Rei doesn’t wait to be acknowledged after knocking on the theater club’s door and simply pushes it open. Wataru sits cross-legged on their couch with a pen and script on their lap, their gaze now fixed on Rei in the doorway.
“I hoped I’d find you here,” Rei says, once their gazes have met.
“Ah, but where else would I be, if not here? After all, the time after one play is nothing but the preparation for the next one for an actor.” Wataru’s expression softens, even if an edge remains in their voice. They haven’t spoken much, in the few days since the new school year, and Rei knows he’s changed.
All Eccentrics, at least all three of them that remain, have changed since last year. For Wataru, who wears their body like a mask and carries themself like an actor on a stage at all times, it simply looks like they’ve put on a different costume. Despite this, Rei can’t help but miss the purple ends of Wataru’s long hair. The shade it has now is more subtle, and, most likely, matches fine’s uniforms much better.
Wataru sets aside the script and gets up from where they’d been sitting. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, dear Rei?”
Rei takes a deep breath. They both know why he’s here, but Wataru is nothing if not dedicated to reading the lines they believe are in front of them. “I heard you joined fine.”
“Does it surprise you to hear that? They are the best unit of Yumenosaki, you know, I’m sure they would appreciate the talent of one such as me, especially now, after most of their members left.”
“It remains Eichi Tenshouin’s fine,” Rei points out. His argument is reasonable, or so he hopes. “The other members were never really important, were they?”
“And that is precisely why I must join them!” Wataru grins, almost manically, definitely looking… excited, in a way Rei has come to recognize as potentially dangerous. “Our Majesty, the Student Council President, he is… interesting. You know as well as I do, few people are.”
Rei squints. “What are you planning?”
“Me? The theater club’s first play, would you like to see what I—“
“No, Wataru, what are you planning to do with fine.”
“Most idol units sing and dance, no?”
“What are you planning to do with Tenshouin, then.” Rei is, more than anything, exhausted, and can’t help his own tiredness from creeping into his voice. He doesn’t want to be, not when it comes to his friends, but… he’d been stretched thin for a long time.
Wataru, luckily, seems to find it in themself to have mercy with the old man in front of them. “What any good actor should strive to do, on stage with one of the leading roles. I told you, he is an… interesting one, isn’t he?” They sigh, dreamily. “What will he do, now that his usurpation is complete and the war is won? fine was meant to disband, after the devils and monsters were defeated, yet they remained here.”
“And now one of the devils they thought they’d defeated has joined their ranks.”
“Ah, but I am no simple devil, am I? The Emperor would have little use for a monster in his court. I will be playing the role of a loyal jester in this act.”
Rei pauses, giving this concept a thought. He has no doubts that Wataru will be able to sell this act, at least. “You believe Tenshouin will go along with this?”
“I know he will,” Wataru corrects him. “He admires us, you know.”
Rei does know, so he remains silent for a while. “I still can’t say I understand your decision fully.”
“You could always call it my irreverent youthfulness, old man.” They wink.
“I remember my own irreverent youthfulness, it was nothing like this.” With the exception of DEADMANZ, perhaps, considering the position Keito now holds in Yumenosaki’s hierarchy.
“We are different people; such is the beauty of humanity! Ah, for two to go through the same struggle, but still decide to make different decisions at the end, isn’t it nothing short of Amazing⭐?”
A sigh. “I suppose it is. You will stay safe, won’t you?”
“Only a poor magician relies on tricks that endanger him and others. I endeavor to be nothing but the best.”
“However,” Oh no. “His Majesty the Emperor has offered me free use of a hot air balloon.” They almost have the good sense to sound sheepish. Almost. Mostly, Wataru sounds excited.
“Perhaps as compensation for the troubles he’s put me through?”
“He’s letting you fly a hot air balloon?”
“He offered to buy me an entire fleet of them, I had to negotiate down from there. I have no use for more than one blimp. Amazing alone is perhaps not enough to express my thoughts on this turn of events!”
Something hangs unspoken in the air between Rei and Wataru for a moment. Rei doesn’t know Tenshouin, not really, they’ve barely spoken with each other after all, but he does believe he understands at least some things about him. More now, most likely. He sighs again, and turns to head for the door. “Do this old man a favor and stay as safe as you can, then. My heart may not take it otherwise.”
