,” said Kaoru. “It would be best for our mutual peace-of-mind.”

“Y-Yeah… you’re right.”

Hagumi helped her to her feet. “Feel better, Mii-kun!”

Misaki forced a grin. “Thanks. I’ll try.”

As they made of their way out of the mall and towards Misaki’s house, inklings began to drip through her mind – seething, coalescing until they formed blots of thought, murky and unclear. She hated their images, but the stains formed were too dark and deep to do away with easily. She focused on her breath, making sure to inhale and exhale, demanding patience from her harried brain.

She could find a solution.

She just had to take a few days and sort it all out – Kanon, the band, her feelings.

But it’d be okay.

It was just like her mom said.

Everything would work out eventually.

Chapter Text

Chapter 42: Seven Days of Searching

Day 1 – Monday

Owing to her prolonged insomnia and a splitting headache, Misaki made the executive decision to stay home from school and rest. Given that it was the first day back from summer break she’d be missing a good amount of new material, but she’d make it up easily enough – her attendance record was clean, and it made more sense to take a day off to recuperate rather than trawl through the week half-dead.

Kaoru and Hagumi had entrusted themselves with the task of asking the other drummers for assistance, leaving her free of errands, if not worries. In an effort to take her mind off her troubles, she kept herself busy – first by sprucing up her room, then vacuuming the downstairs, and finally by throwing herself into felting, which she had been neglecting lately. She was making good progress on a piece when her mother arrived home with Koharu.

“We’re home!” said Koharu, waddling over to Misaki. “Hey sis!”

“Welcome back,” Misaki said from the living room couch, smiling. “Guess what I’m working on?”

Koharu’s eyes went wide and starry upon seeing the needle and felt in Misaki’s hand. “Oh, oh, lemme guess! Is it… um… a lion?”

“Close, but not quite,” Misaki replied. “It’s a panther. See? It’s got black fur and everything.”

“Woah… is it for me?”

“When I’m finished,” said Misaki. “That is, if you get your homework done.”

“Got it!” Without delay Koharu zoomed off to the kitchen counter and busted out her math workbook.

“You always know how to motivate her,” said Misaki’s mother, chuckling.

Well, I am her sister… thought Misaki. It’d be a little awkward if I didn’t.

“…How are you feeling, honey?” asked her mom, setting her purse down on the counter. “I heard you stayed home today – are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m… doing better,” said Misaki, telling a partial truth. “Sorry to worry you yesterday. I was in a bad mood.’

Her mother sat down next to her on the couch. “What’s wrong? Did something happen at the festival? You sounded distraught when you called… that elevator must have been terrifying.”

“Yeah… I was really scared.” Again, not the whole story. “I could barely sleep the last two nights. But I’m moving past it. I think.”

Her mother pulled her into a hug. “Oh, sweetie… do you want to talk about it? It sounded like you had a lot more on your mind yesterday.”

“N…No, I was just overthinking some stuff,” said Misaki – now outright lying. “Don’t worry about it. I just need some food and a proper night’s rest and I’ll be good to go tomorrow.”

Her mother’s lips scrunched up in concern, but she yielded. “Okay. Well, if you ever need to talk, I’m here for you, okay?”

Misaki nodded. She obviously still had a lot on her mind, but she didn’t think that talking to her mother about it would help. Besides, she wasn’t ready to divulge everything that had happened. It still hurt to just think about; she couldn’t imagine how painful it would be to discuss aloud.

After another squeeze, her mother pulled herself away and rubbed Misaki tenderly on the knee. “Love you, honey.”

Misaki sighed. “Love you, Mom.”

Her mother patted her one last time before moving to her room to change out of her work clothes. Misaki, feeling the heavy thoughts begin the cloud the edges of her mind, hurled herself back into the felting process. What good would worrying do right now? She needed to focus on the handicraft – threading the pieces of fabric together, stuffing them to the right tautness, stitching up their wounds… that’s all that mattered.

An intrusive thought stopped her mid-suture.

…You’re running again, aren’t you?

Misaki sighed. Ignoring the problem with Kanon wouldn’t make it go away. But what could she do about it now? Just stewing over the issue would only cause her to down spiral again.

She stared at the nigh-finished panther in her hands, its floppy tail dangling through her fingers, its chest burst open with cotton stuffing. Suddenly, an idea hit her so easily and obviously that she couldn’t  believe she hadn’t thought of it before.

Misaki hastily finished up the doll she was working on and set it aside. Then she pulled out her set of blue felt and scissors and began snipping away.

Day 2 – Tuesday

It took a surprising amount of willpower for Misaki to drag herself back to school. It was strange – she couldn’t fully grasp why she was so reluctant. She thought it might have been simple nerves at the prospect of seeing Kanon again, but it was more than that; a sort of turgid sluggishness that just made her want to stay in bed all day. With a couple slaps across the face, she managed to knock the torpor out of her, though its presence still hung at the back of her mind. Keep busy, keep busy, she repeated silently, like a mantra.

She chatted briefly with Hagumi at lunch. There was no word from Ako or Saya yet, and a quick text from Kaoru confirmed that Tomoe and Maya also hadn’t responded to their request. Not a great sign – though maybe they were just clearing up their schedules, or trying to arrange things to be able to help out. Misaki could feel herself fretting, but commanded herself to take it easy; it’d only been a day, and they were asking a lot. Wait until they had four refusals on their desk before panicking. Don’t just wait around in agony. Keep busy. Keep busy.

Indeed, most of the day was spent doing just that, considering she had double the homework due to her absence. She spent the afternoon and evening cooped up in her room, working through trig problems and reading passages from Natsume Souseki’s Kokoro. She also made a little bit of progress on her felting – while slow-going, it was coming along nicely. Misaki hoped that it would be the nicest doll she had made yet.

Day 3 – Wednesday

The middle of the week brought with it the first rejection. Ako was swamped with practice for Roselia and something called “ELO Hell” (a term that Misaki and Hagumi collectively shrugged their shoulders at), so she wouldn’t be able to help Kanon with drumming. Fortunately, the blow was cushioned by good news – Tomoe was interested in helping out, and just needed to wait for the Taiko society to sort out their autumn schedule before committing. The tightness in Misaki’s chest lightened ever so slightly at the response. But she wasn’t ready to bust out the confetti just yet – after all, they still had to ask Kanon if she would agree to the plan.

She had more time for felting that day, which gave her more time for thinking about… what happened. Misaki knew better than to plunge her mind back into the memory of that dark, decrepit elevator, but she couldn’t stop herself from carding through Kanon’s words, trying to parse out her feelings.

I broke up the band in the first place…! It was all my fault!

I… It’s because of what I did… what I said to you, and to Kokoro-chan, and the others… without even realizing it, I… I ruined all of it… because I’m w-weak, and pathetic, and useless, and…and-!

It… It hurts, Misaki-chan. That you would be kind enough to forgive me… it hurts so much.

Each word that replayed in her head was like a bayonet to her innards. She couldn’t fathom the depths to which Kanon had blamed herself for what happened – and what had she done, exactly? Misaki knew that it was herself who was responsible for storming out and insulting the others, but she wasn’t exactly clear on what caused that incident. Did Kanon think she had caused Misaki to react that way? It seemed implausible that anything Kanon had done would set Misaki off – if anything, she would be the one to defuse Misaki’s temperament after the dummies made her hot enough to supernova. Was the inciting incident in this universe different from the one in her old reality? Wait, of course it was… Michelle didn’t exist here. That was the main cause of the outburst in her memory. So…

What happened?

Misaki’s hands had stopped. The doll before her was half-formed, still incongruent and unrecognizable. She considered what it would like if she simply came out and asked Kanon about it. Why do you think you broke the band up? It would be simple. Clear. As straightforward as a stab to the chest. She had seen it in Kanon’s eyes, after all – damage, lingering and malignant.

She kept sewing, vowing that above all else, she wouldn’t make Kanon revisit her trauma just to give herself clarity. If Kanon wanted to talk about it, she would. Otherwise… she would keep herself in the dark, if only to help the scars heal.

Day 4 – Thursday

They passed each other in the hallway.

Misaki couldn’t say whether it was fate or coincidence. It certainly wasn’t intentional – were it up to her, the next time they made contact would have been in a controlled environment, where they’d both have time to prepare for it. But life liked to throw curveballs at her, and they always seemed to strike her right in the stomach.

It could have been uneventful. Misaki saw her first, and immediately felt her heartbeat spike. She quickly ratcheted her back forward to try and appear nonchalant, but it was too late – she had caught Kanon’s gaze, and the girl froze in the middle of the hall. As if connected to the same action by string, Misaki did the same.

They stared at each other plaintively as students milled around them.

“Oh, uh…hi,” said Misaki, far too delayed to sound natural.

“H-Hello,” said Kanon.

They remained chained to the middle of the hallway, inviting the scorn of students trying to make it through the hallway.

Misaki’s veins clogged. “Look, I-”

“I-I’m sorry,” Kanon interrupted. “For… for everything I said the other night.”

A stone formed in Misaki’s throat. Why was she apologizing? She hadn’t done anything wrong. All she had done was be honest. “Kanon-”

“J-Just forget about it, okay?” asked Kanon, forcing a smile. “I-I-I was n-nervous, and sc-scared, and I wasn’t thinking straight. Th…That’s all.” With a sudden start, she began pacing off.

“W-Wait, Kanon-san! What about the band?”

She stopped in the middle of the hall, her blue mop of hair springing forward at the halt. Her head tilted down, expression invisible. Then, with a shuddering breath, she ran off without another word.

Misaki found herself reaching forward, wanting to give chase. But her legs wouldn’t move. Nothing would move – blood, breath, muscles, tendons. All the words she’d meant to say lay jammed in her esophagus, all jumbled and tangled together in tight loops of incomprehension. For a second, she thought she might be having another attack, that the world would spin and collapse in on itself, and she’d find herself sinking once more into the concrete. But despite the tearing feeling in her chest, there was no manic episode. Just her alone in the hallway, staring into the distance, a single image burned into her mind.

Kanon’s smile – that wincing, awkward, hurt smile.

Was that how she looked before? Every time she talked to Misaki?

Hiding her discomfort? Putting on a brave face?

She couldn’t be certain. And where there was uncertainty, there was doubt. And where there was doubt, there was fear.

Day 5 – Friday

Misaki’s listlessness returned in full force. Every corner she turned at school came with the implicit possibility that she would run into Kanon, forcing a wave and greeting even though the very act probably tore both their insides to shreds. Misaki thought of every friendly reaction and interaction she’d had with Kanon since hopping realities – were they also fake? False emotions conveyed to protect her own fragile feelings? No… she had to have faith. Kanon… Kanon liked being with her, didn’t she…?

