Oh, to be a jellyfish, drifting through the blue, oblivious to all conscious thought… to be a lone sac of watery, translucent flesh, equipped only to eat and to fend off predators with stingers, not having to worry about existential questions of self or being and instead merely exist… even here, in the confines of a water tank, acting solely as a curiosity for passing humans to marvel at, it seemed to hold a peaceful existence, content to not possess any higher cognitive function and instead simply let the current take it where it pleased… was that not something remarkable? Enviable, even?
Kanon had been listening to a lot of Kaoru’s monologues lately, hadn’t she.
She shook the philosophizing voice out of her head as she continued to watch the sea nettle undulate in place, the ghost of her reflection projected over the deep blue glass before her. If she had her own little happy place, it was definitely this corner of the aquarium… their jellyfish exhibit was darkly lit and spacious, with several benches set up around the largest exhibit areas, allowing for plenty of distance and comfort as she watched the jellies… vibe. That was the word Kokoro had used before she and Hagumi zoomed off towards another exhibit, dragging Kaoru and a slightly disgruntled (yet accepting) Misaki along with them.
“Go ahead and stay here,” Misaki had said with a reserved smile as Kanon watched her be tugged away. “I’ll meet up with you once I get a moment.”
Kanon couldn’t help but let out a little ‘fuee’ of guilt at the memory. They had come here for Misaki’s birthday—it was technically a few days early, since her actual birthday fell on a weekday night and the band wanted her to have a proper birthday bash, complete with a Hello, Happy World! performance at the end of the day—but she had consigned herself to babysitting duty yet again. Kanon didn’t even know why Misaki had chosen the aquarium… it was more of a place she herself would enjoy, after all; in fact, she was pretty sure she had taken everybody here back on her own birthday. So why would…?
Kanon’s thoughts melted away, lost in the ripple of the jellyfishes’ tentacles. She had a bad habit of over-thinking things… she was here to relax. And relax she should! After all, today was an even quieter day than usual—there was nobody in the jellyfish besides herself and… and…?
She tilted her head to the right to see a woman only a meter away, staring into the same tank as her. The dim blue glow of the exhibit caught in her raven hair, reflecting off the glint of a large golden pin affixed to her temple. The deep blue of her wide, round eyes shone with the reflection of a passing man-o’-war, affixed intently on the creatures that passed through her views. Kanon had definitely seen her before somewhere…
Wait, that was it! This girl was here the last time Kanon was at the aquarium too! They’d both hung out in the jellyfish exhibit for hours together, never saying a word to each other but glancing at the jellies with the same quiet passion. They seemed to share a certain silent kinship, in that sense… although it was difficult to tell what was going on in the girl’s head. Her appearance was stoic, but striking—each flutter of eyelashes or swish of hair drew Kanon’s eyes in a way few other details did. There was something enigmatic about her… or maybe Kanon just had a think for dark-haired, blue-eyed girls—wait wait wait nonono where did that thought come from??!
“Y-Yes?” Kanon yelped, caught off-guard by the pincer attack of the statement and her own lesbian thoughts. Gah, she’d been staring, hadn’t she? She didn’t want to make this girl uncomfortable…
“Are you a fan of jellyfish as well?” the stranger continued, unbothered.
“Oh!” Kanon felt the anxiety lift from her chest—the girl just wanted to chat, it seemed. “Y-Yes! I love jellyfish. They’re my favorite animal in the whole world.”
“Is that so?” the girl replied, flatly but with a hint of wonderment.
Kanon nodded fervently. “W-Watching them really relaxes me. There’s nothing I like more, really.” Except for maybe going out for a tea date with a friend like Chisato or Eve… o-or Misaki. But that was neither here nor there.
The girl turned back to the glass quietly, the pool of cerulean glimmering in her eyes. “I see. Then you’re a good person.”
Kanon blinked. “A good person? For liking jellyfish?”
The girl nodded. “I can trust you with my life now.”
Had… she met somebody unusual again?
A familiar voice drew Kanon’s head—and smile—towards the south. “Misaki-chan!”
Misaki jogged up, panting lightly as she slowed to a stop in front of her. “Finally lost the dummies around the coral reef area… Kaoru-san got into a long winded monologue about clownfish and I managed to skedaddle while Kokoro and Hagumi were distracted.”
“Sh-Shouldn’t we keep an eye on them?” asked Kanon.
Misaki smiled as her eyes trailed off to the side. “Well, it’s my birthday we’re celebrating. We deserve a break togeth—I mean,” Misaki coughed. “J-Just some alone time between us. For a little bit. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen?” She ignored the prophetic visions in her mind as she tacked on that last sentence.
Kanon felt her cheeks heat up as she watched Misaki awkwardly rub the back of her head, a giggle—happy and nervous—escaping her throat. “Well then, where to, birthday girl?”
The nickname caused Misaki, too, to grow flush, coughing into her elbow in order to hide her embarrassment. “W-Well, I know this is where you like to hang out, so I guess we can chill for a while…”
“But it’s your birthday!” Kanon tugged on Misaki’s sleeve. “We should go where you want to go.”
“A-Ah, well…” Misaki scratched at her cheek as she avoided eye contact. “You like penguins too, right?”
“Okay, okay.” Misaki sighed, stepping forward and feeling the light pull of Kanon’s grasp as they started walking. “Um, well, I guess I’ve never seen the turtles before. We could go check them out, I guess…”
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic,” said Kanon. “What about the octopus tank?”
“Eh. Never been big on those.” They were halfway out of the jellyfish hall by now. “Are there any whales around here?”
“I don’t think so… they’re a little too big for an aquarium of this size.”
“Ah, makes sense. Well, I guess there’s always sharks.”
“I think the seals are neat,” said a voice from behind them.
Misaki turned to notice the raven-haired stranger following them, whose gaze bore holes into Misaki’s soul. “Um, sorry… who are you?”
