Mahiru zones out as she stares at the salmon grilling in front of her. It’s been a while since she and her roommates have been able to sit down for a nice breakfast, so she wants to make this morning count. Someone wraps their arms around Mahiru’s stomach and places their chin on Mahiru’s shoulder, and only one of Mahiru’s roommates is tall enough to do so. “Ah! Tendo-san!”
Tendo-san separates herself from Mahiru and steps away. “Sorry, Tsuyuzaki-san, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she says, almost a whisper. Mahiru turns around to, in fact, see Tendo-san. She’s still in her pajamas, but her hair is already combed and neatly tied up with that ribbon of hers. She tries to avoid eye contact with Mahiru as if she’s done something wrong, which weighs down Mahiru’s heart.
Tendo Maya has changed quite a lot since Mahiru first met her at Seisho. The few months of her, Futaba-chan, and Tendo-san living together have shown that Tendo-san, once distant and untouchable, is extremely affection-starved. Mahiru and Futaba-chan are more than happy to indulge her, but there are moments like this where Tendo-san retreats into her shell.
“No, no,” Mahiru reassures Tendo-san. “I was completely fine with it, I was just kind of spaced out, and you surprised me a bit. You can come back, if you’d like.” Mahiru turns back around. After a second, Tendo-san soon returns to hugging Mahiru from behind. A draft enters their small apartment. The warmth is welcome.
“Isurugi-san’s still asleep,” Tendo-san informs her.
“That makes sense. Yesterday must have been rough on her.” They’d spent most of yesterday practicing fight scenes, which Mahiru herself is still somewhat sore from. But Futaba-chan had been working herself to the bone more than either of them, trying to reassert herself as a fight scene expert in their new troupe. The struggles of a big fish in a little pond adapting to a big pond. Mahiru sympathizes. “I’ll make something meat-heavy for her tonight. She deserves it.”
“I look forward to it,” Tendo-san says. Mahiru can’t see her face right now, but she’s sure Tendo-san’s eyes have lit up. Mahiru giggles.
“What is it?”
Claudine shows up to her first day at Theatre du Flamme completely prepared to be met with new people and new people only. A fresh start, both terrifying and welcome. It’s like jumping off a cliff except without major injuries or death, she thinks.
Claudine steps out of the elevator and reads the signs pointing to which studio her troupe is in when she hears a door close. She turns to the source of the noise, only to find an unexpected sight.
The person who is definitely Akira looks at her and also looks shocked. “Claudine.” It’s weird hearing her first name, especially her full first name, said by Akira.
“What are you doing here?” Claudine asks.
“I’m a new actor for the Theatre du Flamme,” Akira responds. “I assume you’re here for the same thing.”
“Yeah,” Claudine says. “Wait, why did you take the stairs? We’re on the tenth floor.”
“Extra cardio,” Akira says completely seriously. Claudine would be inclined to believe him if Yachiyo hadn’t once told her about Akira’s technological ineptitude. Come to think of it, she’s never actually seen Akira take an elevator.
“Well,” Claudine says. “I think the studio’s this way.” She points to the hallway on their right. “Let’s go.”
Claudine can’t remember seeing Akira dressed in anything besides his Siegfeld uniform, rehearsal leotard, or a costume before. Currently, Akira’s wearing a short sleeved black button down shirt with roses printed on it, and he’s tucked it into white slacks. His hair’s still long, but instead of being loose, it’s tied in a long ponytail that reaches below his shoulders. Claudine’s not sure what she expected Akira’s fashion sense to be like, but she doesn’t think it was this. It’s not bad, though.
“Why did you join a troupe all the way in France?” Claudine asks. Her and Akira’s shoes click against the floor, echoing down the hallway. They walk in almost perfect time.
“I wanted to go past what I know,” Akira says. “I want to see more of the world and find new heights to reach.”
“Oh,” Claudine says. “Then we’re here for similar reasons.”
They stop just outside the studio door. Claudine holds her hand out to shake. “I look forward to working with you, Akira Yukishiro.”
Akira looks at her hand curiously before smiling and taking it. “You as well, Claudine Saijo.” Claudine opens the door to the studio and holds it open for Akira.
Kaoruko flips through the papers in front of her and bursts out laughing. “Really, Tamao-han?”
