Photoshoots haven't felt this embarrassing for a long time. There's the initial shock of actually being hired as an idol out of the blue, forcing you in front of a bunch of cameras. After a while, you get used to it. That or run away, depending which side of fight or flight your temperance lands on.
Still, this new unit is making me second guess myself. What does LittlePOPS even mean? Singing upbeat songs is a nice change of pace, and the fashion is… cute, I suppose. But taking us to some plush store and having us pose with all the stuffed animals is a bit overkill. It feels more like a punishment when they want us to pick out a plush to pose with on our own.
This 'genuine' appearance thing was appealing at first, but it's a lot harder to pretend to be genuine than just pretending to be normal. What do they even expect from me? I pick out a bear that looks like it plays bass in an emo band and not want to throw up at the plasticity?
I scan around the store for the other members of the group. Koume proudly showing off a soft puppy with cotton poking through it's mostly chewed off head. Mirei and her monster chase around Rika and her pink cat. Anzu takes a nap under a giant sloth. It's amazing how little effort she pours into staying on brand, while executing it flawlessly anyway.
My vision settles in a corner far away from everyone else, when I notice a duck in a beautiful, dark dress. Black and white, with pink accents resting over her yellow felt. I walk over, and notice it's the clearance section. The dolls no one else wanted, tossed aside by their creators. Hoping to land in the sights of a kind and generous soul, one that will give them another shot at life.
The ducks fuzz is soft. She doesn't feel used, there's no noticeable defects. I can't understand why someone would throw her in the pile of worthless objects. I gaze into her beady black eyes as my soul is reflected in them. She calls out to me, begging me for empathy and a home.
...Sure, that works.
I join everyone else in front of the cameras, and say I'm ready. We go through the usual rounds of taking promotional pictures. I just zone out like always, and once again the faceless men working the cameras interpret dissociation as some sort of deep introspection.
Towards the end, they ask us questions about the lifeless cloth we picked out. And of course, they have to start with me.
"Asuka, what's your ducks name?" The interviewer asks.
"Caerus." I answer quickly, knowing this will probably just be put in a single sentence with the other girls' plush names.
"Wow, you must have grown really attached to her to have an answer already." Anzu gets that smug grin on her face as she leans over to me with the sloth roughly around her size.
"Shut up, Anzu. You named yours, didn't you?" I bite back.
She thinks for a second. "Nah, not really. Hey, slow boy, what's your name?" She holds the sloth in front of her face. "My name is Let Anzu Take A Nap Instead Of Being Interviewed."
"I see, is that your given name or family name?" I ask sarcastically.
"...Yes." Let replies.
"I named mine Chika." Rika proudly announces, probably not realizing a transition was necessary.
"My dog's name is Rasputin, because he's been beheaded but still full of life and love." Koume chimes in.
"And this is Hellbringer, destroyer of worlds!" Mirei rounds off the cast.
"Aw, that's so cute! I can tell how much you girls love your little friends already." The woman who owns the store teases us.
"Love is a bit much, don't you think?" I reply, trying to avoid Caerus' sad eyes.
"Mmm… No, but I suppose I'm a bit biased." She giggles.
"If you'd like," Mr. Producer speaks. "I could authorize the purchase of these under the company credit card."
Rika gasps. "You're the best, Mr. Producer!" She beams at him with stars in her eyes, and he answers with a small nod.
"No thank you" The group turns their head towards me. "It's a kind offer, but I prefer you to not infantilize me with such things."
"You don't wanna take yours, Asuka?" Our boss asks.
"It's, okay, Mr. Producer can infantize me all he wants!" Rika proudly skips towards him and grabs his arm. I don't think she understands what I said, yet she still found a way to make him uncomfortable with it.
"There must be something about Caerus that made you fall in love." Koume asks, tilting her head while unconsciously mimicking Rasputin.
"I suppose… I just have a fondness for ducks." I try to cover, but Anzus face grows even more playful.
"Wouldn't have pegged you for a duck fan, more of a creepy spider girl." Anzu teases me again. "Maybe toads."
"We don't have time to mess around with this." Producer tries to help us wrap up. "We're on a strict schedule."
"Ugh, that's the worst kind of schedule." Anzu complains as she tries to hide under her sloth friend.
"You guys go ahead. I'll put the stupid duck back and I'll catch up in a bit." I say, already getting up. My grip around Caerus tightens a bit when I call her stupid. If she were alive, would she feel hurt? If she did, how would she interpret the way my hands shake when I get closer to leaving her here?
I take a long walk to the back of the store. At least three times as long as it felt before. It's not picking a random animal to get work over with faster, now it feels like. A death. That I'm walking Caerus to the electric chair before her remains become recycled into whatever new soulless cash grab is enrapturing today's children.
Her miniscule physical weight leaves me as I put her back on the shelf, and turn her around so she can face forward properly. Maybe that way someone is more likely to give her a home. But, the emotional weight has become worse. Heavier than I expected over a bunch of fuzz and cotton. Even her gaze, once full of hope, now only radiates guilt, and a curious regret over what she might have done to deserve this.
"Oh, change your mind?" An employee near the back asks. "I figured we might have gotten rid of the last of that stock. Those dolls don't sell much."
"Why not? Ducks are amazing creatures." I ask as aloofly as I can.
"Dunno, but we've been ordered to sell or trash em by the end of the week." They what? "We've got a few more in the back, but no takers in the past couple months."
"So you choose to doom her fate without a proper chance near the front of the store?" I ask.
"I don't make the rules. That's just how it's done." He giggles. "Why do you care? Ducks aren't the cutest animal, it's strange to see a girl your age so invested."
"I suppose I'm just a romantic. They have white feathered wings, like that of an angel. Despite that, many humans think of them as incapable of flight. Birds, cursed to live without the trait that defines them." I grit my teeth as I explain. "The mere requirement to justify their existence, their distinction from the rest of the world, is impossible. They were born wrong, or broken, and can't ever be fixed."
"Huh, that's more of an answer than I expected. Figured you'd just say it's dress is cu-"
"But they prove everyone who doubted them wrong." I continue. "They take flight, and while they might not be the most beautiful, elegant, or pleasant sounding… They exist. They fly with those the public deem more worthy of the experience. That is more than the world expected of them. Perhaps more than they expected of themselves. And after a lifetime of being told they can't, she flies. To prove to the world she's more than the role she was given. To prove to herself she deserves to be where she dreams. A simple goal, of merely existing where she is meant to."
"... Ma'am, this is a toy store." He sighs. "Do you want the duck or not?"
I stare at him in annoyance before taking Caerus into my hands and heading to the front of the store. This time, a triumphant walk of liberation. To give Caerus a shot at the life she deserves. A life with friends, love, fulfillment.
I make the necessary transaction with money out of my own pocket, and catch back up with the group in the mall. I'm positive everyone noticed the bag I left with. I'm sure they know who's in it too. But I find it hard to care. They don't know the fate she would have suffered.
Mirei looks over to me with a knowing smile. "Takashi get to you?"
"Takashi?" I ask.
"The guy who works there. He sometimes hangs out near the back to get people to buy all the stuff on clearance." She explains. "Really helpful, I go to that store sometimes and he always remembers me."
"There was a man there, but he only seemed…" Ah, I see. I was manipulated wasn't I? "I suppose that was him. He convinced me to change my mind, so I can keep Caerus as a souvenir to remember the press tour by."
"Yeah, he got you good." Mirei smiles. "I think he knew you'd give her a good home."
I don't know what a good home for a stuffed animal would be. Hopefully my apartment will suffice. If it's good enough for me, it should be good enough for Caerus. After all, we are two birds of a feather.