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Idol Star System Generation: Season 1

 

Idol Star System Generation: Season 1

R. P. Mor

 

 

Idol Star System Generation: Season 1

 

Copyright 2017 Rafael Peccioli Moreno

Published by Rafael Peccioli Moreno

Shakespir Edition

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook is provided for free by the author and may not be sold or given away to other people. If you enjoyed this book and would like to share it with others, please encourage them to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. If you’re reading this book and did not downloaded it from an official retailer, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer to download your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

 

Prologue – Breaking Free

Chapter I – Led by Mirages

Chapter II – Sinful Blossom Season

Chapter III – Into the Idol Star System Generation

Chapter IV – The Best and the Worst

Chapter V – Girls in the Shell

Chapter VI – In Pursuit of dreams

Chapter VII – Baptism of Light

Chapter VIII – The Eyes Have It

Chapter IX – Love for the Underdogs

Chapter X – Where Idols Fear to Tread

Chapter XI – Black and Golden

Chapter XII – Behind the Lenses

Chapter XIII – Of Goddesses, Angels and Mortals

Chapter XIV – Companionship

Chapter XV – Proof of Valor

Chapter XVI – Sacrifices

Season One Finale – Dawn of a New Day

A Word from the Author

[* ***** Idol Star System Generation: Season One ***** *]

Prologue – Breaking Free

 

The sound of thundering steps on the corridor finally silenced. It didn’t last long, though, as the door energetically broke wide open. The small room was a little less crumped than the first time she went there, or maybe it’s just that she started to get familiarized with the many shelves full of trash, unused furniture and a small thin TV piled up one over the other and cardboard boxes. A single fan and two bulbs of light decorated the unremarkable white ceiling. The only thing that saved the place from being a claustrophobic cavern was the existence of windows across two walls. If not for the fact there were so many stacked things that obscured the view, it’d be quite pleasant. The windowless walls, on the other hand, sported a couple of large, color-intense posters of supposedly famous girls over psychedelic backgrounds.

The Sunday morning sun soaked the ambient, shining through the glass and making it sparkle. It’s almost as if there’re spangles all over the windows. Unfortunately, it’s just the dust accumulated on the inside making the sunlight go wild, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Of what could be seen of the outside, a large part was covered by a few multicolored signs and a big billboard made of little lamps and neon lights that emanated a retro feeling. Glimpses of the crowded street, tucked among three to five-story buildings, could be seen if someone really wanted to.

A well-groomed man in his mid-twenties was the sole living soul in that room, sitting behind the only desk there was and almost hidden behind his computer and the piles of paper. His suit was of ordinary quality at best when it came to its fabric, but fitted perfectly in his tall, somewhat slender body. His garment was of the same hue as his jet-black hair, slickly falling over his shoulders. As for the top of her boss’s hair, she still couldn’t quite say if it’s stylish or just messy. His dark brown eyes quickly glanced toward the figure that had just arrived.

Even though the whole place reeked of tobacco and dust, there’s something about it that she liked. It’s exciting, almost as if she’s walking into a yakuza crib instead of a plain, old commercial room. Her producer had the smelling perceptiveness of an oyster and was completely unable to tell that his recently rented office could potentially kill people with asthma.

“I’m here!”, an otherwise mesmerizing feminine voice, somewhat high-pitched and even more full of energy than it’s expected from an average teenager came from the door sounding a lot like a duck quacking. Mixing a slight greeting bow with a movement to gasp for air, the girl took a moment to catch her breath. Finally, she added on a somewhat mocking way, “Still waiting for an elevator”.

Smiling by the sight of the girl, the man stood up and calmly welcomed her:

“Good morning, right? Come in.” In a lower tone, he replied, “Naoko-Chan came running upstairs, didn’t you?”

“Nope,” she retorted, closing the door behind her, “Not this time. Well… just a little. But your nest is still unnecessarily hard to reach. Seriously, you should consider stop being stingy and putting an elevator here.”

Already accustomed with the uncommon bluntness of the girl, and not being particularly one for tempered words, the man sat at the edge of his desk with his lustrous black shoes still on the grayish-blue carpeted floor. Cool and light-heartedly, he retorted in the same half-joking way:

“And you should consider stop being such a sedentary and start exercising. This way in a few years you’re going to dance for two minutes and then faint on the stage. Not to say if your health is already this deteriorated at such a young age, you’re in for a life with your best buddy, the oxygen cylinder, before you turn forty.”

“Ha ha, you’re such a comical guy, Produ-San, you,” she responded, smiling genuinely albeit acting as if it wasn’t funny. It’s clear both of them had sharp tongues and didn’t mind a small contend of witty remarks. Slightly more serious, although not at all more formal as people were generally expected to act with their superiors, Naoko said “I actually do exercise: I met Rin-Chan at the Athletics club, after all! Also I practice karate every Tuesday and Thursday after school! But be it there, on stage or wherever, I never have to climb walls like those stairs.”

Surprised, the man, in a more serious tone, asked:

“You’re kidding, right?”

Immediately the girl crossed her arms and casually pointed, exaggerating on the details for the comical absurdity of it:

“Your room is on the third floor of a building twelve, maybe fifteen meters deep and your stairs go up nonstop, not only once changing direction. It climbs about ten meters and is around those fifteen long. And I’m the one joking here? Imagine how funny it’ll be when you finally get someone to visit you and this person has cardiac problems.”

“No, no, I…” the man started to explain himself. Thinking for a second, he briefly commented “Yeah, now that you mention it, I think not everyone would be able to climb those stairs, although since I’m not the owner of the building, an elevator is out of question.” Looking curious, he continued “I’m just surprised you practice martial arts. You never told me.”

“It’s on the schedule, just look at my agenda,” she mentioned. The man, with a negative gesture, declared, “No, your schedule just mentions the hours you’re occupied, I didn’t bother to write what you do at what hour. I’m your producer, not your stalker.”

Assuming a more sober attitude, the man directed her to his desk. Taking a small envelope from the middle of that mess, he handed it to the girl. Her jet black eyes sparkled with interest. Taken as if by surprise, she cautiously asked:

“What’s this? Is it for me?”

The young man, astonished, answered:

“Wow, I never thought I’d see the day when Naoko-Chan would act in a proper way! It’s… kinda strange. And underwhelming. As much as I hate to admit, you’re better with your carefree and happy personality, I suppose.”

With her eyes half open and a vexed countenance, she retorted:

“Get lost. I’m not being polite, it’s just that I didn’t believe up until now that you’d pay me anything at all.”

Her young boss, with a sour expression, told himself:

“Ouch. Well, I asked for it, now, didn’t I?”

“You bet you did!” the girl agreed. Bowing nevertheless, she grasped the package with both hands enveloped by her small, white gloves, feeling a rectangular volume weighting inside it. Rapidly glancing over to her producer to see if it’s alright to open it, she sat down and haphazardly broke the seal. A lump of dozens of bills waited inside, more than she would’ve guessed. Her witty, almost caustic attitude melted away as she stood momentarily looking the thick pile of cash. It’s nowhere near a fortune so far, but around six hundred thousand Yen was much more than enough to pay her rent and school, eat, invest and much more. It was an amazing sum. Her blank stare was partially covered by a curtain of slick and lustrous hair as black as the moonless night, giving her the impression the man couldn’t see her face. But as she came back to herself and found him quietly watching her with a somewhat heavy expression, she flushed.

Standing up again, still slightly shocked, she expressed her gratitude while bowing somewhat more than usual – even though the “usual” was little more than just a nod with the head, something quite disrespectful depending on the situations:

“Thank you, Aratani-San. I…” Noticing inside herself a wish to ask for forgiveness instead of thanking him, she stopped mid-sentence. When she stood straight again, her producer joked:

“I’m so generous I even deducted that one hundred Yen just so Naoko-Chan doesn’t need to worry herself! I hope you learned never to bet against me ever again. Especially concerning expecting too much from Megumi-San. Though if you want to give me even more money, be my guest.”

Naoko’s serious expression altered for a second while she acidly replied:

“I hope Produ-San swallows this one hundred Yen coin and choke on it.”

The man grinned, though for some reason Naoko turned back to looking abnormally serious. It slowly made her producer also adopt a cool but somewhat stern countenance. Aratani, with an unreadable expression, asked her slowly, in a way that was hard to tell if he was disappointed, sad, angry or just acting more severe than normal:

“Since you do not bother pulling punches, I’ll also be blunt here, so please forgive if I’m rude. I need to know. Naoko-Chan, when we first met I measured correctly your cheerful personality, I think. In these couple of weeks we’ve been together you proved to be just the upbeat, happy-go-lucky and honest, sometimes borderline insulting, but kind-hearted girl I took you for the second I first laid my eyes on you. But also during the initial conversation you took a nosedive and became so defensive that I almost though I’d gauged you wrongly. If I remember correctly, it seemed as if you though I was joking, or maybe that I wasn’t capable of keeping my word. I need you to be as frank as you usually are. Tell me: did you really believe in me as a producer from the beginning? Do you believe me now?”

Seeing her producer so serious made her heart skip a beat and her stomach hurt as if squeezed by ice claws. Instinctively she stepped back to open up space and turned partially sideways, in a way that the hair fringe that fell slight over the right side of her face could cover her evasive sight.

“So that’s how other people feel when I’m direct with them?”, she replied with a forced smile, only then noticing she was being evasive, a thing she always hated. Breathing deeply, she turned toward the waiting man, his expression unshaken, and paused for a moment.

“Like you once told me,” the man insisted, “don’t mind sugarcoating your words, I’m not going to eat them. Just give me the truth, that’s all I want.”

Hesitating for a moment, Naoko finally shook her head in understanding and responded:

“Okay. The truth.” Looking down to her feet, becoming more self-aware of her body position and of how the three inches of her white platforms made the floor seem more distant than she remembered, she continued, “Actually… at first I didn’t… I didn’t believe too much.” Raising her head gradually, noticing that even with the advantage of her boots, she was still a few inches lower than her producer, she confided, “But it wasn’t really because of you. Sure, when you first think of an idol agency, you generally imagine something a little more… glamorous than this. But it’s not that I didn’t believe in you. I just didn’t believe in agencies in general. Actually, I think I just accepted to do such a crazy thing as to move here because of you.”

“One of the first times we met you said that you’re craving to move away from your parents’ home,” the man remembered. “That it’s your main reason to try this new life. That you didn’t even think of trying to be an idol before, and that it’s just a way to get away from home.”

“Yes, to move to Tokyo, yes,” she confirmed, “but not to believe in a promise of fame and fortune. Sure, nobody knows me yet, but at least now I know you’re not a scam.”

Thinking for a second, her producer murmured, tucking his hands in his pockets:

“So you though I was a scam at the beginning, huh? I was under the impression you thought something like that.”

“Not because of you!” Naoko insisted, drawing the attention of his eyes that were wavering down. Putting the envelope she was still holding inside a small, purple purse, she closed it, rested the object over the desk and, with her hands free, she began to talk using both her voice and body movements to emphasize her point. “Maybe I never explained why I came here in first place, and why I accepted to believe in you. Do we have some time?”

Looking at the clock over the door ticking eight and twelve, the man nodded, mentioning:

“Our first appointment is only ten thirty. We’ve plenty of time.”

“Alright,” she said, regaining part of her natural smile. “Listen up.”

 

When Hayato found his cousin Naoko at the airport, he didn’t know what to say. Last time he saw her, she was just a ten years-old urchin combing the narrow streets of their hometown, Shimabara, in search of adventure and trouble. Since his father moved to Tokyo, Hayato never again returned to Shimabara, nor to anywhere near the area around Nagasaki. Heck, he never again set foot in Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan, and his father only did it three times. His father lost contact almost completely with his own two siblings, including the father of Naoko, six years before. They’ve never had a rupture, but after Hayato’s father moved due to his work, they rarely spoke. Thus, when his older brother Yoshirou called desperately begging if they could let his daughter stay in their home for a few days, it’s strange to say the least.

Even though his physical constitution, strong, with a squared jaw and frowning eyebrows made he look bad, Hayato was in reality collected and tranquil. He was the polar opposite of his agitated and outgoing cousin Naoko. She always said there was just one thing to do in their hometown: to die of boredom. Unlike her, he actually liked Shimabara a lot. It’s a city of almost fifty thousand inhabitants with simple houses and surrounded by majestic nature. It was bathed by the blue waters of Ariake Bay and sat at the foot of the thousand and five hundred meters tall Mount Unzen, covered in lush green vegetation. Many onsen, scenic hot springs that attracted tourists and locals alike, dotted the region. It’s a paradise, despite what Naoko thought. Hayato had difficulties adapting to the bustling Tokyo, and even half a decade after moving the excessive amount of people still got on his nerves.

At the airport he almost didn’t recognize her. From the last time they met, she had grown into a spectacular sixteen year-old girl. Averaging one meter and seventy, maybe a little less, she sported a cascade of dark hair up to the middle of her back and long lashes that surrounded razor-sharp eyes, absorbing everything around her with curiosity and unbounded excitement. Her skin was fair, although not really ghost-pale, because even though she stayed a lot outside, she had the habit of applying sun filters regularly. She used light make-up, just the eyeliner being more prominent. It was simple, but showed she cared for her appearance, contrary to what her tomboyish fame suggested. Her mouth agape in a big smile revealing peal-white, perfectly aligned teeth, she was in eternal awe, as if walking on heaven. The girl did had a small, non-externally perceptible septum deviance that made breathing through her nose a hassle, but that’s kind of nice because it forced her to always keep her open mouth, seemingly smiling.

Her face was particularly gorgeous: it’d striking features, very proportional and lady-like. It’s simply beautiful. As for the rest, even in unremarkable clothes, just a sleeveless, unbranded white, purple and yellow t-shirt and pearl shorts, she was quite the head turner. She wore no accessories other than a good luck charm anklet made of white and black intertwined straw she’d received from a childhood friend, and beaten white sneakers. Maybe it’s good after all that she had a lot of running and climbing in her town, because her long and firm legs were real eye candies and her slim body was on the curvaceous side. Still room for improvement, but on the other hand she hadn’t fully matured yet. Not that he’d be checking on his cousin, of course. Hayato was too busy cursing his luck of having been born as her family member.

The first few days of spring break flew by. To be far away from home was a blessing by itself for Naoko, but to be away from her parents and also surrounded by lots of people, lights, movement and energy, was a dream.

She told her cousin the reason she made a trip there was because life in her house became unbearable. Even though the tension with her parents grew by each passing year since she was seven, things really started to go nonfunctional after Naoko turned twelve. It’s a reason why the girl stayed as late as possible in the streets, with her friends. The majority of them were boys a few years older than her. She got herself in every activity she could, mostly because she was easily excited for anything but also in order to stay away from her house. Since she was twelve every minute she spent with her family was a war of attrition. So much that her father simply gave in to a few things she asked, like to get enrolled in a karate dojo she somehow managed to get accepted in just to avoid unnecessary discussions. By the year she completed fifteen it’s rare to live a single day without any argument.

The first week in the apartment of her uncle’s house was amazing. Hayato was worried at first that the six years of isolation would have dulled their already tense relationship, but Naoko proved to be an amazing guest. She was always radiant and could sustain talks for long hours with anyone. Despite her unladylike reputation, she was surprisingly feminine except for her interests and her frank speeches. In fact, she was confusing, for as much as she loved to play videogames and practice karate, her nails were always polished and she carried an eyeliner brush, along with sun filters and a few other things, wherever she went. Even then, she wasn’t fond of over accessorizing and hated spoiled people, not really having any problems in going on adventures among trees, insects and mud, getting wet under rain or anything. The girl was also very independent, in that she could wash dishes, clean the place and take care of her clothes and belongings. She wasn’t such a good cook, but Naoko and her aunt, who basically lived to make dishes, could talk for an eternity about everything related to cuisine. And even though Naoko didn’t like baseball, sumo, pro wrestling and many other sports, her uncle always found himself entertained in conversations with her about trips, locations worth visiting, economy, politics and more. Even when she didn’t know anything about a topic her curiosity still made the conversation flow smoothly more often than not. As much as she’s an outstanding talker, she’s also an excellent listener, eager to discover new things.

Of course she had her fair share of flaws, too. Her loose tongue was the worst offender in Hayato’s opinion, but he also found her unstable temperament, prone to swings, to be vexing. At the same time she said what she thought of others, what didn’t concern other people was kept well under locks, turning her intriguing and sometimes mysterious, but also making her hard to reach and help, and frustrating to try to understand (but a couple of times she still acted as if others were supposed to comprehend her nonetheless). Her short fuse and her quickness to judge, condemn and punish made her an entire legal system in a single girl, which at first seemed amusing but rapidly proved to be a nuisance. She was extremely loyal to people important to her, but her means of showing it could be improved. Her sense of direction was abysmal and when she decided on something it’s as hard to refrain her as it is to prevent a volcano from erupting. It wouldn’t be a bad trait if she always got the right idea in her mind, but in spite of her good-willed nature, her stubbornness was a challenge to everyone when, out of poor judgment, she committed herself to a cause that was clearly not a good idea.

Also her “adventurous” spirit was nothing short of a liability, wreaking havoc at the least expected moment. And last but not least, until last time he saw her, Naoko’s good-willed personality could take a sharp and scary turn when she felt particularly unhappy, helpless and alone, turning into an insensible, borderline cruel one. It was a rare sight, thankfully – Hayato only had the bad luck of meeting her ice-cold alternate side twice in his life, and even Naoko refused to accept that on these exceptional occasions she acted that way. Overall, she was far from perfect, but was still a lively and intriguing company most of the time for sure.

Hayato was five years older than Naoko, even though his father was four years younger than hers. Still, she was used to talking to older men, and left nothing to be desired from any good conversation he’d have with his friends. It was odd because they grew apart, and as far as Hayato knew both sides couldn’t care less for the other, but out of respect they accepted to receive her, and maybe to repay the favor she showed her best side. She wanted to know about the college degree in chemistry her cousin was attending to and what he did to have fun in the big city. Since he had only a few friends, very few hobbies and seldom left home, it’s a nice change of pace to go explore the sprawling metropolis with her.

Even though her family let her stay with her uncle just because she was intolerable in the last few months, Naoko had a mission. She wanted to find a new high school to enroll and go live in the Greater Tokyo Area. Of course, the cost of living in the eastern capital was prohibitive for her family, so if she’s to stay there, she had to find a way to make ends meet. As a high school girl it’s obvious she’d need the financial support of her parents to foot at least part of her bills, but despite her father having said multiple times he wouldn’t pay for any “extravagance”, he knew her intentions for the trip and still helped her visit the metropolitan prefecture all the same.

Naoko and her cousin went sightseeing every day but even so the girl was barely able to see a few of the long list of places she wanted to see with her own eyes. One or two of them were downright rejected by Hayato, like the nightlife intense, luminous signs-riddled red-light district of Kabukichou, but the majority was simply cut due to time constraints. She watched the cherry blossoms, saw the staggering Tokyo Tower from a distance and much more, but it just felt rushed. Her nine days, starting the second to last Friday of March and going until the Saturday of the next week, counted down fairly quickly. Soon she realized she hadn’t visited any high school. Her sixth and seventh days were spent info hunting on institutions that were good, accessible and could help relocating her to dorms. Though those two days were unremarkable, she found three nice options.

The problem was, like always, the money. Even living in dorms would cost a lot, and the schools themselves were more than her family could afford. Thus she began searching for any place which would accept an unskilled and inexperienced student for a well-paid arubaito – a part-time job. At first the colossal amount of commercial establishments in the metropolis gave her the false sensation that it’d be easy to find work despite what her cousin and her uncle told her. She visited shopping malls, galleries, convenience stores, outlets, restaurants, a hairdressing salon, a movie theater, three maid cafes and a few electronic stores, all by herself. By the end of the eighth day her feet were hurting and all she managed to get were many evasive answers that meant the same thing: no. To complicate matters, she spent almost all the cash she had left commuting.

To be fair, the only owner of a maid café she was able to talk to actually got an interest in her. She was unearthly attractive and sociable, after all. His attention was especially increased after he asked her to sing anything she wanted, and he seemed genuine enough when he said there were currently no open positions, but that he’d contact her if there’re any vacancies.

Anyway, she though, her father was so close-minded and antiquated that he’d probably abandon her for good if she told him she’d work as a maid. In practice those places were just coffee shops with waitresses dressed as maids, with a few quirks like the possibility to order thematic dishes or ask for a girl to sing for everyone. Each place had their own twists, but as a rule of thumb things were pretty tongue-in-cheek and light. Even so, her father would probably still have that feudal line of thoughts that maid cafes would be modern equivalents of brothels or whatever. He’s that narrow-sighted. Even if the owner gave her the job, she still foresaw an arduous fight to convince her parents it was an honorable enough work.

That night she could barely sleep. Her legs ached like they’ve gotten a beating, and the temperature was hotter than usual. Even with air conditioning it’s unpleasant to sleep, and her mind couldn’t silence even for a second. She had already been to Tokyo before, but only with her parents, and it’s nowhere near as fun as it’s this time. She loved that place. To think she’d have to go back to her backwater town full of nothing to do and live under her parents’ roof again, having to obey every ridiculous rule and feeling imprisoned made her feel dizzy. The pressure to find something, anything, the next day was so unbearable she wanted to get up that same instant and continue searching, even though she was exhausted. Of course, she could wait until college to go out… but she’d probably already be a psychiatric patient by that time.

The next morning was even hotter, making any attempts of trying to shut eyes even for a moment futile. Fatigued, she went back to her job hunt by dawn. Of course it’s hard, but she was accepting almost any position, unless it was degrading. In a city that size, how hard could it be to land a job of a dog-walker, a salesclerk or a mascot for children parties anyway?

She visited a few streets known for having lots of videogame stores, imagining they’d want a girl who actually knew a lot about games to attract otaku… although the more she pictured in her mind the most extreme cases of strange nerdy guys drooling over virtual girls and making their manga pages sticky with saliva and… other… fluids, the more she regretted the idea. And her imagination was one of her strongest traits (unfortunately).

 

“Welcome!”, she would loudly and enthusiastically greet a customer by the sound of the bell ringing when the door was opened, only then noticing a short, thirty-something man with untidy hair, wide-open, beady eyes as if he’s being followed by some shadow assassin, sporting clothes four sizes bigger than him. On such sight all her hopes of suggesting interesting and decent games would’ve been abandoned.

After noticing her, he would probably freeze on the spot, his fingers erratically moving as if they’re living noodles, squirming over the Yen bills his mother clearly gave him. Starting to sweat profusely and hyperventilating, he’d indecisively whisper something along the lines of:

“Do… do you have… the game… ‘G… Gotcha!!! Chained Strawberry Angels Palpitation Fever Ultimate: Super Nonconsensual Tentacle Hell Seven – Pure Loli Maiden Sisters Edition’?”

By the time the ‘freaklient’ would be going out Naoko would have developed a severe case of traumatic twitching under an eye and, clinging to the farthest possible wall, her “Thank you for your patronage, please come back soon!” standard phrase would most likely come out more like “Please go back under your rock and don’t you ever show your face here again!”

 

Never mind the fact that she knew her stereotypes were prejudiced and far from truth… of a few otaku, at least. Or so she hoped. Nevertheless, she combed every gaming store. In most cases she couldn’t find the owner. Of the ones she did, at least two seemed interested, and one of them made a brief interview with her.

Her gaming knowledge wasn’t the problem. When it came to proper etiquette for clients, in that case the owner, however, Naoko noticed something wasn’t right. She was able to perform well the basics, like greeting a client when he came in and to count the change out loud, albeit it rubbed her the wrong way for some reason. She felt wrong, as if… she was being nice to someone just so they could give her something – money, in this case. It felt like backstabbing, but she could live with being polite. When he pushed her, impersonating a truly irritating customer, however, she started to ask herself if that was the kind of work she’d like to perform.

The owner was pleased with her and vowed to get in contact again in a couple of days. When she left the store, however, all she could feel was emptiness. To be mistreated, even if just in a pretended sale, without being able to do anything and having to keep her cool was a big pain for her. If she wanted to feel bad she would’ve stayed home.

Not only she looked drained, she also lost part of the will to work. The more she thought about how any job involved doing something for someone and tolerating frustration, stupid clients and people that were unable to listen to the truth without getting pissed off, the more she got depressed. She went over a mental list of every position she knew, both plausible and absurd, but no matter what, every single one involved people. Any employee could be fired if their superiors were dissatisfied with their performances. Their bosses would answer to directors. Even a CEO had to answer to stockholders and the general public. Maybe… maybe stockholders didn’t have to tolerate abuses! Yeah, they still relied on others, but they’re the ones getting pissed of there, if anyone. If she had a lot of money – or so she thought it’s necessary – and knew how to invest in stocks that would be a sweet option.

She day dreamingly crossed from sidewalk to sidewalk, automatically going in and out of every open door and only stopping to reapply sun filters every hour. At first she looked for signs that they were hiring, but after hearing so many indirect refusals Naoko got desensitized enough to try her luck everywhere she considered decent. At every opportunity she went back to her fantasies of operating stocks. Although that was the kind of work she considered boring, the more she supposed it to be similar to a game, the more excited she got. The ups and downs of those lines, the gaining of lots of money, the… well… that’s it. She had no idea how it performed in reality, but somehow Naoko was able to get thrilled about yet another thing out of the blue, just dreaming about having a computer with multiple screens, most of them showing trends of powerful companies full of people slaving away their uneventful lives for her while on the last screen she’d be playing something while waiting for the stocks to reach selling point or whatever.

There was a moment she got so pumped up about the idea that she could clearly see herself doing it during the next years. She could stay in her parents’ house, since she’d simply lock the door of her room and play. It wouldn’t be and adventurous life and she started to think she’d get lonely eventually, but her father wouldn’t be able to say she was being lazy or that all she did was to play videogame or computer games because by the end of the day, she’d receive much more than him! When she turned twenty and thus became legally an adult, Naoko would then rent an apartment in Tokyo and be free! Maybe she could even hire a handsome butler!

The ground started to shake slightly, bringing her back to reality. The seismic movement was so quick and weak it could’ve passed for a loaded cargo train approaching a platform, if there was any nearby. When the tremor stopped, a few seconds later, she had the impression many pedestrians hadn’t even felt it. But then it’s too late, her daydream was shattered.

It was strange, when she thought about it. She loved to be close to people. She loved Tokyo because it’s so lively! Why was she having cold feet about any position? Was it because of fear of responsibilities? But she was always responsible, despite being slightly hot-headed.

Entering a convenience store, she watched the saleslady perform her duties with a client. It wasn’t nowhere nearly as bad as she was thinking during the last few hours. And although Naoko had never worked for a paycheck before, in her hometown her nosy nature and her drive to stay away from home as much as she could lead her to do lots of voluntary works. School projects, caring for the elderly, doing whatever she was allowed to for firework festivals… It’s always fun. Why did she abruptly begin second-guessing her decisions? And, even in a worst-case scenario where a part-time job she got proved to be ill-treating, if she was to pick fights with a person she would meet for one minute in her entire life because he or she abused Naoko’s patience, the girl would essentially be giving reason for the arguments of her father that her short temper was nothing more than sheer immaturity. No, she would persevere. And, most importantly, she already knew how her home was akin to a penitentiary. No way she would go back there!

The convenience store ended up being another no-go, but she left the venue with renewed hopes and a snack she ate at an opportunity she got to sit down, the only thing she consumed that whole day. The sky leisurely turned red and started to go dark, increasing the feelings of frustration and her rush. The flight back home was scheduled for the upcoming morning, giving her few precious hours left, but she would hate to go back empty-handed.

She hurriedly kept searching for her dream arubaito – any plain part-time job, really. Eventually, though, her tired legs protested and refused to move. She, against her will, found a nice kids playground and sat down.

Only then, as resignation grew on her, she could take a moment to breath and pay attention to her surroundings. As the dusk got darker and the last sunbeams painted the clouds, few and far between, a rosy hue, the stars started to appear. Truth be told, the starry skies of Shimabara were prettier at night. In Tokyo there were hardly enough shining dots in the firmament to fill it. Only two or three. But the lights that steadily started to shine across the city more than made up for it in Naoko’s opinion.

She ran the entire day with mixed feelings and had little time to appreciate the experience, but looking back she found it fun. The towering buildings’ windows around her reflected one another and the street lamps, the squirming car headlights and rear lights that formed white and red rivers, the multicolored billboards, the glistening cellphone screens that made crowds sparkle as if sprinkled with silver dust, the airplanes coming and going and so much more. The metropolis radiated brighter at night with spinning lights that her hypnotized eyes reflected. To be there made her at peace, even if her stomach was empty and her body sore. Despite her sleepless last night, she didn’t notice her tiredness.

She stood there in silent contemplation for who knows how long, and as she decided to move again, her heart was full of peace. As she spent her last change on something to eat and took the train back to her uncle’s place, it’s already well past rush time and the number of people on the streets was manageable. She found herself a cozy seat next to a window and kept staring at the iridescent city that moved outside, while her reflex looked back with a mix of happiness and sadness.

The repetitive, low humming and the tender rocking of the train gently carried the bushed girl to a deep slumber. When she came back to her senses, her heart almost jumped out of her mouth. Her station had already passed by three stops, and Naoko dashed out of the vehicle the first chance she got.

Finding her way to the opposite platform to go back, she waited for a moment. For as much as she’d like to rest, her biggest desire was that this day never ended. So much, in fact, that when the train arrived she couldn’t force herself to get in. As she watched the doors open and close and the metal, serpent-like vehicle slip by, Naoko decided to go by foot. She was just three stations away from her uncle’s apartment, anyway.

Every corner of the streets was different than the last. Every new block was full of possibilities for a girl that felt caged in her real home. Every person dressed differently – with the exception of the suit-clad, sake-filled, tottering salarymen that seemed to spawn at alarming rates at every turn, but that was to be expected. In a new city even those generally annoying, loud men were amusing for her. They composed the experience of free roaming the capital.

A couple of blocks down the street, where small, two or three decade old but charming commercial buildings full of luminous signs aligned themselves, she found out some doors sported hiring notices. Too bad it was a quarter to ten and most offices were closed. If she knew that place before she could’ve found a part-time job there, maybe. Still, she wandered the long, straight avenue looking at every notification. A couple of them were really vague, but since offices seemed to be the thing there, it wasn’t hard to imagine they would need auxiliaries, secretaries and whatnot.

Eventually, after a lot of walking, she passed through a three-story building with a few lights still on. The door was opened, immediately leading to a dimly lit stairway that climbed, without stops, all the way up, whilst presenting doors to every pavement. A big hiring board by the door listed every open position for every floor. All were empty except the uppermost business, which simply and vaguely presented a “accepting applications!” statement.

Naoko gave a few steps back and looked up. As she had imagined, the windows of the third floor were still illuminated. Above them there was a retro-esque, neon billboard. From where she was standing, almost beneath it, it was hard to tell the name of the company, but she could see the symbol was a sort of a diamond with its lower tip sitting atop a disc of some sort. Even though the long, narrow stairs seemed somewhat shady, the big sign was really well made and flashy, and inspired confidence.

Naoko hesitated, looking at the hour on her cellphone. Even if the office was still open, it’s hard to imagine they would receive her at such an hour. But then again, the worst it could happen was another no, like the hundred or so she already obtained those two days. And there was nothing she could do, by next morning she’d already be leaving. If she explained it and was lucky enough perhaps they would still send her word in case some position came up.

“Fat chance,” she thought. A school girl with no prior experience in whatever office tasks she’d be required to do, probably looking miserably tired and with no business card to back her up would show up almost ten p.m. looking for work. Yeah, great chances of success. Well, at least she could say she was dedicated.

The expectation to hear another roundabout no made her legs start to move away, but as she started to think about it, she stopped again. To hell with probability, at that time all she wanted was not to go back and keep exploring. Given, the place looked a little suspicious, but nothing that made her think she’d be entering a mafia den. Although when that crossed her mind, her imagination started to play tricks on her.

Even then, she fought to control her fear. The last time she thought so vividly about bad things, she pictured herself selling porn games to a creepy otaku, and reality (so far) turned out to be not nearly as bad. Mustering up her courage and inquisitiveness, she went back and started climbing the stairs.

The steps were short and the inclination was steep. After two days of intense walking her legs shook like jelly. The very climb was a test of resolution, it seemed, but it just made her curiosity burn hotter.

The stairs wound up on a wall. After a L turn there was a small, carpeted corridor. To the right two restrooms and on the left a few couches and an old door. At the end of the hallway there was another entrance, from where the faint sound of a television and a fan came out. She made her way there and, vacillating for a while, regained her breath and knocked. By that time she had already thought about what she’d say if she found out a lot of gangsters and her years of martial arts classes that would certainly not save her flashed before her eyes.

Contrary to what she thought, she was greeted by a soothing male voice, maybe a little drowsy, politely asking for a second. After a brief pause the door opened slightly, and through the gap a tall and young man appeared. He definitely looked like he was sleeping, his face partially wrinkled and red. He seemed surprised, and after checking the person before him his cloudy eyes lost their half-asleep air. He opened the door, and behind him Naoko could see his room. It was the messiest thing she’d ever seen, even for an office. A small TV airing the news sat atop cardboard boxes and his desk was hidden behind a small fridge, a sofa still with the marks of someone who had slept there and other furniture. A strong smell of tobacco and dust clogged her nostrils. The neon lights came in from the darkness outside the windows, and an old ceiling fan span slowly, generating more noise than wind. It was surreal.

There was nothing to be liked on that chaos, but somehow places like that attracted Naoko. She secretly liked boy’s rooms for reasons even she didn’t fully understood. Maybe because the untidiness equated to freedom for her, and that was a precious thing.

“Please, come in,” the tall, slender and elegant man in his mid-twenties invited with a bow, looking lost. Noticing her eyes glancing around the room, he scratched the back of his head and apologetically explained while bowing again, “I’m deeply sorry. We just move in, there’s still a lot to be done.”

Closing the door behind the seemingly shocked girl, the man opened up a way to his desk and offered a seat for her. Taking everything from over the table and putting it over the sofa, he lowered the volume of the TV so that the images gave an impression of liveliness to the ambient but the sound didn’t interfere and, going back, he said, in a careful way:

“Well… I’m Aratani Kouta, the owner of this agency.” After a brief pause, the tall, slim man in his creased suit mentioned regretfully, “It’s already past business hour, so I don’t know if I can help you now, but… Please, if I can be of any assistance, let me know.”

Naoko knew it was a polite way of saying “get the heck out of here and come back other time”, but she was surprised the man named Kouta looked actually genuine in his intentions of assisting her. The girl quickly said, as politely as she felt comfortable to be:

“It’s a pleasure to make you acquaintance, Aratani-San. I’m Yano Naoko. Sorry for coming at such late an hour, but… to be frank, this is my last night in Tokyo. Tomorrow morning I’ll be flying back to my hometown, and I wanted to… see if I could find a job so that I could pay my studies here. And I saw in the board by the entrance your company was accepting applications. So… I’m sorry to disturb you. I just wanted to know if I could know more about that position. I… couldn’t find any information about it, but…”

The man, showing interest, leaned forward and told her in a considerate way:

“No, I understand.” Pausing briefly to think, he inhaled and exhaled the air through his nose as if ventilating the tiredness of the day while looking for something in the shelves of his desk. “ I’m thankful for your interest. You seem like a dedicated person, to be up at such an hour looking to fulfill your dreams.”

She was afraid he’d take her wrongly, thinking a girl looking for work at such a late hour would be up to no good, but it looked like they thought similarly. Glad, she thanked him and waited while the man took a flyer and a business card in his hands and, putting them at the edge of the table for the time being, he asked:

“Let’s get down to business, then. Yano-San, you seemed like you have some questions about the application. Can I help to clarify anything?”

“Hm… yes,” Naoko replied, “I’d like to know more about the position. What kind of job is it? I’m sixteen, and I don’t exactly have any previous experience in office work, but I’ve already done a lot of volunteer work at my hometown, and I’m a quick learner, I think.”

The look on Aratani’s face became puzzled. Appearing to have lost part of his enthusiasm, he briefly gauged the girl’s eyes. He could see she was tired, but there was a glint of hope and something on her gave the impression she was more energetic and cheerful than that formal meeting made her to be. And although she had probably made a dumb question, she appeared to be smart. Her eyes were attentive and sharp. He decided to chalk up that misunderstanding to her weariness. Unsure, he clung to his gut-feeling and elucidated:

“Well… about the application, I’m sorry it wasn’t very precise. We currently have no open positions in terms of office personnel. That invitation was due to the fact that we are a newly-founded idol producing agency. I’m the owner. We’re currently looking for talents to produce.”

The moment Naoko heard the word “idol”, she petrified. All her will to continue that conversation was syphoned out of her body. Suddenly the messy but rather cozy room seemed like an intimidating place, one she got a sudden urge to leave.

The young man handled her a pamphlet written in big characters. “The Paragon Idol Agency”, it said. The logo was that of a big diamond, in its most classic shape, drawn in silver lines over a dark background. His lower tip levitated atop what appeared to be the center of a platinum-colored disk, CD, DVD, Blu-Ray or any kind of similar media. The disk was seen from a perspective, as if resting atop an invisible surface. Drawn over the diamond was the black silhouette of a young woman. There’re no details, but by the outline it could be imagined she was wearing a skirt and holding a microphone. The back of the flyer presented, in bullet-point listing, some information, but Naoko could hardly read anything.

Her eyes were covered by a cold mist, almost like if she got lost in her mind. Back in time and space to her hometown, seven or eight years before.

 

Remembering the day they first met, her producer, lying down on his chair with both feet over his desk, interrupted Naoko’s raconteur spree:

“Yeah, I was under the impression you spaced out the moment you heard it’s an idol agency, but at that time I was so pressed to find a good talent to promote that I refrained from asking what was the problem.” Smiling, he added, “Not to say I was too afraid to lose such a rare diamond in rough like you over any argument to care, diamond girl.”

Looking at his sly face, straight and unfaltering while complimenting her, Naoko laughed.

“I’d pretend to be shocked if I wasn’t well aware of your womanizer’s traits. Keep them to yourself, you perv, the only one you’re going to get to know this way is a police officer.”

“You try to compliment the talent of a woman with no ulterior motives and she immediately raises shields against you,” Aratani mentioned, jestingly looking hurt. Going back to his cool self, he inquired, “Alright, Naoko-Chan. Get to the point. What was the deal? Why did you think I’d betray you?”

Losing herself in memories, her eyes clouding again albeit without the shocking and disheartened expression of a few weeks before, the girl continued her narrative.

 

The moment that man told her about idol producing, her mind was pulled back to Momoko. Fuchigami Momoko was the older sister of Naoko’s oldest friend, Fuchigami Masahiro. Two years older than her and always the quiet type, Masahiro lived right across the street. He probably cared for Naoko more than anyone and, despite not being particularly adventurous, he’s always there to help her out of situations. He had a tendency to try and overprotect Naoko, taking the blame for things she did. Naoko eventually made many friends all across Shimabara and beyond, some from the streets, some from the karate dojo and the other martial arts centers she liked to take a peek, many from school, a few from online games and so on, but even then she maintained her childhood friendship.

Masahiro had a sister six years older than him, and thus eight years older than Naoko. Her name was Momoko. When Naoko was still a brat around eight years old, Momoko was already an attractive teenager. She always dreamed to be famous, maybe an actress or a singer. Her father encouraged her to pursue her dream, and somehow she found about an idol agency in Nagasaki that seemed interested in her. Her family invested in her, paying every fee the agency said it was necessary. Apparently the process was very complicated and involved many legal consulting and expenses for tests, singing and dancing classes, initial promotions and other things. Her family paid a lot of money.

After many travels, all of which ended up in frustration because for one reason or another every test, audition or interview with the producer-to-be got canceled at the last moment, the anticipation came to a sad conclusion. The agency simply vanished, taking all her money. Her “producer” was never seen again. The scam to prey on the dreams of girls made many families go into debt, and even though Momoko’s father and mother were able to eventually recover from the loss, their daughter was left emotionally scarred.

Although Naoko wasn’t exactly a friend of Momoko, which at that time was almost double her age, she knew her well enough to notice a drastic chance in her behaviors. After that incident the good-spirited girl became introspective and sour. Her bonds with her family grew tighter, as if she became so riddled with guilt that she did anything for her brother and parents, but at the same time she became distant and cold to others, sometimes borderline cruel. She got attached to animals, but her faith in humanity was compromised. So much that she became neurotic with her studies and a real workaholic, aiming only for perfection and not caring for any stranger anymore.

After that, similar stories were heard across Shimabara a few more times. Tales of supposedly big shots from Nagasaki, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo and so on getting an interest in a girl from small towns. For the women, it’s like being discovered against all odds. Then there was an expensive process that invariably ended up in the agency disappearing in thin air, leaving the girls and their families to lick their financial and emotional wounds.

It was easy for vile people to fool young girls with promises of stardom and fortune. In Japan the idol industry was a huge and well-oiled machine. Scouted boys and girls could go for nobody to national celebrity overnight. The entertainment industry craved for pretty faces and new songs. Billions of Yen changed hands over teenagers and spam a myriad of products. CDs, commercials, clothes, dolls, official school bags and other materials, shows and much more. Girls found themselves being interviewed in TV, appearing in building-tall electronic ads and having legions of fans calling her in the streets. As much as it was tantalizing, the idol industry had its own fair share of traps and competition was fierce, but nothing detracted from the dream of becoming the next one on the spotlights and every year dozens of thousands of women tried their lucks, looks and talents for a piece of the action. Only a few managed to get somewhere. Even when not falling victims to schemes, the idol road was fraught with dangers and hardships. For some it added value to the victors, but that was because nobody thinks they are going to be among the vast majority who falls flat.

To someone such as Naoko, who knew terror stories about con artists draining families of their resources or leading girls astray, to discover herself in an agency was almost worse than if she had actually met a group of bad looking men with their backs covered by tattoos.

Sure, the young man in front of her seemed like a decent person. Even then, his office was nowhere near what an authentic idol agency would look like, as far as what she knew. It was definitely a ruse.

To his merit, that con artist looked very smart, noticing something was amiss with her. Quickly, he started to detail the process his agency applied to idol candidates:

“About the application itself, we try to make it as quick as possible. There’s a singing and dancing test, following guide rules from the supervisory organ. Then, there’s an interview to get to know the candidate, just to know with whom we could be working with. Finally, should everything be okay, I submit the data to the higher-ups so they can look into the paperwork. Usually the whole process doesn’t take more than four days.”

Right off the bat Naoko caught on a discrepancy in his explanation and, without any care for what would the schemer feel, tossed it right at his face:

“Yeah, right, your ‘higher-ups’. Listen, didn’t you say you’re the owner of this lovely agency, ‘Produ-San’?’

The almost pet-like name “Produ-San” she called the supposed producer out of the blue was coated in venom. Despite having the unisex “San” suffix, which in Japanese denoted some degree of respect, often akin to “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “Ms.” or something similar, in this case Naoko was being clearly sarcastic. To her disappointment, the man looked just slightly fazed, and instead of breaking the conversation on that point, he calmly answered, somewhat jokingly:

“That’s correct, this lovely agency is all mine, I’m glad you liked it. The higher-ups I refer to are the people from the supervisory organ I mentioned.”

“What organ?” questioned Naoko, crossing her arms. She actually liked the nonchalant attitude of that Aratani guy, but as far as she could tell there were no such things. He, in a matter of fact way, replied while handling her his business card, with the logo of his company, telephone number, e-mail address and something called an ‘I.S.S.G. ID’ followed by fourteen digits:

“Every idol agency answers to the Idol Star System Generation Co., you know.” Pausing to evaluate her expression and noticing she only seemed a little confused on top of her defensive posture, he asked “Yano-San… knows about the I.S.S.G., I… think? Or… do you want me to clarify what’s it?”

To make assumptions about other people in any conversation in Japan was a risky bet, and one Naoko usually did far more often than most people and incurred in bigger chances of offending someone. But on the other hand, she wasn’t nearly as much hurt when others did the same to her, and since the man was trying to be polite when implying she should probably know about that organization, she let that slip. Looking at the black business card, she merely said in a passive-aggressive way while thinking if she should just stand up and go away:

“I’ve heard this name once or twice, but since I’ve never, ever wanted to be an idol and I barely keep up with idol trends and stuff like that, I don’t know much about it.”

Getting more and more disappointed, Aratani leaned back on his chair. Out of politeness he replied:

“Most people think the Idol Star System Generation Co. is just a corporation that owns a few domes and theaters and promote gigs, but they’re actually a committee that regulates a few aspects of this branch of the entertainment industry. The female branch, at least. They have to accept your application, for starters. In practice they just lift papers and check to see if you’re clear. You know, it’d be bad if we discovered an idol to be an axe murderer after having invested a lot of money on her.”

Since she was being so impolite, the man also took the liberty to spike her back indirectly. Contrary to what he’d expect, though, Naoko actually broke into laughing. She hated herself for not being able to control it and use the opportunity to get away, but the images that immediately popped in her mind were just too good. To see a cute idol, all smiley and lovey-dovey, still presenting baby teeth-like pointy canines and ribbons all over not get as many applauses from a particular fan in a show and draw a halberd, screaming “love me, you bastard!” and jumping from the stage like a frenzied berserker… that would in fact be a sight Naoko would like to see! Not in real life, actually, but the mental images she depicted were far too exaggerated and cartoony not to be funny.

That girl was clearly something else, to be able to laugh like that, Aratani could see it. It was either a good or a very bad sign, but all in all it made the man relax a bit. Her laughing was quite contagious too, and made him smile a little, his disappointment fading away. Getting back to herself, she took a deep breath and sent a straight ball:

“Okay, I see you’re a funny guy, Produ-San. Let me get real here. I’m not one who likes to beat around the bushes, so I need to get it out of the way now: how much would you be asking me to pay you for all this trouble of tests and legal work?”

Naoko could remember Momoko’s sad story at that moment as vividly as if she were living it all over again. The question was a trap, but a well-disguised one, she thought. Aratani, still dazed by the ups and downs of that girl, and taking an unexplainable liking in her wild personality as much as she had her strange laughing moment over the idol axe murderer topic, replied in a similar fashion while lying more comfortably in his chair:

“Alright, Yano-San wants it straight, I’ll give it to you. No fees. Seriously, if you’re fretting over money all this time, you could’ve said it sooner, sis.”

Staring deep into the cool, borderline lazy-looking but also upfront man, she searched for clues he was lying, but to no avail. She repeated “No fees?” just to be sure, and Aratani, in the same confident and firm voice, confirmed:

“No fees. Not that I wouldn’t like to share the risk of the investment with you, but there are guidelines I.S.S.G. imposes for agencies, one of them being not charging admission fees from candidates. The money for tests and bureaucracies must come from the agency. In case the candidate gets accepted, there’s an annual member fee for the idol, which I think was around two thousand Yen last time I saw. But as for your question of ‘how much would you be asking me to pay you for all this trouble ‘, you wouldn’t be paying me anything. This annual fee is paid directly to the corporation.”

Frowning, the girl got lost for a few seconds in her mind. When she came back from her mind the first thing she requested was, “OK, suppose I get accepted. You’d say I’d probably need dance classes, dresses and whatever, right? And, not that I’d care since my family wouldn’t support me financially and, thus, I wouldn’t foot it, but these things cost money too.”

“Don’t tell me,” the man casually said, “I prefer not to be reminded about all the things that will someday appear in red characters in my accountings. But yeah, what of them? You don’t have to worry about it, I’d be paying every cost of it. That’s what people call ‘investment’, and there’s no business you can get into where there’s no investment.”

“I get it,” Naoko replied, “but what about me? I’d be part of a business without investing anything. Is that it?”

