"Ukagi-sensei, what do you mean by 'evicted'...?!" Tamao shook her head, voice trembling with the fear that Ichie held within her. "W-Why?!"
"That's pretty obvious," the older woman answered coldly, eyes lacking the empathy of a teacher who was bringing bad news she sympathized with. "There are very few students in the Performance Department. Besides, that number is getting smaller every year and the department itself isn't doing too well. There haven't been any brilliant results that justify its continuation. That's why the Commission has decided to disband it."
How did any of this make sense? Just because they weren't producing any results the adults liked, they were going to take control of their lives and make this decision? Without even asking for their input?
Ukagi-sensei easily bulldozed through Tamao's weak protests. She called them lost causes. She listed their failures compared to the General Education Department. She broke down every reason why the Commission came to the decision they did. It was logical. It was cold.
The worst part was Tamao accepted it. She hung her head, voice still shaking, but acquiesced without further protest. The same friend who had held out her hand when Ichie had joined the Performance Department when she had transferred to Rinmeikan last year, smiling so bright and encouraging at the time, was now reduced to a small shadow.
"Let's both do our best as performers–as Stage Girls," the Tomoe Tamao of that time had said, eyes sparking with determination. And Ichie had eagerly grasped her outstretched hand, ready to follow her new friend onto this new stage.
But now the same hand that had shook her so vigorously was grasping the hem of her skirt, trembling in her own weakness. She would not be reaching out to anyone; she couldn't even help herself.
"Stop sounding like you've given up already!" Ichie exclaimed, clenching her own shaking fists. But they weren't trembling from fear like Tamao.
When was the last time she had felt this much anger? Oh, when…
"Well, you didn't exactly stand up to her either, did you?" Fumi remarked.
It was a very innocent, logical, correct comment. But hearing it made Ichie freeze.
She hadn't. She had voiced her protests, but she hadn't fought back against Ukagi-sensei. It was because…
"Hey, if you're that upset, don't complain to us smaller managers. Go talk to the higher ups. Hell, go find the old geezers at JEC." A dismissive scoff. "If they'll even give you the time of day."
Ichie looked away, bitterness tinting her voice. "I just don't expect anything from adults that just push their own agendas like them."
Fumi wouldn't understand. The adults who had pushed Fumi away from Siegfeld must had been similar to the ones who barely cared about the members of Sweet Pleats. But Fumi couldn't fight against them, and had no choice but to cut herself from them. Ichie… Ichie had tried to fight back. No matter how futile, she had tried to cling to the hope that things could get better as long as she resisted with all her might.
But there had to be a way to do it. They couldn't just yell at people like Ukagi-sensei, who didn't care about what happened. People like her were just the ones relaying the information; even if they cared, they held no power. But if Ichie wanted to truly protest…
"We're sorry. The heads of JEC can't meet with you right now."
"Um… it doesn't look like they can fit you in their schedule…"
Then she needed help. A lot more help.
"Let's work through this together!" Ichie insisted–insisted to her friends. They had gone through so much together. Surely…!
But Tamao only hung her head, shaking it weakly, "That's… I can't bring myself to do it…"
"…?!" Ichie stared down at her, this person who was supposedly Tomoe Tamao. She really was just going to give up?! "What?! We're all gonna be separated! You can't be okay with that!"
Fumi stepped up behind her, a hand raised to stop her. "Ichie… Please…"
Why didn't Fumi understand? Why weren't any of them angry? No, they were definitely upset. But none of them were saying anything. Rui had the same defeated look as Tamao, but directly specifically at Tamao. Yuyuko had retreated into her hoodie. Fumi was no help.
It hurt. Her insides twisted into knots. It was too similar.
Tamao kept her head down, remaining silent.
It was just like…
"Sorry, Ichie-chan. There's nothing we can do…" Tears had run down her friend's cheeks then, staining her heavy makeup. "We should just accept–"
"I hate it!" Ichie threw her hands down, shaking her head to rid herself of those memories. "I won't stand here quietly and not do anything!" Ichie spun around, storming out of the room.
"If it comes to it, I'll do it alone!"
She would. She needed to. If no one else was going to fight for the precious happiness between them, then she would do it herself.
She wasn't about to lose any more friends. Not anymore.
She really shouldn't have run out of the school into the city. They still had afternoon classes. Not to mention Ukagi-sensei had wanted them to clean out the Performance Department classroom by the end of the week; there was a lot to do, too much for only five people, let alone four.