“This is a strange turn of events for me too,” Tamao-han says. Her expression is neutral, but she’s not making eye contact with Kaoruko, and it’s clear from her tone of voice that she’s not happy to be here. “I thought I’d have too much pride to work under the likes of you, but none of the other dance schools have positions open.”
“Under the likes of me?” Kaoruko says. “You’re going to have to get politer than that if you’re to work at the Senka-ryu school.”
“Well, I only hope to emulate the current Hanayagi Suisen’s values,” Tamao-han says.
Kaoruko huffs. “I’m nowhere near as crass as you. I’m–”
“–as delicate as a flower, and as graceful as the spring breeze?” Tamao-han finishes for her. “Tell yourself whatever you’d like.”
“I’ll hire you if it’ll shut you up.”
“That’s all I need.”
“Then we’re done here. Get out of my office.”
Tamao-han stands up and bows. She opens the door, but she stops in the doorway and looks at Kaoruko over her shoulder. “You know,” Tamao-han says. The grin on her face is one Kaoruko’s become more and more acquainted with over the past few years. Nine times out of ten, it means that Kaoruko isn’t going to like what comes out of her mouth next. “You hiring me means that you acknowledge my talent. You think I’m good.”
Kaoruko crosses her arms. “Maybe it just means I like having you on my payroll.”
Tamao-han shakes her head. “You care too much about this place to do that.”
Kaoruko grits her teeth. “I hate what the Performance Festival in second year did to you. You’re an arrogant, cocky little bastard, and I despise you.”
Tamao-han clicks her tongue against her teeth, making a condescending clicking sound. “Language, Hanayagi-san. We wouldn’t want to disrespect the grace of the Senka-ryu school now, would we?” Kaoruko sends a very Senka-ryu inappropriate gesture her way as Tamao-han closes the office door.
“Junna!” A voice calls out. Junna swears she recognizes it, but she doesn’t know who it belongs to. She turns and sees one of those superhero actors who hang out around Times Square, this one dressed in a Spider-Man suit.
“Who are you?” Junna asks, panicked. Is it a classmate? She doesn’t recognize them if they are.
“Oh! Sorry.” Spider-Man takes their mask off, and she’s met with–
Lalafin Nonomiya from Frontier School of Arts stands in front of Junna in a Spider-Man costume in Times Square. Junna pinches herself. This isn’t a dream. What is happening?
“Hi, Junna! I didn’t know you were also in New York!” she says excitedly. Lalafin isn’t wearing her bunny hair ties right now, but Junna can imagine an enthusiastic rabbit hopping in her place.
“I’m studying here,” Junna says. “What are you doing here?”
Lalafin shrugs. “Broadway.”
“You’re on Broadway already?!”
“No, no, not at all,” Lalafin clarifies. “But that’s the end goal. Right now, I’m just trying to make my way around here.”
“Have you found any work?” Junna asks.
Lalafin fiddles with her mask. “Other than this? I help out with some children’s theater programs, and I freelance model a bit. But I haven’t been able to find auditions here.”
Junna sighs. She remembers Lalafin being pretty lively and impulsive, but she’d thought Lalafin would have come to an entirely new country with a bit more of a plan. “My school posts audition flyers on bulletin boards. I can send you ones I think you’d like.”
“Really!” Lalafin hugs Junna, almost knocking her over. “Thank you so, so, so, so much! Aw, man, I was starting to get worried, because the Frontier career networking is useless outside of Japan, but you. You’re saving my life. Thank you! I owe you one.”
“Of course,” Junna says. “Can I have your phone number?”
“Yes! Yes.” She hands Lalafin her phone and watches Lalafin type in her number.
“I’ll send you a text later,” Junna says as she takes back her phone. “I was going to go to the library around here to study a bit, but we should catch up. It’s nice to see a familiar face around here.”
“Mhm!” Lalafin says. “See you soon, Junna!”
“Take care of yourself, Lalafin.” Junna waves and heads for the library. While waiting for a stoplight to turn green, she texts Lalafin. In less than a second, she gets a thumbs up and rabbit emoji in return.
Nana’s lying on the floor, her legs propped up against Hikari’s bed as she reads over her lines for an upcoming play. Hikari sits next to her on the floor and reads over Nana’s latest script. Hikari still has no idea how Nana got into both RATA’s scriptwriting and acting program at the same time–okay, she does, her Revue with Nana was no joke–but it keeps Nana busy and supplies Hikari with a steady flow of scripts to read over. Not that Hikari minds. Nana’s stories are always fascinating.
