I thought something would change.
Middle school was just around the corner, and the five of us all knew this was our last school festival here, our last chance at the singing competition. There we were, the Diamond Star Princesses, everyone with a side ponytail and glittery scrunchie. Ayane in particular had insisted that we match and, ever organized, procured scrunchies matching our Gems of Transformation. My knees shook as we walked on stage, and I was sure I'd forget the words.
"Remember, you're the queen today," my best friend said, giving me a small nudge. "Emerald Taurus Princess and Pearl Gemini Princess together at the front!"
She pulled me forward toward the microphone, then stepped to my right, standing slightly in front of the other three so that they could watch her dance. Kotori in particular had insisted on being in the back row, claiming that the physical coordination necessary to launch paper bullets with rubber bands had nothing to do with synchronized dancing; Natsuko had to stand next to Kotori; and Ayane was too embarrassed. Tinny music poured out of the speakers, and I relaxed, recognizing the first few notes of Princess Princess' "Diamonds." Before I knew it, I was belting out the lyrics as the others danced, just like we had practiced. Everyone joined in with the harmony at the chorus, my best friend and I leaning into the same microphone:
|ダイアモンドだね AH AH いくつかの場面
AH AH うまく言えないけれど 宝物だよ
あの時感じた AH AH 予感は本物
AH 今 私を動かしてる そんな気持ち
|They're diamonds, ah ah, these various scenes
Ah ah, I can't put it into words well, but they're treasures
That premonition I felt then, ah ah, was real
Ah, that feeling is what's driving me now
We were together, and for once, I was in the spotlight, and I basked in the heat of it as I hit every note.
But nothing changed at all. At least, not for me.
"... and so, we graduate in a year fraught with significance. We have weathered both examination hell and the aftermath of Bloody New Year's Eve, and even as the United Nations recognizes the accomplishments of our Friend and the saviors of humanity, I hope that we, the first graduating class of the twenty-first century, can live up to our Friend's example.
"It has been an honor serving as your student council president. Thank you, everyone, for the precious memories, and may we all work hard and meet again in the future!"
The microphone squawked as Ayane nervously bowed, and then it was over, and she was walking down the stairs off the stage and back to her seat in the gymnasium. She fingered the cheap plastic flower pinned to her uniform shirt as the ceremony wound down, but no tears for her, and no jittering either. She had tested into a better high school than all her friends in middle school, and though she'd made some friends in high school, she knew she'd slowly fall out of touch after graduation. She had a lapful of awards and a place at Tokyo University, her path as straightforward as it had ever been, her sights set on the future, not the past.
When the buzzer rang, Ayane was in the midst of dishes. She rinsed off her hands, then dried them on the dishcloth, hoping it wasn't a salesperson.
"Yes?" she said, pressing a button on the intercom.
"Registered mail for Ms. Kobayashi Ayane," came the reply. Interesting, she thought. Very few people used her maiden name nowadays. She shrugged, then buzzed the mailman up. Her daughters Harumi and Kazumi peeked out of their room, curious as to who the visitor might be.
"Sign here, please," the delivery man droned, holding out a clipboard as she opened the door.
"Mommy has a package! Mommy has a package!" Harumi and Kazumi sang as Ayane squeezed out, her body keeping the two girls inside the house and away from trouble.
She signed quickly, her handwriting an awkward scrawl as the clipboard with the paperwork shook. There was no name for the sender, only an address she didn't recognize, and she hadn't been expecting anything, much less something that had been insured.
The package itself was nondescript, a box about the size of pencil case, and its weight was similarly unexceptional. And yet, despite its anonymity, its sender had been very careful while wrapping it. Each individual crease was sharp and straight, every corner just so, and Ayane would have mistaken it for a gift from Wako, had it not been for the lack of the department store's logo.
"Can I open it? Can I? Can I?" Harumi asked as she and Kazumi jumped up and down. "Is it Mommy's birthday? Is it from Daddy? Open it! Open it!"
Ayane handed the package over to Harumi, who tore into it with gusto.
"Noooo! Stupid! You ripped the paper!" Kazumi yelled as she tried to grab the box.
"Who cares? It was boring paper anyway," Harumi retorted. "Fine, you can open the box. It's probably something stupid anyway."
Instead, it was something mystifying, or rather, several somethings. Nestled in crinkled newspaper was a sparkly blue gel pen with a silver ring clipped to its cap. Ayane slid the ring off, confused by how heavy and cold it was. She had expected a cheap trinket, but the ring gleamed like the platinum wedding band around her finger. And, even stranger, it was set with what looked like a small but high-quality sapphire.
There was something about the pen encircled by the ring, something that reminded her of summer days trying to keep her red bean popsicle from dripping over the manga she was reading, of lurking in the air-conditioned apartment and spying on the adults for reasons she had long since forgotten.
She emptied the box, hoping to find something under the newspaper, and as she examined the address again, she heard Kazumi say, "Nee-chan, look! It's manga!"
Ayane smoothed out the sheet and wondered how she could have missed the cheap colored ink that was already staining her fingertips. It was nothing she recognized, but as she turned it over, she saw the message. It had been printed and cut out and taped over a speech bubble; as with the package, there were no identifying features.
It read: "Remember? Let's meet at the Expo!"
The five of them found the rings in the aisle between the potato chips and the magazines, nestled with the toothbrushes and bobby pins. The fluorescent lights and the mosquitoes hummed as Ayane carefully took down all the rings and sorted them by color, separating the gold and silver into different piles.
"These are perfect," she concluded, shoving the pile of silver rings forward. "February, May, July, and September."
Natsuko frowned. "That's no good," she said. "Five senshi means we should have five different rings." She had been the one to come up with most of the details of their newest game since Megumi, whose idea it had been, had been more excited about vanquishing armies of darkness. Natsuko's brow furrowed. "Maybe birth stones weren't a good idea..."
