Sometimes it was better to surrender than struggle. So what if there was no getting out of the “Miss” Yasogami Pageant. Who cared! Everyone got to suffer! That ought to be a bright spot. She heard that Chie had asked Kou to get some razors for Yosuke’s legs. Good thing, too. Yosuke’s leg hair was a thing of horror. It was a little spot of color in the face of the bleak, gray reality: she really was stuck in an unused English classroom surrounded by boxes of props and costumes with Yukiko Amagi, but at least Yosuke had to shave his legs. It was like the set of a horror movie, except for the part where she was alive and couldn’t get out of this, even if she wanted to.
If she were here with Rise, she might have a chance of flirting her way out of this, Shouko thought. And if she were with Chie, then they’d probably go full on camp. Naoto would… who knew what Naoto would do. A corset and hoop skirts, maybe.
And with Yukiko? She got color swatches, no fewer than eight different costumes, and a sinking feeling that Yukiko might whip out a pistol and shoot her in the back if she tried to escape.
Still, it couldn’t hurt to try to reason with Yukiko.
“You know, I didn’t have a thing to do with Yosuke signing you and the others up,” Shouko said.
“Mm,” Yukiko said absently, as she tried to straighten Shouko’s hair out with a comb and water. It wasn’t having much of an effect. The cut at Tatsumi Port Island had been a pretty short one, and her hair was, by nature, wavy. When it got too long, it turned into a mess of limp tangles.
“And Chie signed me up for this, so you should really stop and—”
Yukiko’s hand tightened in Shouko’s hair. “Stop complaining.”
“… Yes, ma’am.”
Yukiko ran her hand through Shouko’s hair a few more times, and then said, “It’s hopeless. You have very nice hair, of course, but I wouldn’t say that it’s going to produce the kind of effect I’m going for.”
What kind of effect was Yukiko trying to go for, anyway? Shouko took another desperate look at the costumes. Schoolgirl, Catholic schoolgirl, doctor, nurse—who knew Yukiko was into that kind of thing? Or that the school had so many of these… costumes at hand.
“I,” Shouko said, only to grunt in surprise when Yukiko clasped a wig on top of her head.
“Hold still,” Yukiko scolded, twirling the wig this way and that until she apparently got it just right. One insult after another, Shouko thought. She had spent so long trying to get her hair to look just the right balance between messy and wild and cool this morning. Now she had to wear a wig? “No, not enough class.”
“Well, what about my hair?” Shouko said.
“Yes, it is very nice,” Yukiko said. “But I just told you that it wasn’t what I was looking for.”
“I don’t want to—”
“Shouko-san.” Another wig muffled the sound of Yukiko’s hand slamming against the desk, but not enough to keep Shouko from jumping nearly a meter in the air. “There comes a point in everyone’s life where they cannot avoid doing things, even if they would rather die than do them. And there is a point in every woman’s life when she must present herself to other people for public inspection. This is your hour in the spotlight. You must not waste it.”
“But,” Shouko said. “I don't want to—auuughhhh—” The first wig was torn off her head, and Yukiko slammed another on Shouko’s head so hard that Shouko swore that she saw stars.
“You work so hard as our leader, keeping track of all of us and trying to make enough money so we can go into the TV safely. It’s important that you get some rest,” Yukiko said. Shouko flinched, and tried to smile back. It... it wasn't working. “Let me take care of you this time, okay?”
“… I, um, well. Yukiko-san.”
“Are you getting high off of the paint spray? I don’t like this wig, it makes you look like one of those fast women—”
“No! It’s just that you’re really… scary.”
“Am I?” Yukiko looked oddly pleased with that. She hid her laugh with her hand. “I’ve been working on finding ways to keep people like those awful television producers out of the Inn. I’m sorry for practicing it on you, Shouko-san, but if I didn’t, you would have tried to talk your way out of doing this.”
“No I wouldn’t have,” Shouko mumbled. “I would’ve sat in my seat and sulked.”
“Yep.” The entire culture fest was building to be a miserable experience. Next year, she’d find either a place to hide, or people to act as her stand-ins. Then again, she wouldn’t be here next year. This time next year, she’d be somewhere else: Kyoto, maybe. Fukuoka. Maybe still in northern Kanto, but in another city. At least next year wouldn’t have any pageants.
Yukiko was getting out another wig. Ash grey. Long braids. Pigtails. Shouko frowned at it.
“I don't like that one,” Shouko said.
“Well, your hair’s almost the same color.”
