The breeze is strong this high in the sky, this late at night, along the outer edge of the clock tower. A violent burst of wind threatens to toss Chisato from the rim as she carefully sidles against the bright stone wall lit by the glowing clock. From this position, she is overlooking a vast cityscape lit by man-made stars, shrouded in muted commotion that blends together into the daily life of a salaryman. Her heart beats intensely as she stares down at the scenery, until she realizes that it does not—she is actually quite calm at the moment, her heartbeat remains steady. It’s rather chilly though, and Chisato is stuck in this thin, sleeveless maxi dress with no overcoat. Her fingertips feel brittle when she becomes aware of how frigid the air is up here. Each step becomes more difficult to take, especially with the heels of her shoes having to support her entire weight along the tower’s unreliable edge. The end where her toes are packed inside float uncomfortably off at this angle.
She’s quick to kick the back of her shoe against the corner of that edge, which quickly solves half of her problem. She repeats with the other one, and two red high-heeled shoes fall into the abyss of lights beneath.The concrete surface is a little rough on her feet, but it’s a blessing to have enough room as long as she keeps them turned to their sides.
She tilts her head slightly and checks the time. The massive minute hand reaches another tick and the face reads 11:59. She counts each passing second with a breath. There’s just a slight bit more of a platform in the center, allowing her room and support to stretch while staying balanced in her place. If anyone were to see her stretching freely, they would certainly tell her that it’s unladylike. Each second. Passing. With each breath. Tick. Tock.
Chisato closes her eyes.
The winds have calmed.
It is 12:00, but she cannot hear a sound from the tower at her back.
The weight of an ocean pulls her in.
She falls gently, like a leaf dancing in the air.
When she hits the ground, there is nothing. No sound no touch no sight no blood.
The current pulls her under, until she wills it to allow her back. Her hand rises above the ocean’s surface like a zombie grasping life once more. The sea washes over her shoulders and soaks her as a waterfall beating down on back.
She opens her eyes. An empty hotel room, but it’s not quite that. There’s no telephone, no television, no furniture aside from the bed, one lamp, and one chair. They all seem rather regal but in the sort of way where it’s nothing more than a veneer.
“Ah… You’re awake.” Rinko smiles at her from her bedside. She’s dressed in a formal vest over a white shirt with a pencil skirt, complete with a bowtie. She is the attendant of this room.
“So I was right. It was a dream,” Chisato says with a bitter expression.
“Well, yes… But ‘was’ is wrong… You’re still in the same place…” Rinko answers. “Do you… normally go jumping off of high places like that…?”
“No. I knew something was off from the start. The host wore a golden ring on his finger, but that man is known for how frequently he’s caught in affairs. After that, I realized we were inside a clock tower.”
“I see… You’re very brave, Chisato…” Rinko comes off as sheepish, squirming in her seat as Chisato addresses her concerns with ease.
“Rinko, do you know how I might awaken from this world?”
“I’m not sure… But something tells me… It won’t be simple…”
Chisato sighs quietly, doing her best to mask her own irritation. The lightbulb flickers by her bedside for a brief second. “I see. Is there anything else I should know then?”
Rinko sits up straight and looks Chisato directly in the eyes. Though her mouth moves, the tone in her voice has shifted, as if it’s not her speaking, but a ventriloquist just beyond her shadow. She says, “The rules of this world are loose, but limited by what you are willing to believe.”
Unease passing through her, Chisato nods. “I understand.” It’s not a complete lie—she understands that what she can dream can only be built from the blocks that already exist. However, the phrasing… strikes her as peculiar.
The lightbulb flickers once more, this time failing to remain lit. Soon shadows overwhelm the hotel room and Rinko vanishes from sight. Chisato presses her palms against the mattress and pulls herself out of bed, feeling them tingle momentarily as her form alters itself. She’s changed into a more comfortable outfit, a summer dress over a sweater with leggings. Hmm, but even this is too easy to recognize—she used to wear this sort of thing all the time back in high school.
Before she can think of another outfit, though, she notices Rinko’s voice whispering through the fog. “By the way… the one who brought you back… left a gift…” As soon as she hears this, she realizes that nestled around her left hand ring finger is a shining band of silver. From the shadow emerges the image of her lover—Sayo Hikawa. She’s wearing a white button-up dress shirt and black slacks, her hair tied back in a ponytail.
“You’re rather late,” Chisato says playfully.
Sayo answers with a smirk. “It was difficult to find you. With that,” she points to the ring, “I won’t get lost so easily.”
“And if I remove it?”
“I will have to find you again. I can’t imagine it will be so easy the second time.” Sayo tries to remain stern, but the hint of scarlet appears across her skin. “So… please, keep it safe.”