The girl turned towards Kanon and smiled softly. “A jellyfish comrade.”
After staring for half a second, Misaki leaned to whisper into her bandmate’s ear. “Kanon-san, who is this woman?”
“Um… she’s…” Kanon remembered the dramatic life pledge the stranger had made not five minutes prior. “A friend?”
Misaki side-eyed the interloper with a cocked eyebrow. “What’s your name?”
“Hikari,” she replied, swishing her hair with a flourish of her hand. “Hikari Kagura.”
“Okay, then, Kagura-san,” said Misaki politely. “Is there a reason you’re following us?”
“Well…” Hikari’s eyes drooped as she searched for a reason, wracking her brain in an attempt to remember how she got here. “I suppose I’m lost.”
“Lost…?” Kanon parroted.
Hikari nodded. “When we got to the aquarium Mahiru said something to me, but I wasn’t listening because I was focused on finding the jellyfish as soon as possible. Now I don’t know where she is.”
“Mahiru?” asked Misaki. “ Who’s that? Is she your mom or something?”
After a moment of contemplation, Hikari said with complete resolve, “Yes.”
Misaki didn’t know how to respond to that. Either this nearly full-grown teenager still needed a chaperone to lead her around places, or she was missing some key context.
“Um… we can lead you to the information desk, maybe?” suggested Kanon. “I know cell reception in here is kind of spotty, so it’d probably be best to put a call for her there.”
“I can find Karen too that way,” said Hikari, as if Misaki and Kanon intrinsically understood who that was. “Thank you. I’ll do just that.” With one last cryptic look she pivoted right and stepped down the hall.
“Er, Kagura-san?” said Misaki, feeling a familiar if involuntary twitch in her smile. “That’s the opposite way.”
Hikari stopped in her tracks. “…I knew that. I wanted to take the more scenic route.”
For a split-second, Misaki could’ve sworn she was talking to Kaoru. “Look, you’re not the only one here bad at directions—”
“—So why don’t we show you the way?” Misaki was used to this sort of thing at this point anyway; it wasn’t in her nature to leave an unattended child roaming about. Even though she was pretty sure Hikari was her age, if not older—was it just in Misaki’s nature to baby people at this point? That’s what she got for regularly dealing with three toddlers stuck in the bodies of high schoolers…
Hikari thought to herself for a moment. She hadn’t heard where Karen or Mahiru were going to, and she only really ever hung out in this corner of the aquarium—if she wanted to find them, following these two was probably her best bet. Also she was getting hungry and if she asked nicely these people might give her food. “Very well. Let’s go, then.”
Kanon smiled as Hikari strode up next to her. “So, what’s your favorite kind of jellyfish?”
“I like crystal jellies,” said Hikari coolly. “They have a sort of translucent and ethereal beauty, like they’re so fragile they would shatter at the slightest touch.”
“Ooh, I love those too! You put it perfectly. That’s why I like moon jellies too, they feel so delicate.”
“Mm. And when they float together, it’s like they’re dancing…”
The two continued talking about jellyfish with quiet enthusiasm, Misaki watching with something between contentment and bemusement. She did find it strange how well Kanon was getting along with a practical stranger, but she was mostly happy to see her having fun. That’s why she’d chosen to come here, after all… wasn’t like she had anywhere more special to pick for a birthday spot anyway. Might as well make her cru—er, friend happy. And hey, meeting new people was always a good thing, wasn’t it?
They traipsed on out of the jellyfish hall and towards the front information desk. Before they even got in sight of it, they heard loud, frantic chatter booming from that direction. “Please, please please! You have to have seen her!”
“Ma’am, please calm down—”
The trio rounded the corner to see a pigtailed redhead at the counter, shaking the poor servicewoman by her shoulders as she rambled on. “Did she end up trapped in that pink desert place again? Did the giraffe get its hands—er, hooves?—on her? Was there a limited-time Mr. White event happening somewhere else downtown?! She’s not answering her texts or anything!! Gaaaah, I’m about to explode from worry!!!”
Who in blazes…? Thought Misaki, unable to process a single word the girl was saying
“Karen,” said Hikari plainly.
The girl swiveled around, revealing a bright red crown hairpin as her eyes grew wide and bright. “Hikari-chan! You’re here!” She practically tackled her to the floor in glee, sniffling a few tears as her arms squeezed Hikari tightly. “I was so worrieeeed! I thought you had your brilliance taken away again!”
“Bakaren,” snapped Hikari, smacking her lightly on the back of the head before reciprocating the hug. “I was just watching the jellyfish. There weren’t any auditions or revues here.”
“Oh, thank heavens… I was afraid I wouldn’t see you for months again.”
“…Kanon-san?” Misaki whispered, her voice fraught with tension. “What are they talking about?”
“I’m… not sure,” Kanon replied. “I don’t think it’s our place to ask.”
It was only after squeezing Hikari for a full ten seconds that Karen noticed the other two people staring at her. “Hm? Who are you all?”
“It’s my new comrade,” said Hikari, motioning to Kanon. “And also… some other person.”
“Thanks,” Misaki deadpanned. “You could at least give her our names.”
“…I don’t know your names.”
Touche. Misaki cleared her throat. “Misaki Okusawa.”
“K-Kanon Matsubara!” Kanon put on a smile as she bowed. “Me and Hikari-chan bonded over our love of jellyfish, and she was lost, so we decided to, um, escort her I guess?”
“Wow! Thanks!” Karen’s hand slid down to latch around Hikari’s with a smoothness that belied her cutesy demeanor—although upon a second glance, both Misaki and Kanon noticed she was in fact rather handsome. “I wouldn’t want Hikari-chan to get lost again. Last time that happened I freaked out for like, half a year.”
Hikari smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m right here.”