Ayane, to her own surprise, protested. "But they're perfect!" she repeated. She had been unenthusiastic as Megumi had waxed on about Love and Friendship and the Power of the Heart of the Universe, but she felt a touch of pride in being the one to find the rings here a few days ago.
Megumi stepped in authoritatively. "We can't both have emerald. Takako, you be June instead."
"But I don't want to be June!" Takako protested. "It's from my Nakayoshi! Why can't I be emerald?"
"Taurus Senshi is the queen, duh," Natsuko said. "Anyway, Gemini's more June than May. I looked it all up."
"But my birthday's not in June!"
"June is pearl," Natsuko said. "Pearls are my mom's favorite. She says they're special because they're ore-gan-ick. So it's almost more special than all our gems."
Unimpressed by this line of reasoning, Takako glared at Natsuko, who then looked to Kotori for support.
"It's special," Kotori added unconvincingly. She was picking at one of the many band-aids on her legs and looked bored by the focus on gems instead of super powers. "Anyway, I'm not drawing two emerald costumes. That's just stupid."
"There's not even a pearl ring!" Takako argued.
"You can have the white one! Pearls are white," Kotori said, holding up the ring with the clear stone. "An all-white costume would be... um. Would be..."
"How about pink?" Natsuko asked. "My mom said pink ones are harder to find." Takako's expression made it clear that pink was only slightly better than the immense dullness of white.
"Oh come on, Takako," Megumi said. "Please? Green is my favorite color!"
Takako stubbornly remained silent. "Pleeeaaaase?" Megumi whined. "It was my idea..."
Takako sighed loudly, then grudgingly muttered, "Fine. I'll be pink. But no ditching me next time you go to the park or I'm not bringing Nakayoshi any more!"
Megumi had the grace to look guilty. "Okay, okay, sorry. Anyway, without all five senshi's rings, you can't combine forces to get the Power of the Heart of the Universe."
"Ayane! Kobayashi Ayane?" Ayane heard as she stared at the long lines snaking their way to the Expo ticket booth.
Ayane turned, a "yes" on her lips. She narrowed her eyes at the unfamiliar woman. "...Inoue Kotori?"
She had seen Kotori less and less in middle school as she grew more and more preoccupied with the high school entrance exams, and the Kotori in her memories had a chipped front tooth from falling down the stairs and perpetually scabbed-over knees. She wasn't this vision with perfect curls framing an expertly made-up face, a powder blue houndstooth wool coat, and kitten heels.
"Ayane!" Kotori cried again as she clapped her hands. "It is you! I told Natsuko it was, but she didn't believe me and ran off for coffee."
It took Ayane a moment to realize that Kotori sounded odd because she had been referring to herself as "atashi;" in fact, Kotori sounded more feminine than she did, and she couldn't quite reconcile the adult with the girl who had swallowed a tadpole, put burrs on the teacher's seat, and beat up Fujimoto Tarou simply because he said she couldn't.
"No coffee," someone said mournfully, and Ayane grinned. Natsuko, at least, hadn't changed. She had gained centimeters and lost kilograms, but it was the same Natsuko who had Kotori complaining, "I told Mrs. Taniguchi it wasn't urgent, but she said it was time for her to get up anyway, and then Natsuko literally growled at me! Even though I told her I told her mom not to wake her up!"
Ayane surreptitiously eyed Kotori and Natsuko's hands, but the bitterly cold weather meant they were all wearing gloves.
"Er," she began, taking her own hand out of her pocket. "Did you all... get these?" The sapphire ring sparkled as it dangled from the pen she held up, and both Natsuko and Kotori stared at it.
Slowly, Kotori removed the glove from her right hand and revealed what had to be an amethyst on her ring finger. Her hands were soft and smooth, no hint of the calluses from monkey bars or stains from markers and pen. Natsuko nodded resolutely and began to fish around her pockets.
"I thought it had to be fake," she said as she cupped her ring and her pen in her hands. Ayane noticed that Natsuko still bit her nails.
"I don't think so," Ayane asserted. "I had mine checked."
"I left my pen at home," Kotori said. "Should I have brought it?"
"I'm sure it's fine. But do you guys remember why we picked them out?"
Natsuko and Kotori looked at each other. "You forgot?" Natsuko asked sadly.
"Diamond stars unite!" Megumi cried, raising her pen high. She stood in the middle of the four other girls. "Together, we are the..."
"ZODIAC SENSHI!" five voices shouted in unison as five paper-covered pens pointed at the ceiling.
Megumi made a fist, aiming the ring on her finger at the enemy. "Ha! You may have tried to subvert Gemini Senshi, but my Emerald Star Crystal has lifted your evil spell with the power of love and justice!"
"Ruby Flame Swirl!" Natsuko cried as she jumped onto the couch. "Oh no! Iron Maleficus blocked it with his shield of darkness!"
"Don't worry, Leo Senshi! My Amethyst Hurricane Blast can go through his shield! Pow! Pow!" Kotori waved her pen at the Taniguchi's dog Peropero, who briefly lifted his head from the floor before ignoring them again. She aimed a few punches at the air above Peropero, then added a kick, stumbling as it threw her off balance. "Libra Senshi, help! Iron Maleficus landed a hit on me!"
"Sapphire Ocean—Oh no!" Ayane cried as the cap of her pen flew off. "My pen is broken! Kotori, fix it, fix it!"
Aquarius Senshi blasted Iron Maleficus one more time before turning around. "I told you not to pull the cap off. I only had enough tape for the top."
"But Yamamoto-kun keeps borrowing my pencils and losing them," Ayane muttered.
"You ripped the paper! Now I have to draw a new one," said Kotori. "Natchan, did I leave my colored pencils here?"
Ayane watched carefully as Kotori sketched out a new design—"Can you add an ocean wave? That's my power up now, not just water."—and colored it in. Kotori carefully wound the paper around the pen, then taped down every square centimeter of the surface.
