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“Misaki-chan?”

The sound of her name stops the lighter’s ember millimeters from the end of her cigarette. At first she thinks it’s a whisper on the wind, a hallucination born from the shudder of the train on the opposite side of the station slithering away on its journey, a wayward groan twisting into a long-lost sound in her ears. But as the clatters fade into distant jolts down the track, and she blinks away any notion that it might’ve been real…

“Misaki-chan!”

She turns to lay eyes on a woman with soft-blue hair set in a braided bun running towards her – and as soon as she recognizes the glimmer of those violet eyes, the cigarette falls unlit from her lips. “Ka—?"

Kanon tackles her before Misaki can finish, the momentum carrying her into a natural spin in her arms. “I can’t believe it! It’s really you!”

Misaki’s mind overloads with sensation – the brush of Kanon’s cashmere cardigan, the warm smoothness of her cheek against Misaki’s own, the waves of her sky-colored curls now flowing through her fingers… each so familiar. So nostalgic. It makes her mouth squirm into something approximate to a smile. “Y-You’re… where did you…?”

“I’m just coming home from work,” Kanon explains, giving Misaki one last squeeze before separating. Her face is as full and rosy as ever, her freckles scrunching with glee. “How about you?”

“I, um…” Despite the lack of smoke in her lungs, Misaki hacks up a storm. “Y-Yeah, same. I just wasn’t expecting to run into you here.”

“Me neither!” says Kanon, her hands sliding down to wrap around Misaki’s own. “I always take this route home, so I’m surprised I haven’t run into you by now.”

“Ahaha, w-well…” Misaki heels twist into the concrete. “B-Bit of a detour today on my end.” She stretches her grin out further. “I-I’m glad I took it, though! I mean it’s been, um…”

“Almost five years, right?” For a second, Misaki thinks she’ll giggle, but instead Kanon turns to look off towards the rose-tinted dusk on the horizon. “Time flies, huh?”

“Y-Yeah.” Misaki doesn’t mean for her voice to sound so hoarse, but her shrunken lungs aren’t being well supported by her fractured state of mind right now. “S-Sorry, this is just, um, r-really sudden…”

“Ah! S-Sorry!” Kanon lets go of her hands, leading Misaki to only now realize she was stroking her palms all the while. “I-I just got excited, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, th-that’s my bad…”

Misaki laughs it off with a shrug. “No biggie. Who knows, if I saw you first I might’ve done the same.” Inwardly, she knows that there isn’t a ‘might’ve’ about it, but she’s never been one for confidence.

Kanon laughs. “It’s hard to imagine you doing something like that.”

A prickle like a hornet sting. “Ahahaha… y-yeah.” More coughing. “I’m not exactly Ms. Sunshine, huh?”

“O-Oh…” Kanon trails off. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Misaki can’t find the strength to ask her to clarify.

Before either can break the silence now lingering between them, a ringing bell signals the arrival of a train on this side of the tracks. Within moments it’s careened to a stop, sending a stagnant gale rippling between them. Misaki’s eyes scan towards the incandescent yellow interior as the train doors yawn open. “You getting on? This is my stop, so…”

“You live near here?” Kanon asks.

“I-It’s like a thirty minute walk, you shouldn’t bother…” says Misaki, rubbing the back of her head. “Besides, my apartment’s not in shape to have guests over.”

“Well…” Kanon’s thumbs run circles around one another. “I haven’t seen you since high school. I don’t want to say goodbye so soon.”

Misaki can’t help but feel it would be for the best. The longer she spends with Kanon, the more she’s going to fall back into those old habits: daydreaming, second-guessing, and wistfully wondering about what might have been. Even if this is the best thing that’s happened to her in months, if not years, she can’t…

Kanon takes her by the wrist and starts walking.

“E-Eh? Kanon-san?” Misaki gets dragged along, stumbling forward in a flaccid attempt to remain composed. “Where are you—"

“Do you know any cafés around here?” Kanon asks.

“Cafés? No, there’s just a vending machine downstairs I get canned coffee from sometimes…”

“That’ll do, then.”

Right as they reach the top of the stairs that lead down from the platform, Kanon tilts her head just enough for Misaki to see her generous, inviting smile. One she hasn’t seen for half a decade. One that’s just as alluring as the day they met.

“Come on. Let’s catch up.”

***

They find a blue park bench with paint chipping off the wood in the middle of a tiny side alley, a gravelly pit containing a single tree sticking out of the middle: the sort of environment that looks incomplete without a flaming trash can brightening up the surroundings. All they have in its place is a flickering street lamp positioned just behind their heads, casting stark shadows across the dull gray pavement that’s currently arresting both of their attentions.

Misaki has an unopened can of Boss Coffee in one hand and her flattened cheek in the other. She can feel the pack of cigarettes in her shirt pocket rubbing up against her chest, and while the tingling in her fingers is itching at her to pull one out and light it up, she wants to keep up appearances for Kanon’s sake. Then again, if she’s really worried about that she shouldn’t be here with a disheveled tie and linty dress pants and a white-collar shirt where the top button was undone – she looks half-drunk and half-asleep. And while the coffee would undoubtedly help resolve her scruffiness, her thumb scrapes against the tab without any intention of opening it.

Kanon, meanwhile, has the dignity to at least untwist the cap of her green tea bottle and take a sip. Misaki sneaks glances to try and take in every detail of her appearance that she can muster: the navy blue pencil skirt, tan cardigan, and amethyst earrings are all fashionable, yet modest – the dress of an officer worker, probably. She’s wearing a bright red lipstick and moderately pink blush and just the lightest hint of mascara that accentuates her already fluttery eyes. But all of this is ultimately a distraction from the one real accessory of interest on Kanon’s person, the sole object that Misaki keeps turning back towards, the item that comes as no great surprise yet clutches at her chest all the same. But no matter how much she gawks and gripes and grits her teeth, in the end all she can do is force a smile on her face as she says,

“Congratulations.”