Unfortunately, the only thing she had to distract her from her worries was news from Kaoru and Hagumi – and things were grim. Maya was unavailable due to idol business (there was some sort of extra work obligation that Aya had roped Pastel*Palettes into that was taking up all of their spare time), and Tomoe had to rescind her offer after breaking her wrist while moving boxes. That left only Saya as a potential tutor, and while Hagumi talked to her daily after school, she seemed hesitant to confirm or deny anything. Their plan seemed liable to break apart at any moment.

It was now in their darkest hour, of course, that Hagumi and Kaoru shone brightest. Without their relentless positivity, Misaki would have succumbed to her own pessimism long ago – and now, she needed their sunshine more than ever. They sent her encouraging messages at least three times a day, ensuring that everything would work out, that they could convince Kanon to join no matter what, and that the band would be back up and running lickety-split. But even all that was sometimes barely enough to convince her the venture was worth trying.

In spite of her anxieties, Misaki’s work kept putting along. She was keeping up with class assignments. She clocked in hours at work. Her felting was shaping into something recognizable. Maybe she really was just stressing out too much. Everything with Kanon had been a big old misunderstanding, right? They just needed to clear the air. It may take a while – a week, a month, maybe even a few of those – but they would get back on track. Everything would work out. She’d find a solution. Nobody escaped Hello, Happy World!’s orbit with a frown on their face. There would be smiles all around before she knew it.

Right?

Day 6 – Saturday

The end of school brought with it a message from Hagumi, and with it, the worst case scenario – Saya couldn’t help. The bakery’s recently extended hours kept her occupied for everything that wasn’t school or playing with Poppin’ Party. In terms of teachers, they were out of options.

Even in the face of this overwhelming disappointment, Hagumi and Kaoru remained upbeat.

-Kitazawa H: oh oh maybe I can teach kano-chan-senpai the drums!!! :D

-Seta K: Ah, a wonderful notion. We could assist her as one. 😌

-Okusawa M: What do you two know about drumming

-Kitazawa H: uhhh you drum them duh X)

-Seta K: Why, it’s the same principle as any instrument… what is the difference between a guitar and a drum, truly? 🎸🥁

Misaki rubbed her temples softly.

-Okusawa M: Look, we should get Kanon-san a proper tutor

-Okusawa M: Someone who can give her tips and techniques in addition to confidence and encouragement

-Okusawa M: ‘Cuz I mean, you two have a lot of the latter, but not much of the former

-Kitazawa H: hmmm I guess your right :(

-Kitazawa H: but then whatre we gonna do

-Seta K: Fret not, my dear Hagumi. 😉

-Seta K: I have already inquired with Marina-san at CiRCLE. ⭕️ She has offered aid.

Misaki almost dropped her phone.

-Okusawa M: Really?

-Seta K: Indeed. She plans to find a suitable instructor this weekend. 👩🏫

-Kitazawa H: wow! great job, kaoru-kun!!! ^_^

-Seta K: Think nothing of it. I will discuss the matter with her in person on Monday. ✨

Misaki’s finger twitched over her phone’s keyboard for a second.

-Okusawa M: Actually, I can talk with her

-Okusawa M: If that’s okay

-Okusawa M: I mean you all have been taking care of stuff this week so I want to help too

-Kitazawa H: we could all go together!!

-Seta K: Indeed. A unified effort would be apropos, no? 🤔

-Okusawa M: I appreciate the idea, guys, but let me handle it

-Okusawa M: I got this

-Okusawa M: Trust me

Several moments of silence. And then…

-Kitazawa H: ok! if that’s what you want mii-kun :3

-Seta K: Of course. If you have certain matters in mind, then by all means. 🌹

Misaki sighed, texting back a thanks as relief poured into her lungs. Things weren’t cleared yet, but if Marina was assisting, it was almost guaranteed that they’d be able to find an instructor. That was one of the great weights off her chest – getting tutoring for Kanon was almost assured.

But… would that be enough?

Would she want to receive lessons? Would she want to learn to drum again? Would she… would she want to rejoin Hello, Happy World? Would it all just tear her apart even more?

No. Misaki needed to believe. Of course Kanon wanted to join the band again. She wouldn’t have reacted as emotionally if she was detached from the idea. The pain she was experiencing was due to feeling unworthy of the position, not from a lack of interest in it. As long as they gave her the proper support, she’d be banging away on percussion in no time. Kokoro would conclude her wacky space adventure, and they’d reconvene, with no love lost between them. A picture-perfect ending. Roll credits.

As she finished up the felting project she’d been working on all week, Misaki pictured that ideal in her mind. The five of them on stage: Kokoro cartwheeling around the stage, bounding around with endless energy; Kaoru strutting and strumming away on her guitar in gaudy fashion; Hagumi keeping an upbeat rhythm on her low and plucky bass; Kanon nervously yet courageously keeping tempo on her kit… and Misaki. At the DJ decks, with no bear outfit in sight. Not exactly like old times, but… still golden, right?

That’s right. She didn’t have to give anything up. That wonderful vision could become a reality. She just needed to keep trying. Until Kanon came back. Until their problems resolved. Until they were happy.

It was half past midnight when she finally finished the doll. She cradled it to her chest, infusing it with all her hopes and dreams. She was bad with words, but maybe, by showing her feelings, then…

She could finally resolve things.

Day 7 – Sunday

No school. Little homework. Day off from work. Misaki could do as she pleased. She grabbed the felt doll from her desk and trod out the door.

It was a sunny day – brisk, but not bone-chilling. The leaves had turned to orange-yellow seemingly overnight, raining down on the streets in warm-colored showers. Scarfed children biked along the city streets before tumbling into leaf piles. The wind nipped lightly at her neck. A picturesque autumn day.

At first, Misaki thought she’d meet Kanon at her house. It only seemed logical – where else would she be on a Sunday? – before she realized that she was still uncomfortable with the level of intrusiveness required to do that. So she pivoted to the idea of messaging her instead. But messaging what? Hey, I’ve got something for you, meet me downtown? That hardly seemed appropriate, either. The idea of asking Kanon to meet her anywhere made her tense. So maybe she would just wait until school the next day, and talk to her then. But wouldn’t that be Misaki putting things off? Again?

Her feet carried her to the bridge – the same one she had ploddingly stared off of over a week prior. Without a hint of laughter, she realized she was in the exact same position as then: looking for a trace of Kanon, hopelessly unable to well up the fortitude required to face her like an adult. She could have just texted her. Emailed her. Done something to initiate contact.

But she didn’t.

Misaki stared at the felt doll in her hands. A bright blue jellyfish, almost as big as her head, with tubby little tentacles and a fuzzy round carapace. On the corner of its bell was stitched a tiny array of green ribbon and flower decals, matching the hair tie that Kanon usually wore to school. It was without a doubt the finest doll she had ever made. What she wanted to say with it was pretty simple – I still care about you. I don’t want you to feel bad. I want you to love yourself.

She could picture it in her head. Handing the jellyfish to Kanon. Watching her face light up in appreciation. A heartfelt thanks. A smoothening of the tension. A natural flow into the question of ‘hey, do you want to rejoin the band?’ It would be so idyllic.

So why did thinking about it make Misaki’s heart sink?

Why did imagining their reconciliation make her stomach swirl?

It wasn’t because it was unrealistic. It was so close to her grasp she could almost taste it. And yet…

The image of Kanon’s smiling face made her want to cry.

And she finally realized why.

With all the dread, horror, and apprehension she wished she could tuck away in some lonely corner of her cranium… she understood.

Because she wouldn’t be sure if Kanon’s smile was genuine.

If she wasn’t hiding away her pain and reservations.

If she was really happy and willing to be with Misaki again.

No matter how much the rational part of her brain tried to reason against it… she would never be able to erase the doubt. There would always be that little prickle in the back of her brain, whispering the horrid possibility right into her ear:

What if she hates it?

What if she hates you?

Misaki’s knees almost buckled at the thought. Anytime she would see Kanon… the notion would fester. The idea, however untoward, that Misaki was causing her grief.

Could she bear with that?

Could she bear with the constant fear that she was hurting the person she cared about most?

Her head tilted skyward, staring into the deep blue above, the same color as Kanon’s hair. Nine days earlier, they had met there, by coincidence, when all seemed fraught and hopeless. And then, things got better – or at least, Misaki thought they had. In reality, they were only bottled up, until the pressure burst the container open.

But maybe… Kanon would show up again. Out of the blue, just like before. And they would talk. And they would realize their fears were unfounded. And they would make up. And everything would go back to the way it was meant to be.

It seemed ludicrous. But the universe was crazy like that. Everything always had a way of working out. That’s right. She just had to have faith, didn’t she?

Misaki Okusawa stood on that bridge for hours, believing in that fruitless idea.

And by the time the sun had long set, and her legs stood frozen to the concrete, and the jellyfish plush had been wrapped tightly in-between her fingers, she still couldn’t let go of it.

Until the moment where that golden path in her head, the road to their perfect future, had twisted into something else. Dark thoughts from a week prior, now resurging as a cruel ideal. Something she didn’t want to think was the right way forward. Something she had hoped she could avoid. Something she dearly wished could pan out differently.

But that’s when she remembered: everything always had a way of working out.

It’s just that they didn’t always work out the way you wanted them to.

Chapter Text

Chapter 43: Hello, Goodbye

Live House CiRCLE.

It’d felt like years since Misaki had seen its polished glass windows and smooth stone terrace. The sight was viscerally nostalgic – the lines of shrubbery, the little stand selling drinks, even the inexplicable foot bath and palm tree out front… everything just like the day she had last seen it. How many times had she been tugged through the front doors by Kokoro & Co., put on the Michelle suit, and rehearsed until the sun set? Those days felt infinite in number at the time. Once a regular occurrence, now only a faded memory. It felt cruel, coming back here after all these months. But she had asked for this herself – if she wanted to sulk about it, there was no one else to blame.

With a stilted, heavy breath, she opened the front door. A familiar face swerved to greet her.

“Welcome!” said Marina, her expression lighting up with recognition. “Oh, Misaki-chan! Welcome back.”

Already Misaki was thrown off. “You… remember me?”

“Of course! I do my best not to forget any of our patrons,” said Marina. “Though it has been a long time. I guess it’d make sense for me to slip on your name, huh?”

She laughed a little, and Misaki smiled weakly in response. “That’s nice of you, honestly. I don’t think I’m very memorable or anything, so…” She trailed off, unsure of how to progress.

