"Airi-chan...Can I ask you for a favor?"
Airi turned to her. "Hm?"
"I want you to be an idol again."
Airi stared at her for a moment, the words rattling around in her brain, before letting out a pathetic "Eh?"
Shizuku smiled at her. "I was really happy back in the theater. Because there was someone truly watching me. Those words gave me so much hope."
"You've always been an idol, and you still are." Shizuku always looked at her like she was the world, and Airi never understood why. "The one who gave me supportive words when I was struggling, the one who gave me the dream to be a true idol…” Shizuku clasped her hands over her heart as if they were cradling something precious, perhaps hiding a treasure only Shizuku could see. “It was you.”
The words hit Airi like she had slammed into a wall, forcibly pulling a gasp from her chest. She could barely believe the idea that the words she’d said so long ago had been Shizuku’s driving force. Airi had thought about all those days she’d spent despairing about how she couldn’t give people hope as an idol as she’d dreamed. Except she had, to the one person that mattered most. The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to cry, but Shizuku just kept smiling at her, her own eyes as glassy as Airi’s. “That’s why I think you’ll be able to give many other people hope as well. I want to see that kind of Airi.”
Airi laughed to herself, trying to keep the tears that were quickly gathering in her eyes from falling. She brought up one hand to try and wipe the tears away. “That’s just unfair, Shizuku. Saying stuff like that…”
Shizuku blinked at her surprise, seemingly unaware of how deeply her own words affected Airi. “Eh? Unfair?”
Airi wiped at her eyes, swearing unspilled tears on her sleeve. “If you stay stuff like that...there’s no way I can say no.”
Pure joy spread its way across Shizuku’s face, her smile widening and her eyes turning into crescents. Honestly, Airi had no idea why everyone got the mysterious vibe from Shizuku. It was clear to her that Shizuku was an open book. “Does that mean…?”
“But!” Airi promptly stated. She made her way closer to Shizuku so they were only a foot apart, looking up to point at her face. “You’re doing it with me!”
But then Shizuku’s joyful smile warped into something sad and poignant that made Airi's heart clench. They were so close to that dream they held onto as children in those brutal training halls and auditions. She could see them back then if she closed her eyes, two 13 year olds dancing until they dropped. To sing together on the same stage-
“Airi-chan.” That stern utterance of her name snapped her out of her reverie. “I…” Shizuku hesitated before covering her face with her hands--as if hiding her tears from view would make them go away--and taking a deep breath. “I told you, didn’t I? About how I got started in this industry.” She laughed bitterly, a sob lodged in her throat. “I didn’t even want to submit that application, my friend did…” The more Shizuku talked, the more the sinking feeling in Airi’s chest grew. The idea of becoming an idol without Shizuku, to perform and give hope without her, felt wrong, like she was leaving something to die, burying that coveted dream six feet under.
“When I got accepted, it was like I had finally found something I was good at. Before, all I ever did was stumble or break things or make funny mistakes, but as an idol I could make people happy...and that made me happy.” Shizuku looked distantly into the setting sun, her tear tracks shining, like she was remembering what things had been like back then. “After all that’s happened with Cheerful Days and everything...I don’t know if being an idol makes me happy anymore.”
Airi felt like she was being pushed towards a cliff, nothing in front of her but an unstoppable force and nothing behind but a deadly height. An impossible situation. “But...earlier, you said I was the one that taught you the dream of becoming a real idol, right? If that dream exists, you can’t just give up!”
“That dream…” Shizuku bit her lip and looked down, doing her best to make her face as dry as possible by wiping her face with her sleeves. Her eyes darted around, as if trying to track a mouse in a maze on the ground. Shizuku looked up at her and said “I...I need time to find myself, Airi-chan. Who I truly am. For so long I’ve been so busy with entertaining people or smiling for the cameras, trying to maintain that perfect image. Perhaps I’m being selfish but…” Shizuku looked up at her, tired and melancholic, but forcing a smile anyways. Her puffy eyes were dry now, as if exhausted of all their tears. “I just want to feel what it's like to be normal again. Is that so wrong of me?”
Airi saw the heartbreaking look in her eyes, desperation clawing and clinging to Shizuku’s face. This desperate, world-weary girl who had been pushed to her limit too many times for a 2nd year high schooler. She wanted to selfishly proclaim that yes , it was wrong of her, that she belonged on that stage with them, that it wasn’t fair, the stupid world wasn’t fair. She wanted to go back and punch all of Shizuku’s former managers and agents in the face. She wanted to pummel the other members of Cheerful Days into the ground and god dammit, why did Minori stop her-
But Airi couldn’t do any of those things. All she could do was release Shizuku from the birdcage that everyone else had put her in.
“No. It’s not. You’re right.” Airi took the final step forward so that there was hardly anything between them. “I want you to do what makes you happy. And if this is what it takes, then I support you. I want you to find your answer.” Airi took Shizuku’s hands in her own. “I’ll wait for you. However long it takes.”
Shizuku looked down at her, suddenly relaxed, as if Airi’s words had taken all the painful tension out of her body until she was left standing tall, like a sunflower toward its sun. Their faces were so close, Airi could’ve kissed her right then and there. But that wouldn’t have been fair to Shizuku in the state she was in. She barely knew herself right now. Airi’s couldn’t force such a massive change onto her. Besides, they hadn’t even established any sort of romantic relationship. How could they, in an industry as cruel and meticulous as the idol industry?
So for now, Airi curled her fingers around Shizuku’s and brought their hands to their chests to fill what little space was separating them so that there was nothing between them but each other.
MMJ went on as a trio. Just Hanasato Minori, Kiritani Haruka, and Momoi Airi. She tried not to think of her empty right hand, of the void where a missing fourth person should be. It was fine.
Trying to find an agency for funding and publicity proved to be more difficult than expected. No big agency wanted to take on the risk of an unproven amateur like Minori, and none of the smaller agencies would be willing to take on the variety tv-star Airi and the popular Haruka in the same group, lest they be accused of stealing talent from bigger agencies.
“Is Hinomori planning to come back as well?” One agency representative had asked. Airi had to hide her hands behind her back because they’d clenched into fists. Haruka, though looking sad and stunned for a moment, expertly managed a poker face. Minori, not so much. The rookie had looked nervous between Airi and the representative, as if anticipating something to blow up between them.
“Unfortunately not.” Airi spoke through forced professionalism. “It’s just us three.”
He turned them down.
In desperation, Airi had gone to her previous agency, well-aware she had burned some bridges when she quit.
“Please! I know it’s a lot to ask this after I retired so shortly after transferring here, but I won’t complain about it a second time! Whether it’s activities for a show or television personality...anything that’s part of company policy is acceptable. I want the three of us to be accepted as MORE MORE JUMP!”
She could feel the agency’s president’s calculating stare on the back of her head, even as she was bowing, looking straight down at the ground. The man sighed. “You must be quite determined to come back here to talk to me.”
Airi stood up straight, trying to make her posture as proper as possible. “Yes!”
The man looked at her, analyzing her for a moment. The cowardly part of her wanted to crawl into a ball, another despairing part of her wanted to run to a pair of familiar pale arms and greyish blue eyes. However, Momoi Airi wasn’t a coward, nor did she give into despair, so she did her best to hold strong, returning the agency president’s gaze.
The man shook his head. “You may look fully committed in your conviction, but the truth is that it’s half hearted at best.”
Airi was taken aback, her eyes widened in surprise. “What do you mean?”
“Do you really want this with all your heart?” The man said.
Airi looked up at him in confusion. “Of course I do!” She exclaimed.
“Then why do you look so sad, Momoi?”
For once, Airi found herself speechless.
The agency president shook his head. “I won’t accept you or your group if you’re not fully committed to this. You could just quit on us again.”
Airi found herself wanting to both cry and scream. “...I understand. I apologize for the inconvenience.” She bowed in farewell.
As Airi walked down the city sidewalk, crossing the street, she found herself replaying the same moment over and over in her head.
“Why do you look so sad, Momoi?”
A million little things came to mind. How lonely it felt on the rooftop sometimes. How she didn’t really get along with Minori and Haruka as well as the two got along with each other. How, for some reason, she found herself wanting to get violent with anyone who wronged her, like she had when she was a kid, more often. How, despite having far more time for school than before, her grades were somehow worse. But deep down, she knew the real reason, she just could never say it out loud.
