“Second year, Frau Platin.” But it’s lost in the noise of the moment. Mei Fan’s eyes are trained elsewhere. She cannot focus on anything but. Sitting up straight, watching with rapt attention, unfocused for any of the rest of the performance when she was onstage.
“First year, Frau Perle. Akira Yukishiro.”
You draw a line in the sky, from yourself on the ground to a star, which looks not so distant but still maintains the years and years of travel it would take to reach it. Mei Fan’s stretches from herself to that star on that stage, a distance as yet uncrossable; a river she cannot yet stream.
She will reach her.
This story does not have a happy ending. There are no answers that are satisfactory.
Mei Fan is standing in front of two people she doesn't know, her first day touched down in Japan.
“Her last job of her tenure and she’s ghosted,” one of the girls grumbles, scrolling on her phone. The other looks at Mei Fan with a polite, restrained smile.
“Maybe something came up.”
“She’s at a park, throwing breadcrumbs at people in hopes they’ll be swarmed by birds. She’s the one who volunteered herself for Yukishiro-san.”
“Happy to help.”
“Right!” The girl looks up from her phone, finally acknowledging Mei Fan. “Welcome to Siegfeld!”
“It’s an honor to be here,” Mei Fan says.
“We’re your welcome committee- well, Yachiyo is. I’m the stand-in for the other half, who—ugh—wrote my phone number on this contact sheet.”
“I can handle the tour and everything,” The other girl—Yachiyo—says. “You don’t have to worry about anything.”
“No, it’s- I’m not going to do a bad job just because she did this,” the girl says.
“I’m not saying that,” Yachiyo says. “I’m more than happy to help show her around. After all, there’s nobody who knows Siegfeld better than me, right?”
The other girl frowns. “I’m not- I’m not giving up on my job. Not shirking my responsibilities.”
“It’s not your job to give up on, after all.”
The girl sighs. “Yachiyo’s going to show you around,” she says, addressing Mei Fan again. “I’ll send a list of references to your student email for who to contact if you run into any problems. It’ll also have my number on it. Feel free to reach out if you have a problem that isn’t covered, or you’re confused, since I do trust myself to actually respond to you.”
“Um, right! Thank you very much,” Mei Fan says. The girl gives one last nod to both her and Yachiyo before departing.
“Yachiyo Tsuruhime, at your service,” Yachiyo says, grinning. “It’s nice to meet you, Liu-san.”
“You as well! And Mei Fan is fine.”
“Well, Mei Fan-san, as the only international student admitted to the great Siegfeld Institute of Music this year, I am more than excited to bring you on your grand tour. We’re both first years, so I’ve already taken the liberty of checking in on your schedule to see where your classes are and which ones we have together,” Yachiyo says, beginning to meander in a direction.
“Are you very familiar with the school as a first year?” Mei Fan asks, taking a few large steps to catch up with Yachiyo. “Oh, but I guess Siegfeld has a middle school, so you may have been here a while, huh?”
“That’s true,” Yachiyo hums. “We do have a middle school here at Siegfeld, but the students there can take stage classes with high schoolers if they’re good enough.”
Yachiyo shows her practice rooms and common spaces and the specific classrooms she’ll be attending. She’s polite, reserved—Yachiyo is—showing Mei Fan around, explaining thoroughly any questions she has. She’s a treasure trove of information about the school.
“And that’s the student council room,” Yachiyo says, gesturing to a mostly nondescript door, much like any of the other doors of the school. The kind of door that it would be very strange to monologue about in your head during an hour of serious concern over a great upheaval in a group or school dynamic. Nondescript. Bland. Door. “The student council is staffed by the Edels, and they perform Elysion every year.”
“I saw last year’s Elysion,” Mei Fan says to Yachiyo. “Akira-sama’s performance, I’ll never forget it as long as I live!”
“Akira-sama, huh? You’re one of those ones.”
“What? She’s the reason I decided to come to this school. Her performance was so moving, I couldn’t focus on anything else.”
Yachiyo hums. “You must be excited that she’s Frau Platin, then.”
“She’s what?!” Yachiyo jolts slightly at how loudly Mei Fan shouts, but this is secondary—insignificant—Akira what?
“She’s Frau Platin? Oh, it’s, uh, not quite official yet, but from what I’ve heard through the grapevine, it’s a pretty done deal.”
“That’s-“ Yachiyo stares at Mei Fan, watching her mentally process through the information. “That’s amazing!” Mei Fan announces. “Tsuruhime-san, we have to help her!”
“Yes, absolutely. Offer our services to assist her—of course—we have to!”
Yachiyo laughs. “You can do that, if you want. I hardly think I could make it as an Edel.”
“Ridiculous! You’re more than capable,” Mei Fan says, like she’s ever knowingly seen Yachiyo perform in her life at this point. She fixes her gaze on the door, pointedly.
“Well,” Yachiyo says, a light, almost fond, exasperation. Slightly unbefitting the way you would be exasperated at someone you’ve just met for the first time. “We’ve finished most of the tour, and your luggage has already been moved to your room. If you want to, she’s probably in there right now with one of the other Edels.”
“Will you not go?”
“Like I said, I’m not really sure I have the material of an Edel. But I more than encourage your journey.”
Mei Fan frowns at Yachiyo. Something about this whole thing feels slightly off to her, but she can’t quite place a finger on it. She’s only just met Yachiyo, she can’t say she quite knows her for certain, but there’s a new bite in her tone that wasn’t there before. Not malicious, but different.
“If you’re- if you’re certain.”
“Of course,” Yachiyo says, with a silly flourish of her hand, turning. “We will see each other again soon enough, Liu Mei Fan. You must do what you must do to support Akira-sama.”
“Oh dear,” Michiru says with a laugh, clicking the door of the practice room shut behind herself. “Everyone is so early, I almost thought I was late.”
“You are late,” Fumi grumbles. “Fifteen minutes.”
“I had something to do.”
“That’s enough,” Akira says, cutting Fumi off before she can lodge a proper complaint. “Introductions are in order. Frau Rubin: Liu Mei Fan. Frau Perle: Tsuruhime Yachiyo. They’ll be announced properly by next week.”
“Great introduction,” Fumi says.
“They have been introduced.”
“My name is Liu Mei Fan! It is an honor to meet all of you and work alongside you for the glory of the king’s stage. I hope to learn everything I can from your expertise!”
“I’m Yachiyo. It’s an honor to meet you all and to,” Yachiyo frowns. “What was the last part?”
“Work alongside them for the glory of the king’s stage?”
“Yes. That as well. Thank you.”
“Hm. Fumi, Jade. Michiru, Saphir. Akira, Platin,” Akira says, pointing to each of them as she says their names. “Now. Rehearsal.”
This is the introduction of the Edels for Mei Fan. There’s a lucky sort of coincidence in Yachiyo’s assignment. She’d met Michiru and Akira before, obviously, begging and working for her position, but Yachiyo had been her guide around Siegfeld (coincidentally, they were in the same class, both academically and for stage classes, where there was occasionally some student shuffling depending on what level you were placed in). The only stranger to her is Fumi Yumeoji: Frau Jade.
Mei Fan’s done her research (and the /edels page on the Siegfeld website certainly helped more than a little). “Your roles aren’t certain,” Akira says. “If you can’t keep up, you will be cut before the official announcement.”
Rehearsals are something like this. They run through warmups, basic exercises to work on technical form—dancing, stage directions. Short sight-prepared monologues. Akira hands out a longer scene and assigns parts for them all to prepare to perform, which is maybe a good sign that they’re doing okay.
“Water!” Michiru announces, after some time. There’s no clock in the rehearsal room—you shouldn’t need to know the time—you should be willing to get lost in practice. Only rest when you need to. “We’ll take a short break.”
Akira nods. “I will take this rest to deal with a minor administration task. We’ll begin when I return.” When Akira leaves, Michiru and Yachiyo both sink to the ground, letting out tired sighs.
“No matter how hard I try, I feel like I always end up out of shape after a break, right Fumi?”
Fumi grimaces. “Sure.”
“You hold up better than I do,” she grins. “You and Akira can always keep up with each other.”
“Akira and Fumi are rivals,” Michiru says, turning vaguely in Yachiyo and Mei Fan’s direction.
Fumi sighs. “Someone seems delusional.”
“Someone,” Michiru sings back. “You seem to be keeping up well,” she says to Mei Fan instead, ignoring the way Fumi’s face scrunches up in anger.
“Of course! I’ve been preparing for this. I’m ready for whatever’s to come!”
“I was right about you, then,” Michiru grins. “Yachiyo understands me, at least.”
“Otori-san, this is the end for me, I’m afraid.”
Michiru laughs. “I think you’ll manage. And I said Michiru was fine.”
“Michiru-san, I truly mean it,” Yachiyo repeats. “This is the end for me.”
“Stop complaining,” Fumi says.
“You can always join me on runs in the morning, Yachiyo! It will build up your stamina.”
Yachiyo huffs out a laugh. “I’ve heard what time you wake up, I think I’m a-okay there, my friend.”
“Do I wake you up?”
“No. But I’ve been awake when you’re getting up sometimes.”
“You don’t-“ Mei Fan frowns. “You don’t stay up that late, do you?”
“No! Someti- no, definitely not.”
“Yachiyo,” Mei Fan says, quietly. Emphatically. With feeling. “Please take care of your health.”
Mei Fan knocks on the door to Fumi's room. She's not nervous, not in a visible physical sort of way, but in a mental temporal sort of realization you've never actually done some certain thing before.
"What?" Fumi calls back, and it's enough of an invitation for Mei Fan to turn the handle, push the door in slightly, in case Fumi casts her out still. "What is it?" She asks again, and Mei Fan pushes the door open more.
Fumi is sitting at her desk, a textbook open in front of her, turned in her seat so she can look at Mei Fan in the doorway. She raises an eyebrow.
"You got a package!" Mei Fan announces, holding up the box in her hand, the one not holding the doorknob. "I think from your parents."
"Oh." Fumi stands up to get the box from her, placing it on her bed. Fumi's room is always neatly made up. Mei Fan respects this—she's similar, although the neatness is often to Yachiyo's chagrin, especially when they study together in Yachiyo's room and Mei Fan offers to help her tidy up. She glances back up at Mei Fan, like she'd expected her to have left already. "My parents wanted to send Shiori a care package, so they had to send me one too."
"That's so thoughtful! Is that your sister?"
Fumi hums, taking the two steps back to her desk and pulling open a drawer for a pair of scissors. "She's in middle school here." She starts to cut open the box.
"She must be wonderful! That's so exciting, for both of you to be stage girls, and both at Siegfeld, too." Fumi pulls open the box. There's a letter on the top she sets to the side. Inside there are some snacks, a bottle of ponzu, a canister of tea. Matching with her sister's, perhaps.
"We've always wanted to perform Elysion together," she says, picking up the letter again.
"You must be hoping she'll be appointed an Edel next year, then."
She flips it over. "That's the plan," she says. "Something like that."
"I'm jealous! None of my sisters are old enough to attend Siegfeld yet!"
Fumi glances up at her, smiles, in a pained sort of way Mei Fan cannot recognize as disingenuous. "Must be nice."
A revue. A spellbinding performance of song and dance. Battling, fighting, clawing your way to the top. The first time Mei Fan meets Fumi in a revue is at the underground theater beneath Siegfeld. It is a large, empty expanse. Silent and imposing. The grave stage of kings.
“Frau Rubin, Liu Mei Fan.” She smites the hilt of her spear against the ground, the clang resounding throughout the theater.
Fumi places hers carefully. Her voice is quieter than Mei Fan’s boom. “Frau Jade, Fumi Yumeoji.”
The revue is silent, nearly. The song and dance is lost in favor of the fight. Fumi is fighting another revue, in her head, silently. Mei Fan does not know this silent second fight, and instead the technical difference spans out in front of them; Fumi, in spite of her stumbling performances as a stage girl of recent, knocks all of Mei Fan’s attempts away with ease.
They’re both offensive heavy, normally. Mei Fan knows this. They both push forward, force their opponent into a defensive position. But Mei Fan doesn’t know why they’re fighting—in a revue, you ought to know why you’re fighting.
Her first revue was shortly after her appointment, against Akira. Akira had questioned her resolve, and then summarily beat her, but walked away from the revue with some sort of resolve about Mei Fan’s appointment—or so Mei Fan hopes, at least. She told her that was her baseline. She told her the next time they faced each other to do better than Akira herself did that day (since it would be a given, obviously, that Mei Fan would improve through the rigorous curriculum of the Edels).
When Fumi cuts the cord of Mei Fan’s jacket, she offers no explanation. She watches it fall, the slow fluttering descent of the cape.
“Still,” Fumi mumbles to herself. She sighs. It means nothing to Mei Fan. “Frau Jade, Fumi Yumeoji. Position Zero.”
Three days later, Fumi Yumeoji has transferred away from Siegfeld Institute of Music. They do not know where she transfers to. The circumstances of her departure. Still.
She comes across Akira and a stranger, in a hallway by the third year classrooms and near enough to the administrative buildings to justify Mei Fan’s wandering. They both notice her immediately; Akira with her arms crossed over her chest, frowning, and the stranger, in a Siegfeld uniform with a different jacket, hands in the jacket pocket.
Mei Fan hasn’t seen much of Akira in the interim of Fumi’s departure announcement and now. Yachiyo and Michiru seem to be splitting the duties of taking care of the two of them, and perhaps have mutually decided that them crossing paths will be the catalyst of a horrible series of events whereby they find Fumi’s current school or location and seek her out and then—well. Anyways, Mei Fan’s noticed she hasn’t much run into Akira.
“Who are you?” Mei Fan asks the stranger.
“Who are you?”
“Frau Rubin, First year Liu Mei Fan!”
“Oh. No kidding. Congrats.” The girl laughs. “Look,” she says, turning back to Akira. “It’s all over now. It really doesn’t matter who did what specifically.”
“If you signed the approval forms, you knew where she went.”
“Obviously. Hand delivered them myself.”
“I’m not going to tell you,” she crosses her arms, frowning at Akira. “I don’t like the way you’re handling this.”
“It isn’t your place to like the way I’m handling this or not.”
“And it’s not your place to care about the private information of students who don’t attend Siegfeld,” the stranger retorts. “If you really cared, then maybe you should have reached out before she left.”
Mei Fan has not seen Akira much since Fumi left, certainly not outside of their currently limited rehearsals. It will be a bit longer still before Michiru starts demanding they go back to normal, to regular rehearsal lengths and student council activities completed as a group, with all of them in the student council room.
The one time Mei Fan does, she watches Frau Platin, esteemed head of Siegfeld’s student council and king of the Edels, her idol and ideal, deck a random student in the face, in a deserted hallway, outside the third years’ classrooms, and storm off.
“How could she leave?” Yachiyo’s given up on reading her magazine, lying in bed and watching Mei Fan pace around.
“You must be upset,” Yachiyo drawls.