Kotori brandished the repaired pen. "There! I taped all over it so you can't break it anymore. And now it won't get as dirty," she said proudly.
"But that was my favo—ow!" Ayane said as she rubbed her arm. Natsuko always bit her nails, the ragged edges making her pinches particularly vicious. "Thank you, it's beautiful!"
Kotori sighed dramatically. "You might as well give me the rest of them so I only have to fix them this once."
"Here." Natsuko slammed a box onto the kitchen table Ayane and Kotori had just cleared off. "Sorry about the mess. Usually only my artist comes over."
Ayane slowly opened the box, Kotori and Natsuko hovering over it. It smelled like mosquito incense and mold, and patches on the side were discolored with substances Ayane didn't want to think about.
"You kept it," Kotori whispered, lifting out the contents.
"Careful. There might be an Exacto knife in there, and I'm not sure if it's got a lid."
"You kept it all..."
The women spread out the contents of the box, carefully separating scribbled notes from colored sketches of sailor uniforms and abstract designs with stars and hearts and flowers, small pieces of screen tone slipping from their fingers to fall onto the somewhat sticky floor. The topmost strata consisted of half-finished manga pages, some toned and inked, others merely the roughest of sketches; paper printed with what looked like timelines and scripts, character profiles and astrological symbols; and colored sketches of a single character's face at different angles, with different expressions. Soon, they began uncovering yellowing paper spotted with rust, the handwriting growing larger and the script reverting to hiragana, the sketches becoming more two-dimensional, the poses more awkward.
"Here," said Natsuko. She took the plastic folder lying at the very bottom and opened it. "When did you start crying at things?"
"Sorry," Kotori sniffled. "Maybe it's all saved up from my stoic days?"
"There were five of us," Ayane said. "The three of us, Megumi, and... what was her name? Sakiko? The one everyone made fun of."
"Well, none of us sent the rings," Natsuko said. "Who do you guys think it is? And why?"
"I guess I just assumed it was Megumi," Ayane said. "Since she always came up with the plans."
"I guess..." Natsuko said. "I just... this doesn't feel right. Why wouldn't she just call us and tell us to go to the Expo or something? You guys seem to be doing okay, but they keep throwing my friends into Umihotaru. And I don't tell my address to a lot of people."
"... and then she becomes the Sailor of Death and Silence and she has this huge glaive thing and these pretty lace-up boots, and even though everyone thought she was evil because she had this seed thing inside of her, she sacrifices herself to save them all and they're all really sorry, so when she becomes a baby again, the cool senshi offer to be her parents!" Takako waved her hands around as she described the latest plot arc.
"Oh, that's so cool..." Megumi said. "That's the best power so far."
"I know, isn't it?" Takako said.
"Oh, oh! Natsuko, you're going to wish you thought of this!" Megumi stood up, striking a dramatic pose. "You know how Gemini Senshi always gets kidnapped by people trying to make her switch sides? This time they capture her because she's the star of the Diamond Star Princesses, so they think she's the queen! And then they brainwash her and she believes she really is the queen—"
Squeals of delight greeted the proposal. "Just like the Black Lady!" Natsuko exclaimed.
"—and then she tells them that the Diamond Star Princesses are really the Zodiac Senshi because she knows all their weak points, and..."
Ayane let the voices wash over her, concentrating instead on her homework.
"Ayane, were you even listening to me?" Megumi poked her, then snatched her notebook away. "I can't believe you're actually doing summer vacation homework before the end of summer."
"Some of us want to get into a good high school, you know," Ayane said. "My mom says I spend too much time reading manga and playing make believe."
"Wait, that's why you keep ditching us?" Kotori asked. "This is the Last Summer! It's weird enough with Takako in a different middle school."
"And she's still coming and even bringing Nakayoshi!" Natsuko patted the stack of magazines beside her. "We nearly died wondering what the Death Busters were going to do next during first semester!"
"It's the Summer of Gemini! The Last Summer," Megumi direly intoned. "I can't believe Puri Puri is breaking up now too. Ugh! The world is coming to an end!"
Ayane glanced once more at the calendar on her wall, heavy black marker crossing out the first few days of vacation. The remainder stretched out, open and white and inviting. "This is such a bad idea," she said under her breath.
Kotori stopped sketching, picking up the volume of Nakayoshi she had been using for reference and threw it at Ayane. "Oh, come on! Do you want to remember a summer doing homework, or hanging out with us?"
"Ow! Always so violent!" Ayane said. "Fine, fine, I want to have fun," she admitted, but Kotori wasn't satisfied. She threw her eraser at Ayane as well.
"Say it!" Kotori insisted. "Say it so we know you mean it!"
"Do I have to?" Ayane asked. Everyone glared at her. She rolled her eyes, then quickly recited, "Watashi makemashita wa. I give in. I lose. You win." She tried to stay grumpy as her friends piled on to hug her and exclaim how much fun they'd have, but she could feel her resolve slip away, and she finally gave in as gracefully as she could.
Unlike the others, Hyeseon had not been surprised when a small white box had been delivered into her hands, not by the contents, nor by who she guessed was the sender. She wished she had been surprised by how it found its way to her, but Friend's network of informants was too good, and she was too visible.
Sorry, Ichihara-san, she thought. At least I can't lead them to you now.
She slid the ring onto her finger, and she shivered. It was an unaccustomed adornment, and she found herself snagging it in her clothes. The obvious quality of it was too sharp a contrast with her otherwise rundown appearance; if she hadn't known before that agitating for civil rights was a thankless job, Ichihara-san would have disabused her of the notion when Ichihara-san had first picked her out of her pre-law classes in university. She fiddled with it all the time, twisting it while in thought, sliding it on and off as she tried to take her mind off the political situation so she could fall asleep.
