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This was the dance of the Wind Goddess

Chapter Text

Somewhere, on a distant stage, in the quiet hours of the evening, someone was gently telling a story / someone was softly performing.

“Long ago, there lived a knight, who had a younger brother of whom he was very fond.”

“He was born with a frail body, but nevertheless aimed to become like his older brother by training every day. And one day, people started proclaiming that he had even surpassed the knight.”

“The knight became perturbed. He started worrying that he might lose his rank to his younger brother.”

— And so one day, he prayed to the gods. And unleashed a bitter curse onto the world.

That his dear, loathsome brother fall to an enemy’s arrow.

That the kingdom that betrayed him // that he betrayed, shall one day fall to ruin. That all the knights that had laughed at his arrogance and left him to rot — shall one day see the land that they worked so hard to build turn to ash and dust.

The curtain closed on a certain stage. The curtain rose on another.

She had never spoken the curse aloud. But the two of them met in that magical stage twice, and twice was enough. The first time, with their companions, a battle between their respective realms. The second, when they were alone, fighting as brothers // as sisters.

And as she clashed blades with her dear, loathsome sister — who had once shared a dream with her — Shiori saw through the regret and anger and bitterness and love and she realized

the weight of that curse that had been placed on her.




“Shiori. Pay attention.”

The words drifted in from somewhere, snapping Shiori out of her thoughts. She flinched, tried to clear the haze from her vision. The practice room came back into focus, the other Edels in position ahead of her. Her position was wrong, just a touch out of step. She whispered an apology, and moved into alignment.

The rehearsal continued. Siegfeld’s practice room felt stuffier than usual, somehow. Her body felt sluggish, and her mind threatened to wander to — some dream or another. She struggled to keep up. No one slowed down or even turned to look at her — of course not. They were Edels. She had to keep up.

Odd. Had she not gotten enough sleep? She thought that she had been taking care of herself.

“Okay! That’s the final set,” Michiru’s voice. At least she was present enough to know who was speaking this time. “We’re making good progress, though there’s still a lot of work to do before we’re ready for the Performance Festival. I’m sure you still remember all your steps for Elysion, but keep in mind that there’ll be some more revisions to the scripts and choreography. So be sure to stay flexible.”

The Performance Festival was going to be in a few weeks. And then, after that, finals — and the end of the school year.

This year, Siegfeld was going to stage a reprisal of the Elysion they’d performed in December, with an updated script and set. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to prepare, so it was easier to revisit a play they’d already performed than prepare something totally new. And — it was a rare chance indeed to showcase their best traits. It wasn’t every year that all of the Edels qualified for the festival.

Just thinking too hard about it was enough to make Shiori a little nervous. It was exciting. It was terrifying. It was going to be amazing.

“…so we can’t afford to let up now!” Oh, Michiru had kept talking. “But first, let’s take a break before continuing.”

“Right!”

“Yeah, yeah.”

The formation fell apart as everyone went for their water bottles. Shiori followed them, her mind still in a mild haze.

Everything hurt. That wasn’t all that unusual. The practices at Siegfeld were supposed to be like this. She could work through pain.

But that haziness was strange. She’d done this dance before. She’d performed Elysion before. These movements shouldn’t have been so difficult. She tried visualizing her own steps, the next steps, and her thoughts were scattering like dust.

It was a good time for a break. Water would help. Chattering in the air. Shiori could hear a conversation happening in the distance.

“Yachiyo, how are you feeling? How was Frontier? You still haven’t told us what the experience was like yet.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll get to it. But the Performance Festival is more important, isn’t it? …and what about Shiori? She was there too…”

“Oh right! Shiori!” — was that Mei Fan waving to her? “Are you alright? You look like you’ve got a lot on your mind.”

Shiori nodded. It was hard to think. It took her a bit for her to realize that Mei Fan had broken away from the group to talk to her.

“I didn’t get a chance to say this earlier, but I thought your Valentine’s Day performance was fantastic! And it must’ve been a lot of work to juggle that with our normal practice. So don’t worry if you feel like you should take it easy for a bit, okay?”

“Hey, how come I don’t get a pass to take it easy?” Yachiyo, probably?

“Mei Fan, don’t get carried away,” a harsher voice in the distance. That could only be Akira. “It’s been nearly a week. That’s more than enough time for an Edel to be back on her feet.”

Everyone was in good spirits, at least. One less thing for Shiori to worry about.

It was true that not much time had passed since that play at the mall. It was a lot to process in a few days, the highs and lows of finishing a show, the long, awkward conversation that she’d had with Fumi…but it wasn’t anything she hadn’t felt before. Akira was right. She should’ve been back to normal by now. If anything, now that her sister was at least speaking to her again, a great weight should’ve cleared from her mind.

— But there had been very little time to practice for the Valentine’s Day show, and Shiori had worked very hard to get it right. Enough that, once the weekend was over, it felt strange to not be at Frontier’s rehearsal room. Maybe she had overexerted herself a bit. She’d been feeling a bit off ever since that show.

“Shiori? Are you listening?”

Shiori looked up, saw that Mei Fan and Akira were both looking at her. The former with overt concern, the latter with the same stern expression she always had.

“Ah, I am now,” Shiori said. “Sorry. I got a bit lost in thought.”

She was fine. Fine enough to continue, anyway. This wasn’t a good day, but it probably wasn’t her worst.

“You’re apologizing unnecessarily again. Be sure to clear your mind before we return to rehearsals. Your movements always become stiffer when your thoughts weigh you down,” was Akira’s response, before she turned to Mei Fan. “And there you are. There’s nothing to worry about.”

They left her alone. Shiori drank some more water, in time to hear two claps from the middle of the rehearsal room.

Michiru’s voice rang out over the noise. “Okay, that’s enough talk for now. Let’s continue practice.”

They continued practicing.

They danced. Akira the Celestial Goddess, herself the Wind Goddess. Her mind was not in it but her body still remembered the steps, and Akira was leading and all she had to do was let herself be led.

It was a fog. She was getting out of breath a little too quickly. The scene ended and they moved on. Akira didn’t say anything, and Shiori couldn’t tell if she was satisfied or disappointed. Shiori knew that she herself was disappointed. It was as if she was trying to channel the goddess’s power, but instead had let herself be possessed.

By the end of practice, Shiori felt like she was going to collapse. Not the first time. She had a long way to go before she could catch up to the others, surely, and the routine of an Edel was still a struggle.

She could do better than this, though. Shiori staggered over to the wall, leaned against it as she caught her breath.

“Shiori. How’re you doing?”

She turned, and saw that Michiru was standing right next to her. When did she get there?

“Fine, I think,” Shiori said. How many times had people asked today? How many times had she replied? Fine, fine, she was fine, this was what it took to claim the stage —

“That’s good. Everything okay outside of practice? I know we’ve been keeping you really busy,” Michiru continued.

“My schoolwork’s fine,” Shiori said, frowned. “I’ve been feeling a bit tired lately, I guess.”

“You look it. That’s why I asked. Are you getting enough sleep? Eating well?” Michiru paused. “I know Akira’s always going on and on about how important it is to watch your diet, but you’re still growing. You have to make sure you’re eating enough first.”

Where was this coming from? “Um. I don’t think I’ve been doing anything different?” At least, she didn’t think she was sleeping any worse than usual, and Siegfeld’s cafeteria was still as good as always.

“Hmm…then let me ask. What did you think about today’s practice?” Michiru asked.

Oh. Of course.

“It didn’t go very well,” Shiori said. “Sorry. My head wasn’t in it.”

“Everyone has their bad days. But it’s up to us to learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves. And — it seems like to me you’ve been feeling stuck again for quite a few days now.”

A few days? Shiori had to admit that maybe Michiru was right about that. Michiru was good at reading people. And Shiori certainly was feeling — not right, somehow. But even she couldn’t figure out why everything was so difficult recently.

“You know that if there’s anything troubling you, you can tell Akira or myself, right?”

“It’s nothing, I think…” Shiori said. She shook her head.

“Then let’s see a better Frau Jade tomorrow,” Michiru said, a slight grin appearing on her face. “I know there was a lot going on recently, but that’s no excuse to take your rehearsals lightly. We Edels are the face of Siegfeld, after all.”

“Right. I’m really sorry that I’ve been slacking off.”

Yes, that must’ve been it. Maybe it really wasn’t a good idea to do an extracurricular performance. She must’ve been neglecting the skills she built up at Siegfeld.

To her surprise, Michiru’s face become one of confusion.

“…Huh. I was hoping that those words would fire you up, but you must be really tired. There’s nothing to be sorry about, Shiori. You haven’t been slacking off at all. But here at Siegfeld, we must always aspire to even greater heights. Continue to work hard, okay?”

Was Michiru disappointed?

“I’ll do better,” Shiori said.

It was a promise that was not a promise. Shiori wanted to say those words — ‘I promise’ — but they refused to leave her lips. It should’ve been a promise, because that was her duty as Frau Jade.

Either way, Michiru’s smile returned to her face, and she pat Shiori on her shoulder. “Yep, I know you will. We’re all counting on you.”

It couldn’t be a promise, because — because something in the back of her mind was telling her that she wouldn’t be able to keep it.




She felt a little better after unwinding a bit following practice. The pain was still there, but that was normal, very normal. Yachiyo had boasted once that a typical girl wouldn’t even be able to stand after a single rehearsal at Siegfeld. Mei Fan had scolded her for exaggerating, but Yachiyo hadn’t really sounded like she was exaggerating.

Shiori wasn’t sure if she could remain standing. (Hadn’t she gotten used to this?) But if she grit her teeth, she could walk. She was an actress. She had to show everyone the strongest side of herself.

“Are you really alright, Shiori? You still look troubled.” By the time Shiori finished up with everything, Mei Fan was the only one besides her in the locker rooms.

“Mei Fan-senpai…I’m fine. Probably.”

— though Michiru had mentioned that it was always easy to read the emotions on her face. There was always a chance that Mei Fan had seen right through her.

“Alright. But let me know if that changes!” Mei Fan’s expression cleared up. She didn’t seem like she would pry any deeper, fortunately. “Though — if you’re all set and ready to head back, do you want to walk back to the dorm together? I think Yachiyo’s staying behind a bit longer today.”

“Oh, sure,” Shiori said.

They walked back to the dorm together. It was very cold, which was not too unusual for the middle of February. The cold always made her movements that much stiffer. Another possible cause for her questionable showing lately.

“Rehearsing for Elysion again, huh…it hasn’t been that long since we performed it, but it feels like I’ve already learned a lot since then,” Mei Fan said. “I’m excited to see what changes will be coming our way.”

Mei Fan didn’t look like she minded the cold — she was as enthusiastic as she always was, even as her breath fogged up whenever she spoke.

“Mmm,” Shiori said. “I feel like I haven’t quite gotten used to it yet.”

“You did just finish up a different performance. It’s hard to just let everything go like that. Well, Akira-san can definitely do it no problem, but we’re all still working to catch up to her.”

Mei Fan wasn’t wrong. There was a lot that Shiori was still thinking about. “I suppose,” Shiori said.

She’d seen Fumi again, after however many months. She thought that, once that happened, her mind would be at ease. It had, somewhat, but not everything healed that quickly.

She’d already had something of a reconciliation with Fumi, her sister, the person she admired most. She still lived under the weight of Fumi, the former Frau Jade, the shadow that everyone at Siegfeld remembered.

She wished that there was more time for her to talk with Fumi, to be with Fumi. But the Performance Festival was in a matter of weeks. Shiori was busy. Fumi was also busy, busy with producing her own play with the rest of Rinmeikan’s Performance Association. Busy enough that when Shiori gave Fumi her chocolates and asked when they could talk again, they had spent a whole ten minutes trying to puzzle out their schedules — only to be left with ‘let’s get through the Performance Festival first’ as a conclusion.

“Though, it has been a while since I’ve had to express such rage,” Mei Fan had kept going. "I didn’t really think of it last time, but looking at the script again I think the Fire Goddess feels betrayed more than anything. I’ll have to see how I can work that into the performance. Well, assuming the new script doesn’t change that — "

— Mei Fan stopped, then frowned, staring intently at Shiori.

“Mei Fan-senpai? Is there something on my face?”

“Your hand,” Mei Fan said. “Er, I didn’t mean that your hand’s on your face — I meant…”

Shiori didn’t wait for Mei Fan to finish, and looked at her hands.

Ah.

There was a light rash running across the backs of her hands, and some of the skin had begun to crack. It didn’t itch or anything, but she could imagine that in the future, it would. She hadn’t noticed it during practice. Had it just developed?

Thinking back, Michiru had suddenly asked her a lot of questions about her health. Was this why?

“What kind of lotions do you use? My hands used to do that all the time in the winter,” Mei Fan said. Shiori was barely listening. “It’s been pretty dry these past few days, which is probably why it’s happening now. I have some ointment back at the dorm that helps me a lot.”

Shiori had seen this before. It had been years upon years since the last time her skin had broken out in this way, but it was something that was impossible to forget.

Why now?

Fumi was the one who first noticed the pattern. That every time, right before Shiori would get horribly sick, her arms and neck would break out, the red eventually spreading up to her face and down her back.

— But that was the past. The doctors had said that she would grow out of these illnesses. And she had grown out of them. Maybe this sense of dread didn’t mean anything anymore. Maybe Mei Fan was right, and it was just because of the dryness and the cold. The rash didn’t look quite like the terrifying red of her memories.

“Shiori?”

There was no sense burdening the others with useless information, not when there was something as important as the Performance Festival on the horizon. And it wasn’t like this was anything new, right? She’d practiced before in less-than-ideal conditions. When her joints were stiff enough that it’d be painful to dance, or when she’d had enough schoolwork that it was difficult to fit in enough sleep.

“Mei Fan-senpai,” Shiori hoped that her voice was more even than her thoughts were. “Do you think I could borrow some of your ointment tonight?”

If Mei Fan saw through her, she didn’t show it. Mei Fan smiled, pumped the air with her fist. “Of course!”




Shiori did not get terribly ill. The next day came and went, and she did not develop a scarily high fever, nor did she break down coughing. That much, at least, was a relief.

Mei Fan’s ointment was…certainly interesting. It smelled very interesting, and it burned when Shiori applied it, but she had to admit that it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. But despite Mei Fan’s high praise of the stuff, the rash didn’t go away. At the same time, it also didn’t spread; the red only showed up in patches on Shiori’s forearms, on the backs of her hands. Same as the day before.

Nothing else had changed, either. She was still, inexplicably, so tired. Her joints still hurt, and not from the usual soreness. A little voice at the back of her head told her — that this was nothing to celebrate. She could still get sick later. Should she even be practicing? If she overexerted herself, surely she would get sick. If she stopped at all, surely she would fall behind.

She supposed that making everything better in one day was probably too much to ask.

Of course, the other Edels noticed the red. Shiori got a bunch of sympathies, and some well-meaning advice. Wear warm clothing. Make sure to moisturize your skin. Yachiyo had quite a bit more beauty advice, but it was difficult to listen to anything.

The tiredness persisted. Another bad day. Michiru approached her after practice, more seriously this time, and told her to go to the medical center.

Shiori went to the medical center. They gave her painkillers and some skin cream, and sent her on her way. Nothing was wrong with her, really, besides some inflammation, some fatigue. Standard fare for how much she was moving around. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed on her next day off. She needed some more sleep. How could she possibly fit in more sleep? She wasn’t even sleeping that badly. She had to endure until then.

‘Come to me if anything is troubling you,’ Michiru had said.

— What could Shiori even say? If she had a problem, of course she’d tell the others. She wasn’t sure what the problem was, if there even was a problem beyond her own lack of motivation. Everyone cared so much about her. Everyone would take their own time to help her, even though she had no idea how they could even help. She couldn’t afford to fall behind. She didn’t want to drag anyone else down.

But the days slipped by and the Performance Festival inched ever closer, and she wasn’t getting any better.

No matter what she tried, the tiredness was slowly catching up to her. She was losing time, valuable practice time. Blink, and suddenly everyone had moved on to the next movement. Lose focus for just a moment, and Akira would be there to reprimand her. “Shiori. We’re still in rehearsal. What’s wrong?”

Shiori would answer, if only she knew the answer.




There was still about a month until the Performance Festival. It was a lot of time, but Michiru knew from experience that it would never truly be enough time.

There were a few hiccups, but plans were proceeding smoothly.

At first, she’d wondered how everyone would take the news that they were going to perform Elysion for the Performance Festival. Michiru had justified it by saying that it’d be easier to revisit a play than learn a totally new one, but it was still a very ambitious move. Perhaps even a bit too ambitious: it meant updating the choreography to fit a stage that was very different from Siegfeld’s, and adapting the play to an audience that wouldn’t be familiar with the other two parts.

But as Michiru expected, the Edels were excited by the idea, and leapt at the opportunity for a challenge. Everyone loved Elysion so, had already grown fond of the goddesses they’d become. Michiru watched them as they experimented with new ideas, putting into practice the skills they’d learned over the past few months. Mei Fan and Yachiyo especially — they threw themselves into the roles. They hungered for deeper knowledge, they stayed late puzzling out the emotions they had to display, they sank their souls wholly into the stage.

The Fire Goddess and the Earth Goddess were rapidly evolving. As was Akira’s Celestial Goddess. Michiru didn’t even have to watch her to know that was the case.

Michiru had full faith that, in a few weeks’ time, they’d come to a conclusion. At this pace, the Elysion at the Performance Festival was going to be even better than the one in December. Everyone was fueled by pressure, by passion. Michiru just had to keep an eye on them so that the fire would not die down.

Except —

“Shiori! How are you feeling? Are you doing a bit better than before?”

“Michiru-senpai…I’m doing okay. Thank you for your concern,” Shiori seemed nervous.

“I was planning on staying a bit after rehearsal today and get some more practice in. If you want, you can join me.”

“Ah…” Shiori frowned quickly, and looked worried for a moment. “I probably should keep reviewing the dance, shouldn’t I? I’ll take you up on your offer. Thank you, Michiru-senpai.”

Compared to everyone else, the Wind Goddess hadn’t changed much at all. That was a bit of a surprise. After becoming Frau Jade, Shiori had improved by leaps and bounds over a few short months. If anyone was going to have drastically changed their performance, it should’ve been her. Not that Shiori’s Wind Goddess was bad — but as it was, it was falling out of place in the direction Elysion was moving.