It was the color of Shouko’s hair before the bleach turned her hair silvery-white. Hardly anyone believed that her hair’s natural color was grey until her roots began showing. Shouko felt the wig in her hands. Didn’t feel like hair at all. It looked like her fifth grade haircut. Suddenly she felt five years younger, smaller and mousier and nothing like herself.
Yukiko fit the wig onto Shouko’s head, smiling as she did so. Shouko grimaced. “You look very nice,” Yukiko said. “Very cute.”
“I look staid,” Shouko said.
“Not true. You’re not even looking at a mirror.” Yukiko stared at the line of costumes and then said just under her breath, “So we’ll be going with the shy, homicidal schoolgirl…” She furrowed her brow in thought. “I think we can make this work. I don’t think anyone’s ever seen you in the regular sailor uniform—you’re always wearing that jacket. Did Kanji-kun fit it for you?”
“Yeah, he did.”
“He really is very nice, isn’t he? We used to play together as children.” Yukiko was pulling something out of the costume box now, a Yasogami sailor uniform with a ridiculously long skirt. Then she set a pair of penny loafers and long stockings on the table.
“What happened?” said Shouko.
“I started working for the Inn more often, and Kanji-kun started getting touchy about girls. We stopped talking before we were in middle school.”
“I never knew that,” said Shouko. On one hand, it seemed odd that they would be friends. On the other hand, Inaba was a small town. Knowing people was an inevitability. Her neighbors seemed to think it was their responsibility to make sure she had sorted her recyclables and burnables correctly. “Was Kanji-kun cute when he was a kid?”
Yukiko laughed politely, and said, “Yes, he was. Don’t tell him I said that he was, okay? He’ll be upset. Change into these, please.”
“Including that skirt?” Shouko said. “You’re going to make me look like one of those girls from the 70s or something.”
“Yes, that’s about the effect I was going for,” Yukiko said. “I’ve told you before that you look like a villain, haven’t I? So… why not?”
Shouko didn’t see how this ensemble could make her look villainous at all. For one thing, the skirt was way too long to fit any definition of “villain.” And for another, the wig best suited a plain, unassuming, and dull girl. She wasn’t any of that. At least, Shouko didn’t think she was dull, plain, and unassuming. For all she knew, she might be dull as dirt. People always said she was easy to identify with, and the easiest thing to identify with was either a clone, or a mirror or… something that wasn’t quite distinct. Something that didn’t have borders or outlines.
“Don’t scowl like that,” Yukiko said. “Honestly. I’ve seen you look pretty scary before, Shouko-san. Normally when you’re with Naoki-kun. Like a wolf, maybe.”
“You went out with him for a little while, didn’t you?” said Yukiko, powdering Shouko’s nose before Shouko could finish her sentence. “I don’t think it was a bad match, but you always looked like you were preying on him, somehow…”
“I wasn’t doing anything like that,” Shouko said. Yukiko was armed with lipliner now, and applied it with an almost casual recklessness.
“I’m only teasing you, Shouko-san. Of course, maybe somewhere within you, you have a Persona who could take up that kind of face…” Yukiko was maybe two inches away from Shouko’s face now, staring at Shouko with an intensity that made Shouko squirm in her seat. “Please, Shouko-san. It’ll be an embarrassment if we don’t win. You’re already a girl, so if you lose to Kanji-kun or Yosuke-kun, Chie will laugh at me for weeks. And you want to win this,” Yukiko said, applying lipstick onto Shouko’s mouth. She reinforced the point by holding onto Shouko’s shoulder so tightly that Shouko thought the bones might be pulverized. “And if you don’t win this, then I’ll ask Rise-chan to cook you something for lunch.”
Shouko would have said something, but she suspected that saying anything while Yukiko was doing makeup was paramount to asking for a bullet to the face.
Ah, she never should have tried fighting it in the first place, she thought, and resigned herself to Yukiko’s… talents.
“Ladies and gentleman!” the MC boomed. Pinkfro, Shouko liked to call him, the more interesting little brother of Riddle-senpai. She was backstage, awaiting her doom and public humiliation in front of the entire school with Kanji and Yosuke.
“You think you got it bad?” Yosuke said with a wince. “Just look at me! Chie made me shave my legs!”
“Yeah,” Shouko said. “They do look a lot nicer now.”
“Wh—you really think so?”
“Senpai,” Kanji said, “you ever been to a pageant before?”
“No,” Shouko said. If she had, she'd probably be in the regular habit of dying her hair. Or at the very least, dying it with something other than bleach.
“Me neither,” Kanji said gloomily. “Wonder what kinda questions they’ll ask us. ‘What’s it like wearin’ a dress?’”