Airi lightly slapped her cheeks. “Snap out of it, Airi! What are you so down for? The three of us decided to become idols and deliver hope to people. I have to try harder! I have to work hard… but…”
Airi looked up at the sky. When the light grey clouds mixed with the blue sky, the color almost reminded her of...Airi clenched her fists.
In the end, they decided that they would be freelancers. Being a freelance idol group was hard, especially with only 3 people, but they had to make it work. Scheduling and producing were split between her and Haruka, and Minori was put in charge of marketing (which basically just meant she was in charge of the livestreams and videos).
It was difficult work, though. Balancing such a large amount of work between 3 people, as well as regular school work took its toll. To Airi’s chagrin, bags had developed under her eyes. Luckily, years of experience in the idol industry taught her exactly how to cover up one’s imperfections with makeup. Still, when she sat with Shizuku the next day at lunch, she saw right through her.
Since that day on the street, Airi and Shizuku had spent much less time together. It wasn’t that they were avoiding each other, but Airi’s commitment to More More Jump! meant that she had significantly less time for talking to friends and leisurely activities. They still sought each other out in their free periods as classmates, would sit next to each other at lunch, even hung out after school if Airi could find the time. But they had never initiated anything intimate. Holding hands on That Day had been the last time they’d physically touched each other. It was hard. There was so little time, and as much as Airi tried to deny it, a rift began to grow between them.
“Airi-chan, are you sure you’re ok?” Shizuku asked as they sat eating lunch together. Nowadays, Airi couldn’t find the energy to walk over to Shizuku’s desk and usurp the empty desk of whoever sat next to her so Shizuku had started to do it instead.
Airi rolled her eyes. “I told you I’m fine. It’s just been a lot of work between More More Jump! and schoolwork and the tea ceremony club. I’m sure once I get used to it, it’ll all be fine.”
Shizuku’s frown deepened. “But the bags under your eyes…”
Airi shot up from where she was hunched over her desk in panic. “Are they that obvious?!” She pulled out her compact mirror and began examining her makeup.
Shizuku waved her arms in front of her. “No, no! It’s just that I’ve had experience in using makeup for that kind of stuff too, so I can easily recognize it.”
Airi froze for a moment, trying not to think of the implications of that statement, then shut her compact mirror closed and put it away. “Oh...right.”
In an effort to lighten the mood, Airi jabbed her bento box with a reinvigorated fury, deciding what to say next. “So...how is being a normal schoolgirl treating you? It must be nice to have all that time to yourself to make friends and such.” Airi crooned, stuffing some rice in her mouth.
Shizuku's smile became forced, her eyes clearly strained. “Yeah...friends.” Airi realized that maybe Shizuku’s transition to normal high school girl might not have been as smooth as she thought. Had she been so caught up in her own work that she hadn’t recognized it? Airi suddenly felt guilty. She should be there for Shizuku.
Despite no longer being an idol, Shizuku’s perfect idol image stuck with her no matter where she went. Airi wasn’t stupid, she knew what the other girls in the school said about. They all called her “Shizuku-sama” and put her on a pedestal, expecting her to be this beautiful, inhuman being, flawless in every way. And yeah, sure, maybe Shizuku was an angel, but that didn’t change how stupid it was for them to expect her to be perfect all the time. The whole student body treated Shizuku like an impossible, unattainable person that no one was worthy of. Anyone that did bother to get to know her was scared off by all her weird quirks. To Airi, Shizuku’s weirdness added to her charm, but the general public seemed to disagree.
“Don’t worry about me!” Shizuku said, likely noticing Airi’s concerned and angry expression. “I-it’s only been a couple weeks, I’m sure I just need some more time to adjust.” Shizuku put on that perfect smile, the one she plastered on for Cheerful Days performances or interviews. Airi hated that smile.
“If anyone at school is giving you a hard time, you know you can tell me, right?”
Shizuku reluctantly nodded. “Of course! I just...don’t want you to get into trouble on my behalf. More More Jump! needs you.”
Airi scoffed. “You don’t have to worry about that, Shizuku. Getting detention means I’ll at least get some peace and quiet. I’ll probably just nap through it.”
Shizuku bit her lip. “All that freelance idol work but be really hard on you. I feel bad…” But then she suddenly sat up straight in her chair, as if struck by lightning. “Oh, I know!” Shizuku clasps her hands together excitedly. “I can help you with some of the managerial work!”
Airi stared at her for a moment, Shizuku still blissfully high off her own idea, and blinked a couple times. “Eh?”
“I have plenty of experience as an idol, right? I could help you plan and schedule!”
Airi thought about it for a couple moments. While having a fourth person for the behind the scenes work would be nice, Airi didn’t want to ruin Shizuku’s normal life. Assisting an idol group was far from what a normal high schooler would do. “Well...since we just started, we don’t really have much in terms of scheduling. All we’re really doing right now is dance practices and producing.”
Shizuku looked crestfallen, her disappointed puppy-dog eyes weighing on Airi’s soul. Dammit, how could she say no to that look. “But once we start doing live streams and other activities, I’ll make sure to tell you about it!”
Shizuku sat up happily, rejuvenated by her words, but then looked confused. “Live streams? Why are you doing live streams?”
Airi sighed. “Since we couldn’t get an agency, we had to figure out our own way to get our names out there. Minori suggested we do live streaming.”
Shizuku looked down guiltily. She thought that her being there would’ve helped them get an agency, but honestly, Airi didn’t think it would’ve made a difference. She put a reassuring hand on Shizuku’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’m sure with some time it’ll all work out.”
Shizuku looked up at her, sorrow filling her eyes, but then Airi blinked and it was gone. Shizuku looked as cheery as usual. “You’re right as always, Airi-chan. We both just need more time.”
Their first livestream had started out good. Once they began their introductions, the positive comments began rolling in. As expected, there were plenty of dismissive comments towards Minori, but that was normal. She was an unknown after all. With time, their fans would grow to like her. As the livestream went on, however, a certain trend began to take over the comments.
‘Haruka-chan! I’m rooting for you!’
‘This Minori girl is kinda cute’
‘Airi-chan, I’m your biggest fan!’
As the livestream went on, it became clear that More More Jump! would only be singing and dancing, much to the dismay of many of the viewers who had certain expectations for the group with Airi’s presence.
‘Eh? Isn’t Airi here? Aren’t they gonna do some comedy or something?’
‘I hope Airi pulls some stupid stunt like in those variety shows lol’
‘Airi, tell us a funny joke!’
The numerous comments weighed heavily on Airi. She had known the risk of her getting back into the idol industry, it was still discouraging to see. This change didn’t go undetected by Haruka, however, as she took the time before their next song to clear the air.
“Since More More Jump! is a new group, we’re going to be focused on performing songs and dances for now. We plan on making more diverse content in future so guys can get to know us better, but our group’s focus will always be music.” Haruka gave a picture perfect smile, her posture and tone immaculate for the camera. Damn, she’s good. Meanwhile, Minori was standing to the side, somewhat exhausted from the workout of the previous performances, looking at Haruka in dazed awe before coming to her senses and joining Haruka’s side.
“H-haru-chan’s right! We’ll be doing more personal stuff in the future, so stay tuned!” Haruka looked over at Minori and smiled, discreetly holding her hand. Airi forced a smile where she sat. The pair looked...cute together. Yeah. That’s it.
Airi stood up and walked over. “This next song will be our last one!” She exclaimed. “Thank you for watching and supporting us. We hope you’ll stick with us!”
The comments quickly turned to sadness as they expressed their dismay and begged the girls not to go so soon. Under the sunlight on the school rooftop, happily singing and dancing with her friends, Airi could almost pretend those people’s words and expectations didn’t matter.