“Not investing money doesn’t mean not investing anything,” Aratani pointed it out, “Money is my part of the business. Also, that’s the reason I’d be getting eighty-five percent of all the revenue. Because I’m the one footing all the bills and also because who has the money gets the bigger share. But you’d still be investing your time and effort, and since you’re so direct, Yano-San, let me be too: I don’t say that lightly. Should you be accepted, I’ll take no complaints that I’m slaving you away in marketing campaigns, presentations, lessons, rehearsals and so on. You’ll be expected to cope with the work hours, including nights, Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, so on and so forth. And don’t even get me started on your summer vacation, that’s prime time for idol promotions. At the same time, you’d still be expected to perform well in school, because every negative point you let tabloids know is like sugar to ants. Those sensationalist reporters would kill for a chance to defame someone and gain notoriety for their dirty papers. If working your soft skin out is not enough investment for you, I don’t know what is.”

The silence that followed was a long one, as the girl stood still, in a half-surprised expression. The man looked so sincere that for the first time Naoko actually considered the possibility it was a real offer. The state of his chaotic office threw her expectations down again and he was coping with so many bad attitudes from her that it was fishy at best, but maybe, if he could prove what he said was true…

…Well, even then there were so many things that would prevent her to be contracted, beginning with her own family, it was for the best not to dwell on it. She played it safe:

“Okay, I think I get it. But anyway, I think my parents wouldn’t support me. Certainly not financially, so if there are any hidden taxes you’re not telling me, forget it, and I would be hard-pressed to convince them to allow me to become an idol even if I passed the tests. Which, since I’m going back home tomorrow morning anyway, I couldn’t do. So…” Seeing the face of the man becoming depressed despite his efforts not to show it, with such intensity that someone faking feelings would hardly be able to achieve, Naoko felt bad for how she’s been acting. She proceeded, “I’m sorry, Aratani-San. I was just looking for a regular part-time job. Sorry I… appeared out of nowhere at night and…” the more she thought about how she was the one who looked for him, acted like she owned the place and spent his time, the worse she felt.

In the middle of her sentence, her cellphone started to ring a happy, upbeat song. She instinctively looked for the man apologetically, but he, albeit certainly not happy, wasn’t too concerned. The conversation was over already, so it wasn’t a loss. He serenely gave her a positive nod and, while she answered the call, he stood up, going to a shelf where a tea machine was hidden among other objects.

“Naoko-Chan!”, the voice of her uncle sounded relieved as she answered, “Where are you? Is everything OK?”

“Uncle Kenji…”, she mumbled while mechanically bowing all the slightest, taking a few seconds to change gears from her previous conversation and leaving the guilt behind, “Yes, I’m fine. I was still looking for a job and got carried away. I’m sorry.”

“Where are you now, Naoko?” his voice sounded inquisitive in a bad way. Naoko, bowing again, retorted:

“I’m a few squares from home. I’ll be right there. Sorry to have caused you trouble.”

Her uncle asked again if she didn’t want him to go get her, but she refused, reassuring him she’d be by his place in a few minutes. After she hung up, the suit-clad man asked her from afar if she didn’t want a cup of tea. Based on his downed voice, it was more out of cordiality than because he wanted her to stay.

“Ah, no, thanks. I really have to go, my uncle is worried about me.” Standing up, and feeling her guilt come back, she added, honestly “I’m… sorry for taking your time… and for being such an ungrateful guest. Really.”

She bowed more than usual. Even if not for truly believing in the young man, at least to show appreciation for him being nicer than she could ask for. When she stood up, she found the face of Aratani to appear even more tired and lifeless than when she met him. The owner, taking a moment looking deeply at her, finally sighed heavily. Lowering his eyes to the two cups of tea he had taken, he put one away, grabbed a pack of cigarettes, a lighter and a portable ashtray and showed her the way to the door.

From all the years she spent having lots of male friends, the experience told her that he was a good man. She wanted to believe him, just so she could sleep knowing she hasn’t demotivated an honorable person. Walking into the corridor looking at his business card while he accompanied her and closed the door behind him, she reviewed her conversation, noticing how much self-restraint the complete stranger must’ve had not to toss her out of the window. In fact, that was the fishiest part of that man: he seemed too detached, to the point where if felt he was trying too hard not to spook her away from his messy room. Maybe something a guy trying to pass a scam on someone would do. She mustered up the courage to ask:

“Aratani-San? Can you tell me one thing?” Listening to a low and not all that excited “Hm, sure, go ahead”, she pressed on, “You’re awfully nice to me, despite… everything. Why?”

Tucking one of his hands on the pocket of his pants while scratching his head, he vaguely answered while stumbling down the corridor:

“Honestly? I’ve got no idea. I just… don’t care too much if people don’t like me, I think. Well, to be fair, a large share of the public love a strong-willed girl that starts cold and warms up to them little by little. They can’t resist bittersweet relations. That’s being a tsundere at its best, and you seem like a natural. So from a business standpoint it’d be good for me to accept you as you are. You’ve no idea how many idol fans secretly fall on the masochist side of the spectrum.”

Negatively shaking her head, Naoko replied in a more joyful tone while starting to go down the long flight of stairs:

“I could’ve gone to bed tonight without having heard that about the fans. I sense it’ll haunt my dreams. But I’m not a tsundere. I’m just careful.”

Despite at first glance sounding like a bad excuse, when the girl gave it some thought it made sense that he’d accept a few offenses if the public wanted a girl with that characteristic. Still, that didn’t excuse her, nor made her feel any better. But since she had already shown her true colors, at least she could help him somehow. While climbing down, she advised him:

“Listen, not trying to be rude or anything…”

“Not that you’d need to try in order to be,” Aratani remarked with half a smile. Naoko, feeling her tension decrease as he joked, continued, jesting, “Yeah, but I can be much worse if I try! Want me to show you?”

“Nah, I’m fine, I believe in you. Go ahead.” he replied grinning, and the girl proceeded, “Okay, listen. If you’re really serious about your agency, you should tidy up that place. I know it’s rude to say it, but at least let me give you this advice. It’ll come in handy, trust me.”

Taking the lighter and the pack from his pocket, he agreed while pulling a cigarette out:

“Yeah. I figured as much. Sorry about the mess. I know it’s not an excuse, but we’ve only opened up a week ago. But yes, sorry for making you put up with the uncleanliness.”

“No, it’s okay. You don’t have to apologize,” Naoko said. But almost immediately, as she reached the ground, the girl included a snarly comment, as if she already knew him for a long time – something she was so used to do it became a habit, and despite appearing dangerous actually got generally good results “But really, a week is more time than necessary to groom up that place. What’s with the delay?”

Going out in the sidewalk with the girl, Aratani pointed up to the luminous billboard over the windows with an open hand and spontaneous and light-heartedly declared:

“Do you have any idea how much time it took me just to put that thing up there and running properly? A whole day!”

“What about the other six days of the week?” Naoko retorted, smiling from her witty comment. The man, though, took her off-guard replying mockingly:

“Do you have any idea how much time it took me just to rest after putting that thing up there and running properly? Another whole day!”

Naoko burst into laughs, not expecting him to be able to do such jokes. While she did it, Aratani lit a cigarette and took a deep breath, looking up in the sky. His smile slowly faded away, leaving behind only a concerned, though resigned, countenance. As the girl got a hold of herself, she found the man in deep thoughts. He gradually spoke, as if for himself more than for anyone:

“Now that you mentioned it, it’s hard to imagine any girl would believe a guy who can’t even tidy up his office would be able to produce her properly, no? Heh, did I really need someone else to tell me that to notice it?”

“Well,” Naoko surprised him with a quick reply, breaking his trance-like contemplation of the almost starless sky, “it is worrisome, yes, but that’s just a way of proving people you’re capable and… trustworthy.”

Nodding as if swallowing the reality bit by bit, he thought out loud:

“In my last work all I needed to show professionalism was a business card and showing up at court with punctuality. To think I’d just throw in my I.S.S.D. number on my card and let people consult my trustworthiness by themselves was a big misstep. I’ll… try to find a way to clean that place up. Thank you for the feedback, Yano-San. Really, I needed it.”

“Don’t mention it,” Naoko said, letting only the fresh spring winds speak for a while. Curious about something, she asked it quickly, while her feet pointed in the direction of her uncle’s apartment, prepared to go. “You mentioned your last work involved courts?”

Exhaling a cloud of smoke, Aratani didn’t bother taking the cigarette out of his mouth to say:

“I’m a lawyer by trade. After getting my degree I spent a few years on an office. You may not believe me after seeing my room, but I’m actually very responsible. Never lost a case. Not that I worked there for too long, I’m only twenty six after all, but I always took care of the people I got under my wings. Too much, I guess.” Making a pause to smoke, he looked down to the pavement. “I never had time for myself. And eventually, for a few… reasons… I left my job. My girl. My… ah… What I could’ve left. You get the point. But, you know, if after you leave a place and your problems continue, then the problems weren’t in that place. They’re on you. Heh. I’m still the same, I see. Able to be very responsible for the others, but unable to do anything for myself, like organizing the place I spend my whole day. Shit.”

When he lifted his head, he was taken aback by the caring look on Naoko’s face. He was expecting more disgust and less affection. Smiling, she mentioned:

“You’re actually a very nice guy, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” he said ironically, “And you know what they say about nice guys, right?”

“What?” she inquired.

“They never get the girl,” he stated with a smile, although not a funny one. Lifting his sleeve and looking at a silver and black wristwatch, he said “Hey, Yano-San? It’s already late, your uncle will be worried. But it’s a pleasure meeting you.” With a temporary malicious grin, he stated, “A real pleasure. You’re as sexy as you’re devious, girl”.

Seeing her get crimson and react so surprised, he laughed, returning to his casual, laid-back usual self:

“You’re a bad liar if you tell me no man has ever told you that or that you don’t like to be praised. You’ve got looks, and you know it, sis. Also a sweet voice and a contagious smile. You’re a diamond in rough, so to speak. If you have a dream of becoming an idol, can’t admit it to me and found it hard to believe in old Aratani Kouta here, don’t get discouraged. Many agencies would be willing to produce you, just take a peek at the official website of the Idol Star System Generation and you’ll find a list of all licensed agencies. Just drop in the nearest one, I’m sure they’ll be glad. Every idol is a bet, of course, but some bets are safer than others. And you’re a very safe bet if I’ve ever seen one.”

The way the man coolly made such compliments, without so much as batting an eye and without any tension or innuendoes – other than the ‘sexy and devious’ part –, simply stating what he thought to be true, made Naoko blush heavily. For as much as something weighted on her as she thanked him and bid farewell, Aratani also left her with a warm feeling inside her chest.

She slowly paced her steps, gradually getting away as the man stood on the door smoking and watching her go with eyes lost in thoughts. As the distance between the two increased, so did some kind of uneasiness inside him. When Naoko was almost crossing the empty street, his voice abruptly called out for her. As she turned around, she saw him a good fifteen meters away, apparently surprised with himself too for having done that. Still, he made one final statement, shouting and not really caring if someone heard:

“Yano-San! I know you said you’ll go back home tomorrow morning and that you had some financial issues, so I’m betting you wouldn’t cancel your flight just to take a shot, but… I’m… I’m willing to take the risk and pay you a flight that same day at night if you consider taking the tests tomorrow morning here. You have my business card so if you change your mind please give me a call. Up until nine a.m. it’s still possible to schedule the tests.”

He reclined back at the wall by the entrance, only then feeling he’d done everything he could and that it was now on the hands of that girl to take up the chance or not. Even from afar she could see he was finally able to settle down and smoke in peace. Having now the responsibility to decide to do the tests, something painful stirred inside her. Even if she did take the exams, chances were she wouldn’t pass, because although she liked to sing, her dancing skills were mediocre at best and she was always ashamed to dance. But if she miraculously got approved, there was no way her father would approve, she thought. At least not without another long fight, which she wanted more than anything to avoid.

But at that time she remembered: she wanted to live in Tokyo not only because she loved that place. Despite all she thought, Shimabara was a pretty and inviting place. It was because she wanted to be free and not have to face criticisms every day at home. And she actually got an opportunity, even though her memories of Momoko made her wary of trying. Also, if she transferred her studies to the capital and fell in a scam, she’d be doubly screwed.

The girl turned her attention to the black business card with the diamond logo. “The Paragon Idol Agency”. As she walked away, her eyes kept scanning the fourteen-digit number of identification. Supposedly, if there was a supervising organ, she could see if what that Aratani fella said was true. If so… well, she got tired just by the thought of trying to see if there was any truth about that, going through all that process, changing her flight, explaining to her father everything and trying to convince him to let her go, waiting for the response, transferring her studies to one of the high schools she found and moving. But if everything went smoothly…

It was a leap of faith, granted. There was no way of knowing if all would go well, and for the first time in many years she experienced fear again. Not just anxiety, but fear itself. If breaking free from her old life weren’t such a big dream, she would’ve dropped it that instant. Only it was, and, full of uncertainties, Naoko walked alone the long streets, clinging to the dark business card as if holding an invitation to a party she never thought before she wanted to attend.

 

“And that’s it,” Naoko concluded. “Like I said, at first I didn’t believe in you too much, but it wasn’t really because of you. I just didn’t believe in agencies in general, due to my friend’s sister, Momoko-San, and her story. I accepted the risks just because of you. Since our first meeting I believed in you, Produ-San, or at least did my best to, and I’m glad for it now. This payment was the last piece I needed to overcome my fears! Produ-San’s the best!”

Looking straight to the ceiling fan, Aratani looked more serious than usual. Snapping out of it just to thank her, he got lost again in his head. Soon after Naoko finished explaining her side of how they came to know each other, the young man finally spoke his mind:

“I didn’t know about that incident with Momoko-San. But yes, although the Idol Star System existed for about eleven years now, the company itself only became a supervising organ of sorts about seven years before, after the acquisition and fusion of two giants of the idol industry. The resulting company, the I.S.S.G., kept the star system-based ranking of the buyer one, but with their combined influence and negotiations with other lesser corporations they were able to create a cartel-like corporation that almost monopolized every single aspect of the market chain, from the agencies and rights acquisition to promotion, production of goods and distribution, and more. The agencies who wanted their female idols to have any screen time and voice, and thus, any chance to be actually lucrative, had to submit. It was a legal and political struggle fought more often than not behind the scenes, and there were a lot of criticisms from the media and other interested parties. They control the female side of the industry, which is also the larger one, to their whims and there are a lot of things that are left to be desired, but… listening to Momoko-San’s story, I’m for once glad we have the I.S.S.G. If it existed back when she got conned maybe her story would’ve been different.”

Taking his feet off the desk, he asked in an irritated intonation:

“But to think there are people capable of such things… How are she and her family now?”

Looking diagonally and up while remembering and inattentively touching her lips with her index finger during the idle moments, she finally answered, uncertain:

“To tell you the truth, I don’t really know. I mean, she’s fine, but it’s been a while since I last heard from her. She doesn’t live with her parents anymore. I’m aware she got into a good university, but I can’t recall the course. Architecture, I think. But she was doing well in her job. After all, she became really perfectionist and non-reliant on others, like I said.”

“That’s… a relief,” Aratani said while leaning in, although his frowning told he wasn’t all that relieved, “Though that incident really stained her trust on other people, right?”

Looking at the concerned and not just a little revolted face of her producer, Naoko rapidly poked his forehead, sending him crashing to his chair’s backrest. She gleefully said:

“Don’t go all ‘justice hero’ on me now, Produ-San. What, will you be Momoko-San’s lawyer?”

Unwinding, the man exhaled heavily.

“Yeah. You’re right. I got a little carried away.” Staring at her, he insisted, “But, Naoko-Chan? Don’t you seem a little too serene? I mean, to be unable to trust other people is a serious matter.”

“She’s not a little girl anymore. She’ll be fine,” she replied confidently. “If I were to worry about someone, it’d be about her brother, but even then, he’ll be okay. They’re alright now.”

“What of her brother?” Aratani asked, and the girl, in a way that showed she dismissed it as unimportant, mentioned, “It’s nothing. Just that when I went bid him goodbye and explained him I was coming to Tokyo he got sad. Like, ‘not getting out of his house for anything’ kind of sad. Although he was already introspective to begin with. If it wasn’t for me pestering him during all these years he’d probably not get out of his house as much as he did anyway. And to be sad, that’s to be expected, we were door neighbors since we’re babies. I was sad too. He’ll get over it. Like I said, if I were to worry, it’d be about him, but in practice there’s nothing to worry.”

With a fixed look to a random point in his desk, Aratani murmured:

“Hm… I wonder.” Finally lighting up, he completed, “But you’re the one who knows him. If you say he’ll be fine, that wraps it up. Just stay in touch with him, OK? I can feel him. I, for one, would want this kind of trouble not to forget me if I was him.”

Glaring deep into his cool, unassuming eyes, Naoko slowly stated:

“You did it again, didn’t you, you slime ball?”

“Did what?” her producer, clearly trying to push her buttons just for fun, replied serenely.

“You passed a line on me again! Don’t you dare deny it, you dirty fox!” she explained, knowing all too well he liked to pick on her like an older brother importunes his sister just for kicks. But as much as he feigned to try to seduce her, she also played along, appearing offended just so that he could get his deserved retribution.

“Me? I’d never do such a thing,” he answered, all the while letting a tiny grin slip. Naoko, standing up lightning-fast, leaned in and slapped him from across the desk mumbling unintelligible words, while her producer, laughing from her inability to hit him, simply protected himself with his forearm. After some time he looked at her with a serious face and pointed out innocently, “Hey, Naoko-Chan? You can thank me later for letting you know this: your hair’s a mess.”

“Ahhh!” she screamed, starting a fruitless assault one slap at a word, “It’s your fault! And you know it! And… stop… laughing… at… me! You… get… on… my… nerves!”

Chapter I – Led by Mirages

 

Truth be told, her liking for Aratani grew quickly. They had a lot in common: both were easygoing and fun-loving, even though at first glance she seemed energetic as a power plant and he, a polar opposite, was chill as winter. Both were also very responsible when needed.

Of course, at first she was skeptical and took all the necessary precautions. After getting on her uncle’s house she explained the situation, and her cousin searched for his credentials while the burnt out girl went to the bath. Hayato, having lived in Shimabara too, knew very well the story of Momoko, and was doubly careful when checking the facts. But at the same time, unlike Naoko who simply held a grudge against the idol industry since she was a kid and refused to learn anything about it, he lived in Tokyo long enough to know about the Idol Star System Generation Co.

It was hard to miss, really. The company’s headquarter was a major landmark, a gigantic tree-like marvel that rose above the cityscape. Nearing a thousand feet tall, it was a sight to behold. The scenic view was one of the highest of the city and was a treat. The headquarter was not only an office, but a complete entertainment facility. At the bottom there was one of the biggest domes in the country, where shows occurred. There was also a shopping mall next to it. Then there were many office floors and a center for idol development and promotion above the mall, and finally, a big, five-story, arborized terrace that mixed a luxury hotel, a restaurant and an observation deck. Even for people who couldn’t care less about idols like Hayato, it was next to impossible not to be aware of it. The I.S.S.G. also employed many people, one of his classmates being a waiter there. The guy, who wanted to specialize in food chemistry, told him his job was underwhelming, but opportunities to grow in the career were aplenty.

When Naoko came out of the bath, almost stumbling on the bathroom slippers while taking them off, she was far too drowsy to understand anything he found, but she made an appointment to wake up even earlier than planned to look at the results. She didn’t want Hayato to get up early too, but he did so anyway. It’d be easier than to write down about the I.S.S.G on a paper.

The Idol Star System Generation, from what her cousin told her at the break of dawn, was a solid corporation. In its official site there was a list of affiliated agencies allowed to produce girls, and Aratani’s The Paragon Idol was among them. His ID number was valid, and the information that threw her cousin off, that it was founded a mere two weeks before, didn’t fazed Naoko as much. Apparently the man was telling the truth after all, that’s what matters.

More importantly, a somewhat hidden area of the website also gave an overview about the application process. There were lots of details regarding legal tidbits, such as parental approval for minors to work at the entertainment industry and so on, but Naoko didn’t bother with that for the time being. Instead, she used her precious, running out time to read the instruction of the first few steps any idol wannabe should go through. It was clearly stated in the contract that under no circumstances were a candidate to pay upfront fees for the admission to occur. It was, like the agency owner had told, the company’s obligation to foot such costs. Also, the agencies’ commissions could only come from generated revenue.

There were many other details that slowly built-up her confidence. Not that she’d be approved, exactly – the dance test still left her doubtful – but at least that it was the real deal and not some cold-hearted scam. The site also presented a list of other agencies, some with many years in the market, in which rested her cousin’s favorable opinion. After all, even if The Paragon Idol was a real, honest enterprise it was still small and newborn. Given all the costs to operate that line of business, it was still a coin flip. If she came to Tokyo and the agency went bankrupt from the large entry barriers and difficulty to generate revenue, which was a very real possibility, Naoko would still be left with no job to pay her studies and her life there. Meaning even if she were to accept the possibility of becoming an idol, there were better, safer agencies. Just like Aratani said the night before, in reality. But exactly because of that she thought he was a dependable and sincere guy.

Eventually, seeing the clock fast approaching the hour for her to be at the airport, she made up her mind. It was worth a shot. Worst case scenario Aratani would also not keep his promise of paying her another flight, and she’d know he wasn’t to be trusted. And since she had a few pennies saved, it wasn’t a big deal, she would go back home no matter what. Or if she didn’t pass the exam, she’d at least know how it was, and could feel if she wanted to do it again at another agency. If so, she could prepare beforehand. And in case she got accepted, moved to Tokyo and the company went under, well… she’d only looked for a job for two days, if she lived there it was just a matter of time before she found something, she told herself. And all in all, she would be flying back home at night, so she wouldn’t need to spend her entire last day of spring break in her parents’ house!

Sure, to give an idol job a shot, with all that was said, was as risky as pursuing lake bodies in the horizon of a desert, hoping they weren’t mirages, but there was a chance. A real one, she wanted to believe. Thinking positively, she washed the tiredness away of her face and mustered up the courage to call that man. Despite having mistrusted and perhaps mistreated him the night before, though, it seemed Aratani wasn’t one to hold a grudge. In fact, he showed appreciation in hearing her voice, remembered his promise about the flight and thanked her for the interest.

She put on her makeup as quickly as possible, called her parents to tell them the flight was postponed due to a job interview offer without giving too much info not to lose time and quickly ate breakfast before hastily departing to Aratani’s office. As he opened up the door and found the panting girl who had clearly rushed up the stairs a smile formed on his mouth.

From the get-go he reassured her and answered all her questions. The exams, which petrified her, weren’t made on his disordered room, but on a dancing school close-by, a beautiful, large and illuminated place. Along with him there was a middle-aged woman, dressed formally and wearing a severe expression, who apparently worked as an instructor there. With her came a younger woman, just a senior student in her classes, to watch and maybe give opinions. Even though Naoko was initially afraid of possible harsh opinions from the agency owner, his straightforward and relaxed character made him a far less scary judge than the hawk-eyed instructor and her one spectator.

The singing test consisted just of a battery of three songs, two chosen by the examination board and one by Naoko herself. It was terrifying but easy enough. The girl just sang like she would in a karaoke, although butterflies in her stomach constantly bugged her. In less than ten minutes it was over, but it left her with a very bad impression that she’d been rejected right there. And since the judges didn’t give any preliminary results, she was left to guess what they thought.

A problem soon became clear to Naoko: she hated to be rated. Any kind of audience made her uneasy and nervous. It was hard to understand: she was really extroverted and could easily talk to any stranger, even if it was a politician, a celebrity, a director of an important company or any other person, but as soon as she felt she was being evaluated her heart accelerated and she lost conviction in herself. It was the same feeling as when she had exams to change belts in karate. She had no problem participating in a class full of men and owning the place, but no sooner she found herself being tested she could hear her heart beating her chest much harder than her arms and legs’ blows.

Curiously, she didn’t have any problems doing school exams, with the exception of P.E. ones. While others were chewing on their nails and fingertips before the scariest theoretical tests, Naoko was as stalwart and tranquil as a forest. Even though she didn’t have the habit of studying at home, usually relying just on what she learned during classes, her smarts and her cool head during assessments generally got her better grades than many students in her class who were dedicated and maybe knew the subjects more than her, but ultimately let their doubts dominate them.

In the singing test it was the opposite. In her imagination if she was to be put against a raucous century-old turtle wearing bunny ears and a skirt, the reptile would perform better. This mental picture was a bad sign for her confidence, but at the same time made her smile genuinely. With a laugh trying to find its way out as she sang, the girl actually started to feel her performance improving during the second presentation. It wasn’t an honest feeling in that she liked the way she sang, but at least she was having fun about something.

After a brief pause her main terror started. The dance tests consisted of the same logic: three songs, one of them being Naoko’s choice. They checked if she knew all of them, otherwise they’d need to change it. She was free to sing if she so desired or if it made it easier for her to concentrate, but it wasn’t a requirement and wouldn’t affect her score. Even then, she decided that flailing arms and legs without singing along would be even more awkward than not doing it. By the time she was expected to give the board the name of a song of her choice all she wanted was for it to end soon so she could find a cavern to hide in and forget that shameful experience.

Noticing the girl was nearly having a heart attack, Aratani had a word with her. He told her he couldn’t present her the examinees scores yet, but asked her if she liked to dance. As the girl hesitantly responded she kind of did, but she was afraid, the man insisted:

“Yano-San, if you’re afraid to do something, you’re doing it out of obligation. I asked you if you like to dance. Think about what you feel when you do something you like, instead of what others like you to do. If you can’t feel you do something you like, there’s no point doing it.”

It was a warning, but also an advice. It was true. Maybe she shouldn’t be trying to get a job she’d be suffering to perform. Or maybe she was just on the wrong mindset.

If she could just grasp how she was able to do tests in school with such ease, she’d probably be fine. Of course, she still didn’t know how to dance. The last time she did it for real she was around seven years old. But, to be fair, she had already made tests in school where she knew little about the subject and wasn’t nearly as much afraid as then. Also, in these situations she simply did what she could, randomly wrote what she reminded and relied on last-minute study remembering… anything. Somehow she was able to do well.

“Somehow”. Maybe that was the key. In school exams she knew from experience that knowing the answer wasn’t the only way to get things done. Resorting to logic, common sense and random luck were all fair game. Also, she had many friends, both the nice guys and the not so nice. Some boys would have no problem to toss her an answer was she to ask for it, but she never resorted to that. The only times she was involved in cheating, she was the one giving them the answers. But it was tempting to grab the correct answers from someone. After all, what could she do if her expertise was with human interactions instead of cold, hard knowledge? Every person was good at something, but the way school worked privileged only a handful of skills. It was only just to level the playfield resorting to the abilities she had, if it came down to that. Anyway, she firmly believed in her capabilities of getting things done. Maybe not how they were supposed to be, but somehow.

She chose a song that made her feel good and that she knew well, “Doi-Chan wa Damsel Is Distress Da!” The name mixed English and Japanese, like many titles across different media, and roughly translated as “Little Doi is a Damsel Is Distress”. The “Is”, in this case, was not a typo, albeit not making sense when translated, and fitted perfectly to the theme. It had a positive, self-motivational feeling to it and versed about a funny girl, whose family name was Doi, in her nonsensical attempts to get a boy one year older than her in school to notice her. Something about the absurdity of her ideas and the way the original songstress made the character appear innocent and crazy at the same time made Naoko crack whenever she listens to it.

The situations were over the top, like the protagonist firmly believing that sending the gym ceiling with her name written on it crashing down on the boy she loved would make him notice her more, or how the guy during the course of the music begins to actively avoid that dangerous girl but she doesn’t notice it and keeps pursuing him. It was a well-written and comical song, even though she also said a lot of truths about how people acted blindly when in love. Its “go get what you want somehow!” message felt right for that occasion, and it was a personal favorite of Naoko, so at least she’d be in familiar territory. That was all she could do for herself.

Her mental depictions were all there was for her to lean on at that time. After the vocal test ended she felt something was not right. Not with the judges, really, but with her. If she was scared to sing for three people, how would she feel in front of a crowd who paid for a good spectacle? Also, as much as the examination board remained stoic, she began to imagine they were secretly disapproving her way of singing. Since Naoko never liked idols a lot to begin with – her only memories of this were of two bands whose lyrics she enjoyed when she was six or seven – she had no idea how an idol was supposed to be. In her imagination, they were just a bunch of false girls who smiled on the stage, but who were probably antipathetic and snobbish in real life.

Not that there was too much realism in an idol to begin with, she sensed. There was a common saying across many of those who liked idols that claimed that “an anime character is 2D; a real person is 3D; an idol is 2,5D”. It possibly alluded to the fact that an idol was a real girl invested in a position where she was actually impersonating a character. The only difference between that and an actor was that after a movie or a theatre presentation the character vanished and the artist came back to itself, whereas an idol usually lived as that semi-real, dream-like entity both on the stage and out of it. Not that different from any kind of celebrity, really, which even on their normal lives were surrounded by a certain quasi-magical aura. Only many girls took that je ne se qua to a whole other level of fiction, maybe pumped by the media and their fans’ expectations, or maybe due to their own vanity. Not all idols were like that, Naoko was willing to bet, but since she knew little about that trade it was easy to generalize.

All in all she couldn’t rely on her knowledge of real idols, so the closest thing she knew was how fiction depicted them. It was safe to assume manga, anime, games and other media abounded with over-the-top caricatures of what a human was actually able to do and to be, setting the bar very high. But, now that she thought about it, since she was fairly erudite in these forms of cultural manifestations (much to her father’s frustration) and her imagination was wild, she could try to rely on visualizations to help her through! Much like the turtle idol, if she could imagine a character dancing – decently, this time – in front of her, maybe she could try to copy her movements!

In reality it wasn’t easy, even for someone with as insanely creative as her. Sure, her mind was able to create on the fly images she’d seen somewhere before, but didn’t even remember. However, the effort to reproduce such movements detracted from her visualization, making it fade away. She had to imagine someone dance, then switch to reproduce it and turn back to letting her creativity show her the next steps. The interpolation had to occur at a frenetic rhythm to seem like a natural dance without weird stops. It was draining, but of the plus side it required so much brainpower and focus that she partially lost her self-awareness, which was great, and almost all of the surroundings seemed to fade to nothingness. Also, since she had to concentrate for minutes, every unnecessary thought got in the backseat, including her predictions of failure. It felt good to employ her imagination to a constructive cause instead of having it around working against her.

Testing it before the actual test, it looked promising. The best part of it was that she didn’t feel as lonely. It wasn’t the same as dancing alongside a real person, but it was enough to make her fears reduce to manageable degrees. And the prospect of tackling the dance test with a companion was such a good novelty that it made her laugh on the inside.

Her mind created out of the blue a random partner who, in her opinion, matched every criterion for a top-notch idol. Since it was just her imagination, many details were omitted or looked blurry. Despite that in Naoko’s head her partner had a pretty face, one she couldn’t see it clearly, nor did it matter. Her long, blond hairs, though, were easily noticeable. Also were her white, blue and purple dress, three of Naoko’s favorite colors, and her long, white and black stripped stockings. The girl had no clue from where did her imagination created such an image, but it was a nice one.

As the examination began, Naoko started to try projecting and reflecting the blond idol-like image. Between this and singing there was very little room for her to worry or focus anywhere else. Sometimes, especially during non-singing portions, she got a little self-aware and remembered she was being judged, and her movements suffered as a consequence. Most of the time, though, she was too entertained in her own world to care.

The first song was probably mediocre, she gauged, but she was just getting the hang of it. As the second one started, the blond visage adapted as if by magic to the feel of the music, with a slower pace and heartfelt tune. At that time her mind got some leeway and spawned ridiculous things, like the turtle idol dancing alongside the two of them during a particularly boring part of the lyric. It almost made Naoko laugh her lungs out in the middle of a song about the hardships of a non-corresponded love. But since the music got so down in the dumps in the chorus the slow pace of the reptile and its one hundred year old candid expression was spot on.

At some point Naoko began to get slightly aware of the judges as the music came to a conclusion. Almost as if the girl’s mind paid no heed to it, a question suddenly popped in her mind, in a voice similar to her own but not exactly, as if the blond idol was talking to her during the presentation:

“Hey, what do you think those three would say if they discovered what was going on inside your head this whole time?”

The candidate exploded in laughter, only then noticing the confused face of the three spectators. Since the song was almost at the end anyway, Naoko quickly transformed that into a few jumps, a smile and some punches in the air as if she was commemorating having completed her second dance. She wasn’t sure if it worked, but Aratani got to smile back and the senior dance student didn’t react in any negative way either. Only the instructor lady kept her grave expression and statue-like standing, prompting Naoko’s mind to bully her.

“Look! An Egyptian mummy came to watch your presentation!” the blond idol’s supposed voice sounded in excitement, making Naoko struggle again not to laugh. Luckily the song she had chosen was the last one, and it was also happy and ridiculously funny. She’d probably be alright giggling while “Doi-Chan wa Damsel Is Distress Da!” was playing. The song’s Doi-Chan was the very incarnation of distress itself, after all! As long as Naoko didn’t completely lose it, things would be fine, she thought.

Which was a good thing, because her imagination went overdrive during the last song, mostly attacking the eternally serious instructor in every way. The turtle idol falling down over her, a sword-wielding man appearing out of nowhere wanting to fight her because he thought her ugly and static face was a samurai mask and ideas like someone asking “please check if she’s breathing, I think that instructor’s dead” because of the fact she hardly moved were just a few examples. Since Naoko was finally having fun and it was only a minor distraction, she didn’t try to stop it. It made her fears much less intimidating.

At some point Naoko started to wonder what the hell she was doing trying to mimic her own imagination, but no sooner it occurred her that she had more in common with the character from the song than she’d ever realized. It made her day. Fully embracing the craziness, she felt her fears of inadequacy paradoxically wane. At the time she didn’t have the opportunity to think about why that was the case, but she kept it for further reflections.

Her visualization often faded away, leaving her not knowing what to do, but by the third song she had already loosen up and simply repeated a movement she had previously executed. As the blond idol mirage “showed her” a new move Naoko usually remembered a glimpse of a person or character she’d seen somewhere doing it. A few were actually good, even though others, while also valid dancing poses and steps, made her feel stupid. One in particular, involving spreading the legs and bringing her forearms and arms close together while pointing her hands up and close to the cheeks, and proceeding to alternating between rising one and the other, seemed adorable when looking the imaginary idol perform, but while doing so all she could think was that she was mimicking a monkey. But it was more due to the difficulty of trying to copy a pose she projected than for the movements fault.

“On my mind it looked so beautiful!”, she mocked herself mentally, almost losing a sentence of the lyric because of that. And it would be a shame, it was a good sequence of lines where Doi-Chan asked if her senior would notice her if she invaded a hurdle race and grabbed him mid-track, and the guy ends up winning the competition because he was fleeing from her.

Of course, even though in her head the blond idol was like a superstar, she was still part of her imagination and her repertoire of moves was limited to what Naoko had seen before. In time she began repeating the same moves, but it wasn’t a bad thing as the song was also finishing.

As she sung the last word and let the music run by itself, the blond visage froze with one leg bent and the opposite arm raised. Naoko reflected the pose, quickly noticing her imagination wasn’t always to be trusted as the mirage could stand perfectly still and balanced, while the real girl felt herself gradually leaning. Her thoughts turned to a quick succession of “Finish, song. Finish. Finish, song, dammit! Finish already!” At last she was unable to keep her balance and had to return her raised foot to the floor, but the final accords were already in course so she gave it no further thoughts and simply acted as if the presentation was over.

A round of applauses took place, and Naoko got surprised seeing the middle-aged woman she previously thought was so intolerant and unlikable to clap while shaking her head approvingly. At that time something clicked on the girl, as if a jigsaw piece fell into place.

Puffing, Naoko dismissed her imagination, only then fully comprehending she had made a test based solely on an imaginary friend, a turtle wearing skirts and a song about a crazy girl doing whatever came to her mind. As much as she began to worry for her sanity, she found it amusing that it was possible to conquer fears just by putting her mind to a productive end instead of letting it roam freely. It wasn’t easy and half an hour made the girl as exhausted as if she had exercised the whole day. But despite the anxiety and the fear of rejection she still had to find a decent way to overcome, she felt incredible after it ended. ‘Addicting-level’ incredible.

The sensation she suddenly had was that those people were fine with her expressing herself! A strange, warm sensation of peace bloomed inside her chest. The two judges talked for a while, but she barely noticed it. Squatting, she stayed for what appeared to be a couple of seconds, just appreciating the bliss. As Aratani came to her, the girl stood up to hear the results, but for the first time she found herself not really afraid of the opinion of others. They led an ear to her, after all. Even though her mind had made fun of the instructor and her intimidating expression, she stayed there until the end and heard Naoko. Even if she were to evaluate her unfavorably, the girl understood it wouldn’t be out of malice or hatred toward her. Whatever result Naoko got, she knew she deserved it, and that soothing certainty appeased her.

Aratani’s face was unreadable as he started to give her the results:

“Yano-San, after some deliberation we came to the conclusion that you show potential. Should we were to invest in further improving your capabilities we believe you’d be capable of performing to the likings of the public. As such, I’d like to inform that Yano-San, having achieved a combined singing score of eighty-eight out of one hundred points, and a combined dancing score of sixty two out of one hundred, with a minimum required score of sixty in each category, is considered accepted in both tests.”

Contrary to what she initially thought, the result itself didn’t make her at peace more than she already was. However, it made her happy, in a way she took days to fully understand. At the moment she heard she had passed, she had an urge to smile, to jump and, more importantly, to thank the presents bowing deeply, hands folded in front of the body, and sustaining it for several seconds. It was a feeling of gratitude she hasn’t known for a long time, one that lingered in her mind for two whole days.

“As such,” Aratani continued, “I’d like to invite you for one last step in the application process, an interview so I can know more about Yano-San.”

It was a no-brainer to accept the offer, especially for Naoko, who was walking on air. She wasn’t, at that time, fully able to understand why, but for some reason all her drive to fight people subdued. As she got back to the sun-bathed streets she noticed the absence of negative feelings she wasn’t even aware she felt before. People walking with earphones or looking down to their cellphones never really bugged her, or so she thought, but noticing they didn’t fazed her even the slightest showed her that up until then they actually annoyed the girl in a subtle way. The overly-energetic way salesclerks greeted people by the stores they passed in front didn’t rub her the wrong way anymore too. Now she could see she harbored the assumption those people were being nice to others just to make them feel comfortable to spend money there, as if having second thoughts, no matter how obvious they were. But now she could accept for the first time the possibility that people acted that way just out of respect for others.

‘Respect’ was a keyword there. At first she thought her happiness when she passed the tests was due to the fact that she had success in the endeavor. But remembering her sensation of peace and plenitude had predated the results, she gradually came to a deeper conclusion: that she felt heard. That it was actually possible for others, strangers even, to give her ears. And, in doing so, people were not all bad. Following this logic, if they sometimes didn’t pay attention to her it wasn’t necessarily because they disliked the girl. They could be just busy or lost in their own minds. Wasn’t this a habit of Naoko too?

Also, there was the round of applause, which she previously deemed as an empty custom for reasons unknown. Maybe serving the purpose of embarking on peer pressure, just to be the same as everybody and pretending to have enjoyed something even if you didn’t. Showing respect for others, she began to comprehend, was not just a thin layer of civility to hide nasty intentions, but could also come from genuine… liking of the other person. “Liking” was not the best word to describe it, but at that time Naoko couldn’t think of a better one.

She took a few days to understand it, and even then it didn’t make sense why she had come to stumble upon such discoveries during her tests. The best she could understand was that noticing an interest of others in hearing her made her feel liked, and not on a superficial level. Not because of looks, or out of business interest alone. Perhaps these were factors, yes, but she wanted to believe they weren’t the only ones.

But despite only having marginally comprehended it days after, the effects of such peacefulness were felt since the end of the tests. Her body felt light and she could then feel how her muscles were tense before. Not just due to the evaluation: it was as if she had lived years with unnecessary tension, like a cornered animal always ready to defend itself.

Her interview went smoothly. It was blatant for Naoko how she didn’t feel in any moment the urge to act impolitely, be it there or after. Naturally she had lived so many years being upfront and not all that ladylike that some ways of acting, including her will to tease and pester, were already too hardwired on her to be changed in a single measly epiphany, but at least it was clear for Naoko that her disposition to use impoliteness as a form of aggression lost part of its intensity. As a result of feeling there was a real possibility others could want to listen to her and approved what they heard Naoko found she, too, could be more tolerant. Within limits, of course. Her short fuse didn’t get any longer, she could see. Only her ability to comprehend that other people was not always as critical, cynical and negative about her as she once believed.

Her interview at the chaotic office ended on a positive note, and as it finished Aratani finally expressed his interest in having Naoko onboard:

“I’m glad I heard my gut instincts back when we first met. Yano-San seems dependable enough, and I’m actually surprised you’re able to act politely when it’s necessary. Since our interview is over now, let me reveal you something: I liked your no-holding back personality, I’m a little like that too, but it also made me uneasy. I don’t want you to be a wallflower with me, but yesterday I’ve made a point of not extending you an invitation were you unable to show restrain at some point. You know, the public might love a strong-willed girl, but since in this line of work there are other players such as journalists, businessmen and such, a wild cat would only prove to be a liability. But lo and behold, you can be really sweet when needed, and your tests were something to write home about! I’m sold.”

Grinning, partly by the thought of what would’ve happened if she hadn’t chanced upon such unexpected peace and the rest for gratitude, Naoko brightened the mood and asked:

“Did Aratani-San really think my tests were that memorable? I barely scored enough to pass the dance part! Sure, the vocal one was also higher than I would’ve expected too. Eighty eight out of one hundred? Do you really think I’m that good of a singer?”

Even if she more or less believed in the seriousness of the agency by that time, Naoko was still a bit reticent about the apparent easiness of the application process. In her mind, it was almost as if he was trying for her to stay with him, which made her a little worried. It looked a bit desperate of his part, as if he was doing some charity to a regular girl calling her mediocre test a blast Aratani, though, was cool as always, prompting the girl to ask herself from where did she got that feeling while he explained in details:

“The test follows a set of guide rules stipulated by the I.S.S.G., not as strict but the same that applies to every audition and presentation of the corporation. When we say you scored eighty eight out of one hundred, it doesn’t mean you were twelve points short of perfection. It meant you were twelve points short of the maximum we could expect from a candidate with little or no previous experience or training. Were it in a real audition against already professional idols, even low-class ones, you’d probably score your vocal around the thirties, forties tops.”

Taking a brief pause to shelve the sheets regarding the interview, he continued:

“Also, your dance test was a bit of an oddball. I’ll go into more details of how a presentation is scored using I.S.S.G.’s metrics if and when I’m producing Yano-San for a gig, but for now let’s just say there are five categories total, two of which are Singing and Dancing aspects. Each one has multiple subcategories. Dancing, for example, is composed of Mood, Stage Presence, Choreography, Execution and Assertiveness. Simply put, Mood is whether or not the idol danced according to the overall feel of a song. Stage Presence means the use of all the space of the stage and how well was it. Choreography is never present at an application test, but tells of the difficulty and general awesomeness of movements planed beforehand for a dance. It is scored before the presentation and doesn’t change in a presentation. Execution means how well the choreography was executed. Higher-point choreographies are more difficult to perform, and an unprepared idol can really take a hurt in Execution scores if she’s unable to live up to the expectations. In the test, the execution didn’t follow any previously planned route and just meant how well any movement you threw at us was in terms of technical aspects ad the fluidity of the dance. Finally, assertiveness means if the idol stole the limelight of shied away. It’s a score based on the amplitude and energy of movements, facial expressions and other components. Everything’s clear until here?”

Seeing Naoko nod, Aratani kept going:

“Right. Specifically about your dancing test, the score was a simple average of both judges. Your first song was the one that hurt your score the most, while the last was better than I expected, to be honest. On a whole, your Mood and Assertiveness scores were the ones that saved you, while the Stage Presence wasn’t bad either. Your biggest problem was on the more technical Execution score. It felt underwhelming, but then again, it’s understood that a common girl is not supposed to know how to dance like a pro. That’s the reason why, after being accepted by an agency, idols go through a rigid routine of lessons to hone their skills: because what we look for in tests is not actual skill, but rather signs of potential. This becomes obvious once you know the inside-outs of how points are awarded, or rather, subtracted. Each subcategory has a long list of faults, which can detract anything from one to ten points. There are also a group of especially nasty faults dubbed the “Cardinal Sins”, which immediately disqualifies an idol, but that’s only an issue during real auditions and shows. Things like attacking or harming another idol in any way, hurting someone on the audience or on the examining board if there’s any, acting in shameful ways on stage… things like that. Anyway. On the real deal every idol starts out with perfect scores across all categories except for a few pre-valued subcategories, and any fault subtracts points, but on tests each candidate is given five free opportunities to boggle before her score starts to be chipped away. It gives some leeway to candidates.”

“And even then I barely managed to score sufficiently?!” the girl replied, shocked. The man, dismissively, calmed her down:

“Like I said, you performed remarkably well on Mood and Assertiveness, which are more reliant on the personality of the girl than on technical aspects. Dancing skills, such as those required on Execution and, to some extent, Stage Presence can be learned, but the opposite is not always true. Try making a shy girl dance a song like the one you chose and Yano-San will see it’s easier to teach an extroverted girl how to dance than to make a bashful one smile, jump and bear the sights of the crowd without flinching.”

Filled with warmth, Naoko nodded, replying:

“Although, truth to be told, I was mortified at first!”

“Everyone would be, rest assured,” Aratani told her, “The test can’t really recreate the sensation of being in front of an audience, naturally, but it’s made to instill anxiety in the candidates to see how well they perform under pressure. To be evaluated by singing and then dancing two pairs of songs you had no time to prepare to is nerve-wrecking, we know it. But you’ve been able to adapt to the circumstances. You even had fun from the second song onwards, I could see it. Again, it wasn’t so much about actual performance, but rather how you conform to such situations and if you show potential to learn the rest. Also, if it’s of any reassurance, on tests judges do give emphasis on things that are hard or impossible to change, rather than on what can be taught. And your singing scores were pretty high, something you seem to forget. Granted, there are singing techniques you can learn, but as a rule of thumb, a person’s voice can only be improved up to a point. No one’s going to make a frog into Top 10 lists of the most wanted songs on radios.”

Aratani looked around the shelves of his desk for a few seconds and took one diminutive, sparkly dot on the palm of his hand, which he promptly handed to the girl. At first Naoko couldn’t see what was it, but as she took in her own hands the cold, pointy and inexplicably hard object, akin to a grain of sand albeit bigger, her eyes shone with comprehension. Between her thumb and her index finger lied a shining, crystal-clear gem that refracted the sun that came from the windows into a million rays. It was round when looked from the top, and made of many facets, it was almost as if someone tried to create a circular form out of squared angles. It was so small Naoko at first was afraid to smoosh it like an ant, but it soon became clear not even her nails would so much as scratch it. In fact, the thing was so hard it was probably the brilliant gem that would chip her nails if she were not careful.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Aratani’s voice sounded tranquil, but had the effect of an alarming clock snapping Naoko out of her trance. “When we say we need to ‘polish’ the skills of an idol for her to reach full potential, it’s a surprisingly accurate statement. To polish is to remove any unnecessary parts, rather than to put something new on the table. First we give an idol anything to work on, and then we polish her skills, removing faulty elements of her performance. But no matter how well you polish a pebble, it’ll still be a pebble. I believe everyone has qualities, everyone has a place in the world, but the stages are not the place for pebbles. People want to see whoever’s there shine bright like a diamond. During the tests we don’t look for brilliance, which can only be unearthed with a good polish. We look for a delightful voice, even when untrained. A girl with powerful and hardened self-confidence, and willpower so sharp that nothing but herself would be able to graze her own determination. A personality so enthralling that, reflecting the spotlights, could dazzle and blind the audience. That’s what I was looking for: signs that I’ve found a diamond in rough that can be polished into a gem fit for a crown.”

Silently, Naoko handed back the tiny, colorless and spellbindingly pretty stone back to Aratani, who put it back from where it came. The girl was seriously amazed by what she had seen, and even more by what she’d heard. To her, that man erred on the sloppy side, maybe due to his room or his untroubled personality, but for once Naoko noticed he actually knew really well what he was doing. Like he told her the night before, he was well aware she wasn’t ready to tackle stages yet, but he seemed confident she was a safe bet.

