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Twinkle Twinkle, Little Stars

Chapter Text

 

 

Even though their revues for the giraffe have supposedly come to an end, the Stage Girls still find themselves at that underground theater more often than they might like to. Though now, they are here to fight for other reasons - to save their plays, act out ReLives themselves, and to fulfill Elle's wishes.

And only recently has it been made clear to them about Elle's true identity. Rather her true age.

But they'd all agreed to the same promise; that whenever she should need them, they would be readily waiting for her onstage.

And so they've come once more tonight to fend off the Korosu that threaten their beloved plays.

All nine of Seishou's main cast do battle here tonight, swinging and slicing and shooting their weapons left and right to slay the faceless shadows. Elle watches on with Andrew nodding in approval, while the giraffe is lying leisurely behind them with his neck raised tall to observe. He's been oddly quiet tonight in overseeing the proceedings, which is a little unusual, but no one has complained.

Only once Karen has driven her sword through the final Korosu and caused it to dissipate into thin air does the giraffe suddenly stand. But it isn't to commend their battle like usual. All nine Stage Girls, as well as Elle, now look up to him as he speaks.

"It is strange indeed, the stage tonight. I understand."

"Here we go again." Futaba rolls her eyes and twirls her halberd casually. "You and your cryptic crap."

"I must say, I'm about ready to go to bed," Kaoruko sighs. "Don't tell me there's more."

As the others all mutter their agreement, Maya takes a step forward apart from the pack to address the giraffe.

"What do you mean? Is something stranger than is normal down here?"

The giraffe stands, perfectly still, save for a slight swishing of his tail.

"The stage," he utters. "It is preparing to move."

"Move?" Junna yelps"Move how?"

"Like a tea cup ride?" Karen guesses. "In that case we should find something to hold onto…"

"Karen-chan, I don't think that's what he meant…?" Mahiru looks up at the giraffe, hopeful that he'll deny it.

But he doesn't address that matter. Instead, he cranes his long neck to look down at Elle, and then swings it around to Nana.

"You two," he says.

Both Elle and Nana share a puzzled glance and tilt their heads.

"Eh?"

"Eh?"

The other girls are equally as lost.

"I'm not following…" Hikari is half crouched into a ready stance as if preparing for another fight with her dagger. But Claudine steps up beside her to rest a pacifying hand on her shoulder.

"Don't worry. I get the feeling he's just being vague for his own delight. We can probably head back now."

Claudine turns to begin heading offstage, but before she can take so much as a single step, the giraffe speaks again.

"This is very interesting indeed. Something I have never witnessed before. This stage will slowly bring it to fruition. I understand."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Junna demands. "Is the stage… creating something of its own volition? And what's it got to do with Nana?" She takes a step closer to her partner defensively, gripping her bow tighter.

"Wait," he says, flicking an ear. "Listen. Do you hear it? It has been set in motion."

"What has?" Futaba shouts. "I swear, if you're gonna make us fight each other in those damn revues again-"

"No way!" Karen wails. "I won't do it! I'm not taking anyone's radiance anymore!"

"Me either," Hikari agrees.

But the giraffe shakes his head slowly.

"That is not the case," he assures them. "However, the stage has certainly picked up on a certain... energy over all this time."

"Energy?" Maya repeats.

"Indeed." Once again, he swings his head to Elle first. "Elle-san's true form… She is but a young, bright-eyed child, is she not? Imaginative beyond her years, enough so to reel in so many talented Stage Girls and cast them as her own actresses in her plays."

Elle blinks, taking a step back from him. Her true nature shows itself as she nervously grips onto Andrew's soft plush fur.

Next, the giraffe brings himself back to Nana, who stiffens a little behind Junna.

"And you, Daiba Nana-san. It seems the stage has retained some residual energy from your wish after so many repeat performances. Even though time has ceased to rewind now and is steadily moving forward as it is meant to… The stage still remembers your wish. A wish to go back. To return to the past. I understand."

"But we don't!" Junna barks. "You still haven't told us anything clearly!"

By now, all of the girls have cautiously moved to stand beside their respective partners, fingers curling more tightly around their weapons in case they're made to fight. The giraffe looks over all of them in turn.

"There is no need for concern. To my knowledge, you will not need to do battle with what is about to occur. It is something Elle-san wanted to see, is it not?" He looks to Elle finally, and as the others follow his gaze, a collective gasp rises up from them all.

Elle is no longer a teenager like the rest of them, but her true younger self, clutching her little blue mole plushie in her hands. Her voice is hesitant and bashful.

"Only a little… I want to see it…"

"There you have it," the giraffe nods. "Elle-chan has made an unprecedented wish. Due to our Daiba Nana-san's repetitive performances, the stage has retained the energy for granting such wishes. And as such, let us go back in time once more. Only this time, a little further…"

Before the girls can even draw breath to ask any of the dozens of questions now swirling in their minds, the lights onstage begin to flicker, and the gears below their boots being to churn and thunder. The girls shriek and cling to one another, weapons clattering to the floor.

By now, the giraffe has lain down again to help nudge little Elle onto his back with his nose. Clutching her plushie of Andrew, she climbs onto his shoulders. The giraffe stands calmly with her in the audience as the curtains close on the nine startled girls.

"It is simple, Stage Girls," he proclaims. "Simply have fun. That is what Elle-chan wishes of you. Fulfill your duty, and you shall have returned before you know it."

Blinking, he glances back down to his little passenger.

"A very unique wish you've made," he says. "Certainly this will be a stage I have never before seen. I understand."

Elle keeps her plushie in her lap as she hugs the giraffe's neck and leans forward, eagerly waiting to glimpse the next stage she will be shown.

The nine Seishou students are blanketed by a sudden darkness, and all of the churning sounds of the stage suddenly stop. All at once, they drop to their knees and slump to the floor.

And it can't be said for certain if what happens next is just a dream, or some rewound form of reality brought upon by a wish.

But either way, it is certainly an experience new to each and every one of them.

 

 


 

 

A/N: This chapter was mostly an excuse not just to set things up, but to depict the giraffe being gentle and nudging a little baby Elle up onto his back. I just needed that to exist, okay...

A combination of Elle's new wish and the energy of Nana's old one? What could that mean...?

Please leave comments or kudos!!

Chapter Text

Chapter 2. A Day At The Park

 

 

Karen moans, wincing as she tries to open her eyes, only to find a hot, blinding brightness shining down on her.

At first she's convinced it has to be a spotlight, that she must still be onstage with her classmates after that bizarre earthquake-type thing had happened and the lights had gone out.

But as she begins to register more and more of her senses, she can feel she's lying on something soft, not smooth waxed hardwood. And she can feel that her clothes aren't the same revue outfit she'd been wearing before. Rather, now she's in shorts, a t-shirt and overalls, like the casual clothes she'd wear on a day off from school.

She takes a moment to get her bearings before slowly blinking her eyes open.

She's expecting to find herself in her own bed back at the dorms, but when her vision finally focuses, she isn't looking up at the familiar ceiling. Instead, she's gazing up at dozens and dozens of green leaves with a beam of sunlight shining down directly onto her face.

"Wah, so bright!"

She covers her face with her arm and turns to one side, confirming that she is indeed lying in the grass beneath the shade of a tree. When she looks around, she realizes she's at the park. There are plenty of other people walking around with their dogs or children, but Karen doesn't see anyone she recognizes right away.

"Whaaat? What happened? I thought I was with everyone and Elle-san and the giraffe…"

Pushing herself up, Karen shakes her head, which is a big cloudy with fuzziness. Only when she looks to her other side does she realize she isn't alone.

Hikari is lying on her side facing away from her, also dressed in a casual blue blouse and skirt rather than the costume she'd last been wearing. She's clearly unconscious though.

With a gasp, Karen scrambles to crawl over beside her and gently shake her shoulder.

"Hikari-chan?"

Karen has no idea what's going on, but she's a little relieved to at least know Hikari is with her. She gives her friend another little shake to rouse her.

With a whimper, Hikari slowly opens her eyes, blinking through the haze of her confusion before her vision finally flashes with a bit of clarity.

"Mn… Karen…?"

"Yeah! Somehow we're still together." Karen slips an arm around her back and helps her sit up slowly. "Hikari-chan, are you okay?"

"I think so," she mumbles, putting a hand to her forehead. "But my head hurts."

"Mine, too…" Karen huddles a little closer to her, glancing a bit nervously around the park. "I wonder what happened? Weren't we just back at school with everyone? Or was that a dream…?"

"I don't think it was," Hikari says. "I remember the giraffe saying something… like we were going back in time…"

"D-Did we?" Karen looks herself over, and then Hikari, but nothing seems to have changed. "It still seems like we're the same as we were..." She looks around the park to the big digital clock that shows the time, date, and temperature. "Ah! It's the same exact day and year, too! So we haven't gone back in time at all!"

"That's good." Hikari breathes a sigh of relief. "Then I guess… we just finished with what we needed to do and we somehow ended up in the park instead of at school."

"Yeah. I guess so." With a shrug, Karen stretches out her arms and legs briefly before jumping up into a crouch. "Well then, guess we should head back!"

"Yeah."

Karen gets to her feet first, then reaches down to offer her hand. Hikari accepts and Karen pulls her up, dusting her off from stray blades of grass and leaves. She keeps hold of her hand and grins.

"Well then, let's go! It's still the weekend so we can probably-"

"M… Mama…?"

Karen cuts off with a gasp, and Hikari gives her a tug to direct her to the source of a scared little voice.

Not far from them, a young girl with long black hair is standing in the grass with her hands clutched to her chest. As person after person passes her by, she calls out timidly.

"Mama…? Papa…?"

But none of the adults stop to spare her a second glance.

Karen clutches onto Hikari's arm.

"Th-This is terrible, Hikari-chan!" she cries. "That little girl is lost!"

"It almost seems like none of the grown-ups can see or hear her…"

"We've gotta help!"

"Yeah."

Together, they hurry off across the grass toward the little girl, who has started to sniffle by now.

"Mama…? Uuu…" She begins to cry, her little shoulders jolting with hiccups as she brings her hands to her face and starts to whimper softly. Karen and Hikari run to her, pausing just a few feet away.

"H-Hey!" Karen drops to her knees in front of the girl. "A-Are you lost? It's okay! Your two Onee-chans will help you!"

Hikari nods supportively behind her, leaning forward with her hands on her knees and offering a smile.

The little girl whimpers again, but eventually removes her hands from her eyes to reveal her tearstained face. And as soon as they see her up close, both Karen and Hikari let out a gasp.

"M-Mahiru-"

"-chan?!"

She may be much younger than the roommate they both know, but this girl is without a doubt the one and only Tsuyuzaki Mahiru. She has the same face, the same hair tied into tiny pigtails above her ears, the same silver eyes, and the same nervous voice. As she looks up at them now, she hiccups again.

"Th… That's my name… How did you know…?"

Karen's jaw is nearly on the ground by this point, and she quickly looks back to Hikari for answers. Hikari blinks, equally as stumped. Their brains start to race as Karen scrambles for something to say.

"W-Wait, you're… you're really Mahiru-chan, right?"

The little girl nods.

"Yes… Tsuyuzaki Mahiru…"

Karen gulps, but maintains her smile.

"And… h-how old are you."

"Six…"

"S-Six?" Karen looks back at Hikari again, but her friend's expression remains just as baffled.

Mahiru sniffles again, curling all her fingers up at her mouth.

"Onee-chans… are you my babysitters? Did my Mama and Papa call you…?"

Karen and Hikari share another swift look and immediately latch onto the idea.

"Y-Yeah! That's it!" Karen nods vigorously. "We're your babysitters for today, Mahiru-chan! That's how we know your name! Your Mama and Papa called us to come have fun with you until they're finished uh… sh-shopping!"

To her relief, little Mahiru has stopped crying by now.

"Really…?"

Karen nods again.

"Uh-huh! We're gonna have a great time! Don't worry, Mahiru-chan!"

"Sorry we were late," Hikari says, playing along. "You must've been scared all by yourself."

But Mahiru straightens up and shakes her head.

"No. I can't be scared of anything. I have to be brave for my little brother. And Mama says I'm going to have even more little siblings soon, too. So I've gotta look out for them."

Hmm, well that's true," Karen says. "But you've gotta have some fun for yourself too, Mahiru-chan!"

"For myself…?"

"Yeah!" Karen jumps up. "Let Karen-Onee-chan show you a super fun day!"

"Karen… Onee-chan…?" Mahiru repeats.

"Yup!" She puts an arm around Hikari's shoulders and guides her forward. "And this is Hikari-Onee-chan!"

Hikari dips her head.

"Nice to meet you, Mahiru- ah… M-Mahiru…chan."

Mahiru looks back and forth between them, and a smile slowly forms on her face.

"Nice to meet you! Karen-Onee-chan! Hikari-Onee-chan!"

Both Karen and Hikari offer out one hand each. Mahiru takes both with hers and shakes them.

They each keep hold of one of her hands, putting Mahiru between them as they start to walk around the park. Mahiru is bouncing happily on the pathway, while Karen and Hikari shoot confused glances at each other over her head.

"I still don't know what's going on," Karen whispers.

"Me, either. But this really is Mahiru… She's so little…"

"I know! How is that possible?!"

Hikari is quiet for a moment as she thinks it over.

"Didn't the giraffe say… something about rewinding time…?"

"Oh! You're right! He said something like… ahh like it was a combination of Banana's wish to rewind time, and Elle-chan's… well since she's a little kid and all…" She trails off, and her gaze gradually falls back down to the top of Mahiru's head. "So then… Mahiru-chan's time was rewound somehow-?"

"That… seems like it could be true…" Hikari murmurs. "But how can we go back to normal?"

Now it's Karen's turn to think, raking her brain for as much as she can remember.

"What was it he said… 'Just have fun. Fulfill your duty, and you shall be back before you know it'… So, does that mean we just have to… have fun with her…?"

Both girls look down to Mahiru, who is bounding merrily between them, seeming content enough just to be holding their hands. They look back to one another and shrug.

"We might as well," Hikari says.

"Yeah! Guess so!"

They start off by taking Mahiru to the small, colorful playground located at one area of the park. They pause to stand at the edge while Mahiru marvels at all of the children running around having fun.

But she doesn't take off running to go to her favorite thing like most excited young children might. Instead she just bounces in place between her two chaperones, keeping an excited hold on each of their hands.

"So?" Karen prompts her. "Which thing do you wanna do first, Mahiru-chan? The slide? The swings?"

"I-I'm not sure…" Though excited, Mahiru also seems a little overwhelmed. Hikari tilts her head.

"Have you ever been to a playground before?"

"Yeah," Mahiru nods. "But by the time I was old enough to play, I had to look out for my brother. I usually just follow him around and do what he wants to do."

"Aw, Mahiru-chan, you're such a good girl!" Karen pats Mahiru's head softly, ruffling her hair just a little. "But y'know, you've gotta have your own fun from time to time! You can't be all work and no play! You've definitely gotta play more!"

"And," Hikari adds on. "Since your parents left you in our care today, you don't have to worry about watching your brother. You can play all you want."

Mahiru's eyes start to twinkle as she looks back and forth between the two of them.

"Really? But…" The beginnings of her smile fade before it can fully form. "I… I don't have any friends to play with here…"

Karen and Hikari almost drop to their knees at the sad yet innocent comment.

"Of course you do!" Karen crouches down on one knee again to get closer to her. "You have us, Mahiru-chan! Karen-Onee-chan is your friend today!"

"And Hikari-Onee-chan," Hikari says, crouching on Mahiru's other side with a smile.

Mahiru sniffles, and her lip begins to wobble. The next thing Karen knows, little Mahiru has thrown her arms around her shoulders in a big hug.

"Thank you, Karen-Onee-chan!"

Karen feels a rush of emotion swirl around in her chest. She has to remind herself this isn't her usual Mahiru and that she can't hug her back with the same kind of force she normally might. Instead, she wraps one arm around her and pulls her into a gentle hug.

"You don't have to thank me!" She gives Mahiru a pat on the head before the little girl steps away, wiping her eyes with a smile before she turns around to throw her arms around Hikari, too.

"Thank you, Hikari-Onee-chan!"

Hikari is a bit more shocked by the affectionate gesture, but she also wraps an arm around Mahiru and pulls her close.

"It's Karen-Onee-chan and I who should be thanking you, Mahiru-chan."

Karen nods in agreement.

In their everyday lives at Seishou, Mahiru is always the one taking care of them, more often than not. Whether this is a dream or a fragment of rewound time for real, the least they can do is repay their gratitude and let her have a bit of fun for once.

They both know she's been looking after her younger siblings since she could remember, and she always helped her parents and grandparents out, too. And surely amongst all of that, Mahiru never got much time to be a kid herself.

So that's why they're going to give her as much time as they can today.

Even if this will all be meaningless or get erased in the end, it would still be worth it to them both to let Mahiru have her fun, just for this moment.

Once she's finished hugging Hikari, Mahiru directs her attention to the jungle gym. Karen and Hikari share a smile before guiding Mahiru over.

They let go of her hands, and she almost seems confused for a moment; clearly, she'd never been given free rein like this before. But now, with both her chaperones' approval, Mahiru smiles and takes off to start climbing.

Karen and Hikari stand back a little, but follow her with their eyes, making sure she doesn't slip or bump into any of the other kids.

Mahiru completes the entire jungle gym in what must be record timing for a six-year-old; it's no wonder she'll grow up to be one of the most nimble and flexible girls in all of Class A.

When she's had her fill of that, Mahiru scurries up a green ladder and across a rickety wooden bridge to reach the slides. But once she gets to the top, she seems to realize just how high up she is. She peeks down through the safety bars to her caretakers who are watching supportively from below.

"K-Karen-Onee-chan? Hikari-Onee-chan? I think it's too high…"

"That's okay!" Karen calls up to her.

"You don't have to do it if you don't want to," Hikari assures her.

And for a moment, they both assume Mahiru will turn around and climb back down the ladder. But to their surprise, she stays put. She swallows and calls back down to them.

"N-No! I w-want to do it!"

Karen and Hikari share a smile.

"That's great, Mahiru-chan!" Karen says. "Then Hikari-Onee-chan and I will support you!"

"We'll wait for you at the bottom."

"W-Will you catch me?"

"Yeah!"

"Of course."

Mahiru sighs in relief. She lets a couple of other children slide down first as she takes some time to gather up her courage and confidence. When she's ready, Karen and Hikari both crouch down at the bottom of the slide with their arms open wide.

"You can do it, Mahiru-chan!"

"We'll catch you no matter what."

They both watch as Mahiru sits at the top of the big yellow slide, gripping the sides nervously as she looks all the way down to where they're waiting at the bottom. But she can't seem to bring herself to let go and slide down.