“Shiori. Pay attention to your body’s movements. I know you’ve been getting better, but you’re still not quite ready yet to dance without thinking at all,” Michiru said. “Are you anxious about something? Your steps are wandering.”

“Ah…”

“Leave all your other thoughts and feelings behind. The Wind Goddess hasn’t seen the Celestial Goddess in many, many years. How does she feel?” Michiru paused, looked around. “Though — I guess our Celestial Goddess isn’t here, huh? Let’s do that again. I’ll stand in as the Celestial Goddess.”

Michiru observed as Shiori repeated the scene.

— This was no good.

Shiori was just going through the motions. Like she didn’t care about getting better, or was too distracted to think about getting better. She went line by line, making thoughtless mistakes. She danced the same way, as Yumeoji Shiori, not as the goddess she was supposed to become. Michiru gave tips and pointers every time, but she found herself going around in circles. She’d never had to repeat her advice to another Edel.

“Okay, let’s stop here,” Michiru said. “It doesn’t look like we’ll make anymore progress tonight.”

“Right…” Shiori said, folding her arms across her body. It looked like it’d still be a week or two before the skin would fully heal. “I’m sorry.”

“No one can practice all day and night and expect continuous improvement. Well, except maybe Akira. We all have our limits.” Though — an Edel should always be able to recognize those limits and work around them. “I know that there’s a lot going on right now. And Akira and I did kind of spring the idea of doing Elysion again on everyone. Does it bother you that we’re going to perform Part I again so soon?”

Akira had mentioned once that Shiori had hoped to perform Elysion with Fumi. It was a dream that, obviously, could no longer come true.

“No. It’s exciting, really,” Shiori said. She didn’t sound terribly excited. If anything, Shiori sounded almost weary. “Thank you again, Michiru-senpai. I’ll keep doing my best.”

“That’s what I like to hear. We’re a little behind schedule, but it’s nothing that a little extra work can’t fix. Next week, I should have a lot more time for extra practice. We can keep working together, if that’d be helpful.”

“Ah, thank you…”

It’d also give Michiru an opportunity to keep a watchful eye on the younger girl, maybe give her a solid push or two. That was usually enough to chase away any distractions.

All the Edels had been hand-picked by Akira, by herself. A minor setback like this wouldn’t stop their performance.

Michiru’s job was to make sure of that.




One day, right before practice, Akira and Michiru came into the rehearsal room carrying a large pile of papers.

“Okay, everyone! I know it took a bit longer than we expected, but we finally have our revised script!” Michiru announced. “It shouldn’t be too different from what you’ve already learned, but we had to switch up the order of some scenes to fit it in the timeslot we have for the Performance Festival. For that reason, we’ll be starting off today’s practice with a quick script reading.”

Michiru handed out scripts. It did seem a bit thinner than Shiori remembered — she vaguely recalled something about needing to trim some parts to fit the schedule. She flipped through it, trying to remember what had changed. Why couldn’t she remember what had changed?

— “Such was my fate. It is in my nature to return to the earth; the domain of love was lost to me long ago. If I were to open my heart, I would only get hurt again.”

— “Are we bound only to the domains we rule over? Here I am now, on your earth, your soil. I descended from the sky only to satisfy my own curiosity. If we were to only follow the fate already written for us, what would be the point of existence?”

Wait, when had they gotten that far? Where were they now? Shiori flipped back through the pages, hoping she wasn’t too lost, knowing that she looked terribly lost —

“Shiori? Your lines?”

— everyone was staring. Yachiyo, her face drawn up in a slight frown. Mei Fan, her expression filled with worry. Michiru, serious but unjudging. Akira…

“Um…‘Oh, a visitor! A rare sight indeed. What brings you to my realm, O Wayward Goddess?’” This line hadn’t changed. "I — "

“Shiori. Stop.”

Akira’s voice brought the room to an absolute silence.

“That’s enough for today. Go home, and get some rest.”

“I…”

“Take a look at yourself. You’re clearly unwell, and you’ve been making a lot of mistakes lately. Whatever it is that’s weighing you down, address it before you return.” Then, her expression softened, just a bit. “Don’t look so down. Part of it is my mistake. I should have told you this before practice started.”

Shiori stood there in silence for a bit, then lowered her script, and nodded. She tried to blink back the tears that were threatening to form, turned so that she wouldn’t see their faces.

“My apologies, everyone,” Shiori said. “I’ll be taking my leave.”

If anyone said anything afterwards, she was no longer listening.

Shiori had underestimated how terribly awkward it was to use the changing room by herself, when she should’ve been in rehearsal. She wanted nothing more than to go back and rejoin the others, but Akira had been right. She really wasn’t feeling right today.

Akira had also told her to take a look at herself. Right. Shiori quickly changed, then dragged herself to the mirror.

The face that was reflected back at her was ghastly looking. She was pale, excepting the places that were red and inflamed.

The red had spread further, creeping up over her shoulders, onto her chest. Slowly, over days, slowly enough that she had barely noticed it. It still didn’t itch, didn’t hurt, and had simply become a part of her. Her joints, too, felt stiffer and stiffer, like they were machines that needed to be oiled. Bit by bit, her body was transforming, warping into something completely unfamiliar. Swollen flesh and fragile bones that were hers // that couldn’t be hers. At this rate, the red would even reach her face — and then there would be no hiding it. She had enough trouble as is dealing with the weariness that had infected her expressions.

She felt almost monstrous. What a silly thought. She looked back at herself. The red had moved, certainly, but it wasn’t nearly as raw as it was days ago. The cracks had healed, and her hands were pretty much back to normal. Nothing else looked wrong or out of place. Yumeoji Shiori should’ve been the same as she had been.

Shiori could still improve. Akira and Michiru had been terribly patient with her, slyly pacing rehearsals so that she’d get more breaks, going through all the places where she was falling short. It wasn’t enough. She wasn’t enough. She knew she could hit the steps, yet the steps eluded her. She once had the stamina now to endure an entire rehearsal, yet as of late she was suddenly out of breath again, flailing madly to stay afloat.

What was wrong with her?

The medical center had run their standard array of tests and found nothing new. They gave her some supplements, just in case. It felt like a piece of her soul had been yanked out of her body, and her will had dissipated with it.

An unpleasant feeling. It almost would’ve been better to be sick. At least then, she’d know for sure why everything was so inexplicably difficult. But she wasn’t sick. She was overreacting. All the Edels must’ve gone through this much pain, if not more. She couldn’t be the only one to complain about it.

Was there something wrong with her?

Akira and Michiru had often praised her potential. Potential, potential, potential. It was such a hopeful word, it was such a vile word. She’d heard it since she was a child — so long as she worked hard and kept practicing, she should improve. That was the promise that she was always trying to fulfill, that was the curse that had always bound her. But now, Shiori wasn’t improving. They knew it, she knew it.

Maybe that was simply the limit of her capabilities. She was drawing energy from a finite well, and it was slowly beginning to empty. But, did that matter? As long as it lasted to the end of the Performance Festival, then things would be okay.

— Akira’s speech from the day they closed their last performance of Elysion had been burned into her. “It was a wonderful show, everyone. No one besides us could have taken it to this level. But this is not good enough. We must continue our training every day.” Shiori remembered how stern Akira had always been, how certain she was of a bright future. “The Performance Festival awaits us next. It may not be the point, but the public sees it as a competition between the schools. And so, it is a chance for us to prove our skill. We will face Seisho — and we will crush them.”

They had to crush Seisho.

Once, days ago, Michiru had asked her if she was upset that they were performing Elysion.

Shiori had to be honest with herself. The idea of performing Elysion again at the Performance Festival really was terrifying. She was special - the very first junior high school student to represent Siegfeld. The Edels were all special - they had all qualified together. It was a lot of pressure to deal with. Maybe she was imagining all these terrible things so that she’d have an excuse to quit the performance. Maybe she didn’t want to face those expectations.

Maybe if she had had the courage to say this at the very start, none of this had to happen. Maybe she hadn’t felt this way at the very start. She remembered being excited about a repeat performance of Elysion. Especially since it was the Performance Festival. Everyone would be there. Fumi would be there.

…all the more reason she had to swallow those fears. She couldn’t be the same Shiori she was as a child, a crybaby who always relied on everyone else. There was no time for her to rest.

— But Akira had told her to rest, and would definitely not be happy if Shiori tried to return to rehearsal. So for today…that’s what she would do. She made a promise to herself that this wouldn’t happen again.

Shiori couldn’t disappoint them. Akira. Michiru. Mei Fan. Yachiyo. When she had first auditioned for Frau Jade, they scared her, at least a little. They all seemed so serious, so dedicated, and so willing to cast their selves and their classmates aside in pursuit of the king’s stage.

But their passion was infectious, their dedication so admirable. They were all such lovely people, and they had become her cherished friends. They’ve already taken care of her so much, taught her so much, let her see the stage of her dreams.

Even if she had to throw the rest of her soul to the flames, she would rise to face the stage and repay them for everything.




The Performance Festival was edging ever closer, and almost everything was going according to plan.

The ‘almost’ was what bothered Michiru.

Michiru’s suspicions had been right. Something was going on with Shiori, something that was stopping her from being able to dedicate herself wholly to the stage. At first, Michiru had been willing to let it slide; whatever was ailing her hadn’t been bad enough to really cause problems.

Unfortunately, now, it was indeed causing problems. Shiori wasn’t performing as well as she needed to. The other day, Akira even had to send her home. She did not make it to school the day after.

The first years had already finished their work for the student council for the day, leaving Michiru and Akira alone at their usual spots. Akira, penciling in all the forms that should’ve been handled by General Affairs. Michiru, at the laptop, transcribing the other documents to Siegfeld’s archaic online database.

“How long will it be before Shiori returns?” Akira asked.

“She didn’t request another sick day. She should be back tomorrow.”

“What was wrong? Another cold?”

“I’m guessing, but it’s probably anemia. I saw some iron supplements on her desk when I visited.”

It had taken pretty much all of Michiru’s guile to learn that. She’d reached out earlier hoping for answers, but only got apologies and a half-baked ‘I’ll do better’. Shiori had said she didn’t know what the problem was. Shiori wasn’t that good at hiding her expressions.

Maybe Michiru was prying, but it would do them all no good if they didn’t even know why Shiori was out of commission.

“She was lying to us, then, when she said that nothing was different,” Akira said. “She hasn’t been eating well.”

Michiru wouldn’t have used that specific word. But it was true. Like her sister, Shiori was not good at lying.

“Hmm…I wonder…”

Michiru had the feeling that if it could just be explained away with anemia, then Shiori wouldn’t have been so secretive about it.

“We’ve seen this before.” Akira said.

They’d seen this before.

The slow, gradual loss of focus. The frustration that should have been hidden away now bubbling to the surface.

Michiru had been watching Shiori closely, as she’d been watching all the Edels closely. Shiori had always been thoughtful, careful to think about how she approached each step and each movement. But as of late, there were more and more times where she seemed almost reckless, throwing herself into practice. Making mistakes, making the same mistakes, making the kinds of mistakes that Michiru had seen months ago in another Frau Jade. On some days, it really was like watching a shadow.

In that case —

“She’s probably aware of how this all looks,” Michiru said. “It feels like she’s been putting on a brave face for a while.”

“And doing poorly at it.” Akira kept filling out the forms which should’ve been Shiori’s job. “If she’s struggling so much to the point that she can’t even hold herself together, it’s up to her to recognize that and ask for help.”

Michiru closed her laptop. “…I thought we’d learned from our previous mistakes. The Edels are closer now. She trusts us. Or so I believed.”

“It doesn’t matter how close we are as people. Everything we do has to be for the sake of the stage. Beyond simply having the skill, you also need a certain mental fortitude to make it here. The Yumeojis must not have realized that.”

Akira’s voice was the same as it always was, harsh and cold and absolutely confident. A little too confident.

“You had your eye on Shiori for a long time now. You insisted that she become Frau Jade. Do you regret your decision?”

“No.” The only answer Akira could give. “I know Shiori can do it. She has the potential.”

“You sound frustrated.”

“Of course I am. I don’t doubt her skills or her talent. But if she doesn’t believe that about herself, then she might as well be throwing all that away.”

Akira finished filling out the forms. She took them, straightened them out against the desk.

“Do you think it was because of the Valentine’s Day performance?” Michiru asked. “It must’ve been hard on her, practicing for that in addition to the Performance Festival and the school assignments…”

“An Edel rises to any challenge.”

“I wasn’t going to say that she shouldn’t have done it. But there must be a reason why she’s being so shy again all of a sudden. Did something happen at that performance…?”

Michiru paused, deep in thought. She had watched, of course, and it had been a remarkable performance indeed. She heard from later that Fumi had been in the audience. And the day after, Shiori’s mood was noticeably brighter than it had been for a while, before everything had started to fall apart.

Old ghosts will always haunt us, huh? Michiru made a face. The air seemed fragile.

Akira stood up, passed the finished forms over. Michiru sighed, opened the laptop back up, and began transcribing the forms. Yachiyo had offered to take over Shiori’s work, but Akira had insisted she do it herself. Maybe Michiru should’ve given the work to Yachiyo anyway. At least she knew how to operate a computer.

“I’ll talk to Shiori and resolve this,” Akira said. “If she is still concerned about her sister, then it is up to us to make sure that her concerns are addressed. It won’t turn out like last time.”

If they moved quickly, then yes, this could be resolved quickly. Michiru had been keenly listening in on the gossip. Sure, people were talking about Frau Jade, like they always did, and students had been expressing concern about Shiori’s mysterious skin condition. No one had cast any doubts on Shiori’s ability yet.

But —

“The way Shiori is now, she won’t be able to give a good performance,” Michiru said. She couldn’t leave that possibility unspoken. “If that doesn’t change, then —”

“That won’t happen,” Akira said. “She was the only one who could be Frau Jade. We need her for our stage.”

Michiru kept typing away at her laptop. “What if she’s wrong? What if we were wrong?”

“We aren’t. This conversation is over.” Akira’s voice had all the confidence in the world. Enough that Michiru wasn’t going to argue. Michiru didn’t want to argue.

Silence fell over the student council room.




“I’m sorry. I’m doing the best I can, Yukishiro-senpai.”

Shiori felt like a broken record. Yes, she had made sure to sleep well. Yes, she was still tired. Yes, she was fine. Well enough to practice. Yes, she would be at practice. She would do better.

Everyone was trying to fire her up, she knew. She was trying to fire herself up. But the fatigue and the pain refused to go away.

“We need to know what’s wrong,” Akira said. “Otherwise, how can we fix it? We can’t afford to have any problems fester before the Performance Festival. Have you considered seeing a doctor?”

Yes. At least, she’d been to the medical center enough times that she felt silly. They told her to get more rest, and she had gotten more rest. They gave her medications. She had taken the medicine diligently. Nothing had actually improved. It must’ve all been in her head.

It was so simple. All she had to do was to clear her mind, focus on the rehearsal, let the results of all that practice take over. Focus, focus, focus — why was that so difficult?

“I know that there’s so much more I need to do,” Shiori said. Was she trying to convince herself?

Akira’s expression remained unchanged. “You shouldn’t push yourself to exhaustion.”

“What else could I do?” Shiori realized she was shouting, flinched and put a hand to her mouth. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter. “I told you before, didn’t I? That I must work harder than everyone else, that I must prove myself again and again. I can’t afford to stop now, not when the Performance Festival is so close.”

Akira said nothing. She looked pensive, as if trying to find a solution, her sight drifting down. Shiori followed Akira’s gaze to her arms. She’d taped them up, but it was still clear that the cracked red patches had spread all the way up to her shoulders. By now, Shiori had tried all kinds of creams and moisturizers and lotions, to no effect.

If only Akira could do something, anything, to make everything right.

“I can do it. Do you not believe me?” Shiori asked.

“No, I do,” Akira looked away, and Shiori followed her eyes again, towards the other Edels. And suddenly, Akira’s expression was harsh again. “But remember, Shiori. You have to always think about the best way to push yourself further. We’re all counting on you.”

And then practice was over, and Shiori was left alone in the rehearsal room. She took a breath, tried to clear her mind, and went to the locker room to join the others. She felt like she was being taken over by something foul.

The same words, the same thoughts, the same frustrations. Hadn’t she been here before? How many days had it been since she was truly in good form?

Mei Fan and Yachiyo were waiting for her at the locker room, but she told them to go back to the dorm without her. Shiori didn’t really want to talk to them right now. They’d too easily notice how lost in thought she was. She wouldn’t have answers for them, no matter what they asked.

Shiori went back to the rehearsal room. No one else was here. It was the perfect time to do a little extra practice of her own.

‘Your movements get stiff when you’re weighed down by your thoughts,’ Akira had said. If only it were so easy to clear her mind.

But that wasn’t quite right either. ‘You’re not quite ready yet to dance without thinking at all,’ Michiru had told her once.

There was a time when Shiori could find the balance between the two, right?

She danced. This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who could laugh without worries, who made friends with all the woodland animals. Oh, they’d changed the step in the middle here, when the Celestial Goddess was to arrive. Shiori got it wrong, shook her head, and tried to get it right.

What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten? Something was wrong, they knew, she knew, and there was nothing she could say that could help them fix it in time for the Performance Festival, and —

She danced, trying to collect her thoughts. It hurt, like something was stabbing into her chest, but she could deal with it. Everyone sacrificed for the stage. Everyone had gotten hurt for the stage. The pain grew sharper and more pronounced, and it only fueled her.

All the same thoughts, looping around and around in her head —

Ah. A new thought struck her.

That was why Onee-chan couldn’t say anything.

The Fumi she had met in the underground theater was the Fumi who knew why she had to leave Siegfeld. That version of her was able to answer Shiori’s accusations of betrayal, apologize, and begin the clumsy work of moving on.

— But the Fumi who had left, the Fumi of months ago — may not have known what was wrong. Or even if she had an idea, it wasn’t something that could be said. All she could’ve known was that it hurt. The Edels had been preparing for Elysion then, as they were preparing for Elysion now. It must’ve felt as pointless then for Fumi — as it did for Shiori now — to confide in them when there was nothing they could do to help.