Both Misaki and Kanon noticed that the way they were holding hands was… intimate, to say the least. As was the way they were nuzzling their noses together. And moving their lips towards one another. “U-Um,” Kanon stammered. “Are you two… er…?”
“Aw nuts!” shouted Karen, suddenly pulling back. “Mahiru’s not here!”
“Oh, right,” said Hikari. “But I think she’s probably holding up fine by herself.”
On the opposite end of the aquarium, Mahiru was desperately trying to fish a hyperactive blond stranger and her two numbskull friends out of the shark tank they had just dived into.
“We should go looking for her,” said Karen, looking around at the various signs. “Hmm… would she be over by the sea lions, do you think?”
“She likes Suzudaru Cat, right? She should be over by the cats, then.”
“…This is an aquarium,” said Misaki. “Why would there be cats here?”
“Maybe sea cats?” suggested Karen. “Aren’t those a thing? Like sea cucumbers?”
Silence gripped Misaki’s throat. The number of idiots in my periphery is increasing…
“Um, would you like some help looking for your friend?” asked Kanon. “I-I mean, I don’t know what sort of help we’d be, but…”
“Really?” Karen suddenly reached forward and grabbed Kanon’s hand, causing Misaki to choke on her spit. “That’d be great! Two heads are better than one, after all!”
“D-Don’t we have four heads now?” asked Misaki blithely, still trying to recover.
“Bakaren,” said Hikari. “You should know how to count by now.”
“Heeeey!” Karen protested. “I’m just not good at math, okay? It’s not necessary to be an actress…”
“You’re an actress?” asked Kanon.
“Yup!” Karen stepped back and twirled around before placing her hands confidently on her hips. “Student Number One of Seishou Music Academy’s 99th Class, Karen Aijou at your service!”
“N-Number one?” Misaki balked. “D-Does that mean you’re top of the class?”
Karen blinked. “Huh? Top star? No way! Me and Hikari stand on stage together!”
“We’ve done away with the giraffe’s rules,” said Hikari. “No more tragedies. We stand on stage now as one.”
Karen laughed and made moony eyes at her. “You’re so right, Hikari-chan~!”
Misaki had a feeling that if she asked what in the sam hell these two were talking about she would only understand less. “Right. I’m pretty sure one of us is hallucinating right now, but we should really stay on task. Aren’t you looking for your other friend?”
“Ah! You’re right!” Karen snapped to attention. “We got so caught up in numbers that I forgot!”
Is that what got us offtrack…? Misaki wondered.
Makes sense, Hikari thought. Numbers always reduce my brain to sludge, after all.
Kanon giggled nervously. “W-Well, the point is, we should coordinate our efforts. Where to first?”
“Might as well try the big Deep Sea Tank room,” suggested Misaki. “It’s the largest location and right in the middle of everything.” Plus if there’s a trail of chaos that the dummies left behind, I can make sure they’re not stirring up too much trouble…
“Sounds good!” Latching onto Kanon’s hand with one of her own, Karen also snagged Hikari and tugged them both along. “Let’s go, everyone!”
“R-Right!” said Kanon.
Hikari remained silent, but the ghost of a smile—contrasting her earlier moodiness—was etched onto her face.
Trying to ignore the tiny arrhythmic heartbeat in her chest, Misaki followed.
They reached their destination quickly: the aquarium was fairly centralized, so getting from one location to another never took much time. A massive, multi-ton tank of water filled with every variety of sea creature—as many kinds that could be put together without eating one another—loomed before them, surrounded by a crowd of dozens of onlookers. After Karen and Hikari filled Misaki and Kanon in on what Mahiru looked like (it took about five minutes for them to clarify what “look for the antennas” meant) they swept the room, remaining tightly packed so as not to get separated from one another.
“Hmm… I don’t see her anywhere,” said Kanon, standing on her tippy-toes to try and get a better view of the room. “Are you sure you don’t know where she’d be?”
Karen did the same, squinting with all of her might in an attempt to perceive where her wayward girlfriend had gone. “Mahiru-chan… come heeeere, Mahiru-chan…”
“Is she a cat?” asked Misaki, smirking stoically.
“She has more of a dog energy to me,” Hikari replied.
“…I don’t know if that helps.”
After another pan around the room, the four retreated to the nearest hallway to strategize. “You two still don’t have any reception?” asked Misaki.
Hikari shook her head.
“Gaah, some birthday this is turning out to be…” Karen whined. “I wanted to watch the dolphin show together…”
“Wait, birthday?” asked Kanon. “Is… Is it your birthday today?”
“It was a couple days ago, actually!” Karen replied. “We’re just celebrating now because it’s the weekend.”
“Wow, what a coincidence!” said Kanon, gesturing towards Misaki. “We’re here to celebrate Misaki-chan’s birthday, too! Although hers is on the first of October.”
“Woah, double coincidence!” said Karen with shocked glee. “That’s Junjun’s birthday, too! We invited her to come today but she said the last thing she wanted for a celebration was a migraine, so she stayed in with Banana.”
“…Who’s Banana?” asked Misaki flatly.
“Banana is Banana,” said Hikari, wondering why Misaski would ask such a dumb question.
“By the way, what’s a migraine?” asked Karen, staring blankly.
Misaki had no idea who this ‘Junjun’ person was, yet she felt an immediate and unspoken kinship with her.
“A-Anyway, back on topic,” said Kanon, “maybe we should split up? We won’t be able to cover as much ground if we stay glued together.”
“Good idea!” Karen replied. “If we each go in four different directions we’ll find Mahiru-chan in no time!”
“Hold your horses,” said Misaki, arms-crossed. “How many people here are good with directions?”
Karen shot her hand up high. Hikari’s head slowly pivoted towards the tank, distracted by a passing blue tang. Kanon just looked at her twiddling thumbs and fuee’d softly.