Hikari murmurs softly so only Karen can hear.

"She's really cute…"

"Yeah. She really is…" Karen tries not to squeal now as she raises her voice again. "It's okay, Mahiru-chan! If you're scared, you don't have to do it after all!"

"We're proud you gave it a try," Hikari says.

And for a moment, it looks like Mahiru is going to stand up and climb back down. But then, she gives herself a shake and calls out in a determined voice.

"I… I can do it!"

Her two babysitters call back a response.

"Yeah!"

"You can do it."

With their encouraging words, Mahiru finally lets go of the slide and pushes herself forward. She yelps, crying out nervously as her speed increases and the slide takes her around a few gentle curves.

But in only a few seconds the rush of air comes to a stop as she reaches the bottom.

Karen and Hikari lean forward as she nears them, catching her in a big hug as she comes off the slide. There isn't much force behind the impact, but their weight combined is enough to knock them back into the wood chips with Mahiru on top and in between them without a spec of dirt on her. Karen and Hikari laugh merrily and give her a big hug.

"You did it, Mahiru-chan!"

"You were so brave!"

Mahiru slowly lifts her head, realizing she'd done it, and that it had actually been really fun. With a squeal, she nuzzles against each of their cheeks.

"I did it!"

"Yes!"

"You did!"

The three of them are quite the dramatic but adorable sight, lying on the ground together in the middle of the playground. But eventually Karen and Hikari sit up, helping Mahiru to her feet before giving her another joint hug.

She takes them to the swings next, where Hikari sits on the swing beside her, and Karen stands behind to lightly push Mahiru's back.

And then it's the monkey bars, where they both follow her on-foot and sport her from either side as she makes her way across.

Then they manage to get to a carousel, where Mahiru sits in the middle and holds onto the metal bars. Karen sits behind her and keeps Mahiru secure between her knees, looping one arm around her stomach and holding onto a bar with her other hand. Hikari stays standing and spins them slowly.

Mahiru squeals and giggles all the while, and by the time Hikari stops them, the six-year-old can't stop smiling.

They do a few more things together on the playground before the older girls can tell that Mahiru is getting tired. They walk with her back toward the grassy area of the park as she tells them about how she's been practicing her baton twirling.

"My grandma really loves to see me do it!" she says. "She told me I could be the best in the whole town some day!"

"I'm sure you can!" Karen agrees. "Mahiru-chan, you're amazing!"

"You really are," Hikari says. "Super amazing."

"Karen-Onee-chan, Hikari-Onee-chan… you're both so nice…" Mahiru's eyes begin to flutter, and her steps become slower. She yawns, and then all at once starts to fall asleep on her feet. They both keep a firm hold on her hands to prevent her from falling until Karen can crouch down to support her. She grins.

"Mahiru-chan, did you have a lot of fun today?"

"Mmm…" The girl gives a tiny nod.

"We're glad," Hikari says. "But we should go rest in the shade for now."

"Here, can you get on my back? I'll carry you!"

Hikari helps Mahiru get situated and put her arms around Karen's neck. Karen reaches back to support her legs, then stands up slowly. Hikari keeps a hand on Mahiru's back to ensure she won't slip off, as she's already mostly asleep by now.

They walk quietly together back to the shade of the tree where they'd woken up before, slowly sitting down in the grass. They gently lie the sleeping Mahiru between them before sharing a curious glance.

"What now?" Hikari wonders. "Should we look for her parents?"

"I'm not sure…" Karen puts a hand to her chin to contemplate. "If Mahiru-chan had enough fun today, then I think everything should go back to normal soon."

"Karen…" Hikari blinks slowly and brings a hand to her mouth, covering a yawn of her own. "Suddenly I'm feeling tired too…"

"Huh? Uuuh-" Karen ends up yawning as well. "You're right. Me, too…"

They share another tired glance, then look back down to Mahiru, who still has a smile on her face even in her sleep.

And so they decide on their answer. After all, this had all started with them waking up, so wouldn't it make sense for it to end with them going to sleep?

So Karen and Hikari lie down in the grass on either side of little Mahiru, each lightly draping an arm across her and resting their hands on each other's shoulders.

"Goodnight, Hikari-chan, Mahiru-chan."

"Goodnight."

They close their eyes, and sleep comes right away.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3. Playground Adventures

 

 

The first thing Mahiru is aware of when she regains consciousness is a slight headache.

With a moan, she pushes herself up onto her elbows, putting a hand to her forehead as she tries to get her bearings. She can feel grass beneath her, and can already tell she isn't wearing her revue outfit anymore either.

When she finally opens her eyes, she finds herself at the local park, dressed in a yellow floral sundress, one she typically wears on weekends or time off. Shaking her head slowly, Mahiru brushes the grass off herself and rubs her eyes a little.

"Wh... What in the world happened…? Wasn't I with everyone on that stage…?"

When the slight pounding in her head has subsided, she opens her eyes fully this time and looks around. She doesn't see any of her friends or classmates, or anyone she recognizes at all.

"How did I end up here…? I-In any case, I guess I should probably just head back to the dorms." Hopefully Karen, Hikari and the others would be there, and maybe someone could provide an explanation.

Mahiru pulls her legs in and slowly gets to her feet, dusting herself off all the while. She turns to the park's exit where she'll be able to start the walk back to Starlight Hall.

But before she can even take a single step, she hears a voice. A very familiar voice.

"Come on, Hikari-chan!"

Mahiru freezes.

"Karen-chan?" Her voice sounds a little strange, though…

Mahiru looks back to the source of the voice and then hears another one.

"Karen… w-wait…"

Just like Karen's, Hikari's voice is instantly recognizable to Mahiru, but also sounds a little bit off somehow. Mahiru scours the park and calls out in the general direction she'd heard their voices coming from.

"Karen-chan? Hikari-chan?"

Mahiru peers around the tree she'd woken up underneath, expecting to see her roommates walking and chatting together. But the Karen and Hikari before her now aren't exactly the ones Mahiru knows.

"Wh-What-?" She has to be imagining things. She has to be dreaming.

Karen and Hikari are running around in the grass together, wearing the exact same distinctive hair pins they've always worn, but they can't be older than five or six years old. They're both half their normal height, wearing clothes that must be several times smaller, and with higher-pitched, childish voices.

They hadn't noticed her yet, which she's thankful for. Mahiru presses her back against the tree and hides, heart pounding and head spinning.

"What… What's going on…? Wh-Why are Karen-chan and Hikari-chan…?"

It has to be the giraffe's doing. Or Elle's. After all, he'd mentioned something about Elle's and Nana's wishes combining or something like that, and if Elle was only a small child herself…

"Does this mean she personified herself onto us somehow…? And the stage remembered Banana-chan's wish and it somehow granted this one, too…? H-How can that be…? How do I go back-"

"K-Karen-!" Little Hikari's voice suddenly cries out. "Karen, wait a minute-"

"Nope! No can do, Hikari-chan! We've gotta be the first ones to the playground today!"

"B-But-"

Mahiru can worry about the situation later, because right now she instinctively recognizes the sound of a distressed Hikari being pulled along into an oblivious Karen's flow. She peers back around the tree to glimpse them now.

Karen has Hikari by the wrist and is charging ahead at full speed across the grass. But Hikari is looking behind herself, trying to both follow Karen and stop her at the same time. Mahiru can already see the outcome of this coming a mile away.

"Ah! H-Hold on!" She rushes out from her hiding spot and hurries toward the two young girls. Karen continues pulling on Hikari like an excited dog on a leash, while Hikari keeps trying to ask her to wait.

"K-Karen-"

"Come on! We're almost there!"

"But-"

Karen gives her another energetic tug. Mahiru calls out to her.

"Karen-chan! W-Wait-!"

But her warning comes too late, and actually might have assisted in the inevitable. Karen is clearly shocked to hear her name being called by a stranger, and judging by the confusion in her eyes as she looks at Mahiru now, Mahiru assumes Karen has no idea who she is.

As she turns in her puzzled state, Karen inadvertently gives Hikari another yank, and it's the one that finally pulls her off-balance. With a yelp, Hikari loses her grip on Karen's hand and tumbles headfirst into the grass. Mahiru winces and reaches her just a second too late, kneeling in the grass beside the poor girl.

"Oh no! H-Hikari-chan? Are you okay?"

Karen has finally skidded to a halt and whirls around with a loud gasp.

"Hikari-chan! Ahhh- A-Are you okay?!" She runs back to her friend's side, dropping to her knees with panic in her eyes.

Mahiru reaches out gently to pick Hikari up, slowly helping her back to her feet. Her hair and clothes are all ruffled and covered with blades of grass, and there's a single drop of blood dribbling from her nose. She sniffles, and now there are tears in her eyes.

"Ow…"

Mahiru gasps at the sight of the blood.

"Ah! H-Hold on! I think I have something…" She frantically searches her dress pocket and is beyond relieved to find her usual handkerchief folded up as she normally has it. She extracts it, unfolds it, and gently presses it to Hikari's nose.

"Here. It's okay. Don't sniffle too much. You don't wanna swallow the blood or your tummy will feel sick."

By now, Karen has burst into tears.

"Uwaaaaah! H-Hikari-chan! I-I'm suh-sorry! I didn't mean to-!"

"Karen…" Hikari holds her little hand over Mahiru's to keep the handkerchief in place, but reaches out her other hand toward her friend. "It's okay… don't cry-" But seeing Karen crying just makes Hikari even more upset, and she starts to cry harder.

Before Mahiru knows it, both girls are sobbing, and people are starting to stare.

"A-Ahh, d-don't worry, you two! It's okay! Everything's all right." She puts an arm around each of them and brings them close for a soft hug. "Mahiru-Onee-chan is here now. You don't have to cry."

Now that she knows both of them are more or less completely fine, she feels much calmer. Similarly to what she'd do for her own little siblings whenever they were upset, Mahiru speaks slowly and soothingly, patting their heads and hugging them softly.

And it's as if she's cast a magic spell on them, because both girls stop crying in only a few seconds. Hikari sniffles one last time before she realizes the bleeding has stopped. Mahiru smiles kindly, taking the handkerchief back and folding up the stained portion before putting it back into her pocket.

"There. See? Everything's all right. You too, Karen-chan."

Karen is still frowning, clearly upset that her actions had caused Hikari to get hurt. But when Mahiru pats her head again, Karen musters up a deep breath and lets it out in a big sigh.

"Hikari-chan! I'm really sorry! I was just really excited to play with you!"

Hikari gives her a little smile.

"I know."

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah."

"Thank goodness…"

Now, both girls turn big curious eyes up to Mahiru, who jolts a bit nervously.

"A-Ah. Nice to meet you," she says with a smile.

Karen tilts her head to one side, and Hikari tilts hers to the other.

"You said your name was Mahiru-Onee-chan-"

"-but how did you know our names?"

"Eh? A-Ah, I'd just happened to hear you two calling to each other! Th-That's all!"

"Oh."

"That makes sense."

Thankfully, that simple explanation is more than enough to satisfy the six-year-olds, and Mahiru breathes a sigh of relief.

"I-In any case, Hikari-chan, why didn't you want to go with Karen-chan to the playground?"

"Ah!" Hikari seems to have just remembered something. She turns to Karen and grabs her hand. "Karen, I do wanna play with you. But I lost Mr. White…"

"Huh? Ah-!" Karen gasps, pointing to Hikari's dress. "You're right! Your Mr. White pin is gone!"

"Yeah. I wanted to go look for him first…"

"Definitely! We gotta find your beloved Mr. White, Hikari-chan!"

"I'll help too!" Mahiru declares, not just because she wants to help, but also too because she feels she definitely has to keep an eye on these two until she can figure out how to get them back to normal. "Karen-chan, Hikari-chan, where did you two come from?"

Karen raises her hand.

"My mommy says I came from a stork!"

"Th-That's not what I…" Mahiru puts a hand to her mouth and sighs. "I mean where in the park did you come from? Where could Hikari-chan have lost her pin?"

"Oh! In that case, we came from that way!" Karen points back toward the sidewalks. Mahiru nods.

"Okay. Let's go search."

She stands up, keeping one hand on either of theirs and walking in between them as they scour the grass. To everyone else, they probably look like an older sister with two younger siblings, and to be quite honest that's often how Mahiru feels with them even when they're their normal ages.

But she does have to admit they're much more adorable right now, scampering along at her sides and pointing out every little thing that could possibly resemble a Mr. White pin.

They search for a good few minutes, but pretty soon Mahiru can feel Hikari's fingers trembling in hers. When she peers down, she can see Hikari is doing her very best not to cry again. Mahiru's heart aches.

"It's okay, Hikari-chan," Mahiru says gently. "We'll find him."

Hikari sniffles.

"Okay."

"You're so strong." Mahiru gives her hand a squeeze before continuing on with them.

She has to prevent Karen from sprinting off to go pet someone's dog every now and again and refocus her on the task at-hand. And just when Mahiru feels Hikari is about to burst out into tears all over again, Karen makes a triumphant cry.

"Ah!" Mahiru feels a tug on her left arm as Karen suddenly bends down into a nearby bush. Mahiru peers over her shoulder, and Hikari peers from behind Mahiru to watch her.

"Ah-hah!" Karen pops up with a soft white plush of a familiar bear in her hand. "I found him! I found Mr. White!"

"Wow!" Mahiru beams. "That's amazing! You did it, Karen-chan!"

Mahiru coaxes Hikari forward before kneeling down to gather both girls into her arms for a hug. Hikari whimpers with relief as she throws her arms around Karen.

"You found him…"

"Mm-hm! So don't worry, Hikari-chan! He won't be lonely anymore!"

As Mahiru eases back from the little group hug, she realizes the truth in Karen's words. Of course Hikari had been upset just because she'd lost her precious Mr. White, but more so than that she'd been upset because she hadn't wanted him to be all alone.

Children really are too pure… Especially these two…

After the tearful reunion, Mahiru offers out her hand to Karen for the pin and looks at Hikari for permission.

"May I?"

Hikari nods. Karen gives Mahiru the pin, and Mahiru cleans it off as best she can before turning to Hikari. She carefully clips the pin into place at the top of her dress and fastens it securely.

"There! All done!"

And Hikari is absolutely glowing now.

"Thank you, Mahiru-Onee-chan."

"Yay!" Karen jumps forward and throws both arms around her friend. "Hikari-chan, I'm so happy!"

"Me, too. But Karen, I think he fell off the first time because you were hugging me too hard."

"Oh! Whoopsie!"

Mahiru sighs again and gets to her feet, once more taking both of their hands.

"Now that that's settled, why don't we head to the playground? Karen-chan, I know you wanted to go really badly, but you pushed aside what you wanted so you could help Hikari-chan. You're such a good girl!"

To her surprise, little Karen actually blushes a little.

"I'll be happiest when Hikari-chan is happy."

"Me too, Karen," Hikari says. "I'm happiest when you're happiest, so let's go to the playground."

"Really? Yay~!"

Mahiru feels she's about to start crying now. Her heart is so warm.

No matter how old these two are, I just love them so much!

"All right, it's decided then," she says, taking both their hands. "To the playground!"

"Yeeeah!"

Karen starts charging ahead right away, but Mahiru follows along a little bit more slowly to hold her back and compensate for Hikari's milder pace. In just a few minutes they reach the playground, but Mahiru doesn't let them go right away.

"Karen-chan, Hikari-chan, make sure you both stay together, all right? I'm coming with you, but I can't have one of you go running off."

Both she and Hikari look to Karen, who kicks her shoe in the wood chips bashfully.

"Okay!" she grins.

Mahiru nods in satisfaction.

"All right, let's have fun!" She releases them, and the two young girls run off.

Mahiru follows alongside them as they climb the ladder and take turns on the slide, then run across the various plastic structures, giggling all the while. The moment there are a few swings free, Karen gives a battle cry.

"Swings!" She jumps off the platform she'd been standing on and sends up a spray of wood chips before charging off. Both Hikari and Mahiru call after her.

"Karen-

"Karen-chan-"

"Don't jump off stuff!"

"Don't run!"

They both share a glance, then burst out laughing. Mahiru reaches up to Hikari, who hops off the platform and into her arms. Mahiru carries her to the swings where Karen has already sat down and start bouncing and kicking her legs.

"Mahiru-Onee-chan! Can you push us?"

"Of course!" She settles Hikari down onto the other swing, then moves behind the two of them. "Ready?"

"Yeah!"

"Mm."

Mahiru simultaneously gives their backs a light push, and both girls start bending their knees to bring themselves higher.

"Yaay!" Karens squeals. "This is the best! Usually only Hikari-chan or I can swing at once and the other one has to push, but now we can swing together!"

"Thank you, Mahiru-Onee-chan."

"It's my pleasure, you two!"

Every time they swing back toward her, Mahiru gently pats their backs before pushing them forward again, making sure they don't go too high. Karen and Hikari giggle all the while, feeling the rush of the wind through their hair. When Karen is finally finished laughing, she looks sideways at her friend.

"Hey, hey, Hikari-chan! We're married!"

"Eh?"

"You know!" Karen explains. "When you're swinging in-sync with the person next to you, it means you're married!"

"Married…" Hikari repeats, then looks back over her shoulder. "But what about Mahiru-Onee-chan?"

"Eh? Me?" Mahiru blinks.

"Yeah. I don't want you to be alone…"

"That's okay!" Karen declares. "We can both marry Mahiru-Onee-chan, too!"

"Aha, all right!" Mahiru agrees, blushing faintly. "We can all get married, the three of us!"

"Yaaay!"

The girls swing for a while longer before Mahiru gradually slows them down to a halt, and they hop off. She has no idea how much longer things are going to be like this, but she's determined to stay with them for as long as she can.

"Are you two tired yet?"

"Nope!"

"Karen's never tired," Hikari informs her. "Cuz she always sleeps in really late."

"Ah, so she's been like that from the start, huh?" Mahiru chuckles.

"Hey, hey!" Karen says. "Mahiru-Onee-chan, what's that?"

Mahiru looks up to where Karen is pointing to the other side of the park as they walk. She hadn't looked over this way before, but now she can see a crowd is gathered. There are a few big white trucks parked in the parking lot with ocean waves and fish painted on them. Banners posted on the street lamps tell Mahiru what it is.

"A traveling aquarium!" she gasps. "That sounds like fun! Do you two wanna go?"

"A planetarium?" Karen asks.

"Aquarium," Hikari says. "Karen, we went there before, remember? The one with the jellyfish."

"Oh! That one?!" Karen has started to jump up and down again in her excitement. "Let's go, let's go!"

"It's not the same as the big building," Mahiru says. "This is just a little one they set up in the parking lot. They probably only have a few animals to show us."

"That's okay!" Karen says. "Let's go, let's go!"