But agreeing to do it meant giving up. And Ichie was determined to turn away from that ending no matter what.
At the very least, leaving Rinmeikan's school grounds had given her the chance to calm down. She pushed aside the memories of her past, focusing on the present. It wouldn't be helpful if she got pulled into those dark thoughts. She needed to focus on her current problem and make sure the past didn't repeat.
Passing by a nearby park, Ichie decided to move away from the city crowd and sit down on a bench. She needed to think, and sitting helped with thinking.
Nope. Pacing was better.
They were supposed to save the Performance Department, not run out of time and lose it. How had this even happened, anyway? All of them had been trying their best, even joining the shady Auditions held by a talking giraffe and the mysterious Elle. They had said they could obtain their Fated Stage so long as they won them, but–
Ichie's eyes widened, halting in place. Elle-chan had said we just needed to win the Auditions and we could save our department. The Auditions aren't done so… why did this have to happen already?!
"Lies…" Her voice grew louder as the unpleasant feeling rose within her. "We got lied to again. Why… Why is everyone always lying?!"
Ichie threw her head back, yelling into the unknown, "Weren't we supposed to have more time?! What's the point of risking out Brilliance if our goal can't even be reached anyway?! What's up with that?!"
She needed to find Elle, and maybe the Giraffe too. She'd get them to listen. They at least seemed like they were invested in their efforts. It was better than hopelessly yelling at Ukagi-sensei or trying to get an audience with the Commission. Those adults wouldn't be any help. The Auditions were supposedly on hold, but if she could just find a way to start them again…
A hand clasped around her shoulder, shocking Ichie from her thoughts hard enough that she visibly jumped. She spun around, yelling–
Only to find herself face-to-face with a certain tall brunette from Seisho, staring at her with concerned lilac eyes. "Otonashi-san, are you alright?"
Twintails styled into banana bunches popped up from behind Maya. "Ichie-chan?" came Nana's worried voice.
Ichie blinked. "Maya-chan and… Nana-chan?"
Maya nodded. "Perhaps we should sit down."
It turned out that Maya had agreed to accompany Kaoruko into the city to buy some more snacks. Kaoruko would have gone with Futaba, which would have been better with her motorcycle, but Futaba had mentioned needing to do something and had to decline. Kaoruko had predictably thrown a fit, only stopping when Maya suggested going with her instead.
"I wish to personally witness the transaction of these sweets Hanayagi-san partakes so often," Maya had said, repeating her words to Ichie.
Coincidentally, Nana had needed to go out to buy some groceries for her next cooking endeavors. Thus, Maya and Nana had gone into the city with Kaoruko, planning to spend the day together. They had passed by the park Ichie had stopped in while trying to find Kaoruko, who had run off saying something about children buying too many kinako sticks, and noticed her strange expression. So Maya had walked over with Nana behind her, and now here they were.
"Nana-chan went to go find Kaoruko-chan, right?" Ichie asked, looking past Maya to see if she could find Nana's unique hairstyle. No dice.
"Yes, I'm sure Daiba-san will be able to placate Hanayagi-san." Maya turned her frown at Ichie. "I would be more concerned with yourself, Otonashi-san. You seem to have something heavy on your mind."
"Well, yeah." Ichie chuckled nervously. "That's kind of putting it lightly."
"If you would like, I would like to hear what is troubling you."
What would Maya-chan know? Was the first thought that came to mind. Seisho didn't have to worry about their performance department closing; their entire school was dedicated toward the stage, with half the student body learning to be performers themselves.
But a small part of her wanted to vent to someone who wouldn't judge her. She couldn't find that at Rinmeikan–not with how the other four had given up so easily and the rest of the school didn't care about them. But Maya was from Seisho and entirely unaffiliated. She was also the daughter of two prominent actors.
Maybe she'd get it? The love for the stage so much that you can't let it go?
There was no harm. So Ichie gave in. "We just got told that we're being evicted. The Performance Department is officially going to be shut down."
Understanding dawned in Maya's expression. "Ah, yes I recall. It had been one of the conflicts between Hanayagi-san and Tomoe-san when our schools had first met. It was the main reason you five at Rinmeikan had stepped into Elle's Auditions." Maya tilted her head down in what was probably supposed to be a small bow. "My condolences. I would have thought your school would give you more time."
"Right?!" Ichie huffed. "But nope. That Ukagi-sensei told us we had to pack up all our stuff within the week and skedaddle. How is that even fair? We tried our best and this is all we get?!"