“Right. That’s what I thought.” Misaki sighed. “Let’s split up into two teams, then, just so we don’t end up with more people lost.”
“Ooh, pairing up?” Karen pulled on Kanon’s sleeve. “I call Kanon-chan, then!”
Misaki’s breath snagged in her esophagus. “H-Hold on, this isn’t like a team sport—”
“Is there a problem?” asked Hikari.
“W-Well, no, I mm-mean…” Misaki cleared her throat. “D-Don’t you two want to go together? I mean, you seem to be, er, really good friends…”
“Yeah, that’s true,” said Karen. “But I wanna get to know Kanon-chan a little more, that’s all!”
Kanon shrugged. “W-Well, I guess I don’t mind…”
Misaki scrambled her mind for an objection, but ultimately couldn’t come up with one that didn’t make her sound like either a) an overprotective mother or b) a hopeless lesbian. What other choice did she have but to acquiesce? “Okay. I’ll go with Kagura-san, then.”
“Very well,” said Hikari. “Which direction should we go?”
At that very moment, a muffled explosion sounded in the distance.
“Wh-What was that?” Kanon asked.
Misaki could only imagine the cause, but she knew the perpetrators instantly. “Uhm, K-Kagura-san and I will go that way,” she pointed west, in the direction of the sound, “while Aijou-san and Kanon-san go around the east end. We can meet at the polar bear area. S-Sound good?”
“Okay!” said Karen. “I’m really wondering about that noise, tho—”
“Don’t worry about it! It’s no biggie!” Misaki stammered, practically shooing Karen and Kanon towards their exit. “Catch you in a few! Byyyyye!”
She was sweating bullets by the time she’d waved the two of them off and turned back towards Hikari, who was sizing her up with a quiet iciness. “What?” asked Misaki defensively.
“…Nothing,” said Hikari. “Let’s go.”
“R-Right.” Steeling her soul for what ever inane insanity she was about to encounter, Misaki pressed onward.
Karen and Kanon soon ended up in the penguin exhibit. “Oooh, look, rockhoppers!” said Karen, nearly leaning over the edge as she pointed at a burly little penguin with thick yellow eyebrows. “They’re always fun so fun to watch!”
“Y-Yeah!” Kanon agreed, but wasn’t sure how to tell Karen she should probably focus. “I have a fondness for the penguins from this aquarium in particular.”
“Really?” asked Karen, bobbing over the railing. “Why’s that?”
“Um… it’s a long story. And it’d probably sound ridiculous.” Kanon wasn’t sure how believable her tale of penguin rescue would be, unaware that the person she was talking to had engaged in several metaphysical theater duels for the sake of just being able to perform high-school plays with her sweetheart. “B-But I agree, rockhoppers are really cute!”
“They are!” Karen chimed, swishing her body back and forth—Kanon was surprised by her athleticism. “They kind of remind me of Hikari-chan, looking so grouchy all the time… but I’m sure they’re actually really sweet, just like her!”
“Just like Hikari-chan, huh…” Kanon couldn’t help but notice the sparkle in Karen’s eyes as she talked about her. “Are you two… close?”
“Hmm… well…” Karen hopped off the railing, finger on her chin in thought. “I did choose to come to the aquarium today just so she could see her favorite jellyfish…”
“And she is my childhood friend who I would pretty much go to the ends of the earth and back just to be with…”
“Oh and she’s called me her ‘forever star’ and also she’s the entire reason I’m standing on stage in the first place! So…” Karen shrugged carefreely. “Yeah, I’d say we’re pretty close!”
Kanon was using that word as a euphemism for dating, but by the sounds of it she should be buying these two a wedding gift. “U-Uhm, th-that’s amazing, Karen-chan. I can’t imagine being that—” She stopped short of saying ‘in love.’ “—Of having someone you treasured that much.”
“You don’t have anybody like that, Kanon-chan?” asked Karen, surprised. She and Misaki seemed to avoid eye contact and stutter in that same way that Mahiru did when she was being really gay, after all.
“W-Well… I have people precious to me, certainly,” said Kanon, turning out towards the penguin enclosure. “And I even have someone who I wish I could have as… er, a special someone. But I guess I don’t have the courage to tell her that…”
Karen patted her on the back with vigor. “Cheer up, Kanon-chan! I’m sure you can work up the spirit to do it!”
Kanon giggled weakly. “Thanks. But… I’m not sure she’d reciprocate. I don’t have many good qualities about me, after all.”
“Nonsense!” shouted Karen, just loud enough that the few other exhibit-goers stared in their direction. “I’m sure you shine in your own special way!”
Kanon was lightly startled by the outburst. “My own…?”
“That’s right!” With no provocation, Karen suddenly leapt onto the railing with both feet, wobbling to find her balance before staring down at Kanon with brilliance in her eyes. “Everybody has their own wonderful qualities, and you’re no different! Heck, I’m sure this girl you like already likes you back! You just have to take the initiative, and—” She jumped back to the floor. “—Leap forward with all you’ve got!”
Kanon could feel her face grow warm with admiration—and embarrassment. “W-Wait, I didn’t say anything about girls, did I?”
Karen craned her neck. “Are you not gay?”
“That’s weird.” Karen scratched her head. “Everybody I meet is, so I think I just assume at this point.”
“Y-You’re not wrong is the thing…”
“Oh, awesome!” Karen pumped a fic. “Go get her then, you lucky lesbian you!”
It was like talking to a more fiery Kokoro: Kanon was sure she was going to overheat any second. “Th-Thanks, Karen-chan…”
Karen puffed her chest out and giggled. “Ehehe, you know, Kanon-chan, the way you laugh kind reminds me of—” Her eyes went wide. “Mahiru-chan! Fudge nuggets, I forgot about looking for her!” Without waiting for Kanon to respond, she bolted for the nearest employee. “Excuse me, sir!”
The employee jumped, suddenly on-guard. “Gah! What is it now?!”