“I’m done.” Hikari holds out the script to Nana.
Nana places a sticky flag in what she was reading and shifts around to sit up. She winces as she stretches and moves around her neck. “Thank you, Hikari,” she says. “General thoughts?”
“I liked it,” Hikari said. Nana sighs in relief. “I left a few notes, but overall, I really liked this one. The protagonist felt especially compelling.”
“Really?” Nana asks. Hikari nods. “That’s good. I was worried about that.”
“You write about parting and loneliness a lot,” Hikari observes. “The way you write about it always pulls at me.”
“I don’t know how I feel about you saying that so candidly,” Nana says, laughing nervously.
Hikari frowns. “I didn’t mean it as a bad thing.”
“I know you didn’t,” Nana says. “It’s more what that says about me that I'm concerned with.”
Hikari nods. “I think your stories about parting have gotten more hopeful since Seisho,” she says. “From what I remember, your Seisho stuff always had loneliness and parting as a terrible thing to be avoided at all costs.”
“And now?” Nana asks.
“It depends on the script,” Hikari says. “For this one, I was happy when the protagonist parted with her family. It seemed like she was finding her way.”
“That’s exactly what I was going for,” Nana says. She starts flipping through the script Hikari’s just handed back to her.
The Nana that Hikari knows today is not the Nana who ferociously fought against her to keep their friends locked up in a specific moment of time. She’s become more at peace with the world around her, parting and all. Sometimes, Hikari wonders what it would be like if she told Nana this explicitly, but it’s not something she knows how to say out loud. She watches Nana as Nana eagerly reads through Hikari’s notes, frowning at some and nodding in agreement at others. She’ll try again tomorrow.
Futaba yawns and stretches, feeling parts of her back crack. It’s been nice having the futon this week. Three people to a two-person apartment is difficult, but they don’t have the money to get a bigger apartment, and none of them want to live with someone random. So, they rotate who gets the bed, who gets the couch, and who gets the futon next to the bed every two weeks. It’s a cooperative system. Tendo and Mahiru don’t complain nearly as much as some other people Futaba’s lived with.
She runs her hand through her hair. It’s shoulder length now, much longer than she’s used to. People say it looks nice on her. Futaba’s not sure how she feels about it. She probably won’t let it get much longer, though. Snaking the shower drain for two people with long hair is bad enough; she doesn’t want to make her life harder than it needs to be.
Futaba walks into the dining room. Tendo and Mahiru are already sitting down, halfway through their meals. “Futaba-chan, good morning,” Mahiru greets. There’s an empty chair with a plate of salmon, bowl of rice, and miso soup in front of it. “Are you feeling better from yesterday?”
“A bit,” Futaba says. She sits down. “I really should have done more stretching, but it’s good to know for next time.”
Tendo nods. She’d come off as more refined if she didn’t have rice stuck to her cheek. Futaba points at it, and Tendo quickly wipes it off.
“We’re calling Daiba-san and Kagura-san later today, right?” Tendo asks.
Futaba nods. “9 P.M. We’ve got a while.”
“I hope they’re doing okay,” Mahiru says. “I also hope Hikari-chan gets up on time this time.”
“It’ll be noon in their time,” Tendo says. “I’d hope she’s up.”
Futaba laughs. “You never know with Hikari. We’ll see, I guess.”
“I’ve been wondering, why did you come to work here?” Kaoruko asks Tamao-han. Tamao-han offered to cook her dinner tonight, and Kaoruko really couldn’t refuse Tamao-han’s cooking. Now, they’re sitting in Kaoruko’s dining room with empty dishes in front of them. “I thought you always wanted to be an actor.”
“I still do,” Tamao-han says. “But I need a bit of extra money before I can start going around and auditioning. My parents won’t support me and, well, you heard about my grandmother.”
Kaoruko frowns. “My condolences.”
Tamao-han breathes out shakily. “Thank you.”
“I was always jealous of you,” Kaoruko admits. It’s one of those things she doesn’t plan to say, but it feels like the right moment to say anyways. Tamao-han looks at her curiously. Kaoruko continues. “I know now that your parents kind of suck, but they weren’t hovering over you all the time, and your grandmother was always so nice. Plus, you were a normal kid with friends, and you were still able to come in second to me every year. You were also weak-willed and incredibly annoying on your own merits, but I’d be lying if I said that those are the only reasons why I didn’t like you.”