“It’s an unforgivable act.” Mei Fan’s too upset to even recognize the teasing, that’s how upset she is. Keep up, Yachiyo. “It’s- our stage exists to support Akira-san’s. How could she abandon that.”
“Maybe she’s not in love with Akira-san.”
“And so suddenly! Without warning! Did you know she had a younger sister? A Siegfeld student.”
“That’s crazy. Where does she go to school?”
“You can stop pretending you don’t care,” Mei Fan says. “You knew Fumi-san a lot longer than I did. It’s okay to be upset about what happened.”
Yachiyo’s expression softens. “You’re right,” she says. “I did know Fumi a lot longer than you did.”
“You don’t have to hide your feelings from me. We’re friends!”
“I suppose.” Yachiyo nods. “I understand her, a bit, I think.”
“Being around people who outclass your talent can be difficult. I think losing Frau Platin to Akira really affected her.”
“Do you really think that would cause her to leave, though?”
“Being Frau Platin is some peoples’ entire reason for attending Siegfeld,” Yachiyo says.
“Not like us! As long as I’m supporting Akira’s stage, I don’t care where I stand!”
“You’re right there,” Yachiyo says with a grin. “We better hope whoever becomes the new Frau Jade is interested in the position, or we might have a weird year following.”
Mei Fan wakes up at 6 every day. This is a preexisting condition, from before the departure, the way the Edels right now have a catatonic sort of feeling to them, like time has stood still, and if they keep still enough themselves Fumi will reappear and time will continue as normal. Mei Fan, per Michiru and Yachiyo’s own joint comments on the matter, stores an excess of energy every second she is not moving. If she sits too long in the stillness of the Edel dormitory, the student council room, the Edel practice room, she’s liable to explode and take them all with her.
She’s happy to get away, but this has been her nature since before Fumi left. She’s encouraged, begged, occasionally even won, requests for the others to join her on her runs. She doesn’t offer so much any more, because she only ever won with Akira, and while she’s sure a good head-clearing run could do her some good, even her forward momentum has limits. It turns out the closed door to Frau Platin’s dorm room right now is one of them (along and besides that, they haven’t addressed the punching thing, and Mei Fan isn’t entirely sure what went on and is reasonably sure that Akira doesn’t want her to know anything on the matter).
Running is good then, on the getting over Fumi leaving part of things. Further than that, it’s good on the getting out of the dorm of things, too. Further further than that, routine is a useful skill in the process of grief, and grieving. Running is the routine.
Before coming to Japan, her runs were controlled in their length and duration. A set path instilled in her from years of training, stamping mental ground into a oft-trotted routine. She takes a large, winding path now, through sprawling urban centers and out to the more residential areas, passing by scenic and not-so-scenic locations both, letting herself get occasionally (often) lost in the vastness of a city.
This is how she first sees Fumi, or someone who happens to match Fumi’s identical description, on an early Sunday morning, carefully stepping out of a large apartment complex, rifling through a bag before starting on her way. She doesn’t notice Mei Fan, slowing, squinting, trying to place just exactly who she is looking at.
Mei Fan heads for the student council room after classes. Fumi has left two weeks ago. They’re looking into ways to fill the position—Mei Fan wonders, if Elysion had already been performed, if they would have just kept it vacant. Akira cared quite a great deal about Fumi. Fumi held Akira’s attention in a different way than any of the rest of them did. Not confidant or pupil, but rival.
"I was asked to come and check out.” Her attention is arrested by two people outside her destination, having a conversation a short distance away. The girl who spoke waves her hand dismissively. Yachiyo's back is to Mei Fan, entertaining the conversation from this stranger.
"And you actually did it?" Yachiyo asks.
"The old one's seriously worried about the whole thing, being unprecedented and all."
"I didn't realize it was such a stir. Dropouts aren't unusual at Siegfeld."
"Students drop out all the time. Edels don't." They're talking about Fumi, then. Yachiyo and this stranger. "Look, I told her I wouldn't be around here again, but, just, if you notice anything, you can let me know. Like I said, your old lady is seriously worried about it. You really didn’t know it was coming?"
Yachiyo shakes her head. “More than the rest, Fumi-senpai had always seemed so Siegfeld, at least to me and Mei Fan.”
“That’s the name of the other ragamuffin running around, right?”
“We met once,” the stranger mumbles, gingerly tapping the side of her face, near her eye in the blues and blacks and reds surrounding it. “I suppose if there’s anyone who knows what Siegfeld seems like, right?”
"What are they even afraid of?"
The girl shrugs. "Ripple effect? Mass exodus? Hell if I know. She was clever about the whole thing, and everyone's scrambling to figure it out, I guess. Save face."
"You were the one who signed her transfer forms, weren't you."
"Someone had to, and she asked." Then she frowns. "That's the only time any of them has asked anything of me- well!" She laughs. "Who am I to say no to such a severe request from an underclassman. It's my duty to do what my heir cannot."
She glances behind Yachiyo, noticing Mei Fan standing there.
"That's all I have to say," she shrugs. "Hello little Frauling."
Yachiyo turns, blinking at Mei Fan owlishly.
“Do you know this person?” Mei Fan asks.
“Do you not?”
The stranger laughs. “The king’s stage is ephemeral,” she says, with a silly little flourishing bow. “Just keep in mind what I said, Tsuruhime. You’re my only hope.”
“Ah, Mei Fan-senpai.”
“Shiori!” Mei Fan is in the Edel common room, sitting on the floor hunched over a piece of paper on the table.
“I didn’t realize I was interrupting something- I can come back later.”
“No! Not at all!” Mei Fan pats the space next to her. “I’m just writing a letter to my family. I can come back to it later.”
“Are you sure?” Mei Fan pats the space next to her again, and Shiori concedes, taking a seat on the adjacent side of the table. She’s holding a cup of tea gingerly, placing it carefully on a coaster.
“Do you guys mostly communicate through letters?” She asks when she’s settled properly.
“We call, too, but I like sending letters. Plus, on the phone I usually get passed off to my sisters very quickly,” Mei Fan explains. “Which is nice, I love talking to them, but I can use letters to explain things a bit more in depth—my family gets busy sometimes, too, so this makes sure that even if they don’t have time, I can still tell them what I’m up to.”
“That must be nice,” Shiori says.
“You call your parents a lot too, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes I suppose so, but that’s a bit less—well.” Mei Fan frowns. “A lot of it is regular health check-ins, is all,” Shiori says. “There’s also- oh, nevermind.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t want to bother you with my personal things,” Shiori says. “Really, it’s nothing.”
“It’s absolutely not nothing,” Mei Fan says, frowning and putting on her most grave and serious face, the kind she reserves for when a younger sister is truly worried about something and you must present enough gravity for the severity of their young problem. “I want you to trust me, Shiori. I want to be someone you can confide in.”
“Our conversations tend to skirt around Oneechan, a lot,” Shiori admits.
“Do your parents know where she is?”
“The first time I called,” Shiori said. “Right after she’d transferred, they talked as if I knew it was happening. They still seem to think we were in contact.”
“That’s- but that means Fumi-san was lying to them?”
Shiori nods. “We both are.”
“That’s not right! You should tell them.”
“No! No, that’s-” Shiori sighs. “I don’t know why Oneechan left. And I don’t want to drive her away further by causing a rift between her and our parents, or anything like that.”
“But it’s not right for her to force you into a lie like that.”
“I don’t know if she expected me to play along,” Shiori says. “It feels like there’s something still connecting us, at least.” She laughs, short and self-deprecating. “It feels like, if anything, she’ll reach out to me so we can maintain the lie more believably. I tell her what shows I have coming up, she can give me some club to say that she’s joined and I’ve—I don't know—been able to support.”
“My parents said she’s not performing,” Shiori says. “That’s the one thing I got out of them. She’s at a General Education school, or something.” Shiori pauses. “It doesn’t seem right, I don’t think.”
“Fumi-san gave up the stage.”
“There’s something that isn’t right about it. I don’t like it.”
On another run a week later Mei Fan sees the same person who may be Fumi, who now she’s quite certain is Fumi. The angle was off the last time, but now the sun illuminates the rose pin in her hair, dressed in the unfamiliar uniform of a strange school, flipping through a large manuscript-like packet as she walks slowly along the street, before folding it into her bag and continuing at a slightly faster rate.
Mei Fan could reach out to her. Could chastise her. Tell her to reach out to her younger sister. Tell her to reach out to her old friends.
Fumi Yumeoji is a General Education student. She is no longer a stage girl. She has given up a future, stepped off the path the Edels are determined to walk down.
Mei Fan’s feet stay rooted firmly in place. She does not know what Fumi would say if she reached out to her. She wants to find out, but her legs refuse to take the first steps.
Mei Fan wakes up the morning after the revue with Rinmeikan and Shiori is sitting in the common room, in the same spot Mei Fan left her last night, hunched over a manuscript.
Shiori blinks, jolting upright. "Ah, good morning," she says with a smile.
"Did you not sleep last night?"
"No, I slept, don't worry."
Mei Fan glances down the hallway where the rooms are. "Did you sleep in your room last night?" She glances back at the manuscript sheepishly. "Shiori!"
"I'm sorry! I'll make it up tonight." There's a lecture on the tip of Mei Fan's tongue, about how you can't actually make up for lost sleep. "It's just-" ah.
Mei Fan takes a seat beside Shiori, pushing lightly into her, a habit from home, to let her sisters know they can lean into her if they want to, or just to know she’s there, if they don’t. Shiori leans slightly back. Fumi might have done this with her. Maybe it's an implicit thing. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"They said she wasn't performing anymore. But she-"
"As a member of Rinmeikan's Performance Department."
"I thought- I had thought- maybe if she hated theater," Shiori says. She's crying, already. Or maybe she had been crying last night, and she’s just picking up where she left off. Mei Fan pulls Shiori so she's leaning against her more fully, hugging her from the side. "It might be okay. Because then, it might not be my fault."
"It's not your fault."
"She gave up on Siegfeld. She gave up on me."
Fumi pulls open the door on something of the tenth round of knocking, at the time when any reasonable person would have chosen to give up on trying to contact her—maybe she’s not home, or sleeping, or dead. Or any other reason she’d be forgiven for not opening the door.
But it persists. Someone who has decided that they will have their presence known, even if only by the neighbors eventually coming to complain—that’s what finally gets Fumi to open the door, anyway.
“You’re a disgrace.” Fumi blinks. Mei Fan is standing in front of her, hands balled into fists each at her sides. She should have known the persistence. It is a familiar feeling.
“What are you-”
“You’re a disgrace as an Edel. And as an older sister, too.”
“How did you get here?”
“I walked. Don’t think you’ll fool me by playing dumb. You’re not that stupid!”
“No, I- how do you know where I live?”
Mei Fan freezes, blinks. “This is on my usual running route. I’ve seen you enter your apartment many times.”
“And you didn’t say anything?” Fumi asks, raising an eyebrow. “I find that hard to believe.”
“I wasn’t sure how to approach you. And anyway, it’s not like Akira-san would have approved of me accosting you!”
“And what now? She’s just fine with attempts on my life?”
“It’s more important that I speak to you, now.”
Fumi sighs. “You’ve made your point. I get it. You can go. I won’t get you in trouble, either.”
“I don’t think you do get it. You-”
“I’m a failure and a disgrace. Being an Edel is the most sacred honor anyone can be bestowed, and I threw it away like it was nothing. Everyone at Siegfeld’s dream is Elysion, and I gave it up when I had it in my grasp.”
“That’s-” Most of it, actually. Although she’s left out the part about making Akira’s life difficult and also abandoning her underclassmen, but Mei Fan’s not sure those sorts of things have such a strong grasp in Fumi’s mind as they ought to.
Fumi sighs again. “Would you like to come in?” It’s almost dark, and it’s a long walk.
Mei Fan sits at Fumi’s table, hands still balled into fists, now resting on her lap. she’s not sure if she’s trying to untense them or tense them further—how is she supposed to feel at the somber look on Fumi’s face as she invites Mei Fan in, spits Mei Fan’s own arguments back like she’s already heard them, like she already knows them by heart.
Fumi sets a mug in front of Mei Fan, fills it with tea before setting the teapot in the center of the table, taking the seat across from her.
“You guys did really well,” Fumi starts, awkwardly. “During the revue.”
“You did awful,” Mei Fan says.
“Rinmeikan’s Performance Department is still unpolished,” Fumi says, giving a reserved smile. “It’s been around for so long, but it lacks the discipline of a school like Siegfeld.”
“Not Rinmeikan,” Mei Fan says. “You.”
The smile slides off her face. “You’re right.”
“Why did- Why did you-” Mei Fan cuts herself off. She knows the kinds of questions Fumi won’t answer. She used to be her upperclassman. They used to know each other, in a vague sense of the word. “I looked up to you.”
“No you didn’t. You only have eyes for Akira.”
“I’m not so-”
“And even if you had looked up to me, even somewhat, I would have just disappointed you eventually,” Fumi says with a sigh. “This isn’t something that could have been avoided. It’s my nature to fail.”
Mei Fan stares at Fumi, silently watching her cup of tea. Mei Fan’s forgotten her own, untouched, growing slowly and slowly more tepid and room temperature and undesirable.
“Everyone got what they needed in the end,” Fumi says. “You guys got a better stage girl and I got to leave with my tail between my legs, right?”
“You used your sister like that?”
“I didn’t use,” Fumi hesitates. “No. I didn’t know what she’d do. But she’s everything I’m not. She’s a good stage girl.” Fumi lifts the cup slowly, sipping.
“You’re right. Shiori is everything you’re not.” Mei Fan stares at the cup of tea in front of her. “But you were everything she isn’t, too.”
“She’s all the better for it.” Fumi scratches her chin absentmindedly, hums to herself. “You got a better Edel, I got a way out, and Shiori can find a better sister.”
“I don’t deserve to be Shiori’s sister,” Fumi says, with a finality that doesn’t allow further questioning. “Everything happened the way it did, and Siegfeld’s moved onto bigger and better stages than any you would have stood on with me.”
“But what about Rinmeikan?”
“They need the hands,” Fumi says. “I’m happy to be another name to keep them afloat, and I’m happy they’ll let me pretend to be a stage girl a bit longer.” Mei Fan stares at Fumi, thumbing at the edge of her mug idly. She glances up at Mei Fan. “That’s all there is to it.”
“I’ll never forgive you,” she announces.
“Not until Shiori does, and Akira-san. And Michiru-san and Yachiyo too, if they haven't.”
“I wouldn't say it's fair to hinge your forgiveness of me to other people. You aren't acting on your own.”
Mei Fan clenches her fists. Then, slowly extending them, letting out a small sigh as she does.
"If it was just me," she says. "And you. And three strangers, and when you left a fourth stranger took your place." She frowns, staring at the table, then looking up at Fumi, watching her expectantly, one elbow resting on the table, hand supporting her chin. "I would never forgive you, for leaving me there alone. For not taking me with you."