"I wanna see jellyfish," Hikari mumbles.

"Well, I'm not sure if they'll have any, but we can go look!"

So Mahiru takes them over to the bustling crowds. She's relieved to see there is no entry fee, as she doesn't have her wallet, so she's able to gladly bring the girls over to observe.

They gawk at a tank full of crabs and clams that has been set up on a table as the workers talk about the creatures. There's also a table with a tank of sea horses and sea stars. And beside that is a touch tank with several sting rays gliding around.

The girls all wash their hands at a small portable sink first, then Mahiru guides them over to the touch tank. Karen dips her hand right in to pet the sting ray's back.

"Wow! It's kinda slimy, but also kinda soft!"

Another ray slides up the side of the tank and splashes them a little. Hikari timidly reaches in and eventually manages to pet one too.

"It really is soft…"

"Mahiru-Onee-chan, you should touch it too!" Karen says.

"Eh? Th-That's okay…"

"It's not scary," Hikari says. "I promise."

Mahiru's heart flutters again. How could she refuse an opportunity to let the two of them believe they've given her the courage to do something? For the sake of boosting their confidence, Mahiru agrees to dip her hand into the cool water and stroke her fingers along one of the rays. A shudder runs up her spine, but she gives the girls a thumbs-up.

"Yay! She did it!"

"Good job."

"Th-Thank you, girls…"

When they've finished there and washed their hands again, Mahiru brings them to the final display table. There's a purplish cylindrical tank there, and inside are five white, fluffy jellyfish.

Hikari's jaw drops in wonder, and Karen giggles and thinks up names for each of them.

By the time Mahiru has finally coaxed them away, both girls have started to yawn.

"That was so much fun…" Karen mumbles.

"I wish we could always be with Mahiru-Onee-chan," Hikari agrees.

Their eyes start closing as they're still walking, so Mahiru crouches down, having each of them lean against her shoulders as she scoops one up with each arm.

"I'm glad you two had fun. And don't worry! Mahiru-Onee-chan will be with you guys for sure!"

"Really…?"

"I'm glad…"

Mahiru carries both of them back into the shade of the grassy area, suddenly feeling overcome by exhaustion herself.

I had a lot of fun with them today. But hopefully everything will go back to normal soon…

With a sigh, Mahiru sits down with the two girls and slowly lies down on her back, keeping them each tucked into her sides. She hears a few more sleepy murmurs from them.

"Mahiru-Onee-chan…"

"Thank you…"

Mahiru hugs them both, giving a kiss to the top of Karen's head, and then one to Hikari's.

"Goodnight, you two. Sweet dreams."

And just a moment later, Mahiru dozes off with her two future roommates cuddled up to her sides.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4. A Time For Dance

 

 

"Ah, geez… What the hell happened…?" Futaba wakes with a slight soreness in her head, bringing a hand to her forehead. "That damn giraffe… the hell did he do this time…?"

She's expecting to find herself back at school, but when she finally opens her eyes, that isn't the case at all. She's lying on a hard floor, but not the same hardness as the waxed wood of a stage. The ceiling overhead isn't laden with red curtains either. This isn't a stage, but it's someplace equally as familiar.

The floor she's lying on is covered with tatami mats, and the room all around her is ornate and nostalgic. Somehow, she's back at the property both she and Kaoruko had been raised on, where they'd spent so many of their younger years running around playing in between strict lessons on traditional Japanese dance and performance.

"What the-?"

Futaba sits up quickly and looks around, but no one else is in the room with her. When she glances down at herself, she's relieved to find she isn't wearing one of the kimonos she dislikes so much, but instead just shorts and a t-shirt, which are her comfort clothes of choice.

"Well, at least I'm not bein' made to dance around like a monkey for everyone…" She has no idea why or how she'd ended up here, though. "It's gonna be a pain in the ass to get back to school from here. I'm gonna have to take a train…"

She decides right away it would be best if she could somehow manage to sneak out of here and make her way back to Seishou without anyone noticing or asking questions.

So she quietly gets to her feet and turns to face the far side of the room. From what she remembers, the sliding paper doors behind her lead out into the hallway and the rest of the building, but the ones in front of her lead outdoors.

Futaba tiptoes as quickly as she can, but just before she can touch the handle to slide the doors open, she hears something behind her. The far door slides open with a small slap, which makes her jolt and whirl around.

Crap! Now I probably just look guilty as hell!

"Uh, s-sorry!" She closes her eyes and bows her head to whomever had entered to find her like this. "I-I'm not really sure what's going on, but-"

"Kyaaaaa! An intruder!"

"…Huh?"

Futaba blinks her eyes back open at the tatami mats below her sneakers. She knows that voice. She'd know that voice anywhere. She grew up with it, after all.

Lifting her head slowly, she has to grip the door a little bit to keep herself from swaying at what she sees.

"K…Kaoruko…?"

It's Kaoruko, all right, but not the Kaoruko she's expecting to see. Instead of the girl who had grown up alongside Futaba… Now she's only aged a fraction of those years.

She can't be older than six years old now, dressed in her little pink floral-patterned kimono with a clip in her hair and a fan in her hand. Her jaw is gaping in shock in a way that would probably get her scolded for being too unladylike if any of the adults were here to see it. She's gripping her fan as if she isn't afraid to throw it or use it as a weapon if need be, and also looks like she's about to bolt and call for help.

Futaba bites her lip, knowing she can't let that happen. Somehow, she manages to push past the shock of finding Kaoruko like this and call out to her.

"H-Hold on a second-"

"Silence!" Kaoruko demands. "Y-You're an intruder! A criminal! And h-how do you know my name?"

"Wait, seriously…?" Futaba tilts her head. "Kaoruko you… don't know who I am…? It's me, Futaba."

"I-Impossible!" she cries. "My Futaba-han isn't a crook! She's my friend and she's the same age as me! Even when she grew up she would surely never be that tall!"

Futaba had almost had a moment where her heart felt warm for a second until that comment. Yup, this is Kaoruko, through and through, for sure.

"Oy, listen here. From where I'm standin' right now, you're the shrimp."

"And you're an intruder! Mother! F-Father!" Kaoruko turns and prepares to dash off, leaving Futaba with no choice but to beg.

"W-Wait a second-!" She drops to her knees and folds her hands on the floor before bowing deeply. "Please, Kaoruko… Don't tell anyone I'm here. It's kinda complicated, but…"

"Th-That-" Kaoruko gasps. "We only teach that style of prostration here… How do you know of it?"

Futaba lifts herself back up and shrugs with a grin. Kaoruko stares at her a moment longer, her eyes still wide and her mouth still open. Then, she flicks her fan in front of her face and clears her throat.

"Very well. I won't call for my parents just yet."

Futaba whistles in relief.

"Thanks."

"Besides," the little girl mumbles. "Even if I did call for them, it isn't like they'd come… They've been so busy as of late…" Now, Kaoruko's pout turns into something a little more genuine and sad.

Futaba frowns. She remembers well enough from growing up with Kaoruko that her parents didn't always make time for her when they probably should have. It isn't that they're bad people, but they aren't the most perceptive when it comes to their daughter's needs, either. They usually let the maids or staff handle those things.

It had always made Futaba upset even as a child, but especially now. She has no idea where her younger 'self' might be in this world right at this moment, but as things are, her current self is the only one this little Kaoruko's got.

Futaba softens her expression now as she walks back across the room toward her. Kaoruko flinches a little as she approaches, so Futaba stops so as not to frighten her.

"Say," Futaba says gently. "Why don't you show me some of your dance? I'd love to see it."

Kaoruko sniffles from behind her fan, but flashes Futaba a hopeful glance.

"I… I could never show my dance to some criminal-"

"Like I said," Futaba sighs. "I'm not a criminal. I'm… I'm a guest! Yeah, that's it. And I came here just to see your dance, Kaoruko-chan." It's a little weird to be addressing her that way, but it's only appropriate now with Kaoruko being so young.

Kaoruko hides behind her fan for a moment longer, but her eyes keep wandering back to Futaba's smile. Futaba knows she would never pass up the opportunity to show off the traditional dance skills she's so proud of. And sure enough, it isn't long before Kaoruko agrees.

"Very well. Since you haven't caused any trouble, I suppose I could show you a few dances…"

Futaba grins.

"That's great! Thanks, Kaoruko-chan! I can't wait to see 'em!"

She doesn't miss the little blush that forms on Kaoruko's cheeks before she covers her entire face behind the fan. She doesn't seem scared anymore, so Futaba reaches out to ruffle her hair softly. Kaoruko lightly swats her wrist with the fan.

"Hey! You'll mess up my hair!"

"Sorry, sorry!"

With a huff, Kaoruko lifts her chin importantly before advancing into the center of the room. Futaba sits down cross-legged as she watches, trying not to chuckle at how the kimono restricts Kaoruko's legs a bit and sort of makes her waddle like a penguin.

Futaba leans back on her palms as Kaoruko takes up her stance in the middle of the room now, raising her fan high above her head as she readies herself to begin. There's no music for her to move to, so she begins at her leisure, no doubt moving herself to a song in her head.

Futaba can't help but grin as wide as she can to see this little Kaoruko begin her dance, moving her arms in slow, fluid, graceful motions. Futaba herself had never been the biggest fan of the outfits, but she hadn't minded the dances themselves too much. After all, this was the stuff that had gotten her into theater and to Seishou in the first place.

But Kaoruko had always loved these dances with all her heart, to the point where she'd often complain about almost any other style they were practicing at school. For all of the whining and sighing she'd do about other things, this style was one she'd always be willing to partake in. Especially if it meant she could show off to someone.

Futaba watches her go through the motions, recognizing the routine almost instantly. She herself had learned it as a kid alongside Kaoruko, and she knows if she stood up now to join her she'd probably remember it perfectly.

But she doesn't want to take Kaoruko's spotlight away from her, so she stays put and watches, applauding her when she finishes. Kaoruko takes a bow as she catches her breath, waving her fan daintily over her face.

"And there you have it," she proclaims. "One of the finest dances in all of Japan."

"Heck yeah!" Futaba claps. "That was awesome, Kaoruko-chan!"

"Fu fu~" Kaoruko smirks, and even though she's only a child, she still looks just as mischievous as she would've at her proper age. "That must be how you knew my name, no? You heard about my impeccable skills and came from far and wide to see me! One of my many, many fans and followers!"

"Uh, y-yeah, you got me!" Futaba scratches her head with a laugh. "Actually, I know a thing or two about this kinda dance."

"Oh? Then you should join me. It's the least I can do for a follower who came to see me."

"Uh, sure…" Futaba finds it a little scary how Kaoruko has remained majorly unchanged, even as such a young child. But it just goes to show that she'll always be the same girl Futaba's always known.

Futaba gets to her feet now and joins the little girl in the center of the room.

"Now then," Kaoruko says importantly. "Normally you'd have to wear a kimono to do this dance. You'll look ridiculous in those clothes."

"Sorry," Futaba says. "Fresh outta kimonos."

Kaoruko huffs as if she's been done a great disservice, but seems to opt to ignore it for now.

"All right, then let me show you this technique. It's very difficult, so try to keep up!"

Futaba humors her and follows along in the lessons she's begin given, even though she already knows it perfectly. But she wants to let Kaoruko teach her, because she knows the girl would love nothing more than getting to share her beloved dance with someone else. But even as a child, she's actually rather strict and serious about it.

"You have to lift your arms higher at this part! And turn your head!"

"Got it! Yes, ma'am!" Futaba follows her orders seriously, until little Kaoruko has a satisfied smirk on her lips.

"That's much better. See? Even you can do this much when the right person teaches you!"

"Uh-huh." Where she absolutely would've put an older Kaoruko in her place, Futaba lets the younger one have this. She plays along and follows her teacher's instructions as they make their way through the dance. By the time they've finished, Kaoruko is laughing and smiling.

"Yes!" she says. "That's exactly how it's done!"

Futaba finally takes her bow.

"Phew! You really work up a sweat, huh?"

"Never." Kaoruko puffs up her cheeks. "Though I suppose I could use some fresh air…" She waves her fan at herself as she scurries to slide open the door to the back yard. Futaba follows her out onto the little wooden platform to feel the cool air.

"Ah, that feels nice." She closes her eyes and opens her arm for a moment, and when she next opens them, she looks down to see that Kaoruko has turned the fan toward her and started flapping her wrist to help cool her off too. Futaba smiles.

She might be selfish, but she's always been a good kid deep down.

Futaba crouches down on one knee to feel the breeze from the fan better.

"That feels nice. Thanks, Kaoruko-chan."

"A good master has to take care of her followers," Kaoruko replies. Futaba's grin widens.

"You're a real cutie, y'know that?" She ruffles Kaoruko's hair again, and the girl shrieks indignantly.

"H-Hey!"

As she's in the process of trying to shake Futaba off, Kaoruko ends up stepping on the end of her kimono.

"Oy, careful-" Futaba tries to reach out to grab onto her, but Kaoruko ends up stumbling on the fabric.

"Kyaa-!" With a soft cry, she tumbles off the porch and into the grass below before Futaba can get ahold of her.

"K-Kaoruko-chan!"

Futaba jumps off the porch and crouches down by the little girl's side. She's lying face-down and hiccuping. Futaba gently picks her up from underneath her arms and helps her back to her feet, dusting her off a bit.

"You okay?" Futaba carefully adjusts the flower hair pin in her hair, clipping Kaoruko's bangs back again after it had come undone. Kaoruko sniffles, and it's clear she's trying really hard not to cry.

"I-I'm fine-"

"Silly. If something hurts, don't hide it from me, okay?"

Kaoruko sniffles again, but does as she's told.

"My forehead…"

"Here, can I take a look?"

Kaoruko nods, and so Futaba clears the girl's bangs aside to find a little scrape right in the middle of her forehead. Kaoruko must know there's something there, because she starts to whimper.

"Is it bad? Am I hideous?"

"What? No, of course not!" Futaba reaches into her shorts pocket, grateful that her handkerchief is there. She pulls it out and gently wipes Kaoruko's forehead clean. "You're the cutest girl in the whole world, Kaoruko-chan."

"Eh…?" The little girl sniffles again. "Do you really mean it?"

"Yeah! Absolutely!"

Kaoruko says nothing now, but she does blush a little bit.

Futaba finishes cleaning her up, then picks up her fan that had been bent in the fall. She straightens it out until it can fold perfectly again.

"There. Good as new!"

Kaoruko accepts the fan and clutches it to her chest for a moment. But then she gives it back to Futaba.

"Here."

"Huh? What's wrong? No good?"

Kaoruko shakes her head.

"No… It's perfectly fine now… But I want you to have it."

"Hah? Me? But-" She stops herself as she realizes what's happening. This is Kaoruko's way of thanking her. Futaba purses her lips into a big smile. "I mean, wow! Thank you, Kaoruko-chan! I'll treasure it forever!" Futaba accepts the token while Kaoruko taps her shoe in the grass bashfully.

Futaba puts the fan and the handkerchief into each pocket before patting the girl's head again.

"You sure you're okay?"

"Mm."

"What's up? You tired?"

"Only a little…" Kaoruko rubs her eyes, and a yawn follows shortly afterward. Futaba really has to try hard to resist the urge to just hug her.

"You danced a lot. Thanks for showing me the ropes. Did you have fun today?"

"Yes… It was nice to have someone to play with…" Kaoruko's eyes are already drooping. Futaba crouches down to catch her as she slouches.

She picks the girl up in her arms and slowly brings her back inside. Futaba kneels down on the mats and lets little Kaoruko rest her head in her lap as she always likes to do. A smile comes across her sleeping face almost instantly when she's lain in the familiar position. Futaba strokes her fingers gently through the girl's hair.

"I had a lotta fun, too," she murmurs. "Thanks, Kaoruko."

With Kaoruko now curled up asleep in her lap, Futaba leans back against the wall and closes her eyes too.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5. Stage Fight Practice

 

 

Kaoruko moans softly as she comes to, trying to make sense of things.

Goodness… What is it this time? That meddlesome giraffe…

She doesn't open her eyes just yet, but she can tell she isn't onstage anymore, nor is she wearing her revue clothes, but rather just a casual everyday outfit. Though it doesn't take her long to realize she's lying in grass, which is already making her skin itch. But even more irritating is the fact that she can feel something poking at her cheek.

Ugh, this isn't a dream after all is it?

"Ooooy!" comes a voice from nearby. "Onee-chan, you okay?"

"'Onee-chan'…?" Kaoruko finally manages to open her eyes, blinking up at a blue sky dotted with clouds. She's confused about everything already, but when she turns her face to find the source of the finger poking her cheek, she nearly chokes.

"Wh-What in the world-?!" She bolts upright in a split second, startling the little girl who'd been crouched next to her.

"Whoa!" The girl with short-cut hair and a boyish manner of speech and dress falls backward into the grass. Kaoruko opens her mouth in a silent shriek as she recognizes that face.

"F-Futaba-ha- aah, no wait, is it really you? It can't be-!"

But there's no mistake about it. The younger girl is definitely none other than Isurugi Futaba. She sits up straight again and blinks in shock.

"Oy, you know my name!" she says. "I'm glad you're alive. I was just comin' by and I saw you lying in the grass like that. I was about to call the cops! What happened to you, Onee-chan?"

Kaoruko's stomach flips over and her brain hardly seems to process anything that's just been said.

"'O-Onee-chan'…?" she parrots. "What are you talking about? You're Futaba-ha… rather, you're Isurugi Futaba-han, aren't you? Don't you know who I am?"

"You?" little Futaba hums. "I mean, you talk just like my friend Kaoruko, and I guess you kinda look like her, too… Ah! No way! Are you a doppelgänger? Or does Kaoruko have an older twin sister?"

"Excuse me?" Kaoruko quips. "A dopple-what? Of course not-!"

"Oh, duh, right!" Futaba laughs. "Kaoruko is the same age as me, so if she had a twin she'd be the same age too! So then you're just her older, non-twin sister, huh?"

"I-!" Kaoruko is about to blurt things out, but then she thinks better of it. This is probably just a dream, but just in case it isn't… I should probably be careful…

So after drawing in a deep, deep breath, she exhales a bit more calmly.

"Actually yes. That's it exactly. I'm her older sister."

"Hah! I knew it!" Futaba claps. "Then I'll call you Onee-chan!"

"H-Hold on just a-"

"Say, Onee-chan," Futaba says, getting to her feet. "Do you want me to call for someone? It looks like you got dizzy and must've passed out in the yard here."

"Th-That won't be necessary," Kaoruko grunts. The last thing I need right now is to have my parents showing up here somehow…

Futaba looks her over, but seems satisfied that she's all right.

" 'Kay. Do you have to go somewhere? Maybe I could help."