So that was why she thought he was being overly lenient with her. Naoko judged herself based on current standards, and by doing so thought she was nowhere near idol’s quality. His way of looking at things, on the other hand, wasn’t as immediatist. He didn’t evaluate her idol material based on what she was, but rather on what he foresaw she could be if properly taken care of. Naoko, although still a bit skeptical, could finally see herself being produced by a man who had a vision. She entrusted herself to him and expected that he knew what he was doing, because she had zero idea what she was getting into.

“With all that said,” the agency owner, taking a more formal tone for the moment, sat erectly on his chair and said, bowing a tad bit, “I’d like to announce your results are deemed more than sufficient. Yano-San, I’d like to extend you an invitation for The Paragon Idol’s Agency. Please consider the possibility of working with us, if it’s of your liking.”

Formal situations were awkward for Naoko, but on that day it didn’t put her off nor made her start picking on petty details, like why would Aratani employ plurals if so far he seemed like the only one working at the place. Bowing, she replied after some consideration:

“Aratani-San, I’m grateful for the opportunity.” After a brief pause to think how she would put what was bugging her, she finally gave in to her old habit, “Listen, I’m really grateful. I am. And I hope I can be of assistance. But before we go any further, I… need Aratani-San to know something. About… my family.”

Looking serious, Aratani lost some of the formalities and quickly asked the girl to tell him what could be troubling her. And so she did.

“Since I’m below twenty, and thus my parents will most likely have to consent, I… need to inform this now, so I’m sorry if I cause you any trouble. The thing is, me and my parents are not exactly on good terms. Well, me and my father really. My mother simply tries to zeal for peace. But it’s already been six or seven years that the situation at home… deteriorates every day. I came to Tokyo to stay on the apartment of an uncle I didn’t see for the last six years or so, simply because my father couldn’t tolerate me anymore and… as much as I hate to admit it, neither could I. He’s also not that old, I think. He’s fifty-seven, but he acts as if he was ninety years old! He’ll probably have some qualms with me getting on this line of business, I think. He’s a little old-fashioned, so I’ll do my best to convince him, but…” Bowing again, close to the surface of the desk, she asked “Please, please forgive me if I took your time and made you go through so much trouble, only to discover I’m ultimately unable to convince my parents at the end. I’m deeply sorry should this happen, and I’ll try to repay you somehow in this circumstance.”

As Naoko raised her head she found Aratani in a grave mood, unlike how he normally presented himself. Presuming he wouldn’t be happy to discover just now that all his efforts could’ve been in vain, the girl apologized again:

“I’m sorry for only letting you know this now. I should’ve told Aratani-San sooner…”

“No,” the man’s voice responded, “Yano-San did mention yesterday at night your family could very likely veto your decision. I’m just concerned for what you told me about the situation with your parents. It’s none of my business, I know, but your family is one of the most precious things in your life. Yano-San shouldn’t cause her father grief.”

“It’s not like that!”, she promptly explained herself, only then noticing she had started to talk about her private life to someone who she knew for only one day. But, to be fair, it wasn’t any secret, “We don’t usually fight, in the sense of open conflict. It’s almost always subtle, but it pains me a lot nonetheless. To be fair my family isn’t bad, I admit this. Father, mother and daughter. And a cat. That’s it. On the outside, it’s just another common family, with average income and average lives, with no glaring problems. No drug addictions, no physical violence… with very rare exceptions, no constant couple fights, no financial problems, no nothing. I… never could quite put a finger down on why I’ve so many arguments with my parents. The only thing I know for sure is that my father never accepts anything I do.”

Evading the agency owner’s stare, Naoko talked to her fists she clasped over her legs:

“He always complains about my behavior, about my pastimes, the way I dress and so on. If I go out with my friends, he dislikes the way I mingled too much with older boys, even though they protect me and are really nice. If I stay home, the problem is that I played too much videogame instead of doing something productive. I’m not one to study home, but in school I listen carefully the classes, and since everyone tells me I’m curious and attentive to everything…” along with an arguably intelligent mind, but she didn’t mentioned others used to tell her that because it would look like she was bragging, “…I am always able to get good to excellent grades. Even then the only thing my father could say is that if I get such high marks without studying, I’d be so much better if I actually make an effort. There was… also a time… also a time I got a maximum score in a test and wanted him to know. I thought he’d be happy the daughter he had so much doubt about was actually faring well. But as I showed him he…”

She stood quietly for a moment, feeling the peace she had discovered that day fading away as she remembered situations that were so hard on her that the girl still remembered them as if it happened mere hours before. Trying not to dwell too much on sad reminiscences not to destroy her humor, she bit the bullet and spilt out everything as quickly as possible:

“He looked at my perfect test and told me ‘You got this score? From whom did you copy the answers?’ And I swear I never got answers from anyone in my life!”

As her eyes faced Aratani, he could see the anger and sadness inside her. For Naoko it was a strange feeling, to open up like that, but it wasn’t anything new. In her experience, to express her feelings to others was never as bad as it seemed, despite making her feel weak. At the same time, people usually told her the opposite, that to be able to do such a thing was insanely courageous, if not a little insane. But that was Naoko in a nutshell, and she couldn’t be any different from that. She knew it because she had already tried numerous times.

“Bottom line is: my father’s never happy with his own, only daughter. Nothing I do is ever enough. Most of the time he doesn’t even have to say anything to hurt me, just the way he looks shows me his disapproval. In fact, it’s better when he professes his displeasure verbally, because then I could confront him. Often, though, he silently attacks me with his face, and if I try to retaliate, he always tells me he didn’t do anything and that it’s just my imagination. I… think I grew up learning the hard way that not to express your feelings in words is to be a coward.”

The worst part was that her father wasn’t anything special to justify having such high expectations for her. He wasn’t famous, rich, particularly handsome or especially smart. He’s competent and dedicated, it’s true, but nothing out of the ordinary. Just your average salaryman.

Closing her eyes not to let them become wetter, she rushed to a part of her feelings that were always confusing to her, but in the girl’s opinion were worthy of mention:

“On the other hand, for a daughter to confront her own father from such a young age like that is not only a rarity, but shows just how much self-control my father has. On a few occasions I… know I made him so angry that I got physically hurt by flipping tables and whatnot as a result, but I’m fully aware I deserved it. Really… if only I knew what’s the matter I’d do everything to correct it and make amends. I… I don’t do it out of evilness, I… just wanted him… to like me… or something. I wanted… not to shame… my father and make… make him proud, but… I don’t know how. I… always feel guilty, and it’s horrible. But to be shunned every time by everything even when I perform well… it’s just too much for me to tolerate. I… I’m far from perfect, I know it… but I don’t think I deserve to be treated badly… for trying my best…”

Trying to understand why he disliked her so much occupied a lot of her mind. She was able to comprehend he worried about her future and he wished her ways, similar in many aspects to that of boys, became more feminine. In her opinion, she understood him better than he did her, but the frustration and anger never ceased to exist. Even though the girl was generally so blunt that could insult some people, she’s in fact pretty empathetic and could make some really deep trains of thoughts, thanks to all the long hours, days and years she spent trying to understand her feelings.

Stories were her first allies in helping her create connections in her mind. Manga, anime, movies, series, soap operas, books, games… every story had characters with whom she could relate, and in understanding the connections between their fights and her life she could achieve a deeper understanding of herself. Eventually lyrics also became prime material to spark her imagination. She always loved songs in general, but after she noticed some of them touched her heart in uncanny ways she began to give more though about them. With the exception of love songs and those that had no lyric, she liked almost every kind of musical composition, both national and international. In fact, a lot of her fluency in English was due to her interest in songs and games.

As she came to a halt after feeling she said too much, guilty of having said all she did invaded her, making her eyes overflow. Quickly covering her face, she swept the tears as they came, washing her eyeliner, while mumbling, with a mix of sadness, anger and frustration:

“I’m sorry. I embarrassed myself… and took your time. But no! Stupid Naoko is completely unable to stop talking! Now… Aratani-San probably thinks less of me. That I’m… a bad person. And…” as she came again in contact with the feelings she harbored for her father, and how much she wanted it to be different, she completely lost control of her cries, her tears becoming black as they mixed with her eyeliner and rolled down “…and he’ll… probably… be right! I must really be a horrible person!”

Standing up abruptly, Naoko bowed deeply but quickly. Trembling, she excused herself and ran to the door. The man had no time to do anything before the girl left rushing to the woman’s bathroom by the corridor.

It took her almost fifteen minutes to calm down and more so to reapply the makeup. As she came out of the small but well-kept bathroom, she found Aratani sitting on one of the two brown and black sofas in the corridor, with his cellphone in hands. Contrary to her fears, the man’s face was full of compassion instead of reproach. As soon as he saw the crestfallen girl, the suit-clad man stood up and put the electronic away.

“I’m… sorry again,” the girl apologized with a bow, unsure if it was for worrying him, taking his time, ruining whatever good impressions he might’ve had about her or what. Aratani, running the fingers of his right hand through the back of his hair in a lack of a better thing to do with them, protested serenely:

“Don’t say that, I’m the one who put you through all that. I’m sorry for sticking my nose on where it didn’t belong and reopening wounds.” Glancing the girl, who dismissed it blaming her own loose tongue, the man calmed her on a lighter tone “But you know what? I think I got to understand Yano-San a little bit better now. You’re not a bad person like you said, on the contrary. A bad person wouldn’t care for her father to the point of wanting him to be happy about a school test, and wouldn’t feel bad for arguing him. Also, she wouldn’t care to try and comprehend her father like you do, or wanting him to be proud of you.”

Naoko felt the tips of her lips turn up and her eyes start to become wet again as the man, in a somewhat disconcerted way that probably felt out of his nature to him, spoke his mind with a voice that sounded true and heartfelt:

“When you started telling me you had those problems in your home, I was reticent, but now I see you’re not a bad person, Yano-San. You’re actually good, even though your ways of expressing it may not be… ah… necessarily the most orthodox ones. Just as much as I believe, from what little I know, your father to also be a good man who only wants the best for his daughter, you also do your best for him. It’s only natural you two to have different opinions about things, and clashes of views are to be expected, but don’t lose faith. I’m sure your father treasures you much and just… just thinks you’re still too young to comprehend your own value to him. Of course he’d worry if his daughter likes to hang out with older boys, I mean. But in time Yano-San will see that just as much as your love for him becomes sour when he doesn’t act the way you expected him to do, so does his for you. Then again, I don’t really know you or your family, but even then, my bet’s that he cares for Yano-San a lot.”

Her quavering mouth smiled gratefully while her eyes restarted to shed tears, this time out of positive feelings. For a moment Naoko could barely talk, her emotions piling up and being washed away by her cry. She couldn’t get herself to thank Aratani anymore, so after gesturing her feelings in a bow, the girl, searching for something to say, laughed out of what crossed her mind:

“Ah, look at that! You made me cry and ruin my makeup again!”

‘Excuse me? I just cheered you up, you were the one chose to cry instead of showing appreciation through other means. Like blowing me a kiss, for example! Hint.” Aratani teasingly stated while the girl went back to the bathroom. From there her laughing voice sounded loudly, pretending irritation, “The only thing I’ll blow is your head off with slaps if you keep being a cheap womanizer at every opportunity!”

“I’m sorry to break it to you, but I’m pretty sure it’s not possible to blow someone’s heads with slaps,” Aratani retorted with a witty remark, finding out he was enjoying the make-believe argument just as much as Naoko, who replied in a mocking century-old fashioned threat, “Fret not, for I shall use thy head to illustrate how as soon as I come out!”

Grinning, Aratani sat down again on the sofa and, taking back his cellphone, whispered to himself “Now that’s more like the impression I’ve of you, girl.”

Eventually the cat-and-dog game came to an end and the man finally told her about the next steps of the process. The legal paperwork would take approximately four days to get through and be sent by e-mail, and if everything was right Naoko’s parents would have to seal the deal. With said documentation the agency and the I.S.S.G. would then be able to provide support to hasten her school transference, get her a room in a dorm, sign her up for a bank account under her parents’ responsibilities and set her up for her new life and career.

If it worked like Aratani made her believe it would be a dream come true. Nonetheless the man made a point clear: she had to pay her school and dorm from the get-go and the agency had a list of taxes and payments to do. For as much as it would be good to spend a few months in preparation process, time was running against them. Aratani said he knew of ways to get the cash flowing, mostly ads, auditions and gigs at the beginning and before people knew her name. It was viable, but it would also mean a lot of work early on. Until she had constructed a name for herself and could rely on merchandise incomes a brand to generate a steady flow of cash, she would need to be prepared to be pitted against many other girls, idols who already passed their probation time, for a share of the action.

Also, it meant she had four days to convince her parents. Any delay after that would be time wasted and less chances of raking dough. Also, since the agencies were required to pay a fee for every audition they ran at, placing among the last ones was, at the beginning, not an option.

It made Naoko a bit nervous, but she was glad the owner of that agency was honest with her. If he told her everything would be all rainbows and unicorns she’d probably fall back to her fear of being scammed. She had yet to see the consequences of her leap of faith, but as much as it intimidated her, the thought of finally breaking free from the influence of her parents sounded just as seducing and balanced out her fears.

Aratani turned his attention to his computer after leaving Naoko to fill in a form with her basic information. Which the girl did, but not without some consideration and reticence for the now unlikely but still real possibility she was giving her name, that of her parents, contacts and so on for a guy which could just so happen to have made a very authentic ploy to scam her. As she finished asking hesitant questions to be sure she wasn’t signing any binding contract unknowingly, and if those information would really be used just to send the real documents to her parents to accept or not, it was past one p.m. when she got through the simple, two-paged form.

Her stomach protested, roaring like a tiger. The last few days had been quite demanding, both physically and mentally, and Naoko hadn’t eaten properly due to time constraints. For some time her curiosity and hopes kept her up and running, but after the adrenaline from her tests subsided the girl started to feel dizzy. She’d probably never eaten so little in her life. Despite her lean figure, she used to eat a lot. It’s her metabolism, not her self-restraint, the one to be thanked for her low weight.

She expected Aratani didn’t hear her tummy going berserk, but the man, while looking at his screen, asked:

“Have Yano-San been eating accordingly? It’s important to do so if you’re doing lots of exercises, you know? Don’t tell me you’re on a diet.”

With an uncertain face, Naoko cheerfully replied:

“I’m more or less eating properly. The past days have been a little tough, but now I don’t have appointments anymore, so I can compensate all the ramen I didn’t eat so far. I think I have only ever been on a diet once, though. Not to get slimmer, it’s a detox one. It’s nice, I felt more energetic after that, but I don’t plan to go back to drink those grass-tasting juices and yucky veggies ever again. I prefer my yummy industrialized snacks! After all, it’s widely known that the human body is composed of about seventy percent flavorings and coloring, chemical preservatives and acidulants! They’re all part of a healthy diet! Modern human being can only live three days without artificial harmful components and excessive sugar levels in their food!”

“Way to go, girl,” Aratani sarcastically responded, “I’ll take note to take you to real restaurants every now and then. I don’t want you to go fainting on me or on your fans. Try to survive until you come back.”

Turning the computer screen to the girl so she could see it, Aratani showed her a list of air companies and flights. Playfully, he said:

“Okay, now for the part I dislike the most, where money leaves my wallet. Choose your destination and we’ll find a suitable flight for you in the evening.”

Having almost forgotten his promise, Naoko stared shocked at the man. As the realization that he was the kind to keep his words, her worries of handing him a paper full of her data waned. Though as she started to thank him for the trouble, the smirking man told her sarcastically:

“Oh, don’t thank me now, wait till the morning after the economic class trip. If you wake up hurting everywhere don’t blame it on me, blame it on the nightly budget flights.”

 

Chapter II – Sinful Blossom Season

 

As soon as the door closed behind her, Naoko tossed her arms up in the air and screamed. Leaving her beaten sneakers at the entryway, she rushed up the low step that separated the small rectangular area by the entry where footwear should be left at and her shining new place.

Truth be told, the twelve square meters room was way smaller than she was accustomed with, back in her house in Shimabara. But at the same time her room on her old residence, the place where she spent most of her time when she was actually at home, was not much bigger than that. Also, in the school dorms she had it all to herself! A small cubicle that took a quarter of her apartment led to a simple but nice bathroom, with western-style toilet and a shower. Her new place also had a two-burner stove and a microwave. There was also one on a communal area for those who lived on the more than two hundred rooms of that five-story building, also. The edifice belonged to her high school, and even though the gray tone of concrete was everywhere, she still liked it.

She also had a sink and a minibar. Two windows gave plenty of natural light to the ambient, one for the bathroom and the other right above her futon, a quilted and thick mattress used for bedding. The futon mattress, along with the pink, purple, black, yellow and red dragon-stamped duvet Naoko brought from her parents’ house, could all be folded and put aside into the suspended white cabinets that lined up on the walls. This way it opened up space. Above the futon area there was a television attached to a wall by a retractable arm-like support that could extend back and forth. Also on the same location there was a folding table that, while up, doubled as a headboard. The moment Naoko saw it she started to make plans for the cold winter nights, where she could put her laptop or videogame and a steaming bowl of ramen on the table, slide under the blanket and play all night long without anyone to bother! Room 527 was paradise on Earth!

Along with a cupboard below the sink, a heater and an air conditioner, the dorm held all basics for a living. Naoko knew it was nothing special, but it was her first time living alone, so she quickly fell in love for that place. Outside, on the dormitory building, nothing was out of the ordinary. It was shaped like a U, each floor consisting of three long corridors. Two formed a straight angle but the third one was somewhat crooked to the inside cavity, the edifice vaguely resembled a right triangle where the hypotenuse didn’t meet one of the legs. It was good for Naoko to remember her about geometry classes and also provided an open space where students could appreciate the breeze. A few pieces of cloth were hanged on the corridor’s parapet to dry, but it only involved shirts and pants and only out of urgency. Underclothes, along with most other garments, were dried on the communal washhouse.

There was an elevator on the building, but it was mostly for disabled people and cargo transporting. Also, during the morning and immediately after the end of the classes there was so much traffic it was quicker to go by stairs, which was a hassle since the girl was transferred one week after the start of classes, and thus was assigned to one of the last unoccupied rooms, on the fifth and topmost pavement. On the flip side, the view outside her windows was top-notch and her floor only had nine of the thirty-nine rooms filled, meaning fewer annoyances and no adjacent neighbors to disturb her – or, more likely, be disturbed by her: she got easily carried away when playing games and cursed a lot, and she hated to listen to music on a low volume.

She still felt the necessity to drop by her nearest neighbors, including the one immediately below her room, to introduce herself and bring a few cheap cookies she bought out of the nearest konbini – a convenience store. She grabbed the nearest discounted item she found and gave no thought about it, so once she presented herself and said the most commonplace of sentences, that such present was just a silly thing, she felt good because, for once, it was the truth. People usually went to bothersome degrees to find presents for others only to downplay it, but Naoko was true to her words! If she was going to say it was nothing special, it might as well not be!

Since it was Saturday morning, she wasn’t hoping to find anyone, and true to her expectations, both neighboring rooms on her floor were empty. Only at night was she able to find their occupants, a boy and a girl. Both seemed fine folks, though the boy below her, whom she did encounter holed in his crib by 11 a.m. of a sunny Saturday was a smiling creep resembling a snake that Naoko rapidly found she wanted distance from, so she didn’t feel as bad showing how inconsiderate she could be by throwing some cookies at neighbors. The guy didn’t say a word for the most part and the way he whispered his name was so low that the girl, uninterested and still wanting to explore her own room, only barely heard “Fukuda Katsuro”, didn’t know if that’s really it and merely nodded as if she had fully understood it.

Aside from that, no words from him, as the grinning guy just stared her without blinking from the top of his vertiginous one meter and forty something centimeters high, more or less. The more she saw him, the more she had the impression it was probably less. But then again, the boy appeared to gradually lean forward as if growing a hump, so his real height was a mystery. One Naoko had no interest in solving.

As the girl, having introduced herself and that she was enrolled to 2-5 out of cordiality was about to leave, the boy from room 427 let his hissing voice be heard for the first time, mentioning he was then her senpai while letting his grin grow bigger, revealing his teeth. If at first he could pass as a slightly weird student who just tried too hard to appear friendly despite being too shy to speak, it was no longer the case. It was already hard enough to believe that a guy who obviously wasn’t a dwarf but almost as tall as one was in high school, but he was her senpai, or senior, too. Naoko stood still for a moment, looking at the boy while she reflected on what to say next. The way he sounded happy, a little too happy, from below his collected exterior when he stated his senpainess as if it was a trump card sounded the girl’s alarms to control her naturally cheerful attitude not to seem too friendly. She responded:

“Oh… that’s… good. So you won’t be in school next year, right? Nice.” After a second, thinking about what she said, Naoko quickly added, “I mean, nice for you, of course! You’ll be in university, right?! That’s awesome! I’m rooting for you! Okay then, bye!”

Despite not having looked back anymore as she “walked” away (with the speed as someone running), she could almost feel him still glaring at her. In her imagination he would’ve been closing the door slowly, while a portion of his big smile and one of his eyes would still be seen from the gap, gazing intensely.

So alright, the dormitories weren’t perfect, but it was still nice and her room was a lovely place. Also the sun-soaked city was marvelous at the beginning of April. The cherry blossom period was already over, which was a shame, though. Sure, she had watched it with her cousin, but although Hayato was nice, she’d very much prefer to see it again by herself, without hurrying. During the week Naoko stayed at her hometown she went flower-seeing too. Then again she did that for all her life, so seeing the pink-leafed sakura trees in full-bloom, albeit arguably gorgeous, wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary.

The flower-watching could be over in Tokyo, but spring was just starting and she had lots of new things to do. Studies, work, hobbies… For starters, she has not only enrolled in a new school, but also had to present herself on a new dojo. When she explained she was moving, her master got her in touch with an old acquaintance of him that held a training center in a ward nearby. The only thing Naoko knew was that, just like her first master, the chief instructor she was assigned to also followed the Shotokan style, which didn’t mean much as “Shotokan”, even though being itself a school among many in Karate, was more of an umbrella term to encompass many different sub-schools.

Naoko couldn’t get more information, though, as it happened one day before the trip, the reason being she didn’t even know if things would work out until the last moment. Her parents, especially her father, gave the girl a lot of trouble to convince, like she expected. During the three days after her return she tackled her old school and life went back to normal as if her days in the capital had been nothing more than a dream. She couldn’t even tell others she was moving because her parents, for the first two days, were resolute not to let her go. Naoko used every minute of her free time to try and persuade them otherwise, and had her own resolution tested by arguments such as the already beaten risk of scam, the prohibitive cost of living there, themes related to honor and humility, her own inexperience in living by herself, the dangers of the most populous area of the country and one of the most of the world, so on and so forth. Luckily, the girl was headstrong, and the singing and dancing tests made her for some reason calmer than before. As such, Naoko was able to keep rational conversations for longer, which ultimately led the firm conviction of her father to crack. Naoko had faith in it, or so she shown.

When the contract arrived she and her parents spent almost four hours reading every single line of it and searching the internet for help whenever necessary. They read and reread it numerous times, looking for any legal traps, but to no avail. Fifteen percent of every source of revenue for the idol, reasonable work hours and performed functions, well-explained and acceptable copyright information, rights and obligations…It was A-Okay and coincided with everything the I.S.S.G. website stated to be mandatory. The only compromising part which made Naoko’s father worried regarded a paragraph about early contract termination and contractual penalty. Since the document was valid for two years and should be renewed after expiration, the girl would be tied to the agency for that period. If any of the involved parties were to terminate the contract before its expiration date without reasonable explanation, it was imposed a penalty equivalent to five months’ worth of revenue or compensation, depending on the side rescinding the document. The month of reference would always be the last one. The problem was that Naoko’s payment wouldn’t be fixed, but was expected to fluctuate following the fifteen percent of total revenue accrued every month by the company. So if she wanted to walk away for whatever reason, it would cost her a sum she didn’t know if she could afford to pay.

Then again, it was standard fare among contracts, so her own father wound up calming Naoko. Everything looked acceptable, and after that night, however unwilling, he and her mother gave her the greenlight. Only then, on Thursday, she began to spread the news of her departure, all the while managing all the official procedures for the agency, the Idol Star System Generation, the bank on which she was going to open an account, her old and new school for the transfer process and her dorm room, the dojos and finally booking her flight in time. For a teenager who has never had to tackle so much bureaucracy before it was overwhelming, and her father, in order to evaluate her daughter’s capacity to live by herself, did the absolute minimum to help, just signing what he was required to. But Naoko, obstinate she was, did all she could in record time, locking herself in her room as soon as she returned from the karate classes and getting a medical examination as required on Thursday, and staying up until 2:30 a.m. of the next day filling forms.

Only by Friday evening, having just barely protocoled the last tidbits of bothersome papers for the bank, the air company and her new education institution, the girl finally managed to have time to spread the news to those she didn’t met until then. Most of them were friends from different schools and random people from shops and spots across the city. She didn’t even see some people, merely texting them farewell just so she had time to spare to talk to more important people, like her grandparents.

While Naoko loved her parents, the constant fights with her father Yoshirou and the irritating attempts of her mother, Natsuko, to conciliate the two undermined her desire to be close to them. If there was one person in her family that Naoko regretted a little to leave was her grandfather. Her grandma, Kohaku was also a lovely person, but grandfather Akihiro was something else. Nearing ninety one years-old, he didn’t have the same vitality he used to, but was still a surprisingly funny person, contrary to his son Yoshirou.

He was a few inches taller than Naoko, though he couldn’t stand straight anymore, and leaned over a walking stick due to a serious injury he had. He used to be a policeman. Quite the strong one, judging from the old photos on family albums that Naoko loved to check back when she was a kid. He was shot on his chest at that time. Since firearms were a rarity in Japan when compared to many other countries, this was shocking.

Naoko still remembered the day she discovered that. She was seven and used to notice Akihiro sometimes appeared to feel pain while playing with her, and he played a lot. She was probably his favorite grandchild. Her grandfather liked her cousin Hayato, of course. Akihiro also had a daughter called Manami, younger than Naoko’s father Yoshirou and her uncle Kenji, thought Manami lived in a distant city and hardly ever visited them. Not unlike uncle Kenji, in fact, though when Naoko was seven Kenji still lived in Shimabara. Manami also had two sons, but for grandpa Akihiro, Naoko was special. She was the only granddaughter he had and was the only child of Yoshirou, who was Akihiro’s first son.

Akihiro used to do whatever Naoko wanted. He loved her that much and liked to play with the cheerful and energetic girl a lot. She frequently rode on his back or asked to be tossed in the air and caught by him, and her grandfather did that. Naoko’s father never did that to her, and always stood close when she was with Akihiro, looking serious and boring. In Naoko’s mind her father either disliked to see Akihiro play so much with Naoko or was just envious that he had the disposition to play with the girl, when Yoshirou didn’t. Yoshirou always stood like a shadow observing the two, close to a wall, arms folded and a grave countenance from a person that apparently didn’t know how to have fun.

In a sense, Naoko’s grandfather acted like a father to her, since Yoshirou, while arguably taking care of the girl didn’t use to play or enjoy her company. Akihiro, however, sometimes appeared to feel pain while playing, and on one of those occasions he had to stop and almost fainted on a chair in his house. After Naoko’s father, mother and grandmother tended him, Naoko started crying, fearing she’d lose Akihiro. At that time the gray-haired man explained to her, with a soothing smile, that there was nothing to fear. That he just had a wound for almost four decades and was still breathing.

He seemed disconcerted, however, when Naoko started to ask questions about it. It was a small, circular depression on his chest, slightly to the right of the heart area. Seeing he didn’t want to explain, Naoko turned to her father, who seemed as serious and stalwart as always. From the door, with arms folded, Yoshirou quietly and severely observed his own father. Akihiro seemed a little ashamed, and reluctantly explained that it was a bullet scar. The small girl was horrified and demanded an explanation, asking if it was because he was a police officer back when he still worked.

Glancing nervously to his wife and son, he hesitantly replied, tense in a way Naoko had never seen him to be:

“I… Yes. It dates back to when I was a police officer.”

Started, Naoko inquired while climbing on his legs, hugging him and passing her hand over the wound:

“What happened, grandpa?! Did… a bad guy shot you?! Did you shoot him back?! Eh?! Did you shot the bad guy, grandpa?!”

From his chair in the living room the disconcerted man embarrassedly glanced to his silent and judging son, possibly gauging if it’s alright to say those things to his daughter, and decided to answer as succinctly as possible:

“No, Naoko. It’s… not a bad guy. I… handled my own gun in the wrong way… and shot myself. Let’s talk about something else, guns are not a good topic for a little girl to…” Naoko suddenly interrupted him, suspiciously interrogating “But grandma says grandpa Akihiro was an amazing and skilled cop! Did you really shot yourself?!”

Flustered, the man simply replied, his face still showing signs of pain:

“Even skilled people commit mistakes, Naoko. Bad ones, sometimes.” Petting her hair with his left-hand and looking embarrassed and thoughtful all the while showing a smile, he said, “But you can learn with your mistakes. It’s part of the past, now, so let’s not dwell on it. Why don’t you tell me about those songs you were hearing. I heard from your father someone lent you some CDs. Is it true?”

Scanning with attentive eyes his oddly acting grandfather, Naoko thought for a moment. Something seemed fishy there, she couldn’t imagine Akihiro committing such a gross mistake. She was only seven, but she wasn’t dumb. Also, he had told her once before that he and many of his colleagues hardly ever carried their guns around back when he was an officer. There was no need for it, and it intimidated good citizens. As such, she replied:

“Yes, I got some CDs. Now why don’t we talk about your wound? Please! Tell me what happened, grandpa! How did you shoot yourself?! Why did you never tell me you had a wound?! Does it hurt?! Are you sure it wasn’t a bad guy?!”

As her grandfather silently hugged her back, saying “Naoko, enough with this subject, let’s change…” his son’s eyes got sharp as a razor. An imposing hand pulled the girl away. Startled, the old man observed his son breaking Naoko away, but said nothing. Naoko protested and screamed as Yoshirou walked her to the door while seriously saying:

“Naoko, learn to have respect. Your grandpa is in pain. He needs to rest and you’re bugging him. Let’s go.”

While his daughter tried to free herself from his firm grip and cried for him to let her go, for she wanted to be close to her grandfather and help to ease his pain, her own grandmother said with a caring but hesitant voice:

“Yoshirou, please. Your father… he’s better now. And he doesn’t have many chances to see Naoko. Please, there’s no need to go so soon.”

The serious man, facing his concerned mother and his own silent and embarrassed father, retorted sharply:

“He needs to rest. We’ll come back another time.”

Not even Naoko’s mother seemed to understand why Yoshirou reacted that way with his own mother and tentatively asked why they shouldn’t stay a little longer. Getting even more serious, Yoshirou retorted:

“I know Naoko will insist on this topic. My father needs to rest. She won’t let him. That’s why.”

While Naoko yelled and tried to evade her father’s grip, her grandmother gestured back to the lonely and sad-looking old man as he watched Yoshirou open the door, and reminded him:

“Yoshirou, please! Don’t do this. He’s better now! He only wants to be with his family for a while! Is it to ask too much? He’s your father!”

Apparently not caring for his own wife’s puzzled look, Yoshirou glanced to Akihiro and resolutely replied:

“And Naoko is my daughter.”

Naoko never understood the context of that situation, and neither did her mother. Yoshirou just pulled the girl back to the car and, without giving any explanations, simply left. Years after, Naoko still had no answer for what happened on that day. She only knew her father abhorred violence and hated when he found the girl playing games that involved guns. Yoshirou apparently disliked everything related to Akihiro’s profession as a policeman for some reason. The only clue Naoko thought to have obtained on the nine following years about that came from her grandmother, who said that after the shot Akihiro was left with serious health problems and retired. Apparently, it wasn’t the police or the government that did it: Akihiro did that by himself. After that, their family had many financial problems for some time.

Naoko was left with the impression that her grandfather Akihiro had lied about misfiring his own gun, though there was a problem to this logic: if he was shot and incapacitated on his duty by someone else the government would’ve probably paid his retirement. It was the main reason why the explanation of him accidentally shooting himself made some sense, despite Naoko’s resistance to accept it. Anyway, she could at least understand why Yoshirou hated guns so much. A shot had ended the career, and almost the life, of his father, after all. And seeing they faced hard times after that incident, it was justifiable that he was so afraid of Naoko’s curiosity. Even when she was seven the girl already played many violent electronic games online, including war games, and learned quite a few facts about real-life weaponry on them. Her interest on the subject probably frightened him. He couldn’t understand that Naoko just liked games, not real guns or warfare, though she could imagine Yoshirou preferred to be safe than sorry.

The horrible incident involving the shot was never elaborated by anyone no matter how hard she tried, but to see that her grandfather managed to keep a positive outlook on life despite his pain and hardships was inspiring. His personality was cheerful no matter what. When Naoko told her grandparents she was moving to Tokyo to work as an idol, her grandfather was the only person in her family who promptly got happy for her. Though he had some difficulties to move, he insisted on giving her some money on an envelope. Despite not being much, it was what they could afford to give her. She refused it many times, not out of politeness – she wasn’t a big fan of it – but because she really didn’t want to take anything away from them. In the end, however, her supportive grandfather encouraged her to take it, saying:

“You know, Naoko, when I was around your age and got my first job, my parents also had to support me during the first month, until I could live by my own means. I had to commute to work, to eat and had other expenses. I didn’t want to bother them at first, though I had no choice. What I did was to repay them. I used all I could spare from my first payment to buy them a fancy dinner at a restaurant and a few gifts. Well, I say “fancy dinner”, but at that time I only had money for a regular night out, really. It was already fancy enough for us, since my parents never did these kinds of things. It’s a nice change of pace, I think. So Naoko, now’s not the time to refuse help. Tokyo is an expensive place to live. First you get paid, and then you can think about repaying. Please take it. It’s not much, but all we can do to help you, we will.”

That was the kind of thing Naoko didn’t forget. And despite Yoshiro’s flaws, her father was the only son of Akihiro and Kohaku who supported his parents. It there was anything Naoko learned with her father was about loyalty. He carried his father to hospitals, paid for remedies and treatments and much more. He was always austere, but deep down he cared for the others. And since her grandparents received hardly enough money for themselves, Yoshiro needed to also provide financial support for his parents, along with everything else he did for them.

That was the main reason for Naoko to dislike her supposedly crazy aunt Manami and Uncle Kenji – because they practically abandoned their own father and mother in Naoko’s opinion. Of course, since Naoko was welcomed into Kenji’s home, she did her best to be a good guest. She hated his lack of loyalty to his own family, but he was not a bad person otherwise. No matter. All she cared at the moment was that for her grandparents to give cash to Naoko like that, no matter how little, was a sacrifice. One the girl recognized. Trying not to cry, she promised to repay them somehow as soon as she could.

When she returned home she finally got the time to talk to her neighbors, including Masahiro. He was her childhood friend and the younger brother of Momoko, the girl who fell for the fake idol agency scheme and whose story made Naoko so reluctant about accepting that opportunity.

She expected that when she told him about moving to Tokyo Masahiro would be sad, like she was, but no. He was devastated. As she explained to him that she was going away first thing in the morning, before sunrise, he sat down on the sidewalk, his eyes staring her house across from his without seeing anything. Their street was small and both vehicle traffic and foot traffic was almost nonexistent, so no one would see him get as down in the dumps as he got, but even if someone saw he’d most likely not care.

His short, almost bowl cut hair if not for a few spiky tips, was just stylish enough not to appear completely plain. He used glasses that made his eyes look much bigger, but his black frames were tasteful. He was almost the same height as her, and not too skinny but sporting no noteworthy muscles either. When they were younger and bet on physical capabilities, he could defeat her on arm wrestling despite it being a tough contend, but she was slightly faster and could withstand longer distances running and swimming. He wasn’t really handsome, but neither was him ugly. He had very few friends but wasn’t too shy. He was smart, although nowhere near a genius, and liked a couple of things Naoko also did like games and manga, but unlike her, Masahiro’s interests were limited to those things. He wasn’t audacious, but followed the girl on numerous occasions, and even thought he was generally the irritating voice of reason of the pair, she knew Masahiro liked to get on adventures through the city and beyond. He wasn’t particularly funny or entertaining, but could maintain decent conversations without a problem. He was kind of a bummer sometimes, but mostly because his loyalty was too much to let Naoko do a few things she wanted that weren’t necessarily smart. He wanted to be an engineering like his father and studied for it every day, but other than this, he didn’t have a clear vision for his future so much as glimpses. Both had their discords with their parents for similar reasons, but Masahiro never got out of control, although he also hardly ever expressed his mind either.

In other words, from a strictly ration point of view he was kind of ‘meh’, and a few of the many boys and girls Naoko knew have asked a few times why she put up with that guy when there were so many others who were stronger or cleverer, more daring or funnier, more handsome or stylish than him. Especially when Naoko received so much praise on most of these aspects – including strength, although only in a “you’re pretty strong for a girl” kind of backhanded compliment she usually received in the dojo, which meant “yeah, you were able to break two planks with a blow! If you were a man, that’d be considered subpar, but we’ll praise you anyway just because you’re the only woman here and you’re willing to try and get better”, which got on Naoko’s nerves. And although she found it hard to understand why, she liked him. Masahiro was her first friend ever, and she could confide everything to him. They could be completely honest with one another and even argue, even though he hardly ever talked his mind to her or anyone else anyway, and she was accustomed to his way of being. She knew he was ‘meh’, but she liked him for that.

At first he was shocked, and in disbelief he asked if that was some kind of late Fool’s Day prank or something. It wasn’t a big custom in Japan, but he knew Naoko was into other cultures enough to justify some silly play like that. She loved dates like Christmas and Halloween, despite it having nothing to do with the Land of the Rising Sun. But as she explained to him that it was no joke, he kept trying to find a joke somewhere.

“But if Naoko’s telling me this just now, when you’ll be bidding farewell to everyone else? On your way to the airport in the middle of the dawn? Stop bluffing.”

She quickly said she had told the others since Thursday and explained how she hadn’t even left home that day making arrangements. Also, she had quickly given the news to the others on her way home that day, leaving him for last because he lived nearby and also due to the fact that there was no more rush, so they could talk as much as they wanted. She genuinely believed it was a nice thing and that Masahiro, knowing her for so long, would understand that she gave almost everyone just three or four words before going to the next person, while for her longtime friend they could spend an hour talking! He’d appreciate the consideration, and also the fact that she didn’t simply texted him a goodbye message like she did for a few people.

He got even more miserable, his unstable voice barely audible and as if he tried to appear serene despite the frustration and resentment:

“Wait. So you told it first to your school friends, and the karatekas you train with, and… all those thousands of boys you know who-knows-how from all across the city?”

Getting exasperated by what she heard, Naoko reacted angrily:

“All the thousands of…? What kind of girl Masahiro’s implying I am? They’re not thousands, and you know all of them just as well, so don’t give me this “boys you know who-knows-how” crap, you idiot!”

“I know them because you presented them to me,” he defended himself in a higher tone, though still low, and Naoko retorted “So you know them, and you know they’re nice people, so stop acting like I’m wandering with Yakuza people or anything!”

“I know them well enough to see some of them aren’t as nice as you make them to be!” Masahiro stated, almost not managing to hold of his anger. “That Hiro fella used to be on a school gang back on his days…”

“He’s not like this anymore, he works with his father at the gas station now.” Naoko replied, trying to exert self-control and sensing her patience overheating and malfunctioning.

“Oh, yeah? What about that Norio dude from near the bike shop three squares from here?” her friend, getting upset like he’d never been before, although never raising his voice against her, argued, “How many girls did he seduced to begin with?”

“Don’t know, don’t care, I wasn’t one of them so that’s not my problem!” Naoko scold him, “Seriously, what’s the matter, man?”

“What’s the matter?!” he replied so abruptly, standing up and turning to face her with such impetus that for once Naoko thought he’d attack her. Her friend, after a moment of fury, swallowed it and his skin turned paper pale. He once again sat down on the pavement, almost like letting himself fall, and tried to mutter something, then another thing, and finally stopping cold.

Sensing he took the whole thing the wrong way, the girl held the green skirt from her school uniform not to let it rise as she sat down by his right side and tried to console him while explaining more in-depth her way of looking at things. She could understand he felt left for last and unimportant, but it was the opposite: she did that so she could spend with him more than a few seconds, like she did with every other person with the exception of those who studied with her – because she was forced to be with them for hours, anyway.

Looking completely lost he faced away from her while she told him everything. From there she started talking about her last few days, and then how she’d managed to make her father comply. Masahiro himself had a few problems with his parents too, mostly revolving around how they only seemed to have eyes for his older sister Momoko. She was the most beautiful, most hard-working and most intelligent of the two, it seemed. Contrary to Naoko’s father, who was silent but at least made it obvious his daughter was less than he expected, Masahiro’s parents didn’t make that so crystal clear.

They went as far as trying not to compare the two siblings, even if the praises were mostly given to Momoko. As much as the girl was just as good as they made her to be, Naoko always though she was also too dependent on the opinions of others. Too insecure, and even more after the scam incident. Her parents probably felt it too, and gave her the praises she desired. And it was true the woman also worked hard to deserve the approvals, so Masahiro couldn’t even argue it was ill-placed. To Naoko, Masahiro’s parents didn’t prefer her older sister so much as gave more attention to her than to him since he appeared to be more resilient and not all that reliant on compliments. But she also knew he felt as if he was half-forgotten by his own family, hence Naoko’s detailed recording of how she managed to get her father to concede: so he could learn something to use for his own benefit.

From there she told him about her trip, the agency, why she believed it wasn’t a scam like the one Momoko suffered, how Tokyo was amazing, everything. She got so carried away that more than half an hour passed before she noticed Masahiro wasn’t reacting to anything. At first she got upset that he didn’t seem to pay attention, but when she saw his face, low and facing the asphalt in a hopeless expression, her heart hurt as if stung by something sharp. Starting to worry, she called him, but despite clearly listening and reacting with his arms, he didn’t reply at first. It took him a long time thinking, lost inside his private world, to finally mutter, disheartened:

“Do you… still wear that anklet… I gave you?”

Thinking about anything she could do to cheer him up, Naoko promptly changed sides so that her right leg was the one closer to him and lowered her knee high dark gray stocking all the way down, showing him a simple anklet made of black and white-painted straws rolled together. It was a good luck charm he gave her a long time ago. In a festival, if she remembered correctly, although she wasn’t sure which one. She could barely remember receiving that present, it was too much to ask for specifics, but from what little she could recall, it had fireworks. Again, a vague description.

She was so used to wearing it she hardly even remember it, and only took it off to go into swimming classes in her school, and only because it was prohibited to wear accessories there. Other than that, she left it on her ankle the whole time, even during baths and at the sea. It wasn’t supposed to be taken off under no circumstance for some reason, but there was nothing she could do about the classes. It was a good luck charm, after all, and supposedly made a wish cast upon it when the object was worn for the first time come true when he broke out of being too worn out.

Naoko wasn’t a superstitious girl, so she didn’t really believe in such nonsense as good luck or wishes. For her it was the feeling of the person that gave it to her that counted, so she wasn’t scared to break any stupid spell, but she valued the thought of Masahiro in presenting her such a beautiful, even if simple, accessory. She wore it as much as possible. In reality, even her friend, who did believe in such things, took his one off every swimming class he had. He had a matching pair, and since both of them studied in the same school, the same rules applied – the difference being he was two year older than her. It was nice to know older students, being close to a senpai was really something else. But then again, she knew more boys older than her than those of her age, so it wasn’t a big deal. Initially the girls from her class were envious, but as time passed they’re able to get to know Naoko better. Eventually they started wanting to hang out with her instead of chastising her.

Naoko’s relations with other girls were a wee bit strange. It wasn’t that she had no female friends, au contraire. She had no problems making friends with other girls, be it older, younger or the same age as her. On her school she had three very close girlfriends and many others she talked to when the situation was right. The problem was that not all things she liked, other girls did. It just so happened that she found two girls who shared her enthusiasm for music, international stuff and manga, and another one that the trio converted to their otaku cause. As the time passed they developed common themes to talk to and their friendship evolved. But many of the things Naoko liked, though not all, just happened to be stereotypically enjoyed more by men than by women, be it by some natural mechanism or just by societal pressure. When she found another girl that liked games, martial arts, anime and all things awesome she had no problems becoming her friend.

Another, more complicated matter, was that Naoko disliked the way girls usually acted. It had nothing to do with the people itself, but rather the roles society had for them. When it came to women Naoko had nothing against, but girls… Simply put, the way they were molded by society generally made girls irritating. Boys could be direct, playful, pester others, fight, talk dirt, slide on the mud, not wear shirts on the beach and on swimming pools, get down on fours to create sand castles or to hunt bugs on the grass without someone telling them to mind their poses, and being free to catch bugs to begin with without anyone looking at them like they were extraterrestrial beings. In essence, it wasn’t about the way they could be expansive and upfront, though it was nice, or about catching insects – which Naoko did when it came to ladybugs and fireflies, but not for other creatures. On the flip side, she wasn’t afraid to touch worms to go fishing or to squish a cockroach as long as she was wearing something that covered the entire foot or which had a thick sole, and preferably both – No, it was about freedom. Boys could do a lot of things while girls were resigned to looking pretty and acting like defenseless vases.

That wasn’t to say boys didn’t have problems too, Naoko knew many and saw their sufferings. Men were also expected to prove their masculinity in stupid ways, holding back emotions women weren’t as expected to suppress and had their own ridiculous perfection models. She knew it was expected every man to be tall, strong, brave, self-confident, have powerful voices and be able to win at many things, leaving those who aren’t like that on a limbo just like women who aren’t physically attractive. Naoko understood those things, she just preferred the liberty society gave to boys more, even though when they became men the expectations on their shoulders were just as big as the privileges they had as kids. But as Naoko was still sixteen and most of her friends were just a few years older, almost all she had experienced up until now focused on the stages of life preceding adulthood, hence her stand on the subject of men and women.

Also, most of her female friends had at least a few characteristics that separated them from the annoying girl stereotype, meaning Naoko had no problems having female friends, she had problems having irritating friends. It just occurred that girls usually did more things that infuriated her than boys, beginning with self-centered, “you’re not worthy of me” kind of attitude that somehow proliferated in part of the national young female population. Expecting too much of others and not showing the same values themselves. Or so it was Naoko’s opinion, and it made her worry about her professional contact with idols. They rubbed her like the epitome of vanity, even though she knew nothing of them. She just so hoped to be proven wrong.

As the airplane took off the next morning her concerns about Masahiro felt left behind, but deep inside she knew she’d have to make amends. Her childhood friend was too shattered the night before to respond, but the girl expected in a couple of days he’d have found his balance again, and then she’d be able to think of a text message that cheered him up. Meanwhile, for as much as she hated to admit it, it felt good to leave that gloomy place. Her heart was pumping full of excitement for what was to come and for leaving her worrying parents who thought she was too immature for living alone, getting away from her depressing friend who’d become abrasive and sobbing out of being left for last – and with a good reason to boot – and from other people acting as if it was her funeral. It was good to be free from that prison of bad feelings and to have space to spread like petals of a blossoming flower.

Leaving the depths of boredom and uneasiness behind, she arrived at the airport only to be welcomed by the witty remarks and high spirits of her new producer, Aratani Kouta. The young, tall and smartly-dressed man with shoulder-long stylish hair seemed simply too good with a grin and a pair of cool shades. Just as he came under the shadows of the airport entrance to help her with her luggage and took the sunglasses off after a brief bow, the girl, also bowing and noticing an enticing cologne smell that faintly remembered wine, immediately told him:

“Put the shades back on now. I never thought you’d look so sharp on those, Produ-San! Also congrats for the perfume! Much better now.”