“Are you here to practice?” asked Marina. “Your guys’ band hasn’t come in for a long while. You were always so bright and sunny… what were you called? Hello, Happy World?”

Hearing the name only strained Misaki further. “Um, I’m not here for that… I think Kaoru-san talked to you on the phone?”

“Oh, right. You guys were looking for a drumming instructor, yeah?” Marina glanced towards the doors to the practice rooms. “One of our regulars sounded interested… she should be finishing up soon.”

“Gotcha.” Misaki leaned on the counter, her head plopped atop her palms. She couldn’t stop a sigh from escaping her lips.

“You okay? You look exhausted,” said Marina.

“It’s been… a rough couple weeks,” said Misaki. She hadn’t slept well the previous night. Or the night before. In fact, she hadn’t gotten proper rest since… well, she couldn’t remember when, exactly.

Marina gave her a sympathetic look. “Ouch. Hope things get better for you soon.”

Misaki knew they wouldn’t. But she responded politely regardless. “Thanks. I hope they do, too.”

Her eyes unconsciously skimmed up to the instruments hanging from the wall. Guitars, basses, drums, mic stands… all for rental. While they weren’t on display, she knew that there were turntables available, too. For a split-second, the thought of hitting the DJ decks crossed her mind. But the notion vanished as quickly as it had appeared – she didn’t want to get attached. Not now.

Just when she was prepare to trudge over to a lobby chair and rest, one of the booths opened up. As a quintet of musicians shuffled out, Marina’s face perked up and pointed towards them. “Ah, here she is.”

Misaki looked up and met the piercing gaze of a thug-styled girl, her hands stuffed slackly in her jacket pockets. Misaki felt her lungs shrink in her ribcage.

“Oy. You the one?” asked the delinquent, her brow narrowing.

“Y-Yeah?” replied Misaki, gulping.

The girl’s expression somehow hardened further. She really did look like a stereotypical female hooligan – choppy blond hair, long skirt, and a maroon football jacket, complete with penetrating golden eyes. She looked liable to start a fight at any second, though the fact that Misaki thought that made her feel more than a little guilty; she didn’t like judging people by appearances. Even if this particular woman’s appearance said ‘I’m going to punch you at the earliest available opportunity.’ But despite all that…

She looked familiar.

“How was practice?” asked Marina.

“Fine,” said the girl, leaning in closer. Her nose was almost pressed up against Misaki’s at this point.

“Oh, let me introduce you,” said Marina. “This is Misaki Okusawa, the one who was looking for a drumming instructor. Misaki-chan, this is Masuki Satou, a part-timer who helps out around here and at other live houses.”

Misaki had definitely heard that name before. She just couldn’t recall where. “N-N-Nice to meet you, Satou-san.”

Masuki’s expression didn’t shift one millimeter. “Yeah. You too.”

Marina pointed towards the ajar door. “Nobody’s renting that room right now, so if you want to talk in there, you can.”

“R-Right,” said Misaki. “Uh, is that okay with you, Satou-san?”

After another few seconds of death glare, Masuki finally retreated, about-facing and moseying towards the booth without missing a beat. “Yeah. S’fine.”

Misaki now caught the logo on the back of her jacket – a cutesy doodle of a white rabbit with root vegetables, juxtaposed next to Mt. Fuji, sakura petals, and plain text that read ‘All-Purpose Bunny.’ In short: the last picture she could’ve imagined to appear on clothing belonging to someone like this. Her initial intimidation gave way to perplexity as she followed Masuki inside.

By the time Misaki closed the door behind her, Masuki was already at the booth’s drum set, rolling around a pair of sticks in her hand. “So? Is this your first time?”

Misaki frowned. “Uh… first time doing what?”

Masuki nodded, as if in understanding. “Gotcha. Total novice. We can start with basic two and four beats, then. Nothin’ fancy. Just to get you in the swing of things.”

Two and four? Wait… “Er, I’m not-”

She was cut off by the rhythmic sound of snare and cymbals, as Masuki played a simple 4/4 beat on the drums. After about 30 seconds, she rolled off the snare and put down the sticks. “Were you able to follow? I’m not very good at like, explaining stuff, but… shouldn’t be too hard. I think.”

“H-Hold on a second!” Misaki protested. “I’m not the one learning the drums!”

Masuki squinted. “You’re not?”

“No, no, I’m here for, uh…” Kanon’s face came crashing into Misaki’s mind. “…A friend.”

“Oh,” Masuki replied flatly. “Sorry.”

“It’s… fine,” said Misaki. “Though I’m wondering why you jumped into the lesson so quickly. We haven’t even talked about payment or schedules or anything.”

“Ah, my bad,” said Masuki. “You were so cute that all that stuff just slipped my mind.”

“C…Cute?” Misaki’s face turned beet red.

“Yup,” said Masuki, extremely nonchalant for someone who had just uttered what was essentially a pickup line. “Marina-san told me that someone needed a drum teacher, so when I saw you, I just assumed you were the one.”

“W-Well… no worries.” It was an odd situation, but far from the strangest Misaki had ever found herself in.

“So?” Masuki crossed one leg over the other, hands pressed against the back of her head. “Who am I teaching? Is she here today?”

“Oh, no, it’s…” Again, Kanon’s image drifted through Misaki’s mind. “It’s complicated.”

“Gotcha.” Masuki didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. “Can I get her info, at least?”

“Sure,” said Misaki. “Um, her name’s Kanon Matsubara. She’s got light-blue hair, and purple eyes, and, uh…”

“Do you have a picture?”

“Y-Yeah, hold on a second.”

Misaki busted out her camera roll, only to realize that she had just one picture of Kanon: the selfie they had taken at the festival. Looking at the picture again – the soft orange halation of the lights, the bright colors of their yukata, the pure joy emanating from their expressions – was heartrending. She found herself lost in Kanon’s smile, wondering how genuine it had been, and how many emotions she had been holding back.

Masuki walked over and peeked over Misaki’s shoulder. “Woah. She’s adorable.”

“Y-Yeah…” Misaki agreed thoughtlessly. “Er, I mean, sh-she does look really nice, doesn’t she?”

Masuki nodded. “You two look really cute together.”

Misaki wanted to die. “L-L-Look, I can send you the picture, okay?! J-Just give me your email.”

“Sure,” Masuki replied.

They exchanged numbers and addresses, and Misaki sent over some basic information on Kanon – enough to identify her, at least.

“Thanks,” said Masuki, double-checking her phone to make sure the info had arrived. “When does she want to start, then?”

“Well, uh…” Misaki rubbed her neck. “I… I actually don’t know yet if she wants to do this.”

“Oh. Really?”

“Y-Yeah. I wanted to find an instructor before talking to her about it.” Misaki sighed. “Probably sounds weird, doesn’t it?”

Masuki shrugged. “I’m sure you have your reasons. What’s the issue?”

Oh boy. Where did she begin? Misaki didn’t want to overload her with details, but she couldn’t exactly stay cryptic, either. “So… she, she knows how to drum. I think.”

“She does?”

Misaki nodded. “But, lately, she’s had a lot of confidence issues, so… she’s having trouble picking up the sticks. She thinks she doesn’t know how to do anything. And… and we’re worried about her. So if someone could just give her a helping hand…”

“Gotcha,” said Masuki. “Just go through the ropes with her and offer some nice words. Makes sense.”

“Y-Yeah,” said Misaki, nodding. “You can do that, right?”

“I can. But…” Masuki closed her eyes. “I’ve never really taught anybody before. And I’m not good at the technical stuff. Plus I go off-beat too often, I’m terrible at describing things, and I’m real inconsistent.”

Misaki was realizing that this girl was a lot more self-effacing than her behavior suggested.

“But if it’s to help someone out, then I’ll do what I can.” Masuki extended a fist. “That’s a promise.”

Misaki was slightly thrown off by the gesture, but bumped it nonetheless. “Right. Thanks a lot.”

“No problem.” Masuki pulled out her phone. “Should I message her right now, then?”

“N-No, let me talk to her,” said Misaki, pulling out her phone. “If… If she wants to come in for lessons, she’ll contact you.”

“Cool. And if she doesn’t?”

“Um…” Misaki was at a loss. “Forget this conversation ever happened.”

“Alright.” Masuki cracked her neck bones. “That everything?”

“I guess so.” Misaki bowed profusely. “Thank you so much. This is a big help.”

“No problem.” Masuki opened the booth door and held it open for her. “Catch you later.”

“B-Bye.” Misaki was continuously amazed at how casually the delinquent responded to everything. If only she could learn how to do that… it’d have saved her a lot of stress in the long run.

Of course, there was no way she could be calm right now.

Not when she knew what she was about to do.

After waving farewell to Masuki and Marina out front, Misaki took three steps into the CiRCLE courtyard, pausing to look at the leaf-clogged fountain and empty café tables. It was a strangely still afternoon – the brisk weather was keeping most people inside. As she forlornly scanned the live house’s surroundings, she realized that she didn’t want to say goodbye so soon, and sat down on one of the tiny park benches right next to the river.

After a moment of staring at the tiny, visible puffs of breath from her nostrils, she pulled out her phone. Sitting in her drafts was an email she had been tinkering with all night, using every spare thought and moment trying to express herself to the best of her abilities. Part of her had considered just calling Kanon. Or scheduling a meet-up. Or finding some other, more honorable method of communication.

But she was a coward. So all she could do – with shaky fingers and dulled eyes – was write.

The email was almost finished when Misaki had pulled it up, but even so it felt like hours had passed by the time it was completed. Her thumbs had slowed to a crawl by the time she had concluded, as her eyes scanned the long-winded email from top to bottom, her heart frozen in place:

 

Dear Kanon-san,

I hope you’ve been doing all right. I haven’t meant to stop talking to you since the festival – I’ve just been dealing with some other things in my life, and it’s been difficult to find the time to talk. It’s also difficult to figure out what I want to say. I guess I know what I should start with, at least.

I’m sorry.

Kanon-san, you didn’t do anything wrong. That’s what I know  in the bottom of my heart. The band splitting up had nothing to do with you or your decisions. It was all my fault. I was the one who blew up. The one who stormed away. And I know you’re the kind of person to put all the blame on yourself when something goes bad, but you weren’t responsible for anything that happened. It was always me.

So hearing that you couldn’t play the drums, or rejoin the band, just because you wrongly took responsibility for my own failures… it broke my heart. I couldn’t live with that knowledge. It just about tore me right in two every time I thought about it. Beyond all of that guilt, I just wanted to help – to give you the motivation and confidence to come back and play with us like old times. That’s what Hagumi and Kaoru-san want, too. We all love you and want you to come back.