The smile that had been on Wataru’s face until now shrinks just a little bit as they follow Rei. “You’re not old, Rei,” they say, closer than he’d expected, and Rei briefly turns around to look at them, their expression much closer and much more earnest than he’d expected.
“I’m not?” The year he has on the rest of the third year feels like an inconceivably large gulf on most days.
Wataru shakes their head. “You’re tired. So rest, and be assured that I, and the rest of Yumenosaki, won’t disappear without your constant vigilance.” They grin at him. “After all, we are now under the protection of His Majesty, the Emperor, Tenshouin Eichi.”
Eichi has been seeing Wataru Hibiki. Sometimes he drops from the ceiling once Eichi wakes up, a few times he’s come crawling in through his hospital window, but, more often than not, he is already waiting for Eichi to wake up. It’s only natural—Eichi has been spending more time asleep than awake, his latest bout of fevers refusing to go down for more than a few hours at a time.
He’d expected this to happen, the long hospital stay after his conquest of Yumenosaki. Eichi knows his own body and its limitations, despite everyone’s insistence to the opposite, and he’s well aware that he’d been pushing himself far beyond them to defeat the Oddballs.
This time, Hibiki is lounging in one of the two hospital chairs, taking notes in a wad of papers (most likely another script), and twirling the purple tip of his braid around his fingers. When he notices Eichi move, he rises to his feet and moves towards the bed.
“Your Majesty!” Wataru does an elaborate European-style bow, glancing up at Eichi with a twinkle in his eye. The black feathers still in his hair reflect the setting sun with an iridescent shine. When he straightens his back again, his face is bloody, with more blood on his black uniform, and Eichi finds himself unable to speak as the Oddball approaches his bed.
Most of Wataru’s appearances in Eichi’s room are, of course, nightmares. He tries not to read too much into it—dream interpretation is in the realm of psychoanalysis, which is well-documented to have little basis in reality, so interpreting anything into his dreams would, of course, be futile, and little more than self-flagellation. After all, the moment his brain decides he needs to relive more often than any other is that last moment from his final live; the sight of Wataru covered in the blood that Eichi had coughed onto him. Interpreting that dream would mean thinking about it more than he already does, so Eichi considers himself very lucky to not be a believer in psychoanalysis.
“Dreams are just the brain processing the events of the day,” he tells Keito on the phone. They’ve had this conversation before, at least three times this week (maybe four, the days have been difficult to keep track of), and definitely once before during this phone call. Eichi hates knowing this, hates how the fevers have made his brain feel more like a thick fluid than anything functional.
On the other end of the line, Keito doesn’t seem to mind much. Probably because he’s doing paperwork while he talks to Eichi. “Right, so these dreams you’ve had of Hibiki–”
“I’m still mortified Keito, and so little happens during the day, of course the same events replay in my head over and over again.” A smile creeps into his voice. “If you are jealous, no need to worry, your lecture from my last drive to the hospital and the inanities of Yumenosaki’s paperwork feature prominently as well.”
“How reassuring.” Keito’s eye roll is audible through the line as well. Or, at least Eichi can picture it easily enough that it may as well be. “You know this isn’t why I called to ask if you’d seen Hibiki recently.”
Eichi hums in response. Yes, he’s well aware. “I assume you were approached by him?”
“His paperwork was in order, was it not?”
“It was delivered by a carrier pigeon, the paper was perfumed and his ink was purple–”
“But the contents, those were…”
On the other end of the line, Keito sighs. “I wanted to ask if your signature at the bottom of it was forged, but judging by your reaction–”
“We need someone like Hibiki in fine, if fine is to continue existing.” Eichi says, very reasonably. He’d half-prepared a speech to convince Keito, but the exact words have long since drowned in what feels more like boiling syrup than a brain.
Keito just sighs. “Yumenosaki has many talented young idols who don’t have a very good reason to have an extremely personal grudge against you, Eichi.”
“I know that, but–” Eichi wracks his brain for an argument. “A younger student would be a wildcard. We wouldn’t know what to expect.”
The silence from Keito on the other end is long enough for Eichi to realize just how ridiculous what he’d just said was. “I mean, in terms of skill. We’re already taking in two new students, Himemiyaand Fushimi, neither of whom I’ve been able to watch perform live. I know what Hibiki’s capabilities are.”