Tamao-han plants her hands on the floor and leans back to rest her weight on them. “I was weak-willed when I was younger, wasn’t I?” She smiles bitterly. “But I was jealous of you too. You were always better at dancing than me, no matter what I did. Your parents and grandmother paid attention to you. You have Isurugi-san, and I’m the fifth wheel in my friend group.”
“Not anymore,” Kaoruko says. She folds her arms on the table and rests her head there. “Have Futaba, I mean. I don’t really know or care much about your friend group.”
Tamao-han looks at her skeptically. “I can’t imagine her not loving you with all her heart. Believe me, I tried to get her not to. It’s like Fumi not liking ponzu anymore.”
Kaoruko doesn’t remember Yumeoji-han much, but she gets the comparison. “Well, an insolent little brat loving you with all her heart is still an insolent little brat.”
“Funny, I think she could say the same about you.”
Kaoruko sticks her tongue out at Tamao-han. Tamao-han just giggles. “It’s cute how the two of you work,” she says. “You haven’t checked anyone out since I’ve gotten here, and I doubt it’s because you’re madly in love with me.”
“I’m not waiting for her,” Kaoruko says stubbornly. “Also, like you’d notice if I was in love with you. That Akikaze-han challenged me to a duel in your honor and you didn’t notice.”
Tamao-han blushes. “Well, are you?”
“No. Not in any possible universe, even if Futaba didn’t exist.”
“You call her Futaba now.”
Now it’s Kaoruko’s turn to blush. Oh, how she wants to wipe that amused look right off of Tamao-han’s face. “Shut up.”
“It’s strange how we keep meeting each other,” Akira says. They’re walking on the Champs-Élysées. Akira wanted to be shown around the city, and Claudine was happy to give him the tour. It’s been a while since she was last here herself. It’s nice to have someone to rediscover things with.
“What do you mean?” Claudine asks. “I invited you to do this.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Akira says. “We were both in ballet as kids. We ended up acting instead of doing ballet, and we were in two Performance Festivals together. Now, we’re in the same troupe.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Claudine says. “I wonder who would have won if we had ever competed against each other in ballet.”
“I would,” Akira says confidently.
“I beg to differ,” Claudine says.
“I’m sure you would.”
“I always meant to ask why you ended up acting,” Claudine says, changing the topic before their differences in opinion devolve into petty uselessness. She’s right, but they can argue about this another time when they’re not exploring the beautiful city of Paris. “I thought you were definitely going to go professional in ballet.”
“ Elysion ,” Akira says plainly, as if that explains giving up an entire career in ballet.
“Right.” Claudine has never gotten the Siegfeld kids’ fascination with Elysion , or Karen and Hikari’s fascination with Starlight for that matter, but she’s decided not to question it. Everyone has their own things that fuel them.
“Did you ever consider Siegfeld?” Akira asks.
“Not for a minute,” Claudine answers. “Too uptight for my tastes. Plus, the Edel system has never really been my cup of tea.”
Akira huffs. “The Edel system works.”
“Says the former Frau Platin.”
Akira scowls. “Fine. It has its flaws.”
“That’s as much as you’re willing to give up? Alright.”
They walk in silence. Claudine has found that silence with Akira is nice instead of awkward. He doesn’t say unnecessary or meaningless things. His silence is a guarantee that what he does say means something to him. It gives Claudine time to think too. She’s not sure if she’d ever tell him this, but Akira joining Theatre du Flamme has ended up being a gift in disguise. She likes him.
All of a sudden, Akira speaks again. “Do you think we could have been rivals?”
Claudine shrugs. “Maybe,” she says. “Why speculate, though? We are where we are. No point in wondering what could have been.”
“I would have liked to have a proper rival. In the long term,” Akira muses. “The pressure of being chased is enormous, but it makes you shine more brilliantly than you could imagine.”
“It does,” Claudine says. “But you keep me on my toes just fine nowadays.”
Akira nods. “As do you, Claudine.”
“Take one step up,” Lalafin guides.
“Can I at least take off the blindfold for this?” Junna pleads. “I don’t want to trip on the stairs.”
“No!” Lalafin says petulantly. “It has to be a surprise. Just keep walking up with me, we’re almost there.”
“You’ve said ‘we’re almost there’ seven times by now.”