Kanon’s eyes flick towards her. “Huh? For what…?”

Misaki can’t bear to say it. “Um… for, you know…” She points to Kanon’s hand.

Kanon looks down upon the gold band adorning her ring finger. “O-Oh! Thank you!” She flashes her teeth, somehow glistening even in this forgotten corner of the suburbs. “The proposal was just last month. We’ll be tying the knot next year. Y-You’re invited to the wedding, of course!”

“Haha… right.” Misaki’s not sure she could stomach going – she’s having a hard time keeping her insides calm right now as is. But the hunger of curiosity was more powerful than her own queasiness. “So, um, who’s the lucky… person…?”

“Ah, well…” Kanon’s heels tap against the ground. “He’s a real nice guy. We’ve known each other a couple years now.”

“Uh huh.” Misaki wonders how many people describe their fiancé as ‘a real nice guy’ before telling herself to stop being so bitter. “How’d you meet?”

Kanon sighs. “Matchmaking. My parents thought it was time I settle down. Don’t want to get too old and miss my chance, you know?”

“…We’re not even twenty-five.”

“Ahaha… you’ve got a point.” Kanon picks at the plastic label on her tea bottle. “Still, better to find someone while we’re young, right?”

“Yeah. I guess.” Misaki bites back questions, knowing that she doesn't want to hear any details. “Well, I wish you two happiness.”

A giggle, light and sweet, like fresh cherries. “Thank you. Are you, um…?”

“Single,” Misaki says, finally opening her coffee with a crik so she can cram some down her gullet as she arranges her thought. “Not, er, really in the date market right now.”

“Makes sense. W-We have to work on ourselves, too!”

“Yup. Haha…”

Misaki wonders if her laughter can sound any more pitiful. She’s starting to regret every second of this. Actually, no, she regretted it from the moment they sat down, she’s just refusing the take the knife out from between her ribs by keeping up pretenses. She’s surprised she hasn’t fled by now. That’s what she’s always done, right? Run away when everything gets too overwhelming for her to handle. Maybe she doesn’t even care enough to do that anymore. That notion just depresses her more.

Kanon’s feet kick out, the back of her heels lying on the ground. “So, um, other than that, how’ve you been?”

Misaki shrugs as she leans forward on her knees. “Y’know… fine. Life. It happens.”

“Uh huh… where do you work?”

Swallow. “…An office. J-Just a data entry job. As boring as you’d imagine. You?”

“Same. Er, about the office, I mean. I’m a secretary, so…”

She trails off. Neither’s sure how she meant to finish that sentence.

“Do you, um…” Misaki’s thumbnail traces the rim of her coffee can. “Do you like it?”

Kanon’s laughter sounds more genuine this time. “It’s not exactly a passion… I’d assume the same’s true for you.”

“Heh, yeah…”  Misaki scratches her cheek. “Got bills to pay, you know how it is.”

Kanon nods. “That’s adulthood, I guess.”

“Mm.” Misaki takes another sip, trying to focus on the cold bitterness pouring down her throat instead of the same sensation running through her brain.

“So, um…” Kanon rubs her elbow, her eyes locked firmly on her half-empty tea bottle. “You still talk to anybody from high school?”

Misaki considers lying for a moment before realizing there really wouldn’t be any point to it. “Nah. I was never a social butterfly or anything … plus I’m bad at reaching out and staying in touch.” You know that firsthand, she refrains from adding.

“Ehehe, it happens.” Kanon subconsciously pokes her hair bun. “I honestly don’t talk to many people from back then myself… just Chisato-chan, honestly. But she’s really busy these days; haven’t seen her in a month or two.”

“Oh, nice,” says Misaki. “Are she and Kaoru-san still, uh, a… thing?”

“As far as I know?” Kanon sighs. “She gets a little testy whenever she talks about her… it’s hard for me to tell.”

“Ah.” Despite the fact that she wasn’t expecting a fairy tale account, Misaki feels her heart sink just a bit. “Do you talk to Kaoru-san too?”

“A little. She’s been occupied lately, too.” Kanon slumps back against the bench. “Hagumi-chan messages me once a month just to say hi, and I haven’t heard from Kokoro-chan at all…”

Misaki hears the names filter through her hears, letting them run circles around her brain. It’s not as if it’s been years since she thought of them. But it has been weeks. Maybe even a month or two. It used to be that not a day went by where she didn’t spend every waking after school hour in their company, and now they were tucked away in the dusty cabinet of her memory, just like the rest of her high school days.

Before she saw Kanon on the platform… how long had it been since she thought of her?

“Oh, that reminds me.” Kanon reaches into her handbag with a tiny smile. “I saw this flier in the office today… made me nostalgic. I had no idea I’d run into you on the way home!”

She pulls out a small quarter-folded leaflet and hands it to Misaki, who opens it to see bubbly font, grainy inset photos, and a minimalist graphic design of a girl holding a guitar:

BanG Dream! Girls Band Challenge!

Shoot for your dreams with a chance to perform at the legendary Budokan!

“Just like back then, huh?” says Kanon, looking over the pamphlet with a happy wistfulness. “We never entered ourselves, I know, but it was always fun seeing our friends compete.”

No reply.

“…Misaki-chan?”

“H-Huh? Oh, right.” Misaki thoughtlessly folds and crams the paper into her pants before realizing what she’s doing. “Wh-Whoops, sorry, this is yours…”

“Oh, you can keep it!” says Kanon, waving and shaking her head. “We have a lot of extras at the office, and if you want it…”

Realizing that it would now look incredibly awkward to stuff back into Kanon’s hands, Misaki pockets the flier with a mumbly “thanks” before picking her coffee can back up to sip.

“…You ever think about it?”

Misaki turns to meet Kanon’s melancholy gaze. “About what?”

“Well, you know…” Kanon picks at what little of the paint is left on the bench. “About the band.”

“Oh. Y… Yeah.” Misaki’s voice falls to a hush. “Of course I do.”