The girls of More More Jump! had decided that they had worked hard and deserved a break, so they took a couple days off. Airi couldn’t help but feel relieved at this. By no means did she hate hanging with Haruka or Minori, but the more time she spent with them, the more suffocating it became. The way their little touches lingered a bit too long, the gentle way Haruka looked at Minori when the rookie stumbled, the way Minori looked at Haruka when she thought the other wasn’t looking, like Haruka was a goddess amongst mortals, it was all growingly increasingly unbearable. An ugly creature of jealousy began to blossom in Airi’s chest. We could’ve had that. It whispered in her ear. If only you had been more selfish on That Day. If only you had begged her to stay. If only you weren’t such a coward. If only-
Enough . She thought, pushing that ugly jealous feeling down with all the others. It was unbecoming of an idol to act that way. She should be happy that those two were getting along so well. She should be…
Ah. Airi had arrived at her destination. The gym. It being a Wednesday afternoon meant that Shizuku would have archery club practice today. Airi thought it would be a good idea to surprise her today. She would sit and watch as the archery made their shots and then they could hang out together. Maybe go to the mall and shop together. It would be perfect. Shizuku had gotten caught up with the School Beautification Committee right when their classes had ended and told Airi to go on ahead. That was fine with Airi, though. It made her surprise easier.
Airi loved to watch Shizuku do archery. There was something about the way her nimble fingers let go of the taut string and the pure raindrops in her eyes would dutifully watch as the arrow soared through the air to hit its target. Airi thinks that if this were hundreds of years ago, Shizuku would’ve been the type of warrior men would’ve died for. She remembers that time when Shizuku let her try to shoot a couple arrows. Airi had been shocked by how strong and stiff the bowstring was. It had taken her an exorbitant amount of effort to pull the arrow back. Embarrassingly, Airi hadn’t landed a single arrow anywhere near the target. She could still remember Shizuku’s laughter in her ear.
“It’s alright, Airi-chan.” Shizuku managed to get out between her peals of laughter. She had one hand somewhat covering her open, smiling mouth and the other hand holding her side from laughing so hard. Airi never understood why Shizuku covered her mouth when she laughed. She was beautiful like this. “All beginners start like this.”
But this time, no matter how long Airi waited on the sides of the gym, Shizuku never appeared along with the rest of the archery club. Finally, when Airi got tired of waiting, she walked up to ask one of the members of the club.
“Asahina-san.” Airi said to a purple haired girl with a ponytail. “Is Shizuku here?” The girl in question turned around to look at her, and Airi had to keep from shivering as bright purple eyes looked at her. Asahina Mafuyu was one of the most beloved people in school. Everyone loved and depended on her, but Airi had always hesitated to put her on the pedestal everyone else put her on. Then she wouldn’t be any better than the people who treated Shizuku that way. But sometimes...there just was something off about her. Something familiar.
“No.” Mafuyu said, shaking her head. “I’m afraid she quit yesterday.”
Airi’s eyes widened in surprise. “Quit? Why? I thought she enjoyed archery.”
Mafuyu sighed and shook her head. “I believe that some of the other members of the club were bothering her, trying to get her kicked from the club.”
Airi’s blood boiled. “What!? How dare they! Who were these people?” Airi scanned the other members of the archery club present. How many of these girls had treated Shizuku like that? The idea made her want to shoot a couple arrows at the offenders.
Mafuyu made a calming gesture. “Don’t worry, Momoi-san. I’ve already reported them to those in charge of the club and teachers about their harassment. However, I’m afraid the damage has already been done.” Mafuyu sighed again. “Hinomori-san is one of the best archers in the club. Some of the other members had complained that it wasn’t fair that a celebrity like her was in the same club as ordinary people like them. They said that she was too good, too perfect at everything.” A spark of something flashed in Mafuyu’s eyes, but was just as quickly extinguished, and Airi was left wondering if she had seen anything at all.
“They said since Hinomori-san was making most of the other members in the club look bad, she shouldn’t be in it. They kept talking about how unfair it was to be in the same club as her and to be compared to her.”
Airi scoffed and crossed her arms. “If you asked me, they just sound like they’re too lazy to work hard and need someone else to blame. Shizuku works just as hard as everyone else! She deserves to be here.”
Mafuyu smiled at her and nodded agreeably. “I agree, Momoi-san. When I noticed their behavior, I tried to stand up for Hinomori-san, telling them that their behavior was out of line, but...that didn’t stop them. I asked her if she wanted me to tell the club advisor about it, but she insisted that she could handle it by herself. She said she didn’t want to make others unhappy with her own problems. I...I couldn’t betray her trust.” Mafuyu looked down in shame. “But eventually, it just became too much and I told the club advisor.”
Mafuyu scowled, and for a moment, it was as if Airi was looking at a completely different Mafuyu. “But those useless 3rd years in charge didn’t do anything until it was too late. They’re probably as jealous and hateful as those other members.” She spoke coldly.
Airi shifted uncomfortably where she stood. “...Asahina-san?” But then Mafuyu was back to the bright and cheerful girl she always was. “I apologize, Momoi-san. It’s just rather upsetting when someone is judged for their image rather than who they are, isn’t it?”
Airi blinked in surprise. She really was as smart as everyone claimed. “Yeah.” Airi said, looking a mix of pissed off and miserable. “It really is.”
After thanking Mafuyu for the information, Airi ran out of the gym. She ran down the hall to where the School Beautification Committee’s meetings were held.
“Is Shizuku here?” She exclaimed, panting and out of breath.
Shocked, one of the committee members said Shizuku had gone home after a chat with a couple of the other committee members.
Shizuku went home without me? Airi thanked the committee and walked out of the room. As she made her way out of the school, doubts and confusion plagued her mind. Why would Shizuku not tell me about the harassment she was receiving? God, I wanna punch those girls. Why did she go home without even texting me?
Shizuku’s eyes were red and puffy as she opened the front door of the Hinomori residence. Seeing that it was Airi at her doorstep, she attempted to wipe her tear tracks away and look normal to no avail. “A-Airi-chan?!” She sniffed. “I’m sorry, I must look terrible.”
Airi grabbed one of Shizuku’s hands and pried it away from her face. She shook her head. “You always look perfect.”
Shizuku forcefully shook her head and yanked her hand out of Airi’s. “Don’t say that!”
“S-sorry!” Airi fretted. “Look...can we talk inside?”
Shizuku nodded, still wiping at her face. “You’re right.” She said and led Airi inside.
Walking through the halls of the Hinomori household, it was easy to see they were a family of musicians. Whether it was sheet music in the living room, the faint sound of a bass from Shiho’s room, or the various framed pictures of family members playing or enjoying music hanging on the walls, music permeated their lives. A part of Airi was jealous.
Finally, they arrived at Shizuku’s room. They sat on her bed for an awkward moment in silence, the only sound being Shizuku’s sniffling, Airi’s hands nervously hovering in front of her, unsure of what she should do. It lasted a few terrible seconds before the dam broke and Shizuku began telling what happened in a downpour of words.
“A-a little over a week ago, I received a confession from one the 3rd years in the club. She left a love letter in my locker. I...I was flattered, but I turned her down. She was part of the popular crowd, you know? I never fit in with people like them. They always think I’m too perfect or too weird. To be honest, I was shocked that someone like that confessed to me. I-I mean, what are the odds-”
Airi firmly places her hands on Shizuku’s shoulders. “Shizuku, you’re rambling again. Take a deep breath.” Airi initiated by taking a deep breath of her own. Shizuku took in a shuddering inhale.
“Right…” Shizuku exhaled in sync with Airi. “She...she wouldn’t take no for an answer. When I first turned her down, she refused to accept it. She kepting confessing to me and sending me letters about how much she loves me.” Shizuku made a sound somewhere between a sob and an intake of breath. “But all those messages just talked about how perfect and pretty I was. They were always focused on my face or my makeup or how good I was at archery…none of it was ever about who I am. I kept turning her down and telling her to stop but she refused to listen to me. Eventually, I got sick of it and asked one of her friends to tell her to stop, but when I told that senpai's friend, I-I guess she must not have told her friends that she liked girls so…”
Shizuku shook her head, a self-deprecating smile forced on her face. “I accidentally outed her to her friends, and they hated her for it. They called her such terrible things, Airi-chan.” She looked up at Airi with an anguished, crushed look in her eyes. “I’m terrible, aren’t I? I don’t deserve to go back to the archery club.”
“You’re not!” Airi vehemently denied, her hands balling into fists. “You couldn’t have known that girl was in the closet, and you couldn’t have predicted how her friends would react!”