It was clear by his demeanor something was off. “D-Did something happen?” asked Kanon, walking up to meet Karen.
The man took a second to breathe before continuing. “Half an hour ago some orange-haired ball of energy leapt into the enclosure to try and snatch up a penguin. Said she was trying to ‘reunite’ one of them with a friend…?”
“O… Orange-haired?” Kanon repeated with a gulp.
“Yep. Might’ve succeeded too if the girl next to her hadn’t yanked her up by the leg before she could jump all the way in. Before I could thank her properly she started traipsing north… her little tiny pigtails fluttered all the way.”
“Pigtails?!” Karen yelled. “That’s gotta be Mahiru-chan!” She latched onto Kanon’s hand and yanked her forward without a second thought. “Thanks Mr. Employee!! We’ll find her lickety split so you can thank her properly!”
Meanwhile, Misaki and Hikari were over in the tide pool area, checking out the numerous aquatic wonders one could find right on the shore. “Lichen…” said Hikari absentmindedly, staring at a pool full of the minty-colored plant matter.
“I’m sure the algae is very interesting, but don’t we have better things to do?” snapped Misaki. “We should find your friend so we can reconvene already.” She skirted around the edge of the tide pool before noticing that Hikari hadn’t moved, instead staring silently and cryptid-like in her direction. “…Do you need something?”
“You sound bothered,” said Hikari. “Why is that?”
“I’m fine. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Misaki attempted to brush the statement off, aware of the prickles in her heart all the same. “Why does it matter to you, anyway?”
“You didn’t want your friend to go with Karen, did you?”
“Wha—” Misaki clamped her ajar mouth shut. “Th-That’s not a big deal! Seriously, I’m fine. Totally fine. I don’t have a problem!!”
“Okay,” said Hikari, sounding disbelieving even though she took Misaki’s words 100% sincerely. “I just had a feeling you were jealous of Karen, that’s all.”
“Why would I be jealous?” asked Misaki, her hand unconsciously skimming the glass barrier around a nearby pool. “I barely know her.”
“She’s the sort of person you could never hope to be.”
Misaki exhaled and crossed her arms. “And just what is that, exactly?”
A nonexistent wind billowed through the hall, sending Hikari’s hair flapping dramatically as she spoke just audibly enough to hear: “A chad.”
Misaki blinked. “…Huh?”
Without a word, Hikari started stepping past her. “I’ve said my piece. I hope we find Mahiru soon… I’m getting hungry.”
“H-Hold on just a second!” Misaki yelped, jogging to catch up to her. “What do you mean, ‘a chad’?”
“Karen is proactive,” Hikari replied, continuing her pace without missing a beat. “She shines because she doesn’t let anyone or anything get in her way when it comes to pursuing her goals. It’s the sort of charisma that anyone would get attracted to.” Her eyes panned over to drill into Misaki’s soul. “You know that sensation well, don’t you?”
Images of a certain rich blond vocalist flashed through Misaki’s mind. “W-Well…”
“It’s understandable,” said Hikari with a nod. “You worry that you’re not nearly that magnetic yourself, and that your friend Ka… er… Kana…? Kanan Matsuura? …That she’ll fall for Karen instead.”
Misaki had been expecting the unexpected by this point, but this level of psychoanalysis from a person she’d met not an hour ago still left her stumped. “I… That’s not…”
“Unless…” aid Hikari, her train of thought chugging along to the next station. “You’ve fallen for Karen, too?”
Misaki was now speechless for an entirely different reason.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t have her,” said Hikari, with the harshest expression Misaki had seen all day. “She only has two hands and they’re both taken already.”
“…I’m gonna change the subject now.”
Misaki fortunately didn’t have to, because a panicked fish-feeder ran up to them with frenzied eyes, halting them in their tracks. “You two!!! Have you seen a violet-haired woman running around here?”
…Is he talking about the student class president? thought Hikari.
Oh God Help Me, thought Misaki.
“It was madness…” said the man, leaning against the closest barricade as he recounted the tale with the gravitas of a war vet. “She went to each individual pool in here, pulled out animals from each one, and just… soliloquized. For minutes on end. About each one… and she kept quoting Shakespeare for some reason!”
Ah, he is talking about the student class president, thought Hikari with a resolute nod.
I’m never going to be let into heaven, thought Misaki, resisting the urge to crumble to her knees. I could have stopped her. I had the power. But no. I abandoned my duty… my responsibility…
“We managed to stop her thanks to another girl,” said the man, wiping his brow with a shaky arm. “She was so strong… she just pried the animals out of the maniac’s hands and started scolding her.”
“Strong? Scolding…?” Realization dawned on Hikari’s face. “That had to have been Mahiru.”
“Um… how do you know?” asked Misaki.
“Excuse me,” said Hikari, addressing the feeder. “Did the girl have dark hair, little pigtails, and smell vaguely like potatoes?”
“Uh… y-yeah,” the man replied. “Well, I don’t know about the potato part, but—”
“Which way did she go?”
“North, towards the polar bears—”
“Understood.” Hikari started walking brusquely towards the nearest exit. “I’ll find her as soon as possible.”
It took Misaki a dazed second for her to process where Hikari was going. “K-Kagura-san! That’s the opposite direction!”
By sheer luck, or perhaps serendipity, both pairs reached the polar bear area at the same time. Kanon waved bashfully to Misaki as Karen dashed over to embrace Hikari again. “Any luck?” asked Misaki.
“I heard she was over in this direction,” said Kanon. She leaned in close to Misaki to whisper, “Hagumi-chan might be nearby too.”
“Christ…” It already sounded like Kaoru was causing an aquarium-closing incident, and Misaki had no idea how she’d handle another dummy on top of the pile. If Kokoro got involved too…
“Ah!” Karen cried out. “Misaki-chan! Kanon-chan! Look!”
