Miwako could tell something was going on. She just couldn't figure out what.
It was a lot of little things, at first. Like the other day Natsuno hadn't met her for lunch like they'd planned, and at the end of the break Miwako spotted her running out of the old school building. She apologized later, but when Miwako asked what she'd been doing, she completely dodged the question and started talking about the sci-fi show that was on TV last night.
(Miwako didn't understand half the words she used, but she did have to admit that it sounded pretty cool. Something about setting up a colony on another planet?)
And then when it was time to go home at the end of the day, Iori and Tomi both left the classroom without saying anything to her. They did still wait for her at the gate, and everything was normal after that—they got to try the new kind of crepe at the shop!—but it was strange. Especially since they'd been whispering to each other about something and stopped as soon as she showed up. They said it wasn't anything important, but they didn't say what it was, either.
Then yesterday, she'd spotted Nenji at the train station and started to go say hello, but he suddenly looked nervous and pretended he hadn't seen her, even though he clearly had. And then she ran into Kurabe at the school gate and he asked her some really weird questions about the cat that'd been around there recently. She couldn't follow them at all, and it didn't help that he called the cat a funny name at first. Why would anyone name a cat "Shiba", that was just confusing!
But of course, it could all just be a coincidence. She barely knew some of the people she'd seen acting strangely the last few days, like Yakushiji from Natsuno's class, so it didn't make sense for it all to be related. Maybe Tomi and Nenji had a big fight and they'd feel awkward telling her about it, since she was friends with both of them, but Tomi asked Iori for advice. She'd been friends with Natsuno long enough to know that she just did things a little differently from other people sometimes, and there wasn't anything wrong with that. It wasn't the first time Kurabe had said things that didn't make any sense, and other people like Yakushiji could be feeling ill or having trouble at home, maybe. None of it necessarily meant anything, she thought, and it certainly had nothing to do with her. It would just be egotistical to think otherwise.
But then today! Fourth period ended, and by the time Miwako had gathered up her things to go to lunch with Iori and Tomi, they had already left the classroom. Again. She didn't like that, but obviously things just happen sometimes, so she'd tried not to read into it and went to look for them in the cafeteria.
She didn't have to go very far, as it turned out—she found them still in the hallway, standing near the stairs and talking to Gouto-senpai, of all people. They looked very serious, and Tomi was gesturing in a way that almost seemed like she was arguing with him. Miwako didn't have a clue what that could be about; Tomi may have been brash sometimes, but she didn't normally go around arguing with senpai. And for all Miwako might admire him from afar, it wasn't like any of them really knew him very well.
She was nervous to interrupt a serious conversation, though, especially one involving Gouto-senpai. But she couldn't get to the cafeteria without walking past them, and if she walked past them she'd have to say something, because it would just be rude not to. So she took a moment to mentally prepare herself, then headed toward them.
Iori spotted her before she made it all the way there, but rather than wave or say hello, she turned back to the other two. And just as Miwako stepped within earshot, she heard Iori whisper, "Shh, she's coming!"
Miwako wasn't quite sure what happened in the next few seconds. Everything went white, kind of like the time in elementary school gym class when a boy she'd had a crush on hit her in the face with a dodgeball. And he'd done it on purpose, too, so he hurt her nose and her heart all at once. Iori's words somehow made her feel the same way, even though nothing had actually hit her.
She didn't know what to do. In elementary school she'd burst into tears in the middle of the schoolyard, and then Natsuno had taken her to the nurse's office. (She'd also yelled some very rude things at the boy as they left, which Miwako had never admitted she secretly enjoyed.) But she wasn't about to make a scene in the middle of the hallway, and she couldn't just leave now that they knew she was there. She had to say something.
So she just did what she'd planned from the start. She put a smile on her face and greeted her friends enthusiastically, and only sounded a little bit disappointed when she asked why they didn't wait for her.
"Yeah, sorry about that, Gouto-senpai wanted to ask us something," Tomi said, exactly the way she would have if nothing was going on at all. "But we're ready to head down now, right Iori?"
"Yes!" Iori's voice was a tiny bit too cheerful, but you'd never notice if you didn't know her well. "I heard there was a special today, so we should go see what it is before they run out. Talk to you later, Gouto-san!"
Miwako was so disoriented she didn't even register what he said in reply. She just let Iori steer her down the stairs, and tried not to think too hard about why they'd talk to him again later.
It was hard for Miwako to concentrate in class the rest of the day with so many thoughts swirling around in her head. Obviously something was going on with her friends that they didn't want to tell her about, and it did have something to do with her, but she couldn't imagine what it could possibly be. Especially with Gouto-senpai involved—why would they talk to him about her? Did she do something wrong? She hadn't gotten up the courage to speak to him at all for the last few weeks, so it couldn't be something she said. She didn't think she'd lingered around him too much either, but maybe she had and he thought she was being creepy. But would he really talk to Tomi and Iori about that? Wouldn't he just avoid her? And wouldn't they have told her if he said something like that?