“Because we were differing degrees of almost there seven times! Time is super relative.”
Junna sighs but continues to walk up the stairs. She knows they’re in a subway station. Lalafin tried to keep that a secret, but Junna distinctly remembers being pushed through a turnstile and sitting in a cold, plastic seat for about twenty minutes. The cool autumn air hits her before she’s all the way up the stairs, and she can hear cars and buses rushing down the streets. So at least Lalafin isn’t taking her to a faraway location to murder her. It’s her birthday in a few days; she’d really rather not die before then.
“It’s a really short walk from here, promise,” Lalafin says.
“Oh, and is that also relative?”
“No? I think it’s pretty short.” Lalafin guides her straight ahead a bit before turning a corner. “Okay, you can take the blindfold off now!”
Junna takes the blindfold off only to be met with an indiscernible blob. “I need my glasses, Lalafin.”
“Ah, right! Here you go.” Lalafin hands Junna her glasses case, and Junna puts her glasses on.
Junna gasps. “I’ve been meaning to come here!” Standing before Junna is the American Museum of Natural History. There’s a pretty long line today, but it’s moving quickly enough that Junna’s fine with waiting.
“I thought you’d like it!” Lalafin says. “Happy early birthday! Thank you for helping me get settled here. It means a lot to me, and this is the best way I could think of to pay you back.”
“Lalafin, of course,” Junna says. “It’s what any stage girl would do for a fellow stage girl.” Lalafin’s open gratitude and the fact that she’s standing in front of the American Museum of Natural History mostly cancel out the irritation Junna felt at being dragged around the New York City public transit system blindfolded.
“Yeah, but it’s still a big deal for me, so I wanted to do something for you!” Lalafin says. “You do have your student I.D. on you, right? I’m making more money now, but the less money we have to pay these people, the better.”
“Yes, I keep it in my wallet at all times.” Junna rifles through her purse and, sure enough, her wallet is there.
“So, I was thinking we check out the planetarium first,” Lalafin says. She’s skipping ahead. Junna follows her. “You like stars, right?”
Junna stops walking. “Oh.”
Lalafin turns around. “What’s wrong?” Lalafin asks. “You do like stars, right? I remember your little speech thing. ‘Everyone has their own destined star. Glittering stars, morning stars, and, uh…’”
“Shooting stars,” Junna finishes. “And I used to. Not anymore, though.”
A lot. More than would be easily explainable in a short amount of time. “I got lost in them,” Junna settles on. “I let myself get so wrapped up in these abstract, distant possibilities that I didn’t chase my dreams for myself. So I’ve become disillusioned with the stars, you could say.”
Lalafin nods. “We’re pretty similar after all, aren’t we?”
“I used to live and breathe heroes,” Lalafin says, “so much so that I forgot how to grow and carve my own path. But it’s because I love heroes that I’ve decided to follow my own path, become a hero that’s all mine that no one’s ever seen before!”
“We don’t have to go to the planetarium. We don’t even have to go to this museum. I’m sure there are plenty of other things to do around here,” Lalafin reassures Junna. “But the stars are clearly important to you. You’re allowed to love the stars if you want.”
Junna takes a minute to stare at Lalafin. Lalafin’s words ring true with something inside her. Maybe it’s the eight-year-old Junna who needed the stars to promise her she’d have somewhere to land if she took a leap of faith. Maybe it’s the now nineteen-year-old Junna who knows about the illusory radiance of a faraway star, but who knows that she was only able to take the path she’s on now because she was promised a star at the end of it. Maybe it’s every Junna in between, all of whom still live within her. She is no longer aiming for a star, Junna knows that. But there’s no harm in remembering them from time to time.
Lalafin looks up at her patiently. Junna smiles at the sight. Lalafin’s height and clothing choice make her look like a kid, but she’s wiser than that. Appearances can deceive. She learned that two years ago and seemingly has to learn it again. “You’re right. Thank you, Lalafin,” Junna says. She walks closer to Lalafin. “I want to go to the planetarium.”
“No problem.” Lalafin says. She reaches up to pat Junna’s shoulder. “Can we also check out the pteranodons?”
“Do they have pteranodons?”
Lalafin grins sheepishly. “I kind of assumed they would. I was going to make you read the map and find out.”
Junna laughs. “Alright. Let’s go.”
“You don’t need to take care of me.”