Instead of a typical, boring welcoming statement, Aratani replied teasingly:

“Lady, please, the shades are the ones looking sharp on me, not the other way around.” Although self-promotions were frowned upon, Aratani was so over the top in his clearly exaggerated joking bravado that the girl could do nothing besides bursting into laughter out of the ridiculous one liner. On a side note, he added, “As for my perfume, thanks, but I have already put it on the last time we met. Your sense of smell just got better, I think.”

“Wait… what? No way! Last time you just stunk like tobacco and sake.” she replied, making the man promptly protest. Eventually Naoko noticed it was probably because his room smelled so badly and her nostrils got clogged whenever she went there. Unfortunately, her producer seemed completely unaware his agency reeked that way. It wasn’t that Naoko disliked the noir detective feeling it gave to the ambient, it was just that she was very sensitive to scents and strong odors easily affected her. Even his black car, an old model that wasn’t very impressive but was well kept nevertheless, faintly smelled of cigarettes. Aratani swore he didn’t smoke inside his vehicle and accused the girl of saying those things just to importunate him. Eventually Aratani’s complete cluelessness of smells became a recurrent joke Naoko used to pester her “Produ-San”. Also the way she’d once called him out of mockery quickly became her favored way of referring to the man when not in the presence of other people.

He took her to her dorms, asking if she wanted help and, when the girl politely refused it, he told her she had a busy schedule for the day. By mid-day he’d pick her up again so she could get her school uniforms, textbooks and such and complete her transfer. Then, they’d have lunch. After that she’d have an appointment with a hair stylist, because at 5 p.m. she was to meet a beautician, and by 8:30 a photographer. With the photos Aratani could then start promoting her to companies that could be interested in her looks alone. At the beginning, he said, it was hard to make money as an idol, so before she got famous it was a good time to perform jobs that paid well but required no singing and performing, like featuring in ads and labels of female shampoos and cosmetics in general. Also, most advertisements were really cheap in that they presented young, beautiful women for no apparent reason, even when the products they were trying to sell had nothing to do with it. As Aratani said, if anyone wanted to sell anything that wasn’t specifically wore by men, all they needed to do was stamping a beautiful lady along.

Naoko felt uncomfortable by the thought of appearing in such ads, but her producer reassured her he’d only accept decent ones for her. His goal, after all, was for her to become an idol, and tarnishing her reputation with anything was beyond question. Also, he promised her she’d only act as model until they had amassed her a fan base that let them survive on merchandising of their own. Though as much as ads walked a gray line when it came to ethics, ii was fair money.

Continuing on her schedule, her day would end with a few purchases. Aratani told her it was on his tab since a few of the items were to be used on stage. And, as he pointed out, they couldn’t afford an idol to be seen roaming with a pair of sneakers so worn out their soles could fall off at any second, like the ones Naoko had with her. They would buy just the bare-minimum at that time not to strain the budget even more than it already was, but her image was a priority. Her wardrobe would grow bigger as cash started to flow in.

Even though having to carry all her luggage up to her dorm, Naoko felt as if she was floating. After settling down and meeting the friendly neighboring weirdo from the floor below, she returned to her room to finish unpacking. Some unimportant things, like food and clothes, were put away as quickly as she could, while other, more serious matter, like her videogames, her gaming library, her laptop and a few manga she brought just in case she found someone with similar tastes, were neatly organized like they deserved.

Also, her mother packed a few old idols CDs Naoko had since she was six or seven years old. At that time, she listened to a few bands. Mostly two anyway: the colorful and cheerful “Skip/Beat Indigo” and the dark and mature “Cross Sakura no More”. The girl barely remembered she had idol band CDs, much less that she still possessed them. Whatever had in them was almost ten years old and certainly outdated, so Naoko didn’t even bother to pick those up since they wouldn’t even serve as a reference, but her mother tucked the disks on her bags all the same. Since it was Naoko’s only thing that had to do with her new job, her mother felt it could be of some help anyway. She said the old things were not to be discarded but rather used as a model and improved upon. Naoko understood perfectly that, when saying “old things were not to be discarded”, she was also talking about her and Naoko’s father. Of course, the girl, even if relieved to be free, would never think about abandoning them. Hence she decided to take the CDs. She didn’t even look at them, but if it made her mom happy, she’d do it.

The case with all the CDs was put aside rapidly, though, since mid-day was fast approaching. The remaining time was spent testing all electronics along with the heating and cooling systems, the TV, the minibar, the faucet, the lights, the shower and the toilet full of buttons to heat or rise the seat, activate the bidet and more.

That year was atypically dry and pollution levels worsened at every day, despite the skies appearing generally clear and blue. Many TV newscasts reported an increase in health issue cases, notably among the elderly and the newly born, and alerts regarding prevention and minimization of the impacts of the preoccupying climate conditions abounded. The weather forecast included much needed precipitations for the middle of the next week onward, but people had to bear with the worrisome air quality until then. As Aratani caught her on the dormitory building’s entrance for their appointments, it became clear for Naoko that the number of people wearing sanitation masks on the streets had grown since the last time she was there.

Generally the white masks that covered the nose and mouth were used more out of respect for others, by sick people trying not to spread their diseases, than for self-prevention. Though on days when the pollution, both domestic and that blown from continental Asia by wind currents, grew to unacceptable levels many wore the protection to reduce contact with dangerous substances on air. Since they could not only induce long-term health problems but also lower body immunities and heighten the risks of contracting infectious diseases, it could still be said people were taking care of the others to a certain degree by taking care of themselves.

Through foot traffic intense avenues and streets filled to the brim with vehicles the two zipped through a few wards, gradually ticking lines on their to-do list. Some were uneventful, but for Naoko everything was new and interesting to the point where even having lunch on a simple but charming ramen shop or grabbing her new school uniform and clothes along with textbooks, notebooks and stuff was memorable. Even more so was the hair stylist.

On a well-located and chic saloon consisting of a doubled-floor atrium where the bustling ground pavement was overshadowed by a pretty, column-supported balcony-like mezzanine with even more seats, mirrors and people, it was a lively high-end location. Many plants on vases gave the atmosphere a soothing aura, contrasting with the bright, colorless spotlights all across the ceilings being reflected dozens of times by all the mirrors across the place. These mirrors made the place appear to be even bigger. There was a Feng Shui sort of balance to the ambient.

Many assistants, both women and men, tackled the never-ending flow of clients, but the owner of the place, a sixty-something eccentric but endearing chief hair stylist personally supervised the work on every customer. While Naoko waited to be called, she saw the owner’s doubtful but effective methods on many patrons. On an old but well-groomed man, apparently some kind of big shot on some company, the hair stylist not only asked questions about the executive’s personality and habits, but he also looked at him from many angles, as if evaluating a statue. Not satisfied, he got close to the top of the customer’s head and sniffed it hard before, in a glimpse of realization, he explained to one of his assistants what had to be done. When the cut was done, he returned to see the results and, not satisfied, gave the finishing touches himself.

Aratani told Naoko before their arrival that the hairstylist master Matsushita Kazuhiro was famous for tending to many celebrities, including lots of top-class idols, but he was a bit odd. Seeing him in person, though, Naoko was unsure if she wanted to laugh or to run away from that man. If he sniffed her before she knew the owner was so peculiar the girl would be mortified, but as he did strange things to everyone Naoko eventually chilled out. Also the man heeded not what cuts the clients asked for themselves, instead believing in his own image of what would be best for their figure, but the results were nothing short of spectacular. The girl could imagine not every person would be comfortable there, but she was on high spirits and could tolerate some oddity for the novelty of it.

In the end the owner was much less annoying as she made him to be at first glance. When he laid his eyes on her they gleamed. He called a blond and young handsome man to perform her cut, which made the girl start to really enjoy it. The chief stylist began inquiring her about her hobbies, her life and her dreams, all the while running his fingers through her dark, long hairs as if stroking them. The first time the old man did that she cringed, but his firm hands were a delight, as gentle as a breeze and full of an enigmatic energy. Where they touched her hair and her nape, they left an electric and tickling feeling that lingered long after it stopped. Her neck, stiff from the initial contact, quickly loosened up. The hair massage looked more like an expert harpist playing his instrument with fondness, and undid every knotted strand. It was so good that when he finished his questions and turned to his assistance, all she wanted was for him to keep caressing her locks and sending shivers down her spine.

When Naoko first laid her eyes on the confident, tall and pretty assistant she badly wanted the chief hair stylist to stop talking and let that stunning man take care of her, but after the owner left and his employee assumed, the girl got a little sad. The young man was dangerously attractive and all, but his touch on her hair was… normal. He knew what he was doing, and his fingers were suave too, but it just wasn’t the same thing. The old dude just had electricity running through his fingertips! Also, she didn’t understand too much the vision the owner got for her at first, but as the work got performed Naoko was astonished.

Before her hair was just slick and fell freely. Simple and clean. After some products to increase its brightness and softness and many cuts, some to eliminate double ends and others to give it shape, things changed. She got a fringe that partially covered one of her eyes. Two bangs fell in front of her ears, and one got visible while the other was mostly concealed. Tasteful asymmetries were added all over, like a lock on the left of the top of her head that got spiked up, looking like an eternally still black sea wave crashing on the rocks and splashing all over. Spiky ends were made on one side while the other remained au natural. When the chief returned, he inspected it from all directions checking if it was reflexive like a black mirror and detailed as he wanted it. Noticing it lacked something, he further cut down a few strands on the back to slightly increase the impression of volume on the crown tail. To Naoko, it was akin to a very minor sport car’s airfoil, since she had no better way of describing it. Like most other details, it was very hard to notice unless carefully observed, but added up to the subliminal richness of the cut.

When it was finished, the hair was cut in such a way that it naturally preserved the shape without the need of gels or other cosmetics. It was so gorgeous Naoko not only felt like staring at a princess at the mirror, albeit one with a rebel flair, but was also afraid to even touch it.

“Well?” the chief hair stylist asked after putting the scissor to rest, “Is it to your liking?”

“It’s marvelous!” Naoko replied, staring intensely at the mirror to absorb every detail, “I’ve never had such a beautiful hairstyle! I don’t understand it, but I love it!”

“What part of it did you not understand, my dear?” he questioned, suddenly worried.

Studying her own figure, she pointed out she found the half-fringe, the cover over one ear, the head top splash of hair over one side and a few other aspects to be her favorite ones, which was strange because she always thought symmetry was key to beauty. The man, hearing that, lightened up and let a beaming expression out due to her compliments.

“Ah, the fallacy of symmetry!” the hair stylist, positioning his face over one of her shoulders to observe her at the mirror from a perspective close to that of her eyes, replied eagerly, “At first I thought you didn’t understand my cut because it didn’t reflect true feelings you harbored for yourself, which would be a horrible mistake of mine.”

“Hm… what?” Naoko interrupted him. “Feelings?”

“You see, I try to capture feelings on my cuts.” the man explained, vigorously, “I cut the way I feel about someone, and try to crystalize it on my work. The hair grows with the person and is in constant change, but some characteristics remain for a long time. Personality traits, or some kind of essence, if you will.”

“And you try to capture this essence in your art?” presumed Naoko.

“Ah, young lady, you’ve no idea how hearing you call my work ‘art’ makes me happy!” the owner stated, starry-eyed with some kind of passion that made him appear as energetic as a boy, “Indeed, I try to catch a glimpse of the soul and make it so that everyone can see it. I don’t like to dwell on what’s ephemeral. When I was an inexperienced hair stylist I was always frustrated by the fact that hairs grow back. I wanted my art to be eternal. And it pained me to see my works get slowly ruined. I always had to recreate them again and again. Until one day, I noticed that the hair cut I tried to maintain for years on one client didn’t suit him anymore. The first time he’d come to me, he was a fifteen years-old athletic boy. Five years after, he’d matured into a fine lad destined to climb the salarymen ladder till the very top. If hair didn’t regrow, he’d one day be a manager, a director, a CEO of an important company stuck with the hair of a boy. That moment opened my eyes to the beauty of life: change.”

“But you said you didn’t like to dwell on ephemeral things,” pointed Naoko, her curiosity piqued.

“Yes, but people mistake changes for starting anew,” the stylist, leaning against his mirror to face Naoko, told her, “To start again isn’t to change. It’s to be imprisoned in a cycle that ultimately only brings suffering, because when you start anew you throw away whatever progress you’d accumulated so far. You don’t keep anything, and soon enough you’ll be incurring in the same mistakes. That’s what I used to do before my realization. I was so blinded by my drive to keep things from changing that I discarded everything new that I saw. I did a cut, and months after I only trimmed away the new to make the old shape appear again. Trapped in samsara, in a limbo between lives, not ever growing. But to change? To change is different. A new beginning needs nothing previous to it, but if you change something, it’s implied there’s something there to begin with. A real change does not throw away the old, but rather improve upon it.”

Naoko tried hard to follow the man’s logic, but although he looked at her, he spoke as if to himself. After a brief pause thinking, he continued:

“When I discovered it, my heart was set ablaze! For, you see, that boy that became a man, that would become a powerful executive someday, changed, but a change was just an improvement over something previously established. It made me think: if I could see the entire lifespan of a person, most things wouldn’t be kept during their entire course, but a few things could, perhaps. An essence that was exclusive to that individual. As I started to try and unearth what it was, my fear of changes eventually subsided.”

“So that’s why you ask questions and other… stuff to new clients?” Naoko mentioned.

“You’re very attentive, lady. Yes, it is.” The hair stylist acknowledged, “It took me several years to hone my skills to the point where I felt confident enough to cut hairs from every kind of person, from a beggar to a Prime Minister.”

“Have you ever cut the hair of a Prime Minister or was it just an example?” she asked, and the man confirmed. Sighing deeply, he leaned closer and started to talk in a low voice, “Yes, I have. And to be frank, it was kind of underwhelming. See, when I took on the business of my family, I dreamed of cutting hairs of celebrities, politicians and famous people in general. I hated to see the look of satisfaction on the face of my father when he cut the hair of a John Doe. I thought he was too good to be serving average people, and I thought his absence of will to open a bigger saloon and attract richer people was a flaw. It took me thirty years to understand a simple thing: that I wanted to create things people thought were beautiful. I thought beauty was only real if others praised it. And the most beautiful of hairstyles, on the head of a common folk, would only get minimum attention and, thus, praise. But when I got that there was something, an essence, that was common throughout the life of a person, I found that many famous people weren’t born famous. They got there. Those common peasants I disregarded could tomorrow become the celebrities I sought after. It made me question myself. Well, if the same person could make me feel antipathy and sympathy at different stages of life, what was fame? What was that thing that made me think a person was more beautiful than she was the day before?”

His daydreams could seem confusing at first, but they also enticed Naoko’s imagination. She kept closely hearing his tale while losing herself in thoughts of her own.

“After years of meditation I realized fame was just a motivation lot of people had to find the good aspects of someone. It was the will to see what was positive in someone who had what you want, in hopes you learn something and be able to replicate the same characteristics to achieve your own goals. I understood why my father was always satisfied cutting the hairs of random passersby: because he could see the beauty within everyone. That beauty that came from the good characteristics everyone have, but which we only tend to notice on people close to us and on celebrities. After that realization, I set my go to unearth as much from the essence all the people had, that which was not ephemeral and persisted through all but the biggest of change of hearts. In that lied the beauty I could now see all around me. A beggar being no different than a Prime Minister in that he also had qualities that could dumbfound those who took the time to notice. When I cut the hair of a Prime Minister, I finally understood he was just another person. Also full of beauty inside, but no different from anyone else. One thing I noticed was that, just like my father, whom I criticized in the past, I too found satisfaction in average people. The good aspects of a famous or an especially beautiful person are already visible, more or less, or people are more likely to try and find them, but those of a regular folk are not always that clear. I learned to prefer helping those whose qualities are not always clear.”

Reflecting for a second and trying to remember how his speech ended up like that, he returned on a previous topic to close open ends:

“And when I help bring that beauty out I feel at peace, because it matters not if my work gets ‘destroyed’ as hair grows again. As long as I’m true to a fraction of the essence of that person, my cuts would’ve helped to show her something good she had inside her, and as such, my work would forever live on them.”

Snapping out of his loud thinking monologue, he found Naoko attentively listening and thinking. Glad, the man leaned back on the mirror again and, once again on a louder voice as normal, he pointed out:

“You know, lady, maybe you’re too young to understand it now, but you seem genuinely interested in other people, so I believe someday, hopefully, you’ll come to realize it too. Not rationally, but deep within your heart. Youth, now as much as before, is easily swept by fame, and forget to see the qualities every person has. When your producer told me he’d be bringing an idol, I expected the worst. You know, in all humbleness, many famous people come here, especially idols, and with a few exceptions I always find it hard to see even the slightest glimpses of essence on them. They get so caught up on fame and on showing ‘their best side’ that they end up becoming… artificial. Their true beauty is fogged up by superficial, ephemeral beauty. Too much tatemae and not a sight of honne in those youths. To me, that’s sad.”

Tatemae and Honne were antagonizing concepts. Tatemae meant the public image one tries to be known by while Honne, meaning “true voice”, was the conjunction of the true feelings, ideas and standings of a person. People, especially in Japan, valued the tatemae on numerous situations and employed it to create the least amount of friction on their relationships, not rarely preventing themselves to tell what they truly feel in order not to bother others. It was a persona of sorts, covering up the shadowy inners of an individual. To let his true, deep voice be heard was a temerarious thing, one which Naoko had problems to comply. She, with her sporadic impetus to tell what really crossed her mind, was a very bad example of how people acted on the society. She was the exception, not the rule, and although Naoko usually got through her honne sprees unscathed, it was mostly because other people did their best to keep their tatemae and their cool. Even then, it’s generally something to frown upon. It could, at that time, be seen, for example, that the chief hairstylist, lost in thoughts and talks, was making clients wait, but despite probably not liking it, they kept their tatemae and acted like nothing was happening.

On the other hand, honne wasn’t just about bad things, and as much as Naoko used to express negative feelings, she was also true with the positive ones. What the hairstylist said about some young people not being true to themselves made Naoko think, though not before the man told her:

“Since it’s generally hard to see anything at all of essence in idols nowadays, I was happy to see a girl which I had such a clear vision of a fraction of the essence for once. I have a handful of idol clients which are just like you, and I find them to be good people. Hence, when you told me you didn’t understand the cut, I thought I had fallen for a false impression.”

“No, no! I love it, really.” Naoko insisted, “I’m just not an expert in hair styles, and I was surprised to see asymmetries looked good on me.”

“Did you have any doubts?” the man asked her, content, “Even after all you told me? A girl that loves games as well as keeping her nails long and pretty, that likes monsters as much as cute things, that takes care ever to be with her eyeliner but stays on computer all night long when she can and ends up with reddish eyes. You’re in the middle of your teens, so it’s expected lots of duality, but yours are just out of this world. So many conflicts, it just screams to be a main theme in your hair. If only I could see more… Well, in truth, all I ever see are glimpses. The beauty inside a person is always infinitely better than any attempt to recreate it. Such is the main source of pain for every artist, but it’s also fantastic to see that reality is always much bigger than we can comprehend. I gave you a fringe only because it represents the air of mystery that surrounds all the questions I still have left about you, and all the things about yourself that still seemed unclear even for you. It’s frustrating, actually, but even that frustration is a marvel in itself, like life is.”

It was something she kind of knew, but never thought of her conflicts as a part of herself. And to think a hair stylist would notice it was beyond all of her expectations. That man, whose touch appeared to reach deeper than others and leave that lingering electric feel, was really something else. Seriously impressed both by his work and by his keen senses, she inquired, on a bit of a hurry after noticing their conversation was making everyone else wait:

“It seems Matsushita-San has gone to such great lengths to understand everything he said that I’m about to start calling you Matsushita-Sensei. But, if you allow me one final question, what drives you to try and make the essence of people surface like you say? If you understood beauty is something that exists on everyone, why the need to take a peek at it and make it show up? I mean, it’s an awesome art, but if you already know beauty is there, why the frustration?”

The master looked down, puzzled. Slowly, he answered, uncertain:

“That’s a very deep question, young lady. I… don’t… think I’ve ever meditated about it before.” As a beam of excitement shone on his face, he began to mutter “Perhaps I still want to show something. Maybe not me, this much is clear, I think. But…” After a pause, he confessed in a low voice, “You know, not everyone’s born as you. Not everyone’s considered to be drop-dead gorgeous, and like I’ve said before, the physically attractive and the famous doesn’t nearly entice me anymore as it did in the past. When I was a kid I got under the impression I was really ugly, and it persisted throughout my life. I knew I had qualities, but people couldn’t see them, and thus they acted as if I had nothing good at all. The girls in my school acted as if I didn’t exist, if it means something to you. And since my family was poor, I blamed my father for cutting hairs of common people instead of aiming higher, making us rich and so on. I thought money would make people start noticing me more, and thus, increasing the chances they’d find what I was capable of. This much I already knew. Eventually I too started to believe I didn’t have any qualities at all, and I suffered a black, deep sadness for more than a decade and a half, even though my work helped me giving a reason to get out of bed every day, and little by little I fought to understand myself and get through it. Life went on, I discovered I had good aspects just like everyone else, but… thinking now, I… think I’m still trapped on the past on this aspect. Maybe… maybe I’m trying to help people not suffer the things I did. Like… showing them… they have qualities. They… and perhaps the others even more, since hair is something that’s easier for others to see than you, anyway. Hm…” Getting more excited by the minute, he concluded, “I’m very grateful for your insightful comment! No one, not even me, has ever noticed it before! I’m now eager for my nightly meditation like I wasn’t for a long time!”

Just when Naoko was getting sad by Matsushita’s story the man got even happier, causing some mixed feelings on the girl. She walked out of the saloon having only understood that what people called “oddity” in his way of being was just because the master hairstylist was self-conscious and true to himself. But all he’d said was just too much for the girl. She understood a few things, got very interested in the man’s past and noticed a few things he said resonated on her for some yet unknown reason, but it was too much information for her. Still, it was the best hair saloon experience she’d ever had! Oh, and she also got a stunning haircut to boot, which seemed more like a bonus than anything else. Talking with Aratani about how was the experience, the producer joked that he’d sent her there to get a new haircut, not to be the stylist’s psychologist, but if she did that again she should at least charge him as well.

One thing Naoko noticed was that for such a cramped, one-man company like The Paragon Idol Agency, Aratani was investing heavily. Just like the hairstylist’s saloon, the beautician clinic also screamed “poor people need not apply”. The girl always got mixed feelings about such places, and unlike the hair saloon where the owner was actually pretty humble, the beautician one had no such balancing grace. It was just a beautiful location full of people with noses pointed up high in the air. For as much as Naoko liked to experience everything at least once in her life – or at least “experience everything with some exceptions”, which made no grammatical sense but was totally comprehensible otherwise – a few things just repeatedly annoyed her. She loved astounding locales and high-quality products and provided services, and to be frank it was good to be pampered sometimes, but Naoko felt much better in simpler places. Mostly because she hated stuck-up people, like the ones these venues usually attracted. The girl actually felt bad every time she thought what other people would think about her if they saw her on such high-end places. Just as she disliked formalisms, she also couldn’t endure that kind of glamour, though Naoko didn’t know why exactly. It just occurred every time, a reason why she frequented small ramen shops, grocery stores and tiny, cozy family businesses in general.

Still, it was another probably pricey location with equally good results. The girl always took care of her appearance despite her happy-go-lucky nature, like going for a walk between the trees and the dirt in the mountain range but not without her makeup, and thought a beautician would not do much for her. Partially because she considered her skin and nails were already good enough, and also because Naoko didn’t have the habit to go to beauty centers, which she regarded as tossing money on the drain. Actually, her father was very critical of any behavior of her which showed esteem for her body. He considered it vanity, and was so strict that when Naoko started to apply makeup from her mother he got angry and made her brush it off with detergent. Then the stubborn girl reapplied it one hour later, and repeated the process, determined not to let the punishments get to her, until her father gave up.

The girl left the beautician clinic bored and annoyed by the chic and stuck-up atmosphere, but had to admit the results were excellent. Her skin was softer than a peach, cleaner than soap and felt even younger. Stray strands on her eyebrows were plucked off, every semblance of body hair on arms and legs was removed, all traces of dead skin and irregularities were eradicated from her lips and so on. Her nails, especially feet nails – to which the girl didn’t pay as much attention as that of her always exposed hands – received an overhaul and, while maintaining the natural color, got spotless and glossy like a pure snowflake. It wasn’t showy, both because Naoko would feel awkward and because school girls were prohibited or heavily discouraged, depending on the institution, to put on anything too extravagant, be it painted nails, colored hair, lipsticks and such. Naoko was just barely within tolerable limits using light eyeliners and almost non-perceptible makeup, if she used any more cosmetics she’d probably have problems when she went to class. On a side note, piercings and tattoos were taboo things and off-limits not only to school girls, but to every respectable and law-abiding member of society, with next to no exceptions – earrings being the most glaring one, a no-go to school girls but still accepted among adult women. Even foreigners, who generally weren’t expected to understand every nuance of the arguably complicated Japanese customs, were required to keep tattoos and body piercings as low-profile as possible. On more recent times a few taboos started to be questioned by newer generations, but it was long before any of those became unobjectionable.

The most awkward situation of the day was posing for a photographer, though. Since it wasn’t a photographic essay, but rather the production of a photo book to be sent to companies looking for a model for their ads, it was nothing more than a compilation of shots from different angles. She found herself in the middle of a room with a scenario covered in silk and nothing but a white sofa in the middle. On the outside of the set many reflectors, light bulbs and lenses focused on her, making Naoko immediately nervous. True to what Aratani told her, she was to wear everyday clothes and the poses, for the majority, were nothing she wouldn’t perform on stages anyway, but Naoko still felt tense.

The face and regular standing full body shots were simple enough, but initially the girl was so concerned that the photographer, while not announcing it, wasn’t even recording the images. The camera flashes were hollow in that no photos were being taken, and the first ten minutes just involved a warm-up. He started to amp the audacity level of the shots by requiring Naoko to perform gradually bolder poses. The girl was initially resistant to simply step on the couch with one foot or to sit down while looking away, wanting to believe in her producer but fearing the essay would get out of hand. She only gained confidence when the photographer, after asking her to lay down on her tummy, told her that was the most extreme pose she’d be asked for.

When the girl finally got comfortable, the man revealed her he didn’t take any photos due to her anxious facial expressions, and that they’d have to do it all again. That time Naoko let herself loose and, with the exception of the only two lying down poses, one on her back and the other facing down, all were natural and enticing enough to be taken in one or two tries. When the essay finished Naoko was just starting to have fun and regretted not having trusted in Aratani and enjoying the opportunity sooner. Sure, until she knew if her producer was really going to pay her up or attempt any last minute coup, she wouldn’t fully put her loyalty on him, but the more she knew that young man, the more she liked him.

It was past 9 p.m. when he took her to a shopping mall. The dazzling lights of the city by night slid over the black car hood and on her starry eyes as they approached downtown of some ward. The girl couldn’t quite tell which one of the many that compounded the Great Tokyo Area it was. The air was cool and the wind that blew through her open window caressed her hair. By Saturday night the city was brimming with the energy of people and beaming signs everywhere. Illuminated skyscrapers, car lights and street lamps glistened everywhere as far as one could see. It was a marvelous sight to behold, all those intense colors whirling as the car sped up or turned, leaving behind momentary, phantasmagorical tails made of pure light on her retinas.

Old-school neon lines fused with next-gen spots to illuminate towering facades, signboards abounding with manga-like drawn characters that announced products and establishments that had nothing to do with manga at all, subway entrances, vending machines on every corner, windows lit from inside and the silhouette of a million human forms. The radiance danced as haphazardly as odd, luminous kids playing. Naoko loved those spinning lights, way-out games and dizzy heights around her. It was so hypnotic that the girl could barely blink, thus making her eyes compensate the dryness by way of non-rolling tears that blurred her view, giving the surroundings an almost ethereal nature.

A huge digital board that covered the frontage of an enormous building reflected on the windshield flipping advertisements, most of them presenting dazzling women. Deviating his eyes from the road as the car came to a stop due to intense traffic, Aratani pointed it out to the girl:

“As much as our main goal is not to be a modeling agency, but rather to make you shine on the stages, we’ll have to put your face out there and at the beginning those kinds of ads sounds about right. Good dough and a decent promotion to make people familiar with you. And since we have to make it anyway, might as well go for a homerun. Who knows? Maybe next time you’ll be looking at yourself up there.”

Intimidated by the huge signboard and the prospect of being there, Naoko cringed.

“No way! People would see me there! I mean, lots of people!”

“Hm… that’s the point of ads, y’know?” Aratani, accelerating again, mentioned, “So?”

“So… it’d be very awkward! No, please don’t.” Naoko, suddenly getting cold feet, begged, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable at that.”

Her producer, raising an eyebrow, inquired why, but Naoko didn’t know the reason. She was just too afraid to let herself be seen up there. Thus, Aratani began to create hypothetical situations to test out scenarios and get why she was so terrified at the idea:

“Okay, figure this situation: a lot of people saw your image up there and everyone loved it. Every single one. Not loving the ad, but you specifically. Would Yano-San still be afraid?”

The girl gave it some thought. The idea of having a sea of people liking her made Naoko blush as a heat wave expanded through her chest. It was soothing. Her stomach still felt faintly cold, though, but many of her worries were taken away for a moment, before reality returned and brought concerns back with it:

“Yeah. If I somehow knew everyone loved it, I… think I’d be much more at ease.”

“How much more?” her producer insisted, “From zero to one hundred percent, where one hundred means you’d have no more grips whatsoever.”

“About…” Naoko dug into her feelings and her memory, pondering the warm sensation she experienced but also the small knot in her stomach, “…ninety percent, I think.”

“Well, that’s great news,” Aratani told her with a smile, “because then it’s probably just fear of rejection. Don’t worry, it’s only natural to be uncomfortable at the beginning when you’re still unsure how the public will react. Let’s solve this and then tackle that final ten percent, ‘k?”

“How’re you planning to solve this, anyway, Produ-San?” Naoko asked.

“By gradually making you understand people already love those ladies up there, and that you’re nothing short of them in any aspect.” Aratani replied. Naoko, blushing heavily, ordered:

“Why, you! Stop passing lines on me, at first it was funny but now I’m getting worried.”

With a cool but serious face and voice, her producer assured:

“No, Yano-San. First of all you know I only ever pass you pick-up lines as a joke. I’ve no intention of compromising our professional relationship, you have my word on it. And, secondly, this time I’m not joking with you. When I told Yano-San is on par with those girls, I meant it.”

Stopping the car at another intersection, he faced her, and by his eyes she could see the producer actually believed that. Getting shivers about the possibility of having a producer that overstated her beauty, Naoko replied doubtfully:

“I… don’t know what to say. I’m… grateful, but for once… I think you’re exaggerating. Those women have no visible flaws! Perfect legs with absolutely no cellulitis, and their lips…”

Laughing, Aratani stopped the daunted girl mid-sentence.

“Oh, I get it now! Listen, Yano-San, those girls are certainly marvelous, but they’re not like that in real life, I guarantee you. Every photo receives overhauls on image editors before getting spammed to the public eyes. On computer they enhance proportions, eradicate small flaws and such. Nowadays experienced photo editors can take any image, even that of an orange, and transform it into a drop-dead gorgeous lady, and I’m not even joking. I’ve seen videos of people doing this before, search the internet if you don’t believe me. They just use real women as models because it takes less time to give final touches and also because they exist on the real world. People can see them on signboards and then find photos of her on the web, see her on TV or get a glimpse of her on a catwalk or stage. They see how attractive that woman is on the ads, discover she’s real and think, ‘well, that product might actually work if there’s a real woman with those cellulitis free legs or dangerously welcoming lips. I’ll buy it!’ and bam! Products fly off the shelves. But in reality those girls have flaws, they have tiny accumulations of fat on unwanted points of her bodies and such. They’re people that bleed red just like you and me.”

Pointing with her open hand, palms down, to a big facial cream sign presenting a brunette beauty, he told her:

“Marketing nowadays sells illusions of perfection. If you’re not careful, you end up believing you’re forever inferior and in constant need of products to try and become like those eye-catching ladies and gentleman that populate the boards and labels. That’s how they sell their stuff: they want you to feel inferior. As if imperfections were a sin. You either believe in yourself or in the marketing of companies, and if you do the latter you’re screwed for life. They don’t care if you think you’re not worthy of others, or if you start believing you’re ugly, and they’re certainly not concerned if you develop a depression or worse.” Resting his arm on the door by his right side and his jaw on the corresponding hand while steering with the other, Aratani pleaded “I can show you how ads are made, and I can assure Yano-San is at least just as beautiful as any girl up there who is loved by every single soul on the masses, but I can’t believe in you on your place. Yano-San will have to trust me on that.”

The producer quickly glanced over to the girl. To his disbelief, she appeared sadder than before. As the man was about to try again making her believe in herself, Naoko told him:

“I understand. Thank you, Aratani-San.”

“Yano-San still seems preoccupied, though,” he noted, “Be frank with me, what’s bothering you, diamond girl? Still not convinced you’re as sweet as a peach?”

Forcing a smile, she denied it, declaring, actually feeling slightly better, but sensing the knot on her stomach get more painful:

“No, not anymore. Thank you, I understand now. It’s only that… I’m thinking. You know, hairstylist master Matsushita told me about his childhood. Those girls in his school didn’t even look at him, and he thought he was ugly. And that he faced a decade and a half of great sadness. People, even boys… and I think girls even more, take beauty very seriously. Those ads with unrealistic people, like you said, can really make a dent on everyone’s self-esteem. Not to say we start expecting a lot more from others too. I… can imagine many people suffer comparing themselves to those models. I… don’t want to be up there even if I can. Even if people would like me, I… wouldn’t feel right if I was responsible for making them sad. Depressed. Or worse.”

Sighing, Aratani told himself before proceeding:

“I should’ve kept my mouth shut. Yano-San, listen: it’s not you who’s going to make anyone sad. It’s the way marketing works. If you’re not up there, others will be.”

“Let them be,” she replied. “At least I’ll not be the one responsible for the suffering.”

“Like I said, you’re not responsible.” Aratani insisted, grave, “You’re doing your job. Other people have theirs. Don’t be like me: don’t be stupid. Don’t try to solve the problems of the world. Others are responsible for themselves. And, as I promised, you’ll only be doing it until we manage to create you a fan base. Then you’ll not be a model anymore, but an idol.”

“What’s the difference?” Naoko, disheartened, asked. “I’ll be just another 2,5D, unreal person in a real world, will I not?”

“You’re correct on the 2,5D part,” her producer said, while thinking feverishly for a way to lift her spirits again, “but there’s a major difference between being a model and being an idol. It has something to do with how they use their talents. Can you figure out what’s it?”

After thinking for a minute, the low spirited girl took a guess:

“That a model is nothing more than a pretty face while an idol puts a little bit less emphasis on beauty due to the dance and singing?”

“Well, that’s also true, but also not the main difference,” he insisted, “Naoko, think about all the idols you know. About their songs, their performances, what they do!”

“I… don’t know any idol.” The girl admitted, “I told you before. I never dreamed to be one, I… I’ve no idea how an idol’s supposed to be.”

With eyes wide open in disbelief, Aratani countered her argument:

“Wait, I thought that was just a hyperbole! If you never watched an idol or anything, how were you able to dance like that during the tests?”

Thinking for a second how to respond that, Naoko cautiously told him:

“I… Actually, it’s kind of a hyperbole. After I was… eight, I believe, I lost my interest in idols, but until then I… sort of liked it. There was I think two idol bands I liked. My mother actually found the few CDs I had of them and made me bring it. I vaguely remember seeing a few video clips and shows of them on TV. Of a band dancing at a sunny park and all. I believe that’s how I knew a move or two. As for the song I chose, I just like songs in general and knew it was from an idol, but I’ve no idea how to actually dance it.”

Driving into the parking lot of a colossal shopping mall, Aratani whistled in incredulity.

“Okay… Huh… Well, that explains why your choreographies were so different from what’s expected. But then, try to remember those bands. What you felt when listening to them?”

Closing her eyes, Naoko tried to find long forgotten memories. She got a few foggy glimpses of the past, about her watching on TV bands of girls in multicolored attires jumping and cheering big crowds in sunlit concert halls inside of parks. Naoko vaguely remembered herself lying down in front of the screen, loving the positive energy and wanting to be on a presentation like that one day, jumping with the crowd and having fun. As far as the girl recalled, the songs ranged in themes from romantic ones to those that reproduced the hardships of life and, the ones she liked the most, the crazy, fun and uplifting ones, but in general every song was amusing, light-hearted and made the audience enjoy the show.

Her memories, even if distant and fragmented, soothed her heart and made her feel some faint happiness. As she told it to her producer, he replied:

“That’s it. See, idols don’t exist to be another oppressive perfection model to follow. I’m not gonna lie, a few of them really lean on this road, but the majority keep true to the reason why idols, and anyone that sings, for that matter, exist: to make people happy. Even sad songs ultimately help people express their feelings, and it helps them overcome whatever burdens them. Yes, I know you can think there’s an idol industry whose objective is to make money, but people don’t listen to them because they like to give mega corporations their hard-earned cash. They do it because they like music, and idols can make them happy.”

Listening to Aratani and checking up her memories to see if it was true, Naoko’s eyes regained their gleam and hope. Her producer, finally finding an open lot, parked the car and turned the engine off before finally facing her. Being met with a high-spirited smile, he nodded.

“That’s my girl. Yano-San, I know you don’t like it, but we’ll need to cash in on ad revenue at the beginning. But I swear to you, I’ll do everything I can to make you leave it behind as fast as possible. Also, the people that’ll see you on whatever sign or product will be more willing to listen to your songs when they know you’re an idol, so you’ll be able to right any wrongs you think you’ve helped to create, and cheer huge crowds up. People can use some happiness, and Yano-San is a ticking positive energy bomb!”

Opening the door and leaving the car along with the upbeat girl, her producer summarized:

“You can’t cheer anyone up if you’re not happy too, so remember it well, Yano-San. People will be counting on your high spirits for joy. Let’s do our best to make it happen, alright?”

“Roger that, Produ-San!” Naoko agreed loudly.

Recovering her joyfulness, the vibrant girl combed the shopping mall like there’s no tomorrow. Aratani had trouble keeping up with the ecstatic teenager, marveled as she was to be in such a big place. All the shopping malls she’s been before paled in comparison to that one, with never ending corridors aplenty with the most varied stores. Apparently, it was too much to ask Naoko to focus on buying clothes, as she wandered inside bookstores, window-shopped every videogame store there was, got stuck in front of the cinema entrance and more.

Seeing the girl escape inside a game store, her producer followed her. Naoko’s sparkly eyes ran through every shelf, prompting the suit-clad young man to state:

“Yano-San appears to like videogames a lot. A little too much, actually.”

“What, is there a problem with it?” the girl reluctantly asked, suddenly getting worried “Don’t tell me… it’s something I’m not supposed to do, is it?”

Crossing his arms, Aratani dismissed it with a witty half-smile.

“Only if you play it for hours straight, and only not to destroy your eyesight. If Yano-San asks if there’s any problem from a business standpoint, the answer is no. Tomorrow at the office I’ll go in greater details through the dos and don’ts in order for an idol to maintain her public image, but playing games or be seen buying them bears no repercussion as far as I’m aware. Though, seriously, I know you told me you liked it, but I though girls had better things to do than waste their lives away in front of a TV.”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks for the reminder, dad.” Naoko sarcastically retorted, “I used to stay away from home for the entirety of my days, if you want to know. But when I came back, I liked to listen to music while watching a movie or playing a game for a few minutes. Like… three hundred or so.”

“That’s not a few minutes, that’s five hours!” Aratani argued, “You played that much?”

“More or less, depending on my disposition. And only on weekdays, at night,” Naoko answered, while running her glossy fingernails through the many boxes of games piled together on bins, “On weekends it wasn’t rare to make it double or so. I usually stayed out until late, and when I returned I stayed up all night playing or watching videos of people playing. Of course I didn’t do it every weekend, but it wasn’t rare either. Especially during winter. When I wasn’t with my friends, I was commonly locked up in my room, playing. What about you, Produ-San? Do you like videogames?”

Looking away from the shelves, the young man scratched his chin, replying:

“Nowhere near as much as Yano-San does, apparently.”

“Why?” she asked, teasingly “Surely you liked it when you were young.”

“I am young!” Aratani corrected her and rebut, pestering, “Twenty six is young by all standards except by those of stupid manga and brain-damaging videogames. You’ve spent too much time on virtual worlds, Yano-San, might want to go get your head checked by a doctor.”

Slapping his arm, Naoko protested:

“Videogames actually help develop many mental and brain abilities, you know!”

“Brain cancer’s not an ability, it’s a disease.” Aratani acidly remarked, prompting the girl to slap his arm again. Laughing, she insisted, “Really. Produ-San does like videogames, right?”

Thinking for a moment while looking at the shelves, the man stated:

“I never had a videogame of my own. I was raised on…” pausing for a second, he redid the sentence, “I grew up doing other things, playing sports and such. My family also didn’t have money to spare, so the only times I played games was on my friends’ houses. And, on rare occasions, on those… machines where you sit and pilot cars, or mash buttons and tilt a stick…”

“Arcades,” Naoko named it and tried to cheer him up, “That’s kind of sad, I never though a guy like Produ-San was poor once, but don’t worry! Naoko got you covered! I brought all my consoles, I can lend you one! Let’s find a game you like and you can play it when you’re bored!”

Despite telling her it wasn’t necessary, the girl started asking questions about his tastes, explaining the plots and mechanics of many titles to see if any piqued his interest and exploring the store after games she liked and though he’d too. She was so accustomed with her favorite local game stores in her hometown, where she knew everyone and talked freely about that pastime that Naoko didn’t even notice she was doing the same on a place no one knew her, and as such could be bothering someone. In reality, the customers weren’t really bothered as much as startled to see one of the few girls on the place actually knew very well what she was talking about. Aratani decided not to cut Naoko’s lecturing spree about one of her passions, she seemed far too content for him to spoil her fun.

“Hey, look,” the producer, suddenly getting interested about something, took on his hands a box he’d found and showed it to the girl. It was a game called “Idol Star System Generation V”, bearing the official logo of the I.S.S.G., a yellow five-pointed star with its tips rounded up, with one leg overlapped by three progressively smaller planets that appeared partially on top of each other forming a tail-like pattern. The biggest planet was blue, the second red and the smallest green. At the same time the astounded producer told Naoko that, the amazed girl excitedly shouted “Wow, look, Produ-San!” while presenting a game with a bad looking dude in leather garments, sporting a chainsaw-meets-rocket launcher kind of weapon over a gory background.

The sides of Aratani’s mouth twisted in disgust, and the man turned his attention back to the game he’d found. The cover art was divided in many small, tall hexagonal shapes, not unlike crystals, each one presenting a girl or a young woman. As he was reading the texts from the back Naoko suddenly appeared out of nowhere, startling him. The man, after recomposing himself, told her with a semblance of interest:

“I knew the I.S.S.G. licensed innumerous products, but it’d never occurred me they’d have an official game. And it’s already on the fifth edition! It appears many of the higher class idols make an appearance here somehow. Can you control their digital characters or what?”

Taking a glance at the game, Naoko explained:

“I never played this series before, but it’s clearly one of those dancing simulators where prompts appear on screen and your performance is based on your rhythm and precision. You don’t really control the characters, although by the looks of it they react depending on your inputs. Like fumbling or getting a step of the dance right. Seems boring if you ask me, but it’s just because I don’t really like this kind of games. Not enough gratuitous violence, you know?”

“But if they’re on the ninth edition, it must be a commercial success, right?” Aratani asked. “People probably buy those games, I assume?”

Taking the copy from his hands and reading the bullet-point listing on its back, she said:

“Probably. Let’s see… ‘Test your mettle on five difficulties’… ‘more than fifty licensed songs and fifteen real stages’… ‘seventy-five world-class idols to choose from’… yada-yada-yada… Ah! Yup, I imagined it. ‘Customize your favorite idol with more than two hundred pieces of clothes and accessories’. Turns out you get to dress the girls.” Naoko’s eyes became unimpressed and half-open. On a cynical voice she retorted “Yup. You can bet this series sells pretty well.”

“Dress them? That’s… unexpected.” Aratani commented, shocked, “I… thought at first it’d be a good idea for you to appear on it should we get to reach the higher levels in the star system, but… yeah, no way. I wonder, in legal terms, how they were able to circumvent graphic issues, especially with minors on the cast… I know there’s a legal loophole about it when it’s related to fictional characters, but… I wonder if a virtual representation of a real person counts as fictional. Hm… I wonder.”

“To be fair it’s probably not as extreme as I made it seem…” Naoko disclaimed ,“Games like such tend not to allow players to completely undress the characters, and this game is rated for ages ten and up, so it clearly shows nothing extreme. Knowing what these kinds of games are capable of, I’d still bet a good number of clothes are kinky costumes ranging from sailor suits to bunny attires, but nothing else. Though I’d definitely pass on featuring here even if I could.”

“Oh. Still, that’s a relief to know there’s nothing over the top here.” Aratani told her. Suddenly he got a small grin, one that Naoko already knew it meant the guy was about to tease her. Just as he started to say “But wouldn’t it be a treat if…” the girl quickly sent him flying with an uppercut and interrupted him, yelling “Shush!”

In the end, no games were bought that day, keeping true to the producer’s budget, but it didn’t detract from the fun in the slightest. After that teasing talk Naoko got wary of buying clothes with her producer, but the man left the choices of attire for presentations and two for everyday life up to the girl. As long as it attracted attention, looked tasteful and didn’t blew his bank account it was good. The girl started to visit stores for casual wear and costume stores looking for something that would cut.

The problem that soon became clear to Aratani was that Naoko’s choices of attires were completely nonsense. Going in and out of fitting rooms, every time was a veto from the young man. On one instance, she appeared wearing comfy navy-blue pants and a shirt with a happy panda, prompting Aratani to ask her “Are you going to the stage or to bed?”. Next it was happy, unmemorable girl next-door wear. After that, unmemorable ten-year-old brat time. Then, Naoko appeared wearing a full green bipedal, dinosaur-like monster costume with just her face appearing out of its tooth-riddled mouth and a pair of eyes looking at opposite directions. Giving himself a face palm, her producer interjected “The fuck is this?”

“It’s Kamijira!” explained Naoko, beaming, while parading with arms flailing and spinning its long tail around. “Or Kamizilla, if you’re the international type! It’s an old-school lizard-turned-monster by radiation that destroyed cities and stomps people, but also poses as a guardian against other radioactive creatures that…”

“I know what a goddammit Kamijira is!” Aratani exclaimed, “What I want to know is why’s my idol wearing a stupid Kamijira costume when she was supposed to find a stunning, attention drawing wear! And not this kind of attention! Get back there already and grab something nice for once!”

With puffy cheeks, the disappointed, crestfallen Kamijira girl slowly dragged her thick, alligator-like tail back to the fitting room while mumbling “Kamijira’s not stupid, I like Kamijira…”

All her attempts to choose a garment invariably ended in failure. All the clothes she chose were too plain, despite the joyful, lively colors. Eventually Aratani called her out:

“Yano-San, what’s going on? It’s as if you’re trying to dress to blend in the crowd rather than to make your presence be noticed.”

“What? Really?” Naoko asked. Looking down to her stripped t-shirt and blue denim skirt, she mentally revised all outfits she’d chosen, mentioning “I… haven’t thought about it. I…”

The instant she imagined herself standing out on the crowd, her heart pumped faster. She experienced both a surge of excitement, as if she’d been looking for it for long, and fear, imprecise to the point where it was almost impossible to tell what she’s scared of. By her blushing, smiling and breath-taken reaction, though, her producer could more or less risk a hunch:

“Let me guess, Yano-San would love to catch the eyes of all around but fears it as well?”

Though not verbally agreeing, Naoko slowly and timidly nodded. Sighing, her producer tucked his hands on his pocket and told her:

“Alright, let’s give it a break. Wanna grab a bite somewhere and call it a day?”

