Six out of seven days a week, Southern Cross High School was a lively place. During the regular school week, the hum of activity started in the early morning when the kendo club and other sports teams gathered for their before-school training sessions, and continued well into the evening as different clubs and societies stayed late for meetings, rehearsals, or other events. For the teachers, faculty meetings and club advising duties kept most of them around well after the last bell rang, and during exam weeks it was not uncommon to see the lights on in multiple classrooms where tests were being marked or last-minute cram sessions were underway. Even on Saturdays, anyone walking past the school might see the baseball team running infield drills, or hear the rise and fall of arpeggios from the open window of a music room where a solo violin was hard at work on a competition piece.
But on Sundays, everything was different. No practices, no meetings, no study groups were scheduled then. The school's corridors were empty, the classrooms dim and silent. It was as if the entire building could give a sigh of relief and spend a whole day resting and relaxing, preparing for the busy hours of the week to come.
On one particular Sunday, however, the usual peace and quiet was broken by the sounds of footsteps making their way to the club room set aside for the Midnight Flight theatre troupe. A faint jingle of metal led to the rattle-click of a door being unlocked, and then light spilled into the darkened room, framing three figures in the open doorway.
Wako entered the club room first, her purse slung over her shoulder and three well-thumbed copies of the club's working playscript in her hands. She turned on the lights, which flickered briefly before warming to a steady glow. Takuto followed her, more slowly, as he struggled to find a good grip on the large wicker picnic basket he held in his arms. Sugata brought up the rear, and pocketed the room keys as he turned and closed the door, carefully checking the doorknob to make sure that it was locked once again. They had every right to be there -- Midnight Flight members had free access to both their club room and the auditorium after hours, for after-school and weekend rehearsals and set construction -- but it still felt like they were sneaking into somewhere off-limits, in the otherwise deserted school building.
Takuto let out an audible oof as set the basket down on the table. 'Thought my arms were going to drop off,' he said, wincing as he rubbed his left shoulder with his right hand.
'I did offer to carry it for a while,' Sugata pointed out mildly. 'You said you were fine.'
Takuto gave him a sulky look. 'I was fine. And then there were stairs.'
Wako lifted the lid of the basket and peered inside. 'I don't know why Tiger and Jaguar packed us this much food,' she said, wrinkling her nose in dismay. 'We're only going to be here to run lines; it's not like the President's usual outdoor calisthenics sessions.'
Sugata joined her in surveying the contents of the basket, and his eyebrows went up at the sight of the bags and boxes and paper-wrapped packets that filled every nook and corner. 'I thought they might go a bit overboard, but not by that much,' he said, shaking his head. He looked over at Takuto, who had started to roll his shoulders as if trying to work his spine back into alignment. 'Are you all right?'
'Still sore from training this morning, I think.' Takuto sighed. 'That one hit you landed on my upper arm, mostly. And I wasn't expecting to lift weights on top of all that. What's in that thing anyway, rocks and bricks?'
'Cold chicken sandwiches, fruit, those little cheesecakes from last night....' Wako picked through the basket, pulling out a large bag of grapes and a square plastic box filled with sliced strawberries. 'It's like a whole picnic! Honestly, we only had lunch half an hour ago.'
Sugata smiled. 'Maybe they just don't want you getting hungry in the middle of everything.'
Wako elbowed him in the side. 'Even I couldn't eat another bite right now, I'll have you know. And who was the one who ate four of those little cheesecakes for dessert yesterday?'
'So we go through the lines once, eat something, run them again, and by that point it'll be dinner time,' Takuto said shortly. If Wako and Sugata started teasing each other about who ate more snacks, he knew, they'd never rehearse a single scene. 'I still have that essay to finish, so I don't want to stay too out late.'
'All right, all right.' Wako tried not to roll her eyes. In spite of her initial complaint, the grapes in the bag looked nice and fresh. She plucked a small bunch and popped one into her mouth. 'So, why are you so worried about your part all of a sudden?' she said to Takuto, around the cold, sweet crunch of the fruit.
Takuto sat down in the nearest chair -- or rather, slumped into it, somehow managing to both sprawl and hunch up at the same time. 'The President said I'm doing it all wrong,' he said petulantly. 'Or that I'm not doing it right, which is pretty much the same thing, isn't it?'
