Applause stormed through the night and overwhelmed the cry of the cicadas. Cheers and laughter raised up like offerings to a mighty god. Rika surveyed the crowd, their eyes wide and shining brighter than any star she had ever seen. They worshipped her, placing her on a pedestal as she finished her ceremonial dance, the hoe weighing heavily in her hands. The bells jingled, echoing in her ears, and the ribbons threatened to lace around her wrists, dragging her down over the slightest mistake.
She maintained her smile. Plastic and composed, she bowed, her long locks shadowing her expression. Voices from the miscellaneous villagers meshed together. She couldn’t discern one from the other despite having lived in Hinamizawa her entire life. Their words wrapped around her brain, choked her, and released, forgotten in an instant as she raised her head.
It wasn’t like she needed to memorize useless people. They were all going to vanish in a few days.
She let her gaze trickle down to the front row. She spotted Mion’s vibrant outfit and heard Rena’s shrill cooing, the girls clinging to each other as they gushed over her wonderful performance. Keiichi clapped louder than anyone, his expression a mask of awe, and a bitter grin played on her lips.
He must have seen her dance fifty times by now, but he would never remember. Like the rest of them, he would watch with the rapture of a fan seeing an idol perform for the first time.
Even Satoko looked on with rapture. Compared to other unfortunate times, she beamed and clenched her fists. She leaned forward, having observed every step Rika took and bobbed her head along, matching her rhythm. She didn’t even seem to care when other villages shot her miserly glares, her attention squarely focused on Rika even if it made her heart pang.
Rika clenched the hoe to her chest and spun on her heels. The wind tickled her neck, and her clothes suffocated her, but it was nothing compared to the pain that would eventually come. In just a few short days, lifetimes in themselves, the reckoning would come as she marched behind the curtains.
“Yeah, Rika-chan! That was incredible!”
“You made this old man proud!”
“I wanna take you home with me!”
She moved her lips along to their words. They had said those lines at least thirty times. Other fragments Hanyuu had told her about sometimes contained differences like Keiichi missing by claiming to be sick, but otherwise, it was standard. Rinse and repeat she assumed as she gripped the curtain, beginning to slide into the darkness of the backstage.
She glanced over her shoulder, finding Satoko cupping her hands over her mouth.
“I’ll make the best mochi for you tomorrow! That was your greatest performance yet!”
Her lips trembled as she smiled, unable to whisper Satoko’s vow. She memorized the taste of the red bean paste, oftentimes being much too sweet on her tongue while Hanyuu would sigh and touch her cheek. The sticky texture in her mouth and hands, the sugar powdering her palms, the round smoothness of the treat, she had known it all too well.
Rika slipped behind the curtain. She clutched the hoe with white-knuckled intensity, her vision blurring with unshed tears. Hanyuu’s voice crept into her right ear, meager words of comfort exiting through her left ear. She leaned back, her gaze following the painfully bright moon that shone down on her like a spotlight, knowing it would be the last thing she would ever see in this Hinamizawa.
“Hanyuu,” she whispered, dropping the hoe, the metal clattering with the ringing bells, “will it be like this in the next fragment, too?”
Appearing by her side, Hanyuu folded her hands in front of her stomach. She leered at the creaking stage, hearing the footsteps of children beginning to climb on to dance. Elders shouted at them to move, that only Rika-chama’s dance was poignant enough for Oyashiro-sama as mothers scrambled to snatch them away.
“You should try to enjoy yourself,” Hanyuu said, her words spearing through Rika’s heart. “You’ve had fun tonight playing games and eating, and you looked like you were whole again.”
“Playing the same games gets boring,” she spat, Hanyuu’s flinch only earning her further ire, “especially when you know how they’ll end.”
She stormed away, leaving Hanyuu in the dust. Her feeble apologies lingered, a whisper in the back of her mind. Her heels creaked on the floorboards and steps as she hurried away from the stage to where they were waiting, their smiling faces almost too much to bear.
Satoko threw her arms around her, a giggle escaping her throat. Rena wasted no time scooping them both up, but Keiichi snatched her collar before she could rush off with them. Mion cackled and offered Rika a skewer with three dangos, its sweet taste already familiar as she accepted it, humming in thanks.
They praised her and the ground she walked on as she gnawed through the treats. Her friends patted her head and clutched her arms, none of them truly understanding their imminent peril. Smiling, eyes shining, feeling like nothing wrong could happen on this festive night, they unconditionally loved her.
“Rika,” Hanyuu whispered, tugging her long sleeve, “play with them. It’s Watanagashi. You should have fun before…”
Her mind would fog, inhaling something that would make her black out, and then, she would awaken on another world. A new Hinamizawa would greet her. The same sunshine would burn her pale skin. The cicadas would bellow anew. Even the crisp breeze dipped with hints of sea salt would welcome her to a new life of tragedy as soon as she took her first breath.
She smiled and took Satoko’s hand. Mion pointed at the variety of stalls they hadn’t visited. Games to play and food to try, walking underneath streamers and lanterns, and the cotton drifting down the stream, they all still had so much to do. The night was still young, the victims still lived, and the moon was still full of life that would eventually be stained with rich, dark blood.
“Rika, which one do you want to visit?” Rena asked, leaning down and holding her knees.
“Oh, we haven’t tried the goldfish scooping game,” she said for what like the thousandth time.
“Awright! Goldfish scooping it is! Whoever gets the biggest goldfish is the winner, and the loser faces a penalty game!” Mion proclaimed, cheers of agreement echoing from the others.
She pumped her fist as well, practiced and precise. Tightening her grip on Satoko’s hand, she followed behind her older friends. She swung their hands up and down, her rhythm uneasy and tired. Satoko giggled, rubbing the crook between Rika’s forefinger and thumb, which was enough to make Rika’s eyes burn with tears.
Flicking her head back to the moon, she willed her sorrow away. Watanagashi was still in full swing. She had hours to go before the real tragedy began. Playing with her friends was all she could do now, and as Hanyuu murmured her apology, she laughed with everyone, knowing full well they would eventually turn to screams.