Looking surprised, Naoko asked him if it wouldn’t compromise their schedules, but the man told her it’d be just a minor setback to go shopping some other day. Besides, it’d be bad to try and force a garb on her that Naoko wasn’t still comfortable wearing.

Eventually settling down on a table in the food court, Aratani changed subjects to others, unrelated to work, like her expectations for school, but the girl couldn’t forget her producer’s words about her choices of vestments. With a few exceptions just for kicks, she actually thought the dresses and clothes she’d chosen were provocative, but when the young man mentioned she was trying to blend in the crowds rather than stand out, she immediately noticed it was true.

To complicate matters, every time she’d walked past a shop window with appealing, detail-rich and boldly designed multi-tiered miniskirts and faux leather shorts, high-heeled boots, vest-blouses, high-cut tops and slim tees, skinny jeans, knee-high and up stockings, platform sandals and shoes, frilled bonnets and such her heart accelerated. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to wear those articles, she noticed. On the contrary, it was clear for Naoko the urge to see how she’d look like wearing those things, but it required far too much bravery for such.

Returning to the old topic and telling Aratani that, the man laughed it out:

“What? The girl who have no qualms talking her mind out to strangers, facing her father, moving to Tokyo alone, owning the hairdressing saloon and every game store she enters doesn’t have the courage to wear a bonnet? That’s rich, Yano-San.”

“Yeah. Hey, Produ-San? It’s okay to call me Naoko if you want,” she casually allowed, smiling from what she’s heard. Putting things that way, it was ridiculous. It obviously wasn’t a lack of courage that prevented the adventurous and impulsive girl from choosing high-profile dresses. Maybe it was because…

“I don’t know why I’m so afraid. Like Produ-San said when we’re talking about the ads models, maybe… maybe I’m just not confident that I can… be kind of… okay.”

To praise oneself was a hard thing to do and one Naoko was awful at, but the euphemisms were clear enough to Aratani, who not only understood it but keenly remarked in his common, unabashed, matter of fact, poker faced straight way:

“You don’t need to be humble on this subject, Yan… I mean, Naoko-San. You’re not “kind of okay”, you’re hotter than hot. And no, I’m not joking, teasing you or anything now. Like I told you the first time we met, you’d be a bad liar if you told me you’ve never noticed other people mentioning your beauty. No, my bet is that you’re fully aware of that, only you don’t feel comfortable about it. Deep down, you probably like to be praised, and this isn’t a flaw. Everyone likes it, admitting or not. And I’m not talking just about looks here. People like when others notice they’re smart, or how hard they worked on something. Actually, looks are something people are born with, so it’s not really a merit of Naoko to be pretty, or at least your merit is just not screwing up what your parents gave you. But on the other hand, it’s no shame being beautiful either. It’s not like you chose to be born like that, or you stole another person’s beauty or anything. At least not if don’t believe in religions, and even if you do, for example, follow Buddhism’s conception of existence, your prettiness would still be chalked up to good karma, so in one way or another you deserved it. But let’s chance focus: what if instead of admiring your beauty, I praised something you actually worked for and earned, like your incredible skills and ample useless knowledge on those brain disabling videogames? How would you feel about it?”

Caught unguarded by Aratani’s ironic speech, Naoko burst in laughter. Irony wasn’t that much of a commonly employed comical resource in Japan, and it showed the girl her producer was well-versed in international standards just like her. Since the national culture emphasized non-attrition with others and sarcasm was based on flashing out negative characteristics with a twist, not only it was a foolhardy art but people, not usually accustomed to it, would not always understand it, much less appreciate it. But as Naoko have told him during the job interview she liked international movies, games, stories, videos and such just as much as she liked those of her home country, the young man presumably knew she could understand and appreciate it, and took a chance. True to his gut feeling, the girl found the eventual use of irony as fun as him.

After some consideration and laughing over the producer’s question, Naoko told him:

“Produ-San’s right. I liked when my friends noticed I was good playing my so-called ‘useless, brain disabling’ games. In fact, it was a common thing to hear, but maybe not because I’m so good at it. More often than not it was because of that misconception that women don’t play games, or at least not games with adventures, violence and such. Or, when they play, the guys immediately assume they’ll perform horribly, so anything you do right grant you lots of praises, as if you’ve completed a sixty-hour long game in ten minutes using just your left foot, while blindfolded and upside down.”

“You said they usually praise your skills because your friends expect nothing from a gaming girl,” Aratani highlighted, “but are you sure of it or you just believe so?”

Not comprehending what he’s trying to say, Naoko exemplified her point of view. She and two male friends used to meet on the living room of the house of a boy to play. It was common to do it back then, since one of her friends was the son of a small game store owner. She met him because of the frequency she went there to play videogames and trading-card games. Since his house was in the back of the store, she and a few people sometimes dropped by after purchasing something. For as much as the boy liked games, his father was the real enthusiastic there.

Still, the trio had the habit of watching internet videos related to the gaming community, both national and from abroad, especially speedruns – a kind of modality of e-sports where people generally aimed to complete a game in various categories in the lowest possible time. Speedrunning events were a blast for Naoko and the other two, many involving people meeting on a room or theater to watch a few speedrunners getting together on a couch and tackling the games like Chinese Kung-Fu masters, with moves as fast as lightning, expert timing and employing a mind-numbing arsenal of carefully trained techniques to bend the laws of the virtual worlds and achieving seemingly impossible times. Many of the international players, especially, commented and made jokes during the presentations, generally making the experience even more enjoyable than just watching a person zipping through a game. It was so fun that when her two friends introduced Naoko to the speedrunning community, she immediately proposed they got together from time to time to play and have fun like the professional speedrunners seemed to have. Though at first it felt awkward to meet a couple of guys on the house of a boy to play, it soon became second nature. When rainy Sundays occurred, they often hanged out there.

One day, while they were playing a gory fighting game, another friend of the store owner’s son arrived at the shop, and was promptly invited to the gaming party. Naoko didn’t know that boy three years older than her, and no sooner he saw her there he became as pale and rigid as ice. Her two friends, already knowing how Naoko played, just for fun pitted her against the newly arrived boy. At first he seemed skeptical, though not trying to show it off, and out of courtesy let her choose her fighter first. By the time Naoko had forsaken the female, pretty characters in favor of a badass, fiery ninja from hell the boy should’ve noticed something was amiss, and two rounds later, after a massacre, he watched dumbfounded as his character fell flat before managing to get more than two hits on the opponent.

The guy was so ashamed when he turned and found her bright smile it was like he’d disgraced his family’s name on a public scandal, rather than having simply lost a match. It took him three hours to recover his speaking capabilities, and only after everyone on the room told him repeatedly it’s okay, that they knew she was as good as anyone else there. From there on, though, the new acquaintance started to overdo it, praising every minor thing she did right and trying to find ways to put the blame of her multiple failures on adverse conditions and buggy game mechanics.

“For as much as I like it when people acknowledge my skills, it gets annoying after a while if they constantly do it for everything. It’s as if they didn’t expect me to be able to jump a stone, even after seeing me do it numerous times before. Things they wouldn’t praise if it’s a boy playing. I know they mean well, but it just screams that they act as if I’m a baby or something. And even my friends that already know well how I play sometimes fall back to this pattern. Now that I think of it, the people on other activities I do, physical ones mostly, also act like this from time to time. I think to be praised is kinda cool, but being overpraised gets old quickly.”

Grinning, Aratani honestly told her:

“Heh, you’ve no idea how much I’d like to be praised so easily. But back to the subject of attires: it still feels good to be praised as long as you think you deserve it, right?”

“Hm… right,” Naoko agreed, “Perhaps that’s why I feel uncomfortable thinking about using those kinds of clothes. Maybe… I don’t feel like I… deserve it somehow?”

“Or maybe you’re afraid of being overly praised and getting too much attention,” her producer hinted, as if he more or less knew what was going on the girl’s mind even though she did not. “Did anything Naoko-San really disliked used to occur when you’re admired back then?”

“Something I really disliked?” Naoko repeated, “No. Nothing that I can recall. There’s no harm in being praised for playing games well, I think.”

“Yeah, but try not to focus on games anymore. When you’re overpraised about anything, be it a skill, your beauty, something you did, school grades, whatever, did anything bother you?” Aratani insisted, and this time the girl fell into deep silence, chowing down her food as she pondered. While skills, acts and grades rang no bells, the moment Aratani mentioned again the subject of beauty, a few memories crossed her mind. The first time she put on eyeliners was one, as her father rebuked her, and her repeatedly rebuttal of his authority happened at a time when she was fed up with his censorship.

The first time she showed him how cute she was on a school uniform, before her first day in school, he forced a smile but seemed preoccupied. When Naoko found out beaches were fun and decided to buy swimwear in accordance, he had a long, night argument with her mother on why had she allowed Naoko to buy what he considered to be an overly-revealing bikini instead of a plain swimsuit (even though the bikini was nothing out of the ordinary). The only clothes she knew she could wear without making her father sour were pants and t-shirts made of materials that didn’t easily accommodate to the body shape. Since summertime was usually blistering hot, pants were out of question, and when Naoko gave up the long skirts in favor of shorts her father protested. Mini shorts were another pain to be marginally allowed. If someone told him during a festival how beautiful his daughter was he usually looked less than happy than other girls’ parents appeared to be when receiving similar compliments. Yoshirou eventually accepted every one of those things, but not without resenting, worrying and making his daughter feel bad.

Just like a non-operational analogic watch with a dislodged tiny gear that, when put in place, makes the whole machine jump back to life, something suddenly clicked in Naoko’s mind. Naoko was complimented a lot based on her appearance, and every time she was praised, it hurt the girl to see her father begrudge her for never explained reasons. Instead of feeling good, every sign of another person’s admiration became unbearable. As if it was something to be ashamed of, as if Naoko did something wrong. Sinful. And since the more she grew up, the more compliments her father received or noticed other people wanted to do about Naoko, the worse the tension escalated.

Thinking like that, it was no wonder her attrition home increased year after year. Also, Naoko had no control over it except to wear the most unassuming clothes she had to try and make people stop looking at her. Even then, the first opportunity she had to go to Tokyo, she picked in her wardrobe just her best outfits. It was a delight to be able to walk in shorts without her father censoring her, and the warm feeling she had on her chest when she saw a mesmerizing set of clothes could be nothing different from freedom and desire. It started to make even more sense to the girl why she wanted to be as far away from her parents as possible, too: her father not only used to censor her about a supposedly positive trait she had, but an uncontrollable one, meaning she was at fault simply because she existed. It was the same as hating someone’s guts because of race, skin tone or country of origin, things over which people had little or no possibility to alter, and which even if they could, they’d be going against who they were just to please someone else. It was racism. In her case, a strange form of it.

To reproach someone because she was deemed beautiful had the increased effect of being unorthodox and hard to tell. As such, it’s also hard to fight against. Why would someone dislike his own daughter because she had a positive trait? It was the opposite of the hairstylist master’s supposed ugliness, because he felt isolated from others whereas people actively tried to get on the good side of Naoko, but since at home she felt just as lonely, it was just a matter of how many people was being mean. Maybe being considered ugly could still be worse, she thought, but the one person that silently admonished her was also her own father, one of the two most important figures in her life. The more Naoko thought about it, the more she relived her rages at Shimabara that earned her rebellious fame, even though she was far from the anarchist her father probably painted her out to be.

She couldn’t buy nice clothes because she was afraid of what her father would say, and most of the time she was seen with boys – which was often – Yoshirou was displeased. Her only two boots were a yellow rubber one, to be used on mud and water, and an ankle high one with a small, squared heel that she bought on a rebel splurge. Not only was the boot plain and much less impressive than usual footwear her female friends had, but her father cut her allowance for four months because of it. He only receded when the girl threatened to find an arubaito at a local konbini a friend of hers worked (also, remembering this made her understand why she had high hopes of finding a part-time job at convenience stores during spring break at the capital).

Even her short pajamas, used during scorching summer nights by her inside her own house while locked up in her room, fazed him beyond what would be reasonable. He was so strict with the girl, and she received so much more acclaim based on her looks than on her smarts, that her father probably thought she was nothing more than a pretty face, to the point where her high grades, computing skills and all the knowledge the curious girl have amassed meant little or nothing to him. If she got a good grade on a test, he dismissed it to the possibility some boy have given her the correct answer. The more Naoko thought about it, the more she began to notice how paranoid her father was sometimes, even if on the surface he seemed an everyday guy.

Initially that thought hurt her a great deal. To put her own father under such a perspective was something no child who loved their parents would willingly do without having suffered a lot beforehand. But that also broke some invisible chain that tied her to a big burden. For the first time she could really think the problem was not on her, but on her father’s view of her. That people like Aratani existed, people who didn’t act as if her beauty was essentially sinful or wrong, since the girl was quite modest about it. Looking back, Naoko could actually have acted like the sexy and devious lady her producer once joked about. Of course, being a teenager, she’d have only gone so far anyway, but she’d numerous opportunities to shatter hearts if she’s into it and could do so even with only words. She could, but it wasn’t something that made sense to her personality and to her own heart. She wasn’t an angel, but neither was she a demon. She just wanted to be herself without feeling guilty. Was it to ask too much? For her father not to understand it, he had serious issues believing in his own daughter.

That was eye opening. Thinking back, it suddenly made sense to Naoko why she didn’t want to be featured in ads. The thought of hurting others due to her beauty wasn’t something out of the blue. That was what happened in her old home, she frequently tried not to upset her father until she could bear it no more. Then she’d go berserk, only to later feel guilty about it, try to mend things she wasn’t really responsible for breaking and restarting the vicious cycle. But Naoko knew many boys and girls. She knew everyone had their problems, just not exactly that kind of paranoia her father presented. Naoko also wanted to believe her father was a good person too, and that he didn’t want to feel that way about his daughter. He blamed her, yes, and didn’t notice he was the one creating the issue, but certainly no one wants to suffer and he wouldn’t, of course, do such things if he could avoid it. For all of the mistrust and pain he caused her – and prompted her to pay him back and feel guilty about it – the girl found she could forgive him.

At the same time, though, understanding the problem was on his eyes, not on her, made Naoko lighter than ever. Freer than ever. Wasn’t it the whole point of moving to the capital in the first place? The “ten percent” block that seemed more like ninety-nine percent of the fears that kept her from allowing herself to get on ads and wear non-Kamijira costumes and boring attires subsided. Aratani seemed already to have that conviction when he told her it wasn’t her fault, just her job, and that the others were responsible for themselves. Her producer told her not to be ‘stupid’ like him and trying to solve the problems of the world, which the girl understood just now it meant that the only one capable of changing a person’s mind and solving its issues is him or herself. Just to understand she wasn’t a walking sin was a huge relief.

Snapping out of her trance with the answers she sought after, she found herself back on the gradually emptier, but still huge and fabulous mall, in front of her already cold leftovers and of her producer who silently stood by her, respecting her need to dive into herself.

“So?” Aratani finally spoke “Back from Wonderland, I see. Let’s go, Alice?”

“I want to resume shopping!” Naoko stated with a determination she hasn’t shown before.

In a half-smile, Aratani congratulated her decisiveness, though mentioning:

“Now I like the look in your eyes, Naoko-San! But I hate to break your fun. Mall’s closing.”

“W…wait, what?!” the girl abruptly stood up and examined her surroundings, getting disappointed. Her producer, keeping his cool, got up too and suggested:

“Now, now, remember what I told you about keeping your high spirits. Tell you what: why don’t you go thinking about what you’d want and tolerate wearing, and we come back tomorrow after our morning meeting?

Raising a fist and smiling back with conviction, the girl happily nodded.

 

She hadn’t noticed how tired she was until she reached her dorm room. She had woke up three and a half by dawn, made her way to another city to take a flight to Tokyo, settle down in her new place and went to many appointments, all in one day. Aratani had previously mentioned, while he took her back to the dormitory building, that the first few weeks would be intense due to how many new things she’s supposed to get used to, but despite feeling drained, Naoko was happier than she ever remembered being. In the capital she felt free to go wherever she pleased. After getting the cookies to her not yet known and kind of nice fifth floor neighbors, she closed the door, briefly called her parents to tell them everything was okay and free she was.

Her room was her sanctuary. She found pure harmony in the fact that no one could disturb her there. If she wanted to play videogames all night long, provided she had the energy to it, she could. If she decided on subsisting on a diet of instant noodles, she’d do it until the day she died of high blood pressure and lack of nutrients. But she’d die a happy and free girl. If she wanted to wear anything, or kick back just in panties, or wear nothing at all, it’d be totally okay – as long as the windows were closed. If she wanted to masturbate on the shower thinking on nothing but how she should’ve moved way before there’d be no need to do so silently, worrying others could hear her, because there was no annoying other there.

The only recollection she had of when she was three or four years old was the first time she discovered that touching certain parts of her body or rubbing it against her teddy bear’s muzzle felt indescribably good. As a teenager Naoko’s only unreasonable fear was of wrapped gifts and teddies, with their beaded, pursuing eyes, but at that time she wasn’t so. And when the innocent kid went to show her discovery to her father, like children love to do whenever they find something good, he was horrified and scolded her in such a harsh and terrifying way, his face so red and his voice so loud, that she got afraid even to see him for a few days. Kids see no evil in such things and genuinely believe they need to share nice discoveries with those they love, and to be faced with an overwhelming act of censorship, as if it was evil incarnate, made for a cruel welcoming to society’s arbitrary codes. It’s so traumatizing she remembered nothing but his severe reprimand. Yet another example of a practice considered sinful by social standards despite being a natural drive probably everyone had.

Of course, it was an absurdly taboo topic, but it wasn’t a fairy tale she lived in. She was a person like anyone else and no matter how well this secret was kept, it was still part of her. Living alone for the first time, she couldn’t imagine a single person, male or female, that wouldn’t eventually think about this kind of freedom. It was just as vital as, say, the freedom to let dishes accumulate on the sink for days until it became unbearable to watch! Or the one about letting unfolded clothes all over the entire place. Or not cleaning the floor religiously every day. Things that kids learned in school and with their parents, and that they followed. But there’s a time in everyone’s life where it’s a must to go against such rules, even if just once. And for many, that time’s when they finally get to live by themselves. Naoko didn’t want to live in an unclean and messy place, of course, but it wasn’t about actually letting dishes accumulate. Rather, it was about being able to let it happen if she so desired. That was awesome!

As the girl came out of the bathroom, smelling soapy and checking on the mirror if her hair could still regain the stylish shape of when it was cut, she tucked herself under the dragon-stamped duvet and clung to the wall, like she always did. It gave a sense of protection and well-being that was too good to pass on. Interestingly, she also felt more relaxed and guarded there, on a dorm room surrounded by a huge metropolis full of people she didn’t know, than she felt on her parents’ home. Also her dorm’s shower was better, since the one from her old house was old and some of the holes from where water should pass got clogged. Repeatedly cleaning it with a needle bent them, meaning the water jets fell randomly around instead of straight down. On her parents’ home the walls took better baths than the girl, a thing that didn’t occur on her dorm.

So exhausted she was, there was barely no energy left to flip lights off. When she got on the plane, she told herself the first night in Tokyo she’d spend awake, enjoying her new room and playing with impunity, but reality was different and Naoko, hugging part of the duvet, immediately crashed down into a deep slumber, unconsciously smiling in peace.

Chapter III – Into the Idol Star System Generation

 

“Let’s get down to business, then,” Aratani began talking as soon as he managed to get to his chair. His room was only marginally less messy then the last time Naoko was there and the introduction of a censer just so the girl could stop telling the place reeked of cigarettes and alcohol – which the man still thought was a bluff – was a waste of space.

“If you told me you’re trying to repel spirits I’d believe, but to cleanse smoke and sake smells with that? You must be joking,” Naoko previously commented. It was only tolerable because, even though the cigarette odor was very pronounced, because the same could not be said for the sake part. It was even hard to tell from what kind of drink it was – the word “sake” usually just meant any kind of alcoholic beverage, since the national name for what outsiders called the rice-fermented beverage was ‘nihonshu’, or “Japanese wine”. And it certainly smelled stronger than Japanese wine, though faintly. Maybe whiskey or similar. Naoko knew nothing about alcohol and had only secretly tasted it twice as far as she could remember (except for liquor-filled chocolates), so it wasn’t a surprise she couldn’t discern the beverages that compounded the unpleasant fragrance. Also, she only knew her producer smelled of men cologne because he’d driven her there, because on his room she couldn’t even notice it.

The young man, turning his computer screen so Naoko could see a list in it, said:

“Since you told me you know barely anything about idols I’ll go over the main dos and don’ts and explain you how it’ll work. I’ll give you a canvas so Naoko can put all her schedules there. I’ll try to keep away from your weekdays as much as possible since you’re required to attend school and also perform well on it. At the beginning it won’t be too hard to stay away from your Mondays, Tuesdays and so, just bear in mind that once you achieve greater status I’ll notify you for opportunities during weekdays, like interviews and special presentations. We’ll meet here on my office every Sunday morning, and for starters this will suffice. Also I’ll tell you this right now: vacations are golden times for idol business, so I apologize in advance for that, but we’ll wind up working doubled at a time students like you are supposed to be chilling out. On a positive side, it means a lot more cash for us and visibility for you, so please endure it. So far, so good?”

Until then there was nothing Naoko didn’t already know. Also the list Aratani presented her was one in the I.S.S.G.’s official website. She’d already skimmed over it before.

The man began explaining what an idol was expected to do or not do. The do part was pretty straightforward, like attending to appointments, dedicating herself to constantly improving, keeping relationships with fans light and good but also not too close and such. It was nothing anyone wouldn’t be expected to do in any other job. Also the majority of topics on the don’ts list were nothing more than common sense, like don’t disrespecting clients and fans, don’t dwelling in illicit or shameful activities and so on. Idols were apparently supposed to refrain from smoking, gambling and drinking, the last of which being just barely tolerable in social situations, and only in strict self-control, but again, since Naoko was sixteen it was already off-limits to her anyway. A few of the lines in the list required some attention, though.

The most worrisome paragraph stated it was unadvised that idols were seen alone with men in situations that could be misinterpreted. Though it wasn’t a rule, and Aratani had a few exceptions of idols who actually had publicly known boyfriends or were mothers, it was a rarity. In general, the career of a girl could be tarnished or even destroyed if the public thought the idol had romantic relations with a man, and since it was only required indirect proofs for tabloids to prey down on celebs, a photo of an idol holding hands with a boy or whispering something to him was enough to start a ruckus. It obviously depended on how famous the girl was and how was her image constructed, among other things.

“For example,” Aratani showed Naoko a pie chart and explained it in such an ironic, straight way that made it clear he thought the data was next to absurd, “a recent study on tarnished reputations showed a few interesting data on the topic of constructed images. Girls whose public images were categorized as ‘sadistic’, ‘dominatrix’ ladies took a negative impact of twenty eight percent of official fan base and forty seven percent in accrued revenue on short term, on average. Also, all of them were able to keep their careers as idols. On the other hand, girls presented as ‘cute’ and ‘pure’ took a blow of eighty one percent on fan base and ninety seven percent on revenue accrued on the subsequent year of the scandal on average, and sixty percent of them were publicly disgraced to the point where they had to abandon their careers, or whose agency decided to terminate their contracts on a just cause. Idols in categories such as ‘serious’, ‘tsundere’, ‘mature’ and ‘timid’ were found in-between the two extremes.”

“I… don’t know what to make out of this information…” Naoko said, cringing.

“If by ‘make out of this information’ you mean what the public’s thinking…” Aratani replied, calmly, “I think it means fans get more lenient if they think idols are whipping or trampling other people instead of kissing and expressing love and affection through other means. But then it’s a public mental health issue, not an idol industry one. If you mean you’ve no idea on how to proceed, either bring your dog lash and love for someone else’s pain to the stage, or keep the low-profile altogether when alone with boys. I’d suggest the second course, unless of course you’re the kind of…”

“One more word and you’ll be swallowing your own teeth.” Naoko warned him.

“Oh, Naoko-Chan really is the first type! Good, good! The public will love you.” Aratani mocked her, making the tense girl giggle and unwind. “No, seriously, Naoko-San, I can’t stress this enough: don’t ever be seen alone with a man in suspicious way. It’ll only become a concern after you’re quite famous, so we’re a long ways off, but please be careful.”

“But then…” the girl replied, “I’ll have to evade boys from now on?”

“Eh… no.” her producer answered, “see, the keywords here are ‘alone’ and ‘suspicious’. Try not to be alone with a boy, but if you must, don’t fret. If the situation is okay, like if you’re on a train with a schoolmate or something it’s okay. By ‘suspicious’ I really mean anything tangible that can make the dirty minds of a few fans create fantasies. Just don’t eat the same ice cream, hold hands, whisper close to his ear, hug him, kiss him or anything like that. Also don’t worry, I’m a lawyer and I can debunk anything the tabloids throw at us as long as it’s not unquestionable evidence. Also, a few points to help you out: being with female friends, even alone, is okay. Apparently you can do whatever you want with other girls and the public won’t so much as bat an eye, so feel free.”

“Ew! Stop it!” Naoko interjected in disgust.

Grinning for a while, Aratani kept going without replying to that:

“Also, if you’re in a group with at least one other girl, you’re fine. If there are three or more boys following you people tend to chalk it up to invasive fans and you’re also scot-free. If you’re on your school uniform, as long as you’re not performing suspicious acts you can also pass unscathed to staying alone with another boy also wearing school uniform in public areas. You’re even allowed to eat ice cream in this case! Sure, not the same cone.”

“Yay.” Naoko remarked on the most unexcited voice she could harbor.

“Yeah, I know you’re beaming with happiness.” Her producer wittily stated, “Anyway, your best bet is to have a female friend with you. Second one, large groups. Third: your armor, the school uniform. Forth, don’t be suspicious around boys if you’re alone with them. Finally, if everything else fails, you can be okay as long as you can prove nothing happened. Hard?”

“Hm… Just a little.” Naoko, thinking for a moment, replied “Alright, it’s okay. But tell me one thing: if idols are not to be seen with men as such, they essentially can’t fall in love?”

Scratching his nape, her producer thought for a moment before responding:

“How can I say that in a way that won’t make you worry?”

“Don’t mind sugarcoating your words, I’m not going to eat them,” Naoko insisted, and the man, laughing from her creative way of pressing him for the truth, said:

“I liked your phrase, I think I’ll use it myself. Okay, Naoko-Chan wants the truth? Short answer is: no. Long answer is: it depends. Like I told you, there are a rare few who has boyfriends or are mothers. It depends on numerous factors, and I didn’t study those cases in-depth to understand how they’re able to pull this off. From what I understand, the reason the fans don’t appreciate an idol having romantic relationships is the jealousy. Idols are 2,5D in the sense that they serve as good screens for people to project their fantasies on, just like a silver screen receives the projections of a movie. So fans in general might dream that the idol they go through so much pain to support is theirs. Almost like a divine muse, untouchable in nature, even though they like to think about the ones below twenty as girls-next-door. I think that’s why they feel betrayed if the girl is seen having a romance with another person. But note that this mostly applies to men. I don’t know if that’s the case, but maybe those idols with boyfriends appeal mainly to a female audience who thinks them more as how they wanted to be than anything else. Another assumption is that these idols either appeal to a broader audience that don’t really care much for the fantasy part, or they somehow manage to keep their songs as the main attraction, prompting people to see them more like regular songstress than anything else. I don’t really know. Also it’s important to see who their boyfriends or husbands are and if their agencies have any special connections to the media so that tabloids paint their relationships in a good way. Every now and then there are a few trends like that too. There’s so much that can influence it that it’s hard to precise. So yes, it’s technically possible, but it’s so rare nowadays it’s almost non-existent, and this should act as a warning for Naoko. Why the question? Do you have anything on your mind?”

Relieved about hearing that, the girl retorted:

“No, it’s nothing. I was just afraid, since I actually enjoy the friendship of boys a lot, that I could be endangering my career.”

“Well, it’s slightly risky, but there’s one thing we can do to almost negate risks.” her producer suggested, “If we work your image right off the bat as a girl who likes games, manga and all those stupid things you do like, things that stereotypically boys also like, and we be frank from the get go with the media that you’re such a blast in those things that boys like to be with you just for the sake of those pastimes, I think you’ll not only be fine, but carve yourself a niche.”

“So in essence, tell the truth.” Naoko summarized. “Was it really that difficult to come up with the idea of being honest?”

“It shouldn’t be, if not for the fact that a girl admitting these things is a very experimental thing.” Aratani told her, in a serious tone, “I think it can go well, but there’s probably little data about it. And if things don’t go as we planned, we’re both screwed, because all of my investment and your image will be lost. Also, it’ll be almost impossible for just me to keep an eye on every publication and correct any mess that pops up. And all of this doesn’t even change the fact that your fans can get jealous anyway. Personally I’d still prefer if you kept a low profile.”

“Can we find a common ground, then?” Naoko offered, “We tell people the things I really like, just don’t emphasize the boys part? I don’t plan to screw anything up, but in worst-case scenario having told the truth about my hobbies can at least make it easier to explain that a supposedly awkward situation was actually just related to games and stuff, not romance. I… don’t want to force anything up on Aratani-San… but can you at least consider it, pretty please?”

After thinking for a minute, Aratani accepted:

“Okay, making an alibi from the get-go sounds like a good plan B. Just don’t go overboard and if we need to resort to it, we fall back to Operation Boy Friendly Lass. Let’s do it.”

Giving Naoko a moment to applaud and express her happiness, the producer continued:

“Alright, that’s the end of advices. Just don’t murder, rob, kick puppies or anything bad and you’re gold. Now onto a different subject, and here’s where the fun begins: let me introduce you the Idol Star System Generation and the ranking structure that’s the bread and butter of the corporation, aptly called the Idol Star System. Do you know anything about it?”

“All I know is that it’s kind of a stupid name.” Naoko unabashedly told her producer, who asked why she thought that. “For starters, I don’t know if I should read it ‘Idol Star… System Generation’, as in ‘something that generates a system that does something for idols, who are the stars of the show’, or ‘Idol… Star System… Generation’, as in ‘the production or generation of a solar system where, instead of planets, we have idols floating in the space’, or maybe ‘Idol… Star System Generation’, like ‘genealogy of generations of a solar system made of idols’ or whatever. Also, being a Japanese company, why name it in English? Worse: butchering the language.”

Itching on his chair to put his feet on his desk, only not doing so because it’d be too inelegant, her producer explained what he could:

“Well, the I.S.S.G. CEO told a few years ago to the press that the name was made to be purposefully vague in order to give it multiple meanings. If I recall correctly he used English both because it’s a trendy language that Japanese youth like, that sounds good enough and also to make the company more easily accessible to internationalization. The full, legal name of the company, though, includes the typical ending on Japanese. As for how’s the I.S.S.G.’s name is really supposed to be pronounced or what it really means… no one knows, as far as I’m aware. Even when pronouncing the name of the company in interviews, its spokespeople are instructed to say it in quick and monotone fashion so as not to induce any reading in favor of others. In reality, there’s probably no correct or wrong way, since there’s not even an instruction to agencies or idols as to how to say it, so just pick the one that feels right for you and you’re set.”

He made a brief pause, as if expecting Naoko to continue the conversation. Both stayed looking at each other in silence for a few seconds before Aratani remembered:

“Oh, yes, I gave you that explanation just because Naoko-Chan told me she knew nothing about the corporation, right? Okay, let’s see. First, if you look carefully at documents you’ll see the I.S.S.G. is actually a conglomerate, but people generally call it a corporation or a company for whatever reason, and the higher-ups don’t care. Maybe they think ‘conglomerate’ is too intimidating a word to be in entertainment business. In general, they ask that idols refrain from speaking about anything from the I.S.S.G., the only exception being the already mentioned Idol Star System that lends its name to the company. In fact, to make announcements as if you’re a staff of the I.S.S.G. is a violation of their rules. Remember that you don’t really work for them, you work for The Paragon Idol Agency. You can’t publicly claim or disclaim anything in their name.”

Dancing uncomfortably from one side to the other of the chair, the young man turned his seat sideway and stretched out his legs on the floor while telling:

“ About the Idol Star System itself, it’s basically a glorified ranking structure, where depending on fan base, money accrued for the corporation and victory in tournament-like shows the idols ascend, gaining more visibility, better cuts at profits from ticket offices and merchandising and the possibility to participate in bigger events, among other benefits.”

“So it’s basically a system of belts like in many martial arts?” Naoko abridged.

“Yes, if you will.” Aratani agreed, “They could’ve made it simple, like creating classes ranging from one till eight, or F till A, or ‘Meh’ till ‘I’m too cool for school” or whatever, but no. Instead they decided to base their system on our solar system, just for the novelty of it. So tell me, Naoko, do you know the names of the planets and the order they’re in relation to the Sun, excluding our own?”

“Like, Mercury, Venus… Mars and such?” Naoko asked. “Yeah, I know.”

Different from the Roman Pantheon-inspired planet names in many Western cultures, in Japan the origin of planets names had connection with elements and natural occurrences. Mercury was named Suisei, where “Sui” was written with the same character as “water” or “fluid” and “Sei” meant a star or any bright celestial body, excluding the Sun and Earth’s Moon. So the Japanese name of Mercury was composed of characters that literally translated as “water or fluid bright celestial body”. Venus was called “Kinsei”, where “Sei”, like in every other planet, meant the same as before and “Kin” meant “gold” or “metal”, among a few other possible meanings that were, however, not applicable to this circumstance (for example, the same character for “gold” could mean “money” too, but nobody would thing of Venus as a “money planet”).

After Earth came the red planet Mars, dubbed “Kasei” where “Ka” was written with the ideogram for “fire”. Pretty self-explanatory, unlike Jupiter, which, named “Mokusei”, was graphed with the Kanji, or Chinese character, of “tree’ or ‘wood’. Along with “Dosei”, Saturn’s Japanese name written with two kanji for “earth, mud or soil celestial body”, it concluded the five planets whose names alluded to elements in ancient traditions, also used on other places like five of Japanese’s names of the days of the week – the other two being drawn from the Sun and Moon kanji characters.

Starting from Uranus, the names of planets became disconnected from elements and focused more on natural occurrences and mythologies. Uranus’ name in Japanese was “Ten’Ousei”, where “Ten” meant “sky” or “heaven” and “Ou” alluded to any kind of sovereign, but especially a king or emperor. Thus, it had the characters for “King of Heavens celestial body”. In similar fashion, Neptune was called “Kaiousei”, where the “Ou” meant the same thing, a king, and “Kai” was written with the same character as “sea” or “ocean”. Thus, Neptune aptly meant “King of Seas celestial body“.

Finally, on the note of the old planet demoted from its position, the distant, cold Pluto, it’s called “Meiousei”. The “Mei” character meant “dark”, so that celestial body’s kanji character composition translated as “King of Darkness”.

“Good. So, Naoko-San, picture this,” Aratani explained, “Going from the most distant planet to the nearest to the Sun, and also excluding our own lil’ place, we’ve the King of Seas, The King of Heavens, then Soil or Earth, then Wood, Fire, Metal and Water. Correct?”

“What about Pluto?” Naoko asked “I know it’s not a planet, but doesn’t it make any appearances? Even if just a cameo one?”

“We’ll get to that in a second,” her producer told her. “So, following suit, there are seven classes in the Idol Star System. From lowest to highest, Sea, Sky, Earth, Wood, Fire, Metal and Water. Well, in reality there’s an eight class, but that’s a special one only a handful ever earns.”

“Darkness!”, Naoko exclaimed exultantly, suddenly imagining herself clad in a black dress and with a scythe instead of a microphone, “So badass, right?! I want to be a Darkness Idol! Yeah, let those poor bastards feel my music as I emerge from the shadows and take them to eternal chaos! They’ll never see it coming! Mwahahahaha!”

With an unassuming, serene face Aratani jokingly replied:

“Naoko-Chan, the brain damage your games caused you are spreading, better take it easy.” After a few minutes where both traded witty comments, the man was finally able to continue, “No, Darkness is not a class. In reality, it exists as “Dark idol”, but is just a semi-official way of mentioning idols like you, that still haven’t met the minimum requirements for getting to the Sea class. The Sea one is the lowest official class, and Water is the highest an idol generally gets. Beyond the Water one there’s a special, final grade called the Star Idol, sometimes also called the Sun Idol. Only Water class idols can compete for it, and each year only one person, the one who wins the Special Invitational Idol World Tournament, is awarded Star Idol class. Since the career of an idol usually ends around twenty-five years old, and more often than not before it, there’s only so many Star Idols out there. I’m pretty sure currently there’s about five, with a sixth one being selected on the main event of the tournament happening during next summer break.”

Naoko eagerly spoke her mind in wonder, contaminated by her thoughts of titanic clashes:

“Wow, that’s much cooler than I expected! Darkness Idol would still be cooler than Star Idol, in my opinion, but yeah, not too shabby anyway. I thought idols’ lives were just about getting in a band and singing, not about a tournament of life and death where people climbed a hierarchy through blood and destruction and battled their way up to stardom while kicking their opponents to their doom! That’s awesome!!”

In Naoko’s mind she could clearly picture it. The “stage”, a caged arena surrounded by yelling people craving for blood. She and another girl there, and just as music started to rock in deafening volume Naoko would run against her opponent and deliver a jaw-dislodging elbow blow. As her rival started to fall down Naoko would jump on top of her enemy and pin her down before begin pummeling her face with a flurry of slaps. As her enemy screamed, Naoko would joyfully shout “That’s right! Sing to me, bitch!”

Noticing the pumped up, smiling girl with distant eyes, Aratani hesitantly corrected her:

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t mention anything about blood or any life and death situations.”

“Are you really sure?” the girl insisted, and her producer repeated “Pretty sure, yes.”

“Aw…” Naoko feigned disappointment. After a while a question formed in her mind, prompting her to go back to the topic, “Alright, so what are these tournaments about, then?”

“Contrary to what you may be thinking, the tournaments are not a big part in the System, Naoko-Chan.” Aratani elucidated, “Sure, the small ones, called cups, are required for the ascension in class, but other than that there’s not much to it. Much more important are the actual presentations, from where most of our revenue will come. They’re divided in two major categories: Ranked and Non-Ranked. Non-Ranked ones are just your regular, everyday shows, no questions asked. You go there, sing, dance, get paid and that’s it. You can either contribute or not a percentage of profits to I.S.S.G., to increase your contribution limit until you can partake in cups that increase your class. Ranked presentations, on the other hand, is where things get hairy. They all count toward your total revenue accrued for the I.S.S.G. so contributing is mandatory. Actually, though it’s counted as a contribution, it’s the other way around: the corporation promotes the event and choses the best idols to be in it, the people pay to watch it and I.S.S.G. gives each idol, or rather, their agencies, a share of profits, already deducted by a margin of contribution.

Taking a moment to go back to the non-ranked gigs, Aratani said:

“Non-Ranked presentations are generally created by agencies and they take home all the sweet, sweet cash they get. It’s far more lucrative than Ranked matches, where ticket office money is usually divided between a few, most or all participants depending on the rules of each event. On the flip side, I.S.S.G.’s the one conducting the events, so agencies don’t have to worry about renting a place, promoting the gig, paying staff, charging fans, nothing. Idols just go there, do their things and it’s done. Bank account numbers gets a few more pals to join the party.”

“Sounds pretty simple.” Naoko judged, her eyes getting sharper, “Too simple. Where’s the catch?”

“Smart girl,” the young man commended her smarts, “Even not mentioning your adversaries, which are bound to make everything they can to grab first place, there are numerous catches. Most of them involve rules of specific presentations. While the Non-Ranked gigs are simple and clean, Ranked ones are further divided into numerous subcategories, and then some. We’ve, for example, Free-for-All, in which fans pay through the internet, and the idols whose fans raised the most amount of money gets the spotlight on a simple show with no first place, second or anything. Then there’s the Queen of the Hill, where an examination board evaluates idols to determine the winners, all the while the crowd watches the competition. There are also Duels, where two idols face one another in three or five rounds, depending on rules, to see who gets the most amount of points according to the board. Also there are themed presentations where certain evaluation categories, those five I mentioned you after the tests, receive arbitrary weights. Also there’s the always chaotic Random Fest, where idols that weren’t chosen for other shows on that week are randomly drawn and invited to participate in a competition with also randomized rule sets. And there are multiple others, including a few very rare ones that only occur once every blue moon or so. I’ll go over the details of every presentation as we tackle them, and be ready because we’re going to be running for prizes almost every week once Naoko-Chan is ready.”

Feeling the pressure in the form of butterflies on her stomach, the girl put her hands over her cold tummy and questioned:

“How’re we going to know when I’m ready for presentations?”

“We can evaluate how well you’d fare in a real gig by measuring your total scores like we did during the tests. Since every judge thinks differently, there’s no way to tell the exact score you’d get, but a rough approximation is possible. True, we won’t know if we’re able to win it until you’ve performed on it, because it also depends on your adversaries, but we’ll try to find easier presentations at first. There are a few greenhorn-friendly shows that help budding idols and their agencies get the show rolling. The payment’s nothing stellar, but it helps make ends meet and lets you gain some actual experience in a real-life show.”

“That’s… a relief.” The girl felt her worries subside a little “That’s actually well thought.”

Agreeing with a nod, Aratani changed positions of his feet using the small, precious free space he had and expounded:

“Before the I.S.S.G. the idol market was segmented. Each agency had their own auditions to select idols, made their own shows and such. The conglomerate came to control the production and promotion chains, to bite on the big bucks, but it soon became clear they had a problem: it was hard for new agencies to get on the market, and the reduced competition wasn’t exactly fun. They even tried to expand into the male idols territory, but it required such big image changes that they opted not to at that time. Even now they still only have plans of doing so. Maybe in the future they will. What they figured out was simpler: if they created their own events and opened them up to new agencies, they could help finance new companies that would eventually expand and generate more income.”

Painfully turning his torso to face Naoko while having his legs spread to the side was a no-go. The girl, noticing it, told him there’d be no problem if he put his feet over his desk like he was itching to do, and the man, surprised, asked if she’s really okay with that. Sarcastically, Naoko retorted:

“Better than to see Produ-San snap his backbone twisting like this. As long as you don’t tidy up this room there’s nothing I can do. Not to say it’ll probably look awesome, as if Produ-San is some kind of gangster!”

Thanking her, he did that for a while, saying:

“I don’t know if I’m happy or worried that Naoko-Chan thinks it’s nice I look like a gangster, but thanks. Back to the subject, then. Those gigs created by I.S.S.G. were such a success that they began getting megalomaniacal with events. This, along with the Idol Star System that predated the corporation, dating back to one of the companies that were fused together to create it, created a comprehensive path idols could blaze through to fame. And, just like this, they monopolized the very creation of fame, which before was an immaterial thing. It got tabulated and artificialized. Now an idol’s not a Water classed girl because she’s famous, she’s famous because she’s a Water classed girl. It’s hard, nowadays, to be a reckoned idol if you do not partake in I.S.S.G.’s arbitrary rollercoaster of a system and jump through their hops, but on the other hand, they really made it easier for new agencies, that’d have no way of planning their own events and amassing fans out of nowhere for a girl no one knows yet, to thrive. Also, it partially shifted perceptions of idols from band integrands to standalone stars, which… is kinda good and kinda bad.”

“Why?” Naoko inquired “You’d need to invest on a band of girls otherwise, no?”

“Yes, from a business standpoint it’s great,” Aratani told her, “but the system puts a heavy emphasis on individualism, which creates unnecessary strain on the girls and just sends the wrong message to society, in my opinion. Before, bands rivaled for fans, of course, but girls from the same band were generally friends once they passed the audition processes. It was a good era. Now everyone’s an opponent, some girls get crazy. Real crazy, I mean. That’s because the Idol Star System only works for individual idols. Bands have no such systems. They still exist like they always did, though, and I enjoy it.”

“I’d think the I.S.S.G. would try to pull the strings of bands too.” Naoko declared, “They seem more profitable than single idols, or am I wrong?”

“Profit depends on numerous factors.” Aratani responded, “I can’t tell if they’re more lucrative because they also have larger payrolls, but that’s not the reason why the conglomerate can’t heavy hand them to its whims. To start, it’s complicated to determine if fan base exist for the band or for the girls. Imagine a band with one hundred thousand fans lose a girl that most of its fan base loved. The girl would have no fans to begin a solo career? What about the band, how would they know how many fans it’d have then? First problem’s that it’s a jigsaw puzzle to make a system for bands that does not conflict with the already existent Idol Star System. Second is that the I.S.S. is based on classes. If you divided bands just based on classes too, you’d end up pitting a duet with a thirty-some girl-fest. It’d be kind of unfair. And to divide bands based on member numbers would thin down competition to ridiculous amounts. For example, how many forty-seven member bands are out there anyway to justify a competition? Just one, as far as I know. The logistics to control bands are much harder than those to tab single idols. That’s why currently bands are being formed just by grouping individual idols that also compete against each other on the main system. The results are hardly on par with how they were a few years back, when girls were actually trained as a group, went to collective performing classes and acted as a unit.”

Suddenly getting up, Aratani stretched his legs more comfortably than on his confined space. With Naoko imitating him, the man told her he just wanted to flex his muscles, but if it’s okay, she should complete her schedule canvas and a few other things and then they should go back to the shopping mall and finish that conversation on the way there. At 1 p.m. would begin Naoko’s first dancing class. After that and subsequent singing and body language sessions Aratani told he had a surprise.

Letting the girl agonizing in excitement and anxiety over what could it be, her producer left her to type down her agenda while he prepared some tea. After that, bringing two cups, the young man sat back again in front of the computer and showed her an internet page. Made in a comment-thread, forum-like manner with added slots for photos, the black background and silver letters presented a still simple but functional website.

“Behold your own fan club,” Aratani presented. “It’s an official I.S.S.G. directory, meaning they use the fan count here, along with other metrics such as forum activity, to gauge your recognition level among your base. They also use some witchcraft math to calculate how much of your total fan base is actually represented in your fan club domain. As for the site itself, it’s still bare as bones, but that’s to be expected. I’ll begin feeding it with news, photos, question pools and useless data fans like to hear about once we get our first show. It’s already online but since you’ve yet to amass fans things are pretty dead here right now. Which is good, because you can change the layout and suit it to your liking. It’s very intuitive, really: just drag and drop things, select them to drop a menu with possible changes to be made, this kind of digital illiterate-friendly stuff. Give it a shot now.”

While Naoko eagerly tested out background patterns and colors, text fonts, layouts, expanded the image photos, dragged and dropped new menus and customized it to her heart’s content, Aratani closed in on her side with a notebook and asked:

“While we’re at it, let me ask you a few useless data I need. I already have some, like birth date, from your application and you’ve already told me others like your gaming compulsion, but others are still missing, so let’s do it. First about your personality: what’s your blood type?”

“A+,” Naoko answered without thinking or deviating her eyes from the monitor, “Why? Do you believe in this trash that blood type influences people’s personality?”

“I believe fans love this kind of useless info, and what fans love gives me money. That’s what I believe.” Aratani retorted, “Do you?”

“I’m pretty sure my blood type has absolutely no match to what those tests say my personality should be like,” Naoko replied, “I can be wrong since I don’t believe in things like this, zodiac signs or whatever, and the last time I did a blood type and personality correlation test in one of those stupid websites was years ago. But alright, next question.”

“Favorite food,” Aratani continued, to which the girl had to think about for a few seconds.

“I love meat and sweets. For me I dislike plain food, it needs to be either salty or sweet. Well… scratch that, ramen is my fav. There are a few other exceptions, like rice, seaweed, salmon and such, but as a rule of thumb if the taste isn’t clear, it’s a waste. See? It’s not that I don’t eat plain things – I’d die of starvation if I did, because most of our food is very plain.”

“They call it “delicate”, Naoko-Chan.” Aratani declared. “Only the refined can appreciate the delicate aromas and tastes of the refined cuisine. It takes trained senses to do that.”

“Poor Produ-San will never like those stuff, the way he can’t even smell how bad his office stinks, right?” Naoko teased him with a lovable face.