Fearing the worst, the two swiveled around and ran to where Karen and Hikari were located, overlooking an enclosure. “What is it?! Who’s burning something down?!” Misaki yelled.
“Burning…?” Karen shook off her quizzical expression and pointed down. “Look, there’s a big one right there!”
Misaki and Kanon peered over the edge to see a polar bear chilling by the edge of the enclosure, lazily blinking as its head panned about. It kicked a leg into the nearby pool as its sole brethren paced around the opposite end of the enclosure on all fours “Oh.” The air left Misaki’s lungs. “That’s all…”
“Um, w-well it’s really cute!” said Kanon, hoping to ease the tension lingering around them.
“It is!” Karen hummed, patting Hikari on the shoulder. “He looks like Mr. White, doesn’t he?”
“Not quite,” said Hikari. “He lacks Mr. White’s panache.”
“Who’s Mr. White?” asked Kanon.
“Hikari-chan’s favorite mascot!” Karen pointed to the purse clipped onto Hikari’s belt, shaped in the design of a cutesy cartoon bear. “Isn’t he adorable?”
“Aww! He remind me a little bit of Michelle.” Kanon nudged Misaki with her elbow. “Doesn’t he?”
“Hm? Yeah, you’re right…” Despite the panic brewing in the back of her mind, a smile crossed Misaki’s face. “Michelle would fit right in with him.”
“Who’s Michelle?” asked Karen and Hikari in unison.
Misaki pulled up a picture of her alter-ego on her phone and showed it to them. “She’s, er, the mascot of the band we’re in, so to speak. She’s happy and friendly and always has a smile on her face, so she’s sure to put a smile on your face too!” The recital of the mascot pitch was drilled into her head ad infinitum by now, but she felt a little happier saying it than usual.
“Aww, she looks cute!” said Karen.
“Hmph,” Hikari scoffed. “She’s no Mr. White.”
“Ahaha… i-is that so?” asked Kanon, unsure why the air in the room suddenly felt thicker.
Hikari nodded. “Mr. White is a fully realized character, rich with nuance and intrigue. He’s not merely a mascot for children to play with.”
“H-Hey now,” said Misaki, cocking one eyebrow. “Michelle has that stuff too. I mean… h-her lore is really intricate and deep.”
“Not as deep as Mr. White’s, I’m sure,” said Hikari, her eyes flashing with blue fire. “He has a tragic backstory filled with bitter loneliness and loved ones he’s left behind. His life as a womanizing spy leaves him naturally isolated from the world he fights so hard to protect. The depths of his pathos are so heartbreaking that you and I can hardly comprehend it.”
“I… Is this really a mascot backstory…?” asked Kanon.
“Well, M-Michelle has it rough too,” said Misaki. “She… She actually isn’t that happy deep down. She’s really depressed because she feels like nobody around her really needs her and that she doesn’t have any value, and it’s only through a long and intimate character development that she realizes just how much people really love and value her!”
“That still pales in comparison to the daily trauma that Mr. White goes through.” Hikari held up her purse. “Do you see this smile? It masks a lifetime of neglect and sacrifice. Can you say Michelle is the same?”
“You—!” Misaki realized she was getting into a playground-level nerd argument, but she couldn’t help herself. “Look. I—er, Michelle is putting on a concert in front of the aquarium later this afternoon, so I invite you to come see her for yourself. You’ll walk away with a smile on your face, guaranteed.” Misaki cleared the air from her eyes in one swift motion, trying to appear as confident as possible. “Got that?”
“I’d like to see her try,” aid Hikari flatly.
“Guys?” asked Karen.
“What do you have against her, anyway?” asked Misaki with a huff. “They’re both just dumb bears, I don’t see the difference.”
Hikari gasped. “Mr. White is not just a dumb bear! He is a rounded character with flaws and foibles like any human being! Take that back right now!”
“Sorry. I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” Misaki smirked a little. “Doesn’t feel so good to have your comfort character insulted, now, does it?”
Hikari drew a knife from seemingly thin air. “You—”
Karen’s shouting finally drew Misaki and Hikari’s attention. “What?!” they snapped.
Karen pointed inside the enclosure. “Somebody’s riding the bear.”
Bewildered by the statement, the two of them drew closer to the railing, next to a frazzled Kanon watching below at a cheery individual parading around on her steed. “What kind of idiot…?”
“Weeee! I didn’t know Michelle had such fluffy white friends!”
Oh. Oh god.
That was Misaki’s idiot.
Hello, Happy World’s vocalist waved up above . “Hi Misaki! Hi Kanon! Hi strangers!”
“Hi!” Karen replied innocuously. “That looks like fun!”
“It is!” Kokoro responded, patting the (currently) uncaring bear on the nape of its neck. “You wanna join me?”
“Sure!” said Karen, putting one foot on the ledge. “I’ll just jump down and—”
“Don’t you dare put one foot beyond that ledge, Karen-chan!”
An unknown yet stern voice boomed from below, stopping Karen in her tracks. “W… Was that…?”
Suddenly, like a mermaid from the sea, Mahiru Tsuyuzaki leapt from the pool of enclosed water below and onto the dry plastic ice, spitting out a mouthful of water and panting as she faced Kokoro. “You… you.”
“Me!” Kokoro chimed. “Are we still playing tag? Me and Hagumi and Kaoru had lots of fun as you chased us around—”
It was a movement so quick, precise, and fierce that it defied all notions of physics: Mahiru ran over as her hand shot out and grabbed Kokoro by the scruff of her collar, hoisting her off of the (unusually docile) polar bear and into the air as she stared worried daggers into her being. “This. Is. Dangerous. We are going to go find the aquarium staff and we are going to apologize. Do you understand?”
“Okay!” said Kokoro cheerily, clearly oblivious to the consequences of her situation. “How, you’re good at tag, missy!”