Mei Fan pushes herself up, quickly, offering Fumi as polite and hurried a bow as she can. "As representative for Siegfeld Institute of Music, I would like to apologize for taking up so much of your time and thank you sincerely for your hospitality." She hears Fumi sigh. "However, I've overstayed my welcome far enough. I have to go."
Fumi doesn't say anything; she lets Mei Fan leave without a word. She hates it, but she cannot wrack her brain for what she wanted Fumi to stop her with. For the words Mei Fan wanted to hear her say.
Mei Fan agreed to help Shiori on a shopping trip—student council business (restocking supplies), very serious sort of business—which means Yachiyo catches wind of it, and with such grace that neither Shiori nor Mei Fan quite realize it, they’ve both invited her to join them so she can windowshop along the way.
"Oh, you'd look good in that," Yachiyo comments, pausing in front of a storefront window.
Mei Fan frowns. "I don't think it would look good with my shirt."
"You could try not wearing a Los Angeles shirt."
"But I like them."
Yachiyo shakes her head. "Right, right." They resume walking.
"Have you been to the United States?" Shiori asks.
"I just thought, if you were wearing those shirts, maybe it was because you'd visited before."
"Oh, no," Mei Fan says. "I haven’t travelled too much. That's part of why I was looking abroad for school."
"To see more of the world?" Yachiyo asks.
Mei Fan nods. “It's important to broaden your perspective as much as possible. The more you see and experience, the more you can experience and understand.”
“That's very nice,” Shiori says.
“You experience what you experience,” Yachiyo hums.
“That's what you just said, you know.”
“What's weird about it?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Yachiyo says, holding her hands up in defeat. “I was just pointing it out.”
“Oh, that's cute,” Shiori mumbles to herself, passing by another windowfront.
“Would you want to check it out?” Yachiyo asks. She and Mei Fan both pause at the same time.
“Oh, no. That's all right.”
“No, we ought to go check it out, at least for a second,” Mei Fan insists.
“Would that really be alright?”
“I thought we were out on sacred business for Akira-san. Is this not shirking our divine responsibilities?”
“The more we experience the more we'll experience. This will be a grand opportunity!”
Yachiyo laughs. “It feels more like an excuse.”
“You’ll understand what I mean soon enough!”
They enter the store, Shiori leading the way to the section she was interested in.
"Maybe you can find something nice to send your family a letter on," Yachiyo remarks, picking up a pack of stationery and observing it idly. Shiori is scanning different types of pens.
"That would be nice," Mei Fan says. "But I usually end up writing so much that plain sheets of letter paper end up best."
"You cross words out a lot, too," Shiori says. Yachiyo chuckles at the offended gasp from Mei Fan. "It’s just something I've noticed, that's all!"
"I usually start writing my sentences before knowing how they'll end," Mei Fan admits.
"So you write like you talk?" Yachiyo teases.
"Do you write a second draft?"
"No! My parents would be more happy to get an honest letter from me, cross-outs and all."
"Your parents sound very kind," Shiori says.
"Of course! I love them a lot!"
"And therefore they're kind?" Yachiyo asks.
"The love you give is reflected through the world back to you!"
"The blinding light of your innocence."
"I think it's sweet."
The first time it happens is burned into the back of Mei Fan’s brain. It’s not the very first time it’s ever happened—she knew even the first time it happened—but it’s the first time where it felt so significantly in front of her. The gap between herself and the people around her.
It’s easier when someone is meant to be a mentor. Akira, Michiru—even Fumi—were upperclassmen. People meant to be better than her. Skills she was made to strive for but have not quite reached yet.
Yachiyo is a different story.
They’re supposed to be equals. Yachiyo is supposed to beat her a little here and there, the way Mei Fan is supposed to beat Yachiyo a little here and there in other areas.
She could never catch up, she thinks, sitting on the floor of Siegfeld’s first year practice room alongside her classmates, watching her fellow Edel give her Little Match Girl performance. There are surmountable goals. There is what Yachiyo is. There isn’t any overlap.
“Another run?” Fumi sighs. “We have to stop meeting.”
“What does it mean, if you’re not good enough to be Shiori’s sister?” Mei Fan asks. Yachiyo’s always scolding her for her mouth moving faster than her brain, but she can’t help herself now.
“That’s- That’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“What does it mean for me?”
“Akira-san’s always been my ideal. The goal I strive to one day surpass. But I’m not-“ Fumi’s look is guarded, and fearful. “I don’t think I’m- I’ve always been like you.”
Fumi frowns. An empty bookstore on a Thursday afternoon isn’t the place for this kind of conversation, with Fumi stationed behind the counter and Mei Fan half-sweaty from the forgotten exercise. “Akira-san, and Michiru-san, and Yachiyo, they’re all methodical. They all think before they act. But- but you and I- we-“ Mei Fan stares at Fumi. She wants her to just understand this, if she can’t think of how to word it. Nothing comes to mind that fits the feelings.
“Am I going to give up on my dreams too?”
“Is that my nature?”
Fumi sighs. The bookstore is empty. This is a good thing. This is a weird conversation to overhear, isn’t it? Most conversations are, if you’re only overhearing parts of them, pulled out for your edification and ears.
“Frau Jade isn’t a rival to Frau Platin,” Fumi says. Mei Fan knows the Performance Department has shut down. They have never discussed it as Edels. They aren’t sure what to say. “If I had stayed at Siegfeld, I could only have been Akira’s rival. And I couldn’t do that. I had to leave. That’s how Elysion cycles.”
“Not Elysion. Us. The Edels. Us as people. This isn’t-”
Fumi just stands there, and Mei Fan wonders if she knows, about the farcical comedy they’ve all played together, of them all noticing the way Fumi fumbled, noticing her and knowing her far more than the five had ever cared to admit they knew each other or thought they did. Of Michiru’s concerned glances. Of the way Yachiyo had thought it wasn’t her place to intrude, the way Akira hadn’t been able to find a way to. Of the way Mei Fan had assumed Fumi would find motivation in herself, the way she always had.
“So, Tsuruhime-san says you’re very into fitness,” Shizuha says. It feels like meeting the parents, except besides Yachiyo’s actual parents wouldn’t the parents to meet be Akira? Well, that’s what it feels like, but they’re sitting in a Frontier common room and Mei Fan’s hands are scrunched into fists on her lap as she tries to look as put together as possible and Shizuha is smiling at her, and she doesn’t know if she’s supposed to read malicious intent into that smile or not.
“Training your physical body is always important!” Mei Fan says. “Plus, I’ve found physical activity a great way to relieve stress.”
“True,” Yachiyo remarks. “If Mei Fan doesn’t expel her excess energy, she becomes excessively boar-headed.”
“I’m not excessively boar-headed!”
“But you’re regular boar-headed?”
“I’m- No! I’m Frau Rubin-headed!” Yachiyo barks out a laugh.
“Are you very into fitness?” Mei Fan asks.
“I try my best,” Shizuha answers. “I’ve been getting more into exercise with Misora-chan—she’s our resident fitness expert, though.”
“Shizuha’s starting to be able to keep up with Misora on runs, too,” Tsukasa remarks, carefully peeling an orange. “Kind of.”
“Some days are easier than others.”
“Shizuha’s our resident health expert,” Aruru adds, sitting between Tsukasa and Shizuha. “She makes these health drinks that are supposed to be really good for you. You start to develop a tolerance for them eventually, too.” There are murmurs of agreement from Yachiyo and Tsukasa.
“Oh, yes. I actually just finished a new batch recently. I think they came out really well.”
“Oh, I just ate,” Aruru excuses.
“Orange,” Tsukasa holds up the half peeled fruit.
“Akira-senpai forbade the consumption of liquids, lest we fall victim to Johnlock.”
“Uh, I’ll try it,” Mei Fan says.
“You don’t have to,” Yachiyo says quietly.
“No, it’s fine. I’d like to, actually.” Shizuha’s face seems to light up at this, although maybe she’s aware. Maybe she knows this is her next victim, and she’s thrilled about how easily Mei Fan has fallen for it. Why exactly are they at Frontier again? Mei Fan does not remember why Yachiyo dragged her along. Shizuha’s left now to get her a drink, and Tsukasa is whispering something hurriedly with Yachiyo about faking an injury, or something along those lines.
“Mei Fan,” Yachiyo says. “Akira-senpai just called us back for an emergency meeting.”
“Oh. That’s something you do then, right? I can just catch up later.”
“The last time there was a budget thing you said I got the math so wrong that I put Siegfeld into more debt than The United States of America, which is terrifying because that’s a whole country and also I don’t know how much money that is. That’s an amount of money I don’t know and can’t conceive of and could have meant anything. You could have been complimenting me.”
“I was not complimenting you.”
“So if it’s budget you can just fill me in later. I already told Kocho-san I’d try her drink, so I’ll stay and try it.”
Yachiyo leans back. “Rest in peace, Mei Fan. You were a good friend.”
Shizuha returns with a drink, and it’s green and thick and looks more or less like any spinach constituted smoothie Mei Fan’s ever had, except that it causes the other three at the table to lean away ever so imperceptibly as Shizuha places it down.
“There it is,” she says. “I think this is probably my best batch to date.”
Aruru lets out a small gasp as Mei Fan picks up the glass. “Thank you for letting me try this,” she tells Shizuha. Then, with little preamble (certainly not nearly as much as Yachiyo, who was put in a no-two-ways-around-it scenario where she had no choice but to try the drink and had to really hype herself up bigtime for the experience and still managed little more than a polite sip before something very unexpectedly suddenly came up and she had to go), Mei Fan takes a large gulp of the drink, tasting it for a moment before swallowing. “Huh.”
“We should get water?” Aruru asks. She jumps up, behind Tsukasa. “I’m going to grab water. Mei Fan-chan, water? Sure!” And dashes off.
“Huh. I see,” Mei Fan says, taking another large gulp.
“You can not seriously be enjoying that right now,” Yachiyo says.
“I would not describe this taste as pleasant,” Mei Fan says. “It’s got a metallic aftertaste.”
“That’s from a zinc supplement,” Shizuha explains.
Mei Fan nods. “Is there protein powder in this?”
Shizuha nods. “As well as a collagen additive.”
“And what’s the acidic taste?”
“A fermented tea. It’s probiotic rich.”
“I feel like I don’t understand how you feel about- oh my god you’re still drinking it,” Yachiyo says, covering her eyes in horror.
“It's a bit difficult to stomach,” Mei Fan says. “But it’d be a good meal replacement, if you’re on the go, I think.”
“It packs more than enough vitamins for your daily requirements,” Shizuha says.
“Oh, very useful,” Mei Fan says with a nod.
“There are three different potencies,” Shizuha explains. “That’s the lowest one.”
“I’d have to work up to it, I think,” Mei Fan says. “But I would like to try the others, eventually.”
“What the fuck?”
“Do you have a recipe for this one I could use to make it back at the dorm?”
“You are not making that at the dorm,” Yachiyo tries to protest.
“I think Akira-san’s spice base might even elevate the flavor further.”
“That’s definitely just an excuse to get her to try it.”
“I think she’ll also appreciate the health benefits and convenience!”
“This is the worst day of my life,” Yachiyo announces to Tsukasa. “No fashion sense and no sense of taste.”
Tsukasa pats Yachiyo’s shoulder consolingly. “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
Mei Fan enters the practice room on the second day of their exchange with Rinmeikan with a fight already brewing. The general consensus, she knows, from conversing with Michiru and overhearing Yachiyo and Shiori talking, is that the most likely scenario will be some kind of breakout rumble between Fumi and Akira, followed most likely by one between Fumi and herself. Yachiyo, in spite of everything, seems to think Mei Fan and Fumi have never spoken since her departure.
“There’s no ambiguity to talk about. Ichie pranked me like she always does, end of story.” It’s not, although Akira and the rest of the Edels are already there.
“But I didn’t! Think about it, Fumi. If I’d really pranked you, wouldn’t I just own up to it?”
“Perhaps Otonashi feels ashamed to have done something so foolish in front of another school,” Akira says.
“Someone pranked Fumi-san,” Yachiyo whispers to Mei Fan, explaining. “A little frog thing that springs out when you open a door. She’s certain it’s Ichie-san, although the accused denies it wholeheartedly.”
“I see,” Mei Fan whispers back.
“That’s a pretty big dent in the argument,” Yuyuko says.
“Ichie is free of the burden of shame,” Tamao adds.
“Direct quote from the mouth of the Ichie, of course!” Ichie says. “Look, someone has to believe me! I swear I didn’t do it.”
“I believe you, Otonashi-san,” Mei Fan cuts in. “Unwavering belief in the client until the last—fighting for a path forward until you’ve uncovered the truth!”
“What?” Fumi asks, annoyed.
“Are you quoting a video game?” Yachiyo asks.
“Yes! I’ve been playing Ace Attorney recently.”
“Oh, the mystery solving of those is fun,” Michiru says.
“Yes! I didn’t know you’d played.”
“I don’t not play video games.”
“What is this?”
“It’s a courtroom style game! You play as a defense attorney and uncover the true culprit of seemingly impossible crimes.”
“A courtroom, huh?”
“If Otonashi is so certain of her innocence, perhaps she could prove it in a court of law.”
“Ichie can’t afford for me to sue her,” Fumi says.
“Neither could you!” Ichie shouts.
“Also you’d maybe lose that case?” Michiru muses.
“But, anyway, I am innocent and I can prove it.”
“Rui and I both saw you go into the locker room before Fumi,” Shiori says.
“Huh?! Right! Yes. We did— see that, I mean. We did!” Rui adds.
“Guh! But I didn’t spring the frog. I have reasons to be in the locker room.”
“A mock trial would be an interesting way to get to the bottom of this,” Tamao says.
“It would be a good acting exercise, too,” Michiru says.
“I want to be the judge! I’m the least biased person here.”
“You absolutely are not,” Fumi says, glaring at Yuyuko.
“Am to. I love watching you lay into Ichie and, if Ichie didn’t do it, she’ll make a fool of you while demanding an apology. I have equal bias and either option is a win for me.”
“You know that means you’ll have to be awake for the whole mock trial, right?”
“I will make what sacrifices I must in the name of the highest court in Japan: the Siegfeld Student Court.”
“Shouldn’t Yukishiro-senpai be the judge?” Shiori asks. “Since she’s Frau Platin?”
“My biases are too obvious.”
“Instead I shall assist the prosecution.”
“Instead you’ll what?”
“To see such a shameless prank taken out on Siegfeld’s campus, I must see the perpetrator brought to a swift and merciless justice.”
“Otonashi-san,” Mei Fan says. “Please grant me the honor of defending you in court. I swear I’ll do my best—I’ll never stop believing in you! Yachiyo and I will defend you to the last, even if it kills us!”
“Hey, wait, since when was I included in this?”
“We swear this!”
And so, the trial of Ichie Otonashi and the case of the spring-loaded frog prank (electric boogaloo) begins.