Airi bit her lip, angry that Shizuku could think that way and angry at herself for not noticing anything was wrong sooner. Airi thought back to the last couple weeks, mentally flipping through all the moments Shizuku and she had shared together. Almost all of their conversations had been about More More Jump! or schoolwork. How much of her life had been consumed by her endless desire to become an idol?
“To save face, the girl told her friends that I was the one who confessed to her and that I was trying to get back at her for rejecting me by convincing them she was gay.” Shizuku began to pick at the scabs on her fingers. Airi was surprised. Shizuku was always so meticulous when it came to taking care of her hands, she’d almost never scratch or injure her fingers like that. Was this what it meant to be normal? “I didn’t bother to correct them. I let them believe that. It’s what I deserved for putting her in such a situation.”
“You what? ” Airi asked incredulously. “Shizuku, you can’t just let her make you look like the bad guy. You did nothing wrong!”
Shizuku shook her head again. “After that, I went from receiving an endless amount of love letters and confessions to hate mail telling me about how terrible I was and how I was going to hell. That girl and her friends would push me around in the gym locker room and make it look like an accident. My pencils and papers would disappear and return to me ruined. They would try to start rumors about how I was taking advantage of my looks to seduce other girls at the school and break their hearts.”
Shizuku hesitated for a moment, taking in a deep breath before continuing. “At the archery club, they kept trying to convince the 3rd years in charge to kick me out. They said it was unfair that a celebrity like me was being compared to them. Asahina-san kept telling them to knock it off, and she even asked me if I wanted her to report them, but I told her not to. I couldn’t involve her in my problems. She deserves to live a normal, uneventful life. A couple days ago, the girls were caught breaking my bow and trying to put it back in my locker. They were going to be temporarily suspended for breaking school property, but Asahina-san didn’t want them to return. She told the club advisor about the harassment I was receiving from them in the archery club and the girls were kicked out.”
“Shizuku…” Airi had never bothered paying attention to what the student body said about her. Her career as a tv comedian meant that everyone looked to her as the class clown, a jester willing to put on a show for the masses at any time. When she first transferred to Miyamasuzaka, some students would go up to her and say terrible things, wondering how funny her reaction would be. Those girls learned soon enough that Airi didn’t appreciate that and wouldn’t let them get away with it. Besides, the idol industry was a brutal, fickle place. One random mistake could send a torrent of hate your way.
But...Shizuku wasn’t an idol anymore. She was just a regular high school girl, and no high school girl deserved to go through all that. Airi firmly planted her hands on Shizuku’s shoulders. “Tell me the names of these girls.”
“They’ve already been kicked from the archery club. Isn’t that enough?” Shizuku clung to herself in a way that looked like she was hugging herself. “I don’t want to cause any more trouble than I already have.”
“Shizuku, those girls are clearly bullying you! Stealing your stuff and breaking it, shoving you around, starting malicious rumors about you...they can’t get away with it!” Airi exclaimed.
“No!” Shizuku shouted, stunning Airi into silence. Shizuku never raised her voice like that. “You don’t understand!” She shoved Airi’s hands off of her and looked away. “My whole life...It feels like I’ve left behind a trail of unhappy people. As an idol, I was supposed to make other people happy, but everyone around me hated me. Now that I’m a normal girl, I'm supposed to make myself happy, but everyone around me still hates me! I-” Shizuku’s voice broke as tears welled in her eyes. “I don’t understand!”
Airi wrapped her arms around Shizuku so that Shizuku’s face was buried in her shoulder. She could feel Shizuku desperately trying to blink her tears away. “You don’t have to do anything. Just let yourself feel.” Shizuku let out a gasp like she was running out of air. “But I-”
“You’ve been through a lot, Shizuku. It’s okay to cry.”
The walls of the fortress Shizuku built began falling down, the facade of normalcy she put on crumbling away, if only for tonight. Airi felt wet tears stain her shoulder as Shizuku began bawling, her thready wails filling the room.
Airi couldn’t remember how long they stayed like, sitting there with Shizuku crying in her arms, but at some point, they had maneuvered so that they were both lying in Shizuku’s bed, holding each other, and the world shrunk to just the two of them embracing, the blankets and pillows a flimsy cocoon around them. Shizuku’s cries had died down along with the sunset. All that was heard in the room was the occasional sniffle, with Airi drawing circles on Shizuku’s back in the same repeated motions.
They whispered to each other into the night about things meaningless and meaningful: their concerns for the future, reminiscing about the past, the new snacks that just got introduced at the convenience store down the street, how well they think they did on their last math test. At some point Airi had brought out her earbuds and smartphone, and they began listening to a playlist they had made together from their years in the idol industry, each with one earbud in. Their conversations tumbled on to the soundtrack of their lives as they lay there, staring at the ceiling.
When the moon hung high in the sky and its light seeped through the cracks in the blinds, Airi knew Shizuku was asleep. Worn out from her emotional outburst and their long talks, Shizuku softly snored, still facing up in her bed. Airi discreetly eased herself out of Shizuku’s embrace and the bedsheets, slinking her backpack over her shoulder as she crept down the hall. Along the way, Airi noticed Shiho sitting in the living room, softly strumming her bass, looking down at music sheets lying on the coffee table. Shiho looked up at her quizzical, looking slightly annoyed at her bass practice being ruined.
“You’re lucky mom and dad are running late today. I think the whole neighborhood heard you guys screaming.” Shiho muttered.
Airi rolled her eyes. Shizuku’s little sister was as charming as ever. “Your sister’s been through a lot lately. Don’t bother her too much, ok?”
Shiho frowned. “I’m never a bother.”
Airi snorted and made her towards the front door. “Sure you aren’t.” She said over her shoulder teasingly, and opened the door to leave. “Make sure you get some sleep, Shiho. Don’t practice for too long.” And with that, she left the Hinomori household.
Shizuku wasn’t at school the next day. Not a word of response from her either. That was fine. Before classes began, Airi determinedly marched up to her homeroom teacher and reported the girls who were harassing Shizuku. It turned out Airi was far from the first person to bring up these girls' behavior, Mafuyu included, but the fact that they still faced no consequences for their actions despite several reports of their behavior spoke volumes. In the end, the teacher gave a tired sigh and said they’d do what they could.
Airi probably took a bit more pleasure than she should’ve out of seeing the girls get called to the principal’s office, but they all look perfectly calm, smug even. Airi wondered how many other girls they’d stepped all over and gotten away with. The very idea made her blood boil, forcing herself to repress an urge to deliver her own violent justice.
In the end, nothing happened. The girls skipped back to class as if they’d simply gone for a walk. That was fine.
The next day, Shizuku was there. She sat there and gave her that forced, perfect smile that she would show to all the cameras and models, as if nothing ever happened. They didn’t talk about how they had embraced in each other’s arms, huddled next to each other in Shizuku’s bed as they listened to slow songs. That was fine. Even if Airi felt like she was sinking into a bottomless, raging sea. It was fine.
As the days went on, the two of them spoke less and less, their interactions becoming increasingly awkward. Why was it that they went from holding each other so close to drifting farther and farther apart? It was as if that night had been erased from memory, and soon, Airi was left wondering if she had dreamt up the whole thing.
Their lunches were spent separately now. An occasional awkward smile was shared between them, perhaps, but they sat away from each other. It seemed like Shizuku had made some new friends now, not that Airi would know. Text messages between them were even scarcer than their real life interactions. As Airi sat picking at her bento box in solitude, she spared a glance towards Shizuku, who seemed to be engaged in light conversation with her new friends.
She tore her eyes away from the sight. Her eyes burned for a reason she couldn’t understand, her body weary and bones heavy from staying up once again to some ungodly hour in the night to figure out scheduling and music materials for More More Jump! Airi had never truly taken up Shizuku’s offer of assistance, had she? Well, it was better this way. Shizuku got to live the normal life she wanted with her normal friends, and Airi got to work on More More Jump! in peace. It was better this way. Airi could feel the bitter feelings in her stomach getting squashed. Yet another few drops of water added to her already overflowing cup couldn’t hurt, right?