“Fufu, very well.” Sayo’s needy attitude that she tries to bury beneath stoicism is so endearing, Chisato can’t help but find herself amused. She places her arms around Sayo’s shoulder, prompting Sayo to lean down for a brief instant so the two could share each other’s lips. Just that momentary act eases some of the tension from Chisato’s shoulders, even while Sayo’s figure dissolves from her field of vision.
“I will be with you.”
She attempts to envision something she wouldn’t normally wear. Baggy pants and a track jacket, maybe a newsboy cap with her hair tied up. She might be able to avoid conjuring anyone she wouldn’t want to interact with in this world if she can make herself less attractive to those onlookers, she figures. Her mind’s eye opens and tries to replicate the image, and a whirring sensation crosses over her torso. It takes a lot more effort than the last change, requiring much more concentration and happening much more gradually…
“Agh!” Chisato releases a reflexive shout as pain like a bolt of lightning overtakes her head. She clutches her forehead with her nails while black smoke emits from the central point. There’s an aftershock too, waves of electricity pulsating in her mind and stinging like a hell of a thousand wasps, buzzing around her. With her other hand, she reaches for something to keep her upright. She finds herself backstage in the makeup room, bright lights emitting from around a large mirror that reflects her half-transformed, half-incomplete state.
From behind her is Kaoru, whose voice reaches her ears from amidst the buzzing. “Dear Juliet, have you found yourself in need of assistance? If I may, I could certainly lend a hand.”
Chisato sighs in irritation. “No. I had it before, but I lost my concentration.”
“I see. This is a role you are unused to, is it?”
“That’s none of your concern.” Kaoru was an important friend to Chisato. Unfortunately, Kaoru is no longer Kaoru. Whatever remains of the person she treasured in her youth is buried beneath an amalgam of everything Chisato despises about herself. Of course she of all people would pop up.
Kaoru gives a lighthearted chuckle. “Very well. Show the audience what you are capable of, my Juliet.”
A scowl flashes across Chisato’s face, though Kaoru does not see it and it soon morphs into a deep breath as she attempts to muster up her concentration.
This time, it’s not only the outfit. She envisions her very own garden, a place beyond imagination where the sunlight shines through from above. It’s decorated by jasmines and rosemary surrounding a central table for four, though the hydrangeas have yet to bloom. The garden’s edge floats far above the earth, with a small stream of water pouring into the infinite sky. Chisato has arrived, her disguise now formed and company at her side. Kanon sits across from her pouring tea into her cup, and to her left, Rinko appears once again.
The seat to her right appears empty, yet she can feel Sayo’s presence nearby, observing as the conversation unfolds. Of course, it wouldn’t be a class 3-A reunion meeting without her.
“Chisato, have you been well?” Kanon asks eagerly, with concern in her eyes.
“I have been as I always am,” she smiles fondly with her answer.
“I really worry about you sometimes, fuee…”
“Is it… true…?” Rinko begins to ask something, though the hesitation creeks through in her voice, even more than usual.
“Rinko, you mustn't…! We promised not to mention it…”
Chisato is well-trained when it comes to manners, yet when it’s only these three, her interest in upholding them begins to dwindle. Not out of malice, simply in the interest of reaching the point. She sets her teacup down with a slight agitation, careful not to break anything but heavy enough to get their attention. “Rinko.”
Rinko gulps, sweat falling down her forehead. Chisato releases an exasperated sigh, though she’s not sure who it’s meant for.
“I’m not sure how you learned, but yes. I am planning to terminate my contract with the agency by the end of this year. Then, Chisato Shirasagi will be no more.”
The air around the table grows still and Chisato’s cup of tea sheds its heat. Then, like a breath of fresh air, the rest of the table collectively sighs in relief. Chisato is a bit caught off-guard by the gesture, but the atmosphere eases over her and holds her with a warm embrace.
Something doesn’t feel quite right.
“But…” Kanon speaks. “If Chisato Shirasagi is dead, then who are you?”
As if answering in her stead, the flowers surrounding her begin to wilt. Hydrangeas bloom momentarily before burning away to ash and cinder. The aroma lingers, but the beauty inside the garden vanishes in an instant. The sun has set, with no moon to take its place, creating a veil of nothingness. A chime rings out, echoing through her ears, and the world becomes water again.
Jagged edges of natural rock etch themselves into the soles of Chisato’s feet. Darkness surrounds her from all directions. She steps forward, following a sound like water droplets falling from a stalactite in a cavern deep beneath the ocean, perhaps on some distant island. She glances down toward her feet, and with each step she takes, a white ripple emerges and expands until stopping just a short distance away.