“Prosecution,” Yuyuko says, sitting at the head of Siegfeld’s student council room, the desk space usually designated for Akira. They’ve painstakingly rearranged the room into something that may best be considered a courtroom—spaces for the prosecution and defense with the judge between them, and in the center of it a space designated (primarily by carefully arranged electric tape to create a vague outline) for witnesses to stand and give testimony. “Begin by stating the facts.”
Fumi sighs. “I opened my locker today and a frog prank toy jumped out at me. It belongs to Ichie, and she’s used it on me before-“
“Objection!” Mei Fan shouts. “What were you doing at your locker when nobody else was around! You were the one to set the trap!”
Fumi closes her eyes. “I had to get changed and leave early because of work.”
“Oh. Yeah, you did mention that, didn’t you.”
“Also how would Fumi-san get scared by a frog trap she’d just set herself,” Yachiyo asks.
“Counsel, kindly refrain from any more outbursts like that,” Yuyuko says.
“The evidence we have against the accused is irrefutable,” Akira begins where Fumi left off, actually playing along. “Eyewitnesses who saw her at the scene of the crime, a solid motive, and no substantial alibi.”
“Just get Ichie out here so she can confess,” Fumi says with a sigh.
“Defense,” Yuyuko says. “What is your opening statement?”
“Mei Fan,” Yachiyo says, nudging her. “That’s you.”
“Huh? Right!” Mei Fan snaps to attention. “Without a doubt, Ichie is innocent. This whole thing is a sham!”
“The case against your client is pretty damning,” Yuyuko says. “She has a previous record of such villainy.”
“That makes her the perfect scapegoat for somebody else’s crime.”
“Interesting,” Yuyuko hums. “Well, you’ve both made your perspectives clear. We can begin with the first witness.”
“Please state your name and occupation for the court,” Akira says. They’ve pushed aside the desks in the student council room, marking off a space in tape for the witness to stand in. There was discussion of finding a lectern for the process, but it would be more time than the resultant product, and Fumi started getting more annoyed than before, and the idea was axed in favor of the electrical tape on the ground.
“Ichie Otonashi, professional cool guy!” Ichie announces, grinning.
“Otonashi. This is a court of law,” Akira says. “You will be serious.”
“My apologies, Lord Van Yukishiro. I am a student, currently.”
“Your relationship to the plaintiff?”
“We’re homies. Besties. Oomfs.”
“Would the plaintiff agree with those assessments?” Akira asks, turning to Fumi.
“I didn’t know what some of those words meant.”
“Your Honor,” Yachiyo says. “The defendant is saying that she and the plaintiff are classmates who are on friendlier terms. Would the plaintiff disagree?”
Fumi scowls. “No, we’re something like that.”
“Let the record show the plaintiff and the defendant are acquainted,” Yuyuko says, seated at Akira’ usual seat at the head of the desks. They’ve stacked a handful of budget binders from years past onto the chair to make her taller, so she seems to preside over the rest of them.
There is also, for the record, no record, besides this record, which is not really a real record.
“A crime of passion, then,” Akira says.
“It wasn’t!” Ichie protests. “I didn’t do it.”
Yuyuko has no gavel to speak of, so she settles for banging her fist on the desk. It works well enough.
“We will decide through formal witness testimony, thank you,” Yuyuko says. “Ichie, come here. We’re using a copy of Elysion as a book to swear on.”
Defendant’s Testimony - I Literally Did Not Do It
“Look,” Ichie says. “I know how this looks. Yes, the prank toy does belong to me. But I wouldn’t use it on Fumi, especially not at the exchange event.”
“Hold it,” Mei Fan says. “What do you mean?”
“Fumi’s been, like, super stuck-in-the-mud about the whole thing. More than usual!”
“Can you explain that more?”
“It doesn’t seem relevant to the case,” Fumi interjects.
“Overruled. Ichie, talk.”
“Watch yourself,” Fumi says to Yuyuko, who waves a hand dismissively.
“Fumi’s been super nervous about this whole exchange. She hasn’t said why, but I’m thinking she wants to leave a good impression on Siegfeld, on account of things. Beyond just, like, seeming cool to her sister, I think she-”
“Ichie!” Fumi cuts her off. “That’s not relevant.”
“Right. Well, look. The point is I couldn’t have done it. I haven’t even been near the locker rooms since I got changed yesterday, and that was with other people.”
“You weren’t near the locker rooms?”
“My reputation precedes me, as you can clearly tell. Tamao made me promise that I wouldn’t go anywhere on my own for the entire day.”
“Is that so?” Akira asks.
“Yep! I made sure to stay around people the whole time—I mean, I was curious about how you guys do things at Siegfeld anyway, but also, those were the rules.”
“Do you have anyone to corroborate these claims?”
“Of course!” Ichie grins. “Tamao could.”
“Please state for the court your name and occupation,” Akira says.
“Tamao Tomoe. My parents own a restaurant, and I’m currently the student president of Rinmeikan’s Performance Association.”
“And you’re acquainted with both the accused and the plaintiff?”
“I’m classmates with both of them,” Tamao says. “They’re also both associated with the Performance Association.”
“I see,” Akira says. “Then we shall begin your formal testimony. If you wouldn’t mind swearing on the most holy book in the land, then.” She gestures to Elysion.
“I would consider the most holy book in the land my grandmother’s notebook full of family recipes,” Tamao says. “But I will swear on this book as well.”
Akira freezes. “That was a joke,” Fumi grumbles.
“I see. Very funny, Tomoe. I laughed.”
“You did not,” Fumi sighs.
“Your formal testimony, then, Ms. Tomoe,” Yuyuko says.
Witness Testimony - The Defendant’s Alibi
“Let’s see,” Tamao hums. “I asked Ichie to do her best to restrain herself, for Fumi’s sake. We spent all morning together for rehearsals, but there were a few hours around lunch where we didn’t see each other. I believe I was with Yukishiro-san and Otori-san during that time, working out the particulars of the exchange. I actually don’t know what she did during that time at all.”
“Is that all?” Akira asks.
“Oh, I suppose I can also confirm that the frog prank belongs to Ichie, and that she has used it on Fumi before, and said she wished she could have the chance to use it on her again.”
“We’re doomed,” Mei Fan mutters, lowering her head to the desk. “Otonashi-san…”
“Mei Fan,” Yachiyo says, crossing her arms over her chest. “Are you giving up on Ichie-san so soon?”
“What is a defense attorney’s greatest asset?”
“Unwavering faith in the innocence of your client. You remember, don’t you? That day.”
Mei Fan shudders in a breath. She remembers. Of course she remembers—how could she forget. That horrible day. “When I was accused of murder, and you and I defended me together.”
“I never stopped believing in your innocence, that day. No matter what argument the prosecutor brought against you.”
“I’m sorry when Mei Fan was what of what?” Fumi calls across the expanse between desks designated for Defense and Prosecution.
“It’s cute,” Akira says. “But now’s not the time for the platitudes of your clown courts. Your unwavering faith will get you nowhere.”
“No!” Mei Fan says—shouts—far louder than necessary, but she pushes through, as if that had been her intention. “We will uncover the truth. And when we do you’re the one who will find your platitudes have led you astray.”
“Mei Fan,” Yachiyo says quietly, with an approving nod.
“You’re right, Yachiyo. I won’t get anywhere by doubting Otonashi-san. I have to keep pushing, to uncover the truth behind what really happened in that locker room yesterday.”
“For what it’s worth,” Tamao says. “I don’t have any proof that Ichie did or didn’t do what she’s accused of. I just know there were a few hours where she wasn’t accounted for by anyone.”
“Not exactly,” Akira says. “The evidence we have against Otonashi is irontight. You see, there were eyewitnesses.”
“People who saw Otonashi enter the locker room alone, during the few hours she was unaccounted for—the perfect time for her to lay the trap.”
“This just feels like blow after blow,” Mei Fan says.
“Are you losing hope again?”
“No, but everyone has irontight testimonies.” By everyone, she of course means Tamao, the only non-favorable testimony they’ve had so far.
“I’m not so sure. Fortune may be in our favor again pretty soon.”
“Names and occupations for the court, please.”
“Rui Akikaze! Student at Rinmeikan Girls School! Member of the Rinmeikan Performance Association!”
“Frau Jade. Shiori Yumeoji.”
“Thank you. We’ll make this introduction brief. Please begin your formal testimony.”
Witness Testimony - What They Saw That Day
“Akikaze-san and I were trying to get to know each other a little better,” Shiori explains. “Which is how we found ourselves outside the lockers, talking.”
“We saw Ichie-senpai enter the locker room alone,” Rui adds.
“She seemed like she didn’t want to be seen entering, so we didn’t tell her we were there. Then she left a few minutes later. She was the only person to enter or exit the room.”
“We were outside the entire break! Nobody else could have done it!”
“Why were you outside the entire break?” Mei Fan asks.
“We were talking,” Shiori says.
“About what, exactly?”
“Stuff!” Rui says.
“To tell you the truth, I was asking about Oneechan. What she was like as an upperclassman and a student,” Shiori answers. “I wanted to hear an outside perspective.”
“Yachiyo and I have also experienced what Fumi-san is like as an upperclassman, you know!”
“I- yes, but not currently. I wanted to know if she was adjusting well.”
“True! We wouldn’t be able to tell you about that at all!”
“Can we please stay focused, Counsel?”
“Ah! Sorry. Did you note the time you saw Otonashi-san enter the locker room?”
“No!” Rui answers. “It felt rude to look at my phone, so I didn’t. It was during the break, though.”
“And you’re sure you saw nobody else enter or exit the whole time,” Mei Fan asks.
“Positive! Absolutely positive!”
Mei Fan frowns. “You’re sure.”
“Uh. Yes?” Yachiyo and Mei Fan glance at each other.
“If you were there the whole break,” Yachiyo says. “And you had a clear view of the door the whole time.”
“And if so, you should have seen Yachiyo and I go inside.”
“The first years also use that locker room as prop overstock, is all,” Mei Fan says. “The two of us went in during the break, towards the end, to retrieve some things we needed for class next week and move them to our regular classroom.”
Mei Fan slams her hands on the desk. “Or were you lying about being out front the locker room the whole time?”
“Hold on, why would either of them lie?” Fumi cuts in.
“Mei Fan,” Yachiyo says, crossing her arms. “You need to keep in mind, you’re fighting two trials at once.”
“Tanaka-chan has no presiding power as a judge, and while convincing her is important, what really matters—what really matters to Ichie-san—is convincing Fumi-san. No matter what the court concludes, it’s Fumi meting out justice.”
“So then- we have to-”
“We have to crush Fumi-san’s argument so fully that she has no choice but to accept that Ichie-san is innocent. Leave no stone unturned; uncover the truth even if it kills us, and come to a vacuum-tight conclusion about who really laid that trap.”
“You know I can hear you, right?” Fumi frowns. “These aren’t that far apart and you’re projecting your voices.”
“So you say,” Akira says. “But the case against your client leaves no room for interpretation. Best you give up now, while you still have your dignity.”
“Stop playing along with them.”
Yachiyo grins. “When you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. But you already knew that, didn’t you.”
“I’ve left those days behind long ago. How do you know those words?”
“When I was young, you saved my father’s life. For that, I owe you a debt I can never repay. But nothing will stand in the way of the truth! If you seek to obscure reality, I will owe you nothing!”
“What the fuck is happening,” Fumi groans.
“Fumi-san!” Fumi frowns at Mei Fan. “When I’m done, you’ll understand Otonashi-san’s innocence.”
“There is no innocence,” Fumi says. “After she stole back the frog toy, she’d been planning to use it on me. This was just the best opportunity.”
“Wait, after she what?” Yachiyo asks.
“After she stole it back.”
“Wait, Fumi-san, stole it back from who?”
“Obviously, I confiscated it after she pranked me the first time. It was sitting in my locker at Rinmeikan until it disappeared one day. Ichie’s cracked my locker combo before, so she just did it again and stole it back.”
“Wait, that means,” Mei Fan pauses. It’s silly. It seems silly. And there’s no clear motive. Still.
“Trust your instincts,” Yachiyo says. “We’ve heard witness testimonies. We understand the situation, and thus, we must push forward with the conclusion we see in front of us.”
“You’re right. What really happened.”
“What are the two of you mumbling to yourselves about now, exactly?”
“The true culprit of the spring-loaded frog prank. It has to have been Akikaze-san!”
“You have no proof!” Akira shouts.
“That is true,” Yuyuko says, clearing her throat. “Without adequate evidence, this is nothing more than unsubstantiated hearsay.”
“There’s no evidence to have. Ichie did it, end of story. This is all nonsense talking for- for nothing! To waste time!”
“Unless you can prove Ichie wasn’t the one who stole back the frog prank-”
“No!” Rui shouts, cutting everyone off. “Uh, that’s enough. That's it! We’re done. I confess. I admit it. I’ll tell you everything.”
“It was me, it was all my fault. Please, let’s just stop this,” Rui says. Everyone stares at her. “Please,” she repeats.
The Truth Revealed - Young Delinquent
“The frog toy was in my bag,” Rui explains. “So I used it to prank Fumi-senpai.”
“Rui, what the actual fuck?” Fumi asks.
“Framing Ichie-senpai was easy and obvious. This is entirely my fault. I’ll accept whatever punishment is necessary. I’m sorry.”
“You were the one who stole it from my locker?”
“You opened your locker door, but had to leave to talk to a teacher, and I grabbed it then and stuffed it in my bag. A while ago.”
“I-“ Fumi stares at Rui. “Why, though?”
Rui stares at the floor for a moment. “I wanted to see what your reaction would be,” she settles on.
“You already know, though?” Ichie pipes up from the back of the room.
“That’s my answer.”
“So,” Yuyuko says. “Rui pranked Fumi-senpai with a frog prank, stolen from Fumi-senpai’s locker after being confiscated from Ichie-san, and then framed Ichie-san.”
Rui nods. “That’s what happened.”
“Right,” Yuyuko nods. “Then, if that’s it.”
“Yachiyo,” Mei Fan says quietly.
Yachiyo grins at her. “You noticed, right? Something about this is weird.”
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“There are still secrets hidden beneath the murky surface of this case. Are you sure you want to uncover them? We reached the right conclusion. Ichie-san is innocent.”
“Would both of you stop already?” Fumi grumbles.
“The right conclusion is the truth—Otonashi-san is innocent, but our focus, our goal, is unwavering faith in our client, and an unwavering determination to uncover the truth. Even if the cost of it burns us.”
Yachiyo grins. “Then.”
“Something about this case is still confusing me.”
“What is it?”
“You and Akikaze-san were together for the entire break, weren’t you? Or so you said in your testimony.”
“If that’s the case-”
“Mei Fan,” Fumi growls. “Watch what you’re implying.”
“Where were you when Rui was laying the trap?”
“That’s enough. Rui already confessed.”
“You can’t blind yourself to the truth, Fumi-san!” Yachiyo says. “We won’t let you!”
“Shiori! If you spent the entire time with Rui, wouldn’t that make you an accomplice?”