"Within a week?" Maya pursed her lips. "Now that is rather harsh. What of the others?"
Ichie's shoulders slumped. "They were upset too, but none of them seemed as mad. Tamao had practically given up, and Fumi was telling me to calm down."
Maya blinked in surprise. "Tomoe-san had simply accepted the outcome? If Hanayagi-san were here, she may have stormed into Rinmeikan to scold her herself."
"Well someone should. But Fumi said we should all leave Tamao alone." Ichie groaned. "But if we don't do something soon, our Performance Department really will get shut down!"
"Then what do you plan to do, Otonashi-san?"
"Fight back, obviously!" Ichie looked down at her lap, clenching her fists around her skirt. "Even if the others don't want to, I won't just give up. It's not fair that we just have to accept what these adults tell us. What do they even know?"
"They are the ones who oversee our progress," Maya argued. "They provide us the tools, resources, and funding we Stage Girls need to improve and showcase our capabilities. Without them, we would have no school. Without them, our stagehands would have no equipment to construct the stages we stand upon. Perhaps they are not performing beside us, but they are a necessity for our survival as Stage Girls in this world."
All of Maya's arguments were sound. Ichie understood all of that. However, there was still one difference between being a necessity that simply existed and being a helpful necessity.
So Ichie countered, "But they don't understand what we're going through. They just sit in their comfortable chairs while looking over us like they have nothing to do with us until they say so. If they're going to be like that, they shouldn't be the ones who get to decide what happens to our department."
"Have you proven to them that there is a reason for them to support you?"
"There haven't been any brilliant results that justify its continuation. That's why the Commission has decided to disband it." Ukagi-sensei had said so herself.
Deep down, Ichie knew she was right. Even though she and the others were having fun with the performances they put on, there hadn't been any new members joining the Performance Department. Even after Fumi, a renowned transfer from Siegfeld, had joined them, there had been no new sparks of interest.
No one was going to help them at this rate. Then that meant…
"If no one is going to help, then we'll fight for it ourselves." Ichie shook her head. "And if the others think our protests won't do anything, then I'll keep fighting on my own. I'll do whatever I can to win. If no one here will help me, then I'll find another way. Like… Like…"
On a distant stage, a certain mysterious girl had once told them, "The wish in your heart… The unfulfilled, piteous dream… If that is the stage you dream of...your wish will be granted."
Then even if she had to resort to that…
"Like the Auditions." Her voice slowly rose in crescendo as she mentally prepared herself to accept the idea. It was so enticing. Ichie could hardly keep the giddiness from her voice. "If winning it can grant any wish, then I'll do it myself. Even if I have to storm up to Elle and demand she let me finish it now–"
"That is unacceptable, Otonashi-san."
Maya's cold voice sent a shiver down Ichie's spine. She looked up, and had to stop herself from scooting back from Maya's piercing stare.
Ichie knew Tendou Maya was intense. She was also talented and taciturn like Akira, able to express her true feelings with only a few words and gestures. But Ichie had never thought of her as someone unapproachable or intimidating like Akira.
It's because she's usually immersed in the stage. Ichie realized. But I just… said something to upset her, didn't I?
Whatever it was, Ichie wouldn't take back her words now. She meant what she had said–she'd do everything in her power to save their Performance Department.
Before she could continue though, Maya spoke first, "It would be one thing if you were partaking in the Auditions to prove your capabilities. However, if you are simply using it as a means to reach a certain goal, then you will only know despair and stagnation."
"Despair and stagnation?" Ichie frowned. Winning the auditions was supposed to grant any wish. She didn't see how having a wish granted could lead to unhappiness.
Maya leaned back. Though her frown remained, her intense glare relaxed just enough for Ichie to notice. Her lavender eyes looked beyond Ichie toward a horizon she couldn't see. "Otonashi-san, why do you think people pursue their goals?"
Ichie blinked, startled at the unexpected and blunt question. Still, she did her best to answer, "Uh… Because that's the point? A goal is something you strive for. So if you weren't going to try to achieve it, it wouldn't be a goal, right?"
Maya nodded. Ichie breathed a sigh of relief that she had answered that right. "Yes. Similarly, a wish is something we desire granted. However, there is a difference between the two–between a goal and a wish."
"Aren't they synonyms?" Not that Ichie was that good with words. She knew what they meant at least.
"They are often used interchangeably. However, recall that the Giraffe and Elle have emphasized granting a wish with their Auditions. In the end, whatever you desire will be fulfilled by their powers, not your own power."