"Ah, no…" Kaoruko shakes her head. "Evidently, this is exactly where I'm supposed to be right now."

"Really?" A bit of a hopeful twinkle appears in Futaba's eyes. "Then… do you think you could play with me a little? Kaoruko's not here today and I'm kinda lonely…"

Kaoruko flinches as she suddenly remembers the last words she'd heard from the giraffe, to 'have fun'…

"No, that can't be it…"

"Huh?"

"N-Never mind! Just talking to myself." Kaoruko finally gets to her feet, brushing off her skirt and blouse. "I suppose I've got nothing else to do at the moment. What do you want to play?"

"You mean it?!" Futaba jumps up excitedly. "Then let's act out a sword fight as warriors!"

"S-Sword fight…?" Kaoruko coughs. "And what exactly would you suggest we do about swords?"

"Hmm…" Futaba starts strutting around the yard, scouring the grass until she finds what she's looking for. "Aha!" She bends down to pick up two big sticks. "Found 'em! Here, this one's yours!"

"E-Eh?" Kaoruko scrambles to catch the stick the young girl tosses to her. Futaba grabs her stick with both hands and turns to face her readily.

"My sworn enemy!" she shouts. "It's time for us to do battle!"

"Eh? Right now? H-Hold on just a-"

But Futaba doesn't wait for her. She just charges head-on with her stick raised for a strike. Kaoruko's body moves on reflex, something she'd gotten used to from fighting in revues on the stage. She lashes out her own weapon and smacks Futaba's stick right out of her hands, bowling the girl clean over.

"Whoa-!" Futaba lands with an 'oomf!' as she hits the ground.

And it takes Kaoruko a moment to register it all before she shrieks.

"Kyaa-! Wh-What have I done?" She drops the stick and crouches down to help the little girl up. "Futaba-han? Are you all right? I didn't mean to-"

"Whoa!"

"…Eh?"

Kaoruko had been expecting her to be crying, but instead, Futaba's eyes are wide with wonder and amazement, and there's a big smile on her face.

"Onee-chan, you're so cool! You're super good at fighting!"

"A-Am I? I mean I suppose…" She lets the praise stroke her ego for a moment before she remembers she'd just essentially hit a small child. "N-Now, Futaba-han, are you certain you're all right?"

"Yeah! I'm great!"

Kaoruko puts a hand to her chest and breathes a sigh of relief.

"Thank goodness…"

Futaba bends down and picks up her stick again with a grin.

"Let's go again! Onee-chan, teach me how to fight!"

"Eh? Th-That wasn't-" Kaoruko bites her lip. She doesn't want to crush little Futaba's dreams, but she can't exactly teach her combat practice either. But there is perhaps a middle ground.

"How about this?" she suggests. "Not real fighting, but I'll teach you a bit of stage-fighting. How does that sound?"

"Stage-fighting?" Futaba says. "Like a mock battle?"

"Precisely," Kaoruko nods. "No actual contact or injury, but you put on a good enough act that it lets everyone believe it's real. Does that sound interesting?"

"Yeah!' Futaba cries. "Let's do that! I wanna mock battle!"

"Very well." Kaoruko gets back to her feet and takes up her weapon again before getting into a stance. "I'm not exactly dressed for it at the moment, but you want to spread your feet apart a bit for balance, and bend your knees a little."

"Like this?"

"Very good. Now, as for your grip…" She's the most well-versed with how to hold her own naginata, but luckily she'd held enough prop swords onstage and taken all of the necessary prop weapons training lessons for others as well. "If it's a sword, then you'll grip at where the top of the hilt would be with your right hand, and at the base with your left," she instructs. "You're right-handed, aren't you?" she asks, pretending not to already know.

"Yeah."

"Then your right hand will guide and control your weapon, while the left will bring the speed and force." Kaoruko moves to stand beside Futaba now and show her what she means, lifting her stick above her head before bringing it down in a straight cut in front of her. Futaba is baffled.

"Whoa! That was so cool! Lemme try!"

She copies Kaoruko, but her swing ends up being a little wobbly.

"Don't grip too tightly," Kaoruko explains. "Of course you don't want to accidentally drop it, but you need to have a bit of leeway to move with fluidity."

"Fluidity…" Futaba mumbles. "Kaoruko always uses that word to talk about her dancing, so I know what it means! Got it!" Futaba tries another swing, and this time it's much sharper and steadier. "Whoa! I did it!"

"Well done," Kaoruko praises her. "Now then, what do you say about a bit of parrying practice?"

"Yeah, yeah!"

So Kaoruko teaches her slowly and lightly about how to twist her weapon to defend against certain enemy strikes, and then how to counter-attack. Kaoruko gently taps Futaba's stick with hers and tells her how to move to avoid getting struck.

Futaba listens seriously and does her best to follow the instructions.

Their mock battle continues for a little while, until their hands start to get sore. After sustaining one more sturdy strike from Futaba's 'sword,' Kaoruko finally drops her own in defeat.

"All right, you're victorious, Futaba-han." She raises her hands in surrender and finds them scraped and dirty. She grimaces and begins searching her skirt pocket for her handkerchief. Meanwhile, Futaba drops her stick and starts jumping up and down triumphantly.

"Yeah! I did it! I beat my sword training master!"

"Yes, yes." Kaoruko is relieved to find she has her handkerchief, and pulls it out to begin cleaning off her hands. "Now come here so I can wipe your hands off, too. It's not classy or hygienic for even the winner to be covered in dirt."

Futaba bounds over to her, and Kaoruko crouches to take each of her hands in-turn to clean them thoroughly. When she's satisfied, she folds up her handkerchief and puts it away with a sigh.

"Well, I hope my training was sufficient for you," she sighs. "As I've said, I'm not the most well-versed with swords. I'm better at dance, if I do say so myself."

But Futaba shakes her head.

"No way! You're great at swords, Onee-chan! I learned so much!"

"R-Really now?" Kaoruko blushes a bit, even to be praised by such a young child. "Well then, I hope these lessons come in handy for you some day."

"Definitely! Cuz me and Kaoruko are gonna be actors, and actors have to know how to do mock battles and stuff!"

"You're absolutely right," Kaoruko agrees. "Just mind yourself and be careful. Safety is number one."

"Got it." Futaba gives her a big grin, and Kaoruko has to admit her heart flutters a little bit.

"N-Now then-"

"Oy, Onee-chan."

"Yes?"

Futaba kicks her shoe in the dirt a little.

"Do you think you could show me some of your dancing?"

Kaoruko tries not to get too excited.

"Oh? Well since you asked so nicely, I suppose I could…" She's already getting into her starting position, raising one arm up above her head. "It's best done in a kimono, but for now this will have to do."

Futaba scampers over to a tree stump and takes a seat to watch.

Kaoruko chooses a traditional dance she knows by heart, one she's always been praised for ever since she was a child. Even without music or a beat, she can play it in her mind perfectly. She can hear Futaba trying to keep down her little sounds of awe as she watches.

Kaoruko moves slowly and gracefully through the entire dance before finishing with a bow. Her audience of one bursts into applause.

"Wow! That was so cool! Super cool!"

"Fu fu~ I suppose I can accept 'super cool.'" Kaoruko smoothes out her hair a little and catches her breath as she makes her way over to the clapping Futaba. Futaba scooches over to make room for her on the stump, and Kaoruko sits beside her.

"Phew!" Futaba sighs. "All the sword fighting and stuff is makin' me hungry."

"Oh? Just a moment…" Kaoruko hopes she has something in her other pocket. She reaches in and smiles to find her fingers brushing against a hard candy wrapper. She pulls out the treat and hands it to her companion. Futaba grins.

"Wow! Thanks! You've got everything, Onee-chan!"

"I tend to carry them around because you- I-I mean… a good friend of mine is always giving them to me."

"Oh." Futaba frowns. "Your friend gave you this? Then you should eat it." Little Futaba offers her the candy back. Kaoruko's heart does something that makes her chest hurt for half a second.

"Not at all!" she sniffles, taking out her handkerchief again and pressing the clean side to her face. "Please enjoy it!"

She's too pure! Too selfless!

Futaba still seems a little uncertain about accepting the candy, so Kaoruko wraps an arm around her shoulders to reassure her.

"Please. It would make me happiest if you were to enjoy it."

Futaba's smile returns.

"Okay. Thanks, Onee-chan." With that, she unwraps her treat and pops the sugary candy into her mouth. "Mmm, it's so good!"

"Don't talk with your mouth full, dear."

Kaoruko sits with her there on the tree stump for a few moments as Futaba sucks on her candy. Kaoruko sighs, overcome by a wave of nostalgia to be looking at her old property again like this. She has no idea if this is real somehow or just a dream, but either way the feelings it's stirring up in her heart are surely genuine. She keeps her arm around Futaba at her side as the younger girl kicks her feet happily and talks to herself.

"I learned so much cool stuff today!"

"Just remember," Kaoruko says. "Safety first. And if you ever want to get a motorcycle or something like that when you grow up, make sure you wear a helmet."

"A motorcycle? That sounds so cool!"

"Oh, heavens… did I just put that idea in your head…?"

Kaoruko grimaces a bit, but Futaba keeps smiling so much she can't help but do the same. Only a few moments later, Kaoruko hears a big yawn from beside her. Futaba has closed her eyes now and leaned up against her side, loosely hugging Kaoruko's waist. Kaoruko pets her head gently.

"Oh? Is Little Miss Sword-Fighter tired now?"

"Yeah… a little…"

Kaoruko pulls her a bit closer.

"That's normal. So much activity can really take it out of you. Trust me, I know. But luckily, I always have my friends to give me foot massages and the like~"

Futaba just mumbles something unintelligible and snuggles up a little closer. Kaoruko gives her a gentle side hug.

"Did you have fun today, my little Futaba-han?"

"Yeah…" the girl mumbles. "A whole lotta fun…"

"Then I'm glad."

"Thanks… Onee-chan…"

Kaoruko pulls her close.

"That should be my line, Futaba-han."

Once Futaba has fallen asleep, Kaoruko closes her eyes too and rests her head on top of hers.

She hasn't the slightest clue as to where she'll be when she next wakes up, but for now she's content to just be here.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6. Journey Through The Zoo

 

 

Junna blinks her eyes open slowly, putting a hand to her head as she tries to get her bearings.

The last thing she remembers is falling to the stage with everyone else after some unexplained tremors had occurred and the lights had gone out. So she expects to wake up on the floor in the same clothes.

But to her surprise, she finds herself sitting up on a bench, dressed in a simple blouse and pants as if she'd just gone out on a day off, sat down, and dozed off.

"What…?" She closes her eyes again, removing her glasses for a moment to try and get her bearings. "Did I miss something? What's going on now…?" Heaving a sigh, she puts her glasses back on and pushes them onto her nose. She assumes she's just at the local park.

But then, a sudden and very unexpected sound makes her jolt.

"What the-?!"

It's the unmistakable sound of a trumpeting elephant.

Junna snaps her head up and looks around fully.

She isn't at the park at all. She's at the zoo.

She can see crowds of people walking around, children with balloons and plush animal toys, and adults with food and cameras. Fences and enclosures are spread out all around, and she can already see several kinds of deer and zebra from her spot. When she looks back behind herself, she spots a huge crowd gathered around a much larger enclosure where half a dozen elephants are lumbering around.

Junna blinks, removes her glasses, rubs her eyes, puts her glasses back on, then blinks again, but the images in front of her don't disappear.

"I'm… at the zoo…? Okay. Why? Did I even pay to get in here? And where is everyone else...?"

She gets up now to start looking around for some familiar faces. And almost right away she finds one.

Only… to her surprise, she doesn't have to look up at that face like she usually does.

Now, she has to look down.

Junna is stunned by the little girl she sees across the way, wearing a yellow-and-white sundress with her thick blonde hair tied into sectioned twin-tails. She's standing at the fence to the deer enclosure, bouncing up and down excitedly and giggling.

Junna staggers back and slumps back down onto the bench. She removes her glasses a third time and vigorously wipes them clean on her shirt.

"Okay, calm down. Now you're just seeing things. There's no way that's her…"

She takes a deep breath, inspects her glasses to ensure there's really no smudges or anything, and then puts them back on again. But as soon as she does, the first person her eyes are drawn to is that same little girl jumping excitedly as she points at the deer.

"Mama!" she cries. "Look, look! They're so cute!"

Junna watches a little nervously as the girl turns around now to reveal her face. Junna chokes a little. There's no doubt about it. This girl is Nana.

"B-But how?" she mumbles. "There's no logical explanation at all! Unless this is a dream...? Yeah, that's gotta be it. It has to be…" Not that there's usually much logic to anything that has to do with the giraffe's stage, but somehow this seems a little more ridiculous than the usual fighting of Korosu.

So Junna eases her mind by telling herself it must be a dream, and once she's on board with that, she can see things a bit more calmly.

Like how little Nana is now turning around in confusion to look for someone who clearly isn't there.

"Mama…?"

Her smile disappears in an instant, and Junna tenses up as she realizes what's going on. Nana wanders away from the deer now, nervously trying to make her way through the crowd.

"Ah- I-I'm sorry! E-Excuse me…"

In spite of her distance, Junna can hear Nana's voice above anyone else's, and she can tell that her tone is starting to crack and tremble. Nana turns around again, trying to find the right person.

"Mama…?" A little whimper creeps into her voice, and Junna can't stay put any longer. She dashes forward straight to her, pushing her way past the other adults as politely as possible.

"Sorry! Pardon!"

By the time she reaches her, Nana has started crying. Big tears are dribbling down her cheeks and she's begun to hiccup. Junna weaves through the last two people and finally comes to a stop in front of her.

"H-Hey!" She tries to make herself sound more cheerful than confused. Junna crouches down to her height and offers a kind smile. "Are you all right? Did you get separated from your Mama?"

Nana sniffles again as she peeks up from behind her hands. Her cheeks are all red and puffy, and her eyes are scared.

"Mm…mm…" She gives a tiny nod, and more tears come spilling out. Junna's heart backflips.

She's so cute! Gah, but what am I thinking? I've gotta help her!

"D-Don't worry!" she smiles. "I can help you find your Mama! I'll stay with you, so don't cry. Okay?" She reaches into her jean's pocket and is thankful to find her handkerchief. Junna reaches out slowly so as not to startle the girl, and when Nana doesn't show any signs of refusal, Junna gently brushes the fabric across her cheeks to dry the tears. Nana continues hiccuping for a moment, but her sobs fade away as she blinks up at her.

"You'll help me find Mama…?"

"Yes! Of course!"

"You'll stay with me…?"

"Absolutely. I swear it!" Junna puts her fist to her chest to seal the vow.

The little girl finally cracks a smile now, and relief floods her eyes.

"Onee-chan, thank you!"

"Don't mention it! There's no way I'd let you stay here all by yourself. No one should ever have to cry at the zoo! You should be enjoying all the neat animals!"

"Mm!" Now, Nana's eyes are excited again, as any child's at the zoo should be. "Onee-chan, what's your name?"

"Me?" Junna thinks quickly, but presumes if this is a dream, there's no harm in telling the truth. "My name's Hoshimi Junna."

"Junna-Onee-chan," Nana says.

Junna feels a pang through her chest.

S-So cute!

She has to wipe her own forehead with her handkerchief a bit before putting it away again. She decides to go along with things and act like she doesn't already know the girl.

"And what's your name?"

"Nana!" she replies.

"I see. Nice to meet you, Nana-chan."

"Mm! Nice to meet you, Junna-Onee-chan!"

Now that she's succeeded in making contact with Nana and stopping her tears, Junna knows she should take her straight to security so they can put out a call for the girl's mother. But she can't really explain why it feels like she shouldn't do that just yet. Instead, it feels like she should stay with Nana for a while. And evidently, that's what Nana wants, too.

"Junna-Onee-chan, have you seen the deer?" she asks. "They're super cute! And there's even a white one!"

Junna sees no harm in accompanying her to a few enclosures. So she goes along with it.

"Really? Which one? Show me." She follows Nana back to the fence and takes in the sight of the herds of brown and gold deer. Nana starts bouncing excitedly again.

"They're so cute!"

"They're not the only ones," Junna says fondly. "Say, did you know that the babies have those speckles to help keep them camouflaged from danger?"

Nana's jaw drops as she turns to look up at her.

"Really? It keeps them safe?"

"Exactly. And as they get older and learn how to take care of themselves, the speckles go away. Nature is really amazing, huh?"

"Yeah! Oh! Junna-Onee-chan, look!" Nana tugs on her sleeve and starts pointing. "There she is! The white deer!"

Junna follows Nana's finger to a cluster of deer, and sure enough there's a white one amongst them.

"Wow. She's an albino."

"A what?"

"An albino! It's a genetic deformity of the skin pigmentation that- ah…"

She pauses when she realizes Nana isn't really retaining any of the biology of this, so Junna changes her tactic.

"Basically, it just means she's very very special."

"Ooooh…" Little Nana is satisfied with just that much.

They watch the deer for a little while longer, before Junna hears the elephants trumpet again, and evidently Nana does, too. She turns around and starts bouncing on her heels to try and find them.

"Junna-Onee-chan! Can we see the elephants next?"

"Sure! I know where they are. But there are a lot of people there. Do you wanna hold my hand?"

"Mm!"

So Junna offers her hand, and Nana accepts. When she squeezes her little fingers against her palm, Junna feels another skip in her pulse.

She's too cute, what the heck?!

But externally, she maintains her Student Council-like demeanor and posture, slowly guiding Nana away from the deer enclosure and toward the elephants. Nana skips along beside her, and Junna swings her arm a little to let her jump a bit.

As they near the elephants, she realizes the crowd has gotten even larger now, and even more people have appeared to block their view. Junna and Nana stand back for a moment to wait their turn, but it never seems to come. Nana starts to fidget.

"Junna-Onee-chan, I can't really see…"

"I know. Some people aren't waiting their turn and they're cutting…" She grumbles a little at the injustice.

Come on, people! Nana wants to see the elephants!

But to her surprise, Nana takes a step back.

"That's okay. We can come back later."

Too pure, too pure!

"Nope!" Junna says. "You waited your turn long enough, so you deserve to see them now!" She turns to Nana and opens her arms. "Come on, I'll hold you up so you can see!"

Nana's eyes start to twinkle again.

"Really?"

"Yeah!"

It's clear to Junna that the little girl had been doing her best to hold back and try to be mature in saying she'd wait and come back later. But now that she's being told it's okay to take her rightful turn, a smile breaks out across her face.

With a squeal, Nana jumps up into Junna's arms.

Junna perches the girl on her shoulder and keeps her other arm around her while Nana clings to her and straightens up as much as she can.

"Can you see better now?" Junna wonders.