All Shiori knew now was that it still hurt. Something was wrong with her, and she still couldn’t commit herself to figuring out what. Making that commitment would take up time she didn’t have, with no guarantee of any result. Better to push herself to the limit now, and worry about everything else after the Performance Festival.

…no, that wasn’t right, either. It would do her no good to overexert herself. She was still growing, after all. Who was it that told her that again? It was hard to think. It was already dark outside. The dance wasn’t coming together, but that was fine. It could be fixed later. She had to catch her breath.

She couldn’t catch her breath. Something was — wrong.

It had to be fixed it couldn’t be fixed it had to be —

A wave of dizziness hit her. Shiori shook her head, stumbled over to the wall, leaned on it. It was a little too cold, all of a sudden.

This again?

The first thing that came to her mind was annoyance. Of all the times for this to happen, it had to be now? No, that was wrong. She knew, long ago, that something like this would happen.

She sank down to the ground, reached out for her phone. At some point she had gotten her phone. It was difficult to stand, let alone walk. She wasn’t going to make it back to the dorm like this. She needed help. Fumi. Fumi would know what to do. She’d helped before — no. Not the time. It was late, too late. Fumi needed to prepare for her own show. Rinmeikan was too far away —

Shiori called someone. She thought she called someone. It was hard to tell. It felt a bit like her body was going to fall to pieces.

Everything caught up to her.




Michiru had been on her way back to the dorms when she got a phone call.

“Shiori?”

In the end, she forgot about the upcoming performance for the rest of the evening.




Shiori had been here before. The fluorescent ceiling lights, the white walls, the distinct, sterile smell of the hospital.

She was delirious from fever. Everything ached — different from how things ached after practice. The monitor she was hooked up to said that her vitals, at least, were normal — minus the fever. That meant nothing. Her vitals were always normal.

She was very familiar with this feeling. She knew that even if she tried to get up and move, she wouldn’t get very far. In the past, she would try to get up anyway, and Fumi would have to rush to her side and scold her.

That was the one difference. Fumi wasn’t here.

Somewhere, on a distant stage, someone was softly dreaming.

The kingdom was in mourning. The talented knight, who had once been entrusted with the king’s precious jade, had tragically passed away.

— Or so everyone believed. But the knight’s brother had held out hope that the lost knight was still alive. The brother mastered the spear and the arts, trying to reach out to the ghosts, and after grueling training — was able to recover the jade and become a knight himself.

The young knight was busy, having taken up his brother’s old responsibilities as Marquis. He spent his days protecting the realm, and his nights journeying afar and practicing his skills so that someday, he may find his lost brother.

One day, his journey took him to a fortune teller. Unfortunately, the fortune teller was unable to tell him anything regarding his brother’s fate. But the fortune teller still beckoned him to stay.

“There is something that you need to know,” the fortune teller said. “About yourself. But it is a truth you may not wish to hear.”

“Then even more, I need to hear it,” the young knight said.

The fortune teller nodded towards the knight’s right hand, which was holding tightly onto that jade. “You are valued greatly for the skill you have with your spear, for your knowledge of the arts. However, sometime in the distant past, a curse was placed upon your body, a curse that can never be lifted. The knowledge of the arts shall never leave you, but the curse will sap your strength and weaken your sword arm. You may find yourself unable to remain a knight. And should you insist on keeping ahold of that precious stone, you may hasten your own death.”

At that, the young knight smiled in relief. The fortune teller gave him a confused look. “You aren’t displeased?”

“Not at all,” was the young knight’s reply. “I always knew that this body was weak. I knew I had been cursed ever since I accepted the jade. No, even longer than that…I had my suspicions ever since I was a child. But now — thanks to you — I finally know that I was not simply imagining things. You have given me the gift of knowing what that curse is. Even knowing that it cannot be lifted is better than wandering in fear.”

Finally.

Finally.

There was a reason why Shiori’s body was like that. Why she was so tired all the time, even after having slept and eaten just like Akira had asked. Why her limbs and her chest always felt like they would be set aflame. The doctors nodded at her and said — that no, nothing about her experience was normal.

It wasn’t just a passing cold. It wasn’t that she was being lazy, or that she was buckling under the pressure, or that she wasn’t taking care of herself.

Her body had been attacking itself, destroying her organs — especially her joints, her lungs, her skin. It was a bit more complicated than that, and Shiori wasn’t entirely sure of the details. It was easier to think of it as a persistent curse.

“You were lucky,” the doctors said. “That you got medical attention so quickly.”

It was the lung damage that had felled her. She could have died. She hadn’t died.

She was still drifting in and out of consciousness. Her mind couldn’t hold onto everything they were telling her. There was something important she was forgetting, something that she should not be forgetting.

Still, it felt like she had found some light at the end of a long road.

Finally, it made sense. The weakness of her childhood. The pain that had claimed her every single time she performed, that she had gotten so used to. That she’d kept secret from the Edels, from her parents, from Fumi.

Finally, that long long curse that had bound her all this time had a name.

Chapter Text

Somewhere in a one-bedroom apartment, Fumi was up a little later than usual trying to put together some props for Rinmeikan’s show. The Performance Festival was coming up soon. There was not a moment to waste.

The phone rang.

“Who in the world would call at this hour?” Fumi reached across to the table to grab it. “It better not be a spam —” and froze.

She had to take this.

“Yachiyo. Yes, I was awake. No, I can tell it’s important. What’s going on?”

The old kingdom was approaching a crisis, and the king’s most trusted knights were all being rallied to prepare for battle.

This was something they had known would happen. All the knights of the realm had sworn fealty to the king, sworn to protect their kingdom. They dedicated their lives to the king, and in return, the king blessed them and protected the land. They built that land together, atop a glittering stage.

Would you offer all your brilliance to the kingdom?

The young knight swore the oath when he received the jade. The fallen knight who was once his brother had sworn that same oath, a fact that only filled him with regret. The ghost of that fallen knight still lingered, screaming warnings to anyone who would listen. Hoping, desperately, that his still-living brother would listen.

If you truly believed in this oath, then what would wait for you at the end of this path?

— From the very beginning, Fumi had inflicted this dream upon them both.

If you dedicated your life to the king, was there any room left for your own soul?

— Even now, with her body in such a state, she knew that Shiori would attempt to stand on that stage again.

If the king ordered you to your death, would you follow your orders — and die?

“There was only one thing she told me, Fumi-san. You have your own performance to prepare for. She requested that you not compromise that for her sake.”

“Best of luck to you in the Performance Festival.”

“…and to you.”

The call ended, and Fumi looked like she was ready to crush her phone in her bare hand.

Then she took a deep breath, put her phone away, and looked at the half-completed props lying around everywhere.

The old kingdom was approaching a crisis. But the knight who lost the jade had died long ago.

There was no room left for his ghost to interfere.




It was lunch break. Normally, Michiru spent the first half eating by herself or with Akira somewhere on the school grounds, and the second taking a quick nap.

Today, she found herself drifting towards the student council room. And she didn’t feel all that much like napping.

Any of the student council members could spend their lunch break here, and the Edels would cycle in and out depending on their schedules. The only one that Michiru noticed would consistently be here for lunch break was Shiori, always the diligent one, who spent the time finishing up extra student council work. She enjoyed the quiet, or so she said.

But Shiori wasn’t here today. Maybe that was why Michiru decided to stop by. And it appeared that she wasn’t the only one with that idea; not long after Michiru arrived, Akira also entered the student council room.

They ate together in silence for a little bit. Akira’s expression was as serious as ever, but Michiru could tell there was an unspoken question hanging in the air.

“Yachiyo was the one who handled things last night,” Michiru said. “She was the one closest to the rehearsal rooms when I got the call. Shiori was conscious when they brought her to the hospital, but Yachiyo said she didn’t ask about anything else. It wasn’t the time for prying.”

“And that’s all we know?”

“That’s all we know.”

“I see.”

How long Shiori would be hospitalized for, whether or not she’d be able to practice afterwards, what was even wrong — they didn’t know any of that. The only confirmation that Michiru had gotten from Yachiyo was that Shiori did not look visibly injured. More likely an illness than an injury.

Michiru kept talking. “Siegfeld’s Board of Directors has some sway with the Performance Festival committee. If Shiori doesn’t recover…they may decide that we need to find a new Frau Jade, and use their influence to transfer Shiori’s invitation for the Performance Festival.”

“Do you think that’d happen?”

“It’s just a hypothetical. We have to be prepared.”

“With three weeks to the performance?”

“I’m sure Siegfeld’s Board could pull it off if they really wanted. Or we could double up the part. Have Yachiyo perform for both the Earth Goddess and the Wind Goddess,” Michiru said. “Mei Fan and I are on stage immediately before and after the Wind Goddess’s scenes, and we wouldn’t be able to change that quickly.”

Only Edels could perform Elysion. Siegfeld allowed no exceptions to that rule, not even for circumstances like this.

“…doable, but not ideal,” Akira said. “Either way, our rehearsal schedule doesn’t change. Our focus should remain on making the perfect performance.”

Michiru knew Akira’s focus wouldn’t waver. She wasn’t worried about any of the Edels, in that regard.

“That’s true. It all depends on what the Board decides. They probably know more about the situation than we do.” Michiru was a little concerned about that. They’d prioritize Siegfeld’s reputation and prestige over all else. What did that mean for Shiori? For herself?

— That train of thought was abruptly ended when the student council room’s door was thrown open, and Mei Fan burst into the room.

“Akira-san! Michiru-san! Is it true that Shiori’s in the hospital?!”

“…you’re indoors. Lower your voice, Mei Fan,” Akira said.

“Sorry!” Mei Fan didn’t really lower her voice. “And sorry I didn’t say anything sooner! I just saw all the texts from last night and came running as soon as I could.”

“Then you know everything we do,” Michiru said. “The Board hasn’t given us any directions, and Shiori hasn’t informed us of any new developments either. So as far as we’re concerned, we Edels are the only ones who know that she’s even in the hospital.” Well, she assumed that Shiori’s family knew too, but Michiru couldn’t even say that for sure. “On that note, please don’t say anything about this to the other students. We don’t want any rumors spreading.”

“I won’t! But I have a question. You said in our last text that we wouldn’t change the schedule at all. Shouldn’t we take some time to visit Shiori in the hospital?”

“That was my decision,” Akira said. “Like it or not, we are rapidly approaching a performance date.”

“But —”

“Hmm, think about it this way,” Michiru said. “I’m sure Shiori wants Siegfeld to beat everyone else at the Performance Festival, regardless of what else happens. Would she rather we spent our time worrying over her, or perfecting the performance that we promised to put on? She’d probably feel guilty for keeping us away from the stage.”

At that, Mei Fan frowned, and noticeably backed off. She looked deep in thought for a few seconds, before her face relaxed and she nodded. “I trust your judgment, Michiru-san.” And then that fire was back in her eyes, the smile back on her face. “Alright. I know Shiori will be back with us in no time. I’ll work ever harder so that she doesn’t have to worry about a thing.”

— Something caught Michiru’s eye. Was that a shadow at the corner of the student council room?

“Say, Mei Fan, do you have a little free time?” Michiru said. “There’s still quite a lot of student council work for the end-of-year ceremony. Shiori was supposed to get this —” Michiru reached around, grabbed a stack of papers — “all properly bound and stamped to give to the staff, but she’s obviously not here. Do you mind taking care of it?”

“Of course not!” Mei Fan took the papers. “There’s still some time before lunch ends, so I can do that right now. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do!”

And then she was gone.

“…Akira, maybe you should go with her,” Michiru said. “Once we hand that in, they’ll probably give us a lot more work.”

“Sure.”

— And with that, Michiru was alone in the student council room. Or, not quite alone. She watched that shadow, waited a few moments, and sure enough, Yachiyo stepped into the room.

“My, the student council room is popular today,” Michiru said. “Anyway, what brings you here, Yachiyo?”

“Me? You were the one staring daggers at me the whole time, Michiru-senpai. I figured you wouldn’t be too happy if I left without saying hello.”

“Hmm? What do you mean by that? I was simply wondering why you weren’t coming in.”

Yachiyo smiled slightly and shook her head. “Sure. Let’s keep it at that. For what it’s worth, I did try to stop Mei Fan from barging in.”

“Ah, that’s why you were here. It all turned out okay, though. We needed to talk about it at some point. And I still needed to thank you for taking care of everything last night.”

“I just did what any of us would do,” Yachiyo replied, her expression inscrutable. “If anything, it’s my fault that it got that serious. I knew we shouldn’t have let Shiori stay behind on her own yesterday.”

“And what would you have done? If she was feeling unwell, she could’ve told us. We can’t exactly read her mind, and we have our own parts to be concerned with.”

“…I suppose.”

Then, Yachiyo leaned against the doorframe, and her body language lost its usual playfulness. “Are we seriously considering finding a new Frau Jade?”

“Were you listening to us?”

“Surely this is something that has crossed all of our minds ever since last night. Except maybe for Mei Fan,” Yachiyo said.

She had probably been listening. Oh well, it wasn’t something Michiru needed to press on right now.

“…there’s less than a month before the end of the school year,” Yachiyo said, her voice darker than before. “Are we really willing to take the title from Shiori right before she graduates? While she is ill?”

“If we must,” Michiru said. She could understand the frustration shooting through Yachiyo’s expression. But it was all up to Siegfeld’s Board. “You don’t have to worry about it, though. Something like this is the king’s responsibility.”

What else was there to say? Yachiyo said nothing, and Michiru said nothing, and lunch break was close to ending.

After Yachiyo left and the student council room settled back into silence, Michiru leaned forward in her chair, and rested her head on the table.




In the end, Shiori spent two days in the hospital. At that point, there was nothing that the hospital could do that Siegfeld’s own medical staff could not.

After Shiori was discharged, it was decided that she would spend a few days living in one of the rooms at Siegfeld’s medical center. The room really was quite nice: it was fairly spacious, and had all the trappings of the dorm rooms at Siegfeld, as well as an impressive array of medical equipment. But as nice as it was, it still felt like a hospital room: cold and impersonal and all-too-familiar.

They’d given her steroids for the inflammation, various other medications that may or may not help, and packets and packets of instructions. Avoid the sun. Do light exercise, symptoms permitting. Take the medications at these times. Be aware of all these side effects. Continue monitoring, monitoring, monitoring.

The times when the medical staff was around were simple. She’d been to the hospital enough times. There was nothing uncomfortable about it anymore. Do as she was told. Sit here, stand up here, check vitals, check everything else.

When she was alone, the only command was to rest. Do nothing. Let her tired body weave itself back together, except it was also destroying itself. That’s what the illness did. If she was remembering things correctly. Was she?

It was an illness without cure, only treatment. Trial-and-error, at that. What was the point if she couldn’t recover?

How strange it all was. She rested. She wasn’t in pain all the time. In those times, she almost felt like she could go back to school and perform. But there was a consistent, indescribable feeling of dread — that her body, her entire self was fragile. She was so terribly tired, yet not tired enough to go to sleep. She was bored, and her mind wasn’t grasping thoughts well enough to figure out how to quash that boredom.

Fumi always knew what to do.

Fumi wasn’t here.

She wasn’t going to ask Fumi to be here.

There was nothing to think about, there was too much to think about. Everything hurt and yet nothing hurt, this wasn’t the hurt of practice or the pain she filed away every time she performed, there was nothing telling her how far to push, how far to hold back.

She was lucky, she knew. She was not grievously injured, she was not dead, the illness was known and could be treated, if they could find the right medications, if she had time and rest and infinite patience.

But it was also terrible to be here, terrible to be thrust back into the nightmares of her childhood. They were such fond and awful times where there was nothing she could do but wait. It was terrible to know that if she pushed her body just a step too far, then all the luck she had garnered could be blown away in an instant and she’d never step on stage again —

There was nothing to regret. She had known long ago that for her to stand on this kind of stage was already enough of a miracle. The few short years where her body had molded itself to her will were already — a precious memory.

Time wound onwards.

After a few days, the fever had begun to subside, as did the swelling. The pain still came and went, as did the fatigue. She’d have to remain in the medical center, but she was mentally well enough to begin catching up on schoolwork.

The staff brought over her books and scripts. At the top of the stack was the revised Elysion. Ah. The Performance Festival. There was a lot of work to make up. She took the script, flipped to Act II.

Someone knocked on the door, then opened it without waiting for a response.

“Ah, Shiori! Good, you’re here. I was worried I had the wrong room. Can I come in?”

“Mei Fan-senpai? Isn’t today a school day?”

“Yes! The Edels have been pretty busy as of late. But it’s been days since you left the hospital, and I didn’t want to wait for a day off to visit. I got permission from the teachers to make up my work later.”

“The medical center is pretty far from the main campus though…you didn’t have to do that.”

“It was a nice jog. Ah — but if it’s a bad time, I could always come back later.”

“No, please come in. Sorry for making you come all this way.”

Mei Fan swung the door wider, and Shiori saw that she was carrying a small bouquet of flowers in one hand, a container of Chinese tea in the other. Mei Fan crossed over to the table, set the tea down, then turned to Shiori.

“The flowers are from all the Edels. And the tea is from me! You can still drink tea, right?”

Shiori thought for a moment. “I suppose no one ever said I couldn’t…”

— and she’d really missed it. There hadn’t been any at the medical center.

“Then let’s drink some now! Hold on a moment.”

Mei Fan dug through her bag. She pulled out two wrapped-up jackets from her bag. The first one contained a small teapot and a few cups. The second one contained a vase, which she used to carefully arrange the flowers. Then, without missing a beat, she put on the tea.

“Everyone misses you, you know,” Mei Fan spoke as she worked. “Akira-san has been even more intense than usual, and Yachiyo is actually being diligent for once. She’s been handling most of the work in General Affairs.”

“Sorry. I know I should be helping with the student council work —”

“Don’t apologize! And don’t worry about anything. We’ve been working hard to keep the student council up and running, so all you have to do is focus on resting and getting better.”

Getting better, huh? Shiori didn’t have the heart to tell her that ‘getting better’ was much more of a question mark than a guarantee.

The tea finished steeping, and Mei Fan expertly poured out the two cups, handed one to Shiori. “Here you go. Be careful, it’s hot.”

“Thank you, Mei Fan-senpai.” Shiori waited a bit, sipped on the tea. It was hot. And very good.