There is nobody else inside the cavern, but the hand that wore Sayo’s ring brought the comfort of another hand holding against it. There is nobody around to see, but she still feels a streak of fear down her back at the thought of prying eyes. A scandal, much worse than for herself—the woman she loves being dragged down with her is the worst outcome she could imagine. It would be best to break things off before it goes that far as it inevitably will.
She reaches for the ring to pull it off, but it remains snug around her skin. Her lover is a stubborn one, of course. Obedient, yet unwavering—loyal like a dog, proud like a wolf. Perhaps that’s why Sayo remains by her side today. She sighs, resigning herself to the risk for the time being.
The wading water rises to her ankles and her movements grow slower. There’s a faint light at the end of the hall. She reaches her arm out to touch it, but stumbles forward into the water. Scraping her knee against the granite beneath the surface, she pushes herself back up. It’s useless, though—she soon loses her balance once more and becomes fully submerged in the water under her feet.
The shallow depths had sunk far deeper, now forming an underwater trench inside the cavern. Chisato can see clearly and doesn’t struggle to breathe. Glowing azure crystals emerge from the rigid walls, creating a light that wasn’t present before. She tries to leap, and finds herself able to swim around in this underground reservoir, floating steadily with her arms and legs.
Kanon appears before her again—more specifically, the upper half of this creature is Kanon. The lower half is a long tail like a fish’s, shimmering with scales, wiggling back and forth as she swims. There’s no doubt that Kanon has become a lovely mermaid, her hair tangled with seaweed, wearing seashells in the place of jewelry. She beams at Chisato, motioning for her to join her as she swims onwards toward the other end of the tunnel.
Chisato swims freely through the water, admiring how her best friend has grown so beautiful in her aquatic form. She looks as if she was born to someday become a mermaid, to someday return to the sea and dance with the jellyfish around a vast world of her own making. She’s so majestic when she glides around, spinning, looping around with joyous expressions all across her.
One cannot help but envy that bliss.
A light reaches the seafloor from above. Chisato gazes upward and is greeted by a powerful flash shining directly into her eyes. The light grows even brighter, so bright that it becomes overwhelming. She tries to block it with her arms, but it still manages to blind her with its vicious glow. She can feel herself rising through the reservoir, liquid rushing past her as she surfaces and dripping from her hair.
The scene of the cavern unfolds from the seams, the fabric of this world bending to show her another scene. This time she observes a gathering of celebrities, a who’s who of all the people she had pretended to tolerate for the past decades. Producers and directors who had held her strings like ventriloquists and made her their mouthpiece, male leads whose faces she had allowed herself to forget, women like her and women who were just a little less prudent than her. They all dressed in formal attire, causing her casual disguise to clash with the setting.
A faceless man just a few inches taller than her dressed in a tuxedo approaches her. She watches carefully, almost expectant of his next move, as if she’d been here before. But anticipating it doesn’t make her stomach churn any less.
The man with no face gets down on one knee and clears his thr. Prying eyes zone in on her, and she can feel as if they’re trying to grab hold of her like snakes coiling themselves around her neck. “Chisato Shirasagi,” the man says, his voice sounding so precisely rehearsed yet so repulsively nasally. He pulls out a decorated gift box wrapped in ribbon. “Will you marry me?”
Chisato wants to gag, she’d happily spill her insides out to ruin this man’s moment, which he must be so proud of at her own expense. Of course, no man had ever truly considered how Chisato Shirasagi feels beyond how it might fulfill their own selfish wishes, be her as their puppet or as their imaginary lover.
“I’m sorry,” she answers. Gasps and whispers soon emanate through the manor. She does her best to ignore them, but there’s so many glances shot her way that the snakes refuse to let go.
Of course, she truly had no excuse that would satisfy so-called high society. It must make them sick. So sick that they can’t do anything but take it out on her.
The scene around her grows monochrome, every actor freezing in place like an ages-old photograph capturing a far-off memory.
“She should really smile more, she’d be so much prettier.”
It is like quicksand. The carpet she stands on becomes the force of gravity sluggishly pulling her downwards, grains of wet sand sticking to her skin like glue.
“I heard she really gets around..”
She sinks further, her knees soon to be swallowed by the floor.
“Really? I heard she was a prudent bitch.”
Now up to her hips in a black hole of quicksand, Chisato reaches for a nearby chair in order to prop herself up. Her hand swipes at the cushion, only to grasp a non-existent space with no texture, no matter.
“At her age, what does she think she’s doing?”
Chisato sinks further, now down to her waist.
“Hasn’t she been sleeping with her producer?.”
Chisato can feel her body falling, slipping through broken cracks in wooden floorboards. She raises her left hand out in an attempt to rescue herself. Her ring glimmers beneath the dull, motionless lights, yet nobody answers the call.