“That’s- no! I was the one who did it,” Rui says. “It’s all on me!”
“Rinmeikan may be willing to defend for you, but Siegfeld won’t allow you to obscure your own villainy,” Yachiyo says. “Isn’t that right, Akira-senpai.”
“That is a fair point, Shiori should be required to-”
“It’s a simple question for her to answer-”
“But entirely pointless, when you think about it, since we already have a confession.”
Yachiyo chuckles. “Even Siegfeld’s greatest prosecutor can be blinded by her own feelings.”
“I am only human,” Akira says, crossing her arms over her chest. “I cannot deny my nature.”
“Nothing is more important than the truth. I’ll turn over every stone to find it, if I must.”
“Then you will be turning over every stone alone.”
“I should have transferred to a school in Europe or something,” Fumi mumbles idly, to nobody. “Hallo. Wie geht’s? Ich mag ponzu. Ich trinke ponzu. Ponzu ist sehr lecker.”
“Oh, you guys have really gotten into it, huh?” Michiru says, entering the room and approaching the witness’ tape box podium.
“Where were you?” Akira asks.
“Well, the acting exercise seemed fun, but I figured if it really upset ol’ Fumi so badly we could always just pull the security camera footage from the adjacent hallway and see who went in there anyway.”
“Wait! You can do that?” Rui asks.
“Obviously? Technically Fumi could cause a whole stink about it on a school level, if she wanted. Her locker was broken into and important or sensitive things could have been stolen from her. I think we’ll avoid that, won’t we?”
Fumi waves a hand. “I didn’t plan to involve administration.”
“We don’t have to watch the footage! I’ve already admitted to it. Court is adjourned and all of this is over. Court is adjourned, right Yukko?”
“Rui, this isn’t a real court,” Fumi says. “Even if Yuyuko says it’s adjourned, people can still learn things and change their mind.”
“But we do have a complete situation, everything’s already set!”
“If we know,” Michiru says. “Then it’s no big deal to just show it, right? You’d agree, Shiori?”
“The whole truth will come out when they play the video anyway, so we might as well fess up to the truth at this point,” Shiori says.
The Truth Revealed - Electric Boogaloo
“I was the one who set the trap. It was my whole idea. When Akikaze-san found it and explained what it was from, I was curious. So I made her sit outside and keep watch while I set it in Oneechan’s locker. We left right after. Even if Otonashi-san never went there, it would be easy to convince Oneechan she was responsible.”
“That’s devilish! I love it!” Ichie interjects. “We need to talk shop. Plan pranks together!”
“Absolutely not,” Fumi says.
“So Ruirui stole the frog toy from Fumi-san’s locker, and then Shiori found out about it and used it to prank Fumi-san,” Yachiyo confirms.
“I- I see,” Mei Fan says. Across the room, Fumi is pinching the bridge of her nose, while Akira looks mostly pleased.
“Is something still bugging you?”
“A little, I guess,” Mei Fan says. “It’s just- I still don’t understand why Akikaze-san stole the frog prank in the first place.”
“Rui, enough covering for other people,” Yuyuko says with a sigh. “I’m the one who stole the frog toy.”
“The judge!” Mei Fan gasps.
“I broke into Fumi-senpai’s locker one day and took it from her because I thought she was just going to throw it out after Ichie-san forgot about it. But she entered right after I grabbed it, so I slipped it into Rui’s bag and was never able to retrieve it.”
“You- you broke into my locker?” Fumi shouts.
“Yeah? Everyone knows your code.”
“Everyone what?” There’s a murmur of agreement from the Rinmeikan students. And Shiori. And Yachiyo. And Michiru. Akira and Mei Fan share confused looks.
“Why did you steal it though?” Yachiyo asks. “Were you planning to use it on Fumi-san?”
“No. A prank is too much effort,” Yuyuko says, shaking her head. “Banana-san really likes frogs. I thought she might like the gift, is all. And I thought Fumi-senpai was going to throw it out, but if I asked for it she’d assume Ichie-san put me up to it and refuse to give it to me.”
“That’s,” Fumi sighs. “Fine, you’re right.”
“As soon as I saw it in my bag, I assumed Yukko had something to do with it,” Rui says. “But I didn’t notice it until I was with Shiori-san today.”
“So that’s the whole truth,” Michiru says. “Finally laid out. What an exciting series of events.”
“Entirely pointless,” Fumi says.
“Don’t you feel like you learned something, though?”
“Not at all. I feel like we just wasted a morning rehearsal and now Yuyuko’s going to insist we have our break instead of working through it like we ought to.”
“We need a break!” Yuyuko announces. “Adjudicating is difficult work! I deserve a nap. Or six.”
"Today I conquer yet another pitfall on the path to the king's summit," Mei Fan says, sitting pensively.
"You don't have to do this," Shiori says. "It's okay not to. I don’t think this is necessary."
"No. I can't have something as small as this holding me back. Akira-san wouldn't be impeded like this." Mei Fan licks her lips. "But, like, you do understand that it's gross, right?"
"It's gross. Raw egg? It's gross." Shiori frowns at her. "It's slimy. And uncooked. And gross. While on rice?"
"You don't have to do it."
"No. I will,” Mei Fan says. There's the small clink of utensils being picked up. She stares at the egg. "Shiori."
"If I close my eyes, and open my mouth, and you put a bit of this into my mouth, and then force my mouth closed with your hands-"
"I'm not going to do that, Mei Fan-senpai."
"I really don't want to." Then, as an afterthought. "I think you'd be able to overpower me really easily."
“Mei Fan,” Akira pulls her aside one day. “I would like to prepare you.”
“The stage knows whether or not your heart is set on Frau Platin,” Akira says. “And if you are, it will call you for an audition.”
“I would just like you to know. I have no idea when it will happen,” Akira says. “But I will also be making sure Yachiyo is aware. Shiori has told me that she does not think she would be called to an audition.” Akira nods to herself. “That’s all I had to say.”
“I- I won’t let you down,” Mei Fan says. Akira nods again. “I’ll do my best to meet your expectations.”
“Mei Fan, focus.” Mei Fan turns back to the table in front of her, hunched over it with Yachiyo sitting across from her. “What do you see?”
“Three green apples in a line. The one furthest to the left is starting to rot.”
Yachiyo frowns. “They’re red apples.”
“The apples are red.” Mei Fan blinks once. Then a second time, harder, trying to pull the apples closer into focus, like that will somehow transmutate the green she can see out of the blurs in her eyes. But she can’t focus, and her eyes stubbornly refuse to obey.
This is how Yachiyo does it, right? Embody the role. Know the role, determine the whole role. See everything all at once; how it is, how it was, how it will be. This is how she’s been outclassed at every turn, on every table.
“You’re not doing well,” Yachiyo says.
“I’m- I’m fine.”
She just has to embody everything. She just has to push harder, to determine the role. She can find it. She can grasp it. She can do it. She won’t be crushed under it-
“Mei Fan-senpai?” Mei Fan blinks up. Shiori is standing over her, looking worried at her focused gaze on the table in front of her. “Are you okay? You’ve been spacing out.”
“Huh? Oh! I- yeah. I just- I’m a bit tired!”
“Have you not been sleeping enough?”
“Maybe? It’s no good for an Edel to not get enough sleep, though. I’ll have to work harder to make sure I can get proper rest!” Shiori smiles at Mei Fan. Confused, slightly terrified in the way of an underclassman surrounded by an overly bombastic upperclassman.
“I recently got a really nice herbal tea from my parents that’s supposed to help relieve stress. Maybe we could try it together sometime, if you think it would help?”
This time isn’t Mei Fan’s fault. She was just out for a run, since four in the morning. Since before she was supposed to be awake. Times that are less safe and certain to be out running, but she can’t focus on the particulars, and she runs for hours until it’s well into the mid-morning and she has to fall onto a curb and take in heaving breaths and try and regulate herself. That’s how Fumi finds her, on the way to pick up a handful of necessities at a corner store.
She takes a careful seat beside Mei Fan, pulling an apple out of her shopping bag, rubbing it carefully on the inside of her jacket before handing it to her. Mei Fan takes it gratefully, taking a large bite out of it.
“It’s almost that time, isn’t it?”
“Any day now,” Mei Fan says between bites.
“Eat slower. You’re going to give yourself the hiccups or something.” Mei Fan nods emphatically, tries to slow down her chewing as best she can. “Are you nervous?”
“Something like that,” Mei Fan says. ”Ever since the Performance Festival—no. Ever since before then, I guess, but the Performance Festival solidified it. I feel like—like suddenly I’m aware of the space between myself and Yachiyo. Like suddenly I can see something I could never see before.” She folds over, legs pulled up to her chest, head buried in her arms on top of her knees, half-eaten apple still in her hand.
“The distance you were ignoring before,” Fumi says.
“You know what I mean, don’t you?”
“The Performance Festival is hell,” Fumi says with a sigh. “A friend said that to me once, before. I didn’t take it seriously, but they were right, huh?”
“Did you- Did you feel this way about Akira-san? Last year?”
Fumi sucks in a breath. “Not until it was too late,” she says.
“It’s the same, isn’t it? We’re the same.”
"You're nothing like me,'' Fumi says, placing a hand slowly on Mei Fan’s back and rubbing it in a circle. Mei Fan turns her head to the side, peeking out at Fumi.
"It feels like everything just happens again."
"You've already failed in ways I couldn't dream of."
"This isn't good comfort!"
"I'm not comforting you." Mei Fan frowns. "Asking someone for help for a problem I know I need to overcome. That's something I could never do. That's something I never did. I was okay, living in my memories of a more talented me until," Fumi hesitates. "until the distance between the stage girl I was and the stage girl I wanted to be was so big, they couldn't be reconciled."
"But what if-"
"I didn't want help. I didn't want to see what was happening. I just wanted the problem to solve itself. You're here, aren't you?" Mei Fan hesitates. "The only help I asked for was for someone to sign the transfer papers." Fumi turns away, looking at the ground in front of herself instead of at Mei Fan. "You and I are nothing alike," she repeats.
A revue. A spellbinding performance of singing, dancing, and clawing your way to the top. Of outlasting your fellow stage girls, until the lights of the stage shine for you alone.
Mei Fan is alone, when her phone goes off. When she sees the notification. She does not know, but she wonders if Yachiyo was alone too. Was Akira? Her competitors?
The king’s stage is less inviting than any other she has ever stood on, even in the revue theater below Siegfeld regularly. You cannot control it—she cannot control it. It will never move for her.
This story does not have a happy ending. There are no answers that are satisfactory.
Yachiyo pushes forward, slamming into Mei Fan’s side and knocking her over, following with an arrow that gets painfully close to Mei Fan’s rope before she knocks it away.
“Don’t you get it?” Yachiyo asks. “You’re going to lose.”
“I have to try,” Mei Fan says, pushing herself up. “I have to keep chasing my own future!”
“No, you’re going to lose.” Mei Fan swings at Yachiyo, who sidesteps it easily and takes another shot at her rope. “You can just stop. That’s okay.”
“I can’t beat you with the distance between us-“
“So I’ll just have to close it!” Mei Fan rushes forward, trying to close the space between them, to get close enough to take a strike at Yachiyo’s rope.
“Wha-” Yachiyo tries to pull away, putting as much distance between them as she can, but Mei Fan keeps on her.
“No matter the cost, I’ll keep pushing forward to my future!” Mei Fan shouts. “I will defeat you!”
She’s too close for Perlenpfiel to be of any use to Yachiyo now, and she has no defense against Mei Fan as she swings for the rope keeping her cape in place. The throne of the king—she has to claim it!
Mei Fan’s blade clashes against another. “Stop,” Yachiyo says.
“That’s-” Mei Fan stares down at the sword—Saphir Bestrafung, she’s sure of it—pushing against her spear. Yachiyo pushes back again, swinging the sword around once to push Mei Fan back further. Put more distance between them.
“Look down,” Yachiyo says with a sigh. “The stage around us. Isn’t it familiar? Don’t you feel like you’re here? Like you’re always here?”
“What the hell are you saying?”
“Our future is preordained,” Yachiyo says. The blade in her hands shifts again, a shimmering quality to justify it transforming into the familiar curve of Jade Angriff. “I am going to win. I will become Frau Platin. That is how this story ends.”
Mei Fan rushes her again, and Yachiyo pushes off her blows with ease. In spite of her strength, her relative physical superiority to Yachiyo, she can’t seem to get in a hit fast enough.
“I didn’t want you to become an Edel,” Yachiyo says. “I didn’t want you to go down this path. I don’t like where it ends for you.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The story’s already been written.” Mei Fan jumps out of the way just in time for Platinlanze—Yachiyo attached—to smash into the ground where she just was. Mei Fan struggles, trying to maintain her balance. She’s taking the offensive now. Mei Fan has to keep her position. “So there was nothing I could do to stop you.”
The weapon shifts again. It feels too cruel. Yachiyo pushes forward, managing to close their distance easily. Mei Fan takes a stumbling step back, but can’t manage it.
“I alone am favored by the stage.” One hand grips the back of Mei Fan’s coat, the weapon in the other sliding under her rope, twisted so it’s gripped between two of the serrations. The swordbreaker pulls back, rope pulled apart in its teeth.
Mei Fan falls back loudly, hitting the ground. The lights snap off on stage, a solitary spotlight on Yachiyo, facing away from Mei Fan, staring out at the concept of an audience. The front of the stage. She can’t look away.
“Frau Platin, Yachiyo Tsuruhime. Position Zero.”
Her jacket is still in Yachiyo’s hand, her grip turning her knuckles white around the fabric.
"Akira and Yachiyo are talking," Michiru says, taking a seat beside Mei Fan. They both know it's less talking and more fighting—Yachiyo has beaten Mei Fan, but she still has to prove her worth against her predecessor. Akira has to approve of her. "How are you?"
Mei Fan leans her head against the back of the practice room mirror. "I thought," she begins, quietly. "I thought I knew."
"Yachiyo can be something when she wants to, huh?"
"It's okay," Michiru says.
"How am I supposed to catch up to Akira-san now? How am I supposed to-"
"Mei Fan." Michiru tries to cut her off.
"I thought I could- I thought I knew enough. But I'm still so stupid!"
"It's okay to stumble sometimes," Michiru says. "You'll have other chances."
"I became an Edel to overtake Akira-san," Mei Fan says, jumping up. "What am I supposed to do now that I can't?"
"I can't get that moment out of my head," Mei Fan says. "I can't stop thinking about the way she looked then.”
“Would you listen to me?” Michiru grabs Mei Fan, a hand on each arm, holding her still in place. “There's more than one way to overtake Akira, isn't there?” Mei Fan nods. “This doesn't have to be everything.”
“It's okay to be disappointed, but you're still on the right path.”
“You don't believe me.”
Mei Fan looks at Michiru. "No," she says. "No, you're right—I’m getting too inside my own head."
"It's your greatest strength and your greatest weakness," Michiru says.