Ichie… couldn't see what was wrong with that. "So? We still get what we want."
Maya turned her piercing gaze back to her. "Is that truly what you want for your desire? To have someone else solve your problems for you?"
Ichie flinched. "Well, no, but if anyone can do anything about the Performance Department…"
"When someone grants your desires for you, it is rarely done without a price." Maya took a deep breath. Suddenly, she stood up from her seat on the bench and placed her hand on her chest. With a strong voice, she recited, "'If you gather a small star, you will seize a small amount of happiness. If you gather a large star, you will seize a large amount of wealth. If you gather them both, you will seize an eternal wish.'"
Ichie stared at her, letting the silence drag until she remembered where she had heard those lines. "That's from Starlight, right? The play you guys have performed for your Seisho Festival?"
Maya lowered her arm, turning to her. "Indeed. The Auditions follow a basis similar to the events of the Starlight Gatherer. Specifically, our wishes require something to fuel them. The larger the wish, the more we need to provide. What do you think allows the Auditions to fulfill our wishes?"
"Um…" If Maya meant what she said about taking from the Starlight Gatherer, then it would be, "stars?"
"I understand your confusion," Maya said, carefully reading Ichie's troubled expression. "In truth, this was not something any of us were privy to. I believe only Kagura-san had known the truth, but that was because she had experienced it herself."
Hikari-chan? "The truth?"
"Stars. Brilliance." Maya's expression turned grim. "The brilliance of stars–of Stage Girls–are required to fuel the Auditions' ability to grant our wishes."
Understanding slowly dawned on her. As Maya's words sunk in, Ichie's blood ran cold.
"That's…" Ichie breathed.
"For your Performance Department, one that is on the verge of collapse, you will need more than just a large star to fulfill your 'wish.' In that case, where do you plan to get that? Whose Brilliance do you plan to steal? Ours?" Maya stared down at her, completely serious. "No matter how sad your own tragedies are, we are Stage Girls. And we will not give up our livelihoods so easily."
She wanted to take back the Performance Department for everyone's happiness. They had come so far; it was too early for them to give up. But if the alternative was to steal from other people…
"I… I can't do that." Ichie grit her teeth, pressing her palms against her temples. "I don't want everyone to lose their smiles. But… But…"
She remembered how the girls from Sweet Pleats had broken so far that they couldn't recover. It was bad enough that Ichie wasn't surprised when she hadn't seen them the next day at practice. Those remaining had flashed her broken smiles before never returning as well.
And now, she couldn't stop seeing Tamao with her head hung low. Her friend, once brimming with so much Brilliance, was slowly losing her own shine as she drowned in her own despair. Ichie didn't want to see that on Tamao of all people–not on Fumi, Yuyuko, or Rui either.
Ichie clenched her eyes shut, the tears she hadn't shed in years returning to her eyes. "I don't want to be the reason anyone else loses their Brilliance either!" Ichie screamed.
A hand clasped around her shoulder. The warmth pulled Ichie from her despair, and she was only slightly surprised that Maya was smiling gently at her. "Good. Then there is still hope for you."
Ichie blinked, swiping across her eyes to remove her tears. "Huh?"
Maya sighed, sitting back down next to Ichie. "There had once been a Stage Girl who had desired far too much. She had sworn she would do anything to relive her dreams, no matter how detrimental it would be to the same people she was trying to protect. And so that Stage Girl had triumphed, making her dreams come true. She stood on the stage of destiny and found happiness repeated endlessly."
Maya chuckled mirthlessly. "But there was no happiness in her repeats. In her attempts to remain with her friends, she had inadvertently alienated herself from everyone including those friends. She was simply living a false happiness. It was a lie easily broken."
Maya chuckled again, this time with more humor. "No. I was not strong enough. It was another Stage Girl, one who reminded us that Stage Girls are constantly improving. A rather peculiar girl. She had initially been the least promising of us all, and yet she was the one who triumphed over all odds. It is vexing to admit, but she had bested me as well."
A bright grin came to mind. The face belonged to a dazzling brunette. With one finger pointed to her head, coincidentally where her crown hairpin was clipped, she had declared, "Non non dayo! Stage Girls are being reborn every day!"
"Karen-chan?" Ichie frowned. "Then who's the other one? The Stage Girl who won the Auditions?"
Maya shook her head. "That is not my place to tell. Perhaps she may discuss that with you in due time. I only know a few pieces that Hoshimi-san imparted to me. And even she has not been privy to all the secrets, not like Hanayagi-san has."