It all came to a head eventually, Airi’s buried anger built up like a bomb destined to explode. All the troubles that bothered her were spirally around in her mind, lighting up her veins and leaving her like a walking powder keg. Shizuku, her former agency, “ Why do you look so sad, Airi?”, being freelance, training for More More Jump!, Shizuku, the way her grades were slipping, the way Minori and Haruka look at each other like Airi isn’t even there, the bags under her eyes, the bullies at school, Shizuku-
Minori stumbled on their dance routine and stepped on Airi’s toes again. The trio had been at it for hours in the dry, hot, unbearable air on the school rooftop, but Minori just couldn’t fucking get it and this was the fifth fucking time she’d stepped on Airi’s feet. She didn’t even want to think about how many bruises she’s developed by now.
Haruka, bless her heart, wasn’t at all bothered by this, even though Minori had to have run into her and stepped on her toes more than Airi’s, and even had the gall to look charmed by Minori’s mistakes.
“I’m so sorry!” Minori squeaked, waving around her hands nervously. “Just one more time!” she exclaimed determinedly, “I promise I’ll get it!”
“It’s alright, Minori.” Haruka giggled quietly, god that sound felt like nails on a chalkboard for Airi’s ears. “We’re your group members. We do this together.” Haruka placed a hand on Minori’s shoulder fondly.
Airi grit her teeth and clenched her hands into fists behind her back. After a count of three, she took a deep breath and let go. Just push it down, Airi. You’ll get through this.
Minori smiled, thoroughly reassured by Haruka, and grabbed the other girl’s hand, running her thumb over her knuckles. Haruka stared down at their joined hands and smiled fondly, pink shading her cheeks.
God, these fucking people. After dealing with months of their mutual pining, she should’ve developed a high tolerance by now, but for some reason today their disgusting displays of affection made Airi want to hurl something off the roof. She loudly cleared her throat, snapping both girls out of it.
The song started back up again, and the girls got into position. It was all going well until they got to the exact same part as last time and once again, Minori stepped on Airi’s foot. As pain flared up through her leg, Airi thought about the hours they wasted on this dance routine that they should’ve fucking gotten ages ago-
“A-ah! I’m sorry, guys!” Minori fretted. “Airi-chan, do you need anything for your foot?”
“It’s fine, Minori.” Haruka reassured her. “We-”
“IT’S NOT FUCKING FINE!” Airi shouted, shoving Minori away from her. Minori, still in shock, fell to the floor. “Do you have any idea how much time we’ve wasting waiting for you to learn this fucking dance routine?!” It felt like her whole body was on fire, pulsing with an intensity that made her want to smash everything and tear the world down.
Minori sat quivering on the floor, having never seen Airi get this mad before. Her eyes were watery, tears threatening to spill over at any moment. “I-I’m sorry-”
“You’re sorry ?! If you’re actually fucking sorry, you would stop running into us and learn the fucking dance already! Why can’t you just get it right!” At this point, Minori had fully given into her tears and they streaked her face.
“That’s enough!” Haruka shouted, interrupting Airi’s rage-induced rant. She knelt next to Minori and glared up at Airi. “You can’t expect Minori to keep up with us all the time! She doesn’t have the experience we have! What’s wrong with you?!”
“What’s wrong with me?” Airi roared. “Everything! Managing high school, being freelance, and I feel like I’m doing all the work alone while you two sit there staring into each others’ eyes!” Blushes dusted both girls’ cheeks as Airi angrily kicked her water bottle across the rooftop. “All the work and for what? Nothing! It’s all useless!”
Minori quickly wiped away her tears and stood up. “It’s not useless! We’ve made really good progress so far!”
Airi huffed. “We’ve got, what, 10 thousand followers on our channel after months ? That’s nothing!” Airi felt her face growing hotter and hotter, a distant ringing in her ears. “What’s the point?!”
“If we work hard enough, we’ll get more! And reach our goal!" Minori cried.
"Get real , Minori!" Airi retorted. “We’re not five anymore! Hard work doesn’t always mean you get what you want!” Airi angrily gestured to everything around her. “What’s the fucking point?!”
Haruka shot up and stood determined by Minori’s side. “It takes strength to work hard for your goals, even if they seem out of reach. Don’t put down Minori just because you can’t handle it.”
Airi turned towards Haruka and glared. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she growled.
Haruka glared back at her defiantly. “Weren’t you the one who wanted us to do this and go freelance? Are you seriously giving up now? Don’t blame Minori for your own-!”
Haruka was interrupted by Airi slapping her in the face. The three of them stood there in stunned silence with Haruka raising her own shaking hand to touch the growing red mark on her cheek. Minori stood there fretfully, attempting to reach out but withdrawing her arms each time. Her eyes frightfully darted between Haruka and Airi as if trying to guess who would hit next.
Suddenly, the silence was cut by a loud cry as Haruka launched herself at Airi, digging her perfectly manicured nails into Airi’s shoulders and trying to push her to the ground. Airi shrieked back and the two devolved in a brawl. The world became a blur of bruises and bloody blows.
“--shut the fuck up about Minori this and Minori that--”
“--such an arrogant bitch--”
“Haruka-chan! Airi-chan! Stop it!” Minori shouted from the side. Numerous times she had tried to go in and break up the fight only to narrowly dodge a fist or get scratched by a stray nail. Finally, she steeled her and let out a cry, throwing herself at Haruka with all her strength. She wrapped her arms fiercely around Haruka’s torso and pushed her away from Airi, who hadn’t anticipated the sudden loss of Haruka’s force pushing back and fell forward.
“Enough!” Minori shouted, still wrapped around Haruka’s torso, eyes screwed shut. “Idols are supposed to spread happiness and positivity, right? That’s why More More Jump! exists! That’s what we’re fighting for! Hurting each other doesn’t accomplish anything!” Haruka looked down at Minori furiously, but the sight of Minori desperately clinging to her, bawling into her shirt and shouting, quickly dissolved her anger. Haruka’s eyes became filled with regret and guilt.
Haruka gently pried Minori off of her and Minori stood up, desperating holding Haruka’s hand in an iron grip. She was crying again, looking between the other two girls. “Hey, Haruka-chan, Airi-chan...we’re friends right? Isn’t that why we’re here? Because it's fun to sing and dance together?” Minori’s voice wavered and cracked towards the end. She gave into another sob, letting go of Haruka’s hand to wipe her own tears and snot from her face.
Airi looked up at the pitiful sight of her friends and the burning bridges between her and them. ...Fun? It had been so long since Airi had fun while doing this that she forgot she was supposed to enjoy it all. The realization couldn’t help but lead to tears spilling from her eyes. She weakly struggled to her feet, her face wet and splotchy and covered in little bloody scratches. As Airi finally managed to stand up, she met the eyes of Haruka, who was now consoling a sobbing Minori. They stared at each other, an unbearably awkward quiet settling between, as if daring the other to speak first. Eventually, Haruka pulled her eyes away, unable to bear the silence, only broken by Minori’s sniffles, who was buried in Haruka’s arms.
“A-Airi-chan-” Minori stammered, reaching out towards her.
“I-I’m sorry! I-” Airi stammered and looked away. “I’ll just go! Forget it!” She made a mad-dash for her stuff, cramming it all in her backpack, and sprinted out the rooftop door. As she ran down the stairs and out of the school building, she could hear Haruka shouting “Airi, wait!”, but her mind was set on auto-pilot, taking her dashing down the streets and turning corners by pure instinct. It didn’t matter where she went as long as it was far from that rooftop, from miserable blue eyes and desperate weeping.
On the street of god-knows-where, Airi smacked into a stranger, who was understandably shocked by this random teenage girl barreling down the sidewalk. The stranger stumbled back. He wore a classic business suit and held a briefcase in one hand, just another typical office worker.
“Watch where you're-!” The man’s angry shout stopped dead once he took a good look at her. “No way…you’re Momoi Airi!” The man exclaimed. Oh, fuck. Airi was far from being in the mood to deal with a fan. Still, she couldn’t be rude considering the fact that she’d been the one who almost knocked him over.
“Ah, yes. That’s me.” Airi reluctantly spoke.
The man’s face shifted from angry to pleasantly surprised in an instant. “I loved your work on TV!” He explained. “I’ve always thought you were hilarious on those variety shows.” The man placed a hand on her shoulder far too close to her neck for her liking.
“Y’know, Airi-chan, I’ve always been a big fan of yours, even in your QT days…” The man was far too close now, his disgusting breath puffing in her face. Normally, Airi would’ve yelled at the man to back and maybe kicked him between the legs if he couldn’t take a hint, but Airi’s world was a haze right now. It felt like a part of her mind was left behind on the school rooftop.