“Screw you, girl,” her producer retorted, “Now about food you dislike.”

“That’s easy,” Naoko revealed, “Anything classified with labels starting on “V” and ending on “egetables”. Kill those green monstrosities with fire. I love fruits, though.”

“Right, I’ll write you’re one of those unhealthy girls who’ll probably get wrinkles before thirty then.” Aratani joked, though the moment Naoko looked away from the screen to face him, her sharp eyes almost had a red tint, so scary they were. Her producer, after a brief tense smile, proceeded, “Just kidding! There’s no need to look at me like you’re going to rip my heart off my chest and eat it fried. Next question: favorite animal.”

“Dragons can be considered animals?” Naoko interrogated, prompting Aratani to exclaim, “No, they can’t. Also, damn it, Naoko-Chan! Why can’t you just say a bunny, a cat or another girly animal?”

“Oh, I like bunnies, they’re cute!” Naoko stated, making her producer sigh in relief. Only for a second, though, before she continued, “As for cats I don’t have anything against them, I even have one at my parent’s home. Well, kind of, since he actually only comes home when he pleases. But I much prefer dogs. They’re much happier and livelier! Dogs are my third favorite real animals, just behind snakes and tigers!”

Looking helpless, Aratani wrote down something while saying:

“Tigers are technically felines just like cats, so I’ll just mention “felines” and let’s leave it at that. And don’t you dare answer this question to a fan if he asks you!” Reading the next item, Aratani grinned for a brief moment. After, putting on an unassuming poker face, requested, “Measures.”

Naoko’s fingers suddenly stopped typing and, without moving her head, the girl slowly rolled ice-cold eyes in her producer’s direction. Aratani casually told her:

“Fans can’t help but being curious. You can start with your cup size.”

Quick as light, Naoko showed her producer’s face her fist size, small in absolute terms but big enough to send him flying.

 

The fan club webpage still felt somewhat sloppy despite Naoko’s best efforts, with hard edges on every text box and a placeholder photo of her smiling face near the “Fans” tab, which showed all the people who’ve joined the club. Currently zero. It was cringeworthy to be seen smiling there alone, and though the photo was pretty good it just felt strange somehow. Still, the colors felt right, a black, purple and blue background and white characters. The header also felt slightly better with another photo of her, though for some reason her face everywhere bugged her. It could use improvements, but all in all was somewhat better than before.

After finishing all preparations they departed to the mall. This time there was no Kamijira costume on the way. The man was startled by Naoko’s decisiveness. The girl had given some thought on the looks she wanted and decided she’d wear things that looked decent but also that she’d only dreamed to have before. It conveniently coincided that the clothes of her dreams also attracted lots of attention, though that was to be expected. Anyone would like to wear attractive attires, provided they felt good in them, she supposed.

A pure white vest-blouse of slim silhouette, full of frills and a large collar caught her eye the moment she saw it. The tiny black buttons were cute but the high-cut left the navel exposed in a daring way. The collar’s extremities had black faux fur that surrounded the fair cleavage. It was just the duality master hairstylist Matsushita told he saw on her, and true to that, she loved the piece. Undeniably not one for women who had any doubts about their own bodies, and Naoko too felt intimidated by it. Still, her heart pounded so heavily that she vacillatingly got the vest to put it on. The moment the blushing girl left the fitting room, Aratani’s cool and collected face grew a trembling smile, as if he tried in vain to control his emotion. It looked like he’d start screaming of happiness and running in circles in the middle of the store until he missed a step and flew through a window or something. Who would’ve guessed that radioactive lizard loving, virtual violence indulging, pop culture freak of a girl could learn overnight how to dress like a lady! Sure, Naoko was still far from feeling natural on that, but for a girl that never had anything like that, she was performing very well. She was even still breathing, albeit with hardships!

The breathing part was not only due to shyness, but because the bust line was slightly tighter than it should, but that was nothing a couturier couldn’t resolve. After the first purchase Naoko got even more excited than she already was. She used to dislike clothing stores, but after understanding she was free to dress as she wanted, its position quickly increased in her list of nicest places – still under ramen shops, naturally, but close up there.

From there the girl went on a shopping spree. Naoko had already seen most of the shop windows the day before and knew a few items that sparked her interest. Now the problem was the budget, forcing her to make difficult choices. Just as Aratani told her, she’s supposed to take three outfits, one of which would be used during the first few auditions and presentations. Also, he said hopefully in a few gigs they’d have already amassed enough money to increase her wardrobe, and most certainly by autumn and Winter they’d have already bought other attires in accordance, so for the time being she’s supposed to focus on clothes that made sense for Spring and, maybe, Summer. It helped narrow down her choices a little, though not by much since barely any stores had items from different seasons.

One exception, thought, was a gorgeous pair of knee-high, snow-white leather boots. Not just any boots, though: platform ones. There were three inches of platforms, a little more on the heels, but the intimidating height was compensated by the extremely cute lace-up front. Though at the same time, its tank soles gave it a mixed, rough and endearing composition. It was on a sixty percent off price tag due to belonging to the winter’s clothing inventory, but it was clearly not made to be used on snow anyway. Its platform and barrel height and tightness could offer decent protection and the rugged sole could provide good stability on soft and hard terrains alike, but weighting more than one kilogram each foot it’d make a very poor choice for walking on thick snow. That is, unless someone wanted to make exercises or just enjoyed getting stuck a lot. It was designed more to be fashionable than practical, and Naoko could imagine herself wearing it all year long on numerous different situations.

That is, if she’s sufficiently brave. She already knew the reason of her fears was the heavy censorship she suffered all her life and that it was no fault of her, so she was free to wear it, but she’d also never developed a habit of using such extravagant clothes. Sure, other than the lace-up, it had no other frills that could pass for trying too hard to get attention, but the height of the platform and the barrel was no joke. And she’d already received so much criticism from her father the few times she decided to try her mother’s pumps that it was like if someone afraid of heights faced her fears by rappelling down a building – only with less risk of death. But the fact that she did those things anyway showed just how much she craved for the experience.

Her female friends had nothing that came close to it, but one of her older friends once went to a weekend girls day-out wearing a thick sole, low barrel bootie. To Naoko, it looked so appealing, comfortable and protective that the girl, since she was fourteen, desired to at least put it on to see how it was like. Something about the sole height and the appearance of the object just attracted her. Even when choosing sneakers it was true, though since she used them until they fell apart and had numerous painful occasions where she stepped on pointy rocks, fish hooks, nails, wood splinters and such due to explorations and not well-thought experiences, she learned to value a resistant pair of soles. It partially explained her fondness of bigger, even manlier footwear (as long as it received a cutesy overhaul), but not entirely.

It took the girl ten minutes just to decide on trying it on, and the three added inches filled her with excitement, happiness and also a terrible shame to be seen. Just as she loved the feeling of protection she got by tucking herself under the duvet and clinging to a wall as she slept, the high barrel gave a similar sensation, but it just felt wrong somehow. For as much as she loved it, the one meter and sixty-eight centimeter girl was already above average when compared to her colleagues and female teenagers of her age in general – not to mention she was already taller than quite a few fully grown women – and to be almost eight centimeter taller wearing those boots made her feel she’d stand out a little too much for comfort.

Her producer, though, pointed that Naoko herself enjoyed it, and also looked stunning. He persuaded her not to cave in to her anxiety and purchased the pair, along with a black one – it was priced at only 40% off, but still made for plenty of possible combinations. Unlike the vest-blouse, which required a couturier, the boots fit perfectly too, so he convinced her to start wearing it right there. He was a tall man, Naoko on platforms still got a few inches short of him. He was accustomed to the height, so to speak, so it was easy for him to say those encouraging words to her, but Naoko almost didn’t leave the store wearing it. And when she did, the white of her boots made for a stark contrast with the redness of her face.

As she continued shopping, Naoko began to get used to it. She acted at first as if at any moment someone would reproach her, but no. People did notice her, she sensed it, but they’re all so discreet, like usual, that the girl felt progressively more accepted. And people were trendier on that fashionable ward than on her hometown, so she was not out of element there despite the inner feelings of anxiety. Aratani, for one, was reassuring, and the way the crowd kept going about their lives made Naoko slowly comprehend she’d made too much ruckus out of such little things. It was a huge victory for her, but to think the world would go rampage against her for wearing boots was a far-fetched stupid idea. Sometimes her imagination was much scarier than reality, she perceived, and also that people in general didn’t act like her father.

After that, the final purchases went smoothly as the girl let herself be drawn by what caught her eyes instead of being conducted by what she thought other people would think. Two mini shorts, a citrus and a jeans-fabric navy-blue one, along with one purple tank top, a three-tiered red and black miniskirt, black everyday sneakers and a frilled and laced sleeveless crimson shirt that resembled a short dress. Aratani also got her a simple pair of gloves, that Naoko chose to be black and fingerless, and the girl also wanted a cool silver colored serpent dragon bracelet, but budget was already busted, so instead she received a cheap candy and a pat on her back.

The adrenaline rush she felt was akin to karate classes when they made kumite, or training combats, in free sparring rounds – which didn’t happen often for rookies, especially the multi-man, nonstop ones that felt so chaotic and that Naoko always loved to watch and partake. Aratani wasn’t too excited to talk due to the amount of bags he was carrying, but the girl couldn’t help but chat all about her plans for the clothes. All articles were good enough to be brought to a stage, so she could mix and match them to her heart’s content both on gigs and during everyday life.

All the clothes really were of high quality, beautiful and stood out, so at first everything was right, but as Naoko got to the dance class one problem became evident: she had bought two pairs of platform boots, the only footwear she could take to a stage since the sneakers, although okay for street roaming, would be underwhelming for a presentation. Since the tank soles were adherent enough, it was technically feasible to dance with them, but with two and a half extra kilos and three inches for a girl that had no experience with anything higher than school shoes it was a complicating matter. Her producer, though aware, wasn’t concerned – it wasn’t the same as to dance in stilettoes, for example – and in fact seemed to find it quite agreeable for some reason, but Naoko, who’s still getting the hang of walking on those, wasn’t so sure.

The dancing classes happened at the same locale Naoko was tested, and with the same middle-aged, apparently severe woman that judged her. Initially it was intimidating because the girl could hardly run, much less dance with her poor choice of footwear, alluring and striking but ultimately restraining as if the girl was moving with flower pots on her feet. Since she was already bad at dancing to begin with, Naoko got afraid the instructor would get discouraged or got overly critical, but once again she got surprised to find reality being much more caring than her own imagination was with her. As the girl hesitantly apologized in advance, mentioning she was still getting used to her footwear and explaining she’d only discovered it was a poor choice after buying it, the instructor, with an unchanged severe expression but an encouraging voice, stated:

“Yes, it’s quite the daredevil’s choice, but with big risks come big rewards.”

“Reward?” Naoko inquired “What reward? You mean… the appearance on the stage?”

“Why, yes, but not only,” the woman mentioned “It also amps your difficulty modifier.”

Seeing Naoko looked puzzled, her instructor briefly told her while going to the radio and choosing a song:

“I see Aratani-San didn’t go over the scoring system most of your presentations will be based on so far. Well, I won’t spoil the fun. It’s a dense system with many nuances that requires more time to explain than we’ve in our class, but basically two of the five major evaluation categories, namely Dancing and Aesthetics, are directly affected by it. One of the subcategories in Dancing, called Execution, takes into account the attire while calculating whether or not you followed a predetermined choreography. Chains, wings, particularly restricting dresses, headgears that can easily fall off, platform boots or high heels, carrying novelty objects like umbrellas, anything that detracts from ease of movement adds points to Execution and a difficulty modifier to other categories. It is just a multiplier that ranges from one hundred and one to one hundred and ten percent apiece. If you’re dancing under particularly adverse conditions, these modifiers can add up and make even a mediocre execution score skyrocket, as long as you don’t commit any mistakes. If a mini crown falls or your platform boots make you trip over not only this hurts your tally, but also voids the modifiers. Going back to the five major categories, Aesthetics is another one directly influenced by it. Self-explanatory, really: on average platform boots are much more visually impressive than, say, flip flops. Of course it all depends on your costume and desired effect, but as a rule of thumb the more daring and gorgeous, the better. And you’ve a very solid choice of footwear, not only score-wise but also as long-time fan favorites. Only you’ll have to work twice as hard to keep up with the hardship and the expectations it creates. Shall we begin?”

Listening to that was a respite for Naoko’s mind. Instructor Sato Mayumi was quite the welcoming and supportive person despite her perpetual grimace. True to her physiognomy, though, she was as strict and perfectionist as she seemed, and even cutting some slack for the girl who still walked like a duck trying to maintain her balance, the teacher was demanding. Sato-Sensei was a very technical instructor, and as the girl quickly discovered, had the sights of a hawk and could practically detect minor flaws in Naoko’s movements from a mile away while sleeping. Granted, what Naoko thought to be “minor”, to a trained eye, was as bright as the sun.

The instructor’s feedbacks were quick and precise. The dance required songs and Naoko to sing along sometimes in order to get physically ready. The girl was used to karate trainings, but the only vocal sounds she used to make there were shouts. It was deceptively hard to keep her breath when she was required not only to move but also to sing, and Naoko found herself frequently panting and losing the end of sentences to inhale before collapsing. It was also hard to hear the music or her voice because of the teacher’s instructions. It’s done both verbally and non-verbally, but each added their own difficulties to the class. Verbal instructions cut Naoko’s concentration on the lyrics, but like the sensei had warned her, it was a required training since shows were loud and noisy anyway. Of course Naoko would he hearing her own voice more than anything, but concentration was key nevertheless, due to the amount of audible and visual stimuli that would compete with her focus and could very easily make an inexperienced idol lose song cues.

As for the non-verbal instructions, they’re daunting. The girl had to incorporate many habits in a short amount of time, and master Sato interrupted her as soon as she forgot something. The first class was nothing more than an introduction to basics, mostly related to posture and less on poses or movements. Still, it overwhelmed the girl.

“Legs,” Naoko frequently heard, reminding her immediately of the teacher’s words at the beginning of class, “There’s no such thing as closed legs on the stage. You’re on a show, not waiting for a train.” It immediately told the girl her posture was wrong.

In reality, out of context that instruction sounded strange, but it belonged to an initial explanation about how Naoko was expected to present herself in front of a crowd when not posing, waiving or performing choreographies:

“For starters, imagine your body to be composed of two parts: a lower and an upper one. The upper one is nuance heavy, but the posture of the lower one can be resumed in: spread your legs. There’s no such thing as closed legs on the stage. You’re on a show, not waiting for a train. There are exceptions, sure, but unless it’s part of the choreography or your public image is that of a shy girl, don’t bother at first. And even timid idols don’t usually stand still, legs closed for long. Their stock posture for below the waist line is to get knees together but separate the feet while making them point slightly one toward the other. This gives the cutesy without the legs being closed. The only other exception worth noting for now is the standing crossed legs stance, but we’ll go over it another time. The problem, on stage, for uniting them is that it’s the everyday posture an average person uses. It’s common and boring. When we start learning about poses and movements I’ll go over instances where you’ll want to keep them tight, but other than that, spread it. Just don’t overdo it: if your feet are a little past the shoulder line it’s good enough.”

Unlike the times when Naoko got lazy or distracted and stood straight, making her instructor warn her with a single word, the upper body had different idle positions, mostly revolving around the arms and the rotation of the waist and head. Like with the legs, the boring ‘arms hanging by the side of the body’ was a no-no with the exception of a near-ninety degree torso rotation, meaning the upper body looked sideways in comparison to the legs. On this situation the hanging upper members would be between the legs, both in front and on the back. Excluding it, that position for arms was only for stances and moves. In general one arm held a microphone, so it had a standard position, but the other one, the dominant one most of the time, couldn’t be left leaning lifelessly, and thus had lots of variances, ranging from the lazy “two hands holding the mic” to some hard to remember idle positions, such as the “waitress”, with a palm open up in the air as if sustaining a tray. Presentations without handheld microphones were even more complex, either requiring careful planning and coordination for both hands or the chaining of movements and poses in quick succession so as not to let any down time.

Idles were positions girls were supposed to revert back to whenever they’d finished posing or executing a movement and before starting a new one. Since they’re not part of choreography per se, they’re usually half-forgotten, but were indispensable for a good presentation. Dances with no idle postural elements, or with not enough variety, felt sloppy and not only got lower scores but also weren’t as appealing to the audiences.

When the class was over Naoko’s legs were shaking and her back was done for the day. To move nonstop for two hours under master Sato’s rigorous discipline was harsher than it looked, but it made for quite the experience. Along with the weights on her feet, Naoko felt exhausted and ready to go to bed by 3 p.m.

The singing class was also one on one and on the same building, but with a different instructor, a young woman with graduations in speech therapy and liberal arts, according to her. And finally, two hours after, another class with another woman, an early forties, a little overweight, short lady with yet another artistic background. The body language teacher possessed overseas theater courses and the supervision of movie choreographies on her curriculum vitae. So many classes with such qualified professionals not only drained Naoko’s batteries dry for good but also got her thinking just how much must her producer have disbursed with her just on that day. When she thought about it, practically all of her remaining fears about the integrity of that man vanished, resting only the first payment to cement her trust. Still, it was already pretty safe to assume it was the real deal, which got Naoko even more excited about the next weekends.

Of all classes, the girl thought the singing one was the funniest, while the body expression, although very insightful, dragged on for what looked like an eternity. Putting on headphones and singing on a big mic in an acoustic studio was fantastic and the instructions and corrections her teacher made were spot-on, though when Naoko heard the replay she could not believe it was her. Her voice sounded far too different, more high-pitched, than she thought. Also on the other half of the class she got to make many vocal exercises which, despite the boring nature, when done right made her chest, her nose, her throat and her back reverberate. The resonance tingled and made Naoko laugh every time.

The body expression class, on the other hand, was a mixture of posture correction exercises, theoretical explanations about the meanings of gestures, almost magical and strangely functional tips to employ postures and motions to create feelings such as confidence and enthusiasm on her or awe and fear on others, trainings on self-awareness, relaxation techniques, studies of facial expression and more. There were a lot of contents, and many were really cool. Naoko felt as if she was studying to be a spy, a yogi, an actress, a telepath and a doctor in human behavior at the same time. Thought Naoko, already exhausted from the dance class and from the strenuous day before, had difficulties learning the theories, almost fell asleep on a few relaxations and her body was hurting too much for the stance reeducation, it was interesting.

Overall the six-hour training was an incredible experience. By the end of it Naoko was hurting all over, hoarse, tired and a little paranoid about her own posture, but it was fun and she learned a lot. Unfortunately she also had lots of “homework” exercises to do, from voice trainings and postural corrections to movement trainings every day.

When she thought things were over, Aratani reminded her he’d a surprise. By that time Naoko just wanted to go to bed, but her curiosity was too much to bear. As the man drove her around the early evening city, when people enjoyed the last few hours of Sunday, the girl interposed many questions about the surprise, just to know if she was expected to study or do any more exercises, but her producer simply told her:

“No, just watch closely and have fun.”

Soon, from atop a traffic-intense bridge that swindled among buildings a towering structure gradually made itself visible over yonder. Its glass and metal façade was illuminated by countless colored spotlights and bright lines that made its silhouette stand out over the night sky. Shaped like a tree, it presented a huge circular base from where an off-centered tower came out. Despite the appearance it gave off at first sight, it wasn’t perfectly conical, since one side of the building stretched over the center of the base resembling a triangular sail. A gigantic tear-shaped “treetop” crowned the building, supported by the main building and by structures resembling branches. The crown was made of multiple stacked arborized terraces, apparently. Including the transmissions tower with its multiple antennae and satellite dishes, it reached three hundred and twenty one meters, but its impressiveness came mostly from its radius. It wasn’t a slender tower, but a chunky, robust one really resembling a century-old tree. Still, its soft curves, the spirals the metal frames described around the frontage around which the mirrored panels were set and the absence of hard edges gave it a natural and graceful look.

The terrain it occupied alone would’ve probably cost a fortune and then some in the high-class special ward of Shibuya. Since the tree-like structure had a somewhat circular base, the unused edges of the area were made into four triangular-shaped, small parks complete with trees, benches and even a pond each. It included a fifth, smaller one by the entrance, maybe just to break the bad augurs that supposedly came from number four, which in Japanese had a few readings, one of those being pronounced as “shi”, exactly the same as the word for “death”. Each of the four parks was themed with a color resembling one of the seasons: green for spring, yellow for summer, red for fall and blue for winter. Those were also the colors that composed the logotype of the conglomerate, a large five-pronged yellow star which, from the lower right leg, spammed three overlapping but off-centered planets, going from the biggest one, blue, to the smallest, green, with red in-between. It created a tail-like figure in an ascending parabola that made the central shape look like a rising star. Its outside borders were made thick and of an almost black hue of mixed blue and purple, while also presenting small, sprinkled white dots like a starry sky. Seven slightly bigger star dots spaced around it.

That was a logo Naoko had seen a lot lately. Every document concerning her new job that made her stay up until the wee hours to read and rubricate had a watermark of that symbol, and the Idol Star System Generation official website also bore it. The I.S.S.G. headquarters also had it on its entrance.

The HQ was such a sight to behold that Naoko’s sleepiness gave in to the dream-like entertainment aura of almost themed park proportions, full of semi-psychedelic luminosity and vibrant colors. Its outside by itself was already a one in a billion sort of experience, which was awesome because with the ridiculous amount of vehicles on the large avenues around it, Naoko had almost half an hour to appreciate it just until Aratani could get in the line for the parking lot.

Meanwhile, the thrilled girl pointed out all of the amusing details she could make out of the edifice and of its crowded parks. The only thing that annoyed her concerned the fact the building was off-centered from its base. It triggered the obsessive-compulsive disorder for symmetry Naoko didn’t have, or didn’t notice so far that she had. She was far from the organized, compulsive type, but it was too big of a structure not to see the irregularity.

“Didn’t the architects and engineers see it?! Are they blind?!” she complained while they waited on the car line, “My obsessignal’s screaming it’s going to fall at any minute!”

“Luckily Naoko-Chan is not an architect or civil engineer.” Aratani pestered the girl, “It’s off-centered precisely not to fall. The main ground area’s composed of a shopping mall and a huge dome for shows. Problem is, a dome is such a huge open space that it wouldn’t comport the weight of the building, and putting huge support pillars there would not only cost precious space that could be filled with paying spectators, but it’d also obstruct the view of many people. And it’d look ugly, more likely than not. So the building is based over the shopping mall, while the dome area stretches out without overhead pressure. Should it be centered, it’d not have sustenance.”

Naoko’s mind immediately created a poorly drawn, happy and cute version of the edifice as if sketched on a whiteboard by a five-year old. It even had an immensely out of proportion chibi, or big-headed and lil’ bodied, smiling Naoko sticking out of it. No matter how hard she tried to portrait a more realistic setting, her mind refused to give away Chibi Naoko and her adorable tree. Not that she tried too much: it was funny and lovely, so she stuck with it. As the young man talked about the lack of support of a building erected over a pillar-less vast area, her happy blinking avatar went crashing, arms flailing, as the badly-drawn building imploded into a big puffy cloud. As it subsided all that could be seen was a twitching petite leg and a band-aided head bump sticking out of the debris.

Amazed, Naoko looked back to the structure, but quickly noticed a discrepancy: the long, sail-shaped part of the building that advanced over the center of the base. Aratani explained it was just a hollow glass overhead. Since the building, in order to use the most out of the space the circular base offered, had an overview shape of a crescent moon that slowly became round as it went up, the glass covering the dome was not just for looks.

“Imagine that building without the glass cover above the show area,” Aratani prompted, “With a big crescent-shaped surface like it has on its first few dozens of floors out of space optimization, the structure would be like a dam to all the wind,” her producer described, “On such scale, even breezes could test the structural integrity of it. Stronger winds and heavy rains could very well send the skyscraper crashing down on the city. The overhead blade-like glass structure covers this crescent-shape and protects it.”

And down went Naoko’s cartoony building again, this time leaning and topping over along with her own diminutive screaming version, forming another dense puff as it reached the tiny city below.

“Okay, I got the structural stuff, but why the glass cover?” the girl asked, “Isn’t it dangerous? Can’t it break and fall over the audience? Wouldn’t it be better if they left just the metal frames?”

“The glass is not there just for embellishment, I take,” Aratani, bored out of his mind by the big line, explained while going overboard on the details just for fun, “The dome have an internal retractable overhead used during windy days just to protect it in the remote case a glass panel shattered and fell off, but it’s not only safe to have the mirrored cap, it’s a must. If I understand it correctly, the wind problem’s not limited to it hitting the building on its flat surface. Due to it being round and aerodynamic on the other face, air currents would probably slip around the structure if they came from the front, and I believe the spiral-like pattern of the metal frames that compose the façade helps channel wind too. But once the air got past the building, the area that is hollow under the real life glassy cover would be exposed. Especially on cold days where heat transfer could create convection lines that drew air off the building due to the expansion of it caused by the internal heating system, I believe, the wind could create negative pressure area on the non-aerodynamic face. In other words, it could vacuum off the flat front of its glasses, especially with so many open windows they have there since it’s an office area. And without the windows a particularly strong air current on the front face could potentially create a negative pressure on the back powerful enough to damage it. The metal frame would most likely prevent any serious structural failure, but glass would fall over the dome, I think. Hence the aerodynamic overhead covered in glass. That’s my take on it, anyway.”

As the spiraling cartoonish wind lines formed a hurricane that blew off half of the building in her imagination, Chibi Naoko jumped for her life. Opening a parachute she had for whatever reason and putting on a pair of cool shades just to show how much she cared for architecture, the endearing petite girl slowly glided to safety while watching the rest of the structure lean away from her. Unfortunately Naoko’s mind was not one to cooperate, and the building suddenly tipped over in the opposite direction, crashing over the poor girl and collapsing. One thing was clear for her about the exaggerated mental recreation: it sucks to be Chibi Naoko.

Raising an eyebrow, the confused girl questioned:

“Just how does Produ-San know all those things? They teach architecture to lawyers?”

“They barely teach lawyers how to argument, let alone project buildings,” Aratani sarcastically replied, “No, I have a really close friend who’s a designer. Sort of, anyway. The machine type designer, not the clothes one, mind you. He used to tell me about airplanes, cars, trains, even elevators and those stuff. He’s one of those train freaks, though he doesn’t admit it. I also used to tell him about bureaucracies, but between this and hypersonic jets, he usually got more talking time. Good for me, ‘cause thanks to it today I know what’s a convection line.”

“Cool!” Naoko ardently stated, though adding, “Even then, does it have any practical applications for you? Like, important ones?”

For a moment her producer stayed still, seeing nothing. His mind drew him to a beautiful depiction of a gorgeous lady wearing skirt and walking down the street. Through the magic of the movement of molecules that expanded upon heating, thus forcing others to move away into areas of less pressure, convection lines in the atmosphere created winds that blew and lifted the now desperate woman’s skirt. Slowly grinning, Aratani simply replied to an even more confused Naoko:

“Lots of practical applications. Very important ones.”

The three-floored underground parking lot was gigantic, and even then it’s hard to find a place to park, but it was worth it. The inside of the I.S.S.G.’s complex was nothing short of spectacular. They only passed through a few corridors of the luxurious shopping mall, since her producer told her they’d have lots of opportunities to explore it another day, so the girl only saw a fraction of it, but the place seriously impressed her. It was a business of its own, not relying on any idol-related merchandise to attract customers. Sure, there were a few here and there, but nothing any other shopping center wouldn’t also have. Her producer told her it attracted clients like any mall would, and since the building also had restaurants and a hotel, among other facilities, on the upper floors it wasn’t a place just for die-hard idol fans. Even people that didn’t usually care for dancing girls went shopping there or appreciate the terraced view of the capital and wound up staying for the shows. Aside from the colossal dome there were six smaller theaters used both for idol trainings and presentations, and shows also occurred every night on the restaurants by the treetop. There were always people to watch the gigs.

Aside from that, Aratani briefly cited, the conglomerate had lots of contracts with event promotion companies, show houses, clubs, media corporations, parks, amphitheaters and many other places and businesses all over the country and a few abroad that maintained a continuous agenda of shows. Lower-ranked idols still got lots of opportunities to shine, even if on smaller houses. Not all of those low-visibility presentations were aimed at fans, meaning a few were more useful to generate immediate revenue than fan base, but work’s work.

Nothing, however, have prepared Naoko for the Sun Dome, as it was called. Bigger than a regular block just by itself, it easily reached fifty meters in height. Unlike sports stadiums, the stage didn’t occupy all the center of the location, but was composed of two parts: a monumental one on a wall and a smaller, circular, removable central stage with the floor made of glass or some other translucent material, that connected to the main one by a long catwalk surrounded by illumination. The rest of the space was occupied by the audience, and as such it was hard for Naoko to gauge its capacity. She roughly estimated it close to one hundred thousand spectators, but she could be overestimating it.

Still, that was her impression. As she and Aratani came in from the ticket office, each receiving a luminous plastic stick of a different color by the entrance and getting in barely being able to read the table of attractions of the night by the immense double doors, all she could see was a sea of people. In the darkness the crowd was kept under, the tens of thousands of glowing batons made for a stunning and psychedelically disorienting experience. Naoko had never been on a show before – at least not one with electronic music, special effects and such. And certainly not one in such a gargantuan dome, with so many people.

The ceiling was mobile, but currently was closed. Over it lines for moving TV cameras and lights were projected, forming a galaxy of dancing stars. The stages before the show were kept in darkness, but Naoko could see numerous spotlights around them. The central one, specifically, sometimes gleamed with light that came from below its glassy surface.

The crowd was neatly organized in blocks, but it was still hard to move around the cramped and dark spaces. The audience energy, though, was something Naoko had never felt before. So many different men and women, a lot of them young but also many not so much, anxiously waited for the start of the show. The whole place gave Naoko delicious shivers, though just thinking about being the focus of such crowd was also spine-chilling. The girl excitedly but also hesitantly asked the young, suited man:

“Produ-San, you don’t really expect me to perform in a stage like this with such a huge audience, right?!”

“Not now, no!” he yelled to be heard, “But someday I hope you will!”

“I hope I don’t!” she replied, smiling of enjoyment but also afraid, “I’d be petrified!”

“You’d be petrified if I put you right now on that stage,” her producer said, “You still barely know how to dance and got no stage experience, so it’d be terrifying, I imagine, but someday Naoko-Chan will be ready, trust me! After what you’ll see here tonight, Naoko-Chan will most likely be disappointed with quite a few of her own gigs at the beginning of her career, I think. At first Naoko-Chan will hardly sing for two hundred people tops unless we get lucky on an audition. Hardly. One hundred’s a good starting number, so you’ll begin from the bottom. It’ll give you plenty of opportunity to improve and get used to the audience! As you grow in class you’ll get progressively bigger numbers, until you’re able to come to a place like this and crowd control the heck out of these people like its second nature! Don’t fret over it now, just enjoy it!”

As the clock turned eight and a half white sparks flew off all around the core platform and ran in a firework-fest through the sides of the catwalk, lighting up footlights, as a monumental screen got turned on over the main stage, which also got floodlit by spotlights. Just as a faint energetic song began playing on the background, a grave, silk-smooth mainly voice announced vibrantly:

“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Idol Star System Generation’s Aurora Invitational Springtime Ranked Contest!” a thundering round of applauses ensued, instigating Naoko to do the same while also shaking her lilac glowing stick vigorously. “Tonight is overflowing with attractions, so let’s get the show on the road! Please receive the Metal Idol Koyanagi Hideko!”

Immediately after the announcer stopped talking the until then faint music volume went over the roof and the titanic screen got invaded by a blue and black radiant background, over which a silver and red strip rolled in. It quickly showed some sort of a logo reminding a winged cat, the girl’s name and a photo depicting only her eyes, colored a deep pink that was obviously due to the use of lenses. As the other information vanished from the display and someone began to sing, the strip-like line that revealed just her eyes faded away, and the full face of the smiling idol appeared on the immense monitor. She was probably not a teenager anymore, but her cute expression and laced pink and white tiara made she look as adorable as a kid.

So captivated by the photo over the mesmerizing background, Naoko took a few seconds to notice the real woman was already on stage, and only after the image changed to the actual cameras that filmed the star. She had a very girly voice, presumably trained a lot to maintain the high-pitch and almost infant qualities. Naoko particularly was not too fond of women overacting like a little girl, but despite it, that Hideko gal looked absolutely fantastic. With short black hair and a white dress full of pink and rosy ribbons, laces and frills and wearing elbow-long pure white gloves, she was the very personification of all things adorable.

Her presentation, though, was certainly not something a seven-year old girl would do. After having just one day of classes Naoko could already see the absurdly high-level of her dancing skills. Bearing no handheld mic, she used both hands in a hypnotic fashion, catching everyone’s attention with high-spirited movements. Chaining poses and choreographic elements with no combo breakers, she’s very close to an erratic little girl full of energy, but one that knew very well what she’s doing. She went from one side of the stage to the other, claiming every person’s sights, and her feet never stopped moving. In fact, she didn’t resort too much on idle positions because she’s always walking or posing. Most of her choreography came from her arms that always connected gestures in a way that felt natural despite being so over the top.

When she got to the catwalk, it became even more evident to Naoko she’d have walked in a different way than the idol on stage. Hideko had long and pretty legs but didn’t use long strides or proud postures. She wasn’t a model, but an idol, and one that acted the child type. She used quick, small and happy steps, sometimes even low jumps, and frequently rotated three sixty while still going to the central stage. As her pink, winged shoes threaded over the glassy chessboard the translucent panels over which she walked glowed temporarily in a rainbow mixture, sending powerful beams upwards. Probably very few people noticed it, but putting herself on Hideko’s place it became obvious for Naoko that the idol couldn’t look down or she’d be temporarily blinded. Hence she had to walk and jump without seeing where she stepped, a dangerous thing to do when there were so many jumps and leg work on her executions.

Following her arms movements, the audience also began flailing their luminous sticks. Her song was kind of silly in the lyrics department, but extremely catchy, and the woman, even though being diabetic-killing sweet, had some positivity to boot. Naoko, though not particularly fan of the ultra-girly setup, found herself carried by the delectable vibes.

As the songstress returned to the main stage and screamed the lyric’s last line, a surge of applauses shook the dome and made Naoko’s hairs rise with the contagious liveliness. Almost nonstop the announcer introduced another girl, another metal class idol dubbed “Violet Lily”, named in plain English. The instant she heard it, Naoko turned to her producer and whispered:

“Violet Lily?! The heck’s this name?”

“It’s not a name, Naoko-Chan,” he explained to her while the song began and the girl got its face shot on screen, “It’s her artistic name. Idols can opt to be known by those instead of by their real names. Of course fans know their true names, but don’t use it. Once you get to your first gig you’ll be asked if you want to adopt an artistic name or not. Your call.”

Violet, as the fans around seemed to call her, was in stark contrast to Hideko. The young woman’s eye lenses were a jade color, and part of her hair or wig was green while the other was of a shocking purple. Her attire followed suit: with the exception of her jet black slim legging tights full of added-on pockets, everything else were in one of the two colors. Her tube top was green while the long sleeved, opened mini jacket she wore over it was purple, as was her choker. Her footwear was a mixed sort of mismatched pairs: a violet bootie and a half-way barreled gladiator-like emerald boot that left her toes open. She carried a long, cane-like mic with bat wing decorations on it and a black suction cup on the lower end. Her makeup was heavy, with thick eyeliners, intense blush and green lipstick. Her head bore a petite devil-horn tiara, and her earrings were shaped like spiked handcuffs. Her makeup was heavy and she didn’t smiled that much.

The “metal idol” class seemed just right for that lady, Naoko thought as, in awe, her chest was pounded by powerful sound waves that resonated inside her in a heart-accelerating, frenzy-driving way she’d never experienced before. Violet was a beast, every bit the confident and provocative early twenty lass she looked like. In fact, she was so aggressive that Naoko disliked her personality a bit, but it was another incredible example of how varied idols could be. Her one-handed choreographies seemed somewhat easier than cheery Hideko, but Violet Lily used her whole body in more creative ways.

On a certain non-verbal point of the music she got to the edge of the stage and, crawling like a panther ready to attack, stared into the people nearby while using her cane-like mic to capture the yells of the audience. In the same way, she also stuck the one meter-high cane mic on the floor using the suction cup and spun around it like a dancing pole. Since it wasn’t truly fixed on the ground and the show was rated ten and older she didn’t performed anything too daring, but the way she acted, Naoko firmly believed she could go much further than that. Violet had an acid personality that felt intimidating to Naoko, but her emotion-heavy song, resonating voice and power-trip prone character had a shocking effect. Her fans were mostly punk-like teenagers as far as the girl could see.

Contrary to Hideko, Violet’s strides were long and heavy, even though she was shorter than the idol before her. At a moment she simply tuck her off-hand on the pants’ pocket and threaded the catwalk with lowered head but staring straight. Never one to smile, the way she touched the audience was through her thought-provoking, society-bashing lyrics. Her choreography employed far less movements than Hideko, and her dance was more impressive for the few extreme positions, with perfect side splits and exaggerated interpretations of angst with her body rather with the rapid succession of simpler moves. Her poses were also intense, mostly involving leaning forward or raising one foot in front or behind the body and maintaining the balance. It was technical, but not as much as Hideko’s presentation. It was, though, a lot more intense in terms of bravery required.

Her best trait in Naoko’s opinion as the song ended was her voice, feminine too but forceful like a lion’s roar. Naoko had never felt sound pierce her body like that, making her internal organs resonate and tingle as if they’re numb. It made her heart throb as if she was under some kind of danger. It was an intimidating, but ultimately astounding experience Violet had pulled off.

The show kept going and Naoko, who didn’t remember the last time she’d so much fun, jumped, applauded and sang along, not even remembering her previous tiredness. It was a fantastic experience that only got better by every passing minute. Each idol sang just one song and lyrics usually weren’t more than four minute long. On a two hours show, there were many idols coming and going. With the exception of the first five, who were of Metal class, the second highest, all the others were of Water class, meaning the best there was – save for the almost nonexistent Star-class idols.

About the first five presentations, Aratani explained there’s no examination board because the girls had already gone through an eliminatory round beforehand. It was common that idols were chosen to participate in shows, be it through auditions, public vote, invitations, fan support or even through other shows. Low ranked idols were far too many and usually had to compete for a single spot, but as classes went up things got easier. The show they’re watching, the Aurora Invitational Springtime Ranked Contest, had a huge name but in essence was an invitation based gig for Water-class idols that occurred during spring. It involved a competition with big prizes, and was considered a ranked show, meaning money was paid I.S.S.G.

Metal Idols were not on par and, like so, wouldn’t compete onstage, but they’re very famous nonetheless and the competition that led the five winners to get a spot there has also been a show all by itself. After the opening arc the true contest would begin, pitting Water Idols one against the other, and then there’d be a pool of five judges evaluating them. The judges stayed by the side of the stage so as not to interfere with the show, though. With a few exceptions, the only instances where they got really visible were during cups, the contests that awarded the victorious a higher class.

Finally, when the main event of the night started, Naoko was more pumped than when she’d performed on her own tests. Her producer told her that, according to the show’s description, the contest’s format would be that of a two-round Battle Royale followed by a three-rounded score attack Duel. Battle Royale competitions were a kind of ruleset where each girl sang a pre-determined number of songs, two in this case, and by the end an average score of both songs was taken for each competitor. The one or ones with the best overall tallies won or proceeded to the next phase. Since the second phase was a Duel, only two girls would get through, and face off on a three song competition.

Duels could work on many ways, but two were more commonly found: through scores or points. Even though both words meant almost the same thing, there were differences in terms of rules. Scores were simple, zero to a hundred, numbers awarded on each of five major categories, like Dancing, Singing and Aesthetics. Points, on the other hand, were awarded on a proportion of one for each category. So, for example, if a girl scored ten on four categories and one hundred on the last one while the other got a score of eleven on all five categories, the second one would have gained four points, because her four elevens were higher than her opponent’s four tens, and the first girl would have one point, because her one hundred was bigger than the other’s last eleven. So, even on a ridiculous presentation, the girl with five elevens would have won if the contest was based on points by four to one. If the competition was on score basis, though, the first girl would have been victorious because of her total of one hundred and forty far surpassed the second one’s fifty-five.

Ten Water Idols were invited to participate. With three exceptions, all were twenty years old or more, though only one was older than twenty-three, being twenty-five. It was most certainly her last year as an idol, and in fact only a few managed to work until such age. There were exceptions, but more often than not women started to lose fan support after twenty-two or so, as Aratani reluctantly told Naoko once the girl asked it. According to the producer, a successful idol could easily amass in six years far more than a typical white-collar worker could make during his or her entire life.

“But as people say,” her producer told her, “the candle that burns twice as bright, burns for half as long. And just how bright could a star burn?”

Even though Naoko had never wanted to be an idol, knowing she only had nine years left, tops, made the girl worry for a second. But nine years, for someone who was sixteen, was more than half of her life and seemed like an eternity, so that thought was quickly forgotten. Still, the oldest idol picked her attention the most.

Every woman there performed on unbelievably high levels, each according to her own personal characteristics. One seemed lazy and happy-go-lucky while another was every bit lovey-dovey. From one that looked a little obnoxious and self-centered but arguably gorgeous and talented spoilt princess to another which was as sexy as it got, going through an apparently normal, everyday girl, a cold-hearted lady of sorts, and more. At first glance it was a rich collection of stereotypes, though Aratani told Naoko their stage personae were usually just that: a mask to be used on stage. Some employed it because fans liked, others because they felt more secure. Though every girl used to have on their own personalities a few characteristics that composed their artistic frontage, only a handful actually acted in real life like they did before the masses. It made Naoko question herself about how Violet would most likely be in reality.

The oldest of the ten was an incredibly gorgeous lady presented as Ogasawara Umeko. When introduced, the woman with long, wavy light-brown hair entered the stage without any trace of anxiety and no rush. Her attire, unlike that of other competitors, had no frills, no angel wings, no fancy bonnets, novelty gloves, designed mics, cowgirl hats, pilot glasses or anything. It was an unpretentious but exquisite long dress in black with wine-red details, with a cut that left one leg to be shown while hiding the other. Spangles glittered all over making her dark vest appear bright as white under so many spotlights, and her footwear was a pair of classy, high-heeled black sandals. On her amazingly lustrous hair stood a single white rose, and a red gemstone glittered on a silver pendant that adorned her cleavage. She had the second biggest cup size of all competitors, so it was easy for her dress to be too exaggerated to the point of seeming vulgar or too restrictive and end up looking like she tried too hard not to be seen, but her vest found somehow a sweet spot that felt just right. One silver bracelet and a ring nailed her looks.

Her gorgeous, voluminous brown hair felt faintly familiar, and her smile, for whatever reason, felt more genuine than any Naoko had seen on stage before. As she began to sing it quickly soothed the girls agitated heart in a mysterious effect almost opposite of the one Violet was able to achieve. Her voice was mature and serene, and tackled a dangerously hard song as if it was nothing. The music was full of vocal modulations and presented two instances of sustained singing for long periods that left Naoko breathless just to watch, but Umeko made it without the slightest sign of distress. Steadfast as a mount and with silk-smooth voice, she clearly gave preference to singing over any other aspect. Her choreography was straightforward and mostly related to the use of her hips to perform constant changes in the supporting leg and the employment of her free hand, making long and wide gestures. She also did a few movements with her open leg and the arms, but all in all, after Naoko saw jumps, splits, spins, arms flailing and so much more, her dancing aspect felt kind of underwhelming. Still, it somehow felt perfect for her.

Umeko looked like nothing Naoko had seen before even though feeling slightly familiar. She was more of a regular songstress than an idol, but not a bad “regular”. Her lyric, “Point of No Return: 5 Seconds for Tomorrow”, was the most touching and well written of all the songs Naoko heard on that show so far, versing on the recalling of a sunset filled school classroom as seen from the eyes of a graduating person, remembering all the things she could have done, the love she could have found and the happy experiences she could’ve happened if only she’d stayed true to her best feelings instead of letting ire, bashfulness, lame excuses, laziness, fears and petty things detract her from the really important things of life, and what would the person do if she could go back in time. It was apparently sad, but the lyrics kept the optimism since the person, learning from her mistakes, found she could apply them on university, on work and on life in general. To Naoko, though, that silver-lining search was the part that filled her eyes with tears. The interpretation of the song was heart touching like nothing she’d heard before on that show.

It was strange that the woman who jumped and waived the least could get the attention of the audience like no other. Maybe it was the lyric that spoke true to the young audience while the lady’s maturity and breathtaking, emotion-galore presentation catered to the older ones. Either way, her dulcet voice, not the loudest but unquestionably the most harmonious and nuanced of all, far surpassed Naoko’s expectations, and even if her song was a bittersweet rollercoaster, the woman was very heartwarming, adding even more depth to the concert. Comparing herself to Umeko was like putting a drum-wielding chimpanzee side by side with an experienced pianist. Of course, Naoko had just taken her first day of lessons, but it seemed next to impossible that she’d ever reach that level of singing prowess, as she thought.

After such solid presentation the girl that came after it, full of jumps, high energy and easygoing themes was a blessing, but also felt immensely shallow in comparison. Ultimately, it felt unrewarding, just a cheap funfest. It took Naoko a few songs to get back to herself. Not that she wasn’t having fun anymore, on the contrary: it was a blast to be in touch with such mind-boggling situations. To feel emotions, a huge array of them, was fun in itself.

The second round felt slightly faster. To Naoko, who deserved to win was a tough call. Umeko impressed her the most and made her cry and feel happy at the same time, but her dancing was the least impressive one. An especially egotistical-looking lady with a dark sailor suit and silver wig irritated Naoko with her poise, but her dance was as exhilarating as watching a martial arts movie, only more feminine. Also there was that provocative-looking and acting lady in a black and fuchsia polymer, skin-tight catsuit full of leather belts and wearing cat ears, a choker and high heels that felt a mix between a cosplay of a space-themed manga and a fetish compilation. “Vyper”, she’s called, stylized with a “y” and written in roman characters instead of using Katakana, Japanese’s syllabary for foreign words and names, among other uses. Naoko was actually much more attracted to that woman’s self-confident personality than she wanted to admit (if Naoko had to wear such costume in front of almost one hundred thousand spectators and still dance she’d have died by a heart attack on the first five seconds, probably) and she wasn’t obnoxious like some of the others. Furthermore, her dance was enticing, her song was catchy and her aesthetics and power to attract the crowd’s attention… well, it was second to none.

Also, in all fairness, under her rubbery clad, well-endowed chest lied a healthy diaphragm. The buxom lady was a very technical songstress and managed to sing complex songs despite having narrow vocal amplitude. She paled heavily in comparison to Umeko’s supernatural capabilities to modulate her voice to her will, but the provoking idol was still decent at singing. And by “decent”, Naoko thought “Water-class idol’ decent”, because in absolute terms she’s outstanding.

Naoko actually liked that woman quite a bit. She acted in a caring but dominating way that sent mixed signals. A part the fans seemed to fawn over this trace but the girl begged to differ. The best part of that idol for Naoko was that, in some sense, she didn’t seem too much of an idol too. It felt more like an anime character. The way Vyper acted just made Naoko desperately want to be as confident as that woman in real life, though since she appeared to get a little too much attention from Aratani, the girl began rooting for every other woman there just so she lost. It wasn’t jealousy, no. It was just hatred for people with qualities she wanted to have! See? Whole other thing.

Contrary to the “not too idol-like idol” feel from her first presentation, though, the second time Vyper got on stage she actually looked much more “idol-ish” according to Naoko’s definitions, which threw the girl off-balance. Though still retaining some of her appealing demeanor, it became secondary, limited to a few winks and poses. The woman came back with a head-affixed mic and her choreography got significantly different. Following a happier song’s vibes, her dancing became full of upper-body member’s gestures. They’re perfectly cadenced with the music to the point where it gave the impression the melody was the one keeping up with her, not the other way around. Just as the song was full of heavy beats, Vyper’s lightning-fast moves that invariably came to sudden stops as if she hit invisible drums around looked incredible. In high, pointy heels she still walked like a seductress and, unlike other idols, never jumped, but her upper half gave of cheerier waves.