"Thank you for straightening me out." It's the first time Mei Fan has lied to Michiru.
Mei Fan is not one for listless despondency. She gets up, exercises, rehearses, puts an extra concerted set of effort into the piano exercises Shiori had shown her, to help separate her fingers and work on dexterity.
There is a vacuous quality to herself now. She doesn’t know what to do, but all her actions are the absorbing of the world around her, a lack of reflecting it back into the world.
“Are you alright?” Shiori is busy with Michiru, learning the ins and outs of the obligations of Frau Saphir. Yachiyo has been doing much of the same with Akira, although at one point Mei Fan walked in on them in the student council, both standing by the window with their arms crossed over their chests, staring out of it. These are the sort of Frau Platin rituals she cannot understand.
“Huh? Yeah. I’m fine.” She’s been staring at the same page of the same book for the past twenty minutes, but she’s not sure how long Yachiyo’s been standing there. How much of it she’s seen.
“Is this about the revue?”
Her position is technically up for grabs this year. She has to re-prove herself for Yachiyo’s discerning eye. She might also be shuffled in her role as Edel.
“No. I mean, not really. It’s not- losing is difficult. And it’s okay to be upset about it, even while you’re also happy your friend won. I’m not upset because you won. I’m upset because I lost.” Yachiyo watches her, saying too much, staring too intently at the page of a book she can’t quite remember—is this a school book? A play she was preparing from? A book she borrowed from the library to read casually? If she could just focus on it, just read the page, she could understand. Overexplaining herself to someone who already knows her so easily, who could read her feelings before she’d even had them.
“Well,” Yachiyo says, a familiar glint in her eyes. “You'll always bounce back.”
Mei Fan isn’t certain. But she desperately wants Yachiyo to be right.
“So, she beat you,” Fumi says, sitting across from Mei Fan. Setting the pot of tea down.
“She destroyed me.”
“And you’re here.” There’s the small, constant ticking of an analog clock in Fumi’s apartment. The light whirring of the heater clicking. “Commiseration of the losers.”
“That’s not-“ Mei Fan stops herself. “Michiru tried giving advice.”
“She hadn’t tried to win,” Fumi muses. “She doesn’t know.”
“I’ve never felt so small,” Mei Fan says. “I knew that she was better than me but I thought- I thought that was a distance I could close.”
“The brilliance of seeing Frau Platin for the first time.”
“But I’ve seen-“ Fumi shakes her head.
“You didn’t love Akira as Frau Platin. You said it yourself. You loved the Frau Perle who stole the spotlight of Elysion from under the nose of her—of my—Frau Platin. But you didn’t see her become it. She wasn’t yours.”
“Am I going to leave Siegfeld?” Fumi blinks up at Mei Fan, staring at her intently. Her face is tense, trying to fight back the internal urge to cry. She knows Fumi can see past it, but it feels so wrong to cry in front of her. She’s so fixated on this—the line of succession she sees extend from herself to Fumi. The inherent pull of a cycle she has never dreamed of.
“Rinmeikan’s always in the market for capable stage girls,” Fumi says airily, taking obvious satisfaction in the way it makes Mei Fan blanch. “You and I are nothing alike,” she follows up. “Whatever you do is your own choice. “
“You visited Fumi.”
“You wouldn’t understand it,” Mei Fan says. “Neither you, nor Michiru.”
Akira hums. “We could not give you advice that was satisfactory.”
“She said that you weren’t mine. That I never saw you as Frau Platin.”
“You did—the whole year.”
“The first time—as a stage girl—you were Frau Perle. And then, you were Frau Platin.”
“That moment on the stage. Where I became Frau Platin.”
“That was never mine.” Akira hums again, nodding to herself. “Only Fumi-san saw that, didn’t she?”
“Michiru had never tried to become Frau Platin. She wasn’t there for the revue. In spite of everything we never shared, that moment was ours and ours alone.” Akira frowns, uncertain if she should continue. “However.” The student body brushes past Akira nowadays. She is no longer Frau Platin, and she retains a similar splendor for few still; people like Mei Fan. “I do understand it.”
“Seeing someone become Frau Platin?”
“The feeling in the moment. On that stage. Yachiyo’s gaze would be ahead. At the stage she was set to inherit.” Mei Fan nods. “She didn’t see you there. I understand that desire, the pull of the king’s destiny. But I think, even in that moment, I knew what I had done—the events that were to follow.”
“Yachiyo would not have seen you as you lost your dream; in her moment of becoming.”
“I see,” Mei Fan says. She wonders, how that looked, as the ideal she strove for slipped out of her grasp once again. There is nobody who can tell her. It is lost to time.
Akira clears her throat. “This was the Frau Platin before me.” Mei Fan recognizes her, missing the black eye now (it’s been a year, as she ought to have lost it—something concerning if she still had one). The girl next to her, too, who she remembers Yachiyo explaining was Frau Saphir the year before Mei Fan started at Siegfeld. They’re sitting at a table in a cafe; Akira explained briefly that there was a university nearby.
“Oh! The Frauling. You should have told me, we would have made our schedules far more open if I had known,” the previous Frau Platin grins at Mei Fan, gesturing for her to take a seat. “You’re the only one I haven’t met. Besides whatever newbies there are this year, but that doesn’t matter anymore.”
“You’ve met Shiori?” Mei Fan asks.
“I met her sister.”
“Shiori and Fumi are quite different,” Akira says.
“Doubtful! So, what wisdom do you need imparted?”
“It’s not from you,” Akira says, finally taking the seat beside Mei Fan, sitting directly across from the previous Frau Platin, who sighs airily.
“Nobody ever needs anything from me. It’s almost like they shouldn’t have appointed me or something.” The former Frau Saphir frowns.
“My- Yachiyo was appointed Frau Platin, recently,” Mei Fan starts.
“If you want advice on advising her, just refuse to do more than your share of work,” Frau Saphir (former) says. “Telling her she has to do it won’t be enough.”
“Oh, um, I’m not- I won’t be-“
“The younger Yumeoji has been appointed Frau Saphir,” Akira explains. “Mei Fan lost the revue, and retains her position as Frau Rubin.”
“You lost as well,” the former Frau Platin remarks.
“I’m aware of that.” She shrugs. “I can’t really help you with that.”
The university student formerly known as Frau Platin hums. “We weren’t the most traditional student council leaders, I’m afraid.”
“You were certainly strange,” Akira agrees.
Frau Platin (c. 2 years ago) shrugs. “We were running against weird odds.”
“The outcome of the revue, your strange aptitude for performing, and Siegfeld administration’s strange love for you.”
“I love making small talk with old people at formal gatherings and I will willingly betray anybody for any price. Or just if it’s funny enough. I did like your whole thing though,” she says to Akira. “Really felt like you cared about, like, theater as a discipline, or something.”
“Did you, uh, not?” Mei Fan asks.
“I play the oboe. The Chapter of the Gods is about thirty percent oboe solo by volume. Unfortunately, the Frau Platin before me saw something and made choices without my consent.”
“Like I said, we weren’t the most traditional Edels. It wasn’t hard to grapple with losing the Frau Platin revue; it’s a case of talent and aptitude, and mine was less. Better I lost because I was worse than we put on a subpar performance of Elysion.”
“But wouldn’t it be more upsetting to know she didn’t even want the position?”
The former Frau Saphir (née. The former Frau Perle) shrugs. “If it’s for the sake of a better Elysion.”
“But- Wouldn’t you have been able to do a better job if you cared about being on stage? What about your own goals?”
“It’s not that I didn’t care about being on stage,” Frau Platin (which is what I would call her if she were still Frau Platin) mumbles.
“My goal was Elysion. I achieved that.” Mei Fan frowns, but she can’t quite think of a rebuttal that doesn’t feel like whining; that actually feels like saying something.
“Well,” Akira says, turning to Mei Fan. “Michiru had said this would be a waste of our time, and it turns out she was right.”
“I’m sorry we can’t be more helpful.”
“You should watch what foot your shoe ends up on, Akira.”
Mei Fan goes on long walks at the end of the day. It’s a good cooldown. Sometimes she does other things for a cooldown, but she’s been leaning towards walks more and more recently. She’s not avoiding Yachiyo. Or any of the other Edels.
She still has not bounced back.
This is where she runs into Shizuha, wandering around the same park with two phones, using one to take photos.
“This one is Lalafin’s,” she explains, holding up the phone she’s not taking photos with. “We have an upcoming production and I’m getting some ideas about local scenery for the set design and props team. She was supposed to come with me, but she had cram school, so I’m also defeating Team Mystic’s gym here in her stead.”
“I see,” Mei Fan says. When Shizuha smiles and asks her to walk for a bit, she finds she cannot say no.
“What brings you here? It seems a bit more significant than a simple cooldown, considering how far we are from Siegfeld.”
“Sometimes outside perspectives can be useful,” Shizuha tells her. “Even if I don’t have good advice, explaining the situation might help you understand it better.”
“I don’t feel comfortable at the dorms right now—no. It’s more specific than that. It’s Yachiyo.”
“Are the two of you fighting?”
“Not- no. Not specifically. It’s- I don’t know. Ever since she was appointed Frau Platin, I just feel like there’s something between us that I can’t overcome.”
Shizuha hums. “I didn’t realize Tsuruhime-san was Frau Platin. How did I miss that?”
“Did she not tell you?”
“I can’t imagine why she would. I’m just surprised how out of the Edel-Frontier gossip mill I am.”
“I had always thought you and Yachiyo were close,” Mei Fan says, kicking a pebble under her feet lightly. “Uh, just based on the time I visited Frontier before.”
“Oh, not at all,” Shizuha says. “Tsuruhime-san is friends with Tsukasa and Aruru-chan. People who are close with our little group tend to view me sort of…”
“I have played Tsuruhime-san’s mother before, I suppose,” Shizuha says with a small smile.
“It makes sense.” Shizuha laughs again.
“Tsuruhime-san, though, she fits better with Tsukasa and Aruru-chan, I think. They can understand each other better. Their nature to the stage. It’s implicit.”
“True mastery is to present countless hours of effort as natural ability. I spend quite a bit of time preparing for a role before anyone ever sees it. Aruru-chan and Tsukasa both hadn’t spent much time on stage before coming to Frontier. What they display is talent; raw skill.”
Mei Fan pauses. “I always thought,” she says. “That when Yachiyo actually tried, she outclassed me. In skill. That’s what it felt like. But now I wonder.” Shizuha frowns at her. “Maybe it was the other way around. She had been trying so hard not to outclass me. And when she just did what came naturally she blew right past me.”
“Trying to hold herself back?” Shizuha hums. “But I wonder what the benefit of doing something like that would be.”
“I don’t know,” Mei Fan says. They resume walking. “I don’t think I’ve ever understood Yachiyo at all.”
“No good, try again,” Yachiyo says with a sigh. Frau Jade beside Mei Fan tries to gulp in as much air as they can before they start again, heaving their breaths. It’s been over an hour of nonstop rehearsal, without so much as a quick water break.
Shiori’s given up on looking like she has any control over her breathing right now, but her eyes still carry a determination to keep going. The other new Edel is half hunched over, coughing.
“Get ready,” Yachiyo says.
“Yachiyo, we should take a break,” Mei Fan has to be the one to step up and ask for it. The new Edels are too scared, Shiori is too determined not to have a word against Yachiyo. A Chancellor cannot make obvious their betrayal, even if everyone knows the depth of it already.
“We need to go again.”
“Yachiyo, everyone’s tired. Let’s take a quick break.”
“It’s not good yet. We’re running it until all of you can get it right.”
“We won’t get better if-“
“Anybody who can’t do it is more than welcome to leave,” Yachiyo says, turning back to the front. “I won’t have people who aren’t fit to be Edels wasting my time. Again.” Frau Jade makes a noise from the back of their throat, as Frau Perle lifts herself up to her full height. Yachiyo’s face betrays nothing, listening to the sound of Mei Fan shuffling her bag out of the pile, slamming the door behind herself.
The difference between Edels and Stage Girls, between Stage Girls and other people, people who are wannabe stage girls and stage girls of self-proclaimed natures and dead stage girls and girls who are not stage girls at all, is the small and insignificant sort of thing that, if you aren’t looking at it and have not spent years carefully developing the language which with to comprehend it, you could not notice.
It isn’t Fumi who opens the door of her apartment, blinking at Mei Fan in the doorway.
They stare at each other, silently sizing the other up, trying to figure out how to say any sort of thing. It’s not like Mei Fan must announce her intentions: obviously she’s here to see Fumi. Her greeter is as well. Hence, they are both at Fumi’s apartment.
“You can come in.” She shifts back, opening the door wider, offering the space for Mei Fan to slink past her. “I can step out so the two of you can talk. I imagine it’s not the sort of conversation you want me privy to.”
“No! No, uh, it’s- you’re more than welcome to stay.”
“Are both of you in the habit of acting like you own the place in somebody else’s apartment?” Fumi is leaning against the wall, right at the edge of the hallway by the entrance to the kitchen, frowning.
“Oh! I didn’t meant to- uh, that’s-”
“I imagine the two of you discuss things that you would not want me to hear, or that perhaps are of a nature where I would not provide a beneficial perspective.”
“If it’s alright,” Mei Fan says. “If the both of you aren’t busy, I’d like both of your perspectives.” Fumi exchanges a look with Akira, still gripping onto the doorknob of the still open door. “I’m lost.”
The small space of Fumi's table feels even stranger with a third party—Mei Fan has never visited with Shiori after her and Fumi reconciled. Or after her and Fumi reconciled. Or after her and Fumi reconciled.
She's never visited without some specific reason, still even to this very visit. Akira is not much for cutting the tension of the visit. Mei Fan is catastrophic energy; Fumi has never had the inclination of playing along, or offering sanctuary.
Mei Fan wonders if it's a cruelty she can only accept from someone who she knows will never consider her a friend.
"Yachiyo is weird."
"Yes." Akira frowns at Fumi, who shrugs.
"Not- not like, eccentric, or out-there, or anything. Like she's acting strange."
"To take on the mantle of Frau Platin is a burden, I have told you this already," Akira says.
"It just- something about it doesn't feel right. You always had Michiru-san to help you out, but Shiori says that Yachiyo does most of the work on her own. That she doesn't seem to rely on Shiori at all. And she won't rely on me at all either."
"It can be difficult to learn how to ask for help," Akira says. There's a brief glance at Fumi, who notices, and frowns.
"She's too hard on everyone. She's not offering enough breaks or support to the new Edels. And that's- that's fine, I guess. I can do that, except she refuses to let me do it, as well." Fumi and Akira wait for Mei Fan to continue. "It feels like we're all being isolated. Or maybe it's just me. I can't stop feeling isolated."
"Oh," Fumi says.
"I don't know what to do, and Yachiyo won't let me reach out, and I just haven't felt less alone since the revue."
"You're overthinking things," Fumi says. "The isolation is in your head."
"Yachiyo thinks I'm not good enough," Mei Fan says. "I'm good enough to be an Edel, but I can't- I can't do anything to support her."