I know you’re not confident in your abilities, so we found some help. There’s a girl named Masuki Satou at CiRCLE who’s offered to help teach you. Her number is (11)-2222-3333, and her email is XXXXXXXX@mail.com. If you’re feeling up to it, you can message her and ask for a time to meet up and take lessons. She’s really nice, from what I can tell, even if she does look a bit intimidating at a glance. I’m sure she could help you find your groove again, so to speak.

She took a deep breath before reading onward.

 

But that won’t be enough, will it?

I understand, Kanon-san. I understand that every time the two of us end up in the same vicinity, you get hurt. You remember what happened. You remember the trauma and the regret and the wrong decisions. You can’t help but wonder what’s going through my head. With every little slip-up, you think ‘she must hate me.’ You want to curl up in a corner where no one can see you and just hide away from the world.

I know because I feel the same way. Every time I think about you, my mind goes into a panic. I wondered for so long what you thought of me. I was afraid that you were scared, or distrustful, or that you just plain despised me. But after the play, I thought things were better. I thought maybe that you still wanted to give our friendship a try. But then, after what I heard in the elevator… I couldn’t stomach those kinds of thoughts. I couldn’t stomach knowing that I had nurtured those ideas while making you agonize every time I so much as looked at you. I couldn’t stomach being reminded of all the things I’d done on a regular basis. I don’t know how you managed. You’re a much stronger person than I am, clearly.

But even so… no matter how much I wished that I could move past it, that I could reconcile with you and myself… I couldn’t. I couldn’t just fix things. I couldn’t erase the feelings that had wormed their way into my heart. The idea that the two of us can’t be in the same place without driving our minds to each other, and to our mutual regret, was enough to drive me insane. I wanted so desperately to find a solution – to find a way to fix our problems and get you back in the band.

Eventually, I came to one. One that you won’t be happy to hear. But one that I think is the best path forward for both of us.

She closed her eyes. She didn’t want to read what came next. Even though she knew the words she had typed intimately and in full, she didn’t want to face the ramifications of what she had written. But she had to face it – there was no other way. She sunk her teeth into her lower lip as the line crossed her vision:

 

I’m not going to rejoin Hello, Happy World.

The band – you, Kokoro, Kaoru-san, and Hagumi – needs to exist. I’m sure of that. You all bring so much life and joy to the world around you, more than you could ever realize. I remember, Kanon-san. I remember how happy you all looked, performing on stage together, playing with the biggest smiles in the universe on your faces. It’s something you need. But I don’t need to be there for it.

I’m sure your first instinct is remorse. To feel that you’ve pushed me away from the band, and made me feel rejected and isolated. But that’s not the case. This is my own decision, for my own health and well-being. Because honestly, Kanon-san… I don’t know how I could be in the band knowing I had cut you so deeply. I was an idiot to ever think I could forget about that. I’m so sorry. So sorry that I hurt you. So sorry that I tried to downplay it. So sorry that I made you revisit those memories. You shouldn’t have had to go through any of that.

I haven’t told the others. They wouldn’t understand, anyway. You know how they are. I’ll let them know when the time comes. But you deserve to know now, so you can go forward with a clear idea of what’s to come.

Please don’t feel bad. It’s not because of you. And besides…

Teardrops fell upon the phone screen.

 

I never really liked being in the band anyway, you know?

The dummies were always such a headache. I could barely keep up with them! They were so clueless all the time that I thought I’d go crazy trying to sort them all out. Besides, doing all that music stuff is just too much work. I’m a lot more laid back, you know? Everything in moderation is what I always say. Honestly, I’m way better off not having to deal with that kind of hassle.

So yeah, don’t feel bad. This is my decision, okay? It’s what I want.

Please, consider rejoining up with the others. I think it’d be good for you.

Sorry I can’t be more encouraging. I’m not very good at inspiring people… I’m kind of a downer, honestly. But if I can convince you to do one thing, let it be this.

Hello, Happy World! needs you, Kanon-san.

Even if it doesn’t need me.

Sincerely,

Misaki

P.S. I included the selfie we took at the festival. Sorry I never sent it to you. If it hurts to look at, you can just toss it. It’s not a big deal or anything.

Her finger hovered over the send button, her cheeks still wet with tears. She inched closer and closer to the little icon, her heartbeat growing louder with every breath, as she closed her eyes in wincing fear.

She waited for someone to reach out and stop her. To slap her arm away and tell her she was wrong. To plead with her to find another way.

But she was alone.

She pushed the button. A little notification popped up confirming the sending.

She resisted the urge to bury her face in her stomach. It took every ounce of willpower not to crumble into dust right there on the bench. As she choked back her sobs, her palms tightened into anguished little knots, folding and crumpling in on themselves. No hand reached out to comfort her. Encourage her. Embrace her. In the big, wide open world, covered by a dull blue sky, grazed by a chilling fall breeze… she was the only one, left with her decision, however cruel.

Here she was again. Back at the start. Stuck in her ways. Did she really expect anything different of herself?

She stared at her phone’s screen, wondering when Kanon would see the message. How she’d react to it. What she would say. Would she reply? Probably not. And even if she did, it wouldn’t change anything. Misaki had made up her mind. It was for the best – for both of them. She would move on, for good this time. Not out of some listless passivity, but a desire to see those she loved reach their happiest potential.

But there was one last thing she had to do.

Getting Kanon back into the band required three things: the drumming skills needed to play in it, the courage to perform to the best of her ability, and not having Misaki around to bring her spirit down. She had taken care of the first and third already. But the second… Kanon needed more self-esteem if she was ever going to rejoin Hello, Happy World.

Misaki had never been good at inspiring anybody. She didn’t have confidence, charm, or charisma. There was no way she’d ever be able to give her courage.

But…

A figure sprouted in her mind. Hands on hips. Unbound energy. Golden hair and a golden smile, brighter than the sun. A shining ray of hope in her darkest hour.

Misaki stood up, determinedly wiping the last vestiges of tears from her eyes.

There’s someone who can.

Chapter Text

Chapter 44: Golden

It took her mere minutes to reach the Tsurumaki estate.

How long had it been since Misaki had seen these opulent gates? The terraced fountains? The maroon walls laced with giant balconies? The grandeur had begun to fade into her memory, leading her to wonder if it had been embellished beyond its actual magnificence – but no, here she was, strolling up to a mansion belonging to people who probably played golf with Shinzo Abe on weekends. Even after messaging Kaoru and Hagumi to meet in front of the gate, she felt like one girl before a monolith of wealth and prestige: inconsequential and unextraordinary, a speck of dirt before a golden monument.

She had steeled herself for this. It wasn’t the way she wanted things to go, but given the situation it was the best path forward. Of all the people in the world, there was only one she could turn to in her hour of need. And as painful as this wave of nostalgia was… she would bear with it, for Kanon’s sake.

Of course, not everything was as she remembered it. Indeed, the new sight before her – and the accompanying thought – would later seem like portents of what was to come, as Misaki gazed upon a vast stretch of curved, concaved concrete on the other side of the street, thinking glibly to herself with a sigh:

…That skate park wasn’t there before.

 The assortment of halfpipes, grind rails, and loop-de-loops was multitudinous and extravagant enough to host its own X-Games. And ollieing from ledge to ledge in a scattershot of tricks like she was performing the world’s longest Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater combo was…

“Kokoro!” Misaki called, hands cupped to her mouth.

The yellow blur casually popped a McTwist before manualing over towards Misaki, kickflipping off of her board and snatching it while landing on her feet – all as easily as if she was breathing. She was dressed in an utterly bizarre outfit – torn jeans, graphic tee, open-zipper hoodie, backwards ball-cap, striped glasses, and a smattering of gold chains, bracelets, and necklaces: a rich person’s idea of how suburbanites clothed themselves. “Hiya! How’s it going?”

“…What are you wearing?” asked Misaki, unable to stop herself.

“It’s trendy clothing!” said Kokoro, contentedly looking herself over. “Very ‘streets’!”

Misaki squashed the urge to challenge the underlying implications of that comment – she had more important fish to fry. “Look, I need your help. It’s important – I couldn’t wait until school tomorrow to talk about it. Will you listen?”

Kokoro’s smile remained as her eyelids fluttered vacantly for a moment. “Wait, have we met before?”

Misaki’s shoulders slumped over in defeat. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Wait, I recognize that exasperated tone of voice! Misaki!” Kokoro giggled. “Sorry, it’s a little hard to see you through these glasses.”

Misaki wanted to rip the spectacles right off of Kokoro’s face right about now, but she suppressed that inclination, too: she had a mission, a purpose, and she couldn’t be deterred from it. That said, she wasn’t sure whether to wait for Kaoru and Hagumi to show up before talking things over – on one hand, they could be valuable emotional support on a day where she was feeling near her lowest, and on the other, they had the potential to exacerbate the heiress’s inner chaos to unmanageable heights.

After a quick moment of hedging her bets, she decided to at least make an attempt to explain things to Kokoro right now. Misaki wasn’t sure how she was going to explain a weighty, nuanced situation with lots of gravity to someone as blunt and straightforward as her, but she had to try. “Listen, I-”

“Actually, can you wait a sec?” Kokoro interrupted, checking a Mickey Mouse watch on her wrist. “It’s about to start.”

“Um… what is?”

It was at this moment that the ground beneath their feet began rumbling. The sudden shaking was almost enough to induce a traumatic flashback, but Misaki kept her bearings, kneeling to the ground as the trembling intensified.

After a few moments, the quaking stopped. The shudder was more akin to a giant garage door opening than an actual earthquake, causing Misaki to turn around in confusion, stopping as she laid eyes upon the manor.

From seemingly nowhere, a distant, static countdown began ringing out.

30… 29…

“Kokoro?”

“Yeah, Misaki?”

28… 27…

“…Has your house’s roof always been able to open up like that?”

“Not until recently, nope!”

26…25…

“Kokoro?”

“Yeah, Misaki?”

24… 23…

“Is a… spaceship… going to launch from your house?”

22… 21…

Kokoro nodded. “Yup!”

20… 19…

“…Kokoro. We’re less than fifty meters away from the mansion.”

“Uh huh.”

18… 17…

“Do you know how far away you’re supposed to be from a rocket when it launches in order to stay safe?”

16… 15…

Kokoro shrugged. “I dunno!”

14… 13…

“Kokoro…”

“Yeah, Misaki?”

12… 11…

“We’re going to die.”