She went around and around thinking about it, but by the time the last bell rang she still hasn't gotten anywhere.
The one thing she did know was that she didn't think she could keep pretending everything was normal now. She didn't mind pretending sometimes—she was pretty good at it, and it could help her friends take their minds off things when they were having a hard time. But this was different, and it would be so much harder to ignore all the little weird things that had been happening now that she knew it wasn't all a coincidence. And she didn't want to turn into some kind of paranoid person who jumped at every shadow.
She should talk to Iori, she thought. They'd been friends for ages, and if she had done something wrong then Iori would at least be gentle about it. Not that Tomi would be mean, or anything, but sometimes her delivery wasn't the best for delicate things. And if Miwako was honest, she was definitely feeling a bit delicate after what happened at earlier.
She had to take another few moments first—she really didn't like confrontation or arguments, even if they were necessary sometimes. But she couldn't sit there all day, so eventually she stood up and walked over to Iori's desk. "Hey, Iori-chan, can I talk to you about something? In private?"
"Hm?" Iori looked up in the middle of putting her pencil case away. "That's fine—I think Usami had something she had to do anyway. Right, Usami-chan?" she added, glancing over at Tomi as the other girl approached from the other side of the desk.
"Huh?" Tomi looked back in forth between them, then straightened like she suddenly remembered something. She was probably making it up, but it was a good effort. "Oh, yeah, I'm supposed to take some stuff to the nurse's office. I'll meet you guys at the gate?"
"Sure!" Iori waved as Tomi ran off, then turned back to Miwako. "We could go to that little courtyard by the passageway? There aren't usually a lot of people there this time of day."
"That sounds good."
They were both quiet on the walk over—Miwako was trying to practice what she was going to say in her head, and Iori seemed to pick up on the mood and let her be. She did break the silence when they finally arrived, though. "So what did you want to talk about?"
"Um." Miwako still wasn't quite sure how to begin. This was why she didn't like doing this kind of thing; she was always so anxious about starting a conversation when she thought it might go badly. "So earlier, during lunch. You and Usami-chan were talking to Gouto-senpai."
"Were..." Miwako took a deep breath. "Were you talking about me?"
"Oh." A strange expression passed over Iori's face, like she was both nervous and relieved at the same time. But it disappeared again before Miwako could figure out how to interpret it. "You heard us?"
"A little bit at the end." She tried not to let her voice sound too upset. "You told them to stop talking when you saw me."
It must not have worked that well, because Iori winced. "Right. Sorry, it wasn't anything bad, we were just..." She trailed off and tilted her head to the side as she considered her next words carefully. Which was what Miwako had wanted, but somehow even waiting for a few seconds felt like an eternity right then.
"We actually have a surprise for you," Iori finally said, "and we've been talking about the best way to bring it up."
Miwako blinked. She wasn't sure what she'd expected, but it definitely wasn't that. "But my birthday isn't until next month," she said almost automatically, feeling silly even as the words came out.
"I know. It's a good surprise—or at least we hope it is—but it's not really the birthday kind." Iori's brow crinkled, and she twisted and untwisted the strap of her bag. Miwako wasn't expecting her to be nervous too, but it actually made her feel a little better to know she wasn't the only one.
"It'll probably be a little weird at first," Iori continued. "That's why we've been talking about it, because we didn't want to just throw you in all at once." She smiled a bit sheepishly. "I promise Nenji wasn't trying to be rude the other day, at the station, he said he just completely forgot everything he was going to say."
"Oh." Well, Miwako could understand that. Especially right now—she was starting to feel a bit like a deflating balloon, getting worked up over something that was apparently...good? Or at least nothing as horrible as she'd been afraid of. "Nenji-kun's involved too?"
"Yeah. We all are, we just thought you should hear about it from a friend." Iori sighed. "But we haven't been doing a very good job. I'm really sorry if we made you worried or upset, that wasn't what we were trying to do at all."
"It's okay." Miwako smiled at her, and she didn't have to pretend this time. She really did appreciate it. "I mean, I was a little worried that I'd done something wrong, or that something bad had happened, so I'm just glad it's not that."
"No!" Iori shook her head forcefully enough that her hair bounced around her face. "Definitely not. You haven't done anything wrong, Miwa-chan, you're wonderful."
"O-Oh." Miwako could feel her cheeks turning pink. She wasn't used to such straightforward compliments, and she was a bit startled by how sure of herself Iori sounded when she said it, like it was an undeniable fact and not just her opinion. "Thank you, Iori-chan, I think you're wonderful too."
Iori was turning pink now as well, so Miwako pressed on before either of them started to feel too awkward. This was going so much better than she'd expected, so she wanted to keep it that way. "And whatever the surprise is, I'm sure I'll like it if you think it's good. I trust you."
That made Iori smile back at her. "I'm glad to hear that. —Oh!" Her face lit up like she'd just had a thought, and not in the made-up way Tomi had done earlier. "So I know it's sudden, but since the original plan obviously wasn't working, if you want we could just...show you the surprise now? That might be easier at this point."