Keito sighs again. “You’re intimately familiar, I remember, you see him in your dreams.”
“If you’re jealous, bring me flowers sometimes. You treat me so lovelessly, of course my heart wanders.”
Keito clears his throat just as Eichi stops to let his friend interject. They found their rhythm for these calls years ago. “There’s nothing I can do to stop you from taking Hibiki into your unit, you know that.”
Eichi has to pause, genuinely shocked. “I didn’t expect you to give in so quickly.”
Keito sighs, and there’s the sound of paper shuffling. Keito: Working while on the phone with Eichi, confirmed. “I’m not giving in,” he lies. “I just know I can’t tell you what to do with your own unit.”
“That’s never--” stopped him before.
“What I can do,” Keito’s voice dips into lecture mode. “Is warn you. You… no, we, have dedicated the past year to tearing down both Hibiki and his closest friends. I know you’re naïve sometimes—“
“Am not,” Eichi protests in the pause Keito leaves for him to do just that.
“But that doesn’t mean you have to abandon strategic thinking entirely.”
“But you’re not going to stop me from letting him join fine?”
Keito sighs again, more dramatically this time. “No, Eichi, I’m not going to do that. I am going to keep an eye on Hibiki for you, because—and don’t act like you have no idea what I’m talking about—I know this is a dream come true for you.”
Eichi doesn’t pout, and he doesn’t protest either, because, regrettably, Keito does have a point.
“And they do say to keep your enemies close.”
“Keito, are you planning to cheat on me?” Eichi puts on his best whine. Not hard, since he’s had much to whine about and few to whine to in the past weeks.
“Not with Hibiki.”
“So there is another, I should have known!”
More shuffling of paper. “Yes, his name is ‘the extra paperwork I have to do while the President is in the hospital’. We can share, once you’re out of the hospital.”
Eichi hums. If he laughs, it’ll irritate his throat, which will likely lead to a coughing fit, which will make Keito very concerned for his health. Instead, he yawns, which is almost as bad.
“You should rest,” Keito says, as expected.
Eichi lets out his best forlorn sigh in protest. He knows that he’s likely going to be asleep again soon, but that means more nightmares and waking up alone, without even Keito’s voice through the phone to keep him company.
“Just call me when you wake up, I’ll likely be still awake.” Keito, of course, knows exactly why Eichi is complaining.
“What if you’re not awake?”
“Then you’ll wake me up and talk to me about what your last dream of Hibiki was anyways.”
“You’re always so mean to me.”
“But not wrong. Good night, Eichi.”
Eichi is asleep not long after. He does dream of Hibiki.
“Hold still, would you?” Shu pokes the back of a needle into Wataru’s side impatiently, annoyance creeping into her voice. She usually enjoys working with the theater club and their demands, especially the more elaborate costume Wataru asks for, but the actual fitting process frequently turns into an ordeal in itself.
Wataru dodges the needle, and, to her credit, stops fidgeting and playing with the fabric while she thinks Shu isn’t looking. “Is this process even necessary? You have my measurements; they haven’t changed since last year.”
“If you want to look simply ‘good’, then I am sure an unfitted costume will suffice, but I will not be satisfied unless my work looks perfect.” She tugs one of the sleeves into shape where Wataru’s movements have loosened it. “And despite your insistence to the contrary, you are still growing, and chose to dye your hair a different color this year.” Shu pokes the bun Wataru’s hair has been tied up into as if to emphasize her point. “If you need help adjusting your old costumes as well, we can go through those next.”
Wataru frowns. “I thought Valkyrie kept you busy with work.”
“Pah! Not too busy to let out and resew some parts. I might even let Kagehira do some of it, if the work is simple enough; consider it a favor for an old friend.”
Wataru nods, slowly, only to be poked again, this time by Shu’s finger.
Thus mollified in French, Shu continues her work. “The continued existence of the theater club is important, as idols we need to hone our respective artistic talents as much as we can, after all, it wouldn’t serve us in any way to become stuck in our ways focusing on nothing but our unit activities.” Heavy-handed as her point may be, Shu is speaking from conviction, not just about Wataru spending less time with her contemptible unit, but also about the artistic merits of theater. “If we, as idols, show the world we can be much more than just dancing fools on a stage—“
“Ah, but I am committed to my role as a dancing fool.”