“Normally they ask things like… you know. ‘What is your opinion on public policy’ or ‘what would you say to little girls today,’” Shouko said. “Stuff like that.”
“You’re being a lot nicer to Kanji than you’re being to me,” Yosuke said.
“I think that might have something to do with how Kanji isn’t whining about his legs,” said Shouko. She gave his legs a quick look-over. Huh. Perfectly smooth. She wondered if that was natural or if the circulation of his pants were too tight.
“Hey, Kanji, do you think guys like that kind of thing?” Yosuke said.
“Beats me, senpai,” Kanji said, giving his hips a swish. The flirtatious effect was ruined by the scowl and the flexing biceps, but there was something to be said about staying in character under stress. Or something like that. “You liking it?”
Shouko, gently, hit her face with the palm of her hand, and then winced when some of the makeup transferred onto her hand in the form of an ambiguously colored smear of beige. "Come on, guys," she said. "Do you have to start doing this now?"
“Let’s get right down to it and introduce our first contestant! She’s a runaway express train who’s Inaba born and bred, and can kill with both her fists and her looks!”
“That’s me,” Kanji said. “Rise said I gotta put some pride into this.” He straightened out his back, pushed his chest forward, and put a hand on his hip. Looked an awful lot like what would happen if Tony Curtis tried his hand dressing as Marilyn Munroe. “Senpai, this any good?”
“Go for it,” Shouko said, clapping Kanji on the shoulder. Then, leaning a little closer, she whispered, “Knock them out of the park. Rise-chan did a good job on you.”
Beneath the cake of makeup on his face, she thought she saw him blush. “Y-yeah, senpai. Will do.” Kanji strutted out to the stage.
Yosuke raised an eyebrow. “What’d you say to him?” he said.
From the stage came laughter and shrieks—and not of the good kind, either.
“No idea,” Shouko said. “I’ve forgotten already.”
“Oh, come on. Like anyone's going to believe that.”
“A few words of encouragement,” she said. “We are his senpai, after all. Need to put on a good face.”
The MC was speaking again. “An eloquent heiress of the noble Junes, she’s pure disappointment from the moment she opens her mouth!”
“Can’t disagree with that description, right?” Shouko said.
“Shut it, partner,” Yosuke said. “Oh, man, this blows. I’ll see you on stage, right?”
Now it was her and Teddie alone in the back, except Teddie was hiding away with Naoto. Well, Shouko thought, some things couldn’t be helped. She took a cigarette and a lighter she had tucked into the waistband of her skirt, and lit it. Never mind the rules or the smoke alarms. Between the pageant and the play and the group café, she deserved this.
“Up next, our third contestant! I know some of you were disappointed that she won't be showing up in the regular pageant, but she's making a cameo appearance here! Still smoldering with the bitter exhaust of the city, presenting our transfer student who’s been breaking hearts in the second-year class two, Shouji-chan!”
Shouji-chan? Shouko was going to kill Chie for ever signing her up.
She swung her practice sword around a bit, and then marched onto the stage. Adjusting her voice half an octave lower, she pointed the bamboo sword at the crowd and roared, “Any of you laugh and I’ll come after you and bash the shit out of you, huh?!”
There was a long, awkward silence. And then someone giggled. Before she knew it, the entire crowd was howling with laughter. Well, so much for cowing them all into silence. And so much for Yukiko trying to make her into a villain. She should have guessed it would’ve turned out like this.
“Well, what an introduction!” The MC said. “Your entrance has caused quite a stir. Tell me, Shouji-san, did you sign yourself up for this?”
From the crowd, she could see Yukiko crying with laughter. Pinkfro said something that made the rest of the crowd laugh and holler. Shouko tried to keep a smile on. It wasn't working. Not that she had expected it to.
“‘Shouji’?” Yosuke said in a stage-whisper.
“Screw Kashiwagi,” Shouko grumbled. She’d better win this stupid contest. That’d be her only consolation for this entire mess. “What do you think Teddie looks like?”
“Knowing Naoto-kun?” Yosuke said. “Terrible.”
Immediately after the pageant, Shouko sniffed Naoto out on the roof.
“Er,” said Naoto. She took a step backwards into the fence. “Senpai—”
“Hey, Naoto-kun,” Shouko said, beating the bamboo sword against the palm of her hand. “I thought we could chat for a while.”
“Senpai,” Naoto said. “Before you do anything you regret, I thought I should let you know that there are many other things I could use to extort you—” Shouko lit a cigarette. Naoto shut up.
“I thought I should thank you,” Shouko said. “The only thing worse than losing a cross-dressing pageant would have been winning it. Good job with Teddie.” Shouko took another long drag, and then said, “More things you could blackmail me with?”