“I didn’t even know the medical center had its own rooms like this,” Mei Fan said. “How has it been, making up the schoolwork?”

“Not bad, actually.” Now that she wasn’t spending half her day in rehearsal, there was quite a lot of time to catch up on the lessons and finish her homework — even with all the tiredness.

“That’s good to hear. If you ever need anything, just call me and I’ll come running. I was going to pack a first aid kit, but then I realized that this place probably has everything already. Though if you want some more skin ointment —”

“I think I’m okay,” Shiori said.

Mei Fan chuckled. “It smells, doesn’t it? And stings a lot. But that’s how you know it’s working. I’m sure the medical center has something better for you, anyway.”

“Mmm. They’re still working to figure out what combination of medications is right,” Shiori said. “It’s why I’m here and not in the dorms.”

Mei Fan finished her tea, set the teacup down.

“It is a lot quieter here than the dorms are. Seems like a good place to get some rest without worrying about everyone else distracting you. I hope no one’s been bothering you too much. Oh, wait, am I bothering you?”

Mei Fan looked so concerned that Shiori couldn’t help but chuckle at her. “Not at all. I’m glad you came to visit. You’re the first visitor I’ve gotten since I left the hospital, actually.”

At that, Mei Fan looked even more shocked.

“Wait, I’m your first visitor? But it’s been days! What about your friends? Your classmates?” She paused. “Ah, right. We didn’t exactly tell the school you were here, since we didn’t want you overwhelmed by fans and onlookers. But that didn’t mean you couldn’t tell anyone what was going on.”

“Who would I tell?” Shiori replied. “The end of the school year is coming up, and everyone’s so busy — not just the Edels. And — truth be told, since becoming an Edel, it’s been hard to find time to keep up with anyone else. I feel like I left a few people behind, and I don’t want to impose on them now.”

It was her own fault. She’d spent all her time on work, on practice, on upholding Siegfeld’s ideals. As soon as she became Frau Jade, she’d noticed that distance between herself and the rest of her classmates.

“I see…” Mei Fan scratched the back of her neck.

“Ah, I didn’t mean to ruin the mood,” Shiori said. “I’m very grateful that you stopped by, Mei Fan-senpai.”

“Anytime! But I did want to say —” Mei Fan became serious. “— that this kind of thing is pretty natural here at Siegfeld. Everyone’s trying to shine, and the Edels have to shine the brightest. It’s not easy to reach out to people when you have to always be thinking about how people are looking at you.” She sounded like she was talking from experience. “But at the same time, everyone here is supporting you. Your fans and the audience all want to see you back on stage, and we Edels are all waiting for you to rejoin us as well.”

Mei Fan got up, took Shiori’s empty teacup, and set both her own and Shiori’s cup on the table next to her bag.

“That includes me, you know. I know you’ll be back on your feet in no time. And in the meantime, you can always call on me to keep you company. No matter what happens, know that I shall always be your friend and ally.”

Mei Fan sounded so hopeful that Shiori couldn’t say anything to contradict that. She was always so sincere, so genuine, and Shiori knew in her heart that Mei Fan would take her own words as though they were a promise.

“Thank you, Mei Fan-senpai,” Shiori said.




Michiru went to the student council room again during the lunch break. Somehow, she knew Akira would be there.

“We were wrong,” Michiru said, at last.

“We don’t know that yet,” Akira said in response.

“I don’t mean about Shiori’s role. We don’t know yet what will come out of that. Maybe she’ll recover quickly enough that she can still join us on stage. Maybe she won’t. The show’s in two and a half weeks.”

“Even if she comes back with only a day left, we can still perform. Shiori can do it, especially since she’s already performed her Wind Goddess before. It will not be ideal, but what does that change? We can still strive for perfection.”

Michiru frowned. “No, I know that. But we were wrong about other things. Maybe because we were trying to avoid our past mistakes.”

— This hadn’t been about Fumi at all.

Shiori hadn’t been hiding anything from them.

Shiori really hadn’t known.

Michiru still didn’t know too well what was going on. But Shiori had been surprised, Michiru had been surprised, even the medical staff at Siegfeld had been surprised that Shiori’s condition had worsened so quickly. To think that Michiru had thought Shiori was simply losing spirit, that a solid push should fix things.

Michiru sighed. She was usually so good at this kind of thing. Reading people, understanding them, figuring out where their talents and their weaknesses were. How could she have been so off?

That wasn’t too hard to figure out. Michiru knew she had her own blind spots. She had thought, over and over again — what she could have done differently, so that Fumi wouldn’t have had to leave. It was the biggest failure of her tenure as Frau Saphir, and perhaps too much of her effort had been placed in that direction. And she had been pressured, too, from the short timescale, the weight of the Performance Festival bearing down on them.

It wasn’t an excuse. To make a perfect theatre troupe, she had to understand her actors. But the show had to go on.

The student council room fell to silence, and it stayed that way for the rest of the lunch break.




On the next day off, Yachiyo visited the medical center.

“I was going to spend the afternoon scrapbooking anyway,” Yachiyo said. “It makes no difference whether I do it here or in my room. Least I could do is to keep you company. And this way, Mei Fan won’t berate me for making a mess.”

— So it was that Shiori’s table was now covered in papers.

Yachiyo worked quietly, her expression unusually severe. She wasn’t even looking at Shiori, but Shiori felt a bit like she was being glared at. The time ticked by in silence, until Shiori worked up the nerve to speak.

“Yachiyo-senpai?”

“Hmmm?”

“Um…have I disappointed you?”

Yachiyo froze, stopping mid page-turn in her scrapbook. “What?”

“It’s just…you helped me a lot recently. With everything on Valentine’s Day, that show, helping me figure out how to receive chocolates, and then even giving me chocolate — I can’t help but feel that there’s nothing I can do to pay you back for it all.”

At that, Yachiyo sighed, and gently put down her scrapbook. “Oh, Shiori…”

Yachiyo looked — tired. She was still speaking like she always did, with that distinctive lilt, but to Shiori, it looked a bit like false cheer. Yachiyo’s eyes were also a little bloodshot, a telltale sign she hadn’t been getting much sleep. Shiori had a feeling she was to blame for that.

“It’s not just you,” Shiori continued. “I’m letting everyone down. I know I should be preparing more for the Performance Festival —”

“Aaand I’m going to have to stop you right there,” Yachiyo said. “Didn’t Mei Fan already tell you to rest? Sing you a lullaby or something?”

“…”

“Well, I can’t deny that that thought has been on our minds. What are we going to do about the Performance Festival, indeed…”

The room quieted, with a strange tension still hanging in the air. It was very different than from when Mei Fan visited.

“What would Akira-senpai say? That we all have great expectations for you,” Yachiyo said, then frowned. “That doesn’t seem right here, though. Siegfeld’s style is really, really good at making you find your limits, and then pushing you to reach them — but it makes no sense for situations like this. Am I disappointed? Of course I am. The stage isn’t the same without Frau Jade on it. But —” Yachiyo finished the page, flipped over to the next one. “I don’t even know who or what to be disappointed at. Being an Edel is sometimes more of a hassle than anything else.”

At that, Yachiyo closed her scrapbook, and stood up. Her expression had relaxed considerably, or maybe she had forced herself to act as though she was more relaxed. That slight smile was back on her face. Shiori couldn’t tell what she was feeling, and in this fog — it was hard to figure out what Yachiyo meant.

“Hmmm…it’s really too bad,” Yachiyo said. “They finalized the costumes a lot earlier this time. I did want to try my hand at making a few more modifications…”

“For Elysion?”

“Mhmm.” Yachiyo walked over to Shiori’s bed, showed off her handiwork. Photos of starry dresses and ethereal accessories, all fit for the goddesses they would become. “Your skin’s been causing you problems, right? I was hoping that we could modify the sleeves for the Wind Goddess’s outfit. Use some loose, translucent fabric here…” Yachiyo pointed at her drawings “…and here, so that it doesn’t irritate your skin, but also doesn’t hide your movements.”

Shiori looked over all those photos and sketches, so carefully arranged.

“Um…Yachiyo-senpai?”

“Yeees?”

“Can I see the rest of this?”

Yachiyo gave the scrapbook to Shiori. “Sure thing.”




The Board of Directors made their decision.

“Thank you all for gathering here today,” Akira said. All the Edels were in the student council room, faces serious. “As president and vice-president of the student council, Michiru and I were invited to attend the Board meeting to discuss the matter of Frau Jade.”

Michiru glanced over at Akira, whose expression was so flat she might as well have been reading off a script.

“The Board has recommended that Shiori voluntarily give up her position, and for the rest of us to find a new Frau Jade,” Akira continued. “If it happens within the next week, they can make arrangements with Performance Festival staff to ensure that all five Edels can perform.”

Both Mei Fan and Yachiyo had a reaction, though they were subdued. A subtle frown, a shifting of energy.

“That is all. Let’s get through all our student council work together,” Akira said.

— wait, that was it?

“Hold on.” Mei Fan. “Did they make that decision without even consulting Shiori? Last I saw her, she was still trying everything she could to prepare for the performance; she was reviewing the script for Elysion at the medical center.”

Michiru jumped in before Akira could answer. “Well, it’s not like the Board demanded Shiori’s resignation. Remember, it was simply a recommendation, and we haven’t gotten around to answering it yet. We still have to discuss this with Shiori herself, after all.”

But the ‘request’ may have just been a courtesy. If they pressed it at the next meeting, then —

“I can’t accept this,” Mei Fan said. “It’s not like we have no time. They’re giving up on her that easily? We’re giving up on her that easily? I told her that we were all wishing to see her get back on stage.”

“Then it was wrong of you to say that when you didn’t know the circumstances,” Akira said. “I know it pains you to be in this situation, but giving Shiori false hopes will not improve it.”

Mei Fan looked like she wanted to argue, then sighed, and looked very down. “No. You’re right. I’m sorry, Akira-san.”

“Are you angry, Mei Fan? Then remember this feeling, and use it to fuel your Fire Goddess. We need you on our stage for the Performance Festival.”

“I know,” was Mei Fan’s response, dark and quiet and brimming with fury.

— This was not a great situation. As much as they were training to be professionals, as much as they had to focus on their performance — all the Edels were still human. They had their feelings, and they carried their own frustrations. Mei Fan, with her angry outburst. Yachiyo, who had remained silent, but was staring daggers at Akira and Michiru. And Akira, who was certainly relying on all of her acting skills to ensure that she would not waver.

The institution wasn’t a human, and didn’t have those same feelings. All Siegfeld needed to care about was the performance, the reputation.

…It was going to be tough trying to raise morale for today’s practice.

With the tension still unsettled, the Edels began their student council work.

“There. That’s all of the work in General Affairs.”

As had been usual for days now, Yachiyo came up to Michiru with all the paperwork in tow, for both her own job as Treasurer and for Shiori’s. Michiru had created a schedule so they could trade off on the work, but somehow Yachiyo usually ended up getting to it first.

“Thank you. Great work today,” Michiru replied. “I’ll see you at rehearsal later.”

“Yes. See you later.”

Michiru gave Yachiyo a beaming smile, and Yachiyo returned a smaller one that was almost a smirk. And then she was gone, and the weight settled back on the student council room.

Mei Fan had left earlier, finished her work earlier, had wanted to do some extra practice earlier. Akira was still here, but she was so focused on filling out her paperwork she might as well have been a stone. Michiru went back to her laptop, idly sifting through tabs.

“Shiori’s been doing a little better,” Michiru said. “She finally returned my text. She might be able to return to the dorms soon.”

“But? Your voice isn’t as sure as usual. There’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere.” Akira kept writing as she talked.

“I heard that the doctors’ advice was for her to stop performing. For at least another month, maybe more. Light exercise is okay, but the demands of a full rehearsal, let alone a proper show, could cause her condition to worsen even more.”

“I see. Anything more?”

“I only know what I was able to get out of the medical staff. I wasn’t going to go and interrogate Shiori about this, you know. But — maybe we’ll have to, at some point.”

“…”

“Shiori has already been sick for many days now. People have already started spreading rumors. There’s talk among the students now that we might see a new audition for Frau Jade.”

“…we’ve seen this before too, haven’t we?”

Michiru leaned back in her chair, and stared at the ceiling.

“Hey, Akira? Where should our loyalties lie? With the school, with the stage, or with our friends?”

“The stage. Obviously.”

“Exactly. We dedicated ourselves to theater, and we must always act for the sake of a better performance. But it’s a bit more complex than that. As members of the student council, we have a responsibility towards making Siegfeld into a better institution, and we have to play by its rules and uphold its reputation. And as Shiori’s friends…”

— They were friends. Surely, Shiori saw the Edels as friends, and had placed all her trust and hopes in their hands. They had long since crossed that boundary of being simply ‘people who worked together’, and had begun entwining their lives, even outside of rehearsals. It was something that Michiru had encouraged, so that they may learn to trust more, so that they could become an ever more effective troupe together.

Their responsibilities as Edels, their passions to the stage, their bonds to each other. Any one of them could twist and fail, and bring all the rest of them down. It was their greatest strength, it was their biggest weakness. It was a response to a mistake of the past, where the Edels had not trusted each other enough. Maybe they had gone too far in the other direction.

"If this were my — our — troupe, the answer would be clear. Shiori is a valuable member of the team. We could reschedule her shows, make sure she is taken care of, and welcome her back once she has time to recover. You chose her for a reason, and we believe in her ability.

“…but this is not our troupe, and the title of Edel, though it has been bestowed upon us, belongs truly to Siegfeld. Only Edels can be onstage for Elysion, and only we Edels are supposed to be at the Performance Festival. The school Board demands we fulfill our duties and put on the absolute best performances we can. And they’ve already requested that we find a new Frau Jade.”

Akira took that moment to interrupt. “But they backed down. When we asked them if they would forcibly take the title from her.” Probably because that wouldn’t look too good for the school. “I didn’t want to say it in front of her, but I agree with Mei Fan. I still believe in Shiori. She will find a way to pull through.”

“I know. We’ve seen how she works. How much she pours herself into her craft, and how quickly she’s improved. No minor setback can cause her to falter.”

But —

Michiru pulled open the computer, beckoned Akira over. After giving her a puzzled glance, Akira stood up, and looked at the screen with Michiru.

On the screen was a news article from a few years back.

“Do you remember this, Akira? This production of Cinderella…during the transformation sequence, when the pumpkin was supposed to turn into a carriage, the mechanism malfunctioned, and fell atop the lead actress. The resulting injuries were enough to end her career.”

Michiru flipped through a few tabs.

“Going back a little further…this version of Aladdin that incorporated some circus elements. One of the trapeze artists fell from the harness. It hadn’t broken or anything. She simply…lost her grip. She was a veteran; she’d done that show for 10 years, and even she was able to make that kind of a mistake. There were rumors later that she’d been hiding health problems from the rest of the troupe, but they were never confirmed.”

Another tab. A troupe that had to cancel their biggest show because the lead actor had developed an aggressive cancer. Another tab. A show that was stopped midway because a supporting actress had a heart attack on stage. Another tab. Another tab.

After a while, Michiru spoke again. “People get sick. Accidents happen. And sometimes, it really isn’t their fault…and it isn’t something that they can simply will their way out of.”

Akira looked at the screen, at the row of tabs. “You’ve been thinking about this for a while.”

“I wanted to see what the professionals did when something like this happened. But it won’t matter, in the end. Siegfeld’s administration holds the final say over what happens with the Performance Festival, and with our titles.”

Michiru closed out the browser, and turned to face Akira.

“We don’t know what the extent of Shiori’s illness is, but the way Shiori was talking about it, it probably isn’t something that goes away. Maybe the doctors are worried without cause, and she’ll recover in a few days. Maybe…it’ll impact her her whole life. We don’t know if she will ever be able to perform like she used to. Like how an Edel has to. And none of it will be her fault.”

“…”

“I believe in her as much as you do, Akira. I think that Shiori will do everything in her power to make Siegfeld’s stage perfect. But she’s young, and she’s ill, and we already know that she isn’t supposed to keep performing. And here at Siegfeld, that — isn’t acceptable.” Michiru got up, and closed her laptop. “If she were to meet our expectations, and then get seriously hurt — or die — would we be able to forgive ourselves? If it were you, what would you do?”

Akira was quiet for a few seconds, then spoke more softly than she should’ve as Frau Platin.

“Then I ask this of you, Michiru. If she would truly want to stand up on stage, despite everything — would she forgive us if we took that chance away from her?”

The questions lingered, with no answers in sight.




It took four more days for Shiori to be discharged from the medical center. She was still obviously unwell, but she was doing better, better enough that she didn’t need medical staff to check in on her at a moment’s notice.

At least, that was what Michiru had heard. She had a feeling that Shiori might have requested to move back to the dorm herself. Shiori was still not supposed to perform.

Regardless, Mei Fan had, of course, suggested that all the Edels keep her company during their day off, and this time there was no objection. They went to Shiori’s room, Shiori fetched a tea set they could all use, and all of the Edels were gathered now around the table for some afternoon tea.

Shiori did look better than what Michiru had seen of her in the medical center, but her face was noticeably swollen, and the rash had spread up to her face as well. It was a cold thing to think about, and thankfully it seemed no one would bring it up — but Shiori was not as beautiful as she had been. The other students would notice, and the audience for any stage would too. It would be something that they’d have to consider if she were still to perform.

At the same time, Shiori was still undeniably the same Shiori, with that fierce passion still lighting up her eyes.

The others were talking now about Elysion. Mei Fan, especially, going into detail about the intricacies of the Fire Goddess with great enthusiasm. It was impressive. Michiru had warned Mei Fan not to let too much of her frustration show, and sure enough, she had instead channeled it all into this passion. Shiori listened, before responding in kind, talking about her time in the medical center. The food, the staff, the times when the Edels would visit. She had been practicing too, and showed off a few of her lines as Wind Goddess —

— it was a little awkward. The Edels now had many days of experiences that she lacked. They’d moved on without her. Of course they did.

Michiru disengaged from the conversation for a moment, looked around. On Shiori’s desk, there was a truly impressive amount of medicines. And next to it, an electric wheelchair.

— Was everything going to be okay?

“So what does this mean?” Akira asked. Just in time. “Will you be going back to class? Joining us in rehearsal?”