Finally, she took it off and hung it on a chain, hiding it underneath her shirt. She still played with the chain, but the ring felt less like a shackle when hung around her neck than it had as a band weighing down her finger. She had to track down the others, and she needed to confirm her own suspicions as to who had betrayed them. It took some time, especially since she was working outside of the official channels, but she eventually found everyone save Natsuko. She frowned. If Natsuko and Kotori were still as close as they had been, a note to Kotori would be enough. She sent the messages anonymously, just as the boxes had been; Friend's people might know where she was right now, but she didn't want to give them any more to work with than she had to.
She sat, clutching the ring in trembling fingers. Courage, she told herself, but she couldn't ignore the fear. She had seen too many friends imprisoned or conveniently vanished, too many silenced to think that Friend was someone who could be defeated with a quick joining of hands and a power up. Friend's plans were well laid and frequently deadly, and she would assume no less of his followers.
Emerald Star Blast, she thought. Your move.
May 12, 2001 had been Hyeseon's personal Bloody New Year's Eve, the day her world had shifted on its axis and sent her spiraling into unfamiliar territory. She had found her implacable father sobbing unconsolably, an older woman she had never seen stroking his hair with shaking, wrinkled hands.
"Hello," the stranger had said. "I'm your halmeoni." The word was unfamiliar, and Hyeseon's mouth must have dropped open, because the stranger gave her a look filled with disappointment and love and resignation.
"Seonmyeong-a, you told her nothing?"
Her father had snapped, "Akira, mother."
And Hyeseon stared at the grandmother she had never known, come to announce the death of the grandfather she never would know, the plague claiming him just as it had claimed so many others this year. And in that moment, all the mysteries of her life began falling into place—the estrangement between her maternal grandparents and her parents, her mother's resentment of their lack of money, the lonely New Year days spent with just the three of them, no extended family to celebrate with.
She was no longer who she thought she was. As she learned more and more of the community she didn't know she had had, her willingness to overlook what had previously been unfortunate side effects of the new world order withered and grew into rage and commitment and finally into a way of life. By the time Ichihara-san had recruited her, she was no longer who she thought she was, but she was beginning to discover who she could be.
Ayane was the first to arrive, Natsuko and Kotori joining soon after. They huddled together at the edge of the playground, shivering as the wind stripped away all warmth.
"I can't believe we're doing this," Ayane said. "It's some elaborate prank, it has to be."
"I don't think so," Natsuko said, brushing the snow off of the seat of a swing. "Start me off, Kotori."
Kotori silently obeyed, and for a few minutes, they said nothing as Natsuko swung back and forth, higher and higher, the rhythmic creaking of the wooden frame the only sound. Finally, she stopped pumping her legs, the arc of her path shortening as she slowed, then stilled.
"They took my scripts, you know," she said casually. "Stuff with the coming apocalypse and the collapse of Tokyo Tower, or winged aliens trying to protect Earth, or robot dolls reenacting the battle between Heaven and Hell. My artist told me we were lucky they only took the pages, that other mangaka have just disappeared. So then I wrote high school romances with beautiful cross-dressing boys and dashing tomboy girls who tried to overthrow their bizarre school system, but they took those too."
"You didn't quit, though," Kotori said quietly. "Not like me."
"No. But I should have."
Kotori grabbed Natsuko by the shoulders, losing her balance a little as her high heels sank into the soft ground beneath the swings. "Don't say that! Don't ever say that!"
"I write for the Friendship Party, Kotori! Little 4-koma strips on how great the world has been since Friend defeated the terrorists while they keep confiscating everything I want to read and write!"
"Our Friend," Kotori said softly.
"You must hate me too," she said. "I've wanted to tell you sorry for backing out so many times, but then I figured you never wanted to hear from me again, or that you'd just laugh at me for being everything we said we weren't."
Natsuko smiled wryly. "And I thought you outgrew me so fast. Hey. Stop that. I'm going to think aliens kidnapped the real you if you keep tearing up like that."
"Sorry." Kotori sniffled, then dabbed carefully at her eyes with her sleeve. "This is the problem with make-up."
"If no one else shows up, do you think we can leave soon? I still have to start dinner and pick up the girls from school," Ayane interrupted. "I thought this was a Zodiac Senshi reunion. So where are the other two?"
They all started as a yelp came from the direction of jungle gym, the multiple platforms and compartments blocking their view. "That's how you greet your queen?" said a voice Ayane couldn't place.
"Who?" Ayane asked in disbelief.
"Sorry," the voice replied. "Can someone give me a hand? This thing was a lot bigger back in sixth grade." They watched as a hand emerged from underneath the play structure.
"You were listening to us the entire time?" Kotori's face was horrified. No one moved to help.
"Well," the voice equivocated, "I wanted to see if I could trust you. Because one of the old senshi has been seduced by power, and she's trying to subvert us all. Er, do you mind helping me out of here?"
"You're not that much bigger than you were in sixth grade," Natsuko said as she hoisted the woman out. The woman brushed herself off and looked each one of them over. Kotori nervously looked away from the gaze and straightened her clothing; Natsuko seemed to shrink in on herself, trying to take up as little space as possible; and she, she stared back, even though the life she always thought she wanted seemed to diminish under the woman's scrutiny.
"... Megumi?" Ayane asked. But though she couldn't quite recall Megumi's face, the girl had been the queen of their small group, her likes and dislikes dictating their direction, her ideas their adventures, her smile the reward they had all sought. And when Megumi had gradually stopped calling them up, the five of them had slowly drifted apart, their anchor lost.
She didn't remember Megumi being so tiny, Ayane thought, not the Megumi who loomed so large in her memories.
"Not Megumi," the woman said, and Ayane's brows knit. Was it that other girl, the one who hovered around the edges of her memory like a mournful ghost? The woman continued: "I changed my name in university. I'm Kim Hyeseon now, not Kaneshiro Megumi. It's a long story."
She raised something into the air, and Ayane identified it as a pen only after seeing faded drawings covered with yellowing tape. The woman quirked an eyebrow at the three of them. "We've been called again to defeat the armies of darkness and bring love and justice back to the world. Diamond stars unite?"