Kanon’s smile is sharp enough to cut. “I guess it was my bad that we broke up, h-huh?”

“Don’t even joke about that,” Misaki retorts. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It just… happened.”

“W-Well… after graduation I was the one who went out of town for college. So—”

“You don’t have to answer for that, Kanon-san,” Misaki emphasizes, resisting the urge to grab her by the shoulder. “Even if you’d stayed, schedules might’ve shifted. Friendships would’ve drifted. And at some point everything would just…” She makes some vague, circular crumbling motion with her hand. “Fall apart.”

“Y-You think so…?”

“Yeah,” says Misaki, slumping back against the bench. “Nothing lasts forever, y’know? Sometimes dumb high school bands are just gonna be dumb high school bands. And it’s fine to be like that.”

“I… guess so, huh.” Misaki can hear the exhale through Kanon’s nostrils. “But…”

“But?”

Kanon closes her eyes. “…Never mind. It’s nothing.”

Misaki wants to say that Kanon can tell her anything. That whatever she wants to say is obviously important. That Misaki actually wants to hear what she’s thinking about. But she’s also afraid to know what’s on her mind. She’s afraid to learn about anybody’s mind but her own these days. Even if she can hazard a guess. “You just… thinking about everybody?”

Kanon opens her mouth before clamping it shut and nodding. “Mmhmm. I miss them. I wonder if they’re okay…”

“Mm.” Misaki leans back and rests both hands behind her head, leaning her head back. “I mean, I miss them too. But I’m sure they’re alright.”

“You think?”

“Of course I do,” says Misaki. “They’ve always been a happy-go-lucky bunch, right? I’d be really surprised if they haven’t found nice jobs somewhere. Heck, Kokoro probably doesn’t even need to do that much. Happiness comes easily to them, after all.”

“Y-Yeah… I guess you’re right. Fueee…”

The first fuee in five years. Misaki wants to relish in it.

Instead, her gaze turns straight above, to where a skittering moth flitters around the street lamp blinding her retinas, blocking out any sign of the sky, all-encompassing in its harsh, blaring light…

***

Massive floodlamps set on metal poles as tall as skyscrapers stand at pivotal points around the softball diamond, each so intense that they leave x-shaped shadows around the vicinity of any figure found between them. And at the moment, there are plenty of those.

“Pack it up, people! Sun’s going down, and you’ll be doing the same if you don’t pick up the pace!”

High schoolers jog around the basepaths at a brisk tempo, driven on by a bubblegum-chewing coach barking orders at the top of her lungs. Even after a long day of practice she still manages to have a mountain of energy – though even her booming voice is only half as invigorated as her assistant’s, which follows the pack of sportswomen with unending encouragement.

“Keep going, everyone!” calls Hagumi, clapping her hands rhythmically. “You’re almost done! Just a little farther!”

The teens under her care, as sweaty and exhausted as they are, manage to finally finish their laps moments before the practice sessions’ purported end time of 6:00pm. Even as they all come to lean on their knees or collapse due to their sheer windedness, Hagumi keeps running, dashing around to hand each student water before giving them a pat on the back and assuring them they’ve done a good job. After that, all that’s left is the coach’s usual tough love speech, and…

“Practice dismissed!” Coach yells. “See you tomorrow!”

“Yes, Coach!”

The players break for the locker room, ready to change back into school uniforms and mosey on home after a long day of practice. Hagumi remembers doing the same, once upon a time – but that isn’t on her mind now, as she instead turns to her superior with attentive gusto. “Coach! How were we in practice today?”

“Still rough, but getting better.” Coach pats Hagumi a couple times on the shoulder. “You did good, Kitazawa. You can leave field cleanup for tomorrow—”

“Don’t say that!” said Hagumi, laughing as she jogs over to grab her usual rake. “I mean, I’m not much of an assistant coach if I can’t do this much at least, right? Gotta earn my paycheck.”

The coach is uncharacteristically quiet as Hagumi steps out towards the dirt path. It’s enough to draw her attention, though she isn’t sure what to say about it – after all, she’s been doing this sort of thing since the time she was a student, and never minded in the least. But why is Coach looking at her like that…?

“Kitazawa.”

Hagumi stops, the rake having barely covered a meter of the basepath. “What is it?”

Coach walks towards her, sparing a glance over her shoulder once or twice to make sure all the students have left. “There’s, er… something we need to discuss. Regarding your job.”

Her tone of voice is gruff, but without any of the usual bombast. Hagumi grips the rake’s handle with both hands. “What is it?”

Coach crosses her arms, grinding her teeth together. “Tch, this is the kind of bad news I can never figure out how to say…”

“Bad news?”

For the first time Hagumi can recall, legitimate sorrow crosses her coach’s face. “Budgets are in for this year. They cut money to extracurriculars again. The assistant coach position is…” She sighs deeply. “It’s going to be considered ‘volunteer work’ starting next month.”

…Oh.

“You give more for this team than anybody else,” Coach continues, “And I hate to do this. I almost want to hand you my own paycheck, but since you’re not a teacher—”

“It’s fine, Coach.”

Coach stops in the middle of her ramble, even as the crossness doesn’t fade from her face. “It’s not a matter of ‘fine.’ You need money, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Hagumi grins. “I get money for working at my parents’ shop! Besides, I love helping out the team!”

“Kitazawa—”

“Besides, I’ve still got the rest of this month to earn my keep, right?” Hagumi continued her raking crusade. “Don’t worry! I’ll do my very best for all the time I’ve got left! So you can go home and relax!”

She expects the coach to smirk, ruffle her hair, call her a true sportsperson or something like that. Instead the look on her manager’s face flatlines to a dull grimace. “Kitazawa… you’re too damn nice.”

Hagumi pauses. “Huh?”

A deep exhale. “Never mind. Finish up as soon as you can, y’hear? Don’t want you to work overtime.” And with another inaudible grumble she steps towards the dugout to grab her things and make her leave.