"Mm! I can see all the elephants now! They're so big! Ah! There's a baby one, too!"

"That's amazing!" Junna proudly holds her charge up as high as she can so Nana can see the animals. She reports everything to Junna, who can only see about half of what's going on.

"Aha! The mommy is spraying her baby with water!"

"That sounds like fun! It is a little hot today."

"Ah! And now the baby is trying to spray water, too!"

"Cute!"

Nana continues narrating for several moments, until Junna feels her muscles failing her.

"Sorry, Nana-chan. I've gotta put you down now."

"Okay!"

Junna lowers herself, and Nana jumps back down to the ground.

"That was so much fun! Thank you, Junna-Onee-chan! I was so tall!"

"You may be a little short now, but don't worry! Something tells me you're gonna grow up to be super tall one day."

"Really? You think so?"

"I know so."

"Wow! I can't wait!"

Junna offers her hand again, and Nana happily takes it.

The next enclosure they pass by are the zebras, who have a large open plain all to themselves to roam around in.

"They're so pretty!" Nana exclaims.

"And did you know their stripes are to confuse predators? When they move as a group it kind of makes you dizzy looking at them, right?"

"A little bit. Wow, Junna-Onee-chan, you're so smart! You know everything!"

"W-Well, not everything." Junna bashfully pushes her glasses further up onto her nose.

The next animals are ones she can already see from here. With their long yellow necks bobbing up and down between the tall trees, Junna grimaces a little at the sight of them. But she puts aside her own biases for the time being to let Nana enjoy herself.

"Oh, look! The giraffes are next."

They come to a brief stop and both look up at the huge animals lumbering peacefully around, sticking their long tongues out to rip off some tree leaves. Junna can't help but feel one of them is going to look directly at her and start talking.

Wow. I never realized that giraffes are kind of ruined for me now…

And even little Nana doesn't seem all that thrilled about them. She actually steps behind Junna and clings to her arm.

"Junna-Onee-chan? Can we keep going? The giraffes are a little scary…"

"Y-Yeah. Let's keep going."

As she looks ahead to what's next, Junna sees several buildings. One is titled Rodent House, one is Amphibians and Reptiles, and one is Creatures of the Night. Junna smiles as she immediately decides which one to go to.

"Hey, Nana-chan? Do you wanna go inside and cool off for a little while?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Okay. Then follow me."

With a grin, Junna begins leading her toward the second building she'd spotted. As soon as they walk in, a blast of cool air blows over them, and both girls sigh.

Inside, the walls on either side of the long hallway are filled with little glass tanks, which are full of wet green leaves and pools of water. Nana gazes at the nearest one, so Junna leads her over to see what's inside.

"Turtles!" Nana gasps. "They're so cute!"

"There's a baby one sitting on that rock there."

"And look at that one swimming!"

"Did you know?" Junna says. "A lot of people think turtles are amphibians, but actually they're reptiles!"

"Really?"

"Yup."

They watch the turtles for a while longer before slowly making their way to the next tank, which is full of little lizards. After that it's some more turtles, some geckos, bearded dragons, and then…

Junna sees the information sign on the next enclosure and grins. This is the entire reason she'd picked this building.

"Nana-chan, are you ready for the next one?"

"Mm!" Nana keeps hold of her hand and skips along.

Junna waits until the girl realizes what's ahead of them. There's a big, excited gasp, and then a squeal.

"Froggies!"

The payoff is everything Junna had hoped it would be, and more.

Nana excitedly hurries over to the large glass tank that's speckled with at least a dozen frogs; some on the soil, some in the water, some hiding in the little plants, and some clinging to the glass walls. Nana makes the happiest sound Junna's ever heard.

"Ahhh! Froggies! They're the cutest! Junna-Onee-chan, I love them!"

Junna has to reach for her handkerchief and wipe her eyes again.

"I'm so glad, Nana-chan."

They spend a long time looking at the frogs, and then discover another tank next to it with toads, and then another with a different species of frogs. Junna is most impressed with the poison dart frogs and their vibrant colors, but Nana seems equally as in love with any and all of the frogs.

They make their way slowly through the entire building, marveling at all of the creatures there. When they finally reach the end, there's a little gift shop, and somehow Junna manages to find a single coin in her pocket. She picks out a tiny plastic green frog and gives it to Nana.

"Sorry it isn't much."

But Nana shakes her head, cupping the little frog in her palms adoringly.

"No! I love him! Thank you, Junna-Onee-chan!"

"You're welcome! Maybe if you kiss him, he'll turn into a prince!"

But Nana shakes her head again.

"No. I like him better as a frog!"

Junna smiles and pats her head.

"Good choice."

By the time they exit the building, Nana has clearly worn herself out from all the excitement, and Junna feels she could do with a rest, too. She brings Nana back to the bench where Junna had first woken up here, and they sit down together. Nana clutches her little frog in her hands and lets out a big yawn. Junna lifts her arm, and Nana cuddles up to her side.

"Tired?"

"Mm…"

"Yeah. Me, too…"

"But it was so much fun!"

"I'm glad."

Junna looks around for a moment, wondering if she should try to find security now. But when she next looks down, Nana is already fast asleep. Junna smiles again and leans down to place a soft kiss on top of her head.

It's a dream anyway, so what's the harm in a quick nap?

So she closes her eyes and leans back against the bench, just to rest her eyes for a moment, keeping Nana close to her side.

And the sounds of the zoo eventually fade away.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 7. Library Literature

 

 

Nana wakes to find herself sitting on a bench, wearing shorts, a blouse, and a cardigan. It's certainly not where she'd been or what she'd been wearing the last she remembers.

She blinks, shaking her head slowly as she starts to look around. She realizes she's seated on a public bench, not far from the local zoo, which is the most puzzling thing to her so far.

That's strange... Usually after a revue or gathering on the giraffe's stage, we'll be sent back to the school or Starlight Hall. It's very rare we're ever transported somewhere off-campus…

She tries to remember what he had last said before she'd blacked out.

Something about… my wish…?

As soon as she recalls, Nana's heart jolts as a little pang shoots through her.

Oh no… Have I… have we gone back in time again…? Are we somehow going to do my repeat performance again…? Even though Hikari-chan was with us? Does this mean she's gone now? Are we all going to be tossed back into that never-ending cycle…?

In the past, she would've welcomed more repetition of her favorite school years. But ever since Hikari had joined their group and Nana had lost to her, everything had been put into perspective for her. Particularly that night when she'd cried her heart out, and her dear friend Junna had held her and listened to her feelings. Above all others, Junna had made her understand the error of her ways. Nana doesn't want to repeat things anymore - not if it means stealing their futures from them.

So thinking that she somehow might've caused another rewind now makes her chest feel gnarled and tight.

The giraffe had said the stage had retained residual energy from all the times it had granted and re-granted Nana's wish, so this time it had simply acted on its own accord.

Along with… Elle-san's wish…?

That's the part she doesn't understand. In truth, Elle is only a young child, and her wish is to watch the older Stage Girls perform various plays she's seen or heard of.

This doesn't make any sense…

Nana holds her head in her hands for a moment as she thinks everything over to the best of her abilities. The people all keep passing by around her, and all of the noises are muffled.

But even after several moments of deep thought, Nana can't fathom how she'd found herself in this reality. Her hope is that it's the same day or the day after when she'd gone to fight the Korosu with the others, and that the stage had simply brought her back a little off-course of the usual spots.

In any case, her concerns have caused her stomach to feel a little off, and being there's really only one person she can confide in, Nana is determined to get back to her as quickly as possible.

So with a deep breath, Nana stands up, dusting off her lap as she glances around. She recognizes exactly where she is in town, and has to wonder why she's been brought to this specific spot.

But judging by my clothes… Maybe Junna-chan and I came out together? It was our day off, after all. And if Junna-chan isn't right beside me on our day off, there's only one other place she'd be…

Nana turns toward the street and the large grey building beyond; the public library. There's no doubt in her mind.

So she follows the sidewalk to the crosswalk, and then reaches the building within minutes. As she enters, the hustle and bustle and heat of the town fade behind her, and a calmer, cooler air encompasses the space.

There are two stories to the building, with the bottom floor's books being directed at younger audiences, and the upper floor's for older. Nana quickly and quietly makes her way to the carpeted stairs and hurries to the top, her legs already naturally pulling her toward Junna's usual spot. She tends to always sit at one of the tables located in between the History and Theatre sections, one that has quite a nice view from the second-story window. Nana just hopes to actually find her here today.

As she rounds one of the book shelves, one end of the designated table is in sight. Nana calls out softly.

"Junna-chan? Are you here…?"

And then, she hears a familiar voice respond.

"Huh? Who is it?"

Nana sighs in relief, though she's a bit puzzled as to why Junna doesn't instantly recognize her voice. Either way, she's just glad Junna is here - even if her voice does sound a little strange.

"Thank goodness," Nana sighs. "I was just-"

But as she rounds the final corner of the aisle, and the table comes completely into view, Nana's words die on her lips.

Sitting before her now is none other than Hoshimi Junna, for certain. But she's not the same Junna at all.

Her shoes don't even reach the floor as she sits in her chair, and the book that she's holding in front of her is as big as her shoulders are wide. When she sits up at her full height, she's barely as tall as the chair she's sitting in.

Nana blinks and reaches up to rub her eyes, but when she looks again, nothing has changed.

Junna is… She's a little kid. But there's no doubt in her mind that this girl is indeed her Junna. She has the same ponytail over her right shoulder, the same stern and serious eyes behind a pair of glasses, the same tone and manner of speaking.

There's a rush of thoughts like a beehive buzzing in Nana's head, but in only seconds everything clicks.

My wish of going back in time… and Elle's reality of being a young child… They must have combined somehow and turned Junna-chan back into a little kid, too. Did this happen to the others as well?

"Excuse me?"

Nana is snapped from her thoughts when little Junna prompts her and tilts her head.

"Did you say my name before? How do you know who I am?" Even at this age, Junna gives her a smart, suspicious look, as if she won't hesitate to start yelling and call for the police if she has to. Nana thinks quickly and tries her best to ease the girl's mind.

"Ah! You see, I frequent the library a lot, too! I always see you around and the clerk says your name when you go to check out books. That's all." She folds her hands behind her back and smiles pleasantly.

Junna stares at her for another moment, but eventually relaxes a bit.

"That makes sense. But if you're at the library all the time, how come I've never seen you before?"

"Ah, I'm usually pretty shy! I tend to keep to myself."

Junna is quiet for another moment, but seems to accept the answer.

"All right. So why did you call out for me just now?"

"Because I was worried about you!" Although now I'm even more worried! How do I get you back to normal? "I saw you all alone here and just wanted to ask where your parents are."

Junna shrugs.

"Oh, they're downstairs looking for books for my baby cousins. But I don't like those, so I came up here to read big kids' books."

"I'll say!" Nana chuckles. "They really are big kids' books! I even have trouble with some of them! How old are you, Junna-chan?"

"Six. But I can still read these books," she says proudly, showing off the cover of the tome in her hands. Nana reads it aloud.

"Shakespeare's Sonnets, hm?" She giggles. "Junna-chan, you've always liked Shakespeare, even from such a young age?"

"Yeah," the girl nods. "Even though some of the words are strange or I don't understand the old-fashioned style he uses. But the more I read the more I start to understand it!"

"That's great!" Nana isn't entirely sure about what's going on, but at the very least she'd found her roommate - even if she isn't exactly how Nana had expected her to be.

In any case, I should probably stay with her, right?

"Say, Junna-chan? Do you mind if I join you to read a little bit?"

Junna makes a pensive expression.

"Do you like Shakespeare, too?"

"Yes! I love his works!"

"Okay, uh…?"

"Oh! Where are my manners? My name is Nana! Or you can just call me Banana if you'd like!"

"Banana…?" Junna chuckles. "That's funny. But I think I'll call you Nana-san."

"Okay!"

Nana pulls out the chair beside her little future roommate and peers over her shoulder. The book Junna is reading has very small font and is written in the traditional language, not at all modernized.

"Wow. Junna-chan, I'm impressed you can read this book at your age! What's your favorite sonnet?"

Junna grins.

"Sonnet 116!"

"Ah!" Nana clears her throat and puffs up her chest. " 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments-'"

"Whoa!" Junna gapes. "Nana-san, you know Sonnet 116?"

"Mmhm! I can recite that one by heart! A very close friend of mine loves that sonnet."

"Really? Who's your friend."

"My roommate," she replies simply. "You and she are very alike!"

Junna adjusts her glasses.

"Well, do you and your roommate know that in Romeo and Juliet, the famous line "wherefore art thou, Romeo" actually doesn't mean 'Where are you?' but instead it means 'Why are you Romeo'?"

And of course, as a seasoned theatre student, Nana knows this. But she wants to let little Junna have her moment. So she acts totally surprised.

"Really?" she gasps. "I had no idea!"

Junna's grin gets even wider.

"Yup! Juliet isn't asking where he is in that scene, but actually she's asking why he's Romeo. Why does he have to be from the family that is at war with hers? Why couldn't he have been born as someone else so they could be together?"

"Junna-chan, you're so smart!"

"I've read a lot of stuff about Shakespeare," she says. "Oh, Nana-san, do you know about iambic pentameter?"

"Nope!" she fibs. "Tell me all about it!"

"Well, you see…"

So Nana scooches close and rests her chin in her palm as she listens with great interest while Junna goes off telling her everything she knows about Shakespeare. They flip through the sonnet book and read over a few of them out loud. Nana uses her best voice, annunciating clearly and stressing the inflections when appropriate. Junna is in awe.

"Wow! Nana-san, you read so beautifully! Are you a professional actress?"

"Oh, I'm not a professional! But I do go to Seishou Academy!"

"Seishou?!" Junna blurts out the word, then remembers she's in the library and quickly covers her mouth before lowering her voice. "You go to the Seishou Academy? That's where I wanna go!"

"You can do it!" Nana smiles. "You can definitely do it, Junna-chan! I'm sure of it!"

"What sort of things do you learn there?" Junna has now put down the book and turned all of her wide-eyed attention to Nana. Nana hums.

"Well, we do dance, acting, singing, and even script-writing, too!"

"Whoa… I'm gonna make sure I study super hard so I can go there, too!"

"I'm sure you will! Hopefully I'll see you there!"

"What? By the time I get there, you'll have graduated, Nana-san!"

The innocent comment sends a pang through Nana's chest.

"Oh… I guess you're right," she says with a tight smile.

Junna goes back to her book for the moment, and Nana is left with her thoughts. Now that she's here and she's already rewound her friends' time many times before… the words her Junna had spoken to her resonate all the more clearly.

We will have to graduate someday… And if that's inevitable, I want to do it together with everyone… I don't want to graduate all by myself… I want Junna-chan and everyone by my side…

She has to get back to her proper time, with Junna being the same age as her.

But just for a while longer, Nana decides to keep the younger girl company. She gives herself a shake and straightens up again, leaning in to tap the girl's shoulder.

"Hey, Junna-chan? Do you want to try reading some lines with me?"

"Lines?" she asks. "Like doing a play?"

"Yeah! What about Romeo and Juliet? Something tells me you like that one."

"Yeah! I do! Who should I be?"

"Why don't you be the princess Juliet? And I'll be your handsome prince!"

"Huh?" Junna gives her a pensive look. "But I wouldn't say you're handsome, Nana-san. I'd say you're pretty, too!"

"Ah! Why, thank you very much!" Junna - in any form - calling her pretty makes Nana's heart happy.

Nana offers to go and find a book with the script for Romeo and Juliet, but Junna assures her she knows it all by heart.

And she certainly does. Nana is blown away by how perfectly she recites everything, and Nana uses her very best speaking skills on her parts as well. Junna expresses her amazement for Nana's speech, so Nana helps her practice changing her tone and pitch.

They recite some more of Romeo and Juliet quietly, then take turns reading sonnets, chatting merrily all the while.

It's sort of funny, Nana muses to herself. She's ten years younger, but it almost feels like I'm just talking to my regular Junna-chan! Guess she's been this way from the start!

Whenever they finish reading one thing, Junna excitedly flips through to find another certain poem or sonnet she wants to read next. She uses her brand new speech techniques that Nana had taught her, which makes her even more excited.

Nana keeps up with her, happy to spend some time here and keep the girl company. But after a little while longer, Junna begins to rub her eyes beneath her glasses.

"That was fun…!" she yawns. "Next… let's do Sonnet 140: 'Be wise as thou art cruel…'" But as she turns the pages, her head nods forward a little bit. Nana reaches out swiftly to catch her so she won't bump her head on the table.

"Junna-chan?" she says gently. "We've done a lot of reading and voice-acting today! Why don't you nap for a little while until your parents come get you?"

Junna blinks up at her tiredly, still rubbing her eyes.

"Yeah… Maybe…" She closes the book, removes her glasses, folds them, and lies them on top of the cover. "Nana-san? Will you stay with me…?"

"Of course!" Nana moves her chair over right next to hers. Junna smiles, her eyelids already falling shut as she slouches against her side.

"Nana-san… thank you. I learned a lot and I had a lot of fun with you…"

"You have no idea how happy I am to hear that, Junna-chan!" Nana puts an arm around the girl's shoulders, holding her up securely.

Within only moments, little Junna has fallen fast asleep. Nana can't stop smiling.

"Even after you grow up, you're still just as cute when you sleep," she giggles. "Maybe I'll join you for a second…"

She decides she'll deal with her thoughts of the giraffe and the possible time travel in a bit.

But for now, Nana closes her eyes and snuggles up to her little future roommate, hoping she'll still be beside her when she wakes up.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8. A Day Of Freedom

 

 

Claudine can't make much sense of anything right away.

The last thing she recalls is being on that underground stage with her friends, and the lights going out after a rumbling had started up. But now as she finally regains her senses, she's made aware of an all-around chattering and muttering of voices.

With a gasp, she opens her eyes to find herself seated in the audience of a theater. But it isn't the same one she'd lost consciousness in, nor are her friends, classmates, or teachers the people surrounding her now. They're all total strangers, whispering and talking in the typical fashion of a crowd before a performance begins.

Claudine finds herself seated at the end of an aisle, but the woman sitting beside her doesn't even seem to notice Claudine is present at all. Claudine puts a hand to her head and tries to think.

What in the world is going on? Since when did I get here? And why…?

At the very least, she recognizes this theater as the one from town, so she is a bit more familiar with her surroundings.

But why was I sent here? What is the meaning of this? Is it even real to begin with…?

Suddenly, there's a surge of murmuring and applause from all around the room as the spotlights onstage shift, and the curtains are pulled aside. Claudine watches in confusion as unfamiliar actors begin to appear and start their opening lines.

