Kasumi is acting weird.
Saaya can hear Arisa’s voice in her head, saying Kasumi is always acting weird.
She wishes that were really the case. She wishes Kasumi were acting weird—that is to say, normal, but not . . . weirdly normal.
Even in her head that sounds like a riddle in Kasumese. When did her radar become so attuned to the kaleidoscopic moods of this girl who laughs like her heart will burst and sings like she’s soaring for the stars that will burn her?
She brushes her hair out of her eyes and adjusts her feet on the pedals, listening, watching with the careful attention she always pays to the ones she loves the most.
Kasumi trips over her tongue and stops singing, hopping around to face them with a bright, sheepish smile on her face. Too bright. Too vivid a flush in her cheeks. “Ah, sorry! I did it again.”
“Are you okay, Kasumi-chan?”
“Did you eat your dinner at lunchtime?”
“Uh . . . What is that supposed to mean, O-Tae?”
Saaya says nothing, just spins a drumstick in one hand, listening, watching.
“I’m fine, I’m fine!” Kasumi gives them all a thumbs-up and another toothy smile. It glows like a fast-burning UO penlight, outshining everyone but herself until its power runs out. Saaya almost has to look away.
But she won’t. She will never take her eyes off any of them again.
“Kasumi,” Tae says. “If you’re still sick, you could’ve just said so.”
“I’m not!” Kasumi insists. “I’m back to normal, see?” She puts her arms out and spins around a few times for emphasis. “See? All better.”
This is really not a good time for déjà vu to kick in.
Rimi goes over and puts a hand on Kasumi’s shoulder. “Kasumi-chan, let’s finish early today, okay?”
“Ehh, why?” For the second that Kasumi’s profile is in view, Saaya sees the fear flit across her face. “I can keep going! I can sing all night long!”
“Hey, we’re all tired too, you know,” says Arisa mildly. “Aren’t we, Saaya?”
The sound of her name jolts her. “Eh? O-Oh, yeah.” It takes a moment, but the trained smile slips over her face, smooth as the butter she’s used to kneading into dough. “I could use some rest.”
The gratitude in Arisa’s eyes can’t be clearer, even though Saaya only just catches it before she turns away. “See? Let’s call it a day.”
“Arisaaa!” One pleading, larger-than-life Kasumi glomp incoming. The Random Star still slung over her shoulder has got to hurt. “Just a bit longer! Pretty please?”
“Ow ow ow!”
Saaya’s laugh is only half-hearted. “Come on now. Let’s go home.”
When she sees she’s not making any headway, Kasumi deflates and concedes. Arisa makes a show of kicking them out of her basement, and then the four of them are out on the street, shivering slightly in the chill.
“O-Tae-chan,” Rimi pipes up. “How’s Occhan doing?”
Tae smiles at her. “Mum made a tuxedo just for him. Wanna come over and see?”
“Ooh, can I?”
Saaya would be happy they’re all so in tune with one another, if Kasumi wasn’t staring straight ahead, not hearing the conversation at all. She’d be happy if Tae and Rimi weren’t looking back at her as they walked off, concerned gazes telling her “Good luck.”
They expect too much of her. She doesn’t mean that resentfully, of course, but why their silent agreement was to leave her alone with Kasumi is beyond her.
Her shoulders are tight. She swings her arms around a bit and steels herself.
“Kasumi?” she tries gently, stepping in front of that still-empty gaze.
A blink, a shake of the head, and Kasumi bounces back with vigour. “Hm? What was that?” She looks around, puzzled. “Where did Rimi-rin and O-Tae go?”
Saaya takes a breath. “Kasumi, if something’s bothering you—”
“Aww c’mon, not this again!” The little devil has the gall to turn on the puppy dog eyes, coupled with just the right dose of pouty indignance. “Nothing’s bothering me, I’m right as rainbows—”
“Rain,” Saaya automatically corrects her.
“Oh, but rainbows are so much better!” Her burst of laughter is almost enough to convince Saaya to drop the subject. She’s getting too good at pretending.
Sighing, Saaya just says, “Wanna go for a walk?”
They bundle up in their coats and roam the neighbourhood for a while, stopping by the park. Kasumi immediately makes a beeline for the swing. Saaya shakes her head in amused fashion and lets herself fall onto the bench at the edge of the playground, slinging an arm over its back.
As soon as Kasumi settles comfortably on the swing, she does a little backwards trot until she’s up on her toes, and lets herself fly.
Only it’s less like flight and more like the last sputtering crawl of a go-cart out of fuel. Kasumi’s feet drag in the dirt as she slides back to her starting position, and the swing rocks feebly a few times before coming to a stop.
“Saaya, push me.”
Saaya gets up and goes to her, laying her hands on Kasumi’s back. Even in the cool twilight Kasumi radiates warmth with an explosive force. Her face is hidden, her head bent, tousled brown hair falling over rosy cheeks.
“Ready?” Saaya gives her a push, and for a second she’s seeing Jun and Sana, their bright young voices from another time echoing around her.
Kasumi is a good deal heavier though, and less loud. Much, much less of a child.
“Higher,” she says quietly.
“Higher.” Impatience creeps into her voice.
“I’m trying, I don’t want you to get hur—”
“Kasumi . . .” Saaya stops pushing, and steps back.