“You have a 40 degree fever!” Tsuyuzaki-san complains.
Maya burrows into her blankets more and immediately regrets it. She feels like she’s been lit on fire. “It’s only 39.6. That’s less than one degree over 39.” She knows she sounds like a petulant child, but her brain is too foggy to care.
“39 isn’t good either!” Isurugi-san yells. Maya winces. Yelling isn’t good for the headache she refuses to admit she has.
“One of us should stay home with you,” Tsuyuzaki-san says. “I’ll do it.”
“No, Mahiru,” Isurugi-san says. “You have that scene to go over today. I can take care of her.”
“You should go!”
“No, you should go!”
“Stop,” Maya weakly says before she has to reach for the nearest tissue and sneeze. “I’m more than capable of taking care of myself. I’ve gotten sick before.” She gets out of bed and plants her feet on the floor, only to have to place her hand on the bed for stability when she wobbles.
“Tendo-san, where are you going?” Tsuyuzaki-san asks.
“I’m getting water.”
“Stay put,” Isurugi-san says. “I’ll get you water. Stay in bed.”
“No,” Maya says, irritated, “you’re not.”
“Then I’m getting you water,” Tsuyuzaki-san says stubbornly. “And Tylenol. And then I’ll make you something to eat. Futaba-chan, get Tendo-san back in bed.” Without warning, Maya feels herself being lifted off the ground as Isurugi-san literally puts her back in the bed.
“I’m not Aijo-san or Hanayagi-san.”
Tsuyuzaki-san looks shocked at Maya’s words before clasping her hands in front of her and staring at them. Isurugi-san, meanwhile, looks like she’s been caught red-handed in a crime. Maya had planned to use this as an opportunity to make a mad dash on her own for water, but as she looks at their faces, she realizes that’s not fair of her.
“Is it hard not having someone to take care of?” she asks the two of them. Tsuyuzaki-san and Isurugi-san look at each other guiltily and nod.
“I thought it’d be easier without her around, but I guess it’s not,” Isurugi-san says.
“I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Tsuyuzaki-san admits. “But I hoped it would be.”
Maya sighs. “Both of you were right. I need help right now. But like how you grew up caring for people, I grew up being told to reject people’s care for me.”
“One of you can stay with me as long as you’re not overbearing,” Maya says as a compromise. “The other has to go to work today.”
“I really do have to go over that scene today,” Tsuyuzaki-san says, resigned. “I’ll go. Futaba-chan, text me constant updates.”
“Isurugi-san, don’t do that.”
Tsuyuzaki-san looks at Maya, appalled. “Focus on your acting,” Maya says. “I’m in good hands with Isurugi-san. Act for the both of us.”
Isurugi-san nods. “I’ll get you your water and prepare you something to eat, and then I’ll leave you alone. I’ll still be in this room with you, but I won’t bother you. I’ll read through my lines or something. Mahiru, do your best.”
Tsuyuzaki-san hugs Isurugi-san and pats Maya on the head. “When you get better, I’ll make any potato dish you want,” Tsuyuzaki-san promises. “So rest up, okay?”
Maya smiles. “I can’t wait.” When she falls asleep, she dreams of a Starlight performed by anthropomorphic potatoes.
Hikari-chan is holding out a small package to Nana. There’s a giant bow stuck on top, and the wrapping paper is tearing at the corners. “Happy birthday,” Hikari-chan says nervously.
“Thank you, Hikari-chan!” Nana says. She picks at the tape and carefully unfolds the wrapping paper.
Hikari-chan’s present seems to be a stack of photos printed on photo paper. Some of them seem to be random frogs or frog-related things. A few are banana bunches from fruit stands across the city. There’s a selfie of Nana, Hikari-chan, and Kuro-chan from when they visited Paris, and then right under it a picture Hikari-chan must have taken on her own of the Palais Garnier. She flips through more and more and finds a picture of their favorite bakery on a sunny day. Hikari-chan and Nana backstage before the debut of one of Nana’s plays, where Hikari-chan was the main character. Nana comes across a picture of the Mr. White cake she made for Hikari-chan’s birthday cake that year and laughs.