“Not yet. I’ll still be catching up on schoolwork from here…and they said that they’d bring me the class materials. But at least the dorm is closer to the school than the medical center. If I need to, I can go to school to get things.”

“Do you think you can get back before the Performance Festival?” Yachiyo.

Michiru looked at Shiori’s face, and saw the answer plain as day in her darkened expression.

“I’ll make sure to be better by the Performance Festival. I won’t let you down on the stage,” Shiori said, though her voice was weak, punctuated by a coughing fit at the end. Shiori was an awful liar. “But it’ll still be a little time. The medicine has helped a lot, but they said that there might be a few side effects to watch out for.” And then she smiled. “Ah, don’t worry. I’m used to this kind of thing.”

Michiru did not doubt that.




Another day passed. As she said would happen, Shiori did not make it to class, or to the student council, or to rehearsal. But now that they were all back in the dorms, she could easily talk to any of them in the common room, or in their rooms.

Michiru sat at her desk in the dorm, trying to think.

How do we handle this?

There was little more than a week now to the Performance Festival. A seasoned professional could, with full-time practice, learn the role of the Wind Goddess in that time. But they weren’t quite professionals yet.

Though — everyone at Siegfeld had come here for Elysion. Everyone knew the story, the characters…they could learn how to become the Wind Goddess that quickly. Siegfeld, in the end, was an elite school.

Tomorrow, there’d be another meeting with the Board. There was no more room for delays. They still had their shortlist of Edel candidates from the last time they held the audition. They had to go through with the Performance Festival. The institution had to appear perfect, the story had to be thought through.

— How brutal the stage could be. A performance could never be repeated, and there were no second chances. Maybe what Shiori needed was to take some time off, and come back later…and the stage here at Siegfeld wouldn’t allow that. As an Edel, missing just a single step meant that someone else could take your place. It didn’t matter who was at the top, simply that the five spots on the stage were filled.

To stay on this stage, everyone had to hide their weaknesses. Maybe everything was okay, if they could pretend that Shiori was okay. Maybe Shiori had believed that she was okay, even as her body fell apart before her. It was simply what was needed to draw out her potential.

Well, that was how it was here at Siegfeld. Anyone who fought for a position on stage had to push themselves to the utter limit. Not everyone could make it.

— It was difficult, having to make that call.

She’d seen the anger that had emerged when they even suggested finding another Frau Jade. The Edels had gone through this before, but Michiru didn’t remember it being so painful last time. Why was that, again?

Ah.

A moment of realization, from so many months ago.

Michiru had never blamed Fumi for leaving, but she couldn’t say that there was no resentment at all. The decision had been so sudden, and everyone had been taken aback. It was the first time in a long time that Akira had been so angry — at herself, at the world. And at first, Michiru had wondered — did Fumi hate them all so much as to inflict this wound upon them? To leave Shiori with so many doubts?

— Perhaps, in truth, Fumi had done them all a huge kindness.

Fumi had pushed all the blame to herself, leaving the Edels and Siegfeld itself untouched. And she’d left a whole three months before they were supposed to perform Elysion — enough time for them to find a new Frau Jade, and do rehearsals properly. All the hurt and anger had been directed outwards, and then became the fuel that was used to forge the current team of Edels.

Would Shiori do the same?

Michiru got up, and steeled herself. There really was no use delaying it, especially since Shiori’s room was right across the hall. Maybe she could do this gently, maybe Shiori would even agree with her. Shiori was always a little too nice.

Michiru went to Shiori’s room and knocked on the door.

“Shiori?”

Only the silence answered her.




Siegfeld’s gates always looked so impressive at night, with the buildings and walkways lit from below.

There was a wide open space in front of the gate, usually for students to gather before and after class and socialize. Now, emptied, it was far bigger than the rehearsal room could ever be.

No one was out here at this hour; Shiori had sometimes been here with the Edels this late, but only on days after a performance, when they had already closed the show and had to stay late to help clean everything up.

The rehearsal room was surely already locked up. If not, one of the others was still practicing. In either case, she couldn’t go that way, so here was the best she could do.

Even walking was causing her ankles to ache, so Shiori had used the wheelchair that her parents had insisted she take ‘in case’. How embarrassed she had been at first — but it truly was useful. Better to save what little energy she had for practicing.

Shiori got up, did some warm-ups, and danced. Everything in her brain and body hated this. Her steps were all shaky, her legs felt like they’d catch aflame, but that was okay. She had worked through pain. She knew why she was in pain. This is what the stage demanded.

She danced.

This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who could laugh without worries, who made friends with all the woodland animals.

This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who had seen her fellow goddesses disappear to their realms, and slowly lose themselves in their duties.

— She broke down coughing halfway through. It was fine. She’d made it this far, so the medication was still doing better than she expected. It passed, and she kept dancing.

This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who was overjoyed to see the Celestial Goddess, who was saddened to see how the emotions had emptied from her heart —

“What are you doing, Shiori?”

Shiori turned, saw Akira at the gate. Of course someone had been using the rehearsal room at this hour. She kept dancing, spoke between breaths.

“…are you going to tell me to stop, Yukishiro-senpai?”

“Will you stop?”

“…”

“Was that the Wind Goddess’s dance? You’ve fallen out of practice.”

Shiori stopped.

“How could I not?” Shiori said.

Akira walked around Shiori’s improvised stage, carefully, until she was standing next to the wheelchair. She stared, without any remorse, without any judgment.

“Michiru was looking for you earlier,” Akira said, looked at the wheelchair.

“…”

“I didn’t expect you to be out here. You shouldn’t overexert yourself.”

Yes. Those same words — Shiori had heard them from everyone. She knew how bad she looked; the steps were wrong, her limbs felt like they’d fall apart, her face was at once pale and swollen.

“Were you two looking for me…to talk about my replacement?” Shiori asked.

“Yes.”

Shiori exhaled. This was not the time to cry.

“And if I were to no longer be Frau Jade — would that be the last time I see you?”

“Hm? What do you mean?”

— This was the dance of the Wind Goddess. Shiori started dancing again, slowly, staring at Akira all the while.

“We only ever became friends because we were Edels,” Shiori said. “You’ve given me so much advice and guidance — and I’m always thankful for that. But there are so many talented students here at Siegfeld, who all long for that guidance, who would grow so much to gain it. I could easily be replaced, and a part of me always thought I should’ve been.” Shiori danced, the slow motions grinding down her bones. “The Edels…are now my closest friends. If I were to lose my title — would I be forgotten? Like Onee-chan was?”

— Shiori was certain she saw it. Akira’s expression, breaking down for just a moment. But then, she was back to her dignified, stern self.

“Do you really think she was forgotten?”

Shiori froze, mid-step. “No.” And then she kept going.

This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who should’ve been free-spirited and carefree.

“I know that you have not forgotten her. All of you haven’t. But to the school, her time as Frau Jade this year may as well never have existed.”

“That’s the nature of the industry. We are never remembered for the roles we strived for and failed to get, or for the roles we turned down. It’s not something that you should take personally.”

The dance ended. Shiori took some time to catch her breath, and Akira waited for her. “It is personal, though. For Onee-chan, for me, for everyone here…getting into Siegfeld was the first step of our dream. We were all awed by Elysion, and we all wanted to be a part of it.”

Once, long ago, someone had cursed the realm, prayed for its fall —

“I didn’t know, coming in, that being onstage for Elysion would be forever out of the grasp of most of the students. Even if, in the end, they sacrifice themselves for the king’s stage — everyone came here for the sake of fulfilling their own dreams.”

Shiori started the dance from the beginning again, ignoring the pain ripping through her.

This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, whose anger could conjure fierce storms. Shiori channeled the storms, and let them become her own anger.

“Everyone loves the Edels, and are inspired by them. Everyone hates the Edels, and seeks to dethrone them. I only took on the position of Frau Jade because you insisted that you needed me. And now that I am useless, will you just as quickly throw me away?”

Shiori glared at Akira.

“On the king’s stage, is every student’s struggle just as meaningless?”

The dance stopped once more. Akira stood at the edge of the stage, unmoving.

“…you remain as compassionate as ever, Shiori. I admire that about you,” Akira said. She took a breath. “‘When one becomes a king their life is bound, and only when they die they will find happiness…’ There’s nothing more I can say to answer your words. Everyone knew, when they came here, that fulfilling their dreams was not a guarantee.”

The wind blew around them.

“I — I know I should probably give up my title,” Shiori said. “It’s unfair to the Edels for me to stay as Frau Jade, when I can’t perform as well as I’d like. But I…I won’t answer Siegfeld’s requests. I want to be selfish. I want to be there, onstage at the Performance Festival. I —”

This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who had witnessed too much anger and sorrow.

“If I were to quit, then the story will be the same. Everyone will say it was because I wasn’t good enough, or couldn’t handle it, and that’s that. But it was never that simple. For me, and for Onee-chan.”

This was the dance of the Wind Goddess.

“And even if I do, what will happen to Frau Jade? If all of the recent Frau Jades have quit…would the title mean anything anymore? …I don’t want to leave that kind of legacy behind.”

This was —

“My resolve has not changed. The stage has not left me, and so long as I can move this body, it will not leave me.”

— the resolution of a cursed knight’s dream —

“I will surpass myself, and prove to you — that we are not cursed. That my family is not cursed, that Onee-chan was not cursed, that this title of Frau Jade is not cursed.”

— chasing hopelessly after his dead brother —

“Are you in pain right now?” Akira’s voice was neutral.

“Yes. But I can go on.”

“Have you warmed up properly?”

“Of course I have. Don’t tell me to stop now, Yukishiro-senpai.”

Akira sighed, then gave her a wry smile. “Don’t tell Michiru about this, alright?”

Akira closed her eyes, and stepped onto the stage. She opened her eyes, and was no longer Akira. The Celestial Goddess had arrived.

“This is…the forest of the Wind Goddess. Ah, how many eons has it been? The trees are far taller than the saplings I remember…the animals far more numerous.” She turned to Shiori expectantly.

“Oh, a visitor! A rare sight indeed. What brings you to my realm, O Wayward Goddess? I have not seen your face in far too long.”

“A passing curiosity, nothing more — or so I would’ve said. But the first realm I reached, I met with our old friend the Earth Goddess. She has changed.”

“So you finally learned of it, then?” The night wind blew around them. “The Earth Goddess has lost her happiness. She will never smile again.”

Shiori danced the dance of the Wind Goddess, and Akira moved in time with her. Not dancing, not yet — she took the heavy, stilted steps of a Celestial Goddess who knew nothing of her own feelings.

“Celestial Goddess, if you wish to see the Earth Goddess smile once more, you must first learn about emotions.”

The Wind Goddess offered her hand. The Celestial Goddess took it, and they danced together. A dance of the gentle breeze, a dance of a raging tornado — the stage was not real, and yet the magic was still there.

This was the dance of the Wind Goddess, who had always clung onto that tiny hope.

The pain overtook her.

“Shiori.”

“No…I have to keep going…I —”

— so many hopes and dreams were resting on her shoulders.

Shiori tried to continue the dance. Akira stopped. Shiori grabbed Akira’s shoulders, forced herself to stay upright.

“An Edel challenges any stage. Didn’t you say this, Yukishiro-senpai?”

Shiori gripped tighter, and realized that her hands were shaking.

“Didn’t I promise — that one day, I will dazzle you with my display of romance?”

She stopped to catch her breath, looked at Akira. Her lungs were on fire again. But if she focused, she could remain standing. She could, she could —.

“Is there nothing I can do to convince you that — I will fulfill them?” Shiori asked. She tried to hold back her tears. This was still not the time for crying.

— It was impossible. The tiredness caught up with her. Shiori let go of Akira, and sank down to her knees. Akira went away somewhere, and came back with the wheelchair.

“We should go back to the dorm,” Akira said.

Oh, it was too much.

“Shiori?”

Shiori cried in front of Siegfeld’s gates.

At some point, her tears finally dried. Akira stood there the whole time, in the cold, waiting for her.

“If you are to tell me to stop being Frau Jade…I cannot accept that. Not yet.”

Shiori turned to Akira.

“I want to show the world — show Onee-chan — that dreaming like we did wasn’t a mistake.”

“…”

— So, please. Accept this resolve.

Chapter Text

Somewhere, on a distant stage, a king and a chancellor approached a sprawling forest. A fierce wind was blowing, enough that Akira was bracing herself on her lance, enough that Michiru felt like she would fall over if her focus wavered.

“The wind…” Akira’s voice seemed distant somehow. “It’s so strong. As if the Marquis is trying to keep me from getting close to his jade. But I cannot give up now.”

As she spoke, the wind softened a little, just enough for Michiru to regain her bearings. She held tight onto her sword. “We should be almost there, Your Highness.”

The lines had been said. The wind died down further.

It was like this the other time too, back when they crossed the volcano. Back then, the heat had relentlessly crashed down on them, only cooling when the required lines were spoken.

And then after that —

“Be prepared, Your Highness. The enemy awaits us.”

They had already done this once, so Michiru knew to be on her guard.

— The Korosu would be waiting for them, deeper in the forest, the same way they had infested the depths of the volcano.

They had to defeat the Korosu and perform the play. Akira had to be the king, and Michiru had to protect her, protect the king, and guide her to the very end.

They had to remember something precious to them.

Something…someone — must’ve been waiting for them here.

They entered the forest.




When Shiori opened her eyes, she found herself staring at a canopy of leaves.

But the sky was fake and so were the leaves, and so were the trees. Still, for a few seconds, they looked so awfully real — but such things were probably nothing new in the world of the underground theater. She’d been here enough times that this wasn’t a huge shock anymore. But there was something different now. The times before, there were always other people with her. The others…the others…

— Who were they again? Something was there at the edge of her memories, just a bit out of reach.

Shiori sat up, pain creaking all through her body, saw that she was wearing her Revue outfit. Her sword was also there, lying just a little distance from her hand.

She took her sword, frowned. The sword felt almost heavy. Her wrist hurt, and her grip was weak, to the point that she wasn’t sure how well she could swing the sword. The white coat cape was still there, but the cord that usually fastened it to her shoulders was already frayed, held together by barely a thread.

Why was she here?

The last few times, Elle had always showed up to explain things. Did she have to fight someone? The auditions usually worked like that, if she was remembering things correctly. But Elle wasn’t here and any potential opponent wasn’t here either — just Shiori and the trees.

She looked around for a bit longer before realizing that no, she wasn’t alone. Far beyond the stage, in the audience’s seats, was the giraffe, watching coldly.

On cue, the wind began to blow. Shadows pooled on the stage grounds, then solidified, forming the bodies and blades of countless Korosu. Violet flames danced around them.

As one, they all turned their glares onto Shiori. She held onto her sword tight as she could, her hand trembling. Was she to fight? Against the endless army of Korosu? She looked back at the giraffe, hoping for something resembling guidance.

Perform, its cold gaze seemed to demand. Dance, until your life gives away.

The giraffe disappeared. A fog enveloped the stage, leaving only the forest and the Korosu.

Shiori fought.

The Korosu charged at her, mindless remnants of regret and bitterness that they were, and she cut them down.

It hurt. Her knees and wrists were stiff, and it felt like the bones were starting to fuse together. Her lungs felt like they were getting stabbed as she breathed. Her throat had closed up at some point, and her voice wasn’t working right. But that was fine. The script didn’t call for singing this time.

— There was no medication here. There was nothing to do but to keep fighting.

She felt like she was being set aflame. Dancing on broken bones. She was losing feeling in her wrists, in her ankles, but that was okay. She spun and slashed and one by one by one the Korosu dissipated into the purple fire and smoke from which they came.

And then the forest was quiet again. Shiori could almost pretend that it was peaceful, but she knew. This was only a mild reprieve; there was still more to come.

Would she last another wave? She felt like she might faint. Was that what this stage desired?

It didn’t matter. The stage had not left her yet. If her job was to perform to the very end, then she had to work harder and harder to meet those expectations.

The smoke and fire from the Korosu’s dead bodies remained. Shiori blinked, and the flames didn’t go away. Odd. Every other time she fought the Korosu, their bodies had burned up without a trace within seconds. Almost on instinct, she reached her left hand towards the coat hanging off her shoulders —

— and grasped at thin air.

A cold settled into her.

It was just a part of the Revue outfit. It shouldn’t have meant anything to her. But — somehow, it felt like it was something important.

When had she lost it? Had she been slashed without realizing it?

She looked down, and froze. Small wisps of purple fire floated from her body, seemed to fall out her mouth as she caught her breath. She would’ve screamed, had her throat not already been sealed through.

At her elbows, her wrists, where the pain was the greatest, black scales were emerging from her skin, ripping through her sleeves. The left arm was still mostly flesh, but on her right, the black scales and shimmering skin had begun to creep over her hand, moving up towards her shoulder. Her legs too, were changing, starting at the knees, black chitin swallowing her whole.

It was the same as the Korosu. The black scales and shiny plates that made up the bodies she had been cutting down up to this point. The flames, too, were the same, welling up in her, tasting like resentment, like bitterness.

— one of the crowd. If she couldn’t keep up, she would be fated to be one of them, fated to be cut down by the brilliance of the stage. She looked up, and saw the giraffe staring down at her through the fog. It looked almost like it would begin laughing.

The fire welled up in her. She swallowed it down the best she could.

It burned.

It burned.

— She remembered seeing this fire before. Somewhere…somewhere…where was it, again? Her memories were scattered all over the place. It must’ve been here, on this stage. Right. The first time she fought in this stage, so many months ago. Was it that long ago? Someone had managed to claw her way back to the stage after having been rejected by it once. She must’ve dealt with this same fire —

— Fresh pain disrupted Shiori from her thoughts. She looked back at herself. The scales were still spreading. Her shoulders too, were starting to warp, black armor bursting from her collarbones.

At this rate, this body wouldn’t last to the end of the show. What could she do?

She tried to calm herself down. Something about this was familiar, even if she couldn’t remember it clearly right now. There had to be something she could do to stop this, to keep performing like she already had. Something to convince the stage that she still belonged here.

A cure, a way to break a curse, a single soul who still wished to see her on stage —

What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?

The air shifted. As if responding to her fractured thoughts.

The fog lifted a little, exposing more of the forest. In the distance, there was the sound of running water. A stream? Better than nothing. Maybe it could soothe the burning.