"Together..." Natsuko whispered, touching her new pen from the mysterious box to the one outstretched.
Kotori mimicked the motion hesitantly, the three pens forming a pyramid. Her soft voice joined Natsuko's. "...we are the Zodiac Senshi."
"I don't understand," Ayane broke in. "What are we doing?"
"It's Gemini Senshi," Megu—no, Hyeseon—said. "She really has gone to the dark side this time, and we have to stop her from helping Friend take over the world." And then she smiled sadly, the slightly crooked front teeth and the dimples exactly the same as they had been, and Ayane gave in, because it was her, still her, and it didn't matter what name she went by, because they would follow her anywhere and always would.
"Takako," Hyeseon said. "We have to stop Takako."
"Baka-ko, baka-ko! Stupid girl, stupid girl!" the boys chanted as they tossed a cassette tape back and forth.
"Give it back!" the girl in the middle cried, ineffectively lunging at them. The boys laughed as she missed, one of them taunting, "You're too fat and too slow!"
"Fat and slow! Fat and slow!" the others repeated.
"My sister will kill me if I lose it! Please, give it back!"
The boy in current possession of the tape held it and mockingly read, "Princess Princess. Puri Puri. Junk goes in the trash, right, guys?"
"Nooo!" the girl wailed, trying to wrest it from his hands.
"Ugh, it's them again," Ayane muttered. "They're so annoying! And she's so weird!"
Kotori wrinkled her nose in agreement. "I want to kick all of them."
Megumi rolled her eyes and pushed back her chair. She wasn't particularly impressed by the girl in the middle, but she hated those boys. "What are you doing?" Ayane asked.
Megumi shrugged, then stomped over. "Stop being so loud!" she said.
"Oh, it's Megumi, so scary," the boy with the tape said, but no longer as sarcastically as before.
"Give it to me," she said. "I want to borrow it." The girl in the middle finally looked up at this, her mouth round with surprise.
"Borrow this stupid thing?" the boy asked.
"Yes." Megumi kicked him in the shins. The boy yelped, dropping the tape as he clutched his leg to his chest. "I like Princess Princess."
She picked it up and handed it back to the girl. The girl's hands were covered in snot and tears, and she quickly wiped them on her shirt before grabbing the tape.
"You like Puri Puri?" the girl asked.
Megumi looked at her giant glasses perched on chubby cheeks, at the shirt that was a little dirty and half tucked in, at the too-big socks sliding down around her ankles. "Yes," she said hesitantly, greed getting the better of her. Dad would give her a look if she asked for something that frivolous and instantly launch into one of his "When I was your age" spiels.
"I can ask my sister to lend it to you," the girl offered. "Um. Do you want to eat lunch with me?"
Megumi eyed the girl again, then glanced back at Kotori, Natsuko, and Ayane crowded around a desk in the back. "Why don't you eat with us?"
The girl trotted behind Megumi as she made her way back to her bento. "She has a Puri Puri tape," Megumi announced. She turned to the girl. "I'm Kaneshiro Megumi. What's your name?"
"I'm Yoshida Takako. It's very nice to meet you," the girl said formally with a bow, and at Megumi's scowl, Natsuko and Kotori quickly moved aside to make room for a fifth chair.
The small room in the basement of the Shinjuku church looked as though it had been unopened for years. The air smelled vaguely of the sewer, and the paint on the wall was flaking off. Something must have leaked through the roof at some point, because the usually-white ceiling panels were stained yellow, and several bulged ominously. One of the fluorescent bulbs was slowly dying, and Ayane hoped that its on-and-off flicker was the cause of the moving shadows and the way the ceiling seemed to press down, as though some ponderous weight was hanging above, barely being held back by the material above.
Hyeseon drummed her fingers on the plastic folding table in front of her, then stood up and paced, the rubber soles of her sneakers squeaking slightly against the floor. "Where is she? She should have been here three hours ago."
None of them had the heart to reply. Kotori sat on an unsteady folding chair, tipping back and forth as she stared blankly ahead, unconsciously digging unchipped French manicured nails into her arm. Hyeseon continued her path: door to table, table to wall, wall back to door.
"Could you please just sit down?" Ayane finally snapped. She could feel her pulse racing and her legs shaking slightly, and there were enough worries and fears in her head without Hyeseon adding to them.
"I'm sorry," Hyeseon said, sitting down. "She's probably just running late. I'm too used to being paranoid and assuming the worst."
Kotori looked up. "I'm worried too. She hasn't responded to any messages for the past week."
Suddenly, there was a pounding on the door. Ayane and Kotori froze as Hyeseon jumped out of her seat.
"Natsu madematsu na," the person on the other side recited. "It's Natsuko. Hurry, please!"
A nod from Hyeseon confirmed that the person had given Natsuko's kaibun. Kotori ran to the door and cracked it open, then opened it wide, grabbing Natsuko by the arm and yanking her inside. "What happened? Why didn't you reply to any of my messages, I was worried sick oh my god I'm so glad you're okay," the last words said as she flung her arms around Natsuko.
"... can't breathe!" Natsuko finally gasped. Kotori loosened her grip, and Natsuko smiled at her. "I'm okay. But they came for me again, and this time not just to confiscate stuff. My artist managed to warn me that people were asking around for me, but I barely managed to slip away."
Hyeseon, who had nervously walked around them in circles the entire time, slumped against a wall and sighed. "Oh, Takako," she said.
"What?" Ayane asked. "The people after Natsuko...you think Takako had something to do with it?"
"I don't know!" Hyeseon cried. "I don't want to think so! But we got her packages, so she knew where we lived, and the timing... They've been releasing people from Umihotaru because of Friend's death, and this is the time they choose to go after a shoujo mangaka?"