“You were caught by a police officer attempting to buy cigarettes with a fake ID when you were thirteen,” said Naoto. “Among other things.”
Shouko tapped off some of the ash from the cigarette’s tip. “They wouldn’t have sold me these if I didn’t have one,” Shouko said.
“It’s a bad habit.”
“I can quit any time I want to.” She eyeballed the cigarette. She didn’t particularly want to quit, though. “How’d you find out about that, anyway?”
“I did some investigative work into you and the others before I joined your group,” said Naoto. “You seemed like a dangerous person.”
“Yukiko-san says I look like a villain from one of those old dramas,” Shouko said. She had never been able to figure out why, either. It was probably her face. Her father once said that she looked like a weasel. Maybe he had meant it in a good way.
“That did contribute to the reasons why I found you suspect, yes,” Naoto said, without a trace of humor.
Shouko frowned. She twirled the cigarette around her fingers, and then stuck it back into her mouth. “When I was in middle school, I tried the ‘bad girl’ thing for a few hours. It wasn’t really my thing.” Especially after the school administration called her parents to let them know that Shouko had been spotted just outside school grounds smoking and putting her fist into people's faces. There was only so much her parents would let her get away with. Anyway, she had a reputation to keep up. “Although I kept the hair. It looks cool, doesn’t it?”
“Your record suggests more than a few hours,” Naoto said.
“Whatever,” Shouko muttered, taking another drag. “Everyone smokes, anyway.”
“Yes. A pity. You’ll die from lung cancer.”
“You’ll die reeking.”
“I like the smell.” Shouko offered a cigarette to Naoto jokingly. Naoto shook her head once—then she took the cigarette from Shouko’s fingers and, cautiously, brought it to her own mouth. She inhaled. Then she made a face and choked. She returned the cigarette to Shouko, eyes watering and trying to hide the cough.
“There, there,” Shouko said, patting Naoto on the back. “The first time is always the worst.”
“You willfully abused your standing as my senpai and leader to coerce me into…” Naoto coughed some more. Then she drew herself up, eyes watering and pride, evidently, smarting quite badly as well. Shouko didn’t see what the big deal was. For Pete’s sake, it was a cigarette. It wasn’t as though she made Naoto shoot someone. “I could have you taken to the principal’s office.”
Yeah, that was a real horrifying prospect. Not really. Shouko had met the principal a few times. He liked talking to her because he was convinced that young, wayward girls needed guidance and support, and sometimes that guidance and support came in the form of helping him collect figurines. She always did like collecting them all. “This school really hasn’t been the same since Morooka died, has it?”
Naoto raised an eyebrow. “Sorry?”
“Never mind. That was my fault. I shouldn’t have offered.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Naoto said. “But I shouldn’t have accepted your… your delinquent offer, either.”
Shouko grunted and turned away to let Naoto wheeze away in peace. She could see a great deal of Inaba from here: the yellowing trees, the river cutting through town, the tall grass. It was a nice view. She wondered why the roof was always empty. Maybe it had something to do with the people. The weather girl was useful, but Shouko had to admit that she wasn’t good conversation.
“Where did you find that wig?” Naoto said.
“Yukiko-san found it somewhere,” Shouko said.
“Perhaps you should consider pursuing a more conventional model of femininity. It looks good on you.”
“You don’t even see the irony in that, do you?”
“The difference is that you look suspicious with short hair,” Naoto said, not at all miffed. “One might say that the way your bangs fall on your face make you look naturally furtive. The braids impart a sense of… comeliness and delicacy to you.”
The edge of Shouko's lips pressed downwards. Her cigarette was nearly burnt out. She popped a new one out of the box and used the stub to light the new one. “You don’t get it,” she said. “It isn’t about looking pretty. It’s about looking cool.”
“‘Cool,’” Naoto said. She sounded completely baffled. Her expression was pure ‘I think you’re an idiot, senpai,’ though. “Senpai.”
“I know,” Shouko said.
“Yes,” Naoto said. “In any case, I have a pageant to prepare for, as loath as I am to participate.”
“Good luck,” Shouko said. She took the wig off of her head and handed it to Naoto. “A good luck charm?”
“You lost,” Naoto said, more than a little smugly.
“I’ll vote for you.”
“Why not?” Shouko grinned. She snuffed out the cigarette between her fingers. Best to change back into her normal school uniform. She definitely wanted to be there for the actual pageant. “Best of luck, Naoto-kun,” she said, and left Naoto there on the roof, glowering sourly at her back.