Overall, it looked like the idol from the first presentation had her mind hijacked by a joyful external consciousness. Despite getting more in line with how other idols acted, Naoko got a serious liking to that woman, still confident like no other but more positive and upbeat. She still kept her caring smile while her dominating side seemed less rooted on sexiness and more on natural leadership. Vyper got all the more agreeable to Naoko, to the point where she was second only to Umeko in the girl’s favorite list for that night.

Umeko came back for her second presentation and this time her song was happier, too. At that time she really showed how well she could dance. Even with a restricting tube dress and a white rose on her hair, the woman moved like Naoko only dreamed she could. She wasn’t one for jumps too, but her ample gestures, although not light speed quick as Vyper’s, were no less outstanding. She relied on the difficulty of multiple chains of movements that flowed seamlessly like it was just one. On the first round her genuine smile and encouraging heartfelt presentation made her look like a motherly figure of sorts, but on the second she made much more the older sister part. Her smile was still unparalleled in calmness and honesty, which made it the most beautiful in Naoko’s opinion, but her eyes also gleamed brighter with enthusiasm. The lyrics were not as deep as first time around, but just as well-written, and the interpretation she gave to it was marvelous. The woman sang as if she’s a storyteller, and she was so passionate about it that Naoko got under the impression that almost anything she told, no matter how boring, would seem breathtaking and exciting. Umeko had a magnetic personality that got just clearer as she assumed that sunshine stance.

The way most of the Water-class idols changed the vibes of their exhibitions as the songs demanded like changing gears on a car while still seeming real as if they all had multiple personality disorders was puzzling to Naoko just as much as it was awe-inspiring. Every way they acted made the girl think she’d finally discovered the real self of an idol, only to be thrown off her feet by a different acting that felt just as real. True, Umeko looked even more genuine than anyone else, but the others’ personalities also seemed water-clear despite changing like a coursing river full of turns and waterfalls.

By the end of the second round, after every woman had gone twice under the limelight, the huge screen presented a complete list of the scores every judge had given to every idol. There were five categories, three of which Naoko had already listened a little about: Singing, Dancing and Aesthetics. The forth one was really strange, something which could only be translated as “Devotion”, while the fifth one was called Memorability. Most scores the ten idols amassed were over eighty points on a scale ranging from zero to one hundred.

Umeko and Vyper, the two Naoko wound up rooting for, managed to score magnificently. Vyper got nineties on Dancing, Devotion and Aesthetics, the last one being the highest of all participants and Devotion the second best. Dancing got a close third. Umeko also scored above ninety in three categories: Singing, Devotion and Memorability. While her Dancing score got a “mediocre” eighty-one, probably due to her first presentation, she also got the best Singing and Memorability scores, respectively ninety-seven and ninety-five, and the third best Devotion.

It had good reasons for why Naoko loved the two more than the others: they really stood up on that presentation. The judges apparently agreed, because after computing the tallies only the two remained. It was a very close call, though: Vyper, in first, had scored four hundred and fifty three, only five points above Umeko and seven beyond the third place, an arrogant and bittersweet-acting lady in a half princess, half sorceress costume known as Hina, who got best Devotion and second in Aesthetics. Even if the three had ruled the exhibition, the others only got a few points below, meaning any mistake anyone had committed would’ve sent her down to the bottom of the list. Except for the last one, penalized for letting a small cowgirl hat fall off – even though she managed to grab it midair and put it back immediately –, the others stayed no more than twenty-six points below first place. Too close for a five hundred total maximum. No one there was a pushover, that’s for sure. Naoko was under the impression the eighty-eight she’d scored on her singing test would’ve been worth something like a ten on that exhibition.

Over a blue and black electric-looking background a fuchsia-colored strip appeared on the left half of the gigantic screen, and inside it the sparkling eyes of Vyper, along with her nickname and a strange symbol Aratani explained to be the emblem of the idol’s agency appeared. A stylized red-stroked yellow “Vs” inscription fell over the edge of the strip, in the middle of the screen, and immediately connected another rectangular ribbon that rolled in. It was of a scarlet color and presented Umeko’s info and her calm and happy stare. As data faded away and the picture of the faces of both idols covered the huge electronic rectangle, facing one another and smiling, each their own way, heavy-beat music got started and spark fireworks erupted around the stage. The announcer quickly called in the finals, mentioning in a brief one line explanation that the Duel would take place in a three-round, score-attack format.

The “Credited Intro”, as her producer told Naoko the standard eye-strip scene was called, got the girl so pumped up that all her body felt as electrified as the big screen. They felt like life-long rivals clashing. She was practically laughing without even knowing why, just in anticipation of the duel, and waived her glowing stick so fast it’s semi-circular blur looked like a luminous purple fan. It was unbelievable, then, that the contestant Umeko, under all that pressure, still seemed so serene while Naoko was frenzied and pumped like she’d received a horse-sized adrenaline shot to her neck. Aratani, grinning, told her in a cool and low voice while the announcer spoke:

“Easy girl, I know you’ve sent me an A-Okay medical checkup with your application documentation, but you look like you can get an arrhythmia at any moment.”

“Don’t care!” Naoko replied in sky-high spirits, “So that’s how a fan feel?!”

“Nope,” her producer answered, “A fan would probably feel even more pumped, unless you’re so excited because it’s your first high-class idol show.”

“It’s my first idol show, period!” Naoko told him, yelling, “That’s the best thing there is!”

“Well, there are a few other situations I personally find even more enjoyable,” Aratani mentioned, grinning for a moment, “but you’re right Naoko, it’s a very powerful experience indeed. No wonder, despite the easy access people have to online music, live shows are still a thing.”

Eagerly, Naoko watched the three rounds of duel almost without blinking. The moving crowd was like a charged, thundering black cloud with a million rainbows inside. Along with the fireworks and the crazed spotlights and the obfuscating central platform’s glassy floor’s illumination, things got even more erratic than before. The duel was a nonstop sequence, as soon as one woman’s song ended the other one’s began. It was mind-numbing, then, that every lyric got a different feeling to it, and both idols played their parts interpreting them all extremely well.

It was hard to tell if the ladies were saving the best for last or if the adrenaline rush from the presentations just made they perform better and better every time, but each performance looked more solid than the last. Another possible explanation was that, unlike the Battle Royale’s half of the show, during that Duel the preliminary scores were briefly shown on the bottom of the big screen after judges have completed the evaluation, so the women could be adapting their onstage postures based on how they performed. True to the results, Umeko still ruled supreme over the Singing and Memorability categories while Vyper dominated Dancing and Aesthetics. The Devotion category, which Naoko didn’t understand what it represented – and didn’t want to bother others around asking for Aratani or losing the awesome presentation hearing explanations –, was disputed between the two.

The thing that gave Vyper an edge was that Aesthetics was mostly a fixed score. Since the idols didn’t change clothes between rounds, it only fluctuated minimally, maybe due to how well their costumes matched their songs. The more provocative songs earned the lady slightly higher scores in Aesthetics than the more typical love songs. Still, she had a fun-loving aura that sometimes went overboard into kinky territory, and her lyrics usually versed about having fun, sometimes full of innuendoes while others really just talking about happy things in general. As such, she had consistency in her repertoire and her attire never felt completely out of place – about her personality, not about the real place, because Naoko thought wearing a lustrous catsuit in front of so many people was already an otherworldly absurdity. That and her matching black long hair with a huge fuchsia fringe that covered half of her face earned Vyper a solid nine points of advantage over Umeko every round without any difficulty, a difference that her opponent had to offset with her arguably superior voice. The last round, especially, was a nerve-wrecking showdown.

The two rivals managed to maintain the show rolling for three rounds with no problems. In fact it seemed like just the beginning of another gig when the songs stopped and the two got called back onstage for the examining board’s results announcement. For a moment both women stood looking at the big screen while each score of each judge for each song of each idol was gradually shown, in a dramatic ten seconds-long tab revealing that almost made the tense Naoko scream “get this over with already!” Even though the prelim scores have been previously shown for each song, it’d require above-average memory capacity and lots of attention for people to have memorized the tallies and know beforehand who the winner was. Also, like Aratani told her, judges could still discuss and make last-minute changes to their values based on not yet noticed facts that others could point out. It was rare, but a bonus or a fault could’ve passed unnoticed by one or most examiners, and would only be credited or subtracted after all the exhibitions.

At the end Umeko’s final score of a thousand, three hundred and seventy, got eight points behind Vyper on the sum of all rounds. For as much as Naoko had enjoyed that night more than she remembered ever having, she got slightly frustrated with the outcome. Even though she had quickly learned to love Vyper, the woman on the spangled dress just had something too heartwarming, positive and genuine, and her vocal talent was overwhelming – even though her dancing skills really dragged her back compared to her opponent.

A deafening round of applauses issued. As the two women deviated their sights to face each other, Naoko’s heart skipped a beat, though. She quickly grew fond of both, to see anyone act in a discourteous or sad manner would’ve been too hurtful, even though Naoko didn’t even want to think what she would’ve done if she’s one of the two on the stage. She would’ve been too happy or too ashamed, and both could be problematic. But, contrary to her fears, both ladies smiled. Granted, Vyper’s grin was bigger, but for some reason Umeko also seemed to find something funny. Extending her arms, the catsuit-clad one pulled her adversary into a tight hug. The huge screen, on a very close camera angle, slightly showed the two exchanging a few quick words before separating. The exultant Vyper seemed all the more caring than she used to, while Umeko, though not as radiant, was just as tranquil and joy-filled as she showed to be during the show.

As both turned to bow to the clapping audience before leaving waiving to the fans, Naoko felt a warm feeling of gladness pervade her chest. Applauding excitedly, the girl was overflowing with happiness, though a part of her still felt numb after their reaction. It had been much more reassuring than she thought it’d be. She felt so sad for Umeko, who’d lost by such a small margin, that at first anything that Vyper could do to her rival would’ve seen unfair and enraging. But no. They both acted surprisingly mature, not to say friendly.

At that time Naoko couldn’t understand how Umeko was so calm after having lost by a hair in front of so many people, but her serenity seemed real, which just made the girl all the more amazed. She couldn’t fathom how much confidence that woman had or what she was feeling and thinking. Taking by her appearance, it’s as if nothing had happened.

She left the dome, ate and was driven to her dorms in a trance-like state, as if too much happiness, energy and too many good emotions had short-circuited her brain. Even then, the memory of the reunion of the women at the end lingered on her mind as a touching moment, but also one hard to understand. She didn’t know if they’re being honest or just acting. Those two had already shown they’re able to make almost anything they did seem believable, though the girl really wanted to trust it was real this time. The doubt was too much for her to bear.

As the adrenaline slowly passed, and after getting her tummy full in the shopping mall, the girl began to notice just how worn-out she was. Even then, that night she went to bed dazed by amazement and overjoyed like she hasn’t been for long.

Chapter IV – The Best and the Worst

 

The sudden, loud alarm from her cellphone almost made Naoko jump to the ceiling. Used to being carefully woken up by her mother, getting kicked into action by a digital sound was not the most pleasant way for an easily startled girl. But the moment she remembered it also meant there was no one there to demand anything either, her morning got shiny.

A quick shower was all she needed to kick-start her senses. She was so tired the day before that she forgot to ready her obentou, the lunch she’s supposed to eat on school. Though since she hadn’t brought her yellow lunchbox from home, she wouldn’t have much of a choice anyway. And since she didn’t have time to buy any food, or cooking apparel for that matter, she’d have to endure school with what she’d eaten the day before and acquire the needed objects and supplies later that day without fail.

Before coming to the capital Naoko had also dreamed about her first school day, and it began with her getting of the bath to find a neatly folded school uniform on hangers by the door. Too bad she didn’t hang it the night before, so she had to dig through the semi-organized pile of clothing bags her producer had bought her on Sunday to find her vest still wrapped. It was nice, still, because it gave her the sensation her weekend had been incredibly productive, and the sense of urgency was also exciting. Her new uniform was also sweet: white shirts with blood-red laced chest ribbon and pleated skirt, completed with black stockings and shoes. It was sober and simple, but just wearing it and going to a new school was enough to thrill her. After everything, she’s already on time to leave, but couldn’t do so before checking herself out by the small mirror by the bathroom and applying her thin, discreet eyeliner.

Many students had already left the building by the time Naoko left her room. Still there’s plenty of people waiting for the elevator or climbing down the stairs. As the girl rushed down too, a short, nervous silhouette found her on the fourth floor. With a big grin stuck on his face as if his mouth had been stitched into position forever, neighboring weirdo from room below caught a glimpse of her as he clearly waited by the first step, though as she also noticed him he began moving like he just so happened to be passing by coincidentally while Naoko was too. Thankfully the girl was already on a rush to begin with, and he began leisurely strolling down the stairs while following her with the corner of his eyes, so he’d have no reason to change his pace – if he did so she’d get desperate. Despite hesitating for a second, Naoko ran down as fast as possible. The boy, attempting to be casual, waited until she’s passed him to feign he’d noticed her, and when he tried to say something his voice didn’t come out. As such, Naoko simply lowered her face as if to tread down the steps with care and also playing the game of make-believe. Pretending not to notice her neighbor’s axe-murderer-like frantic smile, she bolted down and fled. Thus, Naoko got away safely.

Just as she got to the bottom of the stairs, under the ceiling that surrounded a large, open courtyard with nothing but a few sparely distributed potted plants, a short man called out to her in a serious tone. Though his voice was kind of high-pitched and bore a few diction problems, his dry hair was brittle-looking and his built was slender, the man in his fifties commanded a surprisingly unabashed and unwavering conviction as he instructed:

“Miss, excuse me. Janitor Yamamoto here. I ask that you don’t run while on the stairs. It’s dangerous and is written on the rules.”

At first his eyes seemed ice cold, but the girl barely noticed it. Just that his voice was funny but also that he looked a decent, hardworking man. The time he took to explain her that was enough to make her smiling friendly psycho-like neighbor almost catch up. Lightning-fast, Naoko replied in the cute, smiling way she knew from experience she could employ to get her through a few tight spots, though not without restart running away afterwards:

“Okay, sorry and thanks for the tip! But now I’m not on the stairs anymore and I’m kinda late so bye!” On the run, she shouted back, “And nice to meet you!”

The janitor, though unhappy, couldn’t do nothing but wish her a distant “be careful!”. Though she couldn’t see, the crestfallen grinning guy from the room below got his hopes back after seeing the incident. After all, the girl was late for class! At first he’s on the impression she just tried to avoid him like other people usually did, but no, Naoko was just worried. He could forgive her for not noticing him, he thought. He agreed he’s so frightened when he saw her that his voice didn’t come out, so she could just not be paying attention. Also, the way she smooth-talked and dismissed the warnings of the imposing and scaring Yamamoto-San like it was nothing, and the usually authoritative man could do nothing to prevent her from continue doing as she pleased fascinated him beyond measure. Even though being nice to him, she’d something that tamed even the rigid law enforcer’s drive to impose rules on her! At least that was his take on it, according to how he wanted to see the situation.

She’s even better than he initially thought, and sweet too! No way a girl like Naoko, who could bend the rules to her will, would need to drop by his door and give him a simple but obviously heartfelt present he loved just out of politeness. She even lived on the floor above, so it wasn’t all that necessary in his opinion. He didn’t think of himself as an important person, but that beauty still introduced herself to him nevertheless. Maybe she really liked him or was destined to, despite acting aloof. It’d only make sense in the grand scheme of things that was the narrative of his life, where unsung hero and main character Fukuda Katsuro had a chancy meeting with a gorgeous, too perfect to be true and seemingly unreachable girl that’d forever change his life! It’s a common plot device, and one he’d been waiting for all his life! Though it still didn’t make sense how she knew about him to take an interest in first place.

Unless… she had some kind of real supernatural powers! Or maybe she’s a time traveler trying to prevent mankind’s last hope (which was obviously Katsuro) to fall prey to his gloominess before a cataclysmic event sent Earth spiraling down into chaos! If so… if so she’s even more amazing than he’s taken her for! Sure, he’d already painstakingly understood that no such things existed in real life and such expectations only made him suffer even more… but what if something supernatural really existed?!

Unaware of the plot twist heavy narratives that took place on her creepy colleague’s mind, Naoko hurried away. The dormitories were a block away from school, and the girl had already been there once while looking for institutes. Still, she’s seen only a tiny fraction of its insides. The high school was a huge building, easily more than three times the size of her previous institution. It had a clock tower that gave the otherwise unassuming building a classic feel. It was a well-established school founded in eighteen ninety of supposedly high-quality standards of education, which to Naoko meant “old place with demanding, boring professors”, but it was the most respected and the biggest of all three she’d deemed viable when she looked for it while staying on her uncle’s apartment. Since its education was considered top-notch, it was a positive aspect she used to convince her parents to let her go, and the “biggest” part meant more people and, thus, more fun to her.

On the first of its four floors it got two panoramic windows, one on each side, a later addition to the architectural project for sure. A swimming pool with a grandstand, a theater, a multi-purpose court, racetracks and other facilities were cramped together, but just having it showed just how big the terrain was. Maybe the square-meter price was not as ridiculously high centuries before, or people just liked big schools for the elite at that time.

The monthly fee of that institute was just as big as its location, and Naoko really hoped she got paid by the first week of the following month or things would get ugly. The I.S.S.G. also offered some scholarships for high schools and universities, but only for idols of Fire class and up, so no money-saving for her until she’s improved her standing by a lot.

Two last-minute arriving boys hurried through the main gate besides Naoko, if only to make her feel she’s not alone. The male uniform was very eye-catching, a suit composed of dark-red coat and tie, white shirt and black pants and shoes. Naoko’s favorite colors, in order, were purple, blue, white, black, red and yellow, so red and black weren’t on top of her list, but despite loving blue the girl admitted that many things were much better off being of a deep crimson than of a cyan, and uniforms were one of those things. She absolutely loved it.

To arrive late at the first school day she’s had, which was also the second week of classes, was not a nice way to begin. Classes started at seven o’clock and by nine a.m. there was a thirty minute break that Naoko simply loved. Compared to her previous school, it meant ten extra minutes! Still, it was compensated on the first month by extra classes after the end of the regular ones. After another half an hour break for lunch by midday lesson continued until three p.m. Those extra few hours each day only happened during April and were meant to give transfer students or those that didn’t learn the previous year’s contents well enough a recap so that, starting on May, everyone could be expected to have the basic knowledge required for that year. In reality, some teachers simply kept on their lessons instead of recapping, though.

The exasperated girl managed to reach her class, the fifth one of second year, before the gray-suited professor began the lesson. Seeing from behind brown-framed glasses the ashamed girl by the door, the mid-forties man went talk to her. He’s the same height as her, which made him less than impressive to her, but his brown hair had a few gray strands that looked very good on him. He’d a dignified posture, and with elegance received her after she apologized and explained herself.

The class was a spacious room with a wall full of large windows both to the outside and to the corridor on the inside. Many rows of chairs were neatly organized along the space, almost every single one occupied. As she was let in by the professor a room full of people she’d never seen before turned to face the new, stunning student with stylish, long and shining black hair and enviable figure.

“Class,” the teacher called, “I’d like you all to welcome Yano-San. She’ll be studying along with you all from now on. Yano-San, would you be so kind as to introduce yourself?”

It was generally an uncomfortable situation, but Naoko usually paid no mind to it. Pumped up by the run, she energetically introduced herself:

“Hello, I’m Yano Naoko! I transferred this week from Shimabara. It’s a pleasure to meet you all, please be nice to me!”

It was a custom to ask other to take good care of someone as they’re made acquaintances. Her teacher gave her freedom as to where to sit, but there were only three open spaces. One, surrounded by boys, seemed like a bad idea for now. Another, by a window and surrounded by girls, looked awesome, but the instant Naoko was free to decide, a female classmate with long, dark-brown hair sitting on the first row politely invited the newly arrived colleague to sit on a third open chair diagonal to her. Naoko wasn’t the kind of person that liked to be on the second line, much rather preferring the back of the classroom, but to refuse that invitation would be rude. The arguably beautiful girl that called her had no time to say anything since class began immediately after, but the way she paid close attention to the lecture, wrote everything the teacher said, had an obsessively well-organized notebook and generally seemed like a perfect student already told many things about her. She sometimes didn’t seem too interested on the class subject, but forced herself to keep up with it nevertheless.

Contrary to what Naoko was expecting, the old institute actually had up-to-date teachers that weren’t half as boring as she thought, though their classes were just as content-heavy as she came to assume it’d be. Accustomed to relying on her keen senses to absorb knowledge from the teacher’s voice waves as if by osmosis, she found herself actually having to jolt things down. Her previous school was by no means bad, but Naoko was already familiarized to the way things worked there and could study with a foot on the back. The education system on her new high school was different, though, requiring her to focus on her studies for once.

By the end of the first class the dark-brown haired girl, just as tall as Naoko if not slightly taller, finally got to introduce herself. In a semi-polite way, she told while slightly bowing:

“Excuse me. I’m class president Horiuchi Miwa. It’s okay to call me Miwa, though. I’d like to welcome you to our school. It’s nice to meet you, I hope we get along well.”

“Me too,” Naoko replied, standing up to talk to her classmate. Once again, she introduced herself, “I’m Yano Naoko, but just call me Naoko.”

“Understood,” Miwa said, “So, Naoko-Chan, I believe it’d be good if I introduced you to the rest of our classmates. Would it be okay for you?”

Despite acting like a model student and a bit formal at first, president Miwa was actually a very nice person – which was good for a change, since Naoko’s experiences with class presidents left her wary of such people. Miwa quickly proceeded to introduce Naoko to her friends before the second class began, and kept presenting the newly-arrived girl to the other students every time they had a minute to spare.

A few boys were really handsome and for the most part seemed interesting enough. Just one acted too nonchalant for her liking – to be cool was a nice thing, but to act aloof made her quickly lose her interest on him. Luckily almost every other guy in class appeared interested in talking to her, to various degrees. She knew boys well enough to know they usually tried to seem calm and not overly interested at first when meeting a female classmate, but soon opened up. She could almost feel how well her friendship would go with most of the guys in her class. They had many common grounds, it appeared. It looked promising.

The female students were a whole other beast. At first many seemed guarded, almost like they’re intimidated by Naoko. It was a common thing with her, they simply usually took longer to warm up to her, and this made Naoko slowly develop during her life her perception bias that girls – though not necessarily adult women – were just a pain to befriend. If it wasn’t for the warning Aratani gave about exerting care once she became more well-known not to be seen by reporters alone with boys, she’d not bother to get too close to her female classmates, only letting things naturally develop.

In fact, it was frustrating when close friends, most often than not boys from abroad she only knew through the internet, asked her for advices on how to approach girls, because even though Naoko was one she had no clue how to do it too. A few of her real life male friends actually seemed to know more about it than her. One guy called Norio, quite the ladies’ man, once told her the reason he thought girls were usually so abrasive or shielded when first meeting her was due to jealousy and fear she’d outshine them. Between that and her father, Naoko had good reasons to be humble and not trying to bring her best side at first, but it also restricted her style too much.

Even though the capital girls seemed more open and a few even applied very light makeup, Naoko never had a hairstyle, polished nails and well-cared skin like she did now, so her first expectation was to be even more shunned than before. And the female classmates of her classroom initially didn’t seem too happy with her presence, too, but president Miwa’s intervention was a godsend that bridged the gap between Naoko and her class.

Since the transfer student was so easygoing and energetic, acting the opposite of whatever negative first impression she could unknowingly give off, Miwa got a sudden interest in her. After hearing from Naoko she got late because she’d been on a show the night before the class president’s eyes got filled with life. For a girl that sent off such a stern and perfectionist aura to demonstrate a liking for live exhibitions was more than Naoko could ask for.

The president seemed to like to hear about how awesome it was to be on a huge dome full of people, lights, music and energy. The class president, who delighted in hearing about awing social situations, found a girl that could talk for hours without going out of topics and enthusiasm, and her remarks about things she found particularly noteworthy easily amused her listener. Miwa told her that if it wasn’t for her younger brother, who she had to look after since her parents worked till late hours, and supposing she had the money to buy a ticket and a friend to go with her, she’d love to watch a gig like that. It was unprecedented for females her age to open up so quickly to Naoko, but once they did it’s fairly normal for them to develop incredible friendships.

Since Miwa and Naoko have gotten along so well, and the other girls could see the transfer student was so charismatic, uplifting, funny, easygoing, approachable and not in the least conceited, by the break a small group formed around her and the class representative. One asked Naoko if she’d gone alone, which she replied negatively. By that time she asked herself about whether or not it’d be okay to divulge about her job which hadn’t even begun yet, but there wasn’t much of a choice since the others immediately inquired if she’d family in Tokyo, or friends, or even a boyfriend. The girl felt some anxiety about revealing she had a producer and a job at an idol agency, as if the others could suddenly turn sour for whatever reason, though even Naoko couldn’t quite explain why she felt it. Perhaps because of her friend Norio’s jealousy shield theory. Eventually, the hesitant girl wound up explaining the one who paid for the show, and the only one she knew in Tokyo with the exception of a distant uncle, was her producer.

All the girls around her became incredibly agitated all of a sudden. They showered her with questions regarding if she’d performed in the show the night before, how many fans she had, how the life of an idol was, if her parents encouraged her and more. A few sounded clearly defensive, like if men in general paid just as much attention to her as the fawning boys in their class, to which Naoko honestly answered she didn’t notice any special attention from them, even though many of her classmates argued she’s probably just used to it, because in their point of view the instant the transfer student first stepped into the class all male students became strangely quiet and focused.

Defusing that awkward situation, Naoko quickly and truthfully replied she really used to get lots of attention from boys, but it’s expected since she loved things they commonly did too like videogames, cartoons, comics, cosplay shows and so on. Her anecdotal recordings of many situations of how she used to hang out with boys took a turn for the quirky and funny, lighting the mood.

As Naoko came to expect, they had little interest in such trivialities despite all having recollections of a few manga and anime they liked when they’re younger. In Miwa’s case, it’s her brother who importuned her about those things, always wanting a new game or the next volume in an ongoing series of comics, a magazine or other things she considered stupid, but which she had to buy him nonetheless since she’s responsible for her home and the kid to begin with. To see that Naoko knew about most of the stories Miwa said her younger brother liked, and the way the transfer student excitedly summarized every one of them, though, made her and the other girls laugh. Miwa told her there was another idol in the school, on third year, but that she’s nothing like Naoko, acting much more the famous and untouchable part.

The transfer student’s comical, slightly crazy, unabashed and positive ways rapidly put her classmates at ease with her and their questions scanning for potential threats she could represent subsided. If it wasn’t for the class president, Naoko would’ve probably not had the opportunity to show them how she was, but because of Miwa they ended up knowing about her boyish tastes and a few ridiculous situations she’d gone through because of it. The most recent of which had been with her producer on a shopping mall, and how he tried to buy her clothes while the girl tried to convince him to buy a game. Even though they had only a limited amount of time, the glimpses of her old life, her courageous moving to the capital, the producer Naoko painted as an amazingly cool, laidback but also dependable, knowledgeable and funny guy, her amusing work and such piqued their imagination in a hard to believe way. Naoko was one of those people able to make any situation, no matter how absurd, look hilarious when told, from clothes-shopping turned Kamijira’s rampaging stroll to having a creepy neighbor waiting for her as if he’s plotting an ambush, and this quality kept her “audience” breathlessly following her anecdotes among laughter and never-ending chains of comments.

Eventually one of them asked Naoko why wasn’t she lunching like everyone else, and the girl reluctantly explained them she didn’t have time during that weekend to prepare accordingly. Miwa, and instantly the other girls, promptly offered her a small portion of each one’s own food and made her at ease to accept it. They’re the best, Naoko came to realize as she gladly ate and narrated her frenetic weekend, to her classmate’s entertainment. At a time almost half of the female students of 2-5 were listening to her dream-like reenacting of the facts surrounding her two previous frantic days.

Naoko had planned to go explore her school during the break, but it turned out much better than she could’ve hoped for. Also, Miwa offered to show her the facilities the next day, including the many clubs she could get in. Overall her class was easily the one Naoko liked the most in all of her life, being quickly accepted and having a fantastic president who’s also not a prick like every other one she had before. It’s also the first time she’d known almost nothing about the boys. Sure, she saw a few looked hot; one short student looked the clown of the class; another one had a darker skin tone and his voice was never heard; two had actually been talking about games when she overheard them and so on, but it’s nice to feel welcomed by the girls without all the drama for once.

After the lessons were over, Naoko was invited by one of them to watch a training from the female soccer club. The short-haired, slightly chubby girl who extended her the invitation told that they urgently needed more players. Since Naoko was one of the tallest girls from her class, seemed in perfect shape and looked the type of girl who liked to exercise she could perhaps enjoy what she’d see in the drill and get interested in joining the ranks. Naoko already had her karate classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but she opted not to divulge that and watch the training.

She had little interest in team sports for some reason, but while she watched from the grandstand the girls aimlessly running through the emerald-colored grass field, Naoko saw from a distance another big group darting around the tracks that surrounded it. It looked like there was an athletics competition club in the campus. Now that’s a thing she could see herself doing.

The sun had almost set down when Naoko left the field area. The empty corridors gleamed with an orange hue and long shadows filled her with peace and made her remember the first song she heard the idol Umeko sing, about the reminiscences of a person graduating. It’s amazing how memorable that lyric and the woman’s interpretation was. Maybe that’s the meaning of her sky-high “Memorability” scores. That high school felt like a sanctuary by the beginning of evening, with the last rays of sunlight covering the terrains and flowing through the windows of classrooms and hallways. Humming Umeko’s song, Naoko crossed the main building from back to front and left the school with a smile. It’d been a fantastic first day.

Combing the city after an ATM to withdraw some money from her little reserves that Naoko had left from her saved allowances and from what her grandparents had given her, she then proceeded to buy food, plates, kitchen wares, a nice lunchbox and more. She bought all she remembered needing for the days to come and painstakingly brought everything back to the dorms. As soon as the encumbered girl reached the building courtyard while aiming for the elevator, she noticed someone approaching her.

A quintet of bad-looking boys surrounded a single male student and talked loudly over a corner of the open area. Grouchy faces, legs spread, arms folded or with hands tucked in their pockets, wearing the dark-red buttoned coated variants of the school uniform in a lazy way, with extravagant hairstyles, they looked like nothing but bad news. Even then, Naoko had a few friends and acquaintances that were that way but deep down were very nice guys. Still, when one of the five saw her and came in Naoko’s direction, head down and eyes up on her, his sight almost covered by a topknot reminiscent of a seemingly new take on the classic pompadour hairstyle, only with less volume and a few wild spikes, her muscles tensed up.

As the bad-looking boy, almost two inches shorter than Naoko, reached her, he asked in an informal but, in a twisted way, respectful manner that she already knew very well:

“Hey, sis. Haven’t seen y’around before. I know I wouldn’t forget a lass like ya. Seems like y’could use a hand, sis. Lemme help ya, wouldja?”

The first time Naoko was approached by a guy like that, she’s genuinely scared. She’d heard horrible tales of that kind of man, and how they didn’t accept no for an answer. But it turned out that below the walking trouble attitude, all the boys she wound up knowing that put up that show were very respectful with ladies they liked. Norio, that womanizer who’d told her about his impression that her first impression was usually intimidating to other girls, turned out to be a boy who always protected her. Not that she needed it, but still. He usually passed a line or two on her too, so Naoko wound up getting used to it – not to mention it eventually became more of a joke than anything.

Thanks to Norio she’s able to appreciate the compliments and jokes Aratani sometimes used, instead of being crept out. She already knew when it meant business and when it’s just for laughs. She just never allowed Norio space for trying his charms on her, but she nevertheless assisted him many times. She discovered that a guy accompanied by pretty girls looked much more appealing to other girls, and just by sticking to him and his friends she’s already of invaluable help. Also, she sometimes eased other women’s fears towards her friends, just because it’s fun to be useful and hang around with them. She knew almost every girl and boy of her hometown, and it included both the nice guys and the bad boys. On the second kind Naoko was aware that they could be awesome people as long as she passed the first, dangerous layer of imposingness they presented.

It wasn’t common for a person to accept help, be it from strangers or acquaintances, or at least not without refusing it a few times first, but he didn’t look like his question was actually a question. Rather, it’s an announcement that he’d be helping her. And to be frank, she’s carrying so many bags it’d be kind of welcome. Still, with some reticence, Naoko answered:

“I’d refuse to be polite, but you probably don’t care about it, right? Here, take it.”

Transferring most of her weight to his strong arms, she sighed in relief. That guy was just like a couple of others she knew back from Shimabara, when they’re around sixteen, which made her comfortable. Perhaps a little too much, but that’s what experience was all about.

“Hey, thanks for the help,” looking over his shoulders to his four friends intimidatingly surrounding the poor boy, a scene that made her uncomfortable, Naoko asked sarcastically, “So, I suppose your friends over there aren’t just calling that fella to play cards with you guys, right?”

In a dismissive way, the pompadour guy replied:

“Pay the boys no mind, they’re just chatting. So, where to, sis?”

Feeling sorry for the seized boy and seeing that everyone around pretended not to see that, Naoko faced the serious-looking guy with a stern expression. He acted just like the boys from a few streets down her house, which she already knew, but he wasn’t one of them. If she acted too familiar and demanding, things could go bad, but if she’s right about her gut feeling, they could respect her wish as long as she politely asked for them to let that boy go. It could be nothing, but it could also turn bad for the outnumbered student. Taking her chance to smooth-talk the bully, she played along.

Directing herself to the elevator, she commented on his last sentence:

“Right, you guys are just chatting. If you say so, it’s okay. I’d hate to come out tomorrow morning only to discover your boys didn’t keep you word, though.” Getting in the elevator and pressing the fifth button, she quickly added before the boy had to answer that rather acid comment, “You guys live here or just came here to chat?”

The bully, who seemed ready to answer her sharp comment on the same level was thrown off. Nodding from behind the bags, he replied:

“I live here, that’s why I thought of helping out ya. The boys are here just to visit me.”

“You live on which floor?” Naoko asked. Since he’d see where her room was, the thing she feared the most, it’s at least fair to know his floor in response. The boy went farther, though, and replied in a firm, bold way:

“Forth, room 426. Wanna come to my room, sis? You’re a utopia, girl. I wouldn’t mind to chat alone with ya.”

Forcing a laugh, she valiantly retorted in a way he was not expecting:

“Yeah, right. Sorry, boy, that’s not how it works. I don’t even know you and the only things I know so far are that you’re a gentleman, but the way you “chat” gets me worried. You just chat like that with men or…?” Suddenly she noticed something and cut her courageous statement mid-sentence, because it interested her more, “Hey, you said room 426? You’re wall neighbors with that… how do I put it… “happy” dude from room 427? How… how’s it like?”

Getting her acid remark, the boy grinned for a second. As the elevator came to a stop, he let Naoko get out first and followed her, replying:

“Heh. Yeah, that freak’s right next door. Why? Know him?”

“Can’t say I do, thankfully,” Naoko answered getting in front of her room, 527, “but I tried to give my neighbors a present when I got here and, well, turns out he lives right below me.” Resting her bags on the floor, she insisted, “That guy. He’s… not dangerous, right?”

“Not if you’re a man,” the bully replied, also putting the objects carefully on the floor, “but can’t say for you, sis. Can hear naughty screams from anime girls like things gets rough on them all damn night long sometimes. Guy’s into kinky things, I think. And dude’s in my class. Does nothing but draw the whole time. All women are scared of the boy, even more than they’re scared of me. Guy’s a beast.” After a brief pause, he inquired in a concerned, protective way “Why? Is freak bothering ya, sis? If so, just let me know.” In a hardly ever smiling face, he told her, “I’m Handa Daiki. Daiki for ya.”

For once Naoko was really glad she’d known that guy. Like she imagined, he could be respectful. Smiling gladly, the girl nodded, saying:

“Yano Naoko. You can call me Naoko. Thanks for the offer, Daiki-Kun. That’s really appreciated. That boy didn’t do anything too suspicious so far, but if he does, I’m happy to know I can count on someone. Thank you.” After a while, she remembered, “Oh, and thanks for helping me carry all this stuff up here too! Much appreciated!”

Staring at her smile for a few seconds, Daiki tucked his hands on his pockets and turned back so she couldn’t see his face. Dismissing his deeds, he said:

“Tsc, that’s nothing.” After a brief pause, he added, “Know what? I liked ya, sis… I mean, Naoko-Chan. If that freak tries anything funny, y’know where to find me. I promise I’ll have a chat with him for ya. Later then.”

As soon as he waved goodbye without looking back, sounds from a commotion started on the ground floor. Daiki and Naoko walked to the parapet to see what happened. On the courtyard below, illuminated by cold lamps, one of Daiki’s friends held the outnumbered boy tight while the other three surrounded a short man, bumping on the mid-fifties, pushing him and facing him centimeters away from his face. From his high-pitched voice plagued by diction flaws, it’s obviously the janitor. In spite of being surrounded, the man insisted on not retreating and loudly commanded:

“You boys have no business here! Get out before I call the police!”

“You crazy?” one of the surrounding bullies, with such a short hair that it almost looked clean-shaved if not for millimetric stubs, asked informally, “We’re doing nothing! Just hanging ‘round with our chap. Right, chap?”

The bully casually holding the fearful boy faced him intensely, and the “chap” hostage, terrified, told something in a voice too low to be heard by Naoko from the fifth floor, but the voice of Yamamoto-San demanding their retreat and the succeeding threats the boys told him were perfectly clear. The girl, turning to Daiki, pressed him while watching the scene:

“Daiki-Kun, what have you said exactly about only chatting? Now that janitor guy got involved, and maybe the police will too.”

“None of your business, sis.” Daiki stated, trying not to seem too offensive though. Facing Daiki, Naoko tried to persuade him the way she knew it worked back in her hometown with Norio and the other bullies: believing in them and showing concern with a demanding attitude:

“Hey, I know you’re a nice guy and you helped me out. I’d hate to see the police on you, and you also know that janitor can kick you out of here. I don’t know what that boy did to you guys to make him deserve it, but unless it’s worth getting problems with the cops and thrown out of the dorms, make them stop it. Also you promised you’d be there to protect me if I need! Will Daiki-Kun break it the minute after you made it by getting into trouble?”

Butterflies had started to fly around Naoko’s stomach after she pressed the bully into a retreat, but if that continued his friends would probably hurt the poor janitor and the boy, and Daiki would most likely get evicted from the dorms, so even if he turned on her, she’d probably not be seeing much of him anymore. The pompadour boy stared down for a few moments, contemplative, before grinding his teeth and shouting down, not really caring if he’s causing trouble for someone:

“Oi, boys! Let’s go. Not worth the trouble. We’ve got better things to do anyways.”

“Eh?!” one of the bullies, the tallest of all, with the hair thrown to one side forming a wave, exclaimed, “Whatcha say? Who made ya leader to call us off like that, eh, Daiki?!”

“That’s my dorm here, I’ll be the one paying for the trouble,” Daiki replied, “Ya got me covered on that, eh, Fumio? No? Then let’s get outta here. Not worth the trouble.”

Seeing the silhouette of Naoko beside Daiki, the Fumio dude yelled:

“That’s not like ya! Ya following orders from that lass over there now?!”

“Nope, but she’s got a point.” Daiki hesitantly retorted under the tense eyes of Naoko, “I’ve a promise to keep here. Can’t go getting kicked out ‘cause of a stupid argument. Let’s not bother. Fumio will get what ya want another time.”

“You’ll pay for calling me outta action like that, man! You, me, outside, now!” Fumio threatened. Facing the others, he issued, “You heard, lads. Daiki needs to hear stuff. Let’s do it.”

Visibly irritated, the bullies released the janitor and left. The one holding the boy, pushing his head away, said as if he thought to be insulting him:

“Saved by a girl? You’ve no shame, dude? Catch ya later, loser.”

Not having occurred to Naoko until then that Daiki could maybe not be the leader of the group, she became suddenly worried by what that Fumio boy said. Turning to Daiki, she found the boy already leaving, with his hands in the pockets. Rapidly she rushed to him, saying:

“Daiki, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to get you into trouble. Where…?”

“We got ourselves into trouble by choosing this place to close on the dude,” the guy, with distant eyes, told her, “None of your business, Naoko-Chan. Don’t worry.”

“I’m not the one who should be worried, after the way that guy threatened you!” she insisted, “Let me guess: you think it’s okay to go meet them outside and fight there, right? You against four?”

“Me against that dude who threatened me, that’s all,” Daiki replied.

Naoko stopped following Daiki. She wasn’t quite sure about what she’s doing, since she’d only met that guy for about a minute. And to say he’s going to fight because of her was a lie: like Daiki told her, they had chosen to ambush that boy on Daiki’s own dorms, so whatever problems that arose of it, including a police blitz, would’ve been their fault. To show Daiki he’d be screwing himself over something he’d already done wouldn’t cause problems for anyone not already involved in that quintet, and in fact she didn’t even wanted to meet him in first place. He’s the one who came intrude. The instant Naoko understood it, she stopped and let him go. Contrary to her hometown friend Norio and other guys she knew, who just pretended to be bad boys to mingle with women, drink, smoke and have fun while underage, that quintet was actually troublesome for others big time. When the similarities between her old town’s acquaintances and that boy she just met faded, her care for Daiki went with it. Whatever he’s going to do, he deserved it in the first place. Also, for as much as it’d be nice to have help with the weirdo from 427, it wasn’t worth the trouble of getting on the good side of bad, gang boys.

She returned to her room through the almost empty corridor, packing all of her acquired goods inside. She prepared her obentou for next morning in her new violet and black lunchbox. After that she went to bath. The crystal-clear water drops that fell suddenly got colored by the red lights of police cars that came from inside the small window inside the shower box. In all fairness, it’s exciting, but she couldn’t see anything down below and didn’t try too much anyway. She just sat down, letting the warm water wash her worries away. When she left the bathroom the police had already gone away. After that she finally found some time to play videogame for the first time since she’d been transferred, and finally slept.

On the next morning, starting her mood-swinging period, Naoko once again took a quick shower, a custom she had when waking up and going to bed. Water soothed her. After getting out hurriedly and evading the awaiting smiling boy who once again thankfully was unable to muster up courage to bid her good morning, thus allowing her to pretending not having noticed him, she darted away. As soon as she got on the ground floor, an already well-known voice called her:

“Miss, I must again ask that you don’t run on the stairs. It’s dangerous,” the janitor insisted. Just as Naoko, too absorbed in running away from her grinning neighbor to remember the instruction, apologized and was about to get away, Yamamoto-San lowered his voice and told her in a polite way, “Excuse me, miss, I know you’re late and I regret for the trouble, but can I have a moment of your time for an important topic?”

Sensing his seriousness, Naoko hesitated. She didn’t want that Katsuro boy from room 427 to catch up on her, but she also felt she couldn’t turn down on the janitor’s request. The man, with a grave semblance, said while bowing:

“I’d like to thank you for your timely intervention last evening. It helped us greatly…”

“Don’t mention it, it’s nothing.” Naoko quickly replied, noticing Katsuro appearing on the stairs. Just as she’s about to leave, the janitor proceeded:

“…but I’d also like to ask that you take care with that boy from 426. Do you know him?”

His question sounded rhetorical, though he’s caught off guard once the girl, already caught up by the weirdo who stopped to discreetly overhear their conversation, explained herself:

“No, I’ve never seen him before. I was passing by when he came to help me with some bags. I saw those guys bullying that boy, so I felt sorry for him and asked the guy who helped me to stop it, because he’d bring problems to himself that way. He decided on his own to do so, however.”

“Oh,” the janitor interjected, looking ashamed for some reason, “Since you convinced him on halting that absurd, I thought you already knew him or had some connection with him in some way… or something.” Bowing, he apologized, “I’m deeply sorry for the misunderstanding and for taking your time, miss. Thank you again for your help preventing aggressions last night.”

Under the impression he had thought she’s Daiki’s girlfriend, Naoko hesitated to respond, though she ultimately asked:

“No problems. Just tell me, do Yamamoto-San know what happened to that boy?”

“Handa Daiki-Kun, you mean?” the janitor asked, “He got what he asked for. He got injured during a fight last night and was taken to a hospital.”

“Oh… is that so?” Naoko replied simply. She kind of felt bad for him, but mostly she didn’t. Not one to pretend, she answered without emotion, “Too bad for him. Hope he gets better, though. Well, I’m off then.”

Leaving the dorms hurriedly, Naoko got away before Katsuro tried anything. The boy would actually do no approaches this time, though, so absorbed he was linking the facts he already knew, about the incident the night before with some gang members that almost hurt the janitor and a student with all he’d heard from his room and his own imagination. Judging from what he heard, that girl had even commanded a dangerous guy she’d never seen before! The more he began conjecturing that marvelous girl taking pity upon the miserable boy being harassed down there and ordered that rascal from his adjacent room, 426, to put an end to it, the more incredible it became. That Daiki guy studied in Katsuro’s class, meaning he’s also Naoko’s senpai, and he’s scary as hell, but even then, was it through psychic powers or just her charms, she could control him! That made his mind overflow with created scenes and narratives.

Aside from him, that day was as good as the previous one in school. Everyone on her class already knew about her job and the number of girls that came to listen to her increased. Even a few boys stood nearby to hear her answer another round of wild questions with more anecdotes that, for some reason, made people laugh. The way she told her friends how’ve been her test to be accepted as an idol, with her mental images of blond companions and skirted turtles, made a girl laugh so hard at the wrong time that she choked with her own food. A handsome boy nearby pointed out that Naoko should ingress the drama club. He and a timid girl from across the room, that sat alone near a window, were the only ones from 2-5 there, but the club was fairly big. Even then, in his opinion Naoko was expansive and unafraid of crowds. She could grab a central position in the next play without a problem.

“Ah… thanks for the invitation, but I’m actually shy on stages… when it comes to theater plays.” Naoko retorted, and it was true. For whatever reason she had problems every time she tried to act on a school theater. Seeing how Naoko looked outgoing, the three times she performed she’d received rather good characters: a princess, a two-tailed cat turned woman and an ice witch. The last two had been respectively the main heroine and main antagonist. But despite performing admirably on the rehearsals, when it came to the real deal she almost didn’t manage to pull it off. In fact, it scared her a bit that she could feel the same onstage as an idol, though she betted on her accumulated maturity since last play to pull her through. She added that she’s shy on stages when it came to theater plays just not to put her career in doubt in front of her classmates, but it could be true. The way she felt afraid at the beginning of her singing and dancing tests still made her nervous about her first performance.

To cohobate with the thesis that the drama club could help her overcoming her anxiety, the charming boy, still smiling a beautiful smile from Naoko’s last recompilation of stories, called an isolated, short and dark-haired girl by the window that looked the cityscape through thin-lensed glasses with a distant sight and a melancholic look. As she heard Takumi’s voice calling her, the girl immediately snapped out and brightened up, almost dropping her lunchbox.

Turning around, she found most of the class grouped together around the new student looking towards her. It froze the girl on the spot, her shy smile prettified. The pretty boy inquired eagerly:

“Shiori-Chan, isn’t it true that I, you and many others came to the drama club to overcome our fears of talking in public and that it helped us a lot?”

“Y-y-yes…!” the timid girl responded in a barely audible way, still trying to seem happy.

“Don’t you think Naoko-Chan, who’s much more extroverted than us, would probably benefit from it a lot too?” he continued, with a positive, eager attitude. The dark-brown eyes of Shiori slowly glanced at the joyful, energetic, hilarious, unearthly good-looking idol girl who’s the center of the attention of Takumi and most of her class, and her cold fear melted in an even worse face of melancholy than she had before. Nodding against her will, she murmured an almost inaudible and sorrowful “Y-yes…” while looking down to her plain lunchbox.