The man took a step forward and Airi took a cautious step back. “It’s an honor to meet a girl as famously funny as you.” He smiled, a dangerous gleam in his eyes.
“I-I’m in kind of a hurry so I should be leaving now!” Airi explained, trying to desperately clear the emotions and fog in her head. The man’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “But surely you could spare a little time for your biggest fan, right?” Fear spiked in Airi’s heart.
Suddenly, the man released his grip on her shoulder and cried out in pain. He hunched over, dropping his briefcase and bracing on the nearest building wall in pain to reveal a furious Shizuku standing behind him.
“Shizuku?!” Airi cried in shock, her mind boggling from the idea of Shizuku of all people getting into a physical fight with someone and kicking this man in the crotch. It had been weeks since the two of them had talked to each other in person. There had been an unreachable distance between them ever since that emotional day that had made starting a conversation between them seemingly impossible. Every day, their lunches were
Shizuku grabbed Airi’s hand and pulled her along. Together they dashed down the street, leaving the man behind. “Sh-Shizuku?!” Airi cried out again. “What...how did you get here?”
“I couldn’t help but notice that man was making you uncomfortable, so I had to save you!” Shizuku looked back at her with a dazzling smile, a fleeting sight in the dusty sunset. “You look like you could use help, Airi-chan.”
Airi hadn’t stopped to realize how terrible she must look being covered in scratches and bruises, but she had to look terrible, like a weird delinquent. “But how did you even get there?” Airi asked, confused.
Shizuku giggled. “Don’t you recognize this street? My house is right nearby.”
Airi realized that her feet had been taking her to the Hinomoris’ residence. Airi had made the trip over the years so many times that the route had just become engraved in her head.
Soon enough, they arrived at the Hinomoris’ residence and entered. The house was peacefully quiet as Shizuku’s parents were as absent as always. The moment Airi stepped foot inside, the events of her day washed over her and she felt a tidal wave of fatigue wash over here. Suddenly, all Airi wanted to do was close her eyes and crash. Airi dropped her backpack on the floor, took off her shoes, and dropped down on the nearest couch. She sat there for a moment, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, a doll without a purpose of her own.
As much as Airi wanted to fall back on the couch and doze off, she knew Shizuku deserved an explanation for what just happened, why she looked like hot pink roadkill, and so she began forcing herself to speak. “Look, I-”
“You deserve some good rest, right?” Shizuku interrupted, a sad smile on her face.
Airi blinked up at her, struggling to process what was just said. “Wh-what?”
Shizuku huffed softly before sitting next to Airi. Their hands were next to one another. If Airi reached out just a couple centimeters they would be touching. Maybe they could even hold hands and get a fraction of that intimacy they had shared that night back, but alas, Airi was a coward when it mattered.
“You’ve been working hard haven’t you? Thats why,” Shizuku reached up and placed a hand atop Airi’s head before gently pushing her head on Shizuku’s shoulder as they both leaned back on the couch’s cushions. “You can take a nap here. It’ll only be for a little while.”
“But...I’m dirty...what about you?” Airi mumbled in protest, already feeling the pull of drowsiness on her limbs. Shizuku sighed and gently poked one of Airi’s cheeks playfully. Maybe this should’ve annoyed Airi, being poked like this on the edge of sleep, but this was Shizuku. “I’ll still be here when you wake up, Airi-chan. We can talk then. For now, close your eyes.” And Airi was out like a light, snoring quietly on Shizuku’s shoulder.
When Airi woke up, she was alone on the couch and worried that she had dreamt everything up again. But she could hear soft piano playing coming from across the room, as well as quiet humming that seemed to accompany the song. It sounded like a happy little tune, as if the piano player’s fingers were lightly darting across the keys. Groggily, Airi reached up to rub her eyes only to notice that the bruises and cuts on her hands had been cleaned and bandaged. Airi reached up to touch her face and realized that there were band-aids there as well.
Airi turned towards the piano music and saw Shizuku sitting there, lightly playing the piano and singing a quiet tune to herself. If Airi strained her ears she could just barely hear it…
hajimete atta hi kara
(Ever since the first day we met,)
boku no kokoro no subete o ubatta
(You stole all of my heart)
dokoka hakanai kuuki o matou kimi wa
(Wrapped in some sort of fragile air,)
samishii me o shiteta nda
(You had a lonely gaze)
Airi felt that heavy feeling in her chest that usually preceded tears. Why was such a simple song reducing her to this? Airi wiped the faint moisture in eye. Goddamn cute song and its deceptive lyrics. Airi got up from the couch and walked over to where Shizuku sat.
“What’cha playin’?” Airi asked. Shizuku startled, snapping out of whatever little daydream she’d been in.
Airi-chan? You’re awake.” Shizuku smiled at her before turning back to the piano and gesturing to the piano sheets. “It’s just a song I discovered online called “Yoru ni Kakeru”. I wanted to learn the piano part and sing it for the school talent show.”
Airi looked at her in confusion. “When is the school talent show?” she asked. Shizuku frowned and looked back at her. “About 3 weeks from now.”
Airi looked back at Shizuku in alarm. “3 weeks?!” She groaned and facepalmed. “I should’ve known! It would’ve been a good opportunity for-” Airi stopped. More More Jump! was what she’d been about to say. Would she even be welcomed back at this point? Was More More Jump! still even a thing?
“An opportunity for what?” Shizuku asked.
Airi hesitated before forcing a smile and striking her signature pose. “An opportunity for Momoi Airi to spread happiness to the whole school, of course!” She declared over-dramatically.
Shizuku sat frowning at her, clearly seeing through her over-the-top display. Shizuku moved over from her seat and patted the empty space on the piano bench. “Sit with me, Airi-chan.” Shizuku smiled. Airi wearily obliged.
“I thought you and the rest of More More Jump! would have entered the talent show.” Shizuku said.
“I-” Airi sniffed. “I don’t even know if I’m in More More Jump! anymore.” To Airi’s dismay, she was crying again, and no amount of effort could make the tears stop. She gasped and sobbed. “There has to be something wrong with me! Everyone around me has their shit together, and I’m a mess.” Airi brought up her hands to her face to once again wipe away her tears. She rubbed the bags under her eyes, hidden under layers of makeup. God, how many hours into the night had she spent pouring over their group’s schedule or music. Hours wasted now since she doubted the other girls would welcome her back after what she’d done.
Shizuku looked on in concern. “Everyone wants to appear more put together than they actually are. I’m sure most of the people around you are struggling in some way.”
Airi snorted. “Oh, yeah? Even you?”
Shizuku gave her a rueful smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Of course.” She said, and for a moment, Shizuku’s smile fell away, leaving only a grimacing expression filled with regret and sorrow, an echo of Haruka’s face on that rooftop. Airi felt a chill run down her spine. “Shizuku, what-”
“But nevermind that, Airi-chan!” Shizuku interrupted, then frowned. “Tell me about what happened with More More Jump!”
Airi sighed and began recounting the events of what had happened that day. As she recalled them, new tears began to spill down her face. Shizuku cupped her face with her hands, and gently wiped her tears away. Her hands smelled like lavender. It was...nice. As Airi began hiccuping between her words, Shizuku offered her some cold miso soup from her thermos sitting next to the piano, to which Airi giggled a little and turned it down.
“Poor Airi-chan.” Shizuku cooed as she grabbed another tissue from the tissue box she had brought over and dabbed away at Airi's face.
Airi laughed bitterly. “Yeah, I’ve probably messed up all my chances with More More Jump! I’ll be lucky if Minori or Haruka ever talk to me again.”
Shizuku shook her head. “They’re your close friends, right? I’m sure you can talk it out. This is your life’s goal, after all, isn’t it?”
Airi shook her head. “It’s not that easy, Shizuku. I literally punched Haruka in the face!”
Shizuku, despite everything, chuckled. “I’m sure months from now you'll have made up and it will all just be a funny memory. Afterall, it should take more than just one fight to end a true friendship.”
Airi bit her lip. Shizuku wasn’t wrong. “Maybe…” She sighed and slumped against Shizuku, her laying on Shizuku’s shoulder once more. Between the screaming, the fighting, the running, the...encounter with that man, and the several emotional breakdowns, Airi felt like she could sleep forever.