Sugata's brow furrowed. 'I didn't hear her say that to you on Thursday.'
'She pulled me aside after, when you two were helping Jaguar with her costume fitting.' He let his head fall back, staring up at the ceiling with vague, unfocused eyes. 'She said she was concerned that I wasn't convincing enough, as Marc. That I was holding back. And I tried to be more convincing, to project more and put the right emphasis on the right words, but then the whole thing started sounding really fake to me. Like I was trying too hard, maybe even hamming it up, and then I'd sound even less convincing than before. So now all my lines sound wrong, and I don't know how to fix it.'
Sugata and Wako exchanged glances. It wasn't like Takuto to sound so despondent, so unenthusiastic. He'd been as interested as any of them had been in Sarina's original script, and even though his part wasn't the largest one in the play he'd thrown himself into their rehearsals with his usual zest for theatrics. This was the first they'd heard of his doubts about the performance.
'You sounded pretty convincing to me at the last rehearsal,' Wako said. 'What makes you think you're doing something wrong?' Sugata quietly found chairs for both of them, and set them down so that they could all sit facing each other. Something that could shake Takuto's self-confidence this severely wasn't something they could just brush aside with a few soothing words and a little cheesecake or two.
'I just feel like there's not much I can do with my part. Sugata's got all these great scenes with everyone, and the whole story really revolves around you, Wako, but I'm just supposed to be reacting to all of this.' Takuto raised his head, his mouth twisting wryly as he looked at Wako. 'Except for the bit at the end, where I have my lines and we...do the last scene.' He still couldn't bring himself to call it the kissing scene, even when it was just the three of them without the rest of the cast and crew present. 'So that's kind of where I am right now.'
Sugata had been listening with an increasingly thoughtful expression. 'So how would you be reacting if you were on stage the whole time?' he said.
Takuto blinked. 'Huh?'
'Just think of it like this.' Sugata rested his hands on his knees. 'You're hearing this story as if it's being told to you by the Herald of the Squid Emperor, but we're actually acting it out so the audience can see it. If you were actually listening to someone telling you the story, you'd be reacting to it, right? You'd be happy when Columna met Crace, but angry when he forgets about her.'
'Or shocked when Columna manages to break free from the witch's spell,' Wako said, comprehension dawning on her face as she began to understand where Sugata was going with his explanation.
'So all of that has to go into how you react at the end, doesn't it?' Sugata stood up and spread his arms wide, as if he were standing on the stage already. 'When you talk about Crace's smile, and how much you want to protect her. All of what you see us perform -- everything that Wako and Tiger and Jaguar and I do -- is leading up to how you react at the end of the play. You have to carry the audience through to the last scene, right to the moment the curtain falls. So I think that's why the President doesn't want you to hold back.'
'Hadn't really thought about it like that before,' Takuto said slowly. He didn't sound entirely convinced, but he didn't seem reluctant to embrace the idea, either. 'Not in those terms, at least.'
Wako grinned. 'So do you want to try running the lines now? We'll do it with that idea in mind.'
'Who'll read for the other parts?' Takuto asked.
'Sugata-kun and I can split them up,' Wako pushed herself to her feet, and walked over to the table where the pile of scripts lay. 'We're not worrying about blocking or lighting or sound cues now, so I'll just read straight from the script.' She picked up the topmost script from the stack, and her grin took on a wicked light. 'It'll be fun to be all slinky and scheming as Ayin the Witch. And I heard Jaguar rehearsing the Queen's big death scene when they were in the kitchen, washing up, so I'm sure I can get that right the first time.'
Dividing up the parts was a simple matter. Sugata agreed to read the Herald's lines, since they seldom shared the same scenes. Wako eagerly took the parts of Ayin and the Queen of the Fish Planet, so eagerly that both Takuto and Sugata had to hide their smiles at her enthusiasm.
'We don't need any props, do we?' Takuto asked, once everything was settled.
Sugata looked around the room. 'Just one thing, I think.' He went to the box that held their props and special costume pieces -- Ayin's magic jewel, Columna's briefcase and glasses -- and took out one of his two prop knives. 'I'll use the regular one,' he said. 'I don't want to mess up the red paint on the other one.'