Gradually, Chisato is swallowed up by the void.
The TV is on across from her bed, with a soap opera rerun airing. The camerawork is shoddy and the performances are stilted at best, but she can hear the dialogue clearly enough from this position.
“What do you plan to do after retiring?” one character asks another.
“Perhaps I could change my name,” the other character replies. The actress’ voice sounds eerily like Chisato’s own, save for the poor audio quality emanating from the speakers. “Then no one could recognize me at least.”
“Oh, what sort of name were you thinking?”
“Hm? I wasn’t being serious.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea though.”
“Hmm. I’d have to think about it.”
Those are the last she hears of their conversation before the screen flickers to static and soon goes dark. She only now realizes that the television wasn’t there before, and in that instant she can no longer see any television from her bed. The room is once again as if it had never been there at all.
“Welcome back… Chisato…”
Chisato snaps to her senses in the barren hotel room and turns to Rinko, who wears a nervous smile with no sense of malice behind it.
“Thank you,” Chisato bows politely. “Is there anyone else in this room?”
Rinko gazes just beyond Chisato, as if locking eyes with someone behind her. “She is with you… but you cannot see her…” Her expression seems to grow sorrowful. “You asked for her to save you… but she couldn’t. She might be… upset with herself… “
Chisato recalls the rules of this world. “I see. Of course, I don’t believe there is a knight in shining armor or a noble prince who will come to my rescue.” She leans back against her pillow and allows her vision to wander toward the window at the room’s edge. The curtains block out most of the view, but the empty night skies create an abyss beyond the room.
“If you’re more clear next time… I’m sure she will answer…”
“And what of you, Rinko?”
“I am… the attendant.” Rinko stands and bows her head politely. “I will always be here… Need you return…”
Chisato responds with a lighthearted smile, the sort she would show a waitress who made a slight mistake with an order. Next, she pulls herself out of bed and approaches the window. She stares into the sea of lights, her finger flipping the hatch that kept it shut. She shoves the glass screen, pulling herself up to the windowsill and perching on the ledge like a crow carefully observing its prey. Then, she leaps, taking flight into the vast city skyline.
It’s just like swimming through air, just as she swam alongside Kanon before. Towering structures form a canyon reach downwards into the busy streets of Tokyo, or else some metropolis that bears resemblance to the one she’s spent her life inside. Then there’s the pressure of wind pulling her back, which soon becomes a current of water and in the blink of an eye, the canyon of modern-life has become a canyon beneath the sea. The tide pulls her under and steals her movement from her. It’s a violent whirlpool, a vortex tossing Chisato around with no concern for where she lands. Each time she closes her eyes, the scene flashes between the cityscape and ocean until she is flung far into the abyss.
Chisato washes ashore. She rises, once more becoming a natural part of the scene. The wet sand massages her feet and she’s quick to notice how much of her bare skin is showing. She’s wearing nothing but a bikini top and skirt, leaving her midriff and shoulders uncovered. From in front of her, the sound of a beep and a click catches her attention. The man behind the camera gives a skeevy grin that fills her with disgust, yet she can do nothing but dance to his whims.
“Shirasagi, pose for the camera! Make it sexy!” He chuckles to himself, spit falling from beneath his moustache. “Come on, for the fans!”
Chisato knows how to make even her most uncomfortable smile seem genuine, but she’s not sure it’s her who curls the corners of her lips. There are strings attached, as there are to her hands and legs. Pulled along by those thin threads that manipulate her body, she poses as instructed and feels the utter disgust welling up within her. She wants so badly to vomit.
“Excellent work, Miss Shirasagi!”
“Thank you.” It’s not her words, but the words of a wooden puppet who says only what she’s told to.
When the man turns his back to her, the strings controlling her deflate and fall to the sea but remain attached. She is a wooden doll, a puppet whose limbs are tethered to some unseen force. Spheres form at each and every joint in her body, the weight of herself growing much lighter yet much more difficult to control. She cannot stand upright, her knees fall to the ground and her upper body bends backwards.
With what little will of her own she can manage, she glances at her left hand. The ring on her finger remains. It shimmers in the sunlight. Sayo’s presence remains with her still.
I could use your support, please.
A prayer not for a savior, but someone who will stand by her. Not a hero, but an equal. She can hear footprints forming in the sand as someone approaches from behind. That person kneels to her level and wraps a towel over her shoulders, nudging her slightly into a more relaxed position. “That was upsetting to watch.”
“Do you not find me attractive, Sayo?” She tries to tease, but the heart is missing. The words lack their playful spirit and are soon washed away by the tide as Sayo refuses to answer. Chisato knows the answer—of course Sayo thinks she’s beautiful. But Sayo is a good girl, she’s considerate.