Shiori pushed herself forward, letting her sword drag behind her. It hurt to walk, but it wasn’t unbearable. There weren’t any Korosu right now, and it didn’t seem like it was time yet to fight again. But that didn’t mean she could sit here doing nothing, either. Inevitably, the Korosu would appear again.

She reached the spring, lowered herself to it, and tested the water with her left hand. The water felt pleasant against her skin, and the cool feeling spread through her body, quieting the flames.

Something moved in the shadows next to the water. Shiori turned to look at it, and saw a ghost of a knight in faded armor, shimmering against the fog.

The knight’s face was covered by his helmet, not that it made a difference. Shiori didn’t recognize that knight at all. Shiori knew that knight well. He was the old Marquis who lost the jade long ago, and had died for it.

Somehow, that didn’t surprise her. Legend was that the forest of the Wind Goddess was haunted, after all. The ghost didn’t have that familiar hostility that the Korosu had, and did not seem to be an enemy.

“Here we are, kid,” The ghost spoke with a strangely soft voice, talking to no one in particular. “This is probably my favorite spot of the whole forest. I used to come here by myself just to relax in between jobs. It’s a peaceful place.”

The knight turned his head towards Shiori.

“If you ever get hurt in the Wind Goddess’s forest…stay close to this stream. It was blessed by the goddess, or so the stories go, anyway. The water can heal fatigue, and it will guide you to safety.”

The ghost stood up, and disappeared.

Here. I made you some tea. No, we didn’t have this blend before…Mom got this last time she went shopping, and said that it should help soothe your throat. …it tastes weird, doesn’t it? Heh. I could tell from that face you made. It’s okay. Don’t apologize. But yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll add some more sugar next time, okay?

Memories that were hers, memories that weren’t hers…it was impossible to piece them together at the moment.

Shiori bent down, scooped some water into her palm, and drank it.

The fire burning through her died down a little, and the pain subsided a little. It still hurt, but it was no longer stabbing into her thoughts. Shiori stood up, took her sword once more.

Follow the water, the ghost had said. Somehow, she didn’t think that he was lying. Shiori steeled herself, and began to walk alongside the stream.

It took her on a winding path deeper into the forest. The fog was letting up, but the trees were becoming thicker, the darkness was deepening. The stream, too, was getting thinner and thinner, until it was a small ribbon of water. Shiori kept going. If this was what the stage desired, then all she could do was keep moving.

A ghost appeared before her.

— But it wasn’t the knight this time. Or anyone else from the old kingdom. Instead, it was the translucent image of a girl, pacing back and forth, scribbling furiously into a notebook every now and then.

Something about this was familiar. Shiori stopped in order to watch the ghost.

“To Siegfeld Institute of Music’s Board of Directors — I write this report to evaluate the Edels’ progress on the preparations for the Performance Festival…” the ghost said, then sighed. “What am I even supposed to write? It’d be a lie to say that everything is proceeding smoothly. Our leadership has remained steady and practice has been as productive as ever, but…no, let’s leave it at that. Personal conjecture shouldn’t go in the reports.”

The ghost kept walking, looking lost in thought, writing as she spoke aloud. “Rest assured, the Performance Festival will proceed as planned. I’ve been spending my evenings practicing the part of the Wind Goddess, just in case. That way, even if it turns out she can’t make it to the stage, it won’t risk the performance. I’m sure — she wouldn’t want that guilt on her shoulders.” The writing picked up pace. “Though — if I may ask a question of the esteemed Board, why? Why did you make the decision you did? We have not yet reached a conclusion. A stage without our Frau Jade isn’t a proper stage at all.”

The ghost stopped her pacing.

“No, that can’t go in there…”

She then haphazardly scratched out the whole page, before tearing it out. She stared at it for a moment, before letting the page fall into nothingness.

“What do I do?”

The ghost turned and looked at Shiori, her expression completely blank. Despite that, Shiori thought that she looked deeply sad.

Then the ghost turned, walked away, and vanished into thin air.

Wait — ! Shiori wanted to call after that ghost, but her voice wasn’t working. She ran to where it stood, ignoring the shooting pain in her legs. She stopped. She was alone once more, with the trees.

The wind picked up. A hostility in the air. Shiori held tightly onto her sword once more, braced herself.

More Korosu emerged from the shadows of the trees. They stared at her with lifeless eyes, their swords and limbs mirroring her own.

The fire returned to eat away at her again. No time to get more water now. Everything burned.

Shiori fought.

It hurt to fight. Her joints were locking up. Spikes continued to erupt from the bones, tearing through her skin. She could ignore them.

She’d already lost the right to be on stage. She knew that, so long as she remained on it, her body would continue to burn. No amount of water could stop that. But something in the back of her mind told her — that she could not stop yet. Once, long ago, she’d made a promise to someone, didn’t she?

Someone was — no, quite a few people were — counting on her, weren’t they?

Weren’t they?

Weren’t they…?

The fighting stopped. The last Korosu fell, and Shiori finally found the time to lower her sword. She stopped to catch her breath, took a look around.

In the chaos of fighting, she’d lost track of the stream.




This was the forest of the Wind Goddess. Or — it had once been the forest of the Wind Goddess, which should’ve been inviting and full of life. But in the eons since the age of the goddesses, the forest had changed. The trees cast ominous shadows that blocked out the light, and the wind whispered with the regretful voices of the forest’s many ghosts.

The jade must’ve been hidden away deeper in that darkness.

— But Akira wasn’t going this way, to where the jade was pointing them towards. Instead, she wandered towards an outskirts of the forest, as if drawn by something anew.

Was this in the script? Michiru ran after her.

“Your Highness? Is something the matter?”

Akira stopped, causing Michiru to nearly crash into her. She followed Akira’s gaze to the ground — or rather, to something resting on the ground.

A white coat trimmed with gold and green, easily too big for either of them, left discarded in the middle of the forest. The back had been ripped and stained with something that looked like black ink, and the tassels had long since frayed.

“Grand Chancellor,” Akira’s voice was unusually soft. “Do you recognize this?”

— was this in the script?

“No, Your Highness. It may have belonged to another soul who was lost to the forest,” Michiru said. The words flowed out naturally.

What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?

“Let’s keep going. We can’t afford to lose any more time.”

Akira nodded. Then she rested her lance on the ground, bent down, and reached for the fallen coat.

Purple flames shot up from the coat, dissipating into black smoke. Akira flinched, shot her arm back.

— It was the same fire that erupted from the Korosu when they died. Was this a trap? Michiru rushed forward to support Akira.

“Are you alright, Your Highness?!”

“Yes…I am fine, Grand Chancellor. Was just a bit of a surprise, is all.”

Akira poked at the white coat with her lance. No flames this time. Akira reached for the coat once more.

Michiru held onto her shoulder. “We should leave that alone. It may belong to the enemy.”

“No,” Akira’s voice was firmer now. More her own than the dying king’s. “…I don’t recognize this, I don’t remember this, but something tells me that I — must hold onto it. That it will be important to us.”

— was this in the script?

Michiru let go of Akira’s shoulder. “If that is what you wish, Your Highness.”

They went deeper into that forest, weapons in hand.




Shiori was lost.

The forest seemed to have twisted, changed its shape many times, and had become darker, darker. The grass was also longer, the underbrush thicker, filled with bushes and brambles. It was getting difficult to move.

She had to find someone. Who? She had to remember, she couldn’t remember, the fire had returned and was burning away her thoughts. All that remained was the stage, this performance. No use thinking about anything else. She simply had to see this through to the end.

Shiori cut the brush away with her sword. It caused a jolt of pain through her arm, but it was fine. She couldn’t stay here. If the Korosu reappeared while she was fighting with the brambles, there was no hope that she could win.

She inched forward, little by little. Was this the right direction? Shiori had no idea. It was getting too dark to see, and it was hard to tell whether she was moving towards safer ground or not. Save for her own footsteps and haggard breathing, though, the forest was mercifully silent.

Then, a tiny light flickered into existence. Shiori kept moving. Then another appeared, and another, until there was a small cloud of them, dancing in the air. Shiori took a closer look, and saw that they were fireflies.

The fireflies beckoned her onwards. Something about them seemed — oddly familiar. They moved as a single body, dancing a dance that seemed just out of reach in her memories. They glowed with an inviting light, keeping the shadows at bay. Somehow, Shiori knew that as long as she stayed within their light, the Korosu wouldn’t appear.

She took slow, hesitating steps. The fireflies slowed down for her, dancing as they waited. Watching them, she could almost ignore the fire ripping through her body. Someone must’ve been here, quietly guiding her —

The shadow of a ghost stood further ahead. The old Marquis again, his armor gleaming in the darkness. His back was turned to Shiori, and he seemed to be tinkering with something in his hands. The fireflies swarmed around him, and the ground around him shimmered with an otherworldly light.

He turned as Shiori approached, his expression once again hidden by the knight’s helmet. In his right hand, he carried a torch with a small flame. Not the bitter, violent flames of the Korosu, but a gentler fire, one that was almost warm and friendly.

“See, brother?” The ghost turned his head towards the light at the end of his torch. “Even in the depths of the forest, the warm winds blow in the direction of the kingdom. If you light a torch and watch the flame, it’ll always be able to take you home. Neat, isn’t it? They say that it’s proof that the Wind Goddess here has given our land her favor.”

The ghost held out his torch to Shiori, and disappeared. The flame remained, hovering in midair.

Oh? Sorry. I didn’t realize you were there. …you wanted to listen to me play piano? Yes, it’s the song that Mom taught us. I thought — I should practice a bit more before we tried playing it together again. But I suppose, if you insist, we could play it together now…

The fire began moving forward. The fireflies continued to gather around it. It was a little lighter than before, and Shiori saw that the ground was a lot more even around here. She lowered her sword, and followed the fire.

Someone was there, helping her, guiding her…

What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?

The air shifted once more. The darkness began to lift, and sunlight filtered through the forest’s leaves once more.

The flame shook, then faded to nothingness. A second later, another ghost of a girl appeared in the flame’s place, having a conversation with someone unseen.

“You don’t have to go with me to get them, but it’s still important that you pick out some flowers of your own! I don’t know how much she knows about flowers, but I’m sure she’ll notice if I make the arrangement all by myself. We couldn’t visit earlier, so it’s the least we could do.” The ghost’s voice was enthusiastic, but there was something else behind it. An anger, barely restrained.

— Right now, that anger seemed almost comforting.

“That’s the point. It has to be from all of us. Because — I want her to know that we’ve all been thinking about her, even as we continue working towards the Performance Festival. So —”

The ghost reached out into the air, and a small bouquet of flowers materialized into her hand. Then, she turned, walked over to Shiori, and held them out with a smile.

Then, the ghost disappeared, and so did the flowers, leaving only the trail of fireflies.

Someone was — still thinking about her, weren’t they?

What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?

— It didn’t matter. She was still here. Hopeless it may be, she was still a Stage Girl.

The stage was all she had. It could not be destroyed here. She would not let it // let herself be destroyed.

Shiori pressed onward.




As expected, the forest was teeming with Korosu. They emerged from the trees and dropped from the branches, haunting the stage, hunting the king.

Akira was still deep in thought. Still clutching onto that old tattered coat with the green edges. Trying to remember something? It didn’t matter. Michiru made sure that the Korosu wouldn’t touch her.

The jade had to be further ahead. Past the depths of the forest.

The darkness invited them forward.




At the end of the trail, Shiori found herself in a hollow in the forest, where light was filtering in from above. In this light — it looked almost like a small stage of its own.

Her body was beginning to fail her. The black had expanded further. Her right hand was almost fully transformed, the black bleeding onto her sword as well. The scales were traveling up her spine, replacing her body bit by bit. Her lips had been sealed shut, as the crystals continued their march up her face. It was terrifying, but she was on stage. That fear could not show.

There was nothing to complain about. She was still standing. She would perform to the end. Despite everything. There had to be something pushing her onwards, something that bound her to the stage —

What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?

The light moved, and another ghost appeared in the center of the hollow. The ghost of a young girl, dancing the dance of the Wind Goddess by herself.

— This was a dream from many years ago.

The ghost of a girl danced, letting the wind flow past her. The steps were crooked and wrong, telltale signs that she didn’t know the dance all that well — but it didn’t matter. She danced with the certain confidence of someone who knew that she could, in time, master it.

Then she stopped, and looked past Shiori.

“Shiori? You were awake? Are you feeling alright?”

Shiori turned around to follow the ghost’s gaze, and saw — herself, as a child. Standing there at the edge of the hollow, unmistakably, was a translucent vision of a younger Yumeoji Shiori.

The ghost of Shiori approached the hollow, and the girl who was there before — why couldn’t Shiori remember who she was? — took her hand.

“What’s wrong, Shiori?” The girl spoke with a nostalgic tenderness.

“Um…it’s nothing. I thought I heard you talking to someone, but then I saw that you were dancing,” Shiori’s ghost replied. “But that dance…was that from Elysion, ▓▓▓▓? Were you trying to perform it all by yourself?”

The nameless girl nodded, looked off into the distance, deeper into the forest. “It was — beautiful. I can’t get it out of my head. Not since the day we saw it together.” She turned back towards Shiori’s ghost. “I thought — maybe if I acted it out, I could finally clear my head. Sorry if I distracted you.”

“Not at all! Your dancing is so pretty. Is it okay if I watch?”

“You…should probably go back to sleep. Are you sure nothing hurts?”

Shiori’s ghost frowned. “I don’t want to go back to sleep. I’m fine. I feel good, even! I just — wanted to see you perform.”

Shiori watched the ghosts, her eyes darting between her younger self, and that ghost of a girl who should’ve been someone so terribly familiar to her. She stood like a statue, watching carefully.

— If the ghosts knew that Shiori was there, then they were ignoring her. The nameless girl spoke to the young Shiori’s ghost only. “Then sure. But it probably won’t be that interesting. I’m still trying to remember the play, and I’m messing up a lot.” Then, the girl suddenly perked up. “Actually, if you’re feeling well enough…did you want to join me? We could go through Elysion together.”

The younger Shiori smiled a beaming smile, her eyes shining with such a pure light. But just as quickly, she shrunk back and her face morphed with worry. “Ah…but how? We need five Goddesses…”

“We could get Mom and Dad to join us…no, let’s not. They’ve been really busy lately. Then…” The nameless girl scrunched up her brows, deep in thought. “How about this, then? You can be the Celestial Goddess. I’ll be the rest of them.”

“Is that okay? I don’t remember the lines…”

“It’s fine! We can make them up. We know the story now, and if we really get stuck, we can just skip ahead.” The girl smiled, took the young Shiori’s hand once more, and led her to the center of the hollow // to the stage.

— Shiori watched a dream // a memory from long ago.

The ghosts performed Elysion together. It really was a clumsy performance. Neither of them remembered enough about the lines to tell the story to the end, and were saying whatever came to mind. Shiori watched as her younger self pouted on stage as the world’s grumpiest Celestial Goddess, and as the nameless girl flowed between all the other goddesses while barely holding back her laughter.

How silly it all was. They didn’t even make it to Act II before the whole performance collapsed on them. Shiori couldn’t tell which of the ghosts began laughing first, but at some point, one of them did, and it didn’t take long for them to both break down with laughter. They laughed, and laughed, trying to stay quiet and failing, until Shiori’s ghost began coughing violently, and the other girl began fretting about her. It took a little bit after that for everything to quiet down, for the two ghosts to lie down on the ground and gaze up at the sky and the trees.

— How nostalgic this all was. How fragile it all was. Something told Shiori that this moment wasn’t supposed to exist on this stage. She couldn’t interfere, no matter what. She didn’t want to break it.

“You feeling better, Shiori?” The nameless ghost asked. The young Shiori nodded from beside her. “Well, that didn’t go so well, did it?” She got a quiet giggle as a response.

The ghost sat up, her eyes shining with a fierce light. “Someday…I want to do that for real. Become a goddess, and stand on stage.”

“You do that already, ▓▓▓▓. You were an amazing goddess,” Shiori’s ghost said. “I wish — I could be cool like you were.”

The nameless ghost turned away. “Mom said that all those actresses were high school students. They go to a school called the Siegfeld Institute of Music. It’s one of the top theater schools in Japan, so I’d always been thinking about going there, but I’ve decided. I’m going to get in, and become an Edel…so that I can stand on stage for Elysion. And…” the ghost’s voice became very quiet. “…if you work hard and train your body, I’m sure you can do it too.”

Shiori’s ghost smiled brightly once more, and disappeared. The nameless ghost remained, and stood up.

— This was a dream from several years ago.

A disembodied voice was speaking in the distance.

“…the tests came out inconclusive. There’s good news, at least…they’ve determined that it’s not cancer. But she’ll need to stay in bed for a few more days so she can recover. Your father and I will both be busy…it’s a troubling time for the company. So…please watch over her for us.”

“I will,” the ghost said. Then she, too, disappeared.

Another ghost appeared. A familiar one. The old Marquis materialized where the nameless girl stood, his armor battered and bruised. In his right hand, he held a lance tipped with jade. He stood facing away from Shiori, staring deep into the woods.

— This was a dream that Shiori had heard once.

The knight knelt down in the hollow, and began to pray.

“O, Wind Goddess…can you hear me? If you’re there, please — listen to my prayer,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion. “I wish —”

Shiori knew his wish. That someday, he would rise up in rank, and become king. After all, that was what the knight told his brother, on the quiet days when they were alone. But —

“I wish — that my brother, my dear brother, grows into a fine young man. That he be healthy and happy, and live a life that needs not see the deaths of knights.”

The knight’s voice shook, almost as if he was afraid to speak the words aloud.

“I hope — that the curse that ails him — may one day be dispelled.”

The knight stood up, and danced the dance of the Wind Goddess. Shiori blinked, and realized that her eyes were wet.

What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?

She had forgotten something. No, this wasn’t forgotten. She had never forgotten this. She couldn’t forget.

— But these feelings didn’t belong on this stage. That wish could not exist here in the underground theater. No matter what it took, she had to see the performance properly through to the end.

“— So why would you let yourself be consumed like this?”

The dance of the Wind Goddess ended. The knight’s ghost was still there, standing alone in the hollow. The gentleness of his voice had gone, and was replaced by something that almost resembled hatred. He turned, and his eyes were pale green lights, shining through the helmet, glaring at Shiori.