"I think it's probably best if we stayed away from the Expo," Ayane said, and both Kotori and Natsuko nodded in agreement. "They're also saying the Pope's coming to say a few words over Friend, so even more people are going, and anything could happen in there."
Hyeseon nodded as well.
It was the peak of sakura season, petals drifting slowly through the air, blanketing the ground. Hyeseon didn't stop to appreciate it, focusing instead on the person sitting on the park bench, shoulders slumped.
"Hi," she said awkwardly, standing in front of the figure. "Long time no see?"
Takako nodded, but said nothing. Hyeseon steeled herself for yet another conversation rife with pauses and nervous silences. She sat down beside Takako. "So." She paused. "Um. I changed my name?"
That at least had Takako looking at her. "I'm Kim Hyeseon," she said. "Pleased to meet you." She made a short bow from the waist, then sighed in relief as Takako reflexively bobbed her head in return. "I know I've been terrible at keeping in touch. And that it's been a long time since we used to play together. But I've been thinking about a lot of stuff lately, and I wanted to apologize to you."
"For what?" Takako asked.
"For... not listening to you when you said you were having a hard time. For assuming it was your fault. For letting you down. I've... I've been working more with Zainichi Korean people. People like me. And I... well. I'm sorry. Watashi makemashita wa."
Takako huffed. "I can't believe you remember that."
"Same front and back, so it must be true."
"Well," Takako said, "you don't have to worry about me. I joined the Friendship Party in college, and it's helped a lot."
"What?!" Hyeseon yelped. It was probably the worst possible thing to say after trying to apologize for the last ten years or so, but everything she had learned about the Friendship Party made her wary.
"I'm working for them now, and it's opened a lot of doors for me. Things that I never even thought of when I was in high school. He really changes you."
"You're supposed to be the one who saves the world next! It's still your turn, remember? You can't be working with Friend."
Takako just looked at her. "It's not a game, you know. I might not like everything the Friendship Party has done, but Friend isn't some supervillain out to destroy the world. And even if he were, I'm not Gemini Senshi."
"But you could be. You could always be. Please, Taka-chan," Hyeseon grabbed Takako's hand, desperately trying one last thing, "you promised."
She hooked Takako's pinky with her own and fell silent, eyes pleading.
"You're not the queen anymore, you know." Takako yanked her hand back. "You're not even Megumi. And I was never going to be the one of us who was going to do great things. I was the one who never quite fit in, the one everyone forgot. It's only here I belong."
"No," Hyeseon began, shaking her head.
"You know it's true."
"Maybe at first. Maybe sometimes. But not always, and never during that last year. Never during the Last Summer." Hyeseon reached for Takako's hand again, and this time, Takako let her, let her slip a ring onto Takako's pinky finger. The cheap metal had long ago tarnished, and the jewel was only colored green plastic, but it was the most valuable thing she had. Before Takako could protest, Hyeseon closed her hands over Takako's. "If you ever need help," she said. "I know it's not much. I know we've never had the money or the opportunities the other three did. But just in case."
Takako said nothing, her eyes closed, and they simply sat there for a long moment, hand to hand, the sakura petals swirling around them. Then Hyeseon gently released Takako's hand, stood up, and turned around.
"I might not be Megumi anymore," she said, "and I never cared about being queen. But I will always be a senshi."
Hyeseon didn't look back as she walked away, afraid to see what might be in her friend's eyes.
Ayane had already stopped watching television and reading the news by the time they had become full-blown propaganda machines; after she found her husband's name in the daily-published lists of those who had fallen to the plague, her mind was full enough with images of his blood-spattered corpse, and she wanted no photographs or descriptions to fill in the details. She and her girls had been hiding away in the back rooms of a ramen store as the world fell apart around them, her life reduced to a four-and-a-half tatami mat room. After she had heard that Expo attendees were receiving vaccines, she had cursed herself in every way she knew how, then hugged Harumi and Kazumi to her as she sobbed and apologized incoherently to them, frightening them into a two-day long silence.
In an attempt to reassure them, she began to tell them stories, something she had stopped after Kazumi had learned to read. She ran through her admittedly small repertoire of folk tales—Momotarou and Tanabata and Chuushingura—then resorted to various tales of sleeping or dancing princesses, which she was certain she had mixed up. As her stories grew more and more incoherent and the girls more and more impatient, she finally began telling them stories of the Zodiac Senshi and their adventures with Sailor Moon, digging through fossilized memories of nights at cram school and student council meetings to unearth long-buried recollections of leaping around, dressed in Takako's sister's middle school uniform with a paper tiara taped to her forehead.
She was in the middle of one when a knock on the door and a whispered "yo no naka ne, kao ka okane kana no yo" meant Hyeseon had come.
"You're the only one of us who knows where her family is," Hyeseon began without warning. Ayane immediately felt guilty about her resentment of confinement, her concern for her daughters and her grief for her husband when all of them were worried about elderly parents. Walls were quickly rising around Tokyo neighborhoods, and when news of the plague had broken, they had been in Shibuya, away from family.
Hyeseon put a hand on Ayane's shoulder. "I'm so thoughtless, I didn't mean it that way. I just got this and came as fast as I could."
She took a small vial out of her inner coat pocket, and with it, a syringe.
"That's not..." Ayane stopped, too afraid to hope. Hyeseon only nodded.
"But it also came with these," she said. She pulled out a crumbled ball of paper, the ink an eye-piercing green, and handed it over to Ayane. Ayane slowly opened it, revealing a printed message pasted into a word bubble and another ball of paper. "9 more vaccines. My birthday, 10pm. 6th grade homeroom."
"These stupid games!" she cried. Hyeseon shook her head, then motioned for Ayane to continue.
The second ball of paper was a simple handwritten note in awkward, scrawling hiragana: "Watashi makemashita wa." And as Ayane finished opening it, a small glittering object fell to the tatami. It was, of course, a ring, but not the beautiful shining ones they had received months—no, a lifetime—ago. This one was all too familiar, every trivial item from those convenience store shelves etched into her memory.