Shizuku rubbed the back of Airi’s head in smooth, repeated motions. “Would you like me to play the rest of the song for you?” Airi silently nodded. Shizuku giggled and smiled, returning her hands back to the piano keys.
The song itself was nice. Airi could see why Shizuku liked it. The lyrics were deceptively depressing for such a catchy and happy tune, but so were most of the best songs. She found herself being lulled into a peaceful, dreamy state. It didn’t help that Shizuku was the one singing. Airi had always loved Shizuku’s voice. The way it felt so light and airy reminded her of someone whispering a precious little secret into her ear. When Shizuku sang it felt personal. It felt sweet and private. A display of affection meant only for her.
When the song was over, Shizuku’s hands fell away from the piano and wrapped around Airi. They sat in comfortable silence for a moment, before Shizuku broke with her next words. “Are you going to enter the school talent show, Airi-chan?”
Airi gave it a thought, contemplating for a moment before shaking her head. “No, I’m…” She hesitated. “I’m gonna take a break from singing and dancing for a while. I’ve been feeling burnt out for too long.”
Shizuku nodded. “Of course.”
Airi looked up from her perch on Shizuku’s shoulder and smiled brightly. “But I’ll be watching from the audience! So I’ll still be there for you.” Airi made a heart for Shizuku with her index finger and thumb.
Shizuku fidgeted nervously. “I...it’s been so long since I’ve performed anything like this. I don’t want to disappoint you.”
Airi shook her head and smiled again. “I won’t be disappointed no matter what, Shizuku. It takes a lot of courage to step on that stage in the first place!” Airi wrapped her arms around Shizuku. “Just be yourself up there, ok? That’s all I want from you.”
Shizuku smiled and tightened her embrace around Airi, pulling her even closer. Airi noticed there was still a sad gleam in Shizuku’s eyes, but she decided not to say anything. She couldn’t bring herself to ruin the moment. Besides, she trusted Shizuku to talk to her about it in due time. For now, they sat together, singing and playing about racing into the night.
Airi walked down the street, holding onto the umbrella that sprouted above her head like a lifeline. It was pouring rain right now, the people running up down the street trying to escape the rain by hurrying to wherever they needed to go, some even holding their briefcases over their heads like a pathetic shield. The rain could piss off. Airi refused to let it ruin her hair. She had taken the time to arrange it into cute curly pigtails framing her face with various pretty pins and a plaid orange and purple beret on top. How was she supposed to know it was suddenly going to rain in the middle of the day while she was shopping at the mall? What a way to ruin her weekend.
Suddenly her phone rang. She sighed and checked the number. Shizuku? Why would Shizuku call her instead of just texting her? She knew Airi far preferred texting to calling. Confused, Airi accepted the call. “Hello?”
“Momoi-senpai?!” A distraught voice cried. Airi could hardly believe it for a moment. “Shiho?”
“M-Momoi-senpai! You have to help me!” Shiho exclaimed.
“Shiho, why do you have Shizuku’s phone?” Airi asked.
“We had a big fight and onee-chan ran out of the house!” Shiho panickedly cried. “She left her phone here and I don’t know where she is! Please,” Shiho sobbed. “You have to help me find her!”
Airi’s heart dropped. In all the time she had seen or talked to Shizuku’s little sister, Airi could barely recall the girl ever showing any emotions, her face always stony and expressionless. For Shiho to suddenly be so distraught, this had to be serious.
“Ok.” Airi said, doing her best to sound calm and reassuring despite her chest feeling like it was doing somersaults. “Have you checked some places already?”
“I checked all the streets and places near our house! I don’t know where she could be!” Shiho exclaimed.
Airi thought of all the places that Shizuku liked to go to. The school? It would be closed for today. Maybe the library? Shizuku did like to go there and read books. Well, it was worth a shot. As she made her way to the library, Airi closed her umbrella, letting the water seep into her beret and hair. It would only get in the way as she ran down the street. As she made her way there, she implored Shiho to tell her what happened.
Shiho frantically explained. Apparently, Shizuku had been feeling guilty about all the years she had neglected Shiho while she was an idol, their sisterly relationship fading to non-existence, so she had decided to shower her little with all the affection she could to make up for it, much to Shiho’s chagrin. Recently, Shizuku had been taking a reluctant Shiho to do ‘sisterly bonding activities’ together, like going shopping at the mall, trying new makeup together, and even karaoke. Airi realizes that these were all the activities that she and Shizuku used to do together.
Shiho hated all these bonding sessions. They were all centered around activities she had zero interest in. The final straw had been the karaoke session Shizuku took Shiho to earlier that day, in which Shizuku kept picking all the cute idol songs and trying to force Shiho to do the dances with her. Shiho pushed Shizuku away and screamed that she hated it. She hated spending time with her. She hated that Shizuku never actually took her to places that Shiho actually wanted. She hated that it felt like Shizuku was using her as a replacement for her former idol friends instead of just treating Shiho like a little sister. She wished Shizuku would go away and go back to ignoring her existence.
In response, Shizuku had screamed that at least she was trying to spend time with her. Shizuku exclaimed that she felt like she was the only one who cared, that Shiho didn’t actually love her big sister, or anyone in her family. She saw other siblings joking around with each other, and actually looking happy around one another had just wanted to have that with her. Shizuku cried that she didn’t understand why Shiho selfishly pushed everyone around her away.
Things had only gotten more heated after that, ultimately culminating in Shiho punching Shizuku in the face, years of resentment and hurt and loneliness built up and bursting out into one fateful swing of Shiho’s fist. Shizuku had fallen to the floor, now sporting a blackeye, and bursting into hysterical tears, running out of the establishment, leaving her phone and stuff behind.
Airi's heart clenched as Shiho told the story, dreading what could’ve happened to Shizuku, all the worst scenarios playing and replaying in her head. Eventually Shiho had hung up, determined to go check more places, with Airi promising to keep her posted.
As Airi finally reached the library, she went to the librarian at the front desk and asked if Shizuku had been there. Shizuku came to the library so often that all the librarians recognized her from the name alone. The librarian shook her head, saying that Shizuku hadn’t entered at all today.
Airi thought back to what Shiho had said. “I felt like onee-chan was just using me as a replacement for all her former idol friends.” An idea entered her head. But...no. It couldn’t be. Could it?
Airi made her way to a certain place. The streets and turns she ran through were completely memorized, the exact routes burned in the back of eyelids. A growing sense of dread built up in her stomach but she continued running. Finally, she saw her.
Shizuku was standing at the crosswalk on the street across from their former agency. She was thoroughly soaked to the bone from the rain, her hair limply clinging to her neck and clothes. She looked dazed, her eyes desolate and glassy. Sure enough, she was sporting a blackeye on her right side. Shizuku would occasionally wipe her eyes with her hands, but Airi couldn't tell where her tears ended and the rain began. To Airi’s horror, despite the crosswalk sign being glaringly red and cars zooming by through the intersection, Shizuku raised one foot and place it forward ashe she began
Airi screamed and pushed herself to run faster than she ever had before. Shizuku was a couple feet into the busy street, bathed in the glow of the oncoming car’s headlight, when Airi lunged at her, grabbing her by the back of her shirt and pulling Shizuku back to the sidewalk. The car harshly honked its horn as it narrowly sped by.
Shizuku stood there frozen, staring at Airi standing there drenched in front of her like she was some sort of miracle. “A-airi-chan…?”
“WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!” Airi meant to angrily shout at her, but it came out as a desperate sob. She clung to Shizuku’s shirt as if the taller girl would dissolve at any given moment. “If you miss singing and dancing or being an idol that badly, then you can do it with me, ok?! I promise you all the dances and stages in the world so please,” Airi’s voice broke. “Just don’t anywhere. I can’t do this without you.” Airi begged, hunching over and staring at the ground as she still clung to Shizuku, her tears joining the rainfall as plopped to the ground.
Shizuku stood there silently, still in her sorrowful daze for a moment before pulling Airi in for a crushing embrace. Airi’s eyes widened and she looked up at Shizuku in surprise. Shizuku’s face was scrunched up in despair, one eye black and the other eye red and puffy from the tears streaming down her face. “Airi-chan…” Shizuku gasped. “Do you really mean those promises?”