“I can only imagine how this feels.”
“I’m used to it. It’s been my whole life up until now.”
Sayo’s hands gently grab onto her. Sayo has said before that she hates her own hands, they're too big and too rough. But Chisato loves those hands, they bring her a comfort that she cannot find elsewhere.
Chisato feels herself rise once more, this time held close by Sayo’s arms and leaning on her shoulder to remain upright. As Sayo drapes the towel over her joints, the spheres vanish and she can feel a slight bit of her humanity return. Her fingers still feel splinters of wood inside them, but the weight of proper bones and muscle slowly regain their form.
“I don’t need your pity.” The strings tied to her lips are torn away as her mouth settles into a stern frown.
“Sorry,” Sayo says with solemn eyes. Their bodies break away from each other slightly as prying eyes begin to turn their way. Sayo is wearing a t-shirt and swim trunks, plus her less-feminine frame might give people the wrong idea—or more accurately, they may misconstrue the lovers as something they are not. They would both prefer nobody suspects them as lovers either way.
“It’s not as if you’ve never felt it either, even if the shape may differ.”
“Shall we go to the locker room to dry off?” Chisato asks with an expectant glance.
“You know that I can’t.”
“I know. But I want you with me.”
Sayo hangs her head in sorrow. Her lips hesitate, she bites down on them. She rubs the side of her arm as if to signal her fear. There’s a glimmer of something fighting against the obvious answer, but it soon disappears. “...I can’t.”
With a sigh, Chisato presses one hand to Sayo’s cheek. Sayo’s eyes meet her own and the wistful gaze pierces through her. It hurts to see her like this, but she knows.
“It’s okay. I’ll see you when I’m done.”
Sayo nods, prompting Chisato to drift towards the beachside locker room. She takes one last glance back at her lover before vanishing from the beach altogether.
She steps through the locker room door. Beyond that door is a cemetery filled in by headstones and miniature shrines to honor the dead. When she steps inside, her casual clothing returns and a shroud of mist begins to settle in. The eerie atmosphere is soon supplemented by blue embers floating around each headstone, crowding the walkway and whispering amongst each other through quiet winds. They emit only a meager warmth, but Chisato can easily discern that touching them is equivalent to blasphemy. They may drag her much deeper into the world of spirits if disturbed. Slow, weak droplets of rain fall against the graveyard floor, tapping against stone like footsteps tiptoeing in the evening.
Through the fog emerges a robed figure with dark hair tied into low pigtails. Tsukushi wears a hood over her head, obscuring her face above the nose, but her breaths wade through the fog enough to motion for Chisato to join her. She does not speak a word, and simply leads Chisato through the cemetery while paying her respects at each family headstone. She leaves an offering of rice upon the altar of one grave, the headstone marked with the characters for Shirasagi. There is no doubt in the woman’s heart that this is where Chisato Shirasagi’s ashes will be laid to rest.
A breeze passes, and leaves tumble around in the rain. The fog begins to clear along with the spirit embers populating the cemetery. The headstone starts to shift, first with the sound of a click, then of stone rubbing against earth as its shape descends into the ground as if a device is pushing it downward like an elevator. Beyond it, the path has changed into one of circular stepping stones through a pond, leading to a towering structure in the shape of an ancient temple with massive stairs leading to the top. Its ominous presence looms in the horizon, its notice inescapable.
Tsukushi steps aside. This is as far as she goes, it seems. Chisato gives a slight bow and quiet thanks before turning towards her next goal. She has to hop slightly to reach the first stone, but from there they’re spaced close enough that she can step between them without too much trouble. She can’t help wonder what lurks beneath the waters this time, though she’d prefer to avoid finding out on her own. As she approaches the temple, she notices the statues that guard the entrance.
The statues wear her face.
Replicas of her, frozen in time, carved in stone. They are her. So many different versions, one wearing her old idol uniform, one dressed as Juliet, one as the culprit from a murder mystery she had starred in, one as a witch she had reincarnated as on Halloween. They are countless, watching from each outer level of the temple, awaiting the woman they reflect to arrive. Some of their eyes are hollow, some are relaxed, some are delighted, but each one smiles. Their smiles are eerie, discomforting, uncanny. Yet convincing. Filled with the most artificial sort of emotion, manufactured perfectly to suit the situation. Most might believe they were genuine.
Most are not Chisato Shirasagi.
She rises up the massive staircase trying her hardest not to look towards the statues, but she cannot help glancing every so often and growing even more concerned by their presence. This temple, they worship one who is their god. Its followers have devoted themselves to her, and so she may appear in that image. Each idol, a new interpretation of that god. She dwells within this place. Bound by mortal law, she ascends the stairs and enters into the doorway at the top.