10… 9…

Kokoro laughed. “No we’re not, silly! It’s going to be so pretty!”

8… 7…

Misaki’s fight or flight instincts finally kicked in.

6…

Without thinking she grabbed Kokoro’s hand and ran towards the deepest depression in the concrete.

5…

They leapt into the skate pit, slamming into the floor with their feet.

4…

“Get down!” Misaki bellowed, shoving herself and Kokoro to the ground.

3…

2…

1…

A sound a million times louder than fireworks erupted behind them.

Like a roar from the planet, it howled into the sky, igniting Misaki’s eardrums like an inferno. The sound was paralyzing, slackening her arms, which led to Kokoro bobbing up and turning towards the launchpad. “It’s happening!” she shouted, like a third grader who’d just poured baking soda into her vinegar volcano.

Misaki reached up to try and tug her down, but ended up facing the same incomprehensible spectacle – a glittering, golden rocket, decorated with orange smiley face logos and a number of crude fire-paint scribblings and alien renditions that could only have been scribbled on by Kokoro, careening into the afternoon sky, leaving a rainbow-colored exhaust trail sparkling in its wake as it sailed into the clouds. Billions of dollars’ worth of research, development, and equipment, dolled up in the aesthetics of a preschooler, venturing into the wild blue yonder.

“Fly home, rocket! Fly free!” Kokoro cheered and waved as it turned into a speck in the distance, as if she had just seen off a street trolley. “Wow! They did all the stuff I asked! This is gonna be a great space vacation!”

Misaki buckled to her knees, watching the rocket shrink to nothingness, a memory in the bazure. For it was then, and only then, that she remembered:

Weighty, nuanced situations with lots of gravity just didn’t exist in Kokoro Tsurumaki’s world.

She may as well have lived in outer space.

As the final rings of the launch faded from their ears, a couple more remarks sounded from down the street.

“Wooooooah! What was that?”

“Ah, my dear Hagumi… Clearly it was a transport of the god Jupiter, a vessel sent to take him back to the planet from which he came. Why else would it gleam so glamorously?”

“Amazing! You know so much, Kaoru-kun!”

Misaki wasn’t the only one to notice their conversation, as Kokoro’s face glowed three times as brightly upon the sound. She ran out to the sidewalk to greet them. “Hagumi! Kaoru! It’s been so long!”

“Kokoron!” shouted Hagumi, leaping into her arms for a hug. “I’ve missed you so much!”

“Well met, my blonde friend,” said Kaoru, bowing grandiosely. “Your attire is most fleeting on this day.”

“I like yours, too!” said Kokoro, surveying Kaoru’s pale blue sweater vast and khakis. “Very princely!”

As the three chattered on and on with compliments and pleasantries, a familiar energy emitted from their presence. One Misaki hadn’t seen for some time, but knew all too well: that unbridled and earnest cluelessness that made up the core of Hello, Happy World’s entire being, a central nucleus of anarchic silliness that swallowed up everyone and everything around it in lighthearted lunacy.

But… there was something missing.

Someone missing.

Misaki rose to her feet and walked over to the jabbering trio. “Kokoro.”

The girl in question turned back towards her. “Yeah?”

Misaki steadied her spirit. She’d wavered countless times before, but she was sick and tired of being wishy-washy with her decisions. Here, at last, she knew what had to be done. “I called Kaoru and Hagumi here today, actually.”

“Oh? Why?”

Misaki took a deep breath, running a hand through her hair. “We need to talk.”

***

Thirty minutes later, and they were situated in a familiar plush parlor of the manor, having explained the situation to Kokoro to the best of their ability. Misaki left out a lot of the personal details and, of course, her plans to quit the band – it would be a long time before she was ready to tell them all about that. By the time they finished, Kokoro was listening in her lush red throne with an intent smile, arms crossed knowingly.

“…And that’s the gist of it,” said Misaki. “We’ve found an instructor for her, but we’re not sure if she’ll even want to go to lessons.”

“You emailed her, right, Mii-kun?” asked Hagumi. “Has she gotten back to you yet?”

“Ah… no, it’s only been about an hour.” Misaki had to resist the compulsion to check her inbox every five minutes – she knew it wouldn’t be healthy for her psyche. Then again, little about the situation was. She couldn’t help but wonder what would go through Kanon’s head when she read the email. Nothing positive, certainly. All Misaki could hope was that it might convince her to change course.

“We are all deeply concerned for her,” said Kaoru, her hands broodingly tracing the windowsill frame. “If only we could instill her with the confidence she requires to succeed…”

Silence taunted them for a moment.

And then, resolutely, Kokoro rose from her seat, bearing her most distinguishing trademark: the glimmer of an idea shining straight through her pupils. “So we just need to give her courage, right? That’ll be easy!”

Hope blew through Misaki like a spring breeze. Even though it was about the reaction she expected, hearing Kokoro speak with such surety instilled her with greater optimism than any amount of internal pep talks could manage. If anybody was going to get Kanon back to her old self, if would be the girl who had never had a single negative thought in her life.

“Wow, Kokoron!” said Hagumi. “Whaddya have in mind?”

Humming, Kokoro waddled over to the parlor’s whiteboard and began scribbling away with a dry-erase marker. Back in the day, this was a sign for Misaki to brace herself for whatever insane plan she had drummed up that week – whether it be a treasure hunt, a cruise getaway, or a weeklong hike in the Himalayas (Misaki still felt like she hadn’t thanked the Sherpas who saved their lives a dozen times enough for their help). Now, her stomach muscles clenched for different reasons as Kokoro panned back and forth across the whiteboard, wondering what would emerge from the blonde’s errant mind. She was willing to accept any plan that would help Kanon, no matter how crazy.

“It’s pretty simple!” said Kokoro, stepping back to reveal a round, yellowish object with five kitschy stick figures scrawled on it. “We just need to go to the moon!”

…Okay, maybe not that crazy.

“Ooooh, the moon!” said Hagumi. “I’ve never been!”

“Ah, the jewel of the sky,” said Kaoru. “ As the bard said, ‘now from head to foot, I am marble-constant… now the fleeting moon no planet is of mine.’” She chuckled. “Truly elegant.”

Misaki wasn’t sure why she expected their reactions to be any different. “Kokoro… I, uh, know you’ve been wanting to go to the moon for a while…”

“Yup!” she confirmed.

“B-But maybe that’s a little excessive?” suggested Misaki. “Don’t you think that maybe just, I dunno, talking to Kanon would be a bit more effective?”

Kokoro shook her head. “I don’t!”

“Why’s that?”

“Because…” Kokoro’s eyes shimmered again. “That wouldn’t be as fun!”

“Right… fun…” It had been ages since Misaki had borne this expression – that patient rictus grin, chiseled onto her face from moments of pure strain and unease. It was like putting on an old outfit after it had been tucked away in the closet for years on end. She had come to get Kokoro’s help, and she had gotten… Kokoro’s help, all right.

“So, are we all in agreement?” asked Kokoro.

“Uh-”

“Great!” Kokoro back-flipped on the spot. “To the moon, everybody!”

“W-Wait a second!” said Misaki. “You can’t just decide that kind of thing by yourself!”

“She’s right, Kokoron,” said Hagumi. “We have to be fair.”

“You’re right, Hagumi. I’m sorry!” Kokoro clasped her hands apologetically. “Okay, let’s do a vote. Who wants to go to the moon?”

She, Kaoru, and Hagumi all raised their hands.

“Who wants to do something else?”

Misaki, with a defeated sigh, lifted her lone, pitiful arm.

“Wonderful! It’s decided, then!” Kokoro pounded the whiteboard with the capped marker. “We make for the moon tomorrow!”

“H-Hold on!” Misaki cried out. “Tomorrow?!”

“Yeah!” said Kokoro. “I mean, the test launch today worked out great. There’s nothing stopping us, is there?”

“B-But what about training?” Misaki protested. “I mean, there’s G-force, and zero gravity, and all the spaceship controls…”

Kokoro tilted her head. “I went through all that already, silly! You don’t have to worry!”

“Hooray! Thanks, Kokoron!” hailed Hagumi.

“Indeed, you are as forward thinking as ever…” said Kaoru. “I admire your jurisprudence.”

Misaki stared at them with half-lidded eyes. “Um… you know that just because Kokoro’s gone through training doesn’t mean we all have, right?”

Kokoro looked confused again. “What do you mean? Training is training, isn’t it?”

“Makes sense to me,” said Hagumi.

“I fail to see the issue,” said Kaoru.

Misaki facepalmed. “Look, I, for one, am not being jettisoned into space on a rocket without making sure I’m darn well prepared for it. The last people who went to the moon went through years of training; I’m going to need a little more than a day.”

“But Mii-kun~!” Hagumi complained.

“No buts, Hagumi,” said Misaki. “This is for your own safety, too. I don’t want any of you numskulls accidentally torpedoing yourselves into the sun.”

“Ah… to turn to stardust within the great giver of light and life…” mused Kaoru. “It would be a tragic fate, and yet… fleeting.”

Misaki took a mental note to keep Kaoru away from the airlocks.

“C’mon, Misaki,” said Kokoro. “I learned what all the buttons and stuff mean! We’ll be fine, promise!”

Misaki walked over to the whiteboard, scribbling out a “O2” symbol. “Kokoro, what does this signify?”

Kokoro squinted at the signifier. “Um… zero squared is zero, so… zero!”

…Well, at least there was some logic to it. Misaki cradled her head in her hands. “See? We need more time. Besides…” Her voice grew quieter. “We need to ask Kanon if she even wants to do it, don’t we?”

“Oh, that’ll be easy,” said Kokoro, pulling out her phone and click clacking away. “I’ll ask her now.”

It took Misaki a second to process the speed at which Kokoro was moving. “Eh?”

“Bwoop!” said Kokoro, pushing the send button. “Okay, hopefully she’ll respond soon!”

Disbelieving, Misaki shuffled over, staring at the sent message from Kokoro’s email:

hey kanon pleas coem to hte moon with us!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

She couldn’t even fathom the sheer thoughtlessness put into the effort. All she could manage was staring at the crude, typo-filled sentence with vacant eyes. It had taken every ounce of emotional energy she possessed to message Kanon, and here Kokoro had done it in mere seconds, with the same amount of thought she put into chewing her food.

“Hmm… maybe we can talk to her at school, too?” suggested Hagumi.

“Oh, good idea!” said Kokoro. “I’ll ask for a meeting place when she replies.”

“…She won’t.”

The reply escaped Misaki’s lips before she could stop it. Kokoro looked quizzically in her direction. “What do you mean?”