"We can't know if the vaccine is real or not without testing it," Hyeseon said. "I asked Kotori and Natsuko, and they said to let you decide."
Ayane weighed the options, remembering Natsuko nearly being arrested, her husband dead in the first few terrible weeks, the fear that had stained every day of her life since Hyeseon had told them of Takako. And then she looked at her two girls, both sitting in the corner and staring at her, remembered the chance for them she had already passed up.
"Inject me," she said. She turned to her daughters. "Harumi, Kazumi. This is Aunt Hyeseon. I'm going to have to leave for a little while, so please, listen to her and do what she says. I'll be back soon." She hoped she wasn't lying to them.
Kazumi began to cry, and Harumi simply looked at her fearfully. She kissed the two of them, then nodded to show Hyeseon she was ready.
There was a prick, then slight burning as Hyeseon administered the shot. "Meet Natsuko at the church. She found out where they're taking the bodies."
Ayane clung to her for a second, then hugged Harumi and Kazumi. "Be good," she whispered, and left.
"It's official?" Takako said, taking a bite of her waffle.
"It's official," Megumi confirmed. "It's their final single, and they're doing one last tour next year. And then no more Princess Princess."
"No more Puri Puri," Takako echoed.
They commiserated in silence for a few moments, concentrating on the food in front of them.
"How's school?" Megumi finally asked. She regretted doing so as Takako's face fell.
Takako looked at her hands, then a far-off corner, then at the wall as she dully answered, "It's fine."
Takako nodded, then sniffed slightly, then shook her head. "I hate it," she whispered.
Megumi made a sympathetic noise, then waited. After a few more sniffs, Takako continued. "I hate it. I hate it. No one likes me. They all make fun of me. I tried talking about Puri Puri or manga and they laughed, and then they started to trip me. And I told Ayane and Kotori and Natsuko, and they said maybe I could try a little more, and not be so weird, and maybe I could ignore them and they'd get sick of it. But they haven't."
"Well..." Megumi hesitated.
"... maybe you're not trying hard enough? I'm sure it's just because you're new, and they'll probably stop soon."
Takako nodded, not saying anything, and Megumi continued. "Maybe you could find out what bands they like and learn the music! Or help out with some clubs or something! You could bring Nakayoshi in and snacks, and just remember to smile a little more and say hi to people. It's not that bad. Things will—"
Takako abruptly shoved her chair back. "I have to go to the bathroom," she muttered, then quickly walked off.
When she returned, Megumi tried to keep the conversation going, but Takako gave shorter and shorter replies, and soon, they both lapsed into silence.
"We should get together again!" Megumi said, a little too brightly.
"Yeah," Takako said. "Let me know."
Megumi walked off by herself, thinking that she would wait a little before trying to invite Takako out again.
Ayane hadn't thought there could be something worse than sneaking into a mass grave and waiting for fresh bodies, then deliberately attempting to infect herself while staring at the bloody aftermath of the virus. But waiting a week by herself—the best guess Hyeseon's network had on the incubation period—convinced every cough or sniffle would doom her, all the while wishing she could see her daughters...
But she had emerged healthy, albeit close to a nervous breakdown, and another impossible decision awaited. They had been talking in circles for hours, Natsuko understandably the most paranoid and, surprisingly, Hyeseon voting to trust.
"And I've said I'm going," Hyeseon retorted. "With or without you, I'm going."
"I don't trust it." Natsuko crossed her arms, then sighed. "Besides, you're the one who's been getting closer to that Ice Queen person."
"Kotori's been working with the new group that's sprung up, the Genji faction, and she's better at diverting suspicion."
Kotori smiled. Today she was in lavender peep-toed shoes and a frothy confection of a dress; lace and chiffon and a slightly empty look in her eyes her armor and her shield.
"You can't risk your life on a childish passphrase and a ring, Hyeseon!"
"I promised," Hyeseon said again, the only reason she had given through the entire argument.
"I'll go too," Ayane said. "The girls are safe for now, and I'm alive, and if there's any chance at all for them, I'll take it."
Hyeseon began to argue, then stopped, instead asking, "You're sure?"
Ayane nodded. "It won't be much, but I can sound the alarm if something goes wrong."
"Fine! I give in!" Natsuko said. "We all go. Final reunion and whatnot." She shrugged. "Kotori's the best shot, anyway."
Their elementary school, like so many other schools, had been deserted when the virus swept its way across the world, then looted. Broken glass crunched under their feet as they walked into the building.
"Places," Hyeseon whispered. They separated, each going to her assigned post: Kotori sequestered in the ceiling panels with a gun to provide cover for the rest of them, Ayane at the window with a view of the entrance to the building, Hyeseon with her back against the furthest corner from the door, and Natsuko by the door in a broom closet.
An hour passed. They heard a muffled sneeze from the ceiling. Then, from Ayane: "Someone's coming. More than one."
Swearing came from the broom closet, followed by "It's a trick. We should run."
"No," Hyeseon said. "You all can go. I'm staying."
Something in the broom closet thumped. Ayane was fairly certain it was Natsuko's head meeting the door. None of them moved from their positions.
"It's Takako," Ayane said as the group moved closer to the entrance. "Takako and four men, but two are staying at the entrance. She's carrying a box, and I'm pretty sure all the others have guns."
It seemed to take Takako and the men forever to reach the classroom, their footsteps echoing in the empty corridor, slowly growing louder and louder. Finally, they entered, Takako first with the box, the two men behind her with empty hands but the bulge of holsters around their hips.
Takako still had the dumpiness that had gotten her teased so much at school, albeit with sleeker glasses, and when she spoke briefly to the two men, Ayane thought that her voice was even more cultured now.
Takako opened the box slowly and lifted out a rack of vials. "The syringes are in the box," she said. "I'm going to put them down in the middle of the room, but you can only have them if Hyeseon comes with me."