Shu tuts and pokes her fingernail into Wataru’s side again, making her squeak in surprise. “Non! You are much more than a fool, dancing or no, do not let the mask you wear deceive yourself as well as it deceives others. Or the stupid songs they have you perform.”
Wataru grins, but, to her credit, doesn’t move beyond that. “His Majesty likes ‘Rainbow Circus’.”
Shu is still unconvinced that the song was anything but a test by Wataru to see just how willing Tenshouin would be to go along with her wishes. It suits her, but the entire Circus performance had seemed like a concept tailored for Wataru to show off her talents, not something particularly suited to fine’s usual milquetoast concepts. “He would,” Shu mutters under her breath.
She gets silence in response, which Shu considers a win. “Now lift your arms, I have to see how the fabric stretches.”
The sun has warmed the water of the fountain considerably, but to Kanata it’s never been about the temperature of the water and more about the sensation of it, the gentle waves and ripples and the way sound dulls with his ears submerged.
His reverie is disturbed by a loud splash at his side, the tell-tale sign of someone else having entered the water. Mildly curious, Kanata peaks out of the corner of one eye. Long legs are stretched from inside the fountain onto the edge, crossed at the ankles. Flip-flops, bright shorts and an even brighter shirt make the identity of the person next to him obvious.
“Wataru~”, keeping his eyes still mostly closed, Kanata floats (to the best of his ability, the fountain is quite shallow) over to his friend. “What are you doing here? It is summer.”
“I could ask you the same.” The sound of idle fingers drumming a rhythm into the water’s surface.
“We had unit practice, I got very sweaty…” So he’d decided to take a dip. Sweat feels wrong. “Your turn.” Kanata moves an arm to make a larger wave in Wataru’s direction.
Wataru sighs. “Our tragic defeat at the hands of the rebellious TrickStar means I’ve had to revise some of the theater club’s plans for the time being.” The waves coming from Wataru’s end of the pool are growing larger, a consequence of equally grand gestures. “Paperwork has to be filled out again, scripts have to be rewritten, all of it has to be submitted to the Student Council. Busy me~”
Kanata thinks for a moment. “But it’s summer vacation now.”
“That it is~. I, my dearest Kanata, have discovered that submitting paperwork is a lot easier when my fated rival, Mr Right Hand of the Emperor, is not within the student council room to watch my every move! Many things can be turned into a performance for others, but paperwork? It is dreadfully boring, and in the best interest of everyone for me to do it when there are no watchful eyes on me, don’t you agree?”
“Wataru,” Kanata makes a few waves towards Wataru. “Did you break into the student council room?”
“What a dreadful accusation you throw towards me, my dear friend!” Wataru gasps, offended. There’s some movement, then a metallic jingle and a dripping shadow over Kanata, who opens his eyes to find himself surrounded by wet, blue hair, looking at a large keyring. Wataru winks. “I asked his Majesty for the keys, of course.”
“He gave them to you?”
“I should have known I would find nothing of interest in the student council’s papers when he did.” Wataru sighs and moves away again, probably putting away the keys, before sinking back into the water, now sitting upright and facing Kanata. “There was a large collection of manga, both hidden and not, but I fear all the juicy gossip may be hidden elsewhere.”
“But you are on their side now?”
“Ah, but are the sides so complicated? I stand next to his Majesty on stage, but last year my role was a different one. I had hoped to be able to find the script for last year's performance, us Eccentrics had a starring role in it after all, but no such luck.” Wataru sighs, dramatically. “It was not the best script, and performing without ever seeing the full story, well, it proved a challenge! I am still not sure what role I played in it.”
Kanata hums, thoughtful. “They tried to turn us into villains,” he decides, eventually. “Like a monster in a hero show.”
Wataru nods. “But not all the monsters were defeated by the heroes. Valkyrie fell victim to a tragic accident, just as the War began, after all. A lucky coincidence for our student council, I’m certain.”
“Do you believe this?” None of the Oddballs do, Kanata had been certain of this.