“Did you even think about how she’d feel reading that?” asked Misaki. “I doubt she’d even be able to understand it, and if she did… do you think she’d really want to join us?”

“Of course!” said Kokoro.

Misaki met Kokoro’s eyes, still a million watts aglow. Their clear brightness no longer seemed so alluring. “And how do you know that?”

Kokoro smiled. “Kanon is our friend! She’d love to spend time with us!”

It resurged into Misaki’s memories: the anguish in Kanon’s expression, the contempt she had for herself after what had happened months prior, and how mere thoughts of the band must have tormented her. To hear about that pain, and just brazenly ignore it…

“…I don’t get you.”

Kokoro seemed undaunted. “What don’t you get?”

Misaki felt something long-winded die inside of her. Perhaps it was the reminder that she was back to her cynical and destructive ways, or the fact that she knew nothing she said would ever get through Kokoro’s cranium, or maybe just sheer exhaustion, but she’d suddenly felt like she had reached a limit. “I – I think I need to go home.”

“Mii-kun?” asked Hagumi worriedly.

“Sorry… it’s been a long day,” said Misaki, half-chuckling. “That moon stuff, I… It’s, um, not the worst plan, I guess. We can start training tomorrow or whatever.”

The trio’s faces lit up like lightbulbs.

“But let’s take it easy, okay?” said Misaki. “If we want Kanon to join us, then it might be a while. So… don’t rush things, alright?”

“Understood!” replied the three in unison.

“Cool,” said Misaki, waving weakly as she trod out the door. “See you soon.”

“See you!”

She meandered out of the mansion, trying to pinpoint why she felt so crummy. But she knew the reason, deep down – no, much shallower than that.

She pulled out her phone’s email, staring at her empty inbox for the entire walk home.

Chapter Text

Chapter 45: Space Camp

The next day, three new space cadets stood in the Tsurumaki Manor ready for action, draped in yellow-and-orange jumpsuits emblazoned with little smiley squares labeled “Happollo-1.” Kokoro bounced back and forth before them, unable to hide her excitement.

“Training~! Space training~! We’re going to the moon~!”

Hagumi hummed along as Kaoru posed in her spiffy duds, seeking the best angle with which to capture her newfound appearance. Misaki, meanwhile, wearily raised a hand. “Um, are you expecting me to join in, too…?”

Kokoro looked at her blankly. “Well, of course! You’re coming to the moon with us, aren’t you?”

“I… wasn’t planning on it, actually,” said Misaki, her smile twitching. “I mean, do you really need me to come along?”

Kokoro ignored her. “If we’re going to take Kanon to the moon, we need to make sure we’re all prepared!”

“Right!” replied Hagumi and Kaoru.

Misaki sighed. It wasn’t as if she didn’t want to help with Kokoro’s wild escapade – though she couldn’t exactly say she was thrilled about it, either – but she was at least hoping to have more of a backseat role. Like helping out with mission control or something; not manning the rocket herself. Besides, she doubted Kanon would want to come along if she was around, especially after the email. Misaki had practically resolved not to ever see her again, after all.

And if she did join them on the journey… then she would only grow more attached. And at this point, that was the last thing she needed. When it came time to sever ties, she wanted it to be as painless as possible. And that meant keeping her distance. But defying Kokoro’s will was no easy task.

“First up!” called Kokoro, her hand slamming against the whiteboard. “The centrifuge!”

Misaki stared at the crude, circular structure Kokoro had scrawled, mildly surprised. “A centrifuge? Like those things you use in laboratories to separate liquids? Are we getting DNA samples or something?”

Kokoro laughed. “Good one, Misaki!”

She felt a familiar sense of foreboding bore into her spine. …Oh no.

***

Thirty minutes later, and they were all strapped into seats slanted at 45 degrees against the wall of a circular room roughly the size of a large closet. From the outside going in, Misaki could see that the pod was connected to a central pole via a thick metal arm, a bit like a pendulum on a string. She’d heard of human centrifuges before, but she’d never imagined she’d actually end up experiencing one.

“This will acquaint you with the G-force you’ll encounter entering and exiting the atmosphere,” said a voice on the intercom, which Misaki recognized as belonging to one of the black-suited women who tended to Kokoro’s every whim. “The gravitational force you encounter will be much heavier than that of Earth’s, so you need to be prepared.”

“Yaaaay!” Kokoro and Hagumi cheered, clapping their hands in their seats.

Kaoru chuckled. “The pressure will be nothing, compared to the tension I feel whenever I stare into a darling kitten’s eyes…”

Misaki couldn’t help but wonder what Chisato would think of that.

“Now then,” said the suit, “let’s begin.”

The room began gyrating around the central pole – slowly at first, but picking up speed with every passing second. As the rotation began to accelerate, the seats slid up the wall, slotting into place as the force gradually built up. Misaki could feel a strange pressure begin to push against her body, sending the folds of her skin rippling back. She could sense the lines on her face pressing into her skull, the corners of her mouth quivering under the sheer gravitational force, the vibrations ruminating throughout her skeleton. In her pulsating eyes, she could make out Kokoro’s gleeful smile, Hagumi’s limbs wiggling about happily, Kaoru’s sickly green face still masked by a grin… before it all became a blur, and everything whirled around her faster than a hurricane.

“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

After minutes of spinning around at high velocity, the centrifuge gradually decelerated, puttering onward until it groaned to a stop. Misaki’s insides felt all jumbled up, like a shaken jar of pulpy orange juice. Kokoro and Hagumi whooped and hollered in glee, shouting at the top of their lungs. Weak laughter escaped Kaoru’s mouth, her face frozen in a mortified grin.

“W-Well, that was fun,” moaned Misaki, hoping that somebody would come along and unbuckle her quickly. “Th-This moon trip is gonna be a real stomachache…”

“Again! Again!” Kokoro and Hagumi called.

“No no, that’s en-”

“Do you wish to have another go?” asked the suit over the intercom.

“Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

“Wait a second!” Misaki yelped. “Let me-”

It was too late. The room was already picking up speed again. She steeled her stomach for the spin cycle, praying that it would be over quickly.

They would ride the centrifuge six times before Kokoro and Hagumi had had enough.

Misaki was barely able to hobble over to their next activity (especially since she had to lug a jelly-legged Kaoru on her shoulder), resisting the urge to hurl with every step. Considering the high speed exercise they had just wrung themselves through a half-dozen times, she had hoped they’d be moving onto something less taxing – logistics, or the mission plan, or something. Upon seeing the structure that Kokoro led them to next, however, her prospects were dashed.

“Woah, Kokoron!” exclaimed Hagumi, shading her face with a hand as she looked skyward. “I didn’t know you had a drop tower at your house!”

“I didn’t either, until a few months ago!” Kokoro replied.

“…What’s the point of this one?” asked Misaki. “Isn’t this just an amusement park ride?”

“Nuh-uh!” said Kokoro, shaking her head. “It allows you to experience weightlessness, just for a moment!”

Don’t they fly planes up and nosedive them for that effect…? Misaki shuddered. Never mind, I don’t want to imagine doing that with this motley crew…

Misaki was still trying to comprehend how the Tsurumakis could afford the space and money to build a gigantic theme park attraction on their estate when Kaoru stumbled upright. “Ah… is this our next task? M-Most fleeting. For the sake of the mission, let us sally forth.”

“Uh… you gonna be okay?” Misaki asked.

“Wh-Why, yes,” asked Kaoru, averting her eyes from the tower. “I could hardly disappoint my kittens, could I?”

Misaki sighed. “No stopping you, huh?”

They all strapped into the seats, Kokoro and Hagumi still somehow enthusiastic and energized after being put through a gravitational washing machine several times. Misaki kept her gaze forward, eventually closing her eyes as she tried to imagine herself in another place – Okinawa, perhaps, or maybe just a nice onsen. To her right, she could hear Kaoru mutter Buddhist sutras under her breath as they reached higher and higher into the sky. The ascent lasted for minutes.

“We’re so high uppppp!” Hagumi screamed gleefully. “Look Kokoron! We can see our school from here! And Mt. Fuji! And the Great Wall of China!”

“Wow, the clouds look so small below us!” said Kokoro.

Nope. Misaki wouldn’t be baited. She wasn’t looking down even if her life depended on it. It just wasn’t worth the agony.

 “H-Here then, form is no other than emptiness…” Kaoru sputtered. “Emptiness no other than form… form is only emptiness, emptiness only form... feeling, thought, and choice, consciousness itself, are the same as this… Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha…”

Eventually, the seat ratcheted to a stop. For a split-second, Misaki wondered if they were high enough to have to worry about oxygen levels. But she didn’t dare open her eyes to check.

They remained there, at the world’s ceiling, for five seconds.

Ten.

Fifteen…

Twenty…?

Misaki peeped one eye open, catching a glimpse of the globe from its apex.

WHUMP

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

They plummeted like a comet, blazing at light speed towards the earth below before snapping to a stop a mere meter from the ground. The blur of blue and white in her smeared vision burned its way into Misaki’s memory, as did the helpless sensation of freefalling at terminal velocity towards terra firma – her muscles felt like pudding. Kokoro and Hagumi giggled and clapped like babies playing peekaboo. Kaoru, meanwhile, had fainted.

“One more time! One more time!” chanted the two bubbly bandmates.

“No more times,” said Misaki emphatically, hoisting herself out of her seat and detaching Kaoru just as swiftly.

“Aww…” they replied.

“There has to be something else we can do,” said Misaki. “It can’t all be fun rides. Aren’t we here to train?”

“I guess you’re right, Misaki,” Kokoro admitted. “Don’t worry, though! The next thing we’re doing is pretty different.”

Misaki sighed with relief. Knowing Kokoro, she would shunt them all onto a rollercoaster and call it rocket training if given an opportunity. “What’s next?”

***

The sound of a track clacking away ticked in Misaki’s ears – but she couldn’t see anything, because her face was buried in her hands. “…Kokoro.”

“Yeah, Misaki?”

“This is a rollercoaster.”

Kokoro nodded. “Uh-huh!”

“Why are we here?”

Kokoro laughed. “Rocket training, duh!”

Misaki hated her clairvoyance sometimes. All of the time.

Of course, she probably should have raised her complaints before they had all strapped in to the front car, but Misaki was so appalled and speechless at the sight of a 3,000 meter long rollercoaster in Kokoro’s backyard that she was dragged onto the platform before she had time to think. As they ascended to the top of the coaster’s first hill, Hagumi fidgeted ecstatically in her seat, remarking upon every sight and sound in her purview.