From what she can gather, this is a very old play, one that's sorely outdated and not the least bit relevant anymore in terms of the politics, speech, or concerns of modern times. She can tell right away it's a play not she nor any of her friends would ever voluntarily attend, and Seishou itself would probably never book a field trip to such a biased performance.

So why was I brought here? Is this the giraffe's doing?

She can't make sense of anything right away, and she has no idea if she's meant to be here, or if she was just brought back to a random location after they'd beaten the Korosu. Either way, she opts to remain where she is for a few more minutes, groaning internally at the historically-inaccurate rendition of the play being performed.

At no more than ten minutes in she's already had quite enough, and is getting ready to quietly excuse herself when a sudden movement catches the corner of her eye.

Turning her head to the aisle beside her, Claudine can see a small figure making its way out from the row of seats. She can't see much in the darkness, but she can make out a dress, long hair, and a ribbon to tell her it's a young girl.

The girl moves very respectfully of the adult guests she's passing by, and holds herself up with fine posture. But as soon as she's out in the aisle, the girl turns away from the stage and takes off at a very frantic pace.

Claudine gets a sinking feeling in her stomach. Something feels wrong.

Are her parents really letting such a young girl go to the restroom on her own? Maybe she's feeling sick?

Regardless, Claudine doesn't see any adults who seem to be concerned about the child, so she slowly gets to her feet, turning her back on the distasteful play and hurrying down the aisle toward the exit.

She locates the women's restrooms easily, and the door is just closing. And though she's certain the girl is probably fine on her own, something compels Claudine to check on her anyway. So she pushes her way in.

Judging by sound alone, she can tell no one else is in the restroom except for one other person.

A single stall door is closed, but Claudine can't see the little girl's shoes at all, which tells her she's probably sitting on top of the toilet seat with her knees pulled to her chest, as someone would when they were upset.

Cautiously, Claudine pauses on the other side of that stall.

"Hello...?" she calls softly. "Are you all right, sweetie? Did you suddenly not feel well? I'll be honest, that play was making me feel a bit sick, too."

She hears a soft gasp, but it's less surprised and more… frightened. Then, a small voice.

"You… You aren't Mother..."

And then she sounds... relieved.

Claudine is upset that a young girl would feel such dismay about her own mother.

"No," she replies. "I'm not anyone's mother. I just happened to see you run out and I thought you might be sick, so I wanted to check on you. That's all."

For a long moment, there's no response of any kind. But then, she hears the cautious tapping of two shoes as they slide down onto the floor. The girl stands now, and slowly makes her way to the door.

Claudine takes a step back as she hears the click of the lock sliding out of place, and then the creak of the door opening. Relief rushes through her that the child seems to be fine.

"Thank goodness! I was worried that- ah-?!"

Claudine nearly blurts out a full-fledged shriek as she finally gets a proper look at the girl.

Her attire of a navy blue dress, white socks, and black shoes is very formal, her long brown hair is tied at the back by a dark violet ribbon, and her silver eyes are shockingly familiar.

Claudine's cry of surprise echoes around the bathroom.

"Y-You're-! T-Tendo Maya-?"

There's no mistake about it. Other than the fact that she's only a fraction of her normal size, and that her features are much less mature, it is irrefutable that this girl is the one and only Tendo Maya.

But how-? Am I hallucinating? This must be a dream-

"Yes…" The girl lifts her gaze a bit timidly to Claudine. "That is my name. I suppose you know of me because of my performances?"

"I… Ah, y-yes, that's right. You're a very skilled young woman, aren't you?" Claudine plays along as casually as possible, even though her mind is whirling. Maya stays put, clasping her hands together in front of herself in a clearly nervous fashion.

"Are you… going to bring me back to my parents now…?"

"Your parents…?" Claudine is quiet for a moment. All thoughts and questions of how this could be happening are pushed aside as she remembers all of the distasteful things she's ever known about Maya's parents.

Maya had never opened up about them much at school, but Claudine had gathered quite enough from what she hadn't said. And of course, everyone involved in Japanese theatre in any way knew of the renown Tendos. The prestigious purebreds, who had a prodigy of a daughter, unmatched in her skills even at such a young age.

Or at least, that's what the rest of the world knows. But the people closest to Maya at Seishou, particularly Claudine, know it isn't all fun and games. Maya's parents are terribly strict, often putting Maya's status before her wellbeing. They would rather she be in good health so she could win an award rather than be able to play with classmates. Her home life was undoubtedly harsh, and her value to her parents was based upon her successes on the stage.

Claudine can feel herself growing angry at the thoughts. Perhaps the Maya she knew currently at Seishou had been able to break away from them to some degree and seek out her own path. But as she is now, this little girl is still trapped within their clutches.

Now Claudine understands why little Maya had sounded scared at thinking her mother had come to find her, and why she'd only come to open the door because Claudine had assured Maya she wasn't her mother.

As everything finally sets in for her, Claudine breathes in deeply to calm herself.

"No," she says firmly and honestly. "I'm not taking you back to your parents, so don't worry about that."

It hurts her a little at how clearly relieved Maya is to hear that; she'd rather sit alone in a bathroom stall than sit in the audience beside her own parents. Claudine has decided she won't let either of those things happen.

"No," she says again. "Actually, I'm here to take you on a very special adventure today."

Maya blinks, and a small sparkle comes into her gaze.

"An adventure…?"

"Oui." Claudine tosses her hair over her shoulder. "That boring play is going to be dragging on for nearly two hours, so instead of suffering through it, the two of us are going to sneak out and have some fun!"

She already knows this is ridiculous - that what she's proposing is essentially kidnapping. But this has got to be a dream, so there won't be consequences even if she is found out.

In addition to that, the fact that Maya seems more than eager to go with Claudine - a complete stranger, as she is to her now - rather than go back to her parents, just goes to show how messed up things are in her young life.

So just to be as safe as possible with such a terrible idea, Claudine is sure to ask her permission.

"What do you think? Would you like to come along with me, Miss Tendo Maya-san? I'll have you back here before the play is over. And something tells me your parents won't even bother to notice you've been gone in the first place."

This really is a bad idea, but Claudine would willingly get apprehended by the authorities if it meant she could give Maya a few hours of fun away from her stifling family life.

And to her surprise, the little girl takes a step forward to her, reaching up to hug Claudine around her waist and burying her face into her blouse.

"Yes…" Maya mumbles. "I want to go with you, Onee-san…"

Claudine is hesitant, but eventually returns a soft, loose embrace to her. Just like her own, older Maya, this girl craves physical affection very much, due to a painfully-evident lack of it she'd ever gotten at home.

Claudine pats through her hair for a moment, letting Maya stay close.

"All right," she says. "Don't you worry, Miss Tendo Maya-san. Leave it to your Onee-san: to Saijou Claudine!"

Maya eases back and blinks up at her.

"Saijou… Claudine-san…?"

"Ah, is it a bit difficult for you to say? Then why don't you call me Kuro-san?" Somehow it doesn't seem right to have such a young Maya call her by her last name or address her formally. Maya tries out the nickname.

"Kuro-Onee-san?"

"That's perfect." Claudine pats her head again, then offers her hand to the girl. "All right, we've got two hours! Kuro-Onee-san will show you the most fun you've ever had!"

And little Maya finally breaks into a smile. She happily accepts Claudine's hand and squeezes tightly. Claudine squeezes back, making a silent vow to never let go.

"All right, follow me!"

With this, Claudine leads the girl to the bathroom exit, though she pauses to peek out cautiously and ensure no one else is around to see them.

When she's certain the coast is clear, Claudine leads Maya out into the hallway, and casually toward the exit doors. To anyone in the lobby, they simply look like sisters, or a babysitter and her charge.

When Claudine glances down, she can see Maya is bounding along a little excitedly, which is probably a manner of walking she rarely or never gets to express when in the presence of her family.

Claudine smiles pleasantly at the people they pass by until they make it to the doors. Luckily, the weather is bright and sunny, and Claudine hadn't just lead this child out of the theater into a rainstorm.

Maya already looks ten times happier and more energetic than she had when inside the building.

Claudine stands with her for a moment, keeping hold of her hand as she debates on what to do next. She'd been the one to promise an adventure, after all, and even if she did ask Maya where she wanted to go, she doesn't think the girl would have any idea of what she'd want to do, because she'd probably never been given the option before. Claudine tries not to let the thoughts upset her, and she maintains her smile as Maya looks up at her.

"Kuro-Onee-san, what are we going to do first?"

"I'm glad you asked," Claudine smirks. She can feel the shape of her wallet in her pocket, and she's glad to have it even in this dream. "First, we're going to find some sweet treasures!"

"Treasures?"

"Sweet treasures," Claudine reiterates. "The sweetest ones you can think of! I know just the place! Ready?" She gives Maya's arm a light little swing, and Maya steps a bit closer to her, now holding onto her with both hands.

"Mm."

"Then off we go!"

Claudine begins leading her away from the theater and down the sidewalk, keeping to the shade as they head into town. She makes note of the current time on the clock towers they pass by to ensure she'll get Maya back before the play is over.

As they walk, Maya is wide-eyed and in awe at the town around her. Claudine's certain she's seen it a million times before, but never with the same intangible ticket of freedom. Claudine knows the girl has been raised not to get excited over trivial things and to be well-mannered, especially when in public.

So she pays very close attention to Maya, taking note of the little idiosyncrasies she displays. Whenever she pauses a little bit in her pace or her eyes get a little wider or her grip gets a little tighter, Claudine is sure to slow down or stop so Maya can take in whatever it is she's looking at.

Claudine is patient with her, never telling her to hurry up or to forget about whatever thing she wants to look at.

The two girls move at a leisurely pace through town, until their destination is in sight for Claudine.

By this point, Maya is still holding onto her arm with both hands, keeping close to Claudine, and clearly very comfortable with her. Claudine reaches over with her free hand to pat the girl's head.

"Oh!" she says. "We're almost there. Are you ready?"

"Yes!" Maya gives a little jump and smiles wider than she probably ever has before in her life thus far. Claudine smiles back and begins leading her to the colorful sweets shop.

She feels Maya's little hands gripping her even tighter in excitement as they near, and finally step inside.

The walls are lined with rows and rows of boxes and baggies of sweets, and glass display cases show off fresh cool desserts of every kind. Candies, cookies, crackers, brownies, cakes, ice creams…

Claudine is certain to look only at Maya for her reaction.

And it's an adorable one for sure.

It's as if a gentle wind has started swirling around her. Maya lifts herself up onto her tip-toes, straining to try and look at everything at once, her hands trembling in anticipation, her eyes sparkling with excitement. Her mouth drops open in a quiet little gasp that makes only the tiniest sound.

Claudine's heart is half warm and half aching, glad she could let her feel such joy, and angered that Maya had never gotten to feel it until now.

After a moment of letting her take it all in, Claudine prompts her softly.

"So? What do you think?"

Maya's mouth is still hanging open, and now she seems to remember her manners and closes it.

"I've always wanted to come in here," she murmurs. "But my father says-"

"Don't mind your father," Claudine huffs. "He isn't in charge today - I am. And one day when you're old enough, you'll be in charge of yourself, so don't let even your own parents tell you otherwise."

Maya gazes up at her in wonder, but says nothing. Claudine gives her a kind smile back.

"Now then, you can pick out whatever you'd like. Today is a special day and you get to have fun with Kuro-Onee-san."

Maya's eyes twinkle, and she looks as if she's about to cry from happiness. Claudine pats her head once again.

"Come on. Let's have a look at everything."

Claudine begins leading her through the shop to look at all of the dozens and dozens of treats. She even loosens her grip on Maya's hand to allow her to roam freely since the place is so small.

But Maya doesn't let go of Claudine no matter what, so Claudine gladly keeps hold of that hand.

Maya picks out a few small wrapped candies of different flavors, and Claudine is a little surprised she doesn't pick more. But she figures the girl knows she'll have to eat everything she chooses before she gets back to the theater so her parents don't find any evidence that she'd left.

As they reach the counter, Claudine notes the little girl is eyeing one of the ice creams behind the glass. But she only looks longingly and doesn't say anything. Claudine leaves the candies on the counter for the clerk to start ringing up, then crouches down beside Maya for a moment.

"Hey, Miss Tendo Maya-san? Would you perhaps like some ice cream?"

Maya stiffens, as if nervous at having been found out.

"N-No…" she mumbles.

Claudine's heart breaks. What kind of parents raise a child to be afraid to ask for a scoop of ice cream?

Claudine can't stop herself from opening up her arms and pulling Maya into a soft, gentle hug.

"Now you listen to me," she murmurs. "Don't be afraid to speak up and tell people what you want. Be confident. Say what's on your mind. Even if it's something like wanting ice cream. Even if they reject you, you've got to at least make your wishes known. Understand?"

It takes a moment, but eventually Maya lifts her arms and clings onto Claudine's shoulders to return the hug.

"Mm…"

Claudine wishes she could steal her away for real, but then recalls it's only a dream. It isn't as though anything she says or does here will truly change Maya's life.

But even in a dream like this, she'd do anything to make her smile.

She gives a little pat to the girl's back, then slowly eases away.

"Now then, which flavor?" She picks Maya up in her arms and holds her up to the display case she so can see all of the flavors. Maya eventually settles on mint-chocolate, and Claudine requests coffee-vanilla for herself.

The clerk rings them up, and Claudine pays the fee. She holds onto the candies for now in her pocket, and hands Maya her ice cream cone. Maya clasps it with both hands and gives it a lick, and her eyes sparkle all over again. Claudine accepts her own cone and thanks the worker before taking a few napkins, and then holding the door for Maya.

They walk down the sidewalk slowly, enjoying their ice cream in the warm afternoon. Claudine locates the nearest bench in some shade and guides Maya to sit so she won't drip on her clothes while walking.

Claudine watches her fondly, occasionally reaching over with a napkin to clean off her cheek or chin. Maya smiles all the while as she enjoys her treat, swinging her legs off the side of the bench merrily, in a fashion her family probably always told her was childish or improper.

But as far as Claudine is concerned, she isn't the child prodigy actress Tendo Maya today. She is simply a young girl enjoying a special treat.

Claudine doesn't want to remind Maya of her family life today, so she doesn't ask her about that or about her acting, singing, or dancing. Instead, she asks Maya her favorite ice cream flavors, or which she thinks is the cutest dog walking past them.

By the time they've both finished their ice cream and thrown away their garbage, Maya has moved back in to cling to Claudine's arm.

"Kuro-Onee-san, where are we going next?"

"Well now that we've found our treasure, how about we just take it easy now and go to the park?"

Maya nods instantly.

"Okay!"

Claudine offers her one of the three candies in her pocket as they stand up and head off. Maya munches on the cream-filled sweet as she bounds along beside her.

They reach the park within minutes, and Claudine leads her along one of the many sidewalks. They look at the bright flowers blooming in the little garden section, and pause to sit beside a little blue pond and watch the ducks. Maya even finds a swan nesting in the tall grasses and sighs happily as she nestles closer into Claudine's side.

"It's so pretty…"

Claudine runs a hand through the girl's long hair.

How in the world do you grow up to be the most infuriating woman on the planet?

She reaches into her pocket and extracts the next candy, which has a caramel filling. Maya opens it, and then holds it with both hands to push down in an effort to break it. Claudine is surprised when the girl offers her half.

"Oh, no," she says politely. "Miss Tendo Maya-san, these treats are all for you today. You've always been such a good girl. You deserve them."

Maya blushes a little bit at the praise - praise she clearly doesn't hear often enough. But she shakes her head and continues holding the piece out to her.

"But… I want you to enjoy it too, Kuro-Onee-san."

And Claudine can't possibly refuse if sharing is what will make Maya the happiest.

"All right," she says, dipping her head. "Then thank you very much."

Maya beams back at her, and they eat their chocolates together.

When they're finished looking at the water, they start to saunter once again. Plenty of people walking their dogs pass them by, but it's when a particularly cute small fluffy one is heading their way when Maya's grip on Claudine's hand tightens again. Claudine looks down to see if it means she's frightened or excited, but it's very clearly the latter. She gives a light tug to Maya's hand.

"Would you like me to ask her if we can pet him?"

Maya looks up at her with such eagerness in her eyes, Claudine is surprised she hasn't started whimpering like a puppy herself. She pats Maya's head.

"All right, let's see what she says. Excuse me, Miss?"

The dog is already pulling at his leash excitedly to get to Maya, but she waits until the owner has happily granted permission.

"Thank you," Claudine smiles at the woman.

But before she lets Maya touch the animal, Claudine crouches down and occupies the dog's attention herself. After all, the last thing she needs is for Maya to get nibbled on.

So Claudine uses both hands to gently ruffle the dog's cheeks and muzzle, while Maya pats the top of his head and his back. He's very well-behaved though, and both girls let out a few squeals as they pet him.

After a moment, Claudine eases Maya back, and they both thank the kind woman as she waves and walks off.

Claudine checks the time on the big clock in the center of the park to see they still have a good hour left. So she brings Maya toward the playground to see if she'll take interest.

But Maya actually moves away and walks closer to Claudine instead. Claudine can only assume the poor girl hasn't been allowed to interact much with children her own age outside of dance recitals and whatnot.

Does she even know how to have fun with other kids on a playground?

Judging by Maya's reaction and how she seems more nervous than excited, Claudine knows the answer. She doesn't want to push her to do something she's uncomfortable with, but Claudine offers to help her take at least one step out of her shell.

"Say," she proposes. "Would you like to go on the swings? I'll stay right beside you and I can push you, if you'd like."

Maya blinks up at her, then looks back to the playground and all the children laughing and running around on it. After considering the option, she eventually nods.

"Yes."

Claudine gives her head another pat before leading her to the swings.

As promised, she stays with Maya and pushes her gently, but never higher than she seems comfortable with.

But Maya doesn't seem scared at all. She adapts to the movements as naturally as any child would, kicking her legs and giggling at the rush of wind in her hair.

Claudine pushes her for several minutes, until she can tell Maya is getting a bit tired. Claudine gradually slows her to a stop, at which point Maya hops off and turns around to hug her stomach. Claudine pats her head again.

"You're very welcome."

They begin walking again, and Claudine gives Maya her final candy, which has a strawberry filling. And once again, Maya breaks it and offers her half.

They pass by more gardens and observe the flowers and butterflies, then find a bird's nest up in a tree to watch the mother feeding the babies.

Claudine enjoys herself as much as Maya does, but she has the dreaded job of keeping her eye on the clock. And when they only have a little over half an hour left, she lets out a long sigh.

Maya is bubbling with delight by now, and Claudine hates to think she'll ruin it for her. She crouches down again and speaks very gently.

"Miss Tendo Maya-san?"

"Yes!"

Claudine ruffles the girl's head lightly.