Within the temple is an open room containing dozens upon dozens more statues in Chisato’s image. They face inwards towards the center of the room, where a light from the ceiling shines down on an altar. Lying upon the altar is a corpse who still breathes, another Chisato, clad in white. She awakens, pushing herself up to sit with her legs off the altar’s edge. She lifts her arm, summoning from thin air a long spear with a golden glow to it and a white ribbon attached beneath the head.
The iron smiling mask. That is her title, and that is the expression she wears on her lips. She is the woman of a thousand faces, the one beloved by her followers. She is a deity by another name—a ‘star.’ Her domain is the hearts of those whose faith is her very being, just as it is the hearts of those who scorn her. She embodies every single one, every Chisato that has ever been seen and every Chisato that has ever been imagined.
“My, my. Shouldn’t the executioner have a blade?” She says, staring directly through Chisato. “Please make it quick, just a clean slice through my neck. I have other business to attend to afterwards.”
But above all else, she is the actress. Her performance is flawless, her emotions precise, her delivery unmatched. Lifetimes of practice culminating into one ultimate being who could be the one true Chisato Shirasagi.
In her presence, Chisato is nothing. If Chisato Shirasagi is dead, then who is she?
The actress stands from the altar, gripping her spear and letting the ends of her dress seep onto the floor. Chisato cannot move, she cannot speak, she cannot answer. The actress lunges forward and drives the end of the spear through Chisato’s chest.
“You’ve… returned…” Rinko’s usual polite smile sends a wave of relief as the feeling returns to Chisato’s body. That is, if this truly is her body. It’s difficult to tell at this point.
Chisato clutches her forehead and splits apart her bangs with her fingers. “Rinko, who am I?”
“You are… Chisato… right...?” Rinko tilts her head in confusion, seemingly unaware of the other residents of this world who are different kinds of Chisato. Or perhaps, she herself is uncertain. Does that name truly apply to this being?
“What role do I play in this world?” Chisato stares intently into Rinko’s eyes, ensuring that the question gets across exactly as she means it to.
Rinko’s fingers shake with anxiety, she begins fiddling with them out of habit while trying to break eye contact. She hesitates to answer, but Chisato’s glower might be even more commanding than her smile in the right moment. “You are… the executioner…”
Chisato releases a sigh, feeling the tension in her chest create an unexpecting pulse throughout her veins. “I see.” Shouldn’t the executioner have a blade? That question had been scratching at her since spoken aloud. She almost mistook the other Chisato’s spear as the murder weapon, but now realizes the absurdity in that line of reasoning.
But the question remains. If she is the executioner, then where is her blade?
“I take it my goal is to kill Chisato Shirasagi, then?”
Rinko’s face grows even more flustered, a look of shame washes over her. “Yes… I apologize… for not telling you… earlier…“
“Don’t worry. I will not hold it against you.” Chisato tries to answer with a kind smile, but she can’t seem to remember the proper way to show it. “You’ve fulfilled your duty as the attendant. Please allow yourself to rest now.”
Rinko’s eyes go wide and her shameful expression turns into a surprised smile. “You… really are kind, aren’t you…?” At the end of that question, Rinko’s figure melts into dust which washes away and vanishes from the modest hotel room. Something tells her that though her presence has faded from this world, Rinko will continue to support her from a world beyond. She is a courageous woman with a loving heart. Truly someone Chisato is lucky to have as a friend.
This time around, Chisato opts to leave through the hotel room’s front door. As soon as she steps past the threshold, the door shuts behind her and she is greeted by two women dressed as bellhops—Kanon and Tsukushi. They escort her down a hallway without a word, but through the silent glances filled with concerned eyes she can tell that they are supporting her as well. The short distance between her room and the elevators feels much longer as she continues to run through everything in her mind, what she must do and how she might do it. By the time she reaches the elevator, a light is flashing in the corner and a digital ‘ding!’ rings out. She turns to her companions and gives a polite bow, much more complete and genuine than she had previously. With that gesture, they too are allowed to fade away as the elevator door closes with Chisato inside.
Pressing her finger against the button marked by a star, she anticipates where she may end up. Before she can further consider anything concrete, she feels another presence leaning over her shoulders from behind.
“Kaoru,” she speaks sternly in the uninvited guest’s direction.
“Ah, my dearest Juliet. How it brings me joy to see you once more. Such a fleeting encounter must be a blessing from the heavens.”
Chisato turns around and sneers at the sight of her. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I am not Juliet.”
The elevator begins to move. It jerks downwards, then begins to rise back up. The weight shifts and clicks and it’s difficult to discern which direction it’s moving in, perhaps even horizontally on occasion. Chisato can feel herself being tossed against the walls with each turn, but she manages to keep herself balanced by holding her arms out.