“To be, or not to be…” Kaoru whispered, deathly grave. “That is the question…”

“You know, I seemed to recall you saying this ride would be different!” Misaki spat.

“It is!” said Kokoro. “We’re not spinning, and it’s not a vertical drop! We’re going every which way! It’ll be lots of fun!”

“You and I have some really different ideas of faaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

Her bickering melted into a shriek as they careened down the first drop, snaking through a three-kilometer long course of twists, loop-de-loops, and even gaps in the track, three screams (and one gasping groan) booming out for the entire trip.

Misaki barely even recognized the moment when they had finished. When the safety harness unlocked and lifted from her shoulders she sank into her seat, feeling like a motley arrangement of bones and jello that wanted nothing more than to sublimate into thin air.

“Phew! I’m all tuckered out!” said Hagumi mercifully. “I could use a snack!”

“Me too!” chimed Kokoro. “We should go back to the house and grab some oranges. What do you think, Kaoru?”

The actress did not respond, instead facing skyward with cold, open eyes.

“Kaoru?”

Hagumi walked over and jostled her hand, grabbing the wrist and pressing a finger to it before frowning. “I think she’s dead.”

***

After resuscitating Kaoru (Hagumi was trained in CPR, fortunately), the quartet finally made their way back inside the manor, where they once more situated themselves inside the parlor. It took all of Misaki’s willpower to not march out of the mansion and away from them forever, considering this was only day one of their supposed space preparation. What in the world had they even accomplished?

“Last item of the day!” hailed Kokoro, scrawling on the whiteboard.

Misaki braced herself for the worst – a multi-dimensional motion simulator, or maybe some sort of river rapids experience, or maybe an actual rocket launch. She’d need to prepare for just about any inane possibility at this point.

Kokoro pointed towards the phrase she had written. “Cultural Enrichment!”

…And yet somehow, Misaki wasn’t prepared for that. She was surprised that Kokoro even knew the word ‘enrichment.’

“Oh, I see!” said Hagumi. “…What does that mean?”

“Are we to learn of the various traditions around the world?” asked Kaoru, whose near-death experience had (in?)conveniently wiped her memories of the past few hours. “Why, from the peaks of the Andes to the waters of the Rhine, humanity is abundant in riches…”

“Not exactly!” said Kokoro. “But this might be the most important training of all!”

“How do you mean?” asked Misaki.

“Well…” Kokoro stood tall, hands on her hips, as her expression suddenly took on a more determined, serious glow. “When we encounter aliens on the moon, then we have to understand how to communicate respectfully with them!”

A beat.

“That’s… genius, Kokoron!” said Hagumi, her eyes shining in admiration. “We wouldn’t wanna insult them or anything!”

“Indeed,” said Kaoru. “If we are to make first contact, then it is imperative that we pay any extraterrestrial beings our full respect.”

“…Hang on just a tic,” said Misaki, suddenly feeling very, very old. “I’d just like to clarify one tiny, inconsequential little detail.”

“What’s that?” asked Kokoro.

Misaki took a deep breath, swept the hair out of her eyes, and cleared her throat. “There aren’t any aliens on the moon!”

The three dummies looked at her vacantly.

“There… aren’t?” asked Hagumi.

“Of course not!” said Misaki. “We- well, people have been there before! All that’s up there is rocks and dust and craters! Not a single trace of life or anything!”

Kokoro tilted her head. “There are definitely aliens on the moon.”

“No! There! Aren’t!”

Kaoru tutted, shaking her head. “You lack faith, Misaki. Why, if you haven’t seen the lunar landscape for yourself, can you truly be certain?”

Misaki threw her hands up. “Never mind. What was this whole ‘cultural enrichment’ thing, anyway? Is it just watching sci-fi movies to try and learn about them or something?”

“Woah! Are you psychic, Misaki?” asked Kokoro.

She had no words.

“Let’s all go to the movie theater, everyone!” said Kokoro, hailing them towards the door. “It’s just down the hall on the right!”

“Hooray!” called Kaoru and Hagumi.

Misaki took a severe consideration of her life choices before following them.

The home theater (the size of a multiplex, and thrice as plush) was a veritable beach resort after the chaos outside, so Misaki put her feet up in a throne-sized chair without a second thought. Kokoro pulled out a collection of Blu-Rays from a shelf surreptitiously placed by the wall and flipped through it. “What should we watch?”

Hagumi pored over the films. “I don’t think I know any of these.”

“Nor do I,” said Kaoru. “The only films I’ve witnessed are Shakespeare adaptations.”

Misaki couldn’t tell if she was telling the truth or fabricating in order to appear classy, but either way she was exhausted. Against her better judgment, she decided to peer over at the collection herself. E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Men in Black, and… “Kokoro, why on Earth do you have Space Jam here?”

“It’s an important documentary!” she replied. “Before watching it I had no idea aliens played basketball.”

“Aliens play basketball?!” asked Hagumi.

“Yep! Why don’t I show you?”

As Kokoro slotted the disc into the wall, the movie-screen sized TV blipping to life, Misaki found herself finally succumbing to the fugue state she had been veering towards. The memories were coming back: the pure exhaustion that built up after corralling the high-school aged toddlers around for hours with only the slightest modicum of control. How dearly she wished that they would so much as listen to her just once in her life. Oh well – not much to be done about it. Time to veg out and watch Bugs Bunny become friends with Michael Jordan.

They hadn’t even made it through the opening logos when she felt a tap on her shoulder.

“Okusawa-sama. May we have a moment of your time?”

It took Misaki a moment to realize it was one of the suited women. “What is it?” she whispered.

“We wish to discuss the forthcoming mission. In private, if that’s acceptable.”

Misaki turned her head to watch the three dummies, who were swaying in time to the beat of “I Believe I Can Fly” on screen. Acceptable? It was downright preferable. “Lead the way.”

Nodding, the Suit walked crisply out of the home theater, guiding Misaki down the hall to a small studio filled with art projects. It took half a glance at the canvases to pin the artist as Kokoro – evidently she used her fingers to paint instead of brushes.

“I trust the first day of training passed smoothly,” said the Suit, gesturing to the one open seat.

Misaki plopped down, unsure of how to respond. “Define ‘training,’ please.”

“Perhaps it did not seem worthwhile to you, but to Kokoro-sama it was an important venture,” the Suit replied coolly.

Misaki sighed. “How is any of that going to help us get to the moon, exactly?”

“Worry not.” The suit pulled out a small stack of papers from her briefcase. “We have worked tirelessly over the past several months to simplify the operational flight systems to suitable levels for Kokoro-sama. They are streamlined enough that a high schooler could operate them.”

Misaki raised an eyebrow.

The suit cleared her throat. “That is to say, streamlined enough that an elementary schooler could operate them.”

“That’s better,” said Misaki. “Though I wouldn’t exactly trust her with a flight joystick.”

“Indeed. Which brings me to the reason I called you here.”

“Which is?”

The suit extended the papers, bowing as if offering a job proposal. “Please take the mantle of pilot on the mission. We believe you are the most qualified to perform the task.”

Misaki couldn’t exactly disagree with that assessment. But she also wasn’t thrilled about the idea. “Honestly, I wasn’t even sure about manning the spacecraft myself. Going to the moon is a little too outlandish and risky for my taste.”

“We understand your hesitation,” the Suit said. “However, Kokoro-sama has expressed her desire to have you along for the journey, and thus we must implore you to accept.”

Misaki crossed her arms. “Does she always have to get her way? You’ll spoil her rotten at this rate.”

“…It is our duty to fulfill Kokoro-sama’s wishes,” the Suit replied. “We cannot force you into the role, but we will accommodate your own needs to the best of our abilities.”

“My own needs don’t matter,” said Misaki. “…There’s only one person’s who do.”

Somehow, the Suit seemed to understand. “You refer to Matsubara-sama, correct?”

Misaki’s stomach quivered at the name. “…Yeah. If she’s going, then I… I shouldn’t go along.”

The Suit was quiet for a moment. “Matsubara-sama has still not replied to Kokoro-sama’s inquiry, leaving her current situation uncertain. There is a possibility that she will not join the mission.”

“Then why the hell are we doing this?” asked Misaki, her voice tinged with acid. “If she’s not even going to come, then-”

“Kokoro-sama believes it will work,” said the suit, calmly cutting her off. “That is enough reason to attempt it.”

Misaki scowled. “Always about her, isn’t it? I guess it makes sense, considering you’re on her payroll. Look, she thinks a lot of things that aren’t true, okay? I wouldn’t be surprised if she still believed in Santa Claus.”

The Suit stared at Misaki through dark sunglasses for a moment before opening her mouth:

“Do you not like Kokoro-sama?”

The question pierced Misaki’s cynicism armor in a single blow. “That’s… That’s not it. I… I mean…”

She grappled with her own feelings. More than anybody else she knew, Kokoro made Misaki feel… ambivalent. On the one hand, she was a bright, cheerful, kind, energetic beacon of hope… but she was also clueless, exhausting, nosy, inattentive, and generally just a bit too much. Misaki would call her a friend… but she’d say it in a much more hesitant tone of voice than just about anybody else in the group. Hagumi could be empathetic. Kaoru could provide advice. But Kokoro was always – always – overbearing.

“I guess I just don’t… understand her,” she said finally. “Charging forward without stopping to think. Always going at everything 110%. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hint of sadness in her face. Isn’t that strange?”

To her utter surprise, the Suit… smiled. “No. That’s just the kind of person Kokoro-sama has always been.”

Misaki’s arms slackened. “What does that mean?”

The Suit shook her head. “That is a matter for another time. Regardless, Kokoro-sama intends to carry out her space flight, no matter the obstacles in her path. You may refuse to join her if you so desire, but know that she will not accept your resignation willingly.”

Misaki knew that for a fact. And she had practically instigated this whole business herself: if she wanted to complain, she couldn’t pin all the blame on Kokoro. “…You wanted me to pilot the spacecraft, you said?”

“Correct. There is enough space in the main capsule for five travelers, with the lunar rover holding space for two.”

Misaki was only now coming to grips with the concept of five Japanese teenagers with little to no aerospace experience voyaging to the moon. “Um, are you sure this is all going to work?”

“Do not concern yourself with logistics or scientific quandaries,” said the Suit. “We shall take care of everything. In fact, much of the ship’s trajectory and flight path will be taken care of on our end.”

Misaki rubbed her neck. “So, uh, what do you even need me to do?”

“The same as you’ve always done, Okusawa-sama,” said the Suit. “Monitoring the others so that they remain safe.”

In other words, play interstellar babysitter, she thought. I don’t know what else I expected…

“Please, Okusawa-sama,” the Suit repeated. “This is something that only you can do.”

