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"Sakura-tan will always be the cutest member in HKT after Murashige."

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   Sakura had not felt this nervous in her entire life.

  “Maybe I have slipped through the cracks, maybe I would not rank this year." This thought passed through her mind fleetingly at first, but as the names of the different members were being called one by one, it started to gnaw at her more and more.

~~~

  62nd position in the preliminary results.

 This worried Sakura, for it was a far cry from her rank last year, where she was 47th.

  "It’s okay, I’ll probably make it in anyway," she tried convincing herself, but there was still this part of her which doubted it.

  The night before the announcement of the results, she even casually asked Anna, "Do you think I will rank this year?”

  “Don’t worry! Sakura-tan will definitely rank, and I’m certain you’ll rank even higher than last year!” Anna smiled reassuringly.

  The day passed by in a flash, and before she knew it, they were all seated, apprehensively waiting for the top 64 girls to be called.

  The Future Girls’ names were called. Among them were Meru and Mio, the two kenkyuusei in HKT who were becoming increasingly popular. (Mio started crying, as expected.) However, Sakura’s name was nowhere to be heard.

  Anna, who was sitting next to her, squeezed her hand and gave her an assuring nod.

  “If I didn’t get into the Future Girls, maybe I would be in the Next Girls after all," Sakura thought, her confidence level still relatively high.

  The names of the Next Girls were then announced. Ai-chan and Haruppi were called, and she was happy for them. However, Sakura’s name was still nowhere to be heard. Her confidence level dropped bit by bit as the girls stood up one by one.

  She was neither in the Future nor Next Girls. Perhaps she didn’t make it after all…

~~~

  Sakura’s tense and worried expression was evident to Anna, who was observing her quietly time to time. Anna could clearly see the expression on Sakura’s face change from confidence to worry and finally to dejection by the time all the Next Girls made their way up. As her best friend, Anna wanted to comfort her, but she knew she was not good at expressing herself.

  Placing her hand lightly on Sakura’s, she looked into her eyes and said in her most encouraging voice, "It’s okay if you are unlucky this year, because no matter what, Sakura-tan will always be the cutest member in HKT after Murashige.”

  Anna’s “words of encouragement” lifted Sakura’s spirits a little, and she smiled and nodded slightly, but her heart was filled with worry.

  It was time for the Under Girls to be announced. Sakura rubbed her sweaty palms together and closed her eyes, in anticipation of the next few moments which would decide her fate.

  32nd. 31st. 30th. 29th. All were announced, but her name was not among them.

  Her heart was palpitating and her breathing quickened.

  “28th position…NMB48 Team M, Yamada Nana.”

  Her stomach churned, and she felt a lump forming in her throat.

  “27 postition…SKE48 Team KII, Furukawa Airi.”

  Tears started forming in her eyes, and she lowered her head, cupping her face, bracing herself for disappointment.

  “26th postition, 25 760 votes. HKT48…”

  Sakura sat up and stiffened in shock. Could this be…?

  “…Team H…”

  She held her breath.

  “…Miyawaki Sakura.”

  The stadium erupted with cheers, the loudest coming from the HKT48 members sitting around her. At that moment, she felt that as if huge burden in her heart was lifted off. Her mind was in a daze.

  “Yatta! You did it, Sakura!”

  Beside her, Anna was clapping excitedly, with nothing but pure joy and satisfaction written on her face, as if she was the one who had ranked.

  As Sakura stood up and made it to the stage, her hands still cupping her face, she broke into sobs - sobs of relief and happiness.

  After making her speech, she made her way with the other Under Girls to her seat - the seat meant for the girl who ranked 26th position in the AKB48 Senbatsu Elections, who was none other than her.

  Sitting in her new seat, Sakura’s emotions started to settle. It was then when it dawned upon her that Anna, who was quietly supporting her (okay, not exactly quietly, but she was less noisy than usual), did not make it into the top 64 this year.

  She then remembered, amidst all her tumultuous feelings, seeing at the corner of her eye how Anna’s looked so optimistic and hopeful before the Future Girls were announced, and the sheer disappointment which she tried her best to hide (but failed) by the time the announcers were halfway through the Next Girls.

  “Anna must be feeling really sad right now,” she thought to herself. At that moment, Sakura felt a tinge of regret and even guilt - she had jumped 21 places from last year while Anna didn’t even manage to rank, yet Anna was encouraging her the whole time, even feeling overjoyed for her when her name was announced.

  Subconsciously, while in her seat, Sakura squinted as she looked for Anna across the stadium, among the HKT members. She finally saw Anna, who was smiling brightly, without a hint of sadness and dejection.

  At that moment, their eyes seemed to meet. Sakura gave a small wave, and Anna smiled even more brightly and waved back.

  "It’s okay if you are unlucky this year, because no matter what, Sakura-tan will always be the cutest member in HKT after Murashige.“