WHY DID YOU HAVE TO BECOME A KNIGHT?!

The ghost warped, and his form broke apart. Left in his place was a Korosu soldier, holding that jade lance. It pointed its lance at Shiori, and glared at her with hollow // hateful eyes. And not a second after, an army of Korosu materialized behind it.

The show had to go on.

Shiori wiped her tears. Toss those memories away for now. Focus on the performance. If the stage demanded that she fight — so be it.

The Korosu with the lance charged at her.

A cue for the battle to begin anew.

— How long had Shiori been fighting? It felt like no time had passed at all. It felt like an eternity had gone by.

Her entire right arm was already no longer hers. That was fine. The hand, now a solid black crystal mass, kept a death-grip on her sword. All she had to do was to swing it from the shoulder. She could still fight.

Her legs were rapidly being consumed. That was fine. The pain was there, like her skin was constantly on fire, but if she grit her teeth she could walk. She could still dance.

The crystalline mass moved up and down her neck, replacing her torso, creeping up past her jaw, stabbing into her throat. That was fine, fine, her voice already wasn’t working, and she could still see, she could still act.

She fought. She was going to be overwhelmed. As she cut down each Korosu, another would instantly replace it. The flames were welling up again. She swallowed them so they wouldn’t overflow, let them sear her throat, burn through her body. She could perform to the very end.

Why? It didn’t matter why, she couldn’t remember why. The stage had not left her yet, the stage was all there was, and there was something important to her that she couldn’t give up yet —

Suddenly, all the Korosu stopped moving, turned to something in the distance, and were blown away. A flash of white pierced the forest, graceful as the rising sun.

The wind slowed.

Two figures arrived, standing radiant. They looked like knights, one with a sword, one with a lance, white capes fluttering in the calm breeze. But they didn’t have the armor or the helmets of the kingdom — and they were too solid, too real to be ghosts.

— Who were they?

They moved. All too quickly, the rest of the Korosu were destroyed, their bodies turning quickly to dust.

— Did she know them from somewhere?

The figures moved once more before she could think any further. Running towards her. One of them, the one with the lance, slowed down at the very end. One of them, the one with the sword, leapt forward —

— and swung that massive sword down on her head.




They must’ve been getting close. The path through the forest had brought them past a small stream, through a grove of fireflies — and finally, to an opening in the trees. The Korosu assailed them every step of the way.

Michiru danced, her greatsword easily cleaving the Korosu in front of her in two. They always fell so easily. They brandished their swords like they were toys, and their motions were so stilted and robotic. The Korosu were automatons, able to do nothing but respond to a stage that they could not claim.

One by one, the horde thinned, until a single enemy remained. Holding onto a blackened sword, like all the others, glaring at Akira (the king) with those mournful eyes —

Mournful?

The Korosu didn’t belong on the king’s stage. They held none of the brilliance that the stage demanded. They screamed with garbled voices that could reach no one.

Was it screaming?

Michiru swung her sword. Only those who could stand by Akira’s side should be here. The jade, the jade — where was it? They had to find it, the Korosu were in the way, the Korosu couldn’t be allowed to attack Akira —

Her sword stopped.

The enemy (enemy?) before her had elegantly deflected her blow with its sabre, causing Michiru’s blade to sink into the ground beside it. Michiru braced herself for its counterattack — which never came. Instead, the Korosu lowered its arm, let its own sword dig into the earth.

Michiru hesitated. The Korosu had never been like this before. It felt almost like she was staring into a mirror, and the reflection was wrong. Something seemed to be flitting about at the edges of her memory.

What was she trying to remember? What had she forgotten?

Was there someone like this on the stage before?

If so —

Then this was a chance to create a better performance. To create a perfect stage for Akira, without any of their past mistakes to bind them. To get rid of all of the things that were holding them back.

For the sake of the king.

The thought quashed all doubt. With all her strength, she yanked her sword out from the ground, and swung it once more —

“Marquis!” Was that Akira’s voice?

— and was stopped once more, blocked by the flash of a lance.

“Aki — Your Highness?” Michiru would not let her surprise threaten the performance.

Somehow, Akira had gotten between Michiru and the Korosu, her lance locked with Michiru’s sword. No one moved for a second. Akira’s face was stern and morose, as expected of the dying king.

“Grand Chancellor. Please lower your sword.”

Michiru pulled back her sword. Who was she to disobey the king? The stage cared not for her personal feelings. Still, she kept her eye on the Korosu. But even now, its sword was lowered.

“I finally remembered,” Akira said. “I remembered, I remembered, I remember…our Marquis. Our precious jade.” Akira turned as she spoke, until she was no longer addressing Michiru, rather talking to that shadow that should’ve been an enemy —

“Yumeoji Shiori.”




Michiru blinked. The memories came flooding back at once.

The creature // person // friend standing before them was, indeed, Yumeoji Shiori, in a truly pathetic state.

In this light, she really did look like their enemies: her entire body had been covered in what looked like black crystal, her jaw and most of her face had morphed into a sleek mask like the lifeless faces of the Korosu. The black armor jut out of her shoulders and knees like extra bones, erupting through what little remained of human flesh.

But Shiori’s eyes were still her own, still shining, wet with tears and brimming with hope. All the other places of her body that were too weak to stand on stage had been ripped apart and rejected and replaced, yet Shiori was still here.

Was that what she had wanted?

Akira’s voice broke Michiru’s thoughts. “You’ve had a painful time, haven’t you, Shiori?” She was speaking as herself, not as the king. “Be proud. You’ve done a splendid job thus far.”

With those words, Akira approached Shiori’s body —

— and gently laid the fallen coat onto the smaller girl’s shoulders.




As if a spell was broken, Shiori’s memories returned to her.

The people dear to her, who had been reduced to mere ghosts — regained their names.

Yachiyo. Mei Fan.

Her dear friends, who had kept her in their thoughts, even in her times of weakness.

Fumi. Onee-chan.

Her ideal, who had taken care of her from the very beginning.

And the people who had shattered the illusions, the people standing right in front of her —

Akira. Michiru.

How could she have forgotten? The people who shined so brilliantly, the people who had taken a chance on her and given her their wisdom, their guidance.

They were here. They had not abandoned her, even as the stage was rejecting her.

— She would hurt them, she knew.

They were brilliant actors. But Shiori’s body was still transformed, and fire was still spitting from the cracks in her skin. Akira had stepped right into the fire to give her back her fallen coat. Her face betrayed no pain, but the flames seared at her skin, and the edges of her uniform were beginning to singe and stain.

Shiori took a step back. Akira made a move to close the distance, but Shiori shook her head, kept retreating. She turned, and saw that the giraffe was still watching. Was that what it wanted? To see how they would sacrifice themselves?

She’d seen this before. Her sister had been sacrificed. Akira and Michiru would willingly walk into the flames. Shiori was being consumed. How could she still be useful to the people who believed in her? How could she still help them?

— So please, accept this resolve.

Such pretty words she’d said, just yesterday. Was that yesterday? When all she could think about was herself. But what good was resolve on its own? If staying onstage meant subjecting her closest friends to this pain, then —

— then the stage itself could not be forgiven.

The flames surged, engulfing her. She burned, she burned, and through the light and smoke all she could see was the giraffe’s unamused expression. That giraffe // the audience // the stage — why had it decided to demand such cruelties? What had they done to deserve this pain?

Shiori raised her sword, pointed it at the giraffe. Everything kept burning. She tensed her body, prepared to leap forward —

Michiru rested her own sword atop Shiori’s, and gently lowered it back down.

“I know it hurts, Shiori, but don’t let your emotions get the better of you.” Michiru’s voice was as bright as always. How did she do that? “This may not be our stage, but it is still something we strove for. Please, don’t destroy the stage that you had worked so hard for.”

This Elysion. The stage that Fumi had once dreamed of, the stage that she had once dreamed of.

And suddenly, Shiori was being embraced. Michiru closed the distance that Shiori had deliberately created, and wrapped her free arm around Shiori’s back. Across the spikes that now made up her shoulders, atop the flames that were leaking everywhere.

“!” Shiori wanted to tell her to stand back once more. Her voice still wasn’t coming out right. She needed to apologize. She tried to apologize, over and over again, as the stage’s lights dimmed.

“You have nothing to apologize for, Shiori. You wished to stay on the stage, no matter how selfish that wish may be.” Akira’s voice, in the distance, in the darkness. “Now that you have made that decision, it is your responsibility to see it through.”

The show went on.




It burned, but it was nothing. Michiru could endure pain for the stage. They had all burned with that same bitterness, that same frustration. Shiori must’ve burned, with passion and pain, to a degree that Michiru couldn’t even understand. Then she let go, turned back to Akira.

This was not the time to be sentimental. There was a play to perform.

“We found it, Your Highness.” Michiru said. “The jade that we were looking for.”

“Yes…I remember it all. The compassion I had forgotten.”

The crown gleamed with a gem of green.

They still relied on her, their Frau Jade. This was the king’s stage that Akira had chosen.

Michiru’s heart was at ease, for the first time in a long time.

“The next gem awaits us — the Knight’s pearl. Onward south, Your Highness —”

In many ways, this stage was nothing short of a miracle. The fact that all of the Edels were here, performing Part II of Elysion together — was an impossibility. The magic of the stage here in the underground theater was the only reason why they could remember their lines. Have their costumes. Fight for their lives.

Michiru had never actually performed as Johann Saphir. Yet here she was still, standing by the king’s side, the words flowing smoothly through her mind as if they were always there. No, it was more like — she had been replaced by the High Chancellor. She’d lost her memories, after all. Ootori Michiru had, for a brief time, ceased to exist on this stage. Akira had been the same, fighting with and against the role of Franz Platin, so that they may remember their friends and companions.

They flowed through the plains, then to the ice floes, recovering their selves bit by bit. Her memories had been buried there, under the ice. Beneath the stage, Michiru had possessed a wish of her own.

— To become a producer, to make the perfect theater troupe.

At one time, she believed that just gathering the best people would accomplish that. Fumi taught her that that was wrong.

At one point, she believed that as long as the best people were also best friends, they could accomplish that. Siegfeld taught her that that could be cruel.

She’d made those realizations over many weeks, many months of mistakes. Siegfeld wasn’t ever capable of creating the perfect troupe; that was why the king had to die each year, why there always had to be a new king.

She wasn’t capable of creating the perfect troupe. There was never going to be a way to predict the future. There was always the chance that she would burn someone’s dream along the way.

Every single Korosu was born from someone who dreamed of being a Stage Girl.

None of them were that different from the Korosu.

Michiru would still cut them all down. She would’ve cut Shiori down, had Akira not stopped her. It was how things were. Working towards creating a better troupe meant having to chase down, and destroy, impossible dreams.

Surely, they’ve made mistakes. Surely, they would continue to make mistakes. Maybe this was another mistake. Maybe they would pay for it dearly.

But still, Michiru was convinced. The stage of the king needed the five of them. That was why the Edels were here. To create this Elysion. To make sure Elysion would not die!

“The passion of the general, the compassion of the marquis, the potential of the young knight — and the knowledge of your old friend…” Michiru said. The lines always came out so naturally. “Your Highness…we have arrived.”

— And so, finally, the king and the chancellor reached Valhalla.

“Thank you, my old friend,” Akira said. She took the crown off her head, and the dying king was no more. Yukishiro Akira remained.

“It’s time to correct the story and put an end to this, Michiru.”

“Yes. It is.”

Akira raised her lance to the sky, and drew forth the power of the Celestial Goddess. “Gather, Siegfeld Institute of Music’s Edels!”




At long last, the dying king was able to retrieve all the jewels of the crown, and the Edels were able to perform Elysion all the way through.

Akira and Michiru had been alone on stage for the most part, fighting off the Korosu, but the others joined them at the end. After a long battle, the five of them had gathered once more, their memories intact.

Michiru was impressed. Neither Mei Fan nor Yachiyo had outwardly expressed their surprise at Shiori’s appearance when they all reunited. They played their parts as the general and the knight to the end.

As did Shiori perform as the marquis, though her body continued to warp and transform.

After it was all over, Elle was there. “You erased the Korosu and protected “Elysion” from disappearing. Thank you —”

Elle stopped, her eyes widening once she looked upon Shiori’s transformed body. In fear? In disgust?

“…who are you?” The…mascot thing? from the shop stepped out from behind Elle, and spoke with a strangely high-pitched voice. “How did one of the Korosu wind up on this stage?”

“Shiori’s an important Edel,” Michiru said quickly, before any of the others could react upon those words. “And she’s cute, unlike you.”

“?!”

“Wha? …you don’t even recognize something cute when you see it…” the mole grumbled, before muttering something else that Michiru didn’t quite catch.

It didn’t matter. Michiru looked at Shiori. Shiori’s sword hand was twitching, but her body remained calm, excepting the bewilderment in her eyes. She looked like she was ready to collapse, yet she was still standing.

Michiru hoped that Shiori would be okay.

The transformation had stopped before consuming her entirely, but it hadn’t reversed at all. It probably wouldn’t last outside of the underground theater, but Michiru had no idea what would happen. As bizarre a place as it was, she’d never seen anyone’s body change like that. Would there be consequences, even after they left? She’d have to check on Shiori later.

Regardless — they’d done it. It was over, this strange performance.




“Wait.”

As she was preparing to leave the underground theater, Shiori was stopped by a voice behind her. She turned, and saw Elle standing there by herself.

“You’re…Yumeoji Shiori, right?”

— The theater was already beginning to collapse, the magic wearing away. Her body too, was beginning to return to normal, the black spikes blowing away like smoke to reveal her red, inflamed skin. The transformation was slowly fading, but the pain was still real, as was the fact that her throat was still swollen through. Her voice still wasn’t working right. Shiori could only nod in response.

Elle, fortunately, seemed to understand. “I’ve never seen a Stage Girl like you…someone who had already become a Korosu, but still managed to stand on stage. I didn’t know it was possible.”

Elle turned away. Shiori couldn’t blame her. Even with the transformation undoing itself, she knew that she was probably hard to look at.

"I always thought that there were people who shine, and could be Stage Girls. And there were people who were doomed to fail…and the Korosu born from their failures would try to drag everyone else down with them out of spite.

“But here you are, feeling that same spite and bitterness…yet you protected the stage anyway. So…thank you.”

Elle turned back to face Shiori, her face neutral, and bowed. Though — Shiori could tell that she was very deliberately trying to stay neutral. Shiori stood there, unable to respond.

“Maybe…if you could stand on that stage, then even the Korosu could let go of their resentment, and become Stage Girls again…”

“Elle!” A voice in the distance. Shiori turned, and saw Andrew, waving at them. “The show is over! We have to pack up our stuff and get going!”

“Ah, I’m coming!”

Elle gave Shiori a slight wave, then turned and walked over to where Andrew was waiting.




Akira stopped right at the exit to the theater, and Michiru stopped with her.

“What do you think, Michiru?” Akira asked.

“About?”

“The Board meeting later today. We have yet to answer their request for a new Frau Jade.”

“Hmm…I guess there’s still a lot for me to think about. What about you?”

Akira stared at the empty stage. “They were saying — that she was no longer qualified to be one of us. Not just the Board. This place, too, said that she would join the Korosu as a pile of regrets. But she didn’t. Even if she hurt us, even if she was hurt, we needed her. So, at least, for the Performance Festival —”

“That’s our answer, then!” Michiru smiled. It was her job to smile, just as it was Akira’s job to be severe. “Besides, this was really the only possible outcome. None of the other students have approached the Edels looking to challenge Shiori for her position.” Michiru couldn’t be surprised at that. It was a tremendous amount of work and pressure, so late into the school year. “And it’s clear that Shiori will refuse to give it up…so the Board, I’m sure, will accept that result. You don’t have to worry about anything, though. I’ll handle things at the meeting.”

“Right. I’ll be counting on you, Michiru.”

They left the underground theater.

One week remained until the Performance Festival. Not a lot of time. No time at all. But if they all were able to dedicate even just a sliver more of their souls to this performance — they could yet do it.

Chapter Text

Somewhere, on a distant stage, a kingdom was in crisis.

— The young knight took hold of his spear once more, his arm rotting from the shoulder down, and charged once more in the name of his kingdom.




Four Edels were gathered in the student council room before practice. A little less than a week remained.

“Shiori remains Frau Jade,” Akira said. “That was the decision we came to along with the Board.”

It actually hadn’t taken much to come to that conclusion, as Michiru had expected. Anytime you added someone new to a group, the entire group changed drastically. It took time to establish a working dynamic, time they no longer had.

“Thus, our options have dwindled down to two,” Akira continued. “Either Shiori performs as the Wind Goddess, or we go on as a cast of four with Yachiyo reprising the part.”

— There were still no guarantees.

“Whether or not Shiori can stand on stage — is up to her. If she can work herself to get her performance to Siegfeld’s standards. And — it is also up to us. If we can support her enough to do that.”

“Shiori is still resting today,” Michiru jumped in. “But starting tomorrow, she’ll be at rehearsal again. All of us have done everything we can to improve our parts. So…in the five days that remain, let’s work even harder to create a perfect show.”

With all five of them.




Shiori really did like being at Siegfeld’s gates at night. So many fond memories and so many painful memories had been made here. They’d all been burned into her, forged into her soul.

She had to do better than last time, so that she could prove to the others that their trust in her was not misplaced —

“I thought you might come out here again.” Akira was there, at the gate. What timing. “Were you planning on practicing by yourself again?”

“…”

“It’s still pretty cold out. We could use the rehearsal room. I have the key with me.”

“You’ll join me?”

“The Celestial Goddess is also present in all the Wind Goddess’s scenes, isn’t she?” Akira went through the gate, beckoned Shiori to follow. “It’s more efficient this way.”

They went to the rehearsal room, did some warm ups, and danced the dance of the Wind Goddess.

— The dance was a little different now. A touch more fragile. Filled to the brim with desperation, colored by a certain spite. Don’t let your personal feelings cloud the performance, Shiori had been told several times before.

No, that was impossible now. A part of her would always remain in those performances. After all, this was her Wind Goddess. No one else’s.

Everything ached. She could barely catch her breath. But she was used to it now, fighting through it now. The world fell away, until she could only focus on a fraction of it. The dance. Her burning limbs. The Celestial Goddess, anchoring her, refusing to let her fall.