Hagumi watches her go, feet fixed in place as a lonely wind skims the top of the outfield grass. Her grip around the handle loosens before retightening as she swiftly and silently continues cleaning the basepaths.

Some people would probably find this kind of menial labor boring. Hagumi thinks it’s meditative. She spends most of the day at 110% energy, so to have a moment where she can be as hyper or as reserved as she wants to be is kind of relaxing. Sometimes, when the breeze is cool and the distant drone of cars just provide the right ambiance, she can lose herself in the simplicity of her task and find a brief sense of peace. And other times, when the air’s stagnant and silence clogs her eardrums… she’s left with time to think. And that never turns out well for her.

She tries not to linger, instead turning to the first object that catches her interest – the light poles. So giant and imposing… she hasn’t really paid them much mind before, despite the fact that she’s been cleaning this field for almost a decade. But they have to be real bright to illuminate the field so brightly at this hour, huh? Every single centimeter is lit up, from the battered home plate all the way out to the far-off chain link fences…

…She stares at those fences, a dull metallic green in the stadium lights. Beyond their confines lies only the dark gloom of an early evening. She’s probably supposed to find the sight eerie or intimidating, but somehow it always entrances her instead. What lies beyond those fences? She knows the logical answer: a small patch of weedy grass before you hit the street behind Hanasakigawa, an uninteresting knoll with nothing to see. But now, when it’s dark, she can imagine whatever she wants out there, can’t she? It’s like that one movie she used to watch when she was little, with the baseball diamond in the cornfield. The ones she’s waiting for will come out of the darkness and be with her any second.

That’s what she always wishes, at least.

She can see their faces so clearly in her mind. Her brother running over to give her a noogie before grabbing his glove so they can play catch. Kokoro with gleaming eyes cartwheeling down the stretch before tackling her with a hug so tight that they both fall to the grass laughing. Kaoru striding out with a confident smirk to impart some wisdom. Kanon stumbling as she makes her way over with a gentle fuee. Misaki—

…She should stop daydreaming about things that’ll never happen, shouldn’t she?

Her hands move back to rake even as her mind remains affixed on idle fantasies. It slows her pace, but she doesn’t really mind. It’s not like she has much waiting for her at home besides cold food and yelling. Why not take her time? She’s not really here for the pay, after all – she’s here just to get away from her home life for just a fraction of the day. She wonders what stops her from following in her brother’s footsteps and just hightailing it away from this city. Is it fear? Attachment? Loneliness?

She doesn’t know. She’s never known.

She’s never felt smart enough to know.

She watches her shadows stretch in four directions, thinking of college and concerts and all the other wistful longings she’s ever had, her rake dragging across the brittle field as the temperatureless glare of the floodlamps bores into her…

***

The stage lights burn half as much as the voice that escapes her lips.

How should I your true love know

From another one?

By his cockle hat and staff,

And his sandal shoon.

The other players inquire as to her cause. She can only laugh and shudder as her clasped hands jostle about, as if the movement will make her performed prayer all the more powerful.

He is dead and gone, lady,

He is dead and gone;

At his head a grass-green turf,

At his heels a stone.

Her grief is artificial, but the tremble in her voice rings all too real. She paces to and fro as her maddened lament echoes beyond the confines of her stage.

Larded with sweet flowers

Which bewept to the grave did go

With true-love showers.

Her ramble is that of a madwoman who sees far too clearly.

Well, God 'ild you! They say the owl was a baker's

daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not

what we may be. God be at your table!

Her tone nearly breaks along with her posture as she pauses to sing further, her voice rising half as much as it falls.

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,

And dupp'd the chamber-door;

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more.

What was once manic now stands melancholic as she collapses to her knees.

By Gis and by Saint Charity,

Alack, and fie for shame!

Young men will do't, if they come to't;

By cock, they are to blame.

Quoth she, before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.

So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,

An thou hadst not come to my bed.

Each syllable comes with the care and grace of a mother speaking to a child, and all the intensity and anger of a father doing the same.

I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I

cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him

i' the cold ground. My brother shall know of it:

and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my

coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies;

good night, good night.

And with that, Kaoru Seta exits the stage.

 

Curtain call comes an hour later.

It’s the last night of their production run, and the claps that echo across the community theater auditorium are quieter than any performance beforehand. Kaoru scans the crowd, full of less than a hundred theatergoers, and tries to take solace in the fact that she entertained even a crowd of this size. Surely that’s better than monologuing in front of her mirror, at least – even if the lasting impact is about the same. But even as she puts on one last dazzling smile for the sparse audience, she can’t help but scan the crowd for a face she knows isn’t there, the stage lights blinding her retinas as she searches.

The velvet red of the curtain soon drowns her vision.

The actors saunter off towards the lobby as the crew begins to strike the set, offering mild congratulations to each other in passing. Kaoru offers tender gratitude of her own as her castmates thank her for the bouquets she delivered to them before the show, saying it was the least she could do in light of their combined efforts. She imagines the ensuing cast party will be a pleasant occasion… if she has the means to attend it. But surely she does. It isn’t like Kaoru Seta to miss a gathering of such lovely people, is it?

The consideration weighs more on her mind than she must realize, because she’s unconsciously ended up in the middle of the lobby. Most of the audience dwindling about are family members come to see specific crew members and offer them congratulations and flowers – her own parents did the same a few nights prior. The rest of the attendees appear to have left… not that it’s any matter to her, she supposes. It’s not as if she can expect—

“Kaoru-san!”

A voice tinted by years apart strikes her ears. She turns in gleeful disbelief, her eyes lighting up as they fall upon… “Why, my dear Rimi! It’s been a dog’s age, kitten!”

Rimi giggles, the lightest of pinks crossing her face as she walks up to Kaoru. “It sure has! I haven’t seen you since… goodness, graduation? Maybe even earlier…”

Kaoru chuckles. “The tides of time have brought us together again… what fortune. Did you enjoy the performance?”