“Chisato, were we not born for the stage?” Kaoru is doing one of her usual ridiculous poses, which serves to irritate Chisato further.
Chisato takes a deep breath in, and releases. The tension in her face dissolves. It’s no use getting combative with her, not with someone she once considered a dear friend. So perhaps it’s time to speak her mind. “You may have been. I never had a choice.”
Kaoru is stunned silent for a moment. She places her hands back at her sides and allows her own costume to change. Chisato wonders when the last time Kaoru had chosen not to be the prince was. Perhaps at this point, those two are one in the same. “I see. So, your departure is a choice you’ve made for yourself?”
Chisato pauses, then nods without any doubt in her heart.
With a gentlemanly bow, Kaoru takes two steps back. “Very well. I must admit, perhaps the Chisato I had envisioned was one who could be happy… I will concede, I may not know you as well as I thought.”
The elevator slows down. Every floor number above the door lights up at once and the ding rings out. The doors remain shut, but movement crawls to a halt.
“I wonder. If everyone on earth imagined that Chisato could be happy, am I the one who’s wrong for not fulfilling that wish?”
“...That is for you to decide, my friend.”
My friend. Yes, perhaps when I awaken, we could be friends someday. Chisato watches as Kaoru’s form grows transparent, gradually fading entirely. The sound of elevator doors sliding open greets her from behind. She turns around and steps through the threshold.
The orange glow of dusk settles inside, flowing through the transparent end of the clock and dying the walls inside the clocktower in radiant hues. The gears and cogs turn in tandem with each other, guiding the seconds, minutes, and hour hands along their natural rotation. The ground is marked with holes where the gears from floors below meet with the gears on this floor, the highest floor of the tower. At the other end of this room stands the woman in white with her spear at her side, her back turned toward Chisato.
“Tell me,” the actress speaks. “Who planted this idea in your heart?”
Chisato tries to reach for a blade, any sort of weapon she can find to carry out her mission. However, there is nothing to be found.
The actress leaps backwards through the air. Chisato uses all the force she can muster to dodge to the side from where the actress intends to land, and soon finds that her reflexive capabilities are much greater than she had anticipated. At the very least, she can dodge an attack.
“How did you become so naive that you thought you could just ‘move on’? Was it those girls from that band you pretended to take care of?” Chisato’s doppelganger launches another strike, this time swinging the long end of her spear in a sweeping motion. Chisato leaps backwards out of its range, but can sense the brush of death as it nearly slices through her.
“Perhaps that junior who admires you so much? Or the shy pianist who was foolish enough to become class president?” She lunges again, but Chisato manages to dodge to the side in response this time.
Sooner or later, she’ll tire herself out. She needs to find a way to fight back before she ends up skewered by the end of that spear again and raised as a corpse like a flag, displayed for all to see.
“Could it be Kaoru, the girl who tried to emulate you? Or was it starry-eyed Kanon, the girl who will never understand what she means to you?” She tosses the spear forward. It’s a narrow dodge for Chisato, she’s cutting it far too close for comfort and has no way to respond to the vitriol. As the spear misses its mark, it swiftly returns to its master’s side, drawn back by an unseen force.
The other Chisato steps forward slowly, readying her spear for another attack. “What’s the matter, Chisato? This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Nothing, nobody. To die a complete unknown where no one will find you.”
“That’s not…” Chisato tries to speak, but she cannot deny her double. She cannot deny those feelings repeated aloud, feelings never meant to be spoken. The double raises her spear up above her head.
“Satomi!” A voice calls out from somewhere. It’s faint, speaking an unfamiliar name, but it reaches her ears as if she is the intended recipient.
Chisato brings the spear down on her would-be executioner, slicing her cleanly in half through the center of her head.
At least, that’s what the actress called Chisato saw. When she opens her eyes, her target has escaped and there is not even a scar through her head to be found. Her spear rests against the floor, and some distance away from it is the executioner with another woman holding closely to her, both of them resting against the stone floor together.
The executioner’s eyes open slowly. Sayo’s breathing reaches her ears, her own heartbeat pounds against Sayo’s chest. Her lover holds her close.
“Satomi… Don’t scare me like that.”
That’s right… She was once Chisato Shirasagi. But now that Chisato is dead, she allowed herself the freedom to erase the thousand souls trapped inside her. From the husk left behind, a new woman was born to carry everything Chisato had been up until then, held by the supportive shoulder of her beloved. That woman, the executioner who had been sent to lay Chisato to rest… Satomi Shirasagi.
Sayo gently tightens her grasp around Satomi. The concrete beneath them isn’t particularly comforting, but her lover’s embrace is a welcome warmth after everything else. Satomi places her lips against Sayo’s and in that moment, she can feel their hearts conversing without the need for words.