'I don't need to put on the Crace wig to start with, do I?' Wako asked. She touched her short hair gingerly. 'It was making my forehead itch earlier this week -- I think it needs adjusting.'
'Not if you don't want to. I'm mostly using this to help me stay in character.' Sugata ran his thumb along the blunt edge of the prop knife's metallic blade, then slipped it into one of the belt loops of his trousers. 'I'm ready whenever you are, Wako.'
'Just a sec!' Wako hurried over to the picnic basket, and grabbed three more grapes. She crammed them into her mouth all at once, then darted back to where she had been standing before, facing Takuto and positioned a little bit behind Sugata.
'You can stay sitting for now, Takuto,' Sugata said as Wako finished chewing and swallowing. 'It'll help you be part of the audience from the start.'
Takuto gave him a thumbs-up. 'Ready when you are, Mister Director. One boy Marc, at your service.'
Sugata chuckled quietly, but his amusement soon faded as he schooled his expression into complete seriousness, pulling together all of his concentration for the start of the performance. Wako saw his back straighten and his shoulders square, and brought her hands up to clasp in front of her chest. Without waiting for a formal cue from Sugata, she opened her mouth and let Crace's song flow out, as pure and natural as the first rays of an early spring sunrise.
'The flowers that bedeck the hillside / Reach up towards the light....'
As Wako -- Crace -- sang the simple verses that opened the play, Takuto sat up a little straighter in his chair. This part was easy enough for him to understand. He was Marc, the boy, who was falling in love with a girl that no one else he knew could see or hear, but who had a voice that filled his ears with music and a smile that made his heart overflow. And there she was before him, and the only thing he could see was --
'Hello, boy. You are Marc, are you not?'
Takuto blinked. Sugata had stepped between him and Wako, tall and imposing, to speak the President's part. Sarina didn't have Sugata's height, but Sugata had clearly been watching her closely during earlier rehearsals, because he managed to capture the same expression of regal calm and detachment that she wore in her role as Herald of the Squid Emperor. He wasn't even reading from the script; the book in his hand was closed, unneeded at his side. Takuto felt his heart beat a little faster, and it took him a moment to remember his first line, caught as he was in the flash of awestruck silence that his own character might've felt in the presence of such an unusual visitor.
'Yes, I am Marc,' he said, trying to project his voice properly. 'Marc, the boy.'
As Sugata and Takuto exchanged lines, introducing the audience to the story, Wako quickly flipped through her copy of the script until she found the page with Ayin's first lines. She knew her own part, and Sugata had long since memorised his own (and Sarina's, too, from the look of things), but she didn't want to stumble over the opening to an unfamiliar scene. As she ran a finger down the page, though, she heard her the words of her cue, and hastily folded the script open and rolled it up in one hand so she could take her place in the story.
'But Crace was not lonely. Why, might you ask?' Sugata took a step back, as if positioning himself for the scene transition. 'Because she had met Columna.'
The scene between Columna and Crace was familiar territory for all three of them. Crace's sad story and lonely existence, Columna's heartfelt desire to see Crace's smile even though they could never touch...and although their lines were possibly the tiniest bit melodramatic, Takuto couldn't help but smile as well to see his friends acting their parts so well. Which was all the more reason why he nearly startled out of his chair when Sugata, right at the tender moment that ended the scene, abruptly turned to look straight at him and said:
'So? What are you, as the audience, feeling right now?'
'Uh....' Takuto shook his head, trying to sort out his feelings in the wake of the unexpected interruption. 'Well, it's supposed to be romantic, isn't it?'
'Supposed to be?' Wako gave him a flat look, and backed away from Sugata.
'Look, I know what's going to happen, okay?' Takuto said plaintively. 'It's kinda hard for me to forget that much. But the audience doesn't know what's to come, with Columna forgetting about her and all that. So I guess that right now, it's all about the romance here.'
Sugata seemed to be on the point of saying something in reply, but Wako spoke first. 'Let's just keep going,' she said to him, holding up her script. 'I'll start the next scene.'