Airi nodded furiously. “Of course, so-” Airi’s voice wavered. “Don’t do anything, stupid? Don’t go where I can’t follow.” Airi’s voice cracked at the end of sentence as she did her best to hold back another sob.
“I just...I feel alone, Airi-chan.” Shizuku wailed. “Why can’t I get anyone to like me for me. ”
“W-what about your new friends at school?” Airi asked.
Shizuku shook her head, looking more melancholic than ever. “Those girls never talk to me outside of school. I gave them all my number and they never text me. When they do talk to me at school, it's only ever about whether I did the homework for them to copy off of, or whether they can borrow my notes. Sometimes, they’ll ask me about my score on the latest test and they’ll get mad if it's high, saying it's not fair for someone like me, or if it's too low, they’ll get mad and say they expected more from me.” Shizuku weeped. “They’re all just all just using me, aren’t they? All those girls put the least amount of effort into class, too.”
Shizuku sobbed. “I should’ve known. No one can love me, not even my own sister!” She cried. “I’m always too weird or clumsy or stupid-”
“Don’t say that!” Airi cried. “It’s not your fault those girls were being mean to you, okay? They’re all just dumb and blind. Anyone with brains would know that they’d be lucky to have you as a friend! You’re super caring, you work hard, you notice things that others don’t.” Airi stomped her foot and angrily looked up at her. “If those bitches can’t see what makes you great, then that’s their loss!”
Shizuku smiled and laughed. Airi looked at her furiously. “What?!” But Shizuku just kept laughing. “N-nothing, Airi-chan. It’s just that you look cute when you’re angry like this.”
Airi flushed pink and pulled back a little. “Yo-you can’t just say something like that out of nowhere! I was defending your honor!” She exclaimed in embarrassment, bringing her hands to her face to try and cover her blushing.
Shizuku giggled and playfully poked at one of Airi’s reddened cheeks. “Sorry, sorry.” Shizuku sniffed, trying to wipe the last of her tears away. “It’s just...it’s nice to laugh, isn’t it?” She looked across the street to where their former agency stood.
Airi blinked at her for a moment before sighing and smiling too. “Yeah. It is.”
And together under the pouring rain at the corner of that crosswalk they laughed, letting their tears fall to raindrops. And maybe they both got a cold after this, but it was all worth it.
Shizuku invited Airi to one of the talent show dress rehearsals. She sat in the relatively empty audience as one by one each act rolled by until they all became a blur. They were fine and all, but all Airi could think about was Shizuku’s. As she sat there, waiting for Shizuku’s act to come on, she was approached by Minori and Haruka, who had entered the talent show as a duo. They looked guiltily at her after saying this, but Airi waved off their concern, saying that she was happy for them. And she genuinely was.
They told her they’d be performing a song called “Near”. They worked out the singing and choreography with the help of Miku and Rin in their sekai. Apparently it’s a song with Miku in it. Huh. Good for them. Eventually, they reached a lull of awkward silence between the three of them until Airi couldn’t stand it anymore. She apologized for losing her temper at Minori for making a mistake. Airi explained that a lot of negative things had happened in life before then, and it all resulted in her being extremely angry and needing an excuse to take her anger out on someone. It wasn’t fair to Minori to treat her like that.
Minori just smiled brightly and easily forgave her. She understood what it’s like to be angry when the world keeps kicking you down, and she made sure that Airi knew that she was still part of More More Jump! Airi smiled. What a Minori-like response.
Next, Airi apologized to Haruka for, well, slapping her in the face and starting a fist fight with her. Airi told her that Haruka had been right. Airi was being too hard on Minori as a rookie, and she had been pretty arrogant.
Haruka accepted her apology and laughed it off. She said that when she looked back at their fight, she saw it just another stupid funny thing that happened to them, and Airi laughed too. The idea of having physically fought Haruka Kiritani of all people was pretty hilarious.
In the end, all was forgiven. More More Jump! would strive on. And if Airi noticed the two girls trying to discreetly kiss as they made their way back to the stage to get ready for their performance, well, that was their secret, wasn’t it? Good for them. Took ‘em long enough.
Today was the day. Airi squirmed in her seat in anticipation for the talent show. Once again, the acts all blurred by. Airi did her best to politely applaud for each one, but she couldn’t wait for the school to see Hinomori Shizuku in all her beautiful glory. Unfortunately, Shizuku was the last act of the talent show so it would be a long way until then. Still, the best things were usually saved for last so Airi could accept it.
As Minori and Haruka came on for their act, Airi thought it was a slow-paced but thoughtful performance. Watching the pair put a smile on her face. They really were great idols, able to spread such hope and joy like this. Airi really was lucky to be in such good company.
Finally, it was time for the last act, and excitement coursed through Airi’s body. Shizuku sat in front of the piano that had been wheeled in, wearing a white and light blue flowery dress. Just before Shizuku was set to start, she locked eyes with Airi who gave her a thumbs up and striked her signature Momoi Airi pose in her seat. Shizuku smiled and began.
shizumu you ni tokete yuku you ni
(It's like we're sinking, it's like we're melting,)
futari dake no sora ga hirogaru yoru ni
(on that night where the sky stretched endlessly, just for the two of us)
As Shizuku continued to sing and play the piano, the rest of the instruments for the song playing as a backtrack, the rest of the audience and school faded until Airi’s world narrowed to just the two of them, Shizuku’s performance an aria that Airi’s felt privileged for just being able to sit there and witness it.
"sayonara" dake datta
(It was only a simple "goodbye,")
sono hitokoto de subete ga wakatta
(But it was all I needed to understand.)
hi ga shizumidashita sora to kimi no sugata
(The sinking sun and your figure)
fensugoshi ni kasanatte ita
(were overlapping beyond the fence.)
Airi felt something inside burst, that overflowing cup inside her spilling over to reveal a million beautiful colors. Belatedly, she realized that she was crying, raindrops spilling down her face once more, but these were happy tears. Her heart from the inside out felt full. She could tell Shizuku was glad to be up there on stage again, looking happier than Airi had seen in a while.
sawagashii hibi ni waraenai kimi ni
(In the troubling days, for the never-smiling you,)
omoitsuku kagiri mabushii asu o
(I give my utmost wishes for a dazzling tomorrow)
akenai yoru ni ochite yuku mae ni
(Before we fall in the never-ending night,)
boku no te o tsukande hora
(Come and take my hand)
Those bullies and fake friends were probably sitting in the audience right now, judging her, trying to turn her every uniqueness into a flaw they could put down, but none of that mattered. In this moment the world and its opinions and expectations didn’t matter, just the two of them together.
wasurete shimaitakute tojikometa hibi mo
(Even the days where you shut yourself away, wanting to forget,)
dakishimeta nukumori de tokasu kara
(I'll melt with the warmth of my embrace,)
kowakunai yo itsuka hi ga noboru made
(so don't be afraid. Until the sun rises again someday,)
futari de iyou
(Let's be together)
As the some came to a close and the music ended, the audience burst into applause once again. But rather than bowing for them and running backstage, Shizuku jumped off the stage and into the crowd, much to the shock of the student body. Shizuku ran to Airi, and Airi ran up out of her front row seat to catch her embrace. Together they desperately clung to one another, Shizuku whispering in her ear “We did it, Airi-chan.”
Not I, not you, but we .
Airi smiled at her. Their foreheads were touching now, with nothing but a single breath separating them. “We found our way.” she said.
And then not even a single breath separated them. Shizuku’s lips met hers and it felt like a sigh of relief. Finally. Butterflies fluttered around her stomach, bursting through her lips. The world could try and take whatever it wanted from them, but this moment was all theirs, the string of fate connecting them inseparable. Together, they ran out of the school auditorium, hand in hand laughing as teachers and students alike called and shouted after them. If Airi listened carefully, she thought she heard Minori and Haruka cheering for them in the crowd before it all faded to background noise.
They ran down the halls cheering and laughing, sharing little kisses as they dashed up the stairs two at a time together, racing up to the sky. They collapsed into a messy little pile as they finally reached the school rooftop. They laid in each other’s embrace facing up at the clear blue sky pointing at the occasional fluffy cloud that passed by, and as they whispered happy little secrets to each other, it was bliss.