“Yes! You were really giving it your all out there!” Rimi shudders excitedly, a tingle of gooseflesh spreading across her skin. “I’ve never seen you act so manic… your performance as Ophelia was incredible. It was like you were actually going mad.”

“Ahaha, thank you.” Kaoru clears the bangs from her face with a practiced flourish. “I truly put my heart and soul into this rendition… my very soul ached upon the stage...”

“Y… Yeah.” Rimi nods politely, her hands absentmindedly shifting around her purse strap. “I’m really glad I caught the poster, though! It’s been years since I’ve seen you perform.”

The offhand comment since an ill jolt across Kaoru’s spine. “A…hahaha, well… we’ve gone our separate ways in life; ‘tis only natural that our roads might converge at some point, however.”

“Oh, of course, of course.” Rimi glances around. “I’m surprised that I don’t see many of your fan club members around, though. Has Himari-chan come to any shows recently?”

The grin plastered on Kaoru’s face falls a few millimeters. “Not that I can recall.”

“What about Aoi-chan? Or Kaorin? Hanako-chan?”

Kaoru shakes her said with a light sigh. “Alas, fame is… how would you say… fleeting.”

“O… Oh.” Rimi must sense the shift in her mood, because now’s the time she decides to change the subject. “How’s Chisato-chan doing, then?”

A grim shadow falls upon Kaoru’s face at that moment. “Chisato… you say…”

“Yeah. You two were dating, right?” Rimi realizes her mistake ten seconds too late. “W-Well, it’s been a few years! I don’t want to assume anything, but you two—”

“D-Don’t worry about it,” says Kaoru, breaking character to eke out the platitude. “Chisato and I… well… that is a complex matter. I…”

“Y-You don’t have to say anything!” Rimi bows apologetically. “I’m sorry, so sorry, I-I shouldn’t have pried…”

“W…Worry not.” Kaoru reaches over and awkwardly pats her on the shoulder. “I know you meant no harm. Thank you for understanding.”

Unable to speak any longer, Rimi just nods hastily. A second later, her phone buzzes. “O-Oh, sorry, I need to get going… I’m a nurse-in-training, and I’ll be on call soon.”

Kaoru feels the instinct to reach out and stop her. Ask how her life’s been, what struggles she’s encountered, how this career path she just mentioned has affected her. But all she can manage is a gentle “take care.”

Rimi begins pacing off, turning to wave goodbye behind her. “Bye, Kaoru-san! Let’s see each other again sometime!”

“Yes. Of course.”

The words fall limp on the floor, unheard by anyone but herself. She almost wants to laugh – is this the sort of person she is, now? The Kaoru Seta of old wouldn’t have hobbled through a conversation so halfheartedly.

… “The Kaoru Seta of old”… did she no longer relate to that person?

“Kaoru?”

The voice of her stage manager snaps her to attention. “Yes?”

“Stage is cleaned up. You coming to the cast party? We rented out a karaoke booth and everything.”

Kaoru’s lips move to form a ‘yes, of course,’ before realizing that there’s no air escaping her lungs. That gives her pause. “I… well…”

“Maybe you should skip out, actually,” says the stage manager, raising a concerned eyebrow. “You look exhausted. Have you been getting enough sleep lately?”

“Me?” Kaoru tries to put on the best grin she can manage. “Why, I’ve been getting plenty. In fact, I’ve been sleeping more than usual. Although… perhaps you’re right. Yes. Yes, I’ll… have the night to myself, then.”

“Understood. Stay safe on your way home.”

“You as well.”

She barely processes the site of the manager disappearing backstage. Just as she barely processes the motions of going back to the green room, changing out of her costume, washing up, grabbing her things, and stepping out the back door into an alley full of flickering orange light and unidentified liquids. Her once stately posture has given way to a listless shamble, unnoticing of the world around her.

She comes to her parked Prius on the curb and climbs inside, taking a moment to let the air out of her lungs. Her hands grip the steering wheel as she mentally charts out the path home – only a twenty minute drive, and she can cozy up in her pajamas and fall asleep. But it’s not her own bedsheets she’s imagining in her head at this moment, but rather the ones found at Chisato Shirasagi’s current apartment.

She wants to go, more than words can say. But she knows she can’t. What will be waiting for her there? Hushed tones? A closed door? More crying? They both agreed upon the distance, and yet… Chisato needs her, surely. She has to be lonely, and sad, and needy, and just want someone to spend the night with. Surely…

…Kaoru really is an actor, considering how good she is at projection.

She slumps forward against the steering wheel, burying her eyes in the rubbery blackness before hr. Other names and addresses filter through her mind, ones of friends uncontacted and bonds unwoven. Kokoro, Hagumi, Kanon, Misaki, and countless others… how she missed them. How she needed them.

But did they need her?

They didn’t reach out to her themselves, after all.

She considers simply lying there, face in the wheel, for the next several hours, before resolving that if she’s going to lie in despondence, it’d be better to do it in the comfort of her own bed. She sits back, turns the ignition, and drives off into the night, chilled wind slicing in through the open car window all the while.

***

The stars are out, but she can’t see them.

She knows they’re there, beyond the invisible smog layer clogging up the night sky, in little slivers of white that dance among the full moon. They’re big and bright and beautiful, more beautiful than she can put into words, and on the planets orbiting each of them are flowers: each one a splendid blossom of such a vivid hue that just thinking of it should brighten her up beyond even the grimmest grimace.

But she can’t see the stars.

That shouldn’t be the sort of thing to deter her imagination. Everybody’s had a cloudy night or two in their lives; it should be natural for her to just close her eyes and imagine the glittering skies just past her vision, sparkling like diamond dust sprinkled across the sea at midnight. The mere thought of that should be enough to make her lips curl up in a little cozy smile.

But the stars aren’t there.