Ichie blinked. Maya was talking too cryptically for her to follow. All she could do was nod slowly. "O-Okay… Then, what should I do?"
"What you had already planned to do, without resorting to the Auditions." Maya stood up from the bench. As she gathered her belongings, she added, "Though it may not seem like it, you are not alone in your struggles, Otonashi-san. As I am not a student at Rinmeikan, there is little I can help. However, there are those you can turn to."
"You mean Tamao and the others? But they've all given up already…"
"Is that truly so?" Maya's lips pulled up into a small smirk. "I find that hard to believe. For someone who had sworn to prove her long-time role model wrong, it seems rather uncharacteristic to simply quit now. After all, that isn't what Hanayagi-san would have done."
Ichie pursed her lips. "Well, Kaoruko-chan never had to deal with losing her entire Performance Department."
"Then what of Yumeoji-san?" Maya added with a second argument. "Though I am not familiar with her circumstances, she had regained her Brilliance after whatever tragedies she had suffered in her previous school, did she not? For her as well, I find it hard to believe a Stage Girl who had overcome her lowest point would simply accept defeat when another obstacle obstructs her path."
"Fumi's… well, yeah okay that is weird that she'd just accept this too."
"I would surmise Akikaze-san and Tanaka-san are feeling the same way as well. However, everyone expresses their displeasure in different ways." Maya looked down at Ichie. "If you truly wish to stand together, then you will need to formulate a plan that will convince them to side with you."
"What if they still don't want to? If they keep saying no…"
"Then there are others whose support you can garner." Maya hummed thoughtfully. "I recall your past as an idol should aid with that."
"My past as an idol?" Ichie blinked. "Wait, so you're saying I have a chance, even without asking Elle-chan for help?"
Maya nodded. "You have the means to turn the tables, Otonashi-san. Even without relying on the nebulous rewards granted by the Auditions, I believe you can protect the happiness and Brilliance you and the others at Rinmeikan hold so dear. Do not forget: it is through our own efforts, and no one else's, that we are able to shine so brilliantly as Stage Girls."
With nothing else to say, Maya bid Ichie farewell to look for Nana and Kaoruko. Before Maya could get too far, Ichie called out, "Maya-chan!"
The brunette stopped, looking back with a questioning expression. "Is there something else, Otonashi-san?"
Ichie shook her head. With a bright smile, brighter than she's ever smiled since receiving the horrible news from Ukagi-sensei, she shouted, "Thanks for the advice! You're pretty awesome, you know?!"
Maya blinked. It took her a few seconds to react. When she did, she simply returned Ichie's grin with a small smile of her own. "I wish you and those at Rinmeikan good luck, Otonashi-san."
And with that, Ichie was left alone once more in the park. She leaned back into the bench, taking a deep breath for the first time since her conversation with Maya began.
"Maya-chan… really had some high hopes for me, huh?" Ichie looked up at the sky, now turning orange as the day began to end.
Ichie didn't think she had what it takes to save the department by herself. She knew going against the higher ups on her own was futile; she knew that since her days with Sweet Pleats. However, she also knew that there was a high chance the other knew it would be impossible even with their combined efforts. A small in the back of Ichie's mind whispered that as well.
But that wasn't something she'd accept, even if it was true. She didn't want to give up. Giving up meant losing everything she cared about all over again. She didn't want to be like those girls who had left Sweet Pleats. But more importantly…
…she didn't want Tamao and the others to make the same defeated expressions as her old idolmates had for the rest of their lives. The faces of those girls were forever etched into Ichie's memories, a scar on her life that she can never remove. She didn't want to be like that, nor did she want any of her new friends to live with that.
Ichie would do anything to prevent that from happening. Even if she had to break a few rules here and there. Honestly, compared to the despair of her friends, that didn't seem like a biggie.
Ichie took another deep breath. Swinging her legs, she jumped off the bench and puffed out her chest.
"Alright! I'm ready for Operation Protest: Round 2!"
Ichie left the park brimming with confidence. She didn't know if she would succeed, but she was certain she wasn't going to do this alone.
First, I gotta find Tamao. And if she won't help, then, uh, I don't know! I'll figure it out!
She always did. It was a little harder to bounce back this time, but Ichie still did.
Thanks, Maya-chan. You're really a good friend! Ichie grinned, ignoring the stares from passerbyers. I can't wait to show you the Performance Department we've saved!