"Oh, um, sure?" Miwako wasn't sure if she was ready for a big surprise after all the emotional ups and downs of the day, but she thought Iori had a point about it being simpler. And she was certainly curious what all this build-up was leading to. "Do we have time? Do we have to go somewhere?"
"We have plenty of time, and we don't have to go anywhere exactly, but I have to get Usami first so we can get everything ready." Iori was starting to look excited now. "Can you wait here a few minutes? It shouldn't take too long."
"That's fine, I can wait. It would be nice to do whatever it is all together."
"Yeah, I think so too." Iori started to turn away, then stopped, and instead reached forward to take Miwako's hands in hers. "So, you'll probably see some weird things happen while you're waiting, but you don't need to worry about it, okay? I promise everything will be fine, and it'll only be a few minutes. Usami-chan and I checked everything over and over again to make sure it was safe, because we'd never want to let anything happen to you."
Safe? Well now she was a little bit worried, but only a little bit. It really was reassuring to know her friends were looking out for her, even when they did strange things like this.
Miwako squeezed Iori's hands and smiled again. "I understand. I'm sure it'll all be fine."
"Okay, good. Let me just go get Usami, then." She turned away for real this time, and trotted off in the direction of the science room.
Wait, the science room? Hadn't Tomi gone to the nurse's office? Well, that hadn't really been true, though, so probably she went somewhere else. But why the science room? Miwako always thought it was a bit creepy in there.
It felt a little strange waiting around by herself, and there weren't any benches or anything in this area where she could sit down. But she didn't want to wander too far and make it hard for Iori to find her when she came back with Tomi, so she'd just have to wait. She distracted herself thinking about what kind of snacks they should get next week—they hadn't gotten yakitori in a while, so they should do that, but there was also a new mochi shop that had opened recently. They hadn't tried it yet, but they'd passed by last week, and there had been a really tasty-looking blueberries and cream flavor in the window...
She heard a loud sound, like a burst of static, and then suddenly everything went dark.
At first she wondered if she'd fainted, but surely if that had happened she wouldn't have been able to wonder about it. It was more like the electricity had gone out, even though she was outside. She was still outside, wasn't she? She couldn't just magically appear somewhere else, but it shouldn't be this dark outside in the middle of the afternoon, either. And it had been bright and sunny just a few seconds ago!
She squinted toward the building, looking for a trace of light. There was something up under the roof of the walkway, or at least what she thought was the roof of the walkway. It was long and thin, like a big crack in the wood, and it was glowing with a faint light. She wanted to walk toward it so she could see what was going on, but her legs had started to feel funny when it got dark, and she didn't want to trip and fall.
After another minute the crack widened, shining more light in her direction, and a round shadow appeared in the middle of it. "Miwako? Can you hear me?"
Miwako squinted again. The shadow was a face, but the light was coming from behind whoever it was, so she couldn't make out their features well. That voice, though... "Usami-chan?"
She could practically hear Tomi grin. "Yep, it's me! Everything looks good from here, but you might want to wait a bit still before you come out. It's pretty bright out here."
"Out?" It did kind of feel like she was inside something, actually. Maybe that was why her legs felt strange; there seemed to be something cool pressed against them. What was that?
"Yeah, out. Here, let me open this up more so you can see." Tomi pushed on something above her head, and more light poured in, revealing some kind of medical-looking room behind her.
Miwako probably should have asked why there was a medical office floating above the roof, but the light also gave her a better look at Tomi's face better, and she was suddenly distracted. "Usami-chan? When did you have time to cut your hair?"
"Huh? I thought Iori told you—"
"Miwa-chan!" Another shadowy figure ran into view, and they didn't really look like Iori but they sure sounded like her. Maybe the weird light was just distorting things. "Miwa-chan, are you there? Did it work?"
"Well, I don't really know what was supposed to happen, but I'm here, so I guess it worked?" There was enough light now that she could look down at herself and whatever she was in, and notice— "Um, Iori-chan, where did my clothes go?"
"It's okay, we have some more for you out here."
"That's good, but what—"
A third voice called out from farther away, probably the other side of the room. She didn't recognize this one, but it was deeper and distinctly more masculine. "Everything okay?"
"It's fine, Ei! We've got it!" Iori turned her head, letting Miwako see that she'd also somehow managed to completely change her hair in the last five minutes. The braid was cute, though.
"Wait, Ei? Wasn't that the name of the boy you liked?" Miwako gasped. "Iori-chan, did you finally ask him out properly? And you didn't tell me?" Another, even worse thought occurred to her. "Oh no, I can't meet him like this! I'm not decent!"
Tomi had started to laugh before she even finished, and Iori was giggling too now. It was a wonderful sound, one Miwako realized she'd been missing for the last few days. And it was reassuringly normal, even if nothing else seemed to be. Iori definitely had some explaining to do.
"Don't worry, he's leaving for now. So it's safe to come out." Iori leaned forward and extended a hand to help her up. "Welcome to New Earth, Miwa-chan."