Not in her eyes. Not in her mind. Even when she tries to think of them twinkling past the polluted city firmament, their luster is lost to her, a memory so far gone that the sensation’s been lost to the sands of time. Just a quick glance up at the canvas of constellations would ignite her imagination with all the little wonders of the world that she treasured deep inside her heart. But days out of sight have turned to weeks. And months. And soon, maybe…

“Kokoro-sama.”

Her eyes turn from reflecting the overcast evening above to simmering with the faint orange of her bedroom. But even on such a quiet balcony, her smile is unmistakable – etched for so long that it seems unfathomable that it’d ever disappear. “Hm? What is it?”

“It’s dinner time,” states the Suit, adorned in sunglasses even at this hour. “The chef’s prepared you a three-course meal. We hope it’s to your liking.”

“I’m sure it will be!” There’s not a trace of doubt or uncertainty in Kokoro’s voice. “Three courses, huh? I should invite someone over to share it with, then!”

“As you wish.” The Suit pulls out a phone “Whom do you wish to call?”

“Hagumi!” Kokoro answers immediately.

“It is a weekday night – she should be working.”

“Kanon?”

“She obtained a new phone three days ago. We have yet to acquire her new cell number.”

“Kaoru, then!”

“Tonight is the last night of her performance in Hamlet, and is thus occupied.”

“Hamlet! That sounds like fun! Can I go to that?”

“Kokoro-sama…” The Suit’s voice quiets just a decibel. “You have other business to attend to tonight, do you not?”

Kokoro’s neck cranes as she turns back to look out past her balcony. “Hm? Do I?”

“Yes – the succession of Tsurumaki Enterprises is approaching rapidly, and the Master and Mistress have asked that you engage in more business lessons in the meanwhile. If you wish to properly manage the Tsurumaki Empire when the time comes, then you must develop your business acumen now.”

Kokoro frowns. Business acumen? Empire? Why does any of that matter? “Are you sure I can’t go out?”

“…We’ve been over this,” the Suit continues, her voice now nearly at a whisper. “The Mas—your father and mother feel as if they left you too unrestricted in your adolescence, and that your indolence could bring ill tidings to their legacy. They’ve spent much of their lives building up their wealth – and they do not wish for their daughter to waste it on…” A sigh. “‘Empty altruism,’ as they say.”

“Wealth?” Kokoro repeats. “I don’t care about wealth! I just want to see people smile!”

“I know, Kokoro-sama.” The Suit takes off her glasses, revealing dark, sympathetic eyes. “If only money could truly buy happiness… then you might have enough to truly make the world smile.”

“Well…” Kokoro leans back against the railing with a hum. “I should be able to make a lot of people smile with all the money we have, right?”

“My lady…”

“I don’t need a lot myself!” Kokoro continues, brighter than the interior light silhouetting their figures against the night. “If it could help others, then I don’t need their money! I just need to see my friends!”

Kokoro recognizes the look in the Suit’s eyes. It’s the same one she catches in the maid’s face when she’s scrubbing the toilet in quiet, or when one of her parents was alone and looking off into the middle-distance, or when it was very dark and very late and she went to the bathroom and saw her face in the mirror when she was thinking about how she hasn’t seen the stars lately. But she couldn’t recall the name of that subdued glimmer, even as it lay on the tip of her tongue. “Kokoro-sama… if there were no Board of Directors or CEOs or any other bureaucratic positions to halt your desires, then…”

“Then?”

A wistful sigh, as the Suit puts on her sunglasses again. “My apologies. I shouldn’t speak of idle considerations. I apologize greatly, but I’m unable to grant you access to anywhere outside of Tsurumaki Manor property. Please understand.”

Well, it isn’t this person’s fault, so… “Don’t worry about it! I’ll come in for dinner in just a second.”

Nod. “Very well. Thank you, Kokoro-sama.”

And, like the shadows she inhabits, the Suit fades into unseen corners of the manor.

Kokoro wonders about her whereabouts for a split-second before turning back to the sky one last time, as if in the course of that conversation the Tokyo sky would suddenly clear of light and fog to reveal the wondrous sparkles that elude her. But it’s just as big and black and ominous as it was five minutes ago.

A rare sigh escapes her lips as her hands run alongside the balcony. She thinks of all the friends she misses from her school days… Hagumi and Kaoru and Kanon and… and…?

Huh. That’s strange.

Is there someone else on her mind, too…?

She can’t remember right now.

***

The empty coffee can hangs loose in Misaki’s hand, wind rattling around its drained insides as a train screeches to a stop on the platform. Not Kanon’s train. If it was, then she could at last make her heartfelt and awkward goodbye before traipsing on home to try and put the evening out of her memory. But instead, she was required to stand next to a girl she once cared for more than any other.

“Seven more minutes…” Kanon murmurs, reading the digitized timetable scrolling above them. “Anything else you want to do before I go?”

Misaki shrugs. “We don’t exactly have time to do anything, do we?”

“Y-Yeah, but… well, I suppose you’re right.”

Somehow, Misaki’s disheartened by how easily Kanon gives up. What does she want, to have her whisk her into the night like some sort of manic pixie dream girl? As if… that was Kokoro’s job. Not that Misaki had seen her in the past however many years – has no idea what she’d do in that reunion, either. What if she saw Kaoru again? Or Hagumi? Would she feel the same sear of nostalgia that she does right now?

“Misaki-chan?”

Kanon’s voice breaks her out of her thoughts. “Mm? What is it?”

“Um…” Kanon points to Misaki’s shirt pocket. “You… smoke now?”

“Oh, uh…” Misaki bites a sliver of her lip. “Yeah. Not proud of it or anything. It’s just… a habit. Haha.”

Kanon doesn’t laugh back. “Those aren’t very good for you, you know…”

“I do.” Misaki resists the urge to groan, having heard the same spiel from her mom ten too many times. It wasn’t her fault that nicotine was addictive, was it? Wasn’t her fault that she needed something to clog up her airways so she didn’t have room to dwell on things…

…For the second – or maybe third – fourth, even? She can’t tell anymore – time that night, she wonders when she became so bitter. And then she wonders why she’s asking herself that when she knows she’s been bitter since the day she was born. Just like her to overthink it, huh? It’s just about the only damn thing she’s good at.