"I'm sorry to say that our time for this little adventure is almost up now. I'll have to take you back to the theater." She flinches, expecting Maya's vibrant smile to fade. But to Claudine's surprise, Maya just gives a happy nod.

"Okay. I think I had so much fun with you today that I won't mind going back." And this time, Maya actually grins and shows her full smile. "Thank you very much, Kuro-Onee-san!"

Claudine feels her eyes begin to water, and she can't stop herself from pulling Maya into another hug. If she could have her way, she'd never leave her.

But she supposes if any of this were real, and if Claudine were to alter Maya's past in some major way, she might not ever have met her at Seishou ten years in the future.

When they're both ready, Claudine stands again, and Maya takes her hand as they begin the walk back to town. They go at a saunter, trying to enjoy every last moment together. Maya keeps close, seeking every last bit of affection from Claudine that she didn't get at home. Claudine's heart twists at the thought, so she comes to a halt and crouches down in front of her once again.

"Here." Claudine opens her arms. "You're tired, aren't you? I'll carry you back." She knows Maya hadn't said anything because she didn't want to be a burden, but she can see it clearly on her face that the girl's eyelids are starting to droop now. Maya gives a little nod, then sleepily walks forward to hug Claudine's neck.

Claudine picks her up and cradles her close, giving her a loose hug as she stands and continues walking.

By the time she reaches the theater, they've got about 30 minutes until the show will end. Claudine heaves a sigh and makes her way back through the automatic doors. She walks quietly down the halls to find the correct theater, and silently pushes through the door.

The bore of a play is still going, and judging by the people yawning in their seats around her, Claudine made the right decision in leaving.

She makes her way back to the aisle where she'd had her end seat and pauses. She has no idea where Maya's parents are seated, but judging by the fact that no one seems concerned, she can infer they didn't even notice their daughter was gone.

Then I'm keeping her until the last second.

With this decided, Claudine takes her empty seat and settles in with Maya in her lap. The little girl is still hugging her, and nestles in against Claudine's collar.

"Kuro…Onee-san…" she mumbles. "Thank you…"

Claudine leans down to kiss her head.

"I'm glad you had fun today. I'll be rooting for you every step of the way, Miss Tendo Maya-san."

She gives the girl one last squeeze before feeling her go limp with sleep.

And as soon as Claudine is forced to look up at the play, she suddenly feels just as tired. She'll wake up when everyone starts to leave, and then she can let Maya make her way back to her parents.

But until then, Claudine hugs her close and closes her eyes.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9. A Tour Guide's Task

 

 

When Maya regains consciousness, the last thing she remembers is how the stage had shaken and churned beneath their boots. She'd tried to hold onto Claudine at the very least, but her partner had stumbled to the floor just as the lights had gone dark. Maya doesn't even recall hitting the floor herself before she'd blacked out.

But now, even before she opens her eyes, she can tell she isn't lying on the stage like she should be.

Slowly, Maya inhales and opens her eyes to find herself sitting upright in an audience seat. The lights are off, save for the spotlights of the stage, but Maya can tell right away that this isn't Seishou's main stage, or even the giraffe's underground one.

As her hearing comes back to her, she's aware of small voices singing onstage, voices that can only be those of children. Maya glances to either side of herself, finding she's seated at the end of the aisle. But the people around her aren't familiar at all. They all appear to be older and formally dressed, in contrast to Maya who is just wearing her usual weekend outfit of a blouse and skirt.

But how? she wonders. Why am I not back at school with everyone...?

There's a sudden applause from around her, and Maya looks up sharply to the stage, where a young girl with short black hair is just exiting stage-left. Maya feels that if she's going to leave the theater, it should be now in between contestants. She makes a move to stand, keeping herself bowed low.

But then, she glimpses the next child who walks daintily out to center-stage.

Maya's lips part in a soft gasp. She forgets she'd been trying to stand up, and now drops back down into her seat.

No. It can't possibly be-

This adorable girl with her white shoes and stockings, her pink dress, and her wavy silver-blonde hair presents a charming smile to the crowd before giving a perfect curtsey. Music begins playing shortly afterward, and Maya can't so much as budge.

It isn't possible. She must just strongly resemble somehow-

But then the little girl begins to sing in a voice that is indisputably familiar. Her tone and pitch are a little big higher and softer, as any child's would be, but the way she sings certain words, the way her voice has a slight inflection on certain syllables, the way she holds her notes and holds herself…

Maya would recognize that voice anywhere, even if it was coming from the mouth of a small child. There's no doubt about who this girl is.

But… how…? She must only be five or six years old at best…

After a moment of trying to logically process all of this, Maya's only feasible explanation is that this must be a dream or vision sent to her by the giraffe or that stage somehow. Even though it's real enough for her to feel every fiber of her clothing on her skin, and every nervous beat of her heart.

If it is real… how is she to get her Claudine back? Her partner and classmate? Has her time been rewound, or has Maya been sent back somehow?

It's all too much for her to fathom at the moment, and before Maya knows it the girl's performance has ended and the audience bursts into applause. The girl takes a deep bow before tossing her curls over her shoulder, a motion that makes Maya's heart jolt. It really is her. Somehow, some way…

As the clapping ebbs away, the people around her begin to stand now as the lights come on, indicating the end of the auditions or recital or whatever this was. Maya stands as well, but rather than heading for the doors, she hurries up toward the stage.

A dozen young girls dressed in formal clothes are scampering down the steps to the adults who must clearly be their guardians. Maya keeps a cautious distance and stays to the back of the group, searching the younger crowd for the girl in pink.

She finds her only when all of the other girls have gone off with their families. The girl is left by herself, with no adults remaining in the room to come for her. She's the only one left.

Naturally, the little girl's curious pink eyes turn to Maya, and she tilts her head.

"Pardon?" she says politely in clearly-evident French.

Maya nearly sputters.

France? Are we in France right now?

She'd studied a bit of the language for her Claudine's sake, yes, but only enough to tease her with at school. If she has to actually hold a proper conversation, Maya is at a grave disadvantage.

"Ah, p-pardon…" Maya dips her head awkwardly. But before she can say any more, the little girl's eyes go wide, and then she laughs softly.

"I'm sorry!" she says. "Sometimes I speak in my native tongue without realizing, but I've never heard anyone but my parents speak it back to me!"

Maya breathes a sigh of relief, glad they're at least still in Japan. But there's still the matter of the girl before her. Maya clears her throat.

"I see. I apologize if that was rude of me."

"Not at all! I'm impressed!" the girl replies. "You're the first who spoke French back to me! And your accent was quite good!"

"Really, now?" Maya chuckles softly. Your older self would never have admitted such a thing to my face. But Maya shakes her head, slowly realizing this strange reality is genuine for the time being, and there are greater matters at hand than Maya's French accent. She presents the girl with a kind smile, then slowly kneels down to her height.

"Forgive me," she says. "But might you be… Saijou Claudine-san?"

The blonde girl puffs up her chest proudly.

"Oui! I am Saijou Claudine! I'm going to be a famous actress one day! I've studied both in France and in Japan!"

"My," Maya nods. "That is quite impressive. I've heard so much about you."

"You have?" Claudine blinks, and Maya can tell she's trying not to smile and appear conceited because of it. The little girl dips her head modestly. "Thank you very much!"

"Not at all," Maya replies. "But that aside, Saijou-san, are your parents here today to collect you and take you home?"

Claudine shakes her head.

"No. Maman and Papa almost always come watch me, but they had an important meeting today. They dropped me off for my recital and will be back in an hour! Until then I'm waiting with the staff!"

"The staff?" Maya looks around, but doesn't see anyone else left in the theater. Claudine twiddles her fingers a bit.

"They must be very busy. But I don't mind. I'll simply sit and wait here until Maman and Papa come to pick me up!"

Maya has already decided she isn't going to let the girl stay here all by herself. She shudders to think what would happen if Claudine were to stumble offstage and get hurt somehow. Maya shakes the thoughts away immediately.

"Well then," she says. "Instead of staying here all alone for an hour, why don't you accompany me instead?"

"Accompany you?" Claudine repeats. "Are you lost? Do you need to go somewhere?"

"Ah, yes…" Maya clears her throat. "You see, I am new in town and I'd wanted to see the park. Do you think you could show me? And then we can return here for your Maman and Papa to pick you up."

Claudine's eyes begin to sparkle with the thrill of the challenge of being a tour guide.

"Certainly! I can show you the park! But if it's the park you want to see, then why are you here at the theater today?"

"Ah… Well, you see…" Maya scrambles while trying to maintain a calm expression. "I… I had heard about the talented Saijou Claudine-san and that she might be in today's recital, so I stopped by here on my way."

Surely, the Saijou-san I know would scold me for being such a terrible liar…

But as things are with the Claudine in front of her now being only a child, she seems satisfied with that response.

"So you came to see me? Merci! Thank you very much! What did you think of my performance?" She's clearly very excited to hear an opinion, though she's doing her very best to still be composed. Maya presents her with another smile.

"You were brilliant. Even more radiant than the rumors said. I was very impressed."

Claudine beams as she soaks in the praise.

"Thank you very much! But I've still got a long way to go. I can always keep improving myself."

"My, such an ambitious girl. I guarantee you that passion will bring you to heights the likes of which you can't even begin to imagine as you are now."

Claudine gives a little bounce and giggles.

"Merci, ah…?"

"Oh, where are my manners?" Maya dips her head again to the girl. "My name is Tendo Maya."

Claudine repeats it back to her.

"Tendo… Maya-san? Then may I call you Maya-san?"

"O-Of course. Please, go right ahead." Though Maya herself will have to get used to that. It's both surprising and precious how this younger Claudine, who knows nothing about Maya, is so bubbly around her.

To think, in ten years' time when we have our first proper encounter, she will resort to pouting and blushing, and will scold me to no end. Though, those few rare instances when she lets her guard down, her smile and her honesty shine through.

Maya shakes herself out of her thoughts as the younger Claudine waits expectantly. Maya gets to her feet and offers her hand.

"Would you like to hold my hand, Saijou-san?"

Claudine lifts her chin proudly.

"should be asking you that, Maya-san, since you're the one who doesn't even know where the park is! So would you like to hold my hand?"

It really takes Maya a good amount of effort not to chuckle. She dips her head and accepts the small hand Claudine has so readily offered to her.

"I would be honored, Saijou-san."

"Please," Claudine says. "You're much older than I am. You must be in high school! You needn't address me so formally!"

Maya bites her lip.

"Then... Ojou-san…?"

"That's fine."

Maya breathes a sigh of relief, glad she can get away with this rather than any less formal version of Claudine's name. Claudine squeezes her hand and begins a confident march down the aisle.

"Well then, allow me to show you the way, Maya-san!"

"Yes. Please do." Maya follows after the girl who has her heart set on her newest task.

They exit the theater for the time being, and Claudine struts through the lobby with Maya in-tow before bringing her outside. Thankfully, the day is bright and sunny.

"The park is this way!" Claudine announces, and starts off down the sidewalk. Maya follows, walking mostly at her side but just a little behind her to allow Claudine the lead.

As they walk, Maya's thoughts wander back to how she might have gotten into this situation, and how to be free of it and have Claudine return to her rightful age.

If I recall correctly, the giraffe had said to 'have fun'… Perhaps if Saijou-san has a fun enough time with me, all of this will go back to normal.

It's the only thing she can think of, short of waking up if this is a dream. But as things are, Maya is just having Claudine bring her to the park, and she isn't sure how fun that might be for the girl.

She ponders what more she could do as Claudine dutifully brings them to a halt at a crosswalk. When the light turns green, she tugs Maya forward.

"Careful! Watch your step!" she cautions.

And somehow Maya isn't surprised that, even though Claudine is the child here, she's acting like a responsible adult. Maya nods to her and smiles.

"Yes. Thank you, Ojou-san."

Claudine straightens up even more proudly as she continues to guide Maya to the park. They arrive within a few more moments, and pause on the sidewalk beneath the shade of a tree.

"Here we are!" Claudine announces. "We've made it to the park, Maya-san!"

"Indeed we have," Maya says. "Thank you very much."

"So why did you want to come here?"

"Eh? Ah…" Maya hadn't thought that through. I truly am a terrible liar… She fumbles for an excuse, but really can't think of a valid one. "I… I simply wanted to see the pond. I'm told there are swans there."

"Oh! There are!" Claudine affirms. "They're so beautiful! Come, let me show you!"

Maya sighs in relief that her fib had been good enough, and follows along beside Claudine as they make their way toward the pond. They pause on a grassy hill overlooking the sparkling blue water, where the shoreline is dappled with tall reeds and grasses.

Maya feels a small tug on her hand and looks down to see that Claudine has put a finger to her lips. Maya remains quiet, and looks when Claudine points to a bushel of grass. Sure enough, there is a snow-white swan sitting there in her nest, preening her feathers.

Maya gives a squeeze to Claudine's hand to indicate she's seen the bird. After observing the swan for a moment, the two girls ease away to a distance where their speaking won't frighten it.

"My," Maya smiles. "What a magnificent creature."

"Oui," Claudine says. "I've always loved swans. I even got to play Odette in The Swan Princess last spring! Of course, I didn't really turn into a swan, though. We used props. But after the play, we got to meet a real swan!"

"My, that sounds exciting!" Maya tries to think of what she can do next to allow Claudine to have a bit of fun. "Ojou-san? Would you do me the honor of showing me your Odette? I would love to see you portray her."

Claudine's eyes begin to sparkle.

"Of course! I still remember all the lines perfectly!"

Claudine lets go of her hand, and Maya takes a respectful step back to give her her space. The young girl begins one of her scenes from the play Maya knows very well herself, but in truth she's never gotten to see Claudine perform this, not even at her proper age. So to be seeing her now as a child, Maya is truly astounded.

She moves with all the grace and surety as the Claudine that Maya knows from Seishou does, which is clear indication that she's truly been working her hardest at theatre even from such a young age. It's no wonder she'd been a child actress, starred in commercials, and eventually made her way to Seishou Academy as one of the top students.

But of all the videos and DVDs of Claudine's earlier work that Maya had secretly collected, she'd never seen her dancing her heart out in the middle of a park.

Maya applauds her, then inquires about another play, and another role. Claudine eagerly shows her those as well, reciting every line flawlessly and with character. And then, Claudine proposes another idea.

"Oh! Maya-san, have you ever heard of Arrie?"

Maya feels an excited little bubble in her chest. She hadn't been sure if this Claudine had covered that yet, but evidently she has.

"Yes. Indeed I have."

"Wonderful! Then you must know this song!" Claudine gets into her pose and clears her throat, folding her hands in front of her stomach. Then, she lets out the most beautiful little singing voice the world has surely ever known: "My dear friend, my dear friend, we are all friends. Even if we cry today, we friends can do anything in time…"

And with only the first few notes being sung by that adorably familiar little voice, Maya has tears in her eyes. She'd heard Claudine sing this song many times from the DVDs she'd purchased years ago, and then again more recently at Seishou with her, as Claudine would often choose songs from Arrie to do for vocal warm-ups. It just stirs up something profound in Maya, enough to bring her to sit down on the nearest bench and put her hands to her face.

By some miracle, she finds her handkerchief in her skirt pocket, and quickly pulls it out to cover her mouth. She hears a startled little gasp as Claudine cuts off her song and dashes over to her.

"Maya-san? Are you all right?" Claudine fretfully rests both her hands on Maya's knees and looks worriedly at her. Maya wipes her eyes and quickly presents her with a wobbly smile.

"Yes. I'm so very sorry to have worried you, Ojou-san." She reaches out to pat the girl's head gently. "My apologies. I was just so overwhelmed by your beautiful song…"

Claudine sighs in relief.

"I'm sorry."

"Not at all-" Maya grasps the girl's hands gently. "You conjured up such emotion in my heart, Ojou-san. That is precisely what an actress is meant to do. You are so talented beyond your years. It's truly astounding. You must have worked very hard."

Maya knows it's the truth, that Claudine must spend the majority of each day training herself in every way she can. She's the same way at Seishou, and that work ethic isn't one she'd just started practicing upon entering the academy, but rather one acquired at a very young age. Even now, the girl is humble and doesn't brag at all.

"I practice as much as everyone else," Claudine replies.

Maya pats her head again, her heart warm with adoration. It's clear that the best way to let Claudine have fun is to let her do what she loves most - perform. So after wiping her eyes one more time and putting her handkerchief away, Maya gets to her feet.

"Please, allow me to join you."

"Eh?"

"Arrie," Maya clarifies. "I would be honored to sing it with you."

Claudine gasps in excitement.

"Really?"

"Yes!" Maya smiles. "For you see, I, too, aspire to be an actress one day. Hopefully one as brilliant as you."

"I've still got a long way to go," Claudine says. "But I've never sang Arrie with someone older before. I would love to!"

"As would I."

So Claudine offers her little hand, and Maya accepts.

Together they stand in the grass beneath the sunlight and begin to sing, letting their voices carry out over the water. Maya can see the surprise and the wonder in Claudine's eyes, the shock that Maya has such a voice and knows the movements to the dance so perfectly.

Only because I have watched you so many times.

Claudine moves with her, playing her part with refined expertise and signing with all her heart. Maya works to match her tone and pitch to Claudine's, so as not to drown her out, but to harmonize with her. She compensates her longer stride for hers, and does everything she can to let Claudine shine.

And Claudine smiles all the while, as they go from Arrie to other plays and songs. Before long, a small audience of onlookers has stopped to watch the impromptu duet and applaud them.

They must sing and dance together for nearly half an hour before Maya remembers the Claudine with her now doesn't have quite the same stamina and energy as her older counterpart. Maya can tell she's getting tired, and though it's the kind of tired one gets from having too much fun, she still doesn't want the girl to push herself. So after they finish their current song, Maya lets out a long sigh.

"My, that was quite something," she says. "Ojou-san, you are truly an amazing young girl. I don't think I can keep up with you for another song." She acts as though she is the one exhausted in order to spare the girl's pride.

Claudine's cheeks are flushed pink and she's panting a little, but the smile hasn't left her face for a second.

"Right…" she says. "Then I suppose we should take a rest and head back to the theater soon."

"But of course," Maya agrees. "I've had more than enough fun here at the park with you, and your parents are surely eagerly awaiting to pick you up and have you tell them about your recital."

"Oui!"

With a chuckle, Maya extends her hand.

"Well then, shall we?"

Claudine accepts her hand cheerfully.

"We shall!"

As Maya begins walking with her along the sidewalk, her heart is warm and happy. This is a Claudine she's never known personally, and she just prays she will remember all of this whenever she wakes up.

Claudine is in such high spirits she's even started to skip a little. Maya subtly lets her arm swing a bit, and Claudine swings hers right back.