Sugata hesitated, but then nodded once and let his free hand drop to his belt loop, checking to be certain that his knife was still in place. In half a heartbeat, he was back in character as Columna. Wako glanced at the script, and briefly shut her eyes -- but when she opened them again, her smile had nothing of Crace's sweet innocence. It was smooth and knowing, with a touch of cruel amusement, and her hooded eyes held mystery and malice in equal parts.
'Good day,' she said coolly, and held up her free hand to toy with an imaginary jewel, just as they all had seen Tiger play with the heavy scarlet gem on the Witch's beaded necklace. As she advanced on Sugata, swaying gently with seductive promise, Takuto saw a flash of something akin to real panic in Sugata's eyes, more than Columna's expected dramatic shock, and the tips of Sugata's ears flushed pink in a way that owed very little to his own acting and much more to Wako's. In that moment, Takuto didn't blame Sugata one bit -- his own mouth had gone dry as Wako reveled in the Witch's predatory charm, and he couldn't help but shift slightly in his chair.
The performance went a bit more steadily once Sugata recovered from his initial surprise, and by the time he drew his knife to guard against the threat of Ayin's magic, the scene was moving along at its expected pace. Wako barely needed to consult the script, and even without Ayin's usual props she had no difficulty tempting Columna, showing him the thin strand of Crace's hair and offering him the jewel that would allow him to touch Crace -- in exchange for him retrieving the magic flying ship for her.
This time, Takuto was prepared for Sugata to stop at the end of the scene. 'I can see why Columna did it, at least,' he said, hoping that it was the right response. 'That witch offered him a really strong bargain.'
'Bargain?' Wako made a low, scornful noise in the back of her throat. 'She didn't offer him anything.'
Both Takuto and Sugata looked at her with surprise. 'How do you mean?' Sugata said, as he slipped the knife back into his belt.
Wako folded her arms across her chest, crumpling her script unmercifully. 'Who's to say that the hair was real?'
'Crace's hair?' Takuto rubbed the back of his neck. 'But she shows it to him, wrapped around her finger.'
He even held up a finger, mimicking Wako's actions earlier in the scene.
Wako drummed the fingers of her free hand against her arm. 'Ayin says that she can see and touch Crace with her magic, but why should Columna believe her? She doesn't care about either of them; she only wants the ship. So why couldn't she use her magic, some kind of illusion, to make Columna think that she had some of Crace's hair?' She glowered darkly at Takuto. 'That whole as a woman, I understand how she feels talk is all nonsense. She can't really know how Crace feels -- if she did, she would've said so. It would've been a much stronger means of convincing him. And if her words trick Columna so easily, then he clearly doesn't have the faintest idea about how Crace would really feel at all.'
'You're pretty harsh on Columna there, Wako,' Takuto said, laughing a little uncertainly. 'I wouldn't say that Sugata's playing him quite that way, right?' He turned to Sugata, looking for agreement, but his attempt at further levity faded when he saw the sharp, serious expression on Sugata's face.
'But Columna isn't a nice person,' Sugata replied, quiet and unflinching. 'He's willing to murder to get what he wants. And what he wants is something that no one else has -- whether it's the ship, or the Fish Planet, or Crace's smile, or something else that only he can possess. And Ayin underestimates that side of his personality.'
Takuto frowned. 'That he's ruthless, you mean.'
'Single-minded might be a better way of putting it.' Sugata smiled, though the set of his mouth made it brittle enough to look more like a grimace. 'That's why he ends up becoming one with the ship in the end. That's what he wanted all along.'
Takuto was silent for a long moment. 'You don't like Columna, do you,' he said at last, slowly, as if the thought had just occurred to him.
'It's probably for the best that I don't,' Sugata said, with an overly casual shrug. 'I don't want him to be sympathetic. You're not supposed to feel sorry for him -- it's Crace who deserves the audience's sympathy.' He glanced at Wako, who had let her arms drop and was now twisting the long-forgotten script in her hands, before letting his gaze drift back to Takuto. 'And your sympathy,' he added.
'Marc's sympathy, you mean.' Takuto met his gaze, and his chin lifted in stubborn self-confidence in his own words. 'There's nothing to stop me from feeling sorry for Columna, too.'
Sugata had no reply to that, and finally Wako took it upon herself to bring them back to the performance. 'Should we keep going, Takuto-kun?'