Wataru makes a thoughtful sound, clearly enjoying this string of exposition. Despite the colorful ensemble of summer clothes, Wataru is the picture of a detective putting together the clues from a crime scene. “With the start of the Right Hand’s time within the Student Council, most activities within Yumenosaki’s idol course were recorded much more meticulously, you see, every idol activity has paperwork required to have it approved, and will require a write-up afterwards. Of course, the battle of Valkyrie and fine has all the required paperwork submitted, it even makes note of the events themselves, the music cutting out, Valkyrie’s attempt to continue performing, all of it.” Wataru makes a dramatic pause, looking directly at Kanata. “Now, a key part of investigations is, of course, not to look for what is there, but for what is missing. What part, my dear friend, do you believe was missing from this report?”
Kanata impatiently shoves a wave towards Wataru. He’s not really interested in playing his counterpart in this specific performance. It’s too hot to think. “You are the one who knows, tell me.”
Wataru grins and claps onto the water surface with one hand. “Were I set on creating a new order within Yumenosaki through the power of idol performances, would I not make certain that, if an accident as severe as that one, happened in the middle of a DreamFes, that it would never happen again? I would not simply say ‘the music cut out, too bad, off goes Valkyrie in comes fine, hopefully nothing will happen to them but who can say, certainly not us, the people in charge of DreamFes!’”
Kanata is silent for a long moment. “But we knew this,” he says eventually.
Wataru sighs. “We did. But I couldn’t help but wonder; if it was truly an act of war, or simply a fortunate misfortune. Shu has always believed in the Emperor’s cruelty towards her, but…”, Wataru trails off, sounding much more thoughtful than before. “I did resolve to watch him.”
“Is that what you are doing?”
“It’d be hard for me not to watch him, as close as we have been to one another, wouldn’t you agree?” Wataru’s grin is radiant. “Anyways, would you help me set up some pranks in the Student Council Office?”
Truthfully, the last person Natsume had expected to find in his secret room had been Wataru, crumpled onto the table, hair fanning out to all sides, face buried in his arms. He’s… uncharacteristically still.
“Are you DEAD?” Natsume pokes him as he moves closer, and the touch seems to jolt Wataru out of whatever trance he’d been in.
“Death will not claim me, Natsume! Even if I fight a thousand battles, I shan’t perish!” He grins at Natsume and something sparks behind his eyes. It’s the kind of electric energy Natsume could once only attribute to magic.
Now, he just sighs as he moves on setting up his own workspace. “What is wrong, WataRU? You don’t come here if everything is alRIGHT.”
There’s a long silence from where Wataru is sitting, a bad sign in itself. “I simply wanted a peaceful moment to consider my future and felt nostalgic for the good times we’ve had here. Nothing more~”
“It seems a bit early to do THAT.” Graduation isn’t for a few more months, after all. Preparations for the SS have only just begun.
“It’s never too early for it, Natsume,” Wataru sighs dramatically. “They don’t tell you this until it is too late, so heed my warning: By the start of your Third Year you should know what you want to do after graduation, so you know what to aim for during your Third Year so you can sign the correct papers on what to do for the rest of your life immediately after graduation!” He’s throwing his arms around dramatically before crumpling once more into a pile of blue hair and limbs spread over the table.
“Aren’t you going to become an acTOR?” Natsume asks, now genuinely puzzled. To him, Wataru’s path had always seemed quite obvious: After graduation he would simply step onto stage as a professional actor, perhaps do Western-Style Musicals to complement his other talents.
Wataru stares at him for a moment, like Natsume just grew an additional head. “Natsume, dear, I am in Yumenosaki to become an idol.”
Natsume nods. “You know many idols also act, WataRU, even if it is usually on televiSION.”
Wataru lets out another sigh, and Natsume feels like he’s missing a vital piece of their conversation, but he’s not sure if Wataru is leaving it out on purpose or if he’s just incapable of communicating it. “You could join a different agency so you can leave fiNE?”, Natsume suggests. “Or go soLO. Did Tenshouin make you sign a contract like he did for TsumuGI?”
“That he did,” Wataru sighs. “I’ve committed myself to fine for this year, what happens after graduation is still… well, we shall see what His Majesty does, won’t we?” Wataru rises to his feet, almost like this conversation has led to whatever emotional torment he’d been in has resolved in a matter of seconds.
“We WILL.” Natsume isn’t happy about it, but the power Tenshouin holds over all of them through his family’s stake in the industry is undeniable.
“I’ll let you get to your experiments then.” Wataru nods towards Natsume. “Thank you for your aid in my hour of need.” He bows, deeply, with a flourish of the arm and is just as quickly out of the room.