As they exit the park, Maya takes the lead and guides her along the sidewalks.

"Ojou-san, did you have fun today?"

"Oui!" Claudine smiles. "It was much more fun to practice with a partner, even if you're bigger than me. Maya-san, you're very skilled! If you were my age, I'm sure you would have won the part of Arrie instead of me."

"I'm sorry to say I don't agree." Maya shakes her head. "Ojou-san, you have more passion than anyone I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. You earned that part by working hard and doing your very best. You should be proud."

Claudine blinks up at her, and a faint blush dusts her cheeks.

"M…Merci…" Just as when she gets older, she resorts to French when she gets flustered. Maya reaches out with her free hand to pat her head. Once Claudine has gotten her bearings back, she squeezes Maya's fingers again.

"Maya-san, you're so good at singing and dancing. You must be an actress already, I'm sure of it!"

"Well, perhaps just a little…"

"I would love to be your dance partner."

"I would love that as well. You never know. Perhaps someday…"

By now they've come to the crosswalk to wait for the light. As soon as it turns green, Maya guides her out onto the street.

But as they're crossing, there's suddenly a loud sound coming from behind them. Maya turns to see two middle-school boys chasing each other and laughing as they run across the street. As they clamber by, one of them bumps into Claudine and knocks her to the ground, right out of Maya's grasp. Claudine falls to the pavement with a yelp as the boys run off without looking back.

Maya's heart nearly stops, and she quickly kneels down beside the poor child.

"Ojou-san!"

Luckily, a few other concerned pedestrians have stopped to ensure no cars start moving even when the light changes. Maya reaches out to help the little girl up. Claudine is shaking, and her eyes are watering. Maya can see a smear of red on her elbow.

"Ojou-san!" Maya gathers the girl into her arms and hugs her close. "Ojou-san, are you all right?"

She can feel and hear the little girl hiccuping softly, but can tell she's doing her very best not to cry.

"Y-Yes…"

But just as Maya is a terrible liar, so is this precious little girl.

Carefully, Maya hugs her close, picking her up securely. She gets to her feet, thanking the other people before hurrying the rest of the way across the street. At the nearest bench, she kneels on the ground and has Claudine sit before her to inspect her injuries.

"Ojou-san, you are very strong, but it is all right to cry." Maya tries to remain calm and kind so as not to spread her panic to the child. "Does anything hurt?"

Claudine is still trying extremely hard not to shed her tears, which is making her more and more upset. She shakes her head, and Maya is relieved there are no scrapes or cuts on her face. But there is a cut on her elbow for certain. Maya quickly fishes out her handkerchief and presses it over the girl's forearm, holding Claudine's other hand in hers.

"Is there anything else? Please, Ojou-san, you must tell me truthfully."

Claudine meets her eyes, swallowing thickly. But she shakes her head again.

"No…"

"Are you certain?"

"Yes…"

Maya lets out a deep breath.

"All right. Then please allow me to clean your wound a little."

She gently has Claudine turn her arm so Maya can check for any more cuts. Thankfully there was only a bit of blood, which she's cleared away now, and all that's left is a bit of redness on her skin.

"If only I had some of Lou's ointment," Maya says quietly. "If you use Lou's, you'll never lose to pain, right?"

Claudine blinks.

"You… know my commercial?"

"I do," Maya says. "You were wonderful in it."

Claudine seems as though she's about to smile for a second, but then her lips wobble and she bows her head again. Maya is overcome with concern as she reaches out to hold her hands.

"Ojou-san? What's the matter? Does something hurt after all?" Maya's heart is riddled with worry for her.

But the girl just shakes her head again.

"No… Nothing hurts… I just…" She's still trying so hard not to cry, which is hindering her words. It's so very like her, but it's killing Maya.

"Ojou-san…" she says gently. "It is all right to cry. Please, never be afraid to express how you are truly feeling."

Claudine hiccups as she looks up at her, and only a second later the tears start to overflow.

"I… I just…" She crumbles, bringing her hands to her face to sob outright. Maya sits beside her and pulls the little girl into her arms, petting her hair gently.

"It's all right," she soothes her. "Please tell me, Ojou-san."

Claudine hugs her back tightly.

"I just… I was having so much fun with you today, Maya-san… and now it's ending like this…"

Maya understands now; Claudine's tears are of frustration rather than pain, and while she's thankful, she also refuses to let their day end like this. Maya cradles the girl in her arms and speaks softly to her.

"Ojou-san? May I tell you a secret?"

Claudine sniffles again, but slowly pulls away to look up at her.

"A secret…?"

Maya nods, turning her handkerchief inside-out to a clean spot to gently whip the tears from the girl's cheeks.

"Yes. Actually, you are absolutely right. I am an actress. I'm a student at Seishou Academy."

Claudine gasps softly.

"You…? You attend Seishou? That Seishou?"

"Indeed I do," Maya replies. "And I have learned so much there, from my teachers and my classmates… but most of all, from you."

Now Claudine is too puzzled to be upset. She tilts her head, and the tears have stopped.

"From… me…? But how?"

"Well, you see," Maya explains, twisting the truth just a little. "I was lacking inspiration for quite some time until I witnessed the talent of the famous Saijou Claudine-san. I have seen all of your movies and plays, and for such a young girl to be so motivated and inspired… it sparked something within me. It made me want to work even harder. And now I am at the head of my class. All thanks to you."

"Because… of me…?"

Maya nods. And it really isn't a lie. She's just omitted a few details and kept it vague, but it is the honest truth.

Claudine is in disbelief as Maya finishes cleaning off her face.

"Maya-san… I inspired you…?"

"More than you will ever know," Maya smiles. "You have done so much for me, Ojou-san. I cannot possibly ever thank you enough. I just hope you could have fun with me today."

"I did!" Claudine cries. "I had so much fun, Maya-san! Honestly, I did!"

"Then I am very happy to hear that."

"I wish…" Claudine sighs. "I wish I could really be your dance partner someday…"

Maya pats her head again.

"You never know. Perhaps it will come true someday, somehow."

At last, Claudine smiles back at her again.

Maya opts to carry her the rest of the way back to the theater, so she picks Claudine up and hugs her close, and Claudine seems perfectly content to stay like this.

Maya makes her way back to the theater building and enters the empty auditorium, taking a seat. When she looks down at Claudine, she finds the girl is mostly asleep by now.

"Mn… Are Maman and Papa back yet?"

"Not yet," Maya whispers. "I am certain they will be here soon. But until then I will stay with you, Ojou-san. Please rest your eyes. You've had an exciting day."

Claudine snuggles up to her and hugs Maya's shoulders.

"Merci… Maya-san…"

"I should be saying the same thing," Maya murmurs. "I had a wonderful time as well, Claudine Ojou-san. Merci."

Claudine smiles to hear the word spoken back to her in French, and eventually dozes off in Maya's arms. Maya kisses the top of her head and keeps her close.

The next time she sees her Claudine, she vows to hold her even more tightly.

But for now, Maya closes her eyes as well for a moment, and the quiet world fades around her.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 10. Goodnight

 

 

Karen rolls herself over as she wakes, moaning as the remnants of a strange dream start to fade away. She thought she was still on the stage, or in the grass at the park. But as it turns out, she ends up rolling right off her bed, landing on the floor - and roommate - below her with a thud.

"Uwaah-!"

"Ow-! Karen…" Hikari wheezes from beneath her, trying to pry her off.

"Ah! Sorry, Hikari-chan!" Karen quickly pushes herself off of her, then helps Hikari up. Hikari grumbles softly as she's forced to be awake now, blinking slowly.

It's dark, clearly the middle of the night, as if they'd gone to the giraffe's stage earlier that evening and then been brought back here. But then all at once, both girls seem to remember the strange experience they'd had.

"Ah-"

"Karen-"

They both share a look and understand without words, then turn to peer curiously up into Mahiru's bed. She's stirring now, likely from the commotion they'd caused. And as she pushes herself up, Karen and Hikari can tell she's her normal self, and no longer a child. Both girls sigh in relief.

"Mahiru-chan!"

"Thank goodness."

Mahiru shakes her head groggily as she opens her eyes to find them both staring back at her. She gasps.

"Ah! K-Karen-chan, Hikari-chan! Y-You're both-" Mahiru quickly gets out of bed and joins them both on the floor, putting a hand on either of their shoulders. Her mouth hangs open in shock, but she's puzzled that they're both looking back at her the same way. "S-Sorry. I just had… the strangest dream, I guess…"

"Me too!" Karen blurts out. "Hikari-chan and I were at the park and-"

"Mahiru was little."

"Eh?! Hikari-chan, you had that same dream?!"

"You had the same one, Karen?"

"W-Wait!" Mahiru squeaks. "You both dreamt that I was little?"

Both her roommates nod. Mahiru blinks.

"B-Because… I dreamt that the two of you were little…"

"Eh?"

"You did?"

Mahiru nods.

"Yes. It felt so real."

"Yeah!"

"Mine felt real, too."

"It was fun, though!" Mahiru smiles. "We went on the swings, and there was even a little aquarium!"

"Really?!" Karen blurts. "That sounds awesome!"

"Jellyfish…"

"What did we do in your dream, Karen-chan?"

"My dream?" Karen thinks for a moment to try and remember. "Oh! We went on the playground-"

"-and Mahiru conquered the big slide."

"Yeah! You were so brave!"

Mahiru blushes a little.

"You guys sound like you had the same dream somehow."

Karen and Hikari share a puzzled look.

"Huh."

"I guess we might have."

"That's so strange," Mahiru says. "Was it the giraffe's doing after all…?"

Karen puts her hands to her head and ruffles her hair.

"Mmmm I don't know! It felt so real but there's no way, right?"

"Yeah," Hikari agrees. "But either way, it was kinda fun."

"Yes! I think so too," Mahiru smiles.

"Yeah!" Karen leans forward and throws an arm around each of them. "It was a fun dream! But I'm tiiiired…"

"Yeah," Hikari yawns. "Me too…"

"All right," Mahiru says. "Then it's back to bed."

"Mmmm I don't know if I have the strength to get back up there," Karen says. "Hikari-chan, can I stay here with you?"

"Sure…" Hikari's eyes have already closed again as she sways to keep herself up. "Mahiru… what about you…?"

Mahiru sighs.

"All right. I'll stay, too."

"Yay!"

With a happy sigh, Karen wraps an arm around Hikari and flops down into the blankets with her. Mahiru lies down a bit more carefully and hugs Hikari from her other side.

"Goodnight, you two," she murmurs.

But both Karen and Hikari are already asleep, respectively snoring and breathing softly. Mahiru smiles and closes her eyes as well as she cuddles up.

A familiar Mr. White pin sits on the desk and watches over the three of them.

 

 


 

 

Futaba wakes to a soft poking at her cheek. With a groan, she turns over, glaring at the source, already knowing full-well who it is.

"Kaoruko… it's like, the middle of the night…"

"Oh, thank goodness."

Futaba opens her eyes in the darkness to find her roommate crouched at the side of her bed, still poking at her cheek softly. Futaba raises an eyebrow.

"'Thank goodness,' what?"

Kaoruko sits back a little and retracts her hand.

"That you're back to normal."

"Hah? The heck does that mean? You're the one who was-" Futaba cuts off as the strange dream comes back to her; of Kaoruko being only a little kid, and yet majorly unchanged in terms of attitude. Now it's Kaoruko who gives her a puzzled look.

"What's that? Did you perhaps have an odd dream as well, Futaba-han?"

"Yeah, kinda…" Futaba sits up and makes room for her to sit. Kaoruko happily climbs into bed with her and presses up against her side.

"Do tell," she says.

"Well…" Futaba lifts an arm and puts it around her shoulders. "You were like, 5 years old or somethin', but you were pretty much exactly the same."

"Wha-?! Why, I never!" Kaoruko bumps her head against Futaba's cheek to convey her displeasure. Futaba laughs.

"Sorry, it was a joke. Mostly."

"Futaba-han!" Kaoruko pouts for a moment before huffing a sigh. "Was I cute?"

"Oh yeah, you were adorable, wearin' your little kimono and all."

"Oh? Was it the pink one?"

"Yeah."

"That one was my favorite."

"I know." Futaba rubs her hand up and down her friend's back softly. "So what about mini me?"

"Oh, you were precious. All you wanted to do was sword-fight."

"Sword-fight?" Futaba laughs. "And what, you taught me?"

"As a matter of fact, I did!"

"Wow, I'm impressed."

"You should've seen yourself flailing that stick around."

They both share a chuckle, and then a sigh.

"Man, what a weird night."

"I would have to agree…" Kaoruko stretches her arms out a little before lying herself down on Futaba's pillow. "Since I'm too tired to move, I'll just stay here~"

"O-Oy! Don't just invite yourself into someone else's bed!"

"Are you going to kick me out, Futaba-han~?"

Futaba groans.

"Fine, whatever." She flops down beside her with a grunt. Kaoruko giggles and inches close, wrapping both arms around her. Futaba sighs and hugs her shoulders to keep her close.

"Night, Kaoruko."

"Goodnight, Futaba-han."

A familiar little handheld fan sits on the nightstand beside them they fall asleep.

 

 


 

 

Nana wakes with a start, sitting upright in bed as her eyes fly open. It's nighttime, and she can tell right away she's in her dorm room. But what year is it? Has she really gone back to the past again?

Nervously, she looks across the room to where Junna is stirring now, groggily pushing herself up, but not even bothering with her glasses. Nana tries to call out for her, but stops. She isn't sure if this is their first or second year together, if she should call her by her first name or her last-

"Nana?"

"Eh-?" She blinks, and Junna is looking back at her in the moonlight, her eyes wide with worry. She wastes no time in getting out of bed to come to Nana's, sitting on the edge and taking both of her hands in hers.

"Nana, are you okay? Did you have a bad dream?"

Nana blinks, looking down at their hands. She exhales, realizing this is exactly the same night she'd left off on.

"Yeah, I'm okay," she murmurs. "And I did have a bit of a strange dream."

"I did, too." Junna moves a little closer to her, offering a tiny smile. "I dreamt I was at the zoo with you, only you were a little kid."

"The zoo?" Nana blinks. "Haha, I went to the library with a little Junna-chan in my dream!"

"Aha, you know me so well. What did we do, read Shakespeare?"

"That's exactly what we did!"

"Of course."

"And let me guess… did you take me to see the frogs?"

"Yeah. You had so much fun you fell asleep by the end of it."

"So did you!"

They share a smile for a moment, but then Nana's fades. She curls her fingers into fists beneath Junna's hands and stiffens up a little.

"Junna-chan… what if…" She swallows, and her stomach starts to twist. "What if… like the giraffe said… my wish could've-"

But she doesn't even finish voicing the thought before Junna is already wrapping both arms around her and pulling her into a tight, warm hug.

"Don't worry about it," she murmurs. "It was all just a dream. It's all right, Nana. I promise."

Nana whimpers, feeling a single tear drip free as she clings to her roommate's back.

Junna holds her for a moment as she hiccups softly, then eventually settles in and lies down with her. She strokes her fingers through Nana's loose hair, and when she's gotten her bearings, Nana does the same for her.

Junna nuzzles her cheek gently.

"You okay?"

Nana finally smiles back at her.

"Yes. Thank you, Junna-chan."

"You don't need to thank me." Junna turns onto her side now, still holding Nana in a half-hug. "So, what Shakespeare did we read? Let me guess: Sonnet 116?"

"You got it! You really do still love that one, huh Junna-chan?"

"Almost as much as you still love frogs."

"Eheehee!"

The two girls talk quietly for a while about their dreams, until they both eventually nod off back asleep.

And all the while, a tiny green plastic frog keeps its vigil from its spot on their shared desk.

 

 


 

 

Claudine wakes feeling a rush of heat through her veins. It's the same anger and frustration she'd felt in her dream, directed towards a young Maya's parents for denying her the childhood she'd deserved. With a groan, she pushes herself up in bed and huffs.

It's then she hears a shifting from beside her, and jolts to find she isn't alone in her bed. She doesn't remember lying down with Maya tonight, but they've done it plenty of times in the past, so she isn't all that surprised. And thankfully, Maya is her proper age again.

Claudine exhales, cooling down a little as the dream fades away. Maya sits herself up and shakes her head slowly before blinking up at her.

"Claudine…?"

Claudine dips her head.

"Tendo Maya."

Maya's mind is still a bit fuzzy, and she doesn't fully register the reality yet and that Claudine is no longer a child. She reaches out for her arm, gently turning it over to inspect where the wound had been.

"Claudine, is your injury all right?"

"My what?"

"You fell…" Maya blinks again, and only now seems to realize Claudine is the same age as her again. "Ah. I beg your pardon. It must have been a dream…" Maya withdraws, rubbing her eyes a bit.

Claudine remembers her own dream. Even if that's all it had been though, she knows it was a true reflection of Maya's childhood, that she'd always been reserved and had restrained herself from doing most things she truly wanted to do. And maybe Claudine can't fix that past, but she can at least do her part now.

Without a word, she opens her arms. Maya tilts her head, puzzled.

"Claudine?"

"I had a strange dream," she says. "I had to babysit you like I normally do, only this time you were actually a child. And since you were so small I couldn't exactly hug you properly."

Maya isn't sure if she's interpreting Claudine's meaning as intended, but she has a warm feeling in her chest. In truth, she's been wanting to hug her since the very second she'd woken just now. So Maya gladly falls into her arms, squeezing Claudine tightly against the mattress as she snuggles up against her chest.

"How peculiar… I, too, dreamt that you were just a child, dancing with me in the park."

"What a sight we must have been," Claudine chuckles, stroking through Maya's hair. "For me, if it'd been real, I'd say I'm the reason you have such a sweet tooth now."

"Oh? I'm certain my younger self would have loved nothing more than to enjoy sweets together with such a kind babysitter."

"And my younger self definitely would've liked to sing and dance with a skilled actress in front of people."

"What's this?" Maya purrs. "Did you just admit that I am skilled?"

"I mean, of course you are, or else you wouldn't be here…"

"My, you are being quite honest tonight, Ma Claudine."

"Shut up." Claudine hugs her a bit tighter. "Let's go back to sleep. I'm tired."

"Of course."

Maya rests her head on Claudine's chest and curls up in her embrace. She falls asleep almost instantly. Claudine sighs, pressing a quick kiss to the top of her head before closing her eyes as well.

"Bonne nuit."

And on the nightstand sit several familiar little candies for them to enjoy tomorrow.

 

 


 

 

Somewhere in town, a young girl stirs in her bed. Elle blinks up at her ceiling, finding it's the middle of the night. She turns over to her stuffed mole plushie and hugs him close.

"Andrew…" she whispers. "I saw so many wonderful plays tonight…"

She tells him about them all, until she too, falls asleep at last.