"It's a difficult gap to cover, if nobody is there to receive you," Akira muses. "Our progeny are us, inverted through kaleidoscope."
"Akira," Fumi says slowly. "What does that mean?"
"Yachiyo wins the Frau Platin revue but becomes more closed off. Mei Fan loses the revue but finds she cannot bridge the mask of Frau Platin to support Yachiyo. It's- you know."
"So you're saying we're the same as you?"
"That's the least helpful advice you could have given," Fumi says with a sigh.
"It is different. Yachiyo and Fumi both refuse to be honest about their emotions." ("Hey!" Fumi interjects.) "But in completely different ways. Opposite, actually, I would say. And Mei Fan suffers from none of my own problems with communication. She would be better support than I was."
"For someone who's more difficult to get to open up," Fumi adds, ignoring Akira's disbelieving look. "Not to mention, it's not just Yachiyo who's struggling."
"I've been lost since before the revue," Mei Fan confirms.
"It's just being exacerbated now," Fumi says. "Well, whatever you do, make it different from what we did."
"Michiru is not here," Akira says. "But she would likely have something very witty and fun to say about our trio's, ahem, communication misfortune."
"Complete lack of in every way," Fumi says. "You should aspire to be nothing like us. Especially Akira and I. Nothing good came of it."
"That's- I don't believe that!" Fumi raises an eyebrow quizzically.
Mei Fan pauses. She’s not one for thinking her words over so clearly. She says what she means, and she says it as honestly as possible. She knows enough about the both of them. Akira would let her fumble her words with nothing more than a light chastising. Fumi will take her the wrong way and force her up the mountain of properly conveying her intentions, with wind-resistance at every step. “The ability to be so devoted to someone else, to always see their best possibilities. I’ve always admired that about the two of you.”
“I wouldn’t say we’ve always seen the best of each other,” Fumi grumbles.
Mei Fan shakes her head. “In your own way, you both always did.”
Fumi opens her mouth to protest again, but Akira cuts her off. “We should trust Mei Fan’s opinion. She is someone who sees us outside ourselves, and she’s always paid more attention to everyone than we gave her credit for.”
“Still,” Fumi says, but Mei Fan notices the way she gives up her complaining. “You’re still stuck.”
“Rinmeikan’s good about transfer students. The curriculum isn’t hard to pick up.”
“Mei Fan. If you transfer out of Siegfeld, I will never forgive you.”
“That’s not why I come to Fumi-san for advice!” Mei Fan says. “Stop telling me about transferring!”
Akira and Fumi exchange a look.
“Then why do you come here?” Fumi asks. “She’s been coming since the revues first started. Last year.”
“That’s- I don’t know! But I feel, like, there’s something, there has to be. I can just tell.”
“Something between you and Fumi.”
“I don’t know.”
Akira hums, lowering her head in careful thought. “I suppose the similarity between you would be the difference as well.”
“The similarity between all Siegfeld students. Our raison d’être.”
“Oh,” Fumi says, finally. “But the difference is also different.”
“I’m still lost, I’m afraid!”
“But that’s a closing difference rather than a widening one,” Akira says. “It cannot be told, it has to be learned.”
Fumi chuckles. “Right.”
“All I know is something doesn’t fit right,” Mei Fan says. “And I’m struggling and I need to do something about it.”
“Yachiyo’s the king,” Fumi says, by way of any good advice. They’re having a conversation Mei Fan doesn’t understand.
“Shiori’s the chancellor,” Akira adds.
“And I’m the third.” And she is struggling.
A broken and frenetic set of interviews given to a variety of Siegfeld students, by Frau Rubin. Transcript.
Mei Fan: Hi. Why did you decide to attend Siegfeld?”
[Name redacted for safety]: Oh gosh, I must have been—hm—seven? Maybe? The first time I saw Elysion. There’s something so magnetic about its pull. Something that just gets you and makes you come back year after year. It really started to bug my parents that it became such an important holiday tradition for me—we’re Christian so they want to do the whole Christmas thing and I want to do the whole Elysion thing first—I just wanted to be part of it so badly. There’s nothing better.
Mei Fan: And why are you attending Siegfeld?
[Name redacted for safety]: Everyone comes for Elysion.
Mei Fan: Why are you a Siegfeld student?
[Name redacted due to pending legal investigation]: Elysion?
Mei Fan: Why are you-
Yachiyo: Mei Fan.
Mei Fan: Yachiyo! Hold on. Why are you attending Siegfeld?
Yachiyo: Someone said you were harassing students all over school.
[Name Redacted Because It Was Not Asked For]: Oh my god Frau Platin
Mei Fan: Why did you attend Siegfeld?
Shiori: Mei Fan-senpai please stop bothering students.
[Name Redacted Because It Was Not Asked For]: For Elysion? Oh my god Tsuruhime-senpai you’re amazing
Mei Fan: Why did the two of you attend Siegfeld?
Yachiyo: Mei Fan.
Mei Fan: This is serious.
Yachiyo: Mei Fan.
“You can’t do this,” Yachiyo says, rubbing her eyes, tired. The three of them are in the student council room, pulled after Mei Fan and her phone were finally dragged away from the Siegfeld student.
“What are you doing?” Shiori asks, more kindly.
“Why did you both decide to attend Siegfeld?” Mei Fan asks. She’s sitting in her chair, Yachiyo on one side leaning against the table, Shiori filling out a triangle between them, between Mei Fan and Yachiyo and the wall.
“That’s- Oneechan and I saw a performance of Elysion when we were kids, after she saw one the year before, and we,” she trails off.
“Mei Fan,” Yachiyo says. “Stop. This is a waste of everyone’s time.”
“That’s not right,” Mei Fan protests. “This isn’t the waste of everyone’s time-“
“You’re the only one who doesn’t seem to know why students decide to attend Siegfeld.”
“Why are you being so hostile?”
“You need to be setting a good example for the new Edels. You should be setting a good example for Shiori as well—she’s only a first year—and yet you’re running around needling students for no reason, making my life difficult.”
“I’m making your life difficult?”
“There are expectations of Frau Platin, you know. I was relying on you to not cause problems.”
“Stop acting like you-“
“The crown is a burden you won’t understand.” Oh, they’re shouting now. “It’s mine alone.”
“You aren’t supposed to do it alone! Akira-san didn’t do it alone either, or are you so desperate to-“
“Wait-“ Shiori tries desperately to cut Mei Fan off.
“You think you have to drive me away? Because that’s what she did? So you can say you did it all on your own?”
This time Yachiyo storms out of the room. She doesn’t slam the door behind her. It hangs open.
“That was too far,” Shiori says quietly.
“Everything goes back to Elysion,” Mei Fan says.
“That’s why everyone attends Siegfeld. We’re all aiming for Elysion.”
“Shiori, I’m going to go out,” Mei Fan says.
“It’s the middle of the day.”
“I’ll be fine. I won't be at rehearsal.”
“She’s fine,” Fumi says from the kitchen. She’s talking on the phone to Shiori. It’s past curfew, but Yachiyo seems to have said something to dissuade concern from the school and refuses to talk about it further, holed up in her room—from what Mei Fan’s gathered from the phone. “She’s here and she’s safe. I’ll make sure she’s okay.”
Mei Fan is sitting alone at the table, back slightly hunched over it. She has a habit, bad but ultimately not problematic—one she’s picked up since touching down in Japan, she’s sure—tapping her calves quietly whenever she gets the chance. Her hands are still, now. There’s a mug of tea—Fumi always brings her tea—that remains untouched on the table.
“I don’t know if that would be a good idea,” Fumi says, after a moment. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I just think,” she trails off again, listening. “You’ll understand when you’re older. I don’t think so. If she was going to, she would have by now.” Fumi pauses again. Mei Fan didn’t pack a change of clothes, but she’s planning to just sleep in what she’s wearing. She’ll take the jacket of the Siegfeld uniform off. That will be fine. “If that’s what she decides to do,” Fumi says. “I think the right thing is to help her.”
Shizuha meets her near the front entrance to Frontier, smiling at her. “Yumeoji-san let me know you were doing some exploring over the next few days.”
“Is it alright for you to be here while class is in session?”
“Perfectly fine,” Shizuha says. “I’ve occasionally missed class to give tours to prospective students before.”
“I’m not a prospective student! I’m not planning to transfer.”
Shizuha smiles. “No, Yumeoji-san told me that as well.” She turns, holding the front door for Frontier open for Mei Fan. “But in case school administrators come by, let's use that as the basis for a brief etude, shall we?”
Mei Fan isn’t sure what she’s at Frontier for, per se, besides that Fumi had recommended she visit, the next morning.
“There’s a change of clothes,” Fumi says, gesturing to the table. “Shiori said not to worry about your classes.”
“These are my clothes?”
“I stopped by Siegfeld last night, after you went to bed.”
“Shiori said good luck, as well. And that they’re all looking forward to your return.”
“I’m not going to try and force you out,” Fumi says. “But this whole running away from your problems doesn’t seem like you. And it doesn’t suit you.”
“I’m not running away,” Mei Fan says. “I don’t even know where I am.”
Fumi hums, picking up her bag. “I felt that way the first time I visited Frontier, to borrow their projection mapping equipment for a show. Have you been before?”
“A handful of times, with Yachiyo.”
“You should visit. It’s always a lot bigger than it seems.”
“I’ve already been.”
Fumi glances at her. “You should go again.”
“So, Tsuruhime-san once told me you trained for the Beijing Opera. Is that true?”
“Oh, yes. I was training for it before I decided to attend Siegfeld.” Shizuha looks at her with surprise. “What?”
“My apologies, I had just always heard it was very difficult to train for. I can’t imagine pivoting so suddenly.”
"Oh, it was! My parents are part of it, though, and I spent so much of my life preparing for it."
"But you ended up in Japan, instead."
Mei Fan nods. "Around when I entered middle school, I think, I started thinking about other things."
"I spent so much of my life—so far—following in my parents' footsteps. I just wanted to- I thought maybe- I started to see other paths. I wanted to do other things." Shizuha hums. "And then I saw Akira-san, and her first performance of Elysion, and I just couldn't shake the feeling of wanting to stand on stage. I had to."
"To stand on stage with Yukishiro-san?"
"That's where I wanted to start," Mei Fan says. "And then I wanted to go wherever the next stage would take me."
"I understand that feeling," Shizuha says. "The first time I remember being aware of what actors were—that it was a job you could have—I thought it must be the greatest job in the world. Your imagination, pulled from yourself into the world."
"Right? Limitless possibility!” Shizuha smiles.
“So you wanted to become a stage girl because of Yukishiro-san?”
“Because of Yukishiro-san?“
“Without seeing her, would you still be training for the Beijing Opera?”
“I was planning to go to school in England, actually.”
“Do you think, maybe,” Shizuha says. “That you’ve lost sight of your original purpose?”
“It’s easy to be distracted. And it can be very useful for exploring. But you have to remember yourself, sometimes.” She smiles at Mei Fan. “The goal you’re truly aiming for.”
“We’re an integrated arts school,” Suzu explains, taking Mei Fan around. “So everyone does a little bit of everything, depending on what needs to be done. Of course, some people are a bit more front-of-stage oriented, like Koharu, and some are more back of-stage oriented, like Natsuki over there.” Suzu gestures to everything widely, walking backwards like a university tour guide.
“Are you in charge?” Mei Fan asks.
“Oh, like- no! But thank you for thinking I could be,” Suzu says, putting her hands on her hips and grinning. “Officially, Koharu’s in charge, and Hisame and I split sub-in charge duties if needed for divided work or Koharu related mental shutdowns—she likes doing that sometimes. Unofficially, though,” Suzu says, pausing her walking and leaning towards Mei Fan conspiratorially. “Hisame is in charge if you’re doing something relating to backstage work, and I’m in charge if we’re doing something fun, with Hisame in the sub-leader position for that one and Koharu in the doing-her-best-leader position.”
“I see. So you have multiple roles for multiple positions.”
“Suzu-san!” Suzu jolts back, turning to grin in the most Definitely Guilty Way towards two people approaching. “Stop telling her weird things.”
“I wasn’t! I was telling her normal things, you just happen to think they’re weird?” There’s a moment of painful silence. “Also, she asked who was in charge.”
“I’m the student leader,” the third girl says.
“Ah! Thank you for letting me observe your school, then. Yanagi-san, right?” She nods.
“Yukishiro-san told me you were working through something. I’m not sure we’ll have the right answer, but we’re happy to help.”
“It’s not so much working through something,” Mei Fan says. “I’m just lost, I guess.”
“Well! Now you’re at Seiran, right?”
“Suzu,” Koharu says with a frown.
“It’s a good place to find yourself, don’t you guys think?”
“The integrated arts format offers students a lot of opportunities to find what they’re truly passionate about, as well as leave with a solid and well-rounded skills set.”
“Woah! Hisame memorized the prospective student pamphlet!”
“It was a word-for-word quote, I’m sure!”
“We aren’t as focused on tradition or a specific work like some of the surrounding theater schools,” Koharu adds. “Elysion is big at Siegfeld, and tradition with Rinmeikan, and innovation with Frontier, I know.”
“And Starlight at Seisho!” Suzu adds. Koharu nods.
“What sets us apart is the focus on the integrated arts style.”
“It’s about a collaborative stage,” Hisame says. “No matter what style or play we’re performing, we’re all working side-by-side to see everything through properly.”
“Siegfeld is like that too. Working together for the best stage.”
“It’s not the same,” Koharu says.
“Not exactly,” Suzu adds. “There’s a difference between someone who does the lighting for the stage, and knowing the person who does the lighting also plays the lead.”
“We have to learn a stage from every side,” Koharu says.
“If you want,” Hisame cuts in, suddenly. “Ah, sorry. I just remembered. It’s just, our afternoons are spent doing theater class, and we have a day assignment today.”
“We have an afternoon to completely prepare and stage a brief scene as a class. We have to do everything,” Koharu says.
“Yakumo-sensei can be a bit eccentric, but that’s why we like her!” Suzu adds.
“We have to prepare props and set design and blocking all in the afternoon as well, and then we present it for her at the end. They’re meant to apply what we know about the stage, as well as time management, problem-solving under pressure, those things,” Hisame explains. “They’re a bit high intensity, but you’re more than welcome to participate, if you’d like.”
“I- wouldn’t I be an inconvenience? You aren’t used to me.”
“An extra set of hands? An inconvenience?”
“The point is to simulate the high intensity of actual performance issues or shortcomings,” Koharu says.
“If anything, you’d be like someone new being added to staff at the last minute, so you’d be a benefit to the exercise!”
“We’d be happy to have you, and if you get overwhelmed you can always sit out,” Hisame says.
“I-“ she wonders, and worries, slightly, if this is a betrayal of Siegfeld in some way, to participate in an acting exercise of another school. But she is not reconsidering her school choices—she is not thinking about another future than Siegfeld. She agrees, but to consider it a new experience. A new chance to understand.