'Please.' Takuto was sitting bolt upright in his chair. 'Whenever you're both ready.'
The rest of the performance would have surprised the missing members of the Midnight Flight troupe. During rehearsals, Wako, Sugata, and Takuto usually could be relied upon to punctuate their scenes with the occasional joke or moment of playfulness, but there was no fun or lightheartedness to be found in Columna's assassination of the tyrannical Queen, his defiant acceptance of his choice to forsake Crace, or Ayin's fatal confrontation with him upon the deck of the ship that had absorbed his very soul. Wako soon discarded her script, having no need for its guidance as she played the Queen's and Ayin's deaths with cold, tightly controlled rage, and none of Jaguar or Tiger's accustomed histrionics. Sugata, too, never missed a beat as he switched between the Herald's dispassionate narration and Columna's arrogant pride in the power of his ship. And Takuto completely forgot his place in the audience as he leapt to his feet at the end of the first act, desperately challenging Columna in a last-ditch effort to remind him of the woman whose smile had not been enough to overcome his all-consuming ambition.
By the final scene, all three of them were breathing hard and damp with sweat, fully absorbed in their roles. At that point, it was only Sugata and Takuto, as the Herald and Marc, who stood facing each other, with Wako watching them intently from her position on the sidelines.
'Listen well, O boy who glows with the aura of life,' Sugata declared, issuing the Herald's final challenge to Marc. 'I wish to know what you would do, you who have the power to sail this ship. Do you carry a knife -- as Columna did?'
Perhaps it was a deliberate dramatic choice, or perhaps it was only the result of his laboured breathing, but Sugata's voice seemed to wobble at the end of his last sentence. Yet whether it was intentional or accidental, something in that quaver that made Takuto pause, long enough for some of the fierce anger in his expression to drain out of his face. His shoulders lost their stiffness; a pulse stopped beating in his temple. And he even managed a wan but confident half-smile just before he opened his mouth to reply...with a response that would not be found in any draft of Midnight Flight's playscript.
'Columna's not a nice person, but I think it's possible that he could have been one. Even for a little while, he did want to be with Crace, and to do what he could to make her happy as well. If he'd never met the witch and gone looking for the ship, they might still be together.' He did not turn away from the Herald, but let his gaze dart briefly to Crace, drawing her into the scene with a single moment of acknowledgement before continuing to address the Herald. 'And Crace was probably just happy to have someone who could talk to her, someone who would listen to her. So I'm glad to know their story. It's sad, and it shouldn't have ended the way it did -- but if I have the same aura of life that Columna had, the one that let him see Crace, then I think I understand both of them better than they might imagine. And even though Columna is lost with the ship, his original purpose for retrieving it shouldn't be forgotten.'
Takuto paused again, and raised one hand to his chest, palm flat against his sternum. The tone of his voice shifted, rising to a pitch that could reach the last row of the auditorium. 'If I do have a radiant aura of life, then its purpose isn't to sail this ship. It's to let me see that girl's smile. And if I wield a knife, it would only be to protect her.'
According to the script, once Marc had spoken his lines he would then ascend to the deck of the ship, where he and Crace would embrace and kiss as the curtain fell. But in the club room, there was no ship, no spotlight, no dramatic music rising to bring the play to a close. There was only the three of them, left staring at each other in the silence of the deserted high school, caught in a stillness as complete as any Zero Time they had experienced.
Takuto was the first to recover enough presence of mind to break the breathless tension. 'Does...does that work for you?' he managed to say, as he let his hand fall to his side. His gaze flickered between Wako and Sugata, suddenly quick and anxious.
'Yes.' Wako's voice was faint, little more than a breath. Her cheeks burned with two spots of pink in her otherwise white face, and her eyes glittered with unshed tears.
Sugata's own eyes were suspiciously bright, but his voice was more steady than Wako's. 'Yes, it does,' he murmured, more to himself than to either Wako or Takuto.
'Okay then.' A smile wavered its way into place on Takuto's face -- only for his expression to shift to one of confusion as he reached up to brush away a droplet of sweat, which had slid from his forehead to the edge of his right eyebrow and was threatening to land in his eye. 'It is kinda hot in here, or....?'