“Don’t…!” Mahiru sighed, all of the intensity leaving her body at once. “I’m just glad we’re done. Behave yourself, okay?”
Misaki and Kanon stared on in disbelief. “Wh… What happened while we left them unattended…?”
“I don’t want to know,” Misaki mouthed.
Karen and Hikari, meanwhile, had shrunken below the banister out of sight. “Mamahiru can be so scary…” Karen moaned, gulping.
“M-Maybe we should get out of here,” said Hikari, sneakily slink-walking towards the exit.
“Karen-chan and Hikari-chan, you two better not move a muscle until I get up there! I need to have a word with you two!”
They froze on the spot, quivering out of an intense and primordial fear.
“We’ve found some interesting new friends, Misaki-chan…” said Kanon quietly.
“Remind me to ask her for parenting tips later,” Misaki replied, pointing to Mahiru before slumping over the railing from emotional exhaustion.
Half an hour later, after countless apologies to the staff and at least one Tsurumaki-funded bribe, Hello, Happy World! and the trio of girlfriends found themselves outside the aquarium gift shop, Misaki and Mahiru exchanging only the most profuse of bows.
“I am so, so, so sorry,” said Misaki, head practically buried in the coral reef-patterned carpet below them. “I thought I could leave them unattended for just an hour or two. That was the biggest mistake of my life.”
“It’s not your fault,” said Mahiru, kowtowing just as deeply. “I’m so sorry you had to spend your afternoon helping these two find me… that wasn’t your responsibility in the slightest.”
Kanon couldn’t help but wonder if they were denying some level of responsibility and autonomy to their fellow teenagers, but perhaps this was just in Mahiru and Misaki’s nature.
Misaki gave a sharp elbow to Kokoro’s side, snapping all three dummies to attention. “What do you say?”
“Sorry!” said Kokoro, not sounding apologetic in the slightest.
“Sorry…” said Hagumi, on the verge of tears.
“’Tis my most grievous of apologies,” said Kaoru, clasping a hand to her chest. “Verily, I was so overcome by the beauty of the depths that I—”
“Now what do you two say?” said Mahiru to Karen and Hikari, cutting her off.
“W-We’re sorry too!” said Karen. “Er, but why are we apologizing to Misaki-chan and Hikari-chan? They didn’t seem to mind…”
“It was within the expected duties of a jellyfish comrade,” said Hikari, turning her nose up.
Mahiru wrung her hands together. “Honestly, you two…”
“I-It’s fine, Mahiru-chan,” said Kanon. “I think it’d be best if we just let bygones be bygones.”
“This is, believe it or not, not the worst incident we’ve ever been involved with,” said Misaki, stifling flashbacks to deserted islands in the Pacific, high peaks in the Andes, and the dry, dry Sahara Desert.
“I still feel indebted,” said Mahiru. “Is there anything we can do?”
“You can watch our show!” Kokoro cut in, before Misaki or Kanon could say anything. “We’re gonna put on a great concert!”
“Y-Yeah!” said Hagumi, regaining her usual pep. “You’ll love it!”
“Fleeting…” Kaoru added unprompted.
“Ooh, that sounds like fun!” Karen replied, clenching both fists. “Plus then we can see Michelle for ourselves! Wouldn’t that be exciting, Hikari-chan?”
“I suppose,” she replied. Despite the emotionless tone, she was legitimately curious.
That lit a fire in Misaki’s gut that she didn’t know could burn. “Yep. We’re gonna put on the show of a lifetime, just you wait.” She stared intently at the three of them. “So be ready to rock your socks off in half… an… hour…”
She trailed off. “W-We only have half an hour until show time?” asked Kanon weakly.
The scramble was instantaneous. “TIME TO GO, TIME TO GO!” Misaki yelled, clapping. “We gotta move to the dressing rooms pronto! No time to waste!”
The rest of the band followed suit without question, but not before waving goodbye to the Seishou girls.
“Bye, everyone!” shouted Karen. “And remember, Kanon-chan! Shine on!”
Kanon blushed and turned to dash away towards the dressing room.
“You,” said Hikari, looking at Misaki. “Remember. Initiative.”
“I can’t believe I’m taking relationship advice from somebody like that…” Misaki grumbled, following her bandmates towards the “Employees Only” door that guarded the way to their proverbial backstage.
After everybody scattered to their positions, Misaki hunted for a space to don the Michelle outfit She'd managed to find a properly secluded corner and gotten most of it on when Kanon poked her head around the bend. “Misaki-chan?”
“What is it?” Misaki grunted, zipping up the last segment of her suit. “You need something? The dummies okay?”
“Everything’s alright, the suits are watching them, it’s just…”
Kanon fiddled with her hands. “Um… you chose coming to the aquarium today because you thought I’d like it, right?”
Misaki’s hands paused right as she grabbed the Michelle head before cramming it on. “I-I just felt like it. Didn’t really have anywhere better to be, after all.”
Misaki slumped down and back, her mascot head hitting the wall with a resounding thud. “Okay, you got me. I just… thought it’d be nice.”
“B-But didn’t you have somewhere you’d rather be?”
Misaki shrugged. “I know the dummies would make me go somewhere, so…”
Kanon sat down next to Misaki, resiting the urge to place a hand upon her knee. “But why would you do something like this just for me?”
“Well…” Michelle remained motionless, but Kanon could hear movement from inside the suit. “I mean, you’re kinda the reason I’m still standing here.”
Karen’s words from earlier in the day echoed in Kanon’s head. She’s the entire reason I’m standing on stage in the first place!
“I-I mean, I would’ve gotten so fed up with the dummies and left a long time ago if you weren’t around,” Misaki continued. “So… thanks. I, um, owe you a lot.”
Kanon’s hands clutched at the frills of her skirt. “U-Um… I should be saying that to you.”