“S… Sorry.”

Kanon’s apology comes from seemingly nowhere. “What for?” asks Misaki.

“F-For the cigarette thing,” says Kanon, her thumbnails flicking sheepishly against one another. “I-I’m sure lots of people nag you about that, and I…”

“Don’t worry about it,” says Misaki flatly, hoping it comes across as more chipperly dismissive than annoyed. “I know you’re not the judgmental type.”

“Y-Yeah.” Kanon coughs clumsily into her elbow. “I-I guess I just associate it with my boss. He’s always taking smoke breaks and stuff.”

“Oh. Is he an asshole?”

“Well…” Kanon rubs her elbow in the way that all but says ‘yes.’ “He’s a bit hard-nosed, I guess. I’m always dropping papers or forgetting files or something, and he’s usually the one to chew me out.”

Misaki bites back a fuck him. “Sorry you have to put up with that.”

“Huh? Oh, it’s fine.” Kanon looks out into the empty train tracks. “I mean, I mess up, and he reprimands me for it. It’s to be expected.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s fair,” Misaki replies. “You don’t deserve to get yelled at, at least.”

Kanon giggles nervously. “Thanks. But I… t-to tell the truth, I suck at my job.”

Misaki feels the compulsion to deny it before realizing she has no basis for it.

“S… Sorry, didn’t mean to vent out of nowhere.” Kanon bows, her eyes cast to the side in shame. “That’s the sort of thing I should save for therapy, not you.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” says Misaki, wanting to laugh it off but not able to find the air. “You can vent if you want to.”

“Fuee… there’s not much point.” Kanon’s shoulders slump forward. “I just kinda went therethere after college and… I don’t know. I guess I thought I’d have ended up in a different career or something.”

“I can relate,” says Misaki, smiling awkwardly. “I thought I was supposed to figure this whole ‘life’ thing out by now.”

“Same…”

Dead air. Could they be anymore stilted?

Misaki figures it’s probably best that she get her mind off of Kanon specifically, if only for a minute or two before they part. She pulls out her phone – no new messages, as expected… might as well check the news, see if anything’s going on. Unfortunately for her, as always, everything is going on:

WHO warns another global pandemic may occur within the decade

New study shows wealth gap continues to widen since recent deregulations

Last month officially hottest September in recorded history

Antifa and rightist forces clash as downtown protests flare

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

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

She can’t even stomach clicking on any headlines before closing the app. When has paying attention to anything ever brought her calm? Ignorance really was bliss…

Misaki glances over at Kanon, who’s staring listlessly at her feet. She’d been imagining what this reunion would look like for… well, years, in all honesty, and now that it’s happened she can’t help but wonder why it hasn’t ended up as happily wistful as she imagined. She thought it would be in some sunny café, the two of them ordering their usuals as they caught up, laughing at old inside jokes and reminiscing on times long gone with just a tint of melancholy in their expressions… but here they were, in an uneasy silence on a grungy old train platform, all bitter with no sweet. Nothing idyllic or romantic to be found save her own unspoken longing.

She expects one of them to clear the air within the next few minutes. To offer, in this brief and transient glimpse of their lives, just a small token of how meaningful they are to each other. But people don’t make off the cuff speeches like that in real life, do they? Even if Misaki felt such sentiments burn into her lungs, she doubted she’d be able to say even one of them.

Which is why, when the jingle of the station is followed by an announcer asking them to remain behind the yellow line, and a ramshackle line of metal cars slows to a stop, and a set of glossy doors with dirty windows hisses open to reveal the gaudily lit interiors – all without a word spoken between them – she can’t say she’s surprised at the silence. Even if she does regret it. Only now when their time’s up does she realize just how precious it was.

“U-Uhm…” Kanon absentmindedly pats her purse. “You gave me your number, right?”

“Yeah, I punched it in for you.” Misaki held up her own phone. “You gave me yours too, so we can always keep in touch.”

“Good!” Kanon grins as she walks towards the door. “We should definitely meet up sometime soon! Catch up!”

“Heheh, that sounds like a good idea.” Misaki isn’t sure how the smile comes to her face so naturally. She feels like it should be the most forced expression in the universe, and yet, speaking with Kanon… it just appears. Somehow. “You free this weekend?”

“Uhm… I should be! I’ll double-check tomorrow.” Kanon turns back as she steps into the train car, gripping onto a ring-handle with one arm. “Good to see you again, Misaki-chan.”

Breathe in, breathe out. “You too, Kanon-san.”

A wave goodbye. “See you later!”

“See you.”

And, with a mechanical shudder, the train doors close.

They watch each other through the divide as the train picks up nonexistent steam, pacing and pacing and pacing until it’s shot off into the night, the wisp of Kanon’s hair now only a blue blur in Misaki’s memory.

It’s funny.

You’re never supposed to know when it’s the last time you ever see someone.

That’s knowledge you’re only supposed to gain in hindsight. The moment that you look back on years down the road as a perfectly mundane goodbye that ended up carrying an unknown weight. The last adventure on the playground, the final study session before finals, the fond farewell after graduation… you always end up saying “see you around sometime” no matter how sure or unsure you are that you’ll ever see that person again.

But right now, Misaki can tell, somehow.

This is the last time she’ll ever see Kanon Matsubara.

 

Rain is her only companion on the walk home.

The back alleys of her neighborhood are littered with dark glinting puddles and the smell of must. Telephone wires tangle out like brambles in every direction, strangling the smoky black sky with a twisted omnipresence. The only sound that breaks up the slosh of her buckled shoes meandering through the drizzly streets is the distant wails of ambulances mixed in among the city. She can taste a cigarette in her lips that isn’t there, the product of a craving she can’t fulfill in this unending dampness. And as the water runs chills from the top of her spine all the way down to the bottom of her soles, her mind remains fixed on places and people she should’ve let go off long, long ago.