Kasumi glances over her shoulder once and kicks her legs up, shooting forward with a burst of speed. Her hair whips back in the wind.
“I can’t! I have to catch it.”
Standing there in the dark, asking, begging, waiting for an answer that doesn’t come, Saaya remembers the moonlight and shadows and pleas of another night, the grooves of the floorboards under her bare feet, the ache in her neck from facing stubbornly away from the door she was too afraid to open, and the girl who kicked it down anyway.
Her brain short-circuits and she moves faster than she ever has, save for the day of that awful phone call, and her mad dash to the school cultural festival a few years later. She steps in front of the swing, right in the path of a steamrollering force neither of them has time to stop.
She doesn’t know what she expected. All she sees and hears are Kasumi’s wide eyes and warning yell, and then she’s on her back in the dirt, a throbbing pain in the arm she held up at the last second to defend against a direct kick in the gut.
“Oh my God—Saaya—are you—what did I—” At least Kasumi’s warmth over her is somewhat comforting, but that’s the only wryly positive spin on the situation she can come up with.
“I’m okay,” she says, after checking all her bones are intact. “I’m fine, really.” Wincing, she props herself on her elbows and sits up, getting a lot of Kasumi in her face in the process.
“I’m so sorry . . . so s-sorry . . .” Kasumi’s on her knees, arms enclosing her, face buried in her shoulder. Her hot, shaky breath is fire against Saaya’s exposed neck.“Y-You could’ve—could’ve—”
“Shh,” Saaya soothes her, keeping one firm hand on her back, the other stroking her hair, steadily, keeping the rhythm as a drummer should do. Her arm still hurts, and she’s going to have one hell of a bruise come morning, but that couldn’t matter less. “I’m sorry. That was my fault. I don’t even know why I—” She shakes her head and laughs incredulously. “Your influence, I can only guess.”
Sure, pain isn’t fun, but never in her life had she felt thunder and lightning surge through her the way they did right before she crashed to the ground.
“It is my fault,” says Kasumi. “Just like last time.”
“No, what are y—”
“I just wanted to catch a star.”
Saaya’s brow furrows as Kasumi gently pulls away, smiling, eyes full of tears that might as well be shards of glass.
“A star? How so?”
Kasumi rolls into a sitting position, drawing dirt-speckled knees up to her chin. “Hmm . . . I started thinking, you know, when I had the flu? Thinking probably isn’t good for me. But I kept going and going, and I thought what happened once could happen again, and what if this time even more went wrong, what if we lost the star beat for good? And—”
“Hey, hey.” Saaya reaches for her arm. “Slow down. None of us are going anywhere, no matter what happens. We’ll stick together and get lost together. Find our way back together.”
“Mm. But I—a leader is supposed to be more . . . like Yukina-senpai.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like . . . cool. Strong.”
“You mean, she’s got to have a purpose?”
“I guess so. She’s got to know where she’s going.”
Saaya lets out a deep exhale, and doesn’t even try to hide her exasperated amusement. She runs a thumb over the dirt smears on Kasumi’s face. “You showed me the star beat, Kasumi. It was never about catching anything. That pounding feeling you’re drawn to—that all of us are drawn to—it’s about chasing the stars. Remember? Remember those lyrics you wrote for me? They made me want more than what I’d settled for, because you did. And all of us keep wanting more, after that first taste. That’s what makes the stars beat so loudly for us. For you.”
“Yeah . . .” Kasumi cracks a watery smile. “So I just wanna take over the world then?”
“Well,” Saaya shrugs, “if it’s sort of like what Eve wants for PasuPare, sure, why not?”
That response seems to satisfy Kasumi, and she licks her lips and tries to suppress her hiccups. Saaya sits with her in the dirt, just like she did as a little girl in the school sandpit, armed with plastic shovels and buckets to rebuild a sand fortress razed to the ground by careless running feet.
“You’re right, I do want more,” Kasumi says eventually. “I want PoPiPa to be forever. I want to stand on the biggest stage in Japan. But you know what, Saaya? I’ve been thinking about something else I want too.”
She’s strangely flushed again, and the spark is back in her eyes, the one that says even a great plunging wave won’t put her blaze out once it’s lit. Suddenly Saaya’s heart feels as if it’s levitated out of her body. Suddenly she thinks she knows what was behind their bandmates’ behaviour earlier.
“It’s really weird. I’ve wanted so many things. But never like this. Maybe that’s why I tried to catch a star. Maybe if I caught one that would be enough, and it’d get rid of all this messy stuff in my head.”
Saaya can barely breathe. “It isn’t enough, is it?”
Kasumi shakes her head.
“It isn’t enough for me either.” She’s being selfish, disgracefully so. Her old self would recoil in horror at those words. But she thinks of all the times Kasumi has beamed at her, the times their hands brushed lightly in the hallway, the times they’ve bumped shoulders casually and bartered the contents of their bentos—and the way Kasumi stared into emptiness and tried to swing higher, higher, higher than the moon.
Kasumi’s mouth is open, confused, questioning.
Saaya’s throat clogs up, and she closes the gap between them and catches Kasumi in her arms, squeezing her tight, all the dirt on their clothes and skin be damned.
“You’re my shooting star, Kasumi. You always have been. I thought I’d have to take that to the grave.”