“I-I don’t know if I’d be here if I didn’t have you supporting me, either,” Kanon murmured. “So, um…”
Their heads were turned towards one another. And close. Very close. Much closer than either of them realized. And that small distance was shrinking ever further with each passing second.
“LET’S GET OUT THERE, EVERYONE!”
…Of course that would be the moment that Kokoro & Co. burst into the room.
“Michelle, Kanon!” she cried, grabbing one flustered hand from each of them and yanking them to their feet. “Time to smile!”
“W-Wait, Kokoro!” yelped Misaki. “I-I mean, we still have to—”
“I-It’s fine,” said Kanon, smiling at her. “We can talk more later.”
Misaki grit her unseen teeth—they were pressed for time as it was. Besides, what was she even thinking? She and Kanon weren’t going to… do whatever she was thinking about. Nonsense. Get those gay thoughts out of her head and onto the stage already!
“What instruments are in a band, again?” asked Hikari.
“Hikari-chan, we literally learned guitar for a play just last month,” said Karen. “Don’t you remember Kasumi-chan and O-Tae teaching us?”
“Quiet down, you two,” shushed Mahiru. “The concert’s about to start.”
The crowd of kindergartners and elementary school children surrounding them erupted in applause as Hello, Happy World! Took the stage outside of the aquarium, attired in their tried and true marching band couture as Kokoro front-flipped towards the mic. “Hello, everyone! Are you ready to smile?”
“YEAH!” shouted Karen, Mahiru, and most of the children. Hikari looked on in silence, her eyes locked upon the DJ onstage.
“Alright then! Let’s make the world smile!” Kokoro pumped one fist into the air. “Happy!”
“Lucky!” sung Kaoru.
“Smile!” shouted Hagumi.
“Yay!” cried Kanon and Misaki.
They launched into their standard playlist: starting things off breezy and light with Orchestra of Smiles and Egao Sing a Song before getting into the heavier, harder tracks like Goka Gokai and Worldwide Treasure. Misaki and Kanon couldn’t help but look over at Karen and company for a lot of the performance—Karen got into the groove of just about every song on the setlist, Mahiru brought out a baton and started doing small motions in time to the music, and even Hikari seemed to sway back and forth with the rhythm. Seeing them smile just encouraged the musicians onstage to give it more of their all.
After a particularly rousing rendition of Wacha Mocha Pettan March (a local favorite), they finished things off with a showstopper version of Kimi ga Inakucha before playing out Happiness, Happy Magical as an encore. As the last blast of brass notes sounded over the speaker system, the crowd rose to its feet in a standing ovation, hooting and hollering with sheer joy at the spectacle they just witnessed. Kokoro called the members up front to take a bow, where Misaki and Kanon did just that…
When they saw it.
Karen, overtaken by the rush of happiness and fun, diving in to snog both of her girlfriends right on the lips for all the public to see. A couple parents gasped. A few gawked and gave death stares. One might’ve even fainted from the sheer shock of the impov lesbianism
“Holy…” Misaki muttered, just loud enough to hear. “She’s certainly bold, isn’t she?”
Such a brazen, public display of sapphicness would catch anybody off-guard—but Kanon felt something more stir within her at the sight. Two phrases hung in her mind:
Remember, shine on!
She turned to Michelle. To the beady black eyes of this mascot, filled with a cutesy gleam.. There was shine within her—within both of them, no doubt. She just had to lean forward and…
…Leap. With her heart, instead of her feet.
Indeed, in that moment, Kanon did what Karen would’ve done.
She kissed that bear right on the lips for all the little preschool children to see.
Even after stepping off stage, going to the back rooms, undressing, splashing water on her face, and screaming, Misaki was still in a daze as Kanon carted her out front to reconvene with Karen and Hikari (Mahiru was keeping an eye on the dummies, who were eagerly cajoling around the gift shop in search of plastic souvenirs).
“That was an amazing show, you guys!” Karen cheered. “I was pumped the whole way through! You had me jumping and moving and everything!
“E-Ehehe, thanks,” said Kanon, still bright red herself. “D-Did you like it too, Hikari-chan?”
After a moment of contemplation, Hikari grinned. “Your sound was nice. Michelle… isn’t a bad bear after all.”
“Y-Yeah!” Kanon gently nudged Misaki. “M-Michelle’s wonderful, isn’t she?”
“Oh, y-yeah, totally,” Misaki vomited thoughtlessly. “She’s. One in a million. Uh huh.”
“Are you okay, Misaki-chan?” asked Karen. “You look kinda out of it.”
“Maybe she’s upset about what happened at the end,” Hikari suggested.
“Upset about…?” Kanon’s breath hitched. “N-No, I think she’d, um…”
“Congratulations, by the way!” said Karen, slapping Kanon on the back. “See? I told you you had shine! You just had to show her with your lips!”
Kanon’s fuee was so high pitched only dogs could hear it.
“Still, it must be hard,” aid Hikari, stepping over to rub Misaki on the shoulder. “My condolences.”
“Um… why are you expressing sympathy for me?” asked Misaki.
“Well, I mean…” Hikari’s eyes scrunched together in confusion as she looked back and forth between Misaki and Kanon. “Weren’t you in love with her?”
“Y-Yes?” replied Kanon.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you two, did I?” said Misaki with a reserved smirk. “I’m the person inside the Michelle suit. The one Kanon-san kissed on stage was… well…”
Karen blinked. “Huh?”
Hikari frowned. “What’d you say?”
“You know, Michelle? The mascot?” Misaki made vague gesturing in the shape of a bear. “I’m the person inside. I am Michelle. Sorry I didn’t clarify earlier.”
“…I’m confused,” said Karen, scratching her head.
“Me too,” said Hikari. “After all…”
They looked at each other before speaking in unison.
“Michelle’s a bear. You’re a girl.”
Misaki cried herself to sleep that night.