Misaki’s fingers tapped against her elbow. There was no way she could let the dummies jettison into space by themselves – they’d blow a hole in the hull and get vacuumed into space within five minutes. But if Kanon did show up… would Misaki want to go through with it? And if Kanon didn’t show up… what would be the point?

She wiped the thoughts from her mind. She’d done too much overthinking lately for her own good. Maybe thinking just about the immediate future would be beneficial for once. “Alright. I’ll do it.”

The suit nodded emotionlessly. “Excellent. The launch is scheduled in a month’s time. Before then, we’ll make certain that you are all adequately prepared for what’s to come.”

“Got it.” Misaki rose to her feet. “Uh, don’t be afraid to pull me aside and talk through things in the future. We may need it.”

“Understood.” The Suit bowed one last time. “Farewell.”

With a weary wave, Misaki schlepped on back to the home theater, doing her best not to dwell on the conversation she’d just had. Upon reentering the room, she witnessed the audience of three very animatedly talking to the screen.

“No!” cried Hagumi. “Don’t steal Charles Barkley’s basketball powers, you meanie alien!”

“Alas, to have one’s talents snatched unwittingly from their very souls…” mused Kaoru, her voice aggrieved, “how tragic… yet, fleeting…”

“Wait until you see the part where Bill Murray shows up!” said Kokoro.

Misaki slumped back in a theater chair, one phrase ringing in her head. Adequately prepared for what’s to come.

…It was going to be a long month.

Chapter Text

Chapter 46: Sink and Swim

By the end of their first week of “training,” Misaki felt no better equipped to fly into space than she had previously. Instead, she felt like a mom who had just spent an entire week at Disneyland singlehandedly looking after three toddlers: longing for the sweet release of death. Despite her defeatism, she soldiered through every raft ride, motion simulator, and pendulum ship with an ironclad will – partially to keep Kokoro and Hagumi entertained, and partially to make sure Kaoru didn’t end up deceased.

By the time Monday morning rolled around, Misaki was already ready for another weekend. Her brain had been jostled and spun around so much it could keep track of which way was up or down. But while she would’ve loved to take a six-month vacation, the Suit’s words kept ringing in her head: This is something that only you can do. So she begrudgingly set aside another week of her schedule for thrill ride escapades, cynically wondering if they’d be able to recover her body after they all inevitably burned up in the atmosphere.

Of course, it wasn’t like she’d be able to refuse at this point anyway. After all, she had entered Kokoro Tsurumaki’s orbit – and there was no escaping her gravitational trajectory.

“Mii-kun, are you doing okay?” asked Hagumi at lunchtime, as they ate from their lunchboxes on the rooftop. “Your face is scrunching up in that way it gets when you think too hard.”

The perceptive comment pulled Misaki out of her sulking. “Hm? Oh, I’m, uh, just tired.”

“Me too!” said Hagumi with a happy sigh. “We had so much fun last week that I’m all tuckered out! But there’s even more we gotta do before we can lift off!”

“Ahaha… ha…” Misaki laughed weakly. At least Hagumi was enjoying herself.

“But man, Kokoron’s house is so cool! There’s even a go-kart course in the backyard! It’s amazing!”

“When you’ve got enough money to buy out God, anything is possible…” Misaki muttered, chewing on her bento box’s black beans.

Hagumi didn’t quite seem to understand, but kept along anyway. “I wish I could spend every day at Kokoron’s house… then I wouldn’t ever have to stop having fun!”

In the midst of the bassist’s earnest gushing, a question popped into Misaki’s mind. “Hey, Hagumi. What do you think of Kokoro?”

“Whaddya mean?” Hagumi asked back. “Kokoron is Kokoron! There’s not much else to say.”

Misaki opened her mouth to object before realizing that, in one sense, Hagumi was right – the woman in question couldn’t be better defined otherwise. Regardless, she needed to be clearer in her questioning. “No, what I mean is… like, does she ever, I dunno…” Misaki shifted around on the concrete ledge uncomfortably. “…Bother you?”

“Bother me?” Hagumi shook her head. “Why would she? Kokoron is always mega nice and energetic and fun! Every day with her feels super special! Just seeing her puts a big ol’ smile on my face!”

The sincerity was so overwhelming that Misaki couldn’t help but grin back. “Well, that’s good. I’m glad.” Privately, she realized that Hagumi was probably not the correct person to vent to, given that she and Kokoro were like long lost twins in terms of behavior. Hagumi wasn’t the sort to get overwhelmed by somebody else’s personality… though seeing the two of them get along so well did stir something warm in her cold, embittered chest.

Maybe she was just being negative again. After all, any normal person probably would’ve had a great time in her position – getting to go on lavish theme park rides for an entire week at no cost? How could she complain? Anybody else would be beyond grateful to Kokoro for the treat. And yet…

“Come to think of it, where is Kokoron?” asked Hagumi. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her at lunchtime.”

Misaki shrugged. “Maybe she’s having a private meal somewhere. She could afford it.”

“Woah! Do you think she eats, like, gold or something?”

“You mean like, solid ingots of the stuff…?”

“Yeah! Like you said, she could afford it!”

“…Is that your idea of what rich people have for lunch?”

Misaki’s fretting dissipated as she got caught up in a long debate with Hagumi over what the wealthy consume for sustenance, but her doubts lingered in the back of her mind.  Deep down, one question from the week prior still lay unanswered:

Do you like Kokoro?

She told herself she did, in spite of her reactions.

But after everything that she had been through… she wasn’t sure if she could even trust her own feelings anymore.

***

By a twist of fortune, the space cadets arrived at Tsurumaki Manor and learned that they were to undergo actual, proper instruction that day, as revealed by a barely legible phrase on Kokoro’s whiteboard: Buoyancy Training.

“Hey, Kaoru-kun?” asked Hagumi, squinting. “What’s boy-en-see training?”

“A good question, my dear Hagumi,” Kaoru replied. “That is when we seek out the mythical creatures called ‘men,’ not recorded in this municipality for nearly a generation.”

“Woah! I’ve never seen one of those before!”

Don’t you have a dad and a brother…? Misaki wondered. “Um… ‘buoyancy’ refers to the ability to float in water, right?”

“I think so!” Kokoro replied vacantly.

“So…” Misaki rolled her hands in a ‘think through it already’ motion.

“We’re going underwater!” Kokoro chimed, seemingly independently of Misaki’s gesture. “It’ll be just like walking in space!”

“Incredible!” said Hagumi. “Will we have scuba gear?”

“Even better!” Kokoro suddenly pulled out an entire rack of sterling white spacesuits from behind the whiteboard. “Ta-da! They’re all custom-fitted and everything!”

The other band members approached the lunking outfits, each over a hundred pounds in weight. Misaki could make out smiley square emblems atop the heart, right next to a name: Okusawa M. “Er, when did you get our measurements for this?”

Kokoro looked at her blankly. “The people in the black suits got them! Isn’t that enough?”

Misaki got the sudden feeling that she shouldn’t be asking any more questions.

“Ah, more luminous and reflective than a sun-dappled mirror…” mused Kaoru, beholding the space suit as if it were a Victorian outfit of the highest finery. “The kittens will roll over themselves in delight when they see me in such regalia.”

Who finds a spacesuit attractive? Misaki wondered.

“Hey Kokoron!” called Hagumi, tugging on the space suit sleeve. “Where are we diving?”

“In a swimming pool!” replied Kokoro.

An actually normal locale, for once. Misaki wondered if pigs would start flying next.

Of course, what Kokoro hadn’t mentioned was that the swimming pool was twice as wide and ten times as deep as an Olympic-sized one, large enough to contain an entire undersea neighborhood within its absolutely gigantic confines. Misaki had trouble processing the sheer size of the manmade lake before her, so crystal clear that she could make out the distorted figure of the mock spaceship module lurking at the pool’s bottom.

True to Kokoro’s words, the spacesuit was as snug as a glove – and as heavy as a mountain. Fortunately, Misaki had lots of experience wearing bulky, cumbersome outfits that she had trouble maneuvering in, and after a couple moments of nostalgia was able to adjust to the limited mobility fairly quickly. The four astronauts-to-be were lowered to the pool floor on a mesh platform, as an entire platoon of black-suited women prepped, monitored, and assisted them from the poolside.

“The deep water conditions will resemble the buoyancy of space to a reasonable degree of verisimilitude,” said a suit’s voice into their helmets’ intercoms. “As such, it will provide an ideal environment to-“

“KOKORON! WE’RE UNDERWATER!” Hagumi shouted, her voice splitting eardrums through the radio.

“I KNOW, RIGHT?” Kokoro yelled back.

“Inside voices, both of you!” Misaki snapped. “We can hear you just fine.”

“Okay…” They both replied, like children who had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

“Ah, the great wide blue…” said Kaoru, still posing even in her unwieldy attire. “What fruit of the sea will be found during our illustrious voyage?”

“I don’t think there are any fish here…” Misaki muttered.

The platform reached the bottom of the pool with a clanking shutter. Hagumi and Kokoro immediately bounded off, skipping slowly through the high-pressure depths, their arms awkwardly yet excitedly flailing around their sides. Unable to stop them, Misaki watched them gallivant around as she approached the module, Kaoru strutting up beside her.

“I swear, you all think this is some kind of picnic…” Misaki sighed. “This is going to be life or death stuff once we actually get into space, you know.”

Kokoro and Hagumi didn’t listen, instead trying out an array of flips and somersaults, using the module as a springboard.

“I find such spirit admirable,” said Kaoru. “To enjoy such a serious matter with such vigor is… how would you say it? Fleeting…”

“Yeah, but…” Misaki struggled to find the right words. “Don’t you think they should maybe be a little more focused?”

“They are focused,” said Kaoru, “on what is important to them. And it’s where that focus is spent that matters.”

Misaki once again experienced the shock of Kaoru saying something legitimately profound.

“Of course, my own focus is not as formidable as I would like… it crumbles at the mere sight of a curved jawline, the lusciousness of a kitten’s eyes, the waves within her-”

Misaki tuned out her monologue. “Mission control, do you copy?”

“Copy, Major Okusawa.”

Major…? Misaki shook her head. “Besides familiarizing ourselves with the environment, what else should we be doing down here?”

“The capsule before you is a 1:1 replica of the command and service module Elation that you will embark in. While the model contains no interior space, familiarizing yourselves with the exterior is crucial in the event of an emergency EVA.”

“I love it!” said Kokoro, bouncing around the module’s capsule. “It makes me nostalgic.”