“Aijo-san!” Karen finds her out on her morning run—Shiori was nice enough to pack a pair of exercise clothes alongside a change of regular clothes. She got out later than usual, but then she fell asleep later than usual too, and wanted to be polite and wait for Fumi to kick her out properly (it’s already been a few days, and she nearly cried when Fumi didn’t even imply something like that). She’s wearing her uniform, and it’s a rare day, Mei Fan is implicitly sure, to see Karen heading to school on her own. “How are you?”
“Never better!” Karen says with a grin. “But how are you? I feel like I never get to see you out this way. And I thought Siegfeld had those early morning rehearsals, or was that a Yukishiro-san thing?”
“No, we still do,” Mei Fan says. “I’m just- I’m on another assignment today.”
“Exciting! A Secret Siegfeld Espionage, then?”
“Something like that!”
“Well, I don’t want to keep you from whatever fancy Siegfeld-ings you’re up to.”
“Actually! Maybe you could help me,” Mei Fan says. “It's not so much a Siegfeld problem as it is a Mei Fan one.”
“A personal identity crisis!”
“You can tell?”
Karen shrugs. “You’ve just kind of got that vibe about you, is all.”
“That’s so impressive, Aijo-san! You really are a real-life Sherlock Holmes.”
Karen grins bashfully. “Anyway. In the case of personal identity crises, obviously I’m the best choice to go to. I’ve got a good feeling about third year Karen Aijo. I think she’s going to help a lot of people find themselves this year.”
“I see,” Mei Fan says. “I would be honored for your tutelage.”
"Karen, classes start soon."
"I'm sorry for intruding, do you need me to go?"
"Junjun, this is, like, super important and you'll definitely be able to help."
"You said you need advice right? Well, there's nobody better than Junjun, obviously."
"That’s-" Junna clears her throat awkwardly. "Why don't we step outside to talk a bit." She glances at the homeroom teacher. "Classes are seconds away from starting."
Perhaps by virtue of the class president being involved, or the strangeness of an outside student wearing exercise clothes standing in the middle of the classroom, but they're allowed to leave without any particular questions, besides a questioning look from Nana that gets met with a shrug. Hikari gives a nod to the three of them, like she approves the choices they're making wholeheartedly.
"What do you need advice on?" Junna asks, when they've found a hallway not quite near classrooms enough that they can talk freely.
"That’s- I'm not really sure, to be honest," Mei Fan says. "We, uh, Siegfeld. We had- Yachiyo is Frau Platin." Junna nods. "And she and I faced each other for the role, and I lost. And nobody has given me any good advice about it."
"Losing is part of growing," Karen says.
Mei Fan shakes her head. "It's not losing. It's, like, I feel like the Everything I've been working for has stopped. I can't seem to pick back up again. And Yachiyo's struggling, too, but she won't talk to me."
"You don't know where you belong?"
"I feel like I've never belonged, and suddenly I'm being forced to deal with that."
"Loss can teach you a great many things, but it will never teach you about itself," Junna says, nodding knowingly.
"Oh, who said that?" Karen asks. Junna blinks at her.
"Me." She looks back to Mei Fan. "I can tell you about my own experiences with losing and purpose, but it won't actually solve yours, other than to say you're allowed to lose and be lost." Mei Fan nods. "You have to find your way yourself."
"Right," Mei Fan says.
"There is a quote, though," Junna says. "That might be helpful. 'You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.' Samuel Beckett."
(“Was that helpful?” Karen asks, showing Mei Fan the way out of school.
“I- I’m not sure,” Mei Fan admits. “I’m sorry, I know you tried, but I just…”
Karen shakes her head. “You have to find the answer on your own. We can just tell you what we know, y’know?” Mei Fan nods. “I’m not so good with memorizing like Junjun, but I’ve been reading more. University applications and all and I promised Mahiru I’d actually put the effort in—student Karen Aijo, getting better day by day!—but I’ve read some good quotes and stuff you’d maybe get use from. Like there was one, it was, like, every year little birds wake up, and they love the world, and do you have to say more stuff?”
“Or one, it was like.. hm. I don’t want to end up having simply visited this world.”
“Aijo-san, I’m not entirely sure these are helpful.”
“Really?” Karen frowns. “It seems to me like you’re worried you’re doing the wrong thing.”
“I don’t know if it’s that.”
“I know we don’t know each other very well,” Karen says. They’ve reached the entrance, and she plants her feet on the ground, grinning at Mei Fan. “But I’ve always thought that you and I just do what we can; jump into problems first, problem-solve the problems made by doing that later!” Mei Fan smiles. “Although you seem to think about it a bit harder in advance than I do, I guess. Well. That’s my advice to you! It’s roughly the same as Junjun’s, I think. It’s okay to be doing something, even if it turns out the thing was the wrong thing at the end. As long as you’re still going, I think you won’t have regrets.”)
“It feels the same way,” Rui tells Mei Fan. Fumi left rehearsal early for work, so Mei Fan sat in on a rehearsal of the remaining students of Rinmeikan’s Performance Association. Rui offered for them to spend time together after rehearsal; they’d talked before, about learning kendo together and training for action scenes, after the first time last year when Mei Fan prepared for her role as Fu Kuzzey. Rui was nice, albeit a bit awkward, at first. With Mei Fan’s habit of tripping over her own words, her general earnest demeanor, it became easy for Rui to open up to her more. “With Yukko and I. And the Performance Association.”
“Like you’re just making the same mistakes?” Mei Fan sits to the side, watching Rui run through Kendo Forms. “It feels like, I don’t know, maybe we’re just meant to cycle through the same things over and over again.”
“If we don’t think about it, we will,” Rui says. She sounds more sure of herself than Mei Fan expected. “It’s in our nature to follow the path that we’ve already seen, but we have to keep going forward.” Then she looks sheepish. “That’s what Yukko and I keep reminding ourselves—building new paths and all—but sometimes I wonder if it’ll be worth it, when a Performance Department may be years down the line for us.”
“I’m worried about Yachiyo.”
“Tsuruhime-san always seemed pretty well put-together, though.”
“In Elysion, the king’s crown is actually a curse,” Mei Fan says. “In the Chapter of the Kings, Frau Platin plays a villainous tyrant, deposed by the son he refuses to acknowledge.”
“But that’s only one of the chapters, right?”
“In the Chapter of the Gods, she played a goddess who had shut her heart out to love, until the Celestial Goddess opens it again. And then in the Chapter of Rebirth,” Mei Fan frowns.
“That really is how you do things at Siegfeld, huh?”
“It’s-“ Rui laughs, like she’s said something wrong. “You know, uh- Fumi-senpai’s the same way. So I was just guessing it was the Siegfeld way, is all. You see too much of yourselves in your role, and how it influences you outside of it.”
“It’s- are you not?”
“Maybe- I don’t know. Maybe the upperclassmen are, but Yukko and I, we always- it’s more like. Hm.” Rui frowns, lowering the shinai. “There are things in the role that I want to be like, and things that I don’t. And I’ll pull out the things I want, and try and incorporate them into myself, and I’ll leave the things that I don’t, and just keep them in my performance, if that makes sense.” Mei Fan blinks. “I think—and I’m sorry if this is overstepping my boundaries—but sometimes I think you guys forget you’re just acting. Playing Onikage, or Miroku, or the Hanged Man, they all made me stronger as a person, but I mean- I’m still just Rui.”
“I don’t think Siegfeld could work like that. The king is everything.”
“No but- I just think you need to remember, sometimes, maybe.”
“I’m still just Mei Fan.”
Rui nods, raising the shinai again, shifting her stance. “There’s no role holding you back. You’re you.”
“You're going back?” Fumi asks. She's returned from classes, and Mei Fan is standing with her bag mostly packed beside her.
“I have to stop running away, I think.”
Fumi nods. “I agree. You'll get nowhere closer to a conclusion from here.”
"I'm sorry for imposing so much."
"It can be my atonement for having been such a bad Edel last year." Fumi tries to smile. It is awkward and uncomfortable. "I hope you found the answers you were looking for," she says, after giving up on the smile.
"I don't know. But I think—I'm not sure—I think I've found a path forward, at the very least. The next step."
“I genuinely don't have an answer for you,” Fumi says, sighing. “I wish I did. My answer to all of my problems at Siegfeld was to run away from them.”
Mei Fan lets out a shaky sound that might be a laugh.
"But I can tell you one thing I learned," Fumi says. "After I left, about what I'd done. You can take it however you want: I spent so long trying to mold myself into somebody else; I never understood the value of the performance I was giving. The performance only I was capable of giving."
Shiori is relieved when Mei Fan returns to the dorm that evening. The two new Edels both have a wide eyed tenseness about them. Yachiyo says nothing, glancing up from the book she's reading. They say nothing to each other.
A revue is a spellbinding performance of singing and dancing and yadda yadda blah blah other words. Who cares? If you don’t know you ought not to know. And if you know already, you have all the answers you need.
“The fire of life may last but a moment, but pure platinum will shine forever. Beyond the borders of the stage, beyond the play. That is where true platinum shines. Frau Platin - Yachiyo Tsuruhime! The world is my stage—that I alone illuminate!”
“The light of gems invites us, atop a stage brimming with platinum. Even if I cannot see my path, I will draw my blade and run to you. I have found my stage. The ruby is hidden in my chest, o noble platinum. I offer my life to you. Frau Rubin - Liu Mei Fan! Ranshao ba jiqing lieyan, wangdao dang dang! To a new life, to a new stage!”
It was inevitable they’d face again. It was inevitable. They were fighting. This is the bygone conclusion. Fortune foretold in far forgotten fires.
“Again?” Yachiyo asks with a sigh. “When will you learn; only I am beloved by the stage.”
"Yachiyo," Mei Fan whispers, tightening the grip on her spear. She knows Yachiyo's conceits now. Her mastery over the stage. Her ability to decimate her. This is an uphill battle.
“If you need a demonstration, though.” She always starts with a crossbow. Mei Fan does not know if that is her natural weapon. If she’s just gotten so used to it over the past year of revues.
They stare at each other, silence stretching out in front of them.
“The king’s rule is absolute,” Yachiyo says, finally. The revue begins.
Unlike the first time, Yachiyo wastes no time with her weapon. She’s not keeping it a secret. She doesn’t hold back, shifting it between to overwhelm Mei Fan. It extends beyond the weapons of the Edels—it is Yachiyo’s own ability, flinging kunai and striking at her with axes—Mei Fan understands it now.
Mei Fan is not good at being a defensive revue participant. She does her best, staves off blow after blow, but she stumbles as she sidesteps them, her mind desperately trying to keep up, to pre-predict what Yachiyo is going to do next.
Yachiyo is using Mei Fan’s own strategy. Michiru had explained them to her, one afternoon when it was just the two of them in the dorm. The way their strategies differ. Mei Fan favors brute overpowering, moving against you so consistently you don’t have time to think about anything else.
(“Fumi was the same way,” Michiru muses. “You both like to attack everything head-on. It’s not a bad strategy, for the two of you. Yachiyo, on the other hand.” Michiru pauses, thinking. “With her, every move she makes is planning for three ahead, but you don’t realize it. She’s not physically overpowering you, but mentally outwitting you.”)
“No matter how much time you spend away, no matter what you do, you’re not going to be able to beat me,” Yachiyo says. Mei Fan pushes herself out of the way of an arrow. “My hold over the stage is absolute.”
"You-" Mei Fan swings at Yachiyo. "You're running away from your friends."
"That’s not—" Yachiyo knocks the blow away with the identical replica of Mei Fan’s own weapon.
“I won’t let you turn yourself into a figurehead! You’re my friend, Yachiyo! I may never understand you—I may never be good enough—but I’m going to keep trying! I’m going to stay beside you!”
“You ran away from everything,” Yachiyo says. “I thought you were going to leave.”
“I- I was afraid I might, too,” Mei Fan says.
"Then leave.” Yachiyo slams the bottom of the lance into the ground, the stage shifting around them. Pushing her into the sky, out of reach. "Then do it. Elysion is a cycle—Siegfeld is a cycle—stop fighting that."
“That’s not true!”
“There’s always a third. They always fail. You’re the third.”
They swirl around in her head. Points with no referents. It's all stuck together, memories and ideals and feelings. Signs and signifiers all mash against each other and bounce around; she can't see the lines that connect them anymore. So she does what she does best: pick a point in the sky, and reach it. The next step always comes after the first. She starts running.
“But you know I won’t fail!” Mei Fan shouts. The stage rushes up to meet her, to propel her closer to Yachiyo. “You have no reason to revoke the title of Edel from me. I won’t fail.”
“These choices aren’t our own,” Yachiyo says. Is she moving away from Mei Fan? Is she preparing to meet her? These aren’t things Mei Fan knows. She is moving one step at a time.
“It doesn’t matter,” Mei Fan says. “It doesn’t matter who dictates my actions, if they’re still my own!”
“They aren’t your own! They’ve never been your own!”
“That doesn’t matter!” Mei Fan shouts, reaching the top of the towers jutting from the ground, rushing at Yachiyo again. “It doesn’t matter that I don’t have your understanding, or Michiru’s foresight, or Shiori’s compassion, None of it! I have something the rest of you don’t!”
“You have a bit of all of us, and your own earnest drive to continue. You think I don’t know?” Yachiyo pushes herself out of the way, her weapon morphs back to the crossbow Mei Fan is so familiar with. “I already know! You can’t win with that!”
“That—sure!” Mei Fan follows her. Yachiyo will anticipate the swipe at her side. She’ll push back to dodge it. Mei Fan has to keep pushing forward. She has to expose herself, leave herself completely open—she has to be vulnerable. Yachiyo can win. She can get her as easily as Mei Fan can get herself. She grips the fabric of the cape in her hand, bunching it up.
“I don’t care about Elysion!”
The sound of a rope cutting, of a revue ending, is not so loud, although it feels like it deafens. The cape is in her hands, still bunched around her fingers. She cannot let it fall. The cape of a king shouldn’t be soiled by the ground, by her fingers, by her ideals.
“Even still,” Mei Fan says. “My ideal is still Akira. I am standing on your stage because you are my friend.” Yachiyo’s breaths are heaving. “My stage was with Akira. My stage is with you. And if the path you’ve both chosen is Elysion, then it is my path.”
“But Elysion is just- it’s just a play to me. I would walk down any path just as willingly, if it had been hers. Frau Platin is just-“ A role. A position. It's of utmost importance to those whom Elysion bears that same significance. She shifts the fabric of the cape in her hands. It has to be perfect. She lets go of it and it does not fall, even though it is held in place by nothing, draping Yachiyo’s shoulder.
“Mei Fan, you-”
“I can’t support you if I’m behind you,” Mei Fan says. She steps away from Yachiyo. The distance between them. “If nothing else, I’ve learned that.”
Mei Fan slams the blade of her spear into the ground. “O king, my burning passion will create your noble path! Liu Mei Fan. Position Zero!”