“I couldn’t protect you. I’m sorry, Satomi.”
“You know I would never ask that of you, Sayo.”
“You’ve done more than enough. So please… allow me to finish this.”
Sayo backs away and nods. Satomi rises to her feet. Sayo holds onto her right hand, while a stream of light returns to her from the ring on her left. Soon the hand holding Satomi’s own has transformed into the hilt of a rapier, Sayo herself the blade that she wields. It was thanks to Sayo’s support that she could find the strength to depart, after all. Her own outfit transforms as well, replicating the white button-up and black slacks Sayo had been wearing. She looks Chisato directly in the eye and points the tip of her blade toward the woman who shares her appearance, the woman still clinging to the name of a burnt-out star.
The iron smiling mask has finally broken. Chisato sneers and grips her spear. She swings downward again, but the spearhead breezes past as Satomi dodges to the right and grips onto the soul of her lover, the sword of her future. While Chisato manages to leap backward, Sayo’s spirit gives Satomi the speed she needs to follow. Chisato’s guard is down. With the sharp end of her rapier, Satomi drives the blade through Chisato’s heart.
There is no blood.
Chisato’s head slumps down as the metal pierces her chest. Satomi leans in, pressing her forehead calmly to Chisato’s.
Chisato is the first to speak. “I never imagined… that you could exist.”
“I only exist thanks to you,” Satomi answers.
Chisato’s breathing grows shorter with each second, she’s soon gasping for air that will never reach her. “Don’t… forget.”
“Is that all?”
Satomi looks into Chisato’s eyes, which have become lifeless at this point, but they answer her regardless.
“Don’t worry. I wasn’t born yesterday. Everything up to now will always be a part of me.”
A teardrop falls to the floor. Then, several more. Chisato tries to smile, but her lips never curl to their peaks. Her body falls to the floor, now a bloodless corpse slumped atop concrete, her image fading into light. What remains of her returns to Satomi.
Satomi steps toward the glass interior that holds the clock upright. A heavy rumble begins to pass through the ground all throughout this city, and the glass soon shatters into pieces, not leaving even a trace of any shards behind. The rumbling brings Satomi down to the cement again, peering out the circular opening where the clock once was, watching skyscrapers and monuments crumble and dissolve in the distance.
Sayo’s form returns to that of a woman, who sits down and leans against Satomi and enjoys the view alongside her. It’s the end of the world, yet somehow the two of them have found peace watching the sky shatter around them.
“Satomi…” Sayo says.
“It’s a lovely name, though it’s difficult to remember that you’re referring to me.”
“It takes some getting used to. But before long it will become natural. You’ll wonder if that hadn’t been your name all along.”
Satomi glances toward Sayo. She is smiling with relief, with comfort, with satisfaction that Satomi never knew herself capable of granting. She allows her weight to press against Sayo with fondness, allowing those emotions to be shared between them.
“Where will I end up next, I wonder?” asks Satomi.
“I can describe it, if you’d like.”
Sayo clears her throat, reaching one hand over and placing it upon Satomi’s shoulder. There’s nobody watching, so Satomi doesn’t protest. She welcomes her lover’s touch. Perhaps Satomi Shirasagi won’t have to feel shame for loving women as Chisato once did.
Sayo speaks. “You’ll wake up, but you won’t be able to open your eyes right away. You’re still tired. But you’ll feel my arms holding onto you.”
“Ah…” Satomi shuts her eyes and imagines it. The warmth of Sayo’s arms reach her.
“We share an apartment now, and we’re in our bed together.”
“In that case, I’ll hold onto you, too,” Satomi says. She can feel herself clinging to Sayo’s stomach. It’s a bit uncharacteristic of her. Somehow, Sayo is the sort of woman that allows her to let her guard down.
“You’ll need to let go soon, I have to make us breakfast.”
“I swear, if this is cookies and cake again…”
“Satomi… I promise I know how to make more than just sweets.”
“Fufu, I know.”
She knows. The memories are flooding back to her, those calm moments she could spend with Sayo when nobody else was looking. The time they had supported each other from afar until the days in which they could make a world for themselves. All the bashful faces Sayo was capable of making. All the times Sayo had quietly listened to the struggles she had encountered at work each day, trying with all of her heart to understand her. And all the times Satomi had done the same for Sayo.
The whole world is crumbling down. And yet, Satomi feels calm. This sensation is one she has not felt often in her life, yet it’s so familiar when Sayo brushes Satomi’s hair with her fingers. It’s an unmistakable bliss that can only be found right here. It takes only one heart to dismantle a world, but it takes two to create one anew.
And I am so grateful that it’s you at my side.