The city, in its bustling and manic brightness, is hollow in her vision.

The trip back to her apartment feels like it takes two minutes and also twenty years. By the time she’s arrived at her unlit porched the shower has picked up to a torrent, dumping lakes’ worth of water across the suburban streets surrounding her. But the fact that she had to wade home is hardly on her mind as she digs out her keys from her messenger bag and jams them in the front door.

“I’m home.”

There’s nothing in the lifeless 4.5 tatami mat room to greet her. Not the half-crumpled futon shoved in the corner. Not the stack of grubby takeout bins that she hasn’t properly thrown away. Not the mediocre pile of felt around a cushion she calls a ‘desk.’ The chill seeping into her clothes continues, unabated by proper insulation or central heating. She flicks on the decades-old radiator and kicks off her shoes, squirming out of her wet clothes before falling in the middle of the room with a harrumph. She stares at the ceiling for a split-second before realizing she can now satisfy her craving.

Flick

The lighter gleams orange in the gray room. The smoke filling up her lungs is pungent and brittle and nasty and burns real good – she inhales it all deeply, hoping that she can hack up her lungs on the ensuing blowback and maybe focus on the cracks in her breathing rather than the regrets weighing on her mind. Deep down, though, she knows the cigarette’s nothing more than a distraction; at some point she’ll have to lie in her futon and try to sleep, leaving herself vulnerable to the demons of her own consciousness.

Just as she’s ready to let the smoke permeate her being, her phone rings.

For a single, dreadful second, she thinks it’s Kanon. Thinks it’s another rope of hope that will inevitably be torn from her clutches after some amount of bliss. But a single glance at the caller ID dashes her fears… or were they desires? She isn’t sure. But the least she can do is answer.

With a muted sigh, she picks up. “Hi, Mom.

“…

“It was fine. Not much happened.

“…

“Hm? Yeah, another interview. At some construction company, I think. It didn’t go so well, honestly…

“…

“No, I don’t have any more lined up. I’m sorry. I’m looking.

“…

“I don’t want to move back in, I… look, I’m trying, I really am. Don’t you get that? There’s so few listings these days, there’s—

“…

“You always say it like that. ‘I’m just worried.’ Look, I’m worried too, okay? I’m just… trying to not stress myself out by spending every moment of every day looking for work. Okay?

“…

“…I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just… it was a long day. Really stressful.

“…

“Don’t worry about it. It’s a personal thing. I don’t think you’d understand.

“…

“Please, Mom. Just… drop it. Okay?

“…

“Yeah… love you too.

“…”

“Bye.”

She has to stop herself from throwing her phone… somewhere. Across the room? She’s not that angry. Nor is she that sad. In fact, she doesn’t really feel much of anything at all these days. Being with Kanon brought the most emotion that her stony black heart had felt in an eon. And here she is, back to the same emptiness that she sinks in day after day.

…But maybe it can be different.

Maybe she can call Kanon, right now.

Hell, not even just her. She can hit up Kokoro, and Kaoru, and Hagumi, and they can all have one giant get together just like old times. No consequences or budgets or existential crises to worry about – just having fun and trying to make people smile. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Wouldn’t that give her something to look forward to? Wouldn’t they love to see her again?

It doesn’t matter.

Even if every last facet of what she’d just entertained is true… it wouldn’t last. Somehow, some way, it would all be brought to ruin. And it’d be her own fault. She just knows it. Why bring other people into her own despair? Better to lay out of sight and out of mind until she withers into nothing.

So it is that she falls onto her back with a groan, spread-eagle towards the ceiling, her lit cigarette sticking straight out of her mouth like a tiny, useless antenna to heaven…

…When something falls out of her pocket.

She swivels her head to look at the scrap of paper lying half-folded on her floor. Somehow even after walking through a rainstorm it’s remained mostly dry. And while there’s no reason to give it another glance, she can’t help but reach out and take it into her hands to behold once more.

“BanG Dream… Girls’ Band Challenge…”

Such a corny name – for a corny brand, she supposes. Hard to believe it’s still around. Are there really a bunch of high schoolers out there, performing like those youthful days are the height of their lives…? Maybe they’re right to. Everything’s been downhill for her since then, hasn’t it?

Her hand that’s holding the flier tilts before crashing down to the side, leaving her to once again stare at the ceiling lamp, a dull orange bulb accompanied by a dancing moth. The smoke from her cigarette rises towards it, ethereal and ephemeral, disappearing into her lungs and air alike. But more than the fire in her brachia, or the water down her back, or the mud between her toes, or the breeze through her hair… she’s focused on that light. Flickering. Consistent. Forever there, and forever out of reach.

 

She feels the brightness wash over her.

 

Hagumi, on the field, watching the tall floodlamps burn X’s onto the grass.

 

Kaoru, on the road, feeling the glare of passing streetlamps singe her vision.

 

Kokoro, on the balcony, gazing up at the nonexistent stars the light up her mind.

 

Kanon, on the train, viewing the distant city lights that simmer with a lonely sorrow.

 

And Misaki, in her room, unable to tear herself away from the dazzling presence in front of her.

 

Unconsciously, she reaches out for it.

Within her palm lies the light, like the sun in her hands. She can see the detailed silhouette of all her fingers as they clasp around empty air, an accomplishment only in some vague symbolic sense. And then, in the depths of her mind, a platitude echoes:

Shoot for your dreams.

Slowly, the tight ball of her fist morphs into the familiar shape of a finger gun. The smoke of lost youth and idle fantasies wisps up towards it, dancing around her loaded fingers and out of her reach, as fleeting as her ambitions. With each trail of ash comes another memory, another thought, another consideration. The 'barrel' is pointed right at that light, having grown tired of its brightness.

There’s only one thing she can do with herself now.

She cocks the hammer,

Steadies her aim,

And fires.

“Bang.”