Ayane froze, then exhaled softly as no noise emerged from Natsuko or Kotori to betray their positions. So Hyeseon's instincts had been wrong, and they were all going to have to watch her walk away to who knows what fate, just because Ayane had been too greedy for what might not even be vials of the real vaccine. Takako fiddled with something around her neck, her only sign of discomfort, and Ayane suddenly felt a surge of hatred. Takako had always been a bit of an outsider, but she hadn't really believed Takako would give them over to Friend, especially not her old best friend, not until now.
Hyeseon suddenly spoke. "You can have me." Ayane wanted to protest, but she didn't know what might set the men off. Hyeseon reached around her neck and took off the chain with the toy emerald ring Takako had used to lure them in. She threw it at Takako. "I don't want emerald now that you've tainted it."
"It was never yours to begin with," Takako replied.
"Ayane, pick it up," Hyeseon said, motioning toward the vaccines and the box.
"You walk toward us as she walks toward it," Takako said. Hyeseon nodded again, then slowly began to cross the room. Ayane matched her, step for step, reaching the vaccines as Hyeseon stepped in front of Takako.
"Box it," Hyeseon said, her eyes never leaving Takako, and Ayane quickly obeyed. As soon as she had the box in her arms, Hyeseon darted to the side and went for one of the men's holsters. But as she grappled with him, Takako had already reached over and grabbed the other gun, swinging it toward the two.
"No!" Takako shouted, and pulled the trigger. Ayane screamed as she saw Hyeseon crumple and drag the man down with her, then another gunshot rang out, and Takako fell to the floor, a bloodstain slowly spreading over her right shoulder. Natsuko burst out from the closet and tackled the second, now unarmed man, and in the confusion, it took Ayane several terrified moments to realize that the person getting up from the floor with a gun was Hyeseon, unhurt, tears pouring down her face.
She ran to Takako, crying, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry!" which spurred Natsuko and Ayane to rush over as well. A very loud crash indicated that Kotori had made her way down.
"What happened?" Ayane asked. "Did she miss you?"
"No, no!" Hyeseon vehemently denied. "Him! She shot him!" Ayane turned back and saw the first man on the ground, a bullet in his head.
As Natsuko applied pressure to Takako's shoulder wound, Ayane saw a thin chain slip out from Takako's shirt, the same one she had been fiddling with before Hyeseon had agreed to go with her. Ayane slowly reached down and lifted it, revealing an old decorated pen clipped to the chain, right next to the ring she had already known she would find, its bright pink plastic gem looking nothing like a pearl.
"Pearl Rose Typhoon," Takako said, smiling wryly.
"I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," Hyeseon kept saying. "I thought I was wrong, that you had tricked us all with 'watashi makemashita wa' and my ring, and I didn't trust you, but then I saw it and I couldn't figure out how to tell them without giving you away, and Kotori couldn't see your ring, and I couldn't think of anything else to do."
Kotori blanched. "Will she be okay?" she asked no one in particular. "I didn't want to kill her but I couldn't see, and I thought she was going to shoot Hyeseon. Please say she'll be okay?"
"I think she'll be fine as long as we make it out of here all right," Natsuko proclaimed. "Ayane, is the vaccine safe?"
Ayane nodded, opening the box next to her.
"Take out the syringes," Takako directed her.
Ayane lifted them out, then removed a pile of papers. They spilled over the floor: photocopies of what looked like molecular structure diagrams; maps of Tokyo, divided into regions; blueprints for what might be the city's sewer system; and, most incongruously, pages of manga, inked and toned.
"I tried everything I could to keep them from throwing you into Umihotaru," Takako said, "but I couldn't stop them in the end. This was all I managed to get. The one vaccine I smuggled out to you had them suspecting me, and in the past few days, they've trailed me everywhere, so I couldn't even send warning that this was a trap. I'm so sorry."
Natsuko shushed her. "Don't apologize. Especially not to me. Especially not after you went and got shot for trying to spirit out a few pages of my stupid manga!"
Takako closed her eyes and winced. "Ow. This kind of hurts. I think I would like to pass out."
"We'll get you out," Hyeseon said. "Kotori, the two guys outside?"
"On it," Kotori said, motioning to Natsuko to follow her out. "We'll bring the doctor after."
Ayane took Natsuko's place applying pressure, both she and Hyeseon reassuring an increasingly tired Takako that they'd do their best to find and protect all the channels she had used through the years to pass down information, and before Takako lost consciousness, she heard her mutter, "Gemini's...turn..."
Hyeseon smiled and kissed her on the brow. "You were always the hero."
I thought that something would change, back then.
And for a while, things did. I went back to being the outcast of the school, and I cried through all my lunch breaks, silent and alone in the girls' bathroom. It was like they had never happened: the afternoons of reading manga over Natsuko's shoulder, asking her to stop flipping so fast; breaks between classes debating with Ayane on what the "sesuna" in line three of Puri Puri's "The Hottest Summer in the World" meant; clean-up time with Kotori, who would booby trap the desk of anyone mean enough to tease me; and all the days filled with Megumi, making up dances to Puri Puri, vanquishing dark empires and saving the world with friendship and strength of will, giggling and fighting and making up. I got through every day by hoping I wouldn't wake up for the next one.
When I met Shikishima Rena at one of the Friendship Party's recruiting events, things changed again. They gave me a role and made me the part of a greater whole, they gave me purpose beyond simply making it through the hours. And it was enough. It was enough, at least, until Hyeseon found me. And in that half hour, I was eleven again, and what was important wasn't me, wasn't the relief I'd found, but that I'd once again been subverted, this time by my own willingness to not see.
Sitting there on the park bench after Hyeseon left, twisting her ring around my finger, I started to sing for the first time in years:
|While embracing the August wind with both hands
Fly to the savannah on the wings of imagination
Nothing had changed at all from that last, magical summer. My summer.