— And then it was over.

“…you made it to the end of the dance,” Akira said.

Shiori couldn’t respond. It took all her strength to keep herself from collapsing.

“Now, it’s just a matter of perfecting it.”




“There. How does it feel?” Yachiyo asked.

Shiori looked at herself in the mirror. The face staring back at her was terribly pale, and unbearably worn out. But the outfit — which Yachiyo had just painstakingly fitted for her — was unmistakably one that belonged to a goddess.

Shiori looked at the mirror again, and the Wind Goddess gazed back at her.

“It fits well,” Shiori said, twisted herself around. She wasn’t sure how Yachiyo had done it. The designs that she had thought would stay only as pictures in that scrapbook had made it to reality.

“Oh? You sound uncertain,” Yachiyo said. “Something bothering you?”

“Um…” Shiori turned back, to the disaster that was currently the dorm’s common room. The Edels had pushed all the furniture to the corner to turn this into something that could resemble a dressing room, and scattered across them were several hangers and boxes that Yachiyo had used to move the costume here. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble to bring everything here. I could have gone to the dressing room…”

“With how you were struggling through rehearsal today? It was definitely a good idea for you to come back and get some rest first. You look a lot better now.”

Shiori couldn’t argue with that. She had to ration her stamina carefully. But, still —

“I didn’t want to cause problems…” Shiori said quietly.

“Well, this is good for me too,” Yachiyo said. “Looking at you now, there’s still some pieces I can improve, so I’ll be keeping the costume in my room today. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to get everything back for the dress rehearsal. And no, you’re not allowed to help me.” Yachiyo stepped closer again, peered at the outfit. “If you want any last-minute alterations, you’ll have to tell me now.”

“Can I try dancing in it a little?”

“Be my guest. Why else did we clear out the entire common room?” Yachiyo said, before walking over to the side of the room.

"Then — "

Shiori danced the dance of the Wind Goddess. Just a fraction of it, enough to see how the clothes would move. What a difference they made.

She stopped, tried to catch her breath. She’d already pushed herself during the day. She could still feel it. But the outfit was easy to move in, at least. She danced until she was back in front of the mirror, looked at herself once more.

Why did she kind of want to cry?

“Shiori?”

Yachiyo was looking at her with a strangely morose expression.

“Have you been bothered?” Yachiyo asked. “By all the rumors.”

“…”

Shiori had heard them, of course, ever since she started going to rehearsals again. No, she didn’t even need to hear them. She knew how she looked now. How everyone looked at her with a certain discomfort. More days than not, she was taking the wheelchair to rehearsals, so that she could conserve her strength for the all-important dance. People saw her use it, and whispered their doubts. How could she take to the stage like that? Did she even deserve to still perform?

“It’s hard,” Shiori said. “I want to prove them all wrong, show them that I can still do everything I used to.” The pain, the fatigue? All things she’d experienced before. She could go to class. Walk to rehearsal. Push herself more, more. “But — I have to save my strength. It’d all come to nothing if I falter at the Performance Festival.”

It hurt. Shiori walked over to the couch, which had been pushed against the wall, and sat down. Yachiyo sat down next to her.

“Sometimes, I still can’t help but wonder. Am I doing the right thing? For myself, for Siegfeld…” Shiori trailed off. She touched her face. It was a little too warm, and the skin was rough and bumpy.

The room fell to silence.

“There is nothing wrong with wanting to perform. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for wanting to act,” Yachiyo said finally, her gaze looking off into the distance. “Even here, not everyone will understand that.”

But then that sort of easy smile was back on Yachiyo’s face, and that casual lilt returned to her voice. “So, if anyone gives you anymore trouble, let us know, okay? I can’t compare at all to Akira-senpai’s wrath, but if you ever need me to chase someone away, I can probably do a pretty good job.”

Shiori couldn’t help but giggle at that. “Thank you, Yachiyo-senpai.”




Two days remained. Tomorrow would be the dress rehearsal. Her last chance to improve. To make sure that Siegfeld would crush Seisho and everyone else, like Akira promised.

Shiori lay in bed, even though it wasn’t that late. She felt miserable. She’d danced so much she felt like her legs would fall off. She thought she was going to lose consciousness several times. She thought she might die.

— What was she even thinking about complaining about? This was the decision she had made. She could’ve quit long ago. She could’ve taken more painkillers, the strongest ones, the ones sitting on her desk that she hadn’t touched. She didn’t want to take them. They worked, but they worked too well. They sanded down everything that could be painful, even the ambition, even the drive to improve.

She could live with a little pain.

Someone knocked on the door, then opened it without waiting for a response.

“Ah, Shiori, you’re here. I hope this isn’t a bad time.”

“Mei Fan-senpai. Please, come in.”

Mei Fan gently opened the door wider, and entered. She carried with her a pile of papers and a few books, which she set down on the desk.

“I went and got all your classwork for the week again,” Mei Fan said. “Although — most of this is review notes for the upcoming exams. A lot of it’s optional, and you shouldn’t have to think about it at all until after the Performance Festival. But I figured you’d want it anyway, so here they are.”

“Ah. Thank you.”

“No need! If there’s anything more I can do to help, please let me know! I don’t want you to have to worry about anything,” Mei Fan said, as she started organizing the notes. Shiori was just about ready to tell her to stop, when Mei Fan stopped on her own, looking at a book that Shiori definitely did not remember seeing before. And was a bit too thick to be class material.

“Mei Fan-senpai? Um…is that…?”

“Oh, this is mine, sorry. I use it as a guide in fortune telling,” Mei Fan said. “I was reading my fortune after class, and must’ve gotten it mixed up with the others.”

“It feels like it’s been a while since you’ve done any fortune telling, Mei Fan-senpai.”

Once, Shiori remembered Mei Fan offering to tell fortunes anytime one of the Edels was worried about something. She hadn’t even noticed that those offers had dwindled to nothing.

“I still do them, but mostly for myself nowadays. The fortunes themselves aren’t that important, but reading the book and casting the sticks helps me focus,” Mei Fan said.

Shiori missed them, a little.

“I see…can you do one for me, then?”

Mei Fan looked surprised, then smiled, then looked worried all in one breath. “I’d be happy to,” she said after her face settled down a bit. “But — are you sure? I thought no one wanted to hear the fortunes. It’s why I stopped talking about them.”

Shiori had heard the warnings from Akira, from Michiru. For whatever reason, only the bad fortunes came true, they said.

— But what Shiori remembered was that Mei Fan always looked so happy, so at ease with the divinations. If she could provide a sliver of that happiness now — and possibly quell her own doubts, then —

“Please. I want to know.”

Mei Fan smiled, though that smile seemed a bit deeper than usual. “Okay, then. I’ll go get my divination tools. I’ll be right back.”

They did a fortune telling. In the past, Shiori remembered that Mei Fan was always so relaxed during the process, carefully parceling out the sticks, forming patterns with them. But this time, Mei Fan looked serious, like she was really focusing. The divination almost felt sacred.

Shiori split the pile of sticks. Mei Fan carefully rearranged them, drew some lines on paper, presented them again. Shiori split the pile of sticks again. And again. The world fell away. The ritual repeated. Mei Fan arranged the pile, Shiori split it into two.

— And then it was over.

Mei Fan opened the book, the pages full of words that Shiori couldn’t read. She watched as Mei Fan scanned the page, her brows creasing further as she went on. Then she stopped, closed the book, and thought silently for a bit.

“Mei Fan-senpai?”

“I’m trying to figure out what this fortune is saying,” Mei Fan said. “Most fortunes are like that, actually — neither obviously good or bad. They’re all sort of like poems, and can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. But…hmm…as for what you got, I think this is what it means.”

Mei Fan’s expression was serious, almost a bit foreboding.

"You made your decisions long ago, and no fate can move that.

“You already know how this will end.”




You already know how this will end.

Yes, she did.




All the goddesses were waiting.

Shiori promised them, didn’t she? That she would perform all the way to the end. Even if her bones fell to pieces. Even if she had to gasp out every breath.

They had sacrificed for her.

Mei Fan, dutifully keeping track of her classwork for her, and helping her so patiently with everything she’d missed.

Yachiyo, who kept insisting on doing all the student council work in General Affairs, who stayed up late making the costume changes that Shiori had admired days before.

Michiru, taking extra time in rehearsals, giving her extra time in rehearsals to rest, always being patient with her clumsiness.

And Akira, who danced the dance of the Wind Goddess with her many times.

She had promised herself that she would throw her soul into the flames for them. She had, over the course of a grueling week, done just that.

It was time to let go of the last of that soul.

How uncomfortable the stage was, how painful the dance was. Once it was over, she could succumb to that pain. But not a second sooner.

Look.

She was there, in the audience, watching.

Look.

The pain and frustration would always stay with Shiori. This was her life now.

But it was fine. That kind of luck could befall anyone. She’d tasted that bitterness many times before.

To still be on stage, to have the opportunity to burn through the last of her strength here — this moment shall become another precious memory.

Look — at how far I’ve come.

— This was — the last dance of the Wind Goddess.




The Performance Festival came and went. The Edels put on their performance of Elysion, and everyone did the absolute best they could.

It was frustrating, how things turned out. The Elysion they put on couldn’t even compare to the one in December. At least, to the judges. Siegfeld did not reign supreme, as Akira had declared they would. The audience seemed enraptured as always, but it wasn’t quite enough. The applause that Seisho had received was just as deafening, if not even louder. The award ceremony had been almost painful to sit through.

— There were quite a few things that hadn’t gone to plan. But that was what Michiru expected. There would always be things that didn’t go according to plan.

There were going to be more changes to the plans. The Siegfeld students who came to watch would be perceptive to any weakness in the Edels — or anything they considered a weakness. There were probably going to be so many challenges once the new school year started; everyone wanted a chance to be onstage for Elysion, after all.

Siegfeld as an institution wasn’t going to change so easily.

…there was no use dwelling on this. The show had already ended, and may as well have blown away in the wind. There would be more stages in the future. There was somewhere else Michiru had to be.

“…Michiru-senpai? What brings you here?” Shiori asked, sitting up in her bed.

— the medical center really was out of the way of the main campus. No matter how many times Michiru made the trek, it surprised her with how long it took.

“To see you, of course,” Michiru said with a smile, before her face became a little more serious. “I wanted to talk a little about the future. But before all that — how are you doing?”

Shiori looked troubled for a moment. “Fine, I think. I’ve been making up work and taking exams, but they wanted me to stay here a bit longer. I don’t think I did very well on my finals…”

Another case of bad luck. Part of Michiru was surprised that Shiori had forced herself to take exams in her condition. Part of her knew — that there really was no other choice. The school year would not wait for her to end.

“But you didn’t fail them, right?”

“I don’t think so…”

“Even if you did, you’ve nothing to worry about. You’ve already made it through Siegfeld’s junior high division. You’ll automatically join the high school for the next school year.”

“Right…” Shiori said, before her eyes clouded over again. “If I can even keep up at Siegfeld like this…”

The weeks leading up to the Performance Festival must’ve been absolute torture, but Shiori had done it. She had performed, and danced the dance of the Wind Goddess —

— which had promptly landed her back in the medical center.

Michiru didn’t know the details — and didn’t ask — but it was clear that even now, Shiori was still fighting some pain. Michiru’s intuition had been right from the beginning. This wasn’t something that would go away.

“Next year…no, next week — I will no longer be Frau Saphir. And you will have completed your duty as Frau Jade. Whether you hold onto the title or pass it on — is now totally up to you.”

Michiru couldn’t tell what the future would hold. Maybe Shiori could do it, push this body of hers a little bit further, and keep performing. But it was much more likely that, for at least a small time — or maybe the rest of her life — she would have to give up the stage.

Either way, Shiori had been extraordinary. The Edels never quite said that to her enough.

“Congratulations, Shiori. You were the first Edel from the junior high school, and the first junior high representative at the Performance Festival from Siegfeld. I don’t know if they were worth the hardships you put yourself through, but they are real accomplishments, and they are worth celebrating. Whether you stay at Siegfeld or transfer somewhere else…I hope you continue onwards with your head held high.”

Shiori’s eyes widened. “You don’t think that it’d be wrong for me to leave Siegfeld?”

“Well, I’m obviously hoping you stay! But I don’t know if that’s right or wrong for you. The reality is that, while you’re ill, you may not have the opportunities you once did, and the school may not give you the support you need.” Michiru said. “But if you stay, you’ll still have all of us helping you, and Siegfeld is known as an elite school for a reason.”

Shiori nodded, but then turned away, looking especially troubled. “I — don’t want to let anyone down.”

Michiru smiled a gentle smile. "No matter what you do, some people will despise you for it. And some people will be inspired by it.

“It’s something you carry with you, alongside the stage.”




Somewhere, at the park she used to frequent, in the quiet hours of the evening — Shiori was alone, waiting for someone. She checked her phone, if only to make sure she didn’t miss something, but it didn’t take long for her to hear the sound of someone running over.

“Shiori! I’m so sorry I’m late. Work was really busy tonight.”

Fumi put her bag down, and sat down next to Shiori on the park bench. “How’ve you been?”

“Much better. I really scared our parents for a bit there…”

“The Performance Festival, right? Our parents aside — do you know how much you worried me?! When you didn’t make it out for the curtain call, I —” Fumi shouted, then sighed. “…I’m glad you’re doing better now.” She fidgeted a bit. “What did you think of it? The Performance Festival, I mean.”

“Ah…well…”

Shiori, frankly, didn’t remember most of it after Elysion ended. She hadn’t been present enough to see anyone else’s performances; not Rinmeikan’s revived traditions, not even Akira’s long-awaited face-off against Maya.

Shiori looked down at the ground. “I’m frustrated. I could’ve done so much better in the past. I thought I’d conquered all of my weaknesses from when I was a kid, but now…I don’t know if I’ll be Frau Jade next year. Or rather — I really don’t think I will.”

The Performance Festival had just confirmed what she already knew. Stage Girl Yumeoji Shiori was dying. Not quite dead yet. The stage had not left her yet. But the reality was that her body wasn’t going to let her keep a performance up to Siegfeld’s standards all the way through.

“I’m sorry, Onee-chan. I wasn’t able to carry our dreams to the end.”

A silence hung over the park for a bit.

“If anything, I should be the one apologizing,” Fumi said quietly. “I’m sorry for leaving it all to you. It wasn’t a burden you were supposed to carry on your own.”

“Onee-chan…”

“The way I see it, it’s Siegfeld’s fault that things turned out like this. None of the other Edels could really do anything about that. No matter what they did, they were bound to the stage that the school provided. If there’s anything I regret, it’s that I dragged you into this dream of going to Siegfeld and performing Elysion together. We had no way of knowing what that would entail.”

“I don’t think it’s anything to regret,” Shiori said.

Fumi looked away. “I do. I left you with the burden of a broken dream, and with the shame of being related to the one who ran away.” She then took Shiori’s hand, looked at the cracked patches of red on Shiori’s arm. “You shouldn’t have had to prove anything. You should’ve been allowed to rest, until you were certain that you could stand on stage without any problems. There shouldn’t have been any shame for you in doing so.”

Fumi let go of Shiori’s hand, and Shiori let it fall to her side.

"Then I can say the same to you, Onee-chan. When you had to leave. It hurt a lot that you said nothing to me about it…but there shouldn’t have been any shame for you to step down from being Frau Jade. I should’ve — we all should’ve — understood that more.

“So don’t say anything more about regret. Regardless of how everything turned out…I’m happy I went to the Performance Festival.”

Fumi smiled, and her expression was so weary and also so tender. She reached out and ran her hand through Shiori’s hair, stopping at the rose pin, before tracing her finger across the edge of it. “I know. I’m proud of you, Shiori.” Fumi sounded like she might start crying.

Shiori didn’t say anything in response, and instead embraced her sister. This time, she could accept those words without tears. Despite all the hardship, she was also proud of herself.

They stayed there a while, before Shiori finally let go.

“How did your play go, Onee-chan?”

Another smile. “Really well, I think. Everyone at Rinmeikan is improving a lot. It might not be nearly as polished or demanding as Siegfeld’s productions, but we won’t lose in charm.”

“It sounds lovely. I’m sorry I couldn’t see it.”

“What are you sorry for this time? I heard from the others that you collapsed practically as soon as you got backstage after your part. You probably should’ve gone to the hospital. Or at least gone home to rest…and you probably shouldn’t be out here right now. You still look kind of haggard.”

“But I wanted to see you. You’re pretty busy, Onee-chan.”

“I could have gone to you. I should’ve. And — we’ll see each other back at home, anyway.”

“I know. Still…let me have this selfishness.” Shiori stood up, turned to face Fumi. “The stage hasn’t left me yet. Our dreams still stay within me. One day, we can yet perform together.”

She’d burned for the stage. Burned herself. Was it worth it? Shiori couldn’t say. The experience had been invaluable, and she had wholeheartedly pursued her dreams. She’d performed Elysion, and fulfilled a sliver of that long wish.

She was ill. She had been ill, she would always be ill, she had sacrificed so much of herself. Fumi knew, had to know. Neither of them could say anything. Shiori understood why Fumi had to leave, so long ago. Fumi must’ve understood why Shiori would so willingly cast herself to the flames. They’d felt that same obsession for many years together, after all.

The stage had not left her yet.

Even if Stage Girl Yumeoji Shiori had to die, she’d rise up once again. Even if it wasn’t on Siegfeld’s stage, surely there was a place at the theater for someone like her. Eventually, there would be a stage that’d accept her, even if she had to carve it out from nothingness herself.

Somewhere, on a distant stage —

Shiori smiled, knelt down, and took Fumi’s hand, gently folding it within her own.

“At long last,” she said. “I have finally found you. Do you remember me, brother? My brother, who was abandoned, who was betrayed, who everyone claimed was dead — I always prayed that one day, we could meet again.”

Fumi blinked, then looked down at their hands, and said nothing.

Shiori tightened her grip on her sister’s hand, trembling. “…why do you look so sad? There is nothing more to apologize for. There is nothing to grieve. Though I was cursed and wounded, and may never hold a spear again, I have no regrets.”

I found you.

I found myself.

I followed our dreams as far as I could carry them.