“You take pictures a lot,” Hikari-chan says. “I don’t really, but I wanted to do something I thought you’d appreciate for your birthday. So, I found all the pictures we’ve taken in our time together, and then I went around and took pictures of things that reminded me of you.” She tugs out the Palais Garnier one. “This one was because I remember you really liked Phantom of the Opera when we were at Seisho.” She rifles through the stack and finds one of the London Eye. “This was when you went on the London Eye even though I told you it’s a tourist trap. You’re in the top carriage. I guess you can’t see yourself in this picture.”
Nana knows she’s staring at Hikari-chan now, but she can’t help it. It’s a simple gift, but everything Hikari-chan says about it makes her feel like it’s so much more than that. It is more than that. It’s a very Hikari-chan way of expressing how much she cares, subtle yet packed with thought and love. Nana feels her eyes sting.
“I hope you like it,” Hikari-chan mumbles. Nana can see the tiniest bit of pink on her face. “If not, I can just get you a gift card or something.”
“No, I–” Nana can’t keep herself from crying anymore. The tears start to fall.
“Nana?!” Hikari-chan sits beside her, obviously worried.
“I–I love it,” Nana says between sniffles. “I love it so much. Thank you, Hikari-chan.”
“Oh,” Hikari-chan says. “You’re welcome.” She passes Nana a tissue box. Nana takes a tissue and blows her nose with it.
These halls are dimmer than she remembers them. They’re familiar, but in the same way your house feels familiar when you’re dreaming about it. She vaguely recognizes some of the students she passes by in the hallways, and she sees some teachers she used to have. She makes a note to say hi to them later. Right now, she has someone to talk to. She knocks on the door in front of her.
She opens the door and stands in the doorway. “Student 1 of the 99th Class, Aijo Karen!”
“You don’t have to say that when you enter my office anymore,” Sakuragi-sensei says. She’s sitting at her desk, hands folded at the center. “You’ve graduated.”
“I know, but I’m feeling nostalgic today!” Karen sits down in the cushy chair in front of Sakuragi-sensei. She’s sat here many a time, explaining missed homework assignments or sleeping during class or oversleeping and missing class. Yeah, she was really not a good student.
“So, Aijo-san, what have you been up to recently?” Sakuragi-sensei asks.
“Well, I’ve been auditioning around,” Karen says. “Not to jinx anything, but there’s a part I auditioned for that I really liked and have a good feeling about. I’ll let you know if I get it.”
Sakuragi-sensei nods. “Please do.”
“I’ve also been writing a bit on the side,” Karen adds. “I’m not that good at it yet, but it’s really fun.”
“Plays?” Sakuragi-sensei asks. “Like Daiba-san?”
“Yeah,” Karen says. “Banana-chan’s been giving me some really great advice.”
“Interesting,” Sakuragi-sensei says. She raps her fingertips against her desk. “Daiba-san on her own was a unique student. I didn’t think there’d be multiple people from your class interested in both acting and producing.”
“I’m not nearly Banana-chan level yet,” Karen rushes to correct. “I don’t even know if it’s something I want to do long-term. I’m just trying it right now.”
“Of course. Take your time,” Sakuragi-sensei says reassuringly. “Have you been in touch with your classmates?”
Karen nods. “Hikari-chan and Banana-chan more than everyone else, but I keep up with everyone, even Junjun. They’re all doing well. Hikari-chan visited all of them recently, and she said they’re all shining.”
“That’s good to hear.” Sakuragi-sensei looks relieved. Karen’s glad to see her relieved. “I was worried about you last year,” she admits. “You didn’t fill out your career form at all, and you seemed pretty dispirited earlier in the year. But you seem to be doing well for yourself. I’m happy for you.”
“It took a while to find my footing,” Karen says. “But I like where my life is heading right now. I’m happy as a stage girl and as Aijo Karen.”
“Getting better day by day,” Sakuragi-sensei smiles.
“That’s my line!” The two of them laugh together.
Karen stares out the window into the courtyard. She sees where she used to eat lunch with Mahiru-chan, Junjun, and Banana-chan. Tendo-san and Kuro-chan would join them sometimes too. She sees the path Futaba-chan would drive her motorcycle up every morning, Kaoruko-chan in tow. She sees the grassy areas where she practiced her home run swings for Hikari-chan.
In the glass, Karen also sees herself. If she compared herself to a picture from third year, she’d probably look exactly the same, minus the hair clip that now resides on her backpack. It’s the little things that have changed. She stands straighter. Her eyes are a bit more striking. She knows who the person looking back at her is. “Day by day,” Karen repeats, “day by day.”