For the first time, Wako seemed to notice how her hair was clinging damply to the nape of her neck. As she moved to fetch her purse (and the clean handkerchief within it), however, her legs wobbled dangerously. 'I think...think I need something to drink,' she gulped, groping blindly for a chair with one hand.
Alarmed, both Sugata and Takuto sprang forward, as smoothly as if they'd coordinated their movements ahead of time. Sugata, taller of the two, steadied Wako with a hand on her back, and Takuto offered her his shoulder to lean on as they helped her to the nearest chair.
'There's some juice in the basket,' Sugata said, once he was certain that Takuto could catch her if she slipped. 'Sit down, I'll get you some.'
Once Wako was seated, Takuto wasn't far behind him. 'How about some more of those grapes as well?' he asked, hurrying towards the table as Sugata dug through the basket in search of the juice.
'I'm fine, I'm fine!' Wako exclaimed, flushing now with embarrassment rather than exertion. 'I was just standing for too long with my knees locked, like a big dummy.' She leaned forward all the same, clasping her hands in her lap to stop them from shaking, as she watched her friends pull all manner of snacks out of the basket. 'You both should eat something, too.'
'Oh, I could confidently manage a sandwich or twelve at this point.' Takuto turned, his hands full of grapes and strawberries, and gave Wako a knowing eyebrow waggle. 'Sugata, are you all set with the drinks?'
'Almost there.' Sugata pulled the tabs on three cans of fruit juice, and collected them in his hands. He and Takuto took the food and drinks over to Wako, and there was a quick but hectic moment of juggling while they pulled up two more chairs close together and figured out how best to distribute everything among three people. Wako pressed the cold can to her cheek, almost cooing at the deliciously icy feeling against her hot skin, and Takuto made short work of half a dozen grapes while Sugata tipped his head back and drained his can in a single long swallow.
'Ah, I needed that,' Sugata said, once he came up for air. He reached over and took the sliced strawberries from Takuto, and held the open container out to Wako. 'Take time out for a snack, and then we run the lines as usual?'
'Finn wifth mrph -- I mean, fine with me,' Takuto said, licking his lips before taking a swig of juice.
'Me, too.' Wako took a few strawberries, and waved away Sugata's attempt to offer her more. 'I'm really glad I don't have to play three roles in the real thing, though.'
'One part's more than enough for me as well.' Sugata set his empty can on the floor beside his chair, and helped himself to both a handful of strawberries and one of the grapes in the bag on Takuto's lap. 'I don't think the President will be able to say that you're holding back, Takuto. Not that you ever had any real problems with it in the first place,' he added dryly.
'I wasn't sure when we first came in here, but right now I think I know what I'll have to do.' Takuto was about to sip from his can again, but lowered it instead, letting it rest on his knee. 'Thanks, you guys,' he said, open and sincere. 'You've really helped me out.'
Sugata cleared his throat noisily, and Wako hurriedly drank a full mouthful of juice to hide the blush that threatened to creep back into her cheeks. Takuto grinned, popped another grape into his mouth, and then said nonchalantly, 'So, who wants the other half of a sandwich?'
As Wako got up to help Takuto explore the rest of the basket, only Sugata noticed the movement of a shadow against the wall at the far side of the room, near a jumble of cardboard boxes that needed to be broken down and tied together for recycling. Out of instinct, his hand went to the prop knife still jammed into his belt loop, but he stopped short when he saw the upper part of the shadow twitch -- like a pair of pointed ears flicking, quick as lightning -- before the whole shape narrowed and dwindled down to nothing, vanishing in the blink of an eye.
Sugata pressed his lips together in a thin, pensive line. He had locked the door himself. The keys had not left his pocket. Tiger and Jaguar knew where the three of them had gone for the day, but even though they had their orders to guard him at all times he could not picture them sharing that information with anyone else. And Wako and Takuto were still elbows-deep in the basket, tossing words like cheesecake and cookie and chicken sandwich back and forth to each other, with no indication that they had seen what Sugata had just seen.
And yet in spite of himself, Sugata smiled. If this impromptu Sunday afternoon practice session was turning out to be a proper rehearsal for their opening night, then perhaps it was for the best that they had had an appreciative audience.
Takuto and Wako, he felt certain, would approve.