Meeting Naoko’s doubtful eyes, Takumi tried to explain it:

“Well… Shiori-Chan is still a bit shy, but that’s part of her personality. Even then, the drama class helped her a good amount. I’m sure it could help Naoko-Chan! Don’t you want to come take a look at it? Give it a chance, and maybe you’ll like it! I’m sure everyone’ll be happy to have you there with us.”

The way that Shiori girl looked at her and nosedived into a sad state got Naoko minimally uncomfortable. Hearing about how “everyone” would be happy with her presence on the drama club (which she wasn’t too fond of to begin with), she replied with an evasive “I wonder.”

After the lessons and before she left for her first day in the new karate dojo, Class president Miwa briefly showed Naoko the school and the female and mixed clubs. Poetry and literature, archery, drama, soccer, basketball, calligraphy, athletics, swimming, volleyball, painting, gymnastics, philosophy, table tennis and more. There was a wild variety, though only a few got her attention. She could participate in up to three clubs, thought Naoko would be happy if she managed to cram two in her agenda. She got interested by archery and athletics, mainly. She also loved to swim, but as she discovered, athletics already encompassed that since it presented competitions for not only various track racings but also triathlon. But since she had until the end of April to decide, she postponed her decision taking.

Just as they’re finished, Naoko noticed Miwa hadn’t shown her the roof. Some schools had leisure areas on their rooftops, surrounded by protection grids. Her older school had it, and it’s a blast to chill out there during breaks, enjoying the scenery. And, from the ground, it looked like that high school also had it. As she mentioned it, though, Miwa replied heavily:

“Yes, we have it here too, but… It’s where a few unsavory characters dwell. There, and by that creepy alleyway behind the school once classes are over. Since last year no one goes to the roof anymore. It’s just not worth the trouble.”

Judging by the last school gang Naoko saw, she could understand why people tried to avoid it, though she didn’t know if there were other groups, and Miwa seemed blissfully unaware of how many claimed the rooftop terrace theirs. She didn’t want to know, in practice.

After the school Naoko waited a little and took a train to her new dojo, cleaning her makeup away as soon as she got there like she always did before trainings so the sweat didn’t ruin it. It was an amazing classic style building at the outskirts of a distant and slightly more arborized ward and the trip there was long, but well worth it. A huge training area full of portraits and decorations over the wooden-covered walls made Naoko happy just to be able to see it. Under the sunset lights that came in from a few wood-framed windows, lots of students trained there. Naoko’s class was in a rush hour, well after school and of many kinds of work, so lots of teenagers and adults looked for it. Aside from a single, short woman around twenty-five or so, two grades higher than her, Naoko was the only other female student at that hour, among the seventy or so karatekas.

Unlike in the school, where she’d been lucky with the girls there quickly accepting her, there’s no such luck in the dojo. As soon as Naoko presented herself in her white vest and blue belt, three of the more advanced students excused themselves from talking with the other female karateka and came to welcome the new trainee. The woman there became adamant and cold in such a clear way that from that point on she just responded in monosyllables when asked by them. It’s such a clear-cut change that even Naoko, who’d only seen the woman for fifteen seconds, could notice her gesture-filled speech get retracted. In this sense the only body language class she did was already enough to let her notice that the other female student assumed a defensive posture throughout the whole class.

There was not too much to be done about it, though. The three students that came to salute her were all black belts and directly instructed by the dojo master to supervise the new trainees. They had most likely welcomed that woman too years ago, when she first came to train, and if she hadn’t developed friendships with other students, she’d probably been stuck to talking with her own instructors for years. And even though they also supervised other rookies, it’s only when they came to help Naoko that the woman’s expression from the other side of the area changed to a sour countenance.

Besides her, everything was nice. The three students were all around early thirties. The shortest of the three being a bulky, positive and funny blond guy with a warming smile framed by squared jaws. The tallest of the three was particularly charming, sporting short black hair in an executive-like haircut and an athletic body. The other one, though also handsome, was silent almost all of the time and presented medium-length hair. They made quite the trio and despite their black belts, were very accessible guys. Thanks to them Naoko quickly got accepted by the rest of the class, and on her first day there they kept a close eye on the girl, testing her abilities to assess what did she know and how good was Naoko at it.

The class in general was very supportive to her, even though the girl was not that bad herself. She knew how to evade and defend, and even though her arms’ blows were kind of weak, her kicks were stronger and quicker than her instructors had expected. She liked many forms of martial arts and had watched many movies and videos about it. She knew if a man the size of one of her supervisors attacked her, trying to protect herself with her arms would be ineffectual, but the human body’s legs had far more potent musculature. Even the female body, with less dense muscles, could use it to great extents. Naoko, who already had strong legs by genetics to begin with, could break many planks with them easily. In a real-life situation, a well-applied kick could potentially fracture bones. Also, one of her favorite forms of defense relied on joint attacks. A kick from the right angle could easily turn an elbow or a knee in the wrong direction. It wasn’t common practice in karate as it was in some other martial arts, but joint attacks existed all the same.

That wasn’t to say her arms would be useless in combat. Her previous master had taught her about how to open space between an assailant and her if he tried a grab by positioning the lower half of her hands on the upper part of the attacker’s throat and pushing it. He urged her not to apply blows in this part, because it could actually kill a person. And since that part of the body has little musculature to protect it from frontal hits (though a lateral blow could be cushioned), any attack could dislodge the column and shatter vital air-flowing channels. Even if the person survived, he could still be left tetraplegic. She could think it’d be okay to hit a big, muscular attacker in that area imagining he’d not fall for a girl, but she would be wrong. As such, while to push that area to keep assailants at bay was okay, to hit it was not and should only be used if that was the only last resort she had.

Other techniques she knew to protect herself in a real situation were taught by her friends who practiced different kinds of martial arts and self-defense trainings. A few weren’t even fair play, like groin blows, eye-aiming hits, tympanum-shattering slaps on both ears, nose-crushing palm attacks and so. Every one of those could be employed as a desperate resource using her hands, but since some could leave a person disabled for life she couldn’t even imagine herself using it. It’s just a corpus of knowledge she amassed due to curiosity and of martial arts freaks she knew. It’s cool to know about it, she thought, but to actually employ it would be certainly not.

The master of the new dojo overviewed the trainings. He’s just as old as her first master, and he welcomed her when she arrived. Contrary to her old master, though, that despite his eighty years or so still commanded the classes, her new one, Ban Nobuyuki, did not. To Naoko it felt somewhat underwhelming. Ban-Sensei mostly guided his instructors and watched closely. During the exercises he just observed, though once the trainings of positions began the master walked around the dojo, correcting every student’s mistakes and showing them how to perform correctly. Despite his age, he had surprising agility and firmness, his hands as stead as those of a statue. Also he seemed like he had no joints, because his articulations could do things Naoko only dreamed she could. The part Ban-Sensei instructed the students was by far the most interesting one, and she’s pleased that he actually told her the postures and movements she’s able to perform were quite good.

At the beginning of the class the three black-belted students mentioned Naoko could stop at any time during the class if she felt she couldn’t go on, since resistance was something to be developed gradually. She didn’t think too much of it then, but by the end of the one hour and a half training the girl trembled and felt nauseated. Her master, keenly noticing it, instructed the pale and huffing girl to sit down for the last five minutes. At the end he reunited everyone for a closure involving the contemplation over a proverb. After that he stayed by the border of the training area briefly speaking in particular to each student as they went to the locker rooms. Specifically when talking to the suddenly silent woman, her master cordially asked:

“Kurosawa-San, is there something you’d like to talk about?”

Seeing that the heavy-heartened woman politely refused, he respected it, thought saying:

“If at any moment you feel like you need to talk, I’ll gladly hear it.”

While it occurred, Naoko was still sitting half-conscious on the same place she heard the teachings, with her legs folded and resting on the floor on both sides of her body.

“Naoko-Chan, are you feeling well?” the concerned voice of a seventeen year-old student one grade higher than her that stayed by her side most of the class snapped her out of the void of tiredness she’s in. The girl, barely being able to move, muttered:

“Yes. Somewhat well. I… train karate for a few years now, but… my master from Shimabara… focused more on positions and… techniques… instead of body conditioning. It came with time, they said. So I’m not… used to the body work… you guys do here, that’s all.”

“Don’t overexert yourself,” her colleague advised her. That guy, Hideaki-Kun, was one of the many guys who received and helped her and made her feel at home right on the first day there. He’s very skilled, but his best fighting trait was his almost telepathic reflexes, as if he sensed what his opponent would do even before Naoko herself knew. Just like her previous master, he told her she telegraphed her blows too much, making her lose time and energy to actually initiating the attack and making it easy for opponents to prepare accordingly. Under the guidance of the instructors, Hideaki took upon himself train with Naoko at least a little each class to help her become a less obvious attacker.

Almost falling over when bowing to leave the tatami, she went to the locker room with heavy steps. The only part she disliked about it all was that, since locker rooms were divided between genders, Naoko wound up in a large room alone with that woman who couldn’t stand even looking at her. Since the girl was in such bad shape after overdoing the training, the instructors asked the woman to take care of her while on the locker room, just in case Naoko’s nauseas worsened. Though the older female student complied, she did so in the most mechanical and distant possible way. Feeling bad for her, Naoko, who almost couldn’t lift her face and was chilling out still in her training vest, forced a smile and tried to start a conversation in a friendly way:

“Hey, thanks… for watching over… me. Don’t worry… I’m feeling better now. I… just wasn’t used… to the body conditioning… you guys did here. Your… training is… very hard. I’m sorry to… cause you any trouble.”

Not even looking at Naoko, the short woman, far from being pretty but arguably very skilled in class, sharply replied in a roundabout but blunt way:

“The training we do here is not for anyone. You can’t just practice in an average dojo and come here expecting to impress everyone on your first day.”

That butthurt bitch had just insulted her previous master, calling his dojo “average”, and the girl herself, implying she’s “anyone”! Being on her period didn’t help Naoko control herself, either. So tired she was, the moment she heard that her exhausted heart pumped faster and her blood boiled, but weak as that, she felt her pressure plummeting and her sight fading into black.

When she came back to herself, she’s lying down in a bench outside the locker, surrounded by the instructors and students. Ban-Sensei stood by her side, as did that woman, with a face as pale and worried as if she’d seen a ghost. Just as Naoko opened her eyes, Hideaki’s voice called out for her asking if she’s alright.

For a moment all Naoko did was stare angrily at the seemingly afraid woman. If the girl told others about what she said there she could maybe repay her for what that cretin deserved, though Naoko would also be drawing the attention of others to the possibility that her old master didn’t train her well. Which he did. It wasn’t his fault if Naoko’s constitution just wasn’t that great.

For a second her new master, perceiving her furious eyes, glanced over to the focus of Naoko’s attention, the woman with the scared face of a kid that knew she’d done something wrong. Breathing deeply, the old man asked others to give Naoko room to breathe and thanked everyone for their supports, dismissing them back to the lockers. Once alone with the saddened girl and after she’d recovered, the old man asked politely:

“Yano-San, is there anything you’d want to talk about?”

Thinking for some time and hesitating, Naoko though about telling him, but once again couldn’t force herself to do it. Her old master was excellent, he didn’t deserve to be shamed by a girl hardly fit for being a top notch martial artist. Naoko ultimately replied with a bow:

“No, Ban-Sensei. Thank you for receiving and taking care of me, and sorry for… causing so much…” Her eyes, against her will, began to water. Resisting it, she continued firmly, despite her voice becoming unsteady and cracking, “Sorry for causing so much trouble on… my first… day here… and being unable… to keep up with the training. I’m… deeply sorry.”

“Is that so?” the master asked, her answer having suddenly sparkled some sort of understanding in his eyes. In a calm way and with a precision apparently too good to be chalked to chance, the master told her:

“Well, that’s no trouble at all. Despite your tiredness, you performed admirably for a first day, given the circumstances.”

Forcing another sad smile for a second, Naoko replied:

“How is it possible? I’ve just fainted for the second only time in my life.”

Standing up, the old man explained her:

“Yano-San is not the first student to be exchanged between me and master Himura along all those years. We trained together and have a strong relationship. Himura-San used to have a dojo in Nagoya, from where we came from, before moving. At that time, decades ago, I had already opened this dojo here, so whenever a student moved, we had connections to transfer them to a nearby master we knew and trusted. And every time we did, the student had some difficulties until he adapted. Himura-San focuses heavily on body posture and movement excellency, for he believes a fighter must use the least amount of force possible to fall an opponent, meaning his movement perfection, precision and power must be a priority. While I agree with this, I believe real-life situations need to be taken more into account, where multiple opponents may make a fight unreasonable and a quick escape needed. Thus, I lean more heavily on constitution developing before requiring a high level of movement precision. When we exchanged students, especially those of the first few belts, the ones I sent him invariably lacked finesse and polishing in their moves compared to the ones he trained, while the ones he sent me suffered to keep up with my body conditioning intense exercises. It’s due to our own differences, each master has his own understanding of the teachings, of the world and of life itself. It’s in no part a fault of the students, it’s just a matter of prioritizing for the masters. Eventually the students of both dojos learn most of the same techniques and reach roughly equal body capabilities. Don’t feel disheartened, Yano-San. We’ve seen it happen before. Just as your constitution needs training, your movement skills deserve nothing but praise. You performed well, don’t worry.”

Though her eyes were full of tears, not of sadness anymore but of relief, Naoko swept them away as they came, not letting them roll and be seen. The way the master told her, spot-on, all of those things as if he’d been able to read her mind – or, more likely, because he’d “seen it happen before”, like he said, and noticed the guilt on that woman’s eyes – lifted a heavy weight from Naoko’s shoulders. Bowing deeply and thanking him, she excused herself to the locker room to clean her face and change clothes. Once she entered, the still afraid woman quickly left without a word, but by that time Naoko’s anger had already subsided. After recovering her blood pressure, changing and reapplying her makeup she left. By that time another class had already begun.

When she left the building, Naoko found Hideaki and another seventeen year-old student waiting for her. Saying they’re worried she couldn’t go back home alone and explaining they hadn’t any more appointments for the day, they waited to see if she needed help or wanted company at least during part of her trip back. It warmed her up again.

Since the trains at that time were extremely crowded and no one had anything better to do during the rest of the day (besides Naoko’s homework, but that could wait), the three stayed at a café for quite some time. The two boys were chivalrous and Naoko had many common likings with them, so they talked nonstop until they couldn’t postpone the trip. The way back was much better than her trip to the dojo, too. They only stayed with her for part of the way, complimenting her willpower and desire to train when she told them how distant from there was the dorm she lived in. After that she fell into a deep slumber, relying on her cellphone alarm and earplugs to wake her up, without bothering the people around, before her stop. The railway and subway systems were usually on time, so it’s possible to calculate more or less how much it took her to go to the dojo and estimate the time she’d arrive at the desired station.

Drained, as she arrived at the dormitory building all she wanted was to take a shower and crash in her futon, so she barely nodded as the janitor passed by. Yamamoto-San, though, quickly left after welcoming her back, mentioning something about going to tell a person that wanted to see her about her arrival, though she didn’t understand it clearly. After just a few minutes of having arrived at her room, tossing away her kneaded school uniform and getting ready to shamble her way into the shower, a few knocks on the door were heard.

Probably looking horribly tired but not caring, Naoko sighed. Dressing herself up again, she answered the door with shaky legs and a bad mood. As she opened it, her weary eyes took a few seconds to adapt to the nightly background. Only then she could make out the shape and physiognomy of a boy her age holding a beautifully packed present with lots of laces and cellophane papers making it gleam. He looked vaguely familiar, but Naoko was too exhausted to think about who could he really be. He was slim and a few inches shorter than her, and his voice soft and respectful. Bowing more than she expected a visitor would do, the boy, noticing the tiredness on her face, introduced himself:

“Erm… Yano-San? I’m deeply sorry to bother you at such a late hour. I’m… I’ll be brief so as not to take too much of your time. I’m second year student Maeda Hiraku, from room 207. Last night I’ve been attacked by a gang from our school, but thanks to you they didn’t hurt me. I’m here to thank you for helping me. I know it’s nothing but a boring gift of no value, but please accept it as a token of my gratitude!”

Bowing deeply again, Hiraku extended with both hands the luxurious gift he’d just downplayed. Surprised out of her sleepiness, the dumbfounded girl replied it wasn’t necessary, but as he’d gone through the trouble of preparing it and insisted vehemently, Naoko accepted it. With a confused semblance the girl asked – politely but too sleepy to care about other formalities such as not butting in other people’s lives:

“Maeda-San? May I ask you why those people were bothering you? I’m sorry if I’m intruding and if you don’t want to tell it’s okay, but it just left me curious of what would they want with you in the first place.”

It didn’t leave her curious, actually. Not until then, when that curiosity suddenly sparked inside her.

“No, it’s okay. It’s not me they want, but by older sister,” the boy respectfully revealed her. “She lives in room 118 and is one year older than me. She studies in the same class as that Fumio rascal, the boss of that five-boy gang. He acts like he owns the place and thinks he can do whatever he wants. He sometimes bothered her the last year, but recently he decided he really wanted my sister to be his girlfriend, and when she refused it, they tried to press her into accepting it by threatening me. Beating me up, maybe.”

Feeling her blood boil again and her somnolence fading away, Naoko clenched her fists. That Fumio dude seemed irresponsible and arrogant, but until then the girl wanted to believe the five were at least nice people on the inside. Maybe because of her positive experiences with the bad boys from her hometown, a bunch of lazy and impolite but ultimately respectful and dependable guys. But no, Fumio and Daiki and those other three idiots were just that: idiots. Suddenly getting worried, Naoko questioned:

“Hey, if that’s the case don’t you think they can try to attack you again?”

Looking troubled, Hiraku slowly confirmed:

“Yes. It’s a possibility, though… my sister and I are thinking about enrolling in another school, so they stop bothering us.”

“What?” Naoko revolted, “They’re the ones who should be leaving, not you and your sister! Have you already spoken to your teachers or the director maybe?”

Lowering his head, he explained it in a low voice:

“No. They threatened to beat my sister up if she or I told anyone who worked in the school about it.”

Horrorstruck, and still retaining part of her anger from that coward and egotistical, ugly and butthurt woman from her dojo, Naoko felt a burning desire to beat those gangster-wannabes to a pulp herself. Not that she’d be able to do that in reality, but she badly wished she could do that. Wrathful, the girl quickly replied:

“No, I don’t want to lose decent people and be surrounded by jerks, I much rather prefer the other way around! Can’t you gather proofs, talk with your class president and let him or her take the necessary steps?”

“The president of my class is also afraid of those bullies,” Hiraku told her. Naoko, infuriated, insisted, “What about Yamamoto-San?! He saw it! Can’t he talk with the director?”

Bowing, the boy thanked her again, though in a burdened way:

“I appreciate your worry for us, Yano-San, but we’ll be fine. At first Yamamoto-San said he’d do it, but if he does, those five can still beat up me or my sister, so we though it’s better to just move on. It’s still April, it’s possible to enroll in another institute. Sorry to have caused you unnecessary worries, and thanks again for the help. I won’t take any more of your time.”

He departed, leaving Naoko trembling, this time in fury. She closed the door shaking, only then noticing she’s clasping her present as if she wanted to smash it. While the girl liked gifts, they also made her nervous, and not just in a good way. It wasn’t dread, exactly. She only had one irrational fear, and that was of stuffed animals. She knew it’s stupid, but she feared them for supposed pursuing her with their eyes, and while cute in theory, she only remotely liked them far away from her. The only redeeming quality of them was their squishiness, so she knew she could destroy them in case one suddenly came to life and attacked her in the middle of the night – yes, as absurd as it looked, Naoko’s mind actually though about such things even if rationally she knew there was nothing to fear. But presents, while not being fear-inducing, were always treated by her with suspicion, even ones given by well-known people, though she couldn’t tell why.

Inside it was an expensive-looking assortment of fruits wrapped in a pretty box from a famous brand, which made her not only relax but also be content. Fruits, especially exotic ones, could cost piles of Yen, and made for fine gifts. Like Naoko imagined, the boy had seriously downplayed his fantastic present out of humbleness.

She’s so tired that after packing her lunchbox and taking a refreshing, tension-alleviating shower she crashed on her futon into a deep, dreamless and rejuvenating sleep.

Wednesday saw the blue skies turn gray. Finally remembering she’s not allowed to run on stairs and with her legs hurting too much to try it anyway, she resorted to using the elevator to get around the maniac-looking Katsuro. She had another incredible day at school, her friends helping her keep up with the lessons and Naoko raising the spirits of everyone. By the end of the last class that boy from the drama club, Takumi, invited her to watch a rehearsal, though mentioning that until that time they’re just practicing basic stage techniques since they hadn’t chosen a story to play yet. Naoko went, and to her surprise it actually felt a lively place. The theater had a big auditorium and the stage was equally large. Also the drama club occurred on Mondays and Wednesdays, so it didn’t conflict with her schedule.

The stage techniques they’re training to reduce anxiety and develop the memory seemed really useful too, to the point where Naoko, even though still disliking theater plays, seriously considered joining in just for understanding it could help her as an idol. But then she found that timid girl from her class. Shiori, if she remembered correctly. The girl looked very sad. In fact, she did it every time apparently, but especially when their classmate Takumi asked Naoko, who’s bored to death watching breathing exercises and visualizations, if she didn’t want to participate in the practices.

It felt strangely familiar: just as the instructors and students in her dojo gave the new, energetic and excited student lots of their attention, leaving that stupid woman resenting, Takumi and a few others received Naoko warmly and seemed to also give her special attention, to the point where they let her partake in their exercises even if she wasn’t a member of the club. And just so, the timid Shiori looked all the more melancholic.

That was a reason why Naoko had mixed feelings towards other women. Her mere existence was enough to make some of them act as defensive as a rat cornered by a cat. Luckily there’re also amazing girls like her class president Miwa and others who opened up with time and became good friends, but all that nonsense had grown tiring years ago for Naoko. As such, even though the drama club looked a good opportunity to hone her stage skills, Naoko decided to give it a pass just so she didn’t have to be around that sourpuss Shiori girl. Even the way Takumi looked down and told her if she ever changed her mind, to come back made Shiori gloomy. That wasn’t the type of person Naoko wanted to have around her.

A big aspect about male-female interactions was that usually they started pretty shyly. Unless they happened in a place or situation where both parties couldn’t deny they’re looking for a relationship, or in the case of a few aggressive individuals, it usually began slowly. Showing interest through excess of attention was a common habit, and men usually tried to make themselves useful. The problem was that it wasn’t exclusively for showing interest in others. Naoko wasn’t stupid, she knew very well that those two boys from the dojo that waited for her could possibly have an interest in her, but the trio of instructors, that demonstrated equal care for her, were all married and most likely acted that way just because it was they functions there (or at least Naoko expected). Drama club Takumi was harder to say. He showed some signs of interest, but at the same time it could also be just because he’s the one who invited her there and just wanted to make her guest feel comfortable. Naoko received so many of those mixed signals from boys her age or a few years older that one thing she learned in her life was that if she tried to analyze every single one, she’d be crazy. As such, most of the time she simply didn’t care and assumed all mixed signals to be non-interest-just-business in nature. If boys wanted to get an interest message through her mental customhouse, they’d have to do so explicitly, because her poor neurons wouldn’t work double turns trying to decipher what they wanted to say just because they’re too bashful to do so in complete sentences.

Only problem with this was that, though certainly not naïve, Naoko misinterpreted some clear interest signals sometimes. She didn’t think too hard about these things like some other girls did, so she could be wrong. Takumi, though acting like almost every other boy from her class, could be interested in her, and Shiori could like him and notice signals Naoko didn’t, or didn’t give importance. Subtlety was a thing she hated, it felt like a cheap tool only a coward would employ. And though Takumi was kind of handsome and very attentive to her, so were many others. He’s a nice friend to have, but if Shiori indeed liked Takumi, felt overshadowed by the transfer student as it appeared and could read Naoko’s mind she’d discover the girl had no interest in that boy – or, currently, any other for that matter – and wouldn’t “steal” him from her even if he declared himself. But no, it’s apparently too much to ask that other people could read convenient tidbits from her mind! So yes, that drama queen could have her bloody drama club to herself for all Naoko cared.

About the rest of the boys of her class, only a few didn’t show that kind of attention towards her. Her most handsome classmate, and one of the most handsome students in all of the school, was not only indifferent with her, but with everybody. Some girls likely thought him to be a cool, silent type and were attracted to it, but Naoko assumed he’s just a dumb, obnoxious dude. He’s the only one that annoyed her, the other three boys who didn’t gave her special attention seemed just timid guys. One was dark skinned and always walked alone, and the other two seemed to live in their own worlds, talking about their hobbies and nothing more. Mainly games. For as much as Naoko loved the topic, seeing people who had no other conversation subjects looked strange, kind of childish. Still, she’s willing to bet those three guys could be nice friends if only they opened up.

Never before having ventured around the city just for fun, Naoko did so after returning to her room, doing all her homework and changing clothes. Though she wanted to get used to wearing the platform boots in public, it’s hard to muster up the courage to put it on. Not mentioning the other showy clothes Aratani has bought. Albeit feeling glamorous, Naoko left her room looking both sides and hoping no one saw her. On the streets the girl felt shivers and tried to hid herself for half an hour before getting more or less accustomed to the outfit. But then again, it’s better that she started losing her anxiety for flashy getups now rather than during gigs.

Eventually the anxiety dwindled, leaving just the pleasure of feeling free to actually look attractive without complainers bringing her down. She had twenty-three wards in Tokyo to explore, the burning desire to do so and some free time in her hands. Sure, by the end of the day she had seen approximately… nothing, at least when compared to how much there was to see. If she did that every day, and supposing the colossal metropolis never changed, she’d probably take about twelve or thirteen millennia to see most of it, but it’s a nice start! The more she roamed the bustling city, the more impressed she became. It gave her many ideas she wanted to do, like hitting a big arcade, visiting a huge exposition (preferably one centered around games, international stuff or food), inviting her friends for a karaoke, perhaps even calling them to an amusement park someday, or over to her place once she’d organized it.

While Naoko explored a big gallery a woman called her, introducing herself as the manager of a maid café Naoko had visited a week or so before looking for work. She offered her the job, making the girl insanely happy for such a small reason. She wondered if she could accept the position to work during the week, but Aratani would probably not like it. Even refusing, Naoko felt great knowing she could actually have other jobs in case that idol business came under or turned out to be a now very unlikely hoax. It made her day.

Just as she left the gallery, raindrops began to fall around her. Naoko, with no umbrellas, retreated to buy one and started to make her way back to the train station. As rain began to pour, soaking the dry city and sweeping away the dust accumulated in more than three weeks of almost uninterrupted clean skies, innumerous black umbrellas popped out over the crowds like dark mushrooms. Her own, a purple and white one, was small and the torrential downpour that issued quickly got her legs drenched, but with only a mini short there wasn’t much to get wet. In fact, for once it felt really nice to walk on platform boots and being able to tread through puddles and small currents that fazed smartly dressed people without a care in the world.

Naoko loved rain just as much as she loved bright, sunny days. Back in her childhood she couldn’t help but jump in every puddle she found, until a day where she fell flat on one. Water, in general, was something she loved, from pools to rivers, from a shower to the ocean, the rain, hot springs and more. While it’s horrible to walk with waterlogged shoes, that wasn’t the case with those almost impermeable and well-sealed footwear, so no complains there. And the city’s air felt much better. Too bad the rain became so heavy that a gray curtain prevented the girl from seeing more than two squares away, and the wind threatened to split her poor umbrella in two, because the waterfalls that fell from the building façades made for quite the scene.

Hiding under marquises when the winds became too strong to proceed and appreciating the view while at it, Naoko slowly made her way back home. There many students roamed around, bringing soaked clothes to the communal laundry. So did her as soon as she dried herself, reapplied the makeup and changed clothes to another recently bought flashy outfit she’s supposed to be getting used to wearing.

The washhouse was decent-sized, but even them seemed crowded. Bringing her attire with school uniform along the clothes she had to wash anyway, the girl stood by the entrance, watching others and learning how to operate the machines. While she’s at it, Naoko noticed a known face: the bullied boy Maeda. He’s accompanying a rather pretty girl, with similar facial features. Though she’s slightly smaller than him, it’s probably his older sister he mentioned, unless he had a younger one, a cousin or something. They’re too similar not to be related by blood, she thought.

It seemed most of the people living in the dorms were there, and just as the girl stood waiting for her turn, she suddenly got an uncomfortable sensation of being watched. Not just being looked at, like people usually did, but actively stared deeply. It didn’t take too long to notice an unnatural grin in a corner, like a psychopath trying to look friendly. Weirdo Katsuro looked up in the air like he didn’t notice her, though his eyes periodically glanced her for a fraction of a second at a time in rapid movements. It’s the first time Naoko felt more than slightly worried about that boy. Since he couldn’t bring himself to come in her direction, the girl also pretended not to see him, but things got awkward. Especially because he’s many numbers in front of her in the line, and once he’d cleaned his clothes and turned to go away, he suddenly pretended to having seen her. As if he’d prepared carefully for that moment, he walked in her direction with his basket of clothes and his forehead beginning to glint as if getting wet by sweat.

Instinctively crossing her arms and legs and leaning against the closest wall, the girl also began to sweat. At the same time, Naoko got very aware of her surroundings. There’re lots of people there so he’d probably not try anything stupid. But he’s also apparently very frail and short, Naoko analyzed she’s probably much stronger than him and could defend herself as long as he wasn’t armed. But what if he had a knife or something with him?

Just as her mind began getting paranoid over the approaching boy with the strange smiling behavior, the meek guy slowly walked as if he’s going past her and, in a cracked voice almost too low to be heard, greeted while bowing:

“Good… night.” The girl, noticing there was a boy and a girl by her sides she could push over the freak if she needed, breathed deeply and, trying to appear surprised (in a positive, non-terrified way) as if she’d just seen him, replied nervously, “Oh, hey, hi.”

Initially it looked like he’d keep walking away, but he abruptly stopped and turned full-front in her direction, while the girl, clinging discreetly to the wall, instinctively turned slightly sideways facing the nearest escape route. Katsuro stood there for what appeared to be an eternity, grinning mouth agape idling while he thought of something to say. From the top of her platforms Naoko was around twenty-five centimeters taller than him, but the short guy facing her from below with almost non-blinking eyes still scared her badly. Even though he looked in her general direction all the time, he’s unable to maintain eye contact for more than a second at a time. Eventually he inquired, like always in such a low voice that Naoko would have to lean in to listen perfectly what he’s trying to say, though of course she’d do no such thing:

“Crowded here tonight… isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Naoko replied, thinking furiously if it meant something like he’d invite her to a less crowded space or something. “I love crowded places.”

Nodding, but appearing not to have heard anything she said, the seemingly nervous boy quickly launched another statement with a compliment undertone, though much more truncated and full of hesitant pauses, as if he’d memorized what he’d say but was afraid of doing so:

“Nice. Hey… Yano-San… looks… The way… Yano-San… looks… kind of… reminds me… of a… a… character… in a… manga… I know.”

Not knowing if that was a compliment and internally asking herself “Yeah, so what, why don’t you go read it and maybe choke on the manga and die?” the clearly uninterested girl replied a long, dubious “Riiiiiight.”

The way the boy seemed so nervous, slowly leaning in as if getting smaller, and his forehead getting brilliant with sweat while his trembling smile never ceased, made Naoko gradually more and more nervous too. It’s hard to tell what passed by his mind, but the way he looked like a maniac made the girl get even more worried. There’s no way she’d feel safe around a guy that looked half psychotic, half scared as a chicken. By that time a sudden and desperate recollection from her body language teacher called the girl’s awareness to her posture. Completely closed and cornered, her arms folded in front of her chest as if trying to hide it, legs crossed, her head close to the wall meaning her sight-line was far above the boy’s head and, thus, her fearful eyes turned down to face him, hurting her orbits and its musculature.

Remembering the only lesson she had, about assuming more confident postures and about creating awe on the audience – and in extreme cases, fear, if used wrongly onstage, her teacher warned her – Naoko took a brave leap and immediately corrected herself. She couldn’t, at first, bring herself to open fully, but she uncrossed her legs and spread them somewhat. Though her arms continued folded, the girl stood as tall as she could and, making use of her height, with difficulty leaned slightly over the boy, while staring him down from the bottom of her eyes, that turned serious and razor-sharp. Doing so with an audience transmitted a message of superiority, not unlike the one Violet Lily used to employ. Used close to the edges of the stage, it could easily intimidate the nearby watchers, so it was a dangerous move to pull under the limelight. But at that time Naoko was glad for what she thought initially to be the most boring of all lessons, because as soon as she assumed that posture two things happened: her racing heart calmed down somewhat while her sense of security and confidence increased, and the meek boy took a step back, looking even more terrorized than before. Even his plastered smile vacillated, and in turn he forced it to be even bigger.

At first it gave the scared Naoko the impression the posture had backfired, but as she came to understand when the boy continued talking in an even more frightened and low way, he’s actually extremely afraid. His smile had grown bigger just as a defense, though the girl couldn’t tell if to try and intimidate her back or what. His voice, though, became even more soft, high-pitched and shaky, and he cowed even more, as if trying to make himself as small and harmless as possible. It filled Naoko with a powerful conviction that the boy wouldn’t be able to attack her then. He’s barely able to breathe, actually, which for the first time felt a little funny. To see that freak who terrified her act like that too was calming and nice.

Even though almost looking like he’d have a heart attack, Katsuro kept going on in his whispered and vacillating speech, nervously looking around, his fingers shaking and white from the lack of blood flow making it evident he’s holding his basket of clothes as a shipwrecked would cling to a life buoy:

“People in… school are… talking… about… I mean… They… were talking… today… about a… manga… and games-loving… id… idol… from 2-5. Is… is that… Y-Yano-San?”

Though nobody directly glanced over, a few girls and boys started to notice their awkward conversation. The girl by Naoko’s side discreetly retracted a little. Katsuro’s previous statement about Naoko looking like a manga girl began to make sense to her, since the boy appeared to know she liked those things. Naoko also wasn’t aware of “people in school” talking about her other than her class, though she could be wrong since she had barely walked around during the breaks to hear the last corridor gossips. Still, it seemed fishy. Constantly reminding herself she was stronger than him (almost anyone was stronger than him, really) kept her fear at bay, and the girl barely mumbled an “hm” in acknowledgement, meaning she’d heard what he said. The grinning boy, seeming lost with her lack of enthusiasm, asked:

“Do… Y-Yano-San… like… it? I-I mean… what… kind of story… do… do you…?

Unable to finish the sentence he silenced, letting the context speak for itself. Too worried to think about anything, the girl replied a quick “Any story’s fine” in a loud voice, to call attention from the others to her. Just in case someone was nice enough to come to her rescue, even though it seemed the hardly-breathing boy was the one in need of assistance.

“Any?” the boy, for the first time looking a little less desperate and with his eyes finally beaming, replied. Naoko was almost saying what suddenly came to her mind, “Not the ones you probably like the most, thought, you perv-stalker-weirdo!” when the boy detailed, “Like, uh… action stories… with giant mecha… or, uh, superpowers… things like that? Do Yano-San like… these kinds of stories too?”

Though his smile kept being enormous, for the first time it felt a little genuine, and so did his gleaming eyes, almost as bright as the sweat drops that began forming on his forehead. Still creepy as hell as much as crept out himself, but for once he seemed to have heard her.

“Y-yeah…?” Naoko hesitantly replied. That was one of her favorite kinds of stories, her hesitation was due to the person asking the question rather than the question itself. Just as he started to inquire if she’d already read something he’d no time to say what, a bulky figure approached Naoko and stood, arms folded, by her side. The already petrified boy became even more so when he saw the hardly-happy, strong face of that muscular guy that lived the door besides him, Daiki. The bully had a bandage over a small part of his chest that could be seen under his shirt, and one of his eyes was half-closed and still a bit swollen. He wore long sleeves and pants, meaning there was no way of telling if he had other injures, but it appeared so.

Being unable to even whisper “excuse me”, the terrified boy moved his tense grinning lips somehow and left, still forcefully smiling but crestfallen. Only then being able to breathe again freely, Naoko relaxed her posture and sighed deeply. Daiki, who was already naturally a few centimeters lower than her and now seemed even shorter, asked her with a firm voice:

“Y’alright, Naoko-Chan? Freak tried something on ya?”

Gradually recovering, she took a moment to be able to speak, so shaky she was.

“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks,” For the first few seconds she’s glad Daiki had shown up, but as her composure returned so did her anger after what that bullied boy, Maeda Hiraku, had told her. Facing the always frowning eyes of Daiki with an equally unwelcoming, grave face, Naoko retorted, noticing his wounds, “Seems like that talk with your boss was a tough one.”

“I don’t have a boss,” Daiki replied gravely, to which Naoko retorted acidly, “I was under the impression you did when that stup…” Controlling herself and trying to dose her adrenaline with some logic, Naoko rephrased herself, “…when that boy threatened you that way, and all you did was telling him your gang should go away because the warning I gave you made sense. And because you did nothing but comply when he acted like he’d mop the floor with you.”

“Watch it!” Daiki warned her in a forceful way, making Naoko feel suddenly intimidated. Noticing it, but not really apologizing, the boy simply complied in a slightly more respectful way, “Yeah, the gang has a leader.”

At that moment, when she finally accepted she’s afraid of that imbecile, a strange thought crossed over Naoko’s mind: why was she so scared of a puny boy she could snap in two with a sniff and that seemed as afraid of her as she was of him, but didn’t feel too much intimidated by a gang member until now? Whatever’s the case, a reflection about it would have to wait. Noticing the boy the gang had bullied and his sister watching them discreetly from afar, Naoko, not caring if she looked frightened, replied while taking a step away from the guy:

“If the gang has a leader and you’re part of it but’s not the leader, than you have a leader. A leader that beat you up and threatened to do the same with that boy you guys attacked and his own sister. Right? I heard why you guys picked up on him. It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Who told ya that!?” Daiki demanded to know, making Naoko even angrier. Even more, she became afraid she’d denounced the boy that presented her, so she quickly amended it:

“You jerk! That’s none of your business! Many people know it, they just don’t talk about it out of respect for the victims! You and all of your stupid gang! You’ve no qualms with beating up women! Stay away from me!”

The second Naoko took a step away from that boy, his hand held her wrist. In a mix of terror and surprise, the girl turned to face him shouting “Let me go!” The first thing that came to her mind was that if he didn’t comply immediately she’d, out of fear and fury, dig her nails deep down in his eyes or something. The boy, noticing a commotion form around them, with people starting to record videos discreetly through their cellphones and others getting away or coming closer, released her and, in a low voice, asked, trying to be a little more tranquilizing:

“Can… I talk to ya outside?”

“Why?” Naoko, taking another step back, nervously defied in a loud voice, “So you can beat me away from everyone’s eyes? Hell no! Get lost!”

Getting angry, Daiki initially exploded:

“Stop yelling, I’m not gonna beat ya but ya getting on my nerves!” Seeing a few boys from the third year closing in, Daiki closed his eyes and tried to calm down. In a low voice, almost a whisper, ashamed he probably was of others hearing him, he tried to explain himself “Listen, Naoko-Chan. I promised to protect ya. I’d never hurt ya. I came to ya right now, didn’t ya? I didn’t know y’here, but as soon as I heard ya, I came, ‘k?”

Six athletic boys stood behind Daiki, giving Naoko a small respite. The bully, though close eyed, could probably have noticed the movements around him, with many girls getting away and boys coming closer. Breathing deeply, Naoko pointed out the commotion he was causing – even though knowing that it was her, in fact, that was being loud and using the crowd to protect herself, though the boy was the one responsible for forcing her to do so:

“You’re bothering everyone here. You’re part of a gang that intimidates people and threatens to attack girls. And you want me to be calm? You want me to believe you’ll protect me? Ha! If your boss decides your gang will beat me, you’ll most likely don’t even bat an eye before following his orders!”

Opening his eyes abruptly as she’d started to speak, Daiki’s face grew even more serious, to the point where it began looking mortified. The boy protested vehemently:

“Naoko-Chan doesn’t know me! No, I wouldn’t do it! I swore I’d protect ya!”

“Yeah, right!” Naoko replied, “You get a beating from your stupid boss, come back here telling me you’re still part of that gang and you want me to believe you’d not follow his orders blindly, whatever they may be?! Tell me: if he ordered you to beat me, what would you do?”

Daiki grinded his teeth, facing Naoko with eagle eyes. Her heart ran as fast as when she practiced karate in the dojo, and even though all her teachings crossed her head by that hour, she knew she’d have no chance of beating him up. He’s shorter, but much stronger, and she’s still a novice karateka. Maybe she could deflect a punch, but not much else, even though he was injured. At least she wouldn’t be able to protect herself without resorting to extreme and dirty measures that had nothing to do with karate, like hitting his eyes or between his legs. She’d have to count with the help of the many guys close-by to stop him.

After many tense seconds, Daiki, looking her fearful and angry face and also the surrounding people paying close attention, replied in a whisper:

“I wouldn’t follow his orders if they’re to beat ya. I’d defend ya.”

It felt genuine enough for Naoko, though as afraid as she was, she didn’t trust her instincts on it. They could very well be trying to lead her into a false sense of protection. She insisted:

“So you’d disobey your leader’s orders, you say? Yeah, it’s easy to say it, but I doubt you’d really do it if it came to it!”

“I would!” Daiki insisted nervously, “Whatcha want me to do to prove ya I would?! Why can’t ya believe me?! I’m a man of word!”

Just as nervous, Naoko countered his flawed logic:

“Daiki-Kun, you even continued following that Fumio guy’s orders after getting sent by him to a hospital! Give me one good reason to believe you’d…”

“I don’t give a damn ‘bout myself!” Daiki interrupted her, saying it all as quickly as he could, “But if I say I’d protect ya, I’d do it, even if I had to go against my leader! It’s not like I’ve ever gained anything working for him anyway… and I said I liked ya, right? Don’t ya make me repeat me in front of everyone!”

That was some serious sentence, Naoko felt. While the girls in the room seemed only impressed by the second to last sentence, a kind of declaration, the boys seemed much more respectful during the entire statement. They probably understood much better how hard it should’ve been to say that in front of so many people and what it truly meant for a gang member to say such things. Naoko understood the meaning of it due to all of the years having so many male friends, but even she admitted she couldn’t fully comprehend what the solemn boys in the washhouse appeared to feel. On the other hand, it’s better this way, because she didn’t care for the meaning of it, rather focusing on how it affected her life and that of the people around her. She could even make seemingly cruel demands and blackmails, though they’d ultimately lead to positive results in her opinion. Therefore, after reclaiming her breath, she assumed a confident body posture to help alleviate her fears and said in a less aggressive voice and a slow pace, buying herself time to think about what she’s going to say:

“Okay. Listen: I thank you for… huh… saying that and all. It’s not like I don’t really want to believe you. I do. But let’s get real here: you say that to me, but you’re still part of a gang with a boss that threatened a girl he said he liked. And you say you’re a man of word, but you probably gave your word to your leader that you’d follow his orders to get accepted in the gang, right? I know how it works, you’re not the first gang boy I knew. So I hate to force you such a difficult choice, but I also hate indecisive people. You’ll have to choose which side are you on. Protecting me like you said or being with your gang after seeing how egotistical your leader is, risking you to be expelled from your dorm, and what a loser he is threatening a boy to press his sister into accepting him, beating you up and causing problems with the police.”

Getting abruptly infuriated, Daiki exclaimed loudly:

“How dare ya blackmail me like that?!”

“No, how dare you do the things you did!” Naoko retorted, suddenly yelling full-blown, not even stopping to think about what she’s saying because she’d surely not have the courage to say all those truths otherwise, “What kind of future do you think you’ll have following a loser like him, anyway?! Don’t you dare raise your voice on me, so far you’re nothing! Hear it?! Nothing!”

Daiki gave a furious step in Naoko’s direction, and even though it wasn’t clear what he intended to do, the boys behind him reacted quickly and held him. The girl, though knowing it’d be best to stop right there, unleashed all of her anger and loath on him:

“You’re just a low-level dog of a stupid school gang of five idiots run by a coward! A man who can’t even get a girl through decent means! You said you’d protect me from that strange boy, but at least he mustered up the courage to come talk to me and respected me instead of forcing himself on me or acting like he’d punch my face every time he heard something he disliked! Truth hurts, doesn’t it? So stop with this bravado before I call the police on you for grabbing me forcefully and for threatening me, and listen!”

The restrained guy stopped trying to force his way out, though his eyes were furious. The boys that restrained him remained grabbing his hands firmly, because Naoko seemed to have gone berserk and blindly released her wrath on the gang member:

“You told me I’m blackmailing you, but that’s exactly what that weakling of your boss’s doing with girls, and you’re not enough of a man to call him on that like you did to me! You follow orders from a vermin like that, what’s me to expect from you than being even more of a weakling? Eh? That you protect me?! I need no protection from weak guys! You… think people fear you for being so tough, but you’re just physically so! You have no self-respect, to the point where other guys can beat you up and you’ll still follow them! What kind of future you expect to have being like this?!… What kind of girl do you think would like a guy like you?! You think I like to hear from you that you like me?! You insult me, that’s what you do!”

Daiki tried to break free to rush her, but was restrained.

“You insult my intelligence!” Naoko proceeded, shouting on his face, “I’m nowhere near desperate enough to want a guy like you remotely close to me! And while you remain a weakling that another weakling can mop the floor with, while you… while you keep disgusting me, coming here like I should be happy to see a coward that gangs up on a decent boy for scabrous reasons, while you don’t grow up, grow a backbone and start doing what’s right instead of what a chicken orders you to do, I want you in jail! In hell! Far away from me! The instant the people on that school understand they have nothing to fear from a bunch of vermin if they team up, you five will be squished in a second! And you know the best part?… You’ll have no one to blame but yourself for not being man enough to do what’s right and insisting on standing by the side of those losers doing what they want you to do!”

Blinded by rage, Daiki moved his head quickly, as if to head-butt her, but stopped on the last second, barely touching her forehead. Shocked, the girl stepped back, noticing his wrathful eyes. Getting even more choleric for him almost hurting her, but also getting more intimidated, she concluded:

“So alright, you don’t want to choose between keeping your promise of protecting me or continue following orders from an insect? Fine!… Choose for yourself, then: do you want to keep acting like a nervous kid with no ability to withstand frustration and who follows orders from other kids, or do you want to become a man? And for the sake of heaven and Earth, look at my eyes at tell me if I said any lie!”

All eyes in the room where wide-open and the only noises that could be heard when Naoko ceased her verbiage spree, huffing, was the rain outside and the low hums of the machines cleaning the clothes. The girl was so fed up that she unleashed all her rage, including things not even related to Daiki like that stupid woman from the dojo, that drama queen Shiori from her class, her stressful encounter with Katsuro and the fact that Naoko’s period had started the day before, adding up to that cretin Daiki getting all worked up after helping a gang force a girl to accept that filthy Fumio as her boyfriend by threatening her own brother. She couldn’t care less if Daiki felt bad, if he cried all night long or if he cut his arms so deeply that he amputated both hands. She’s so blinded by wrath that she swore if Daiki said anything stupid she’d rip him to shreds with her bare hands.

The fact that she’d assumed the postures her body language teacher told her helped too, as did her understanding that Daiki was just as much, if not more, meek on the inside than that grinning boy Katsuro. Probably more, because Katsuro was physically weak too, while Daiki, being burly, still acted like a little, nervous kid. Naoko had developed her train of thought as she spoke, never before having thought about the things she did while she talked. It’s as if deep down she already knew things that she didn’t know she knew, but that flowed out of her mouth as she let herself talk what she wanted. It’s disturbingly strange, but in a sense, to reach that Honne, that True Voice state, was delightful. In a dark, twisted way.

Daiki’s eyes couldn’t retain his bad attitude throughout the whole speech. After Naoko got personal, asking him what kind of girl would like a weakling who followed another weakling’s orders, even his tough frontage crumbled. The frustrated, ashamed and surprised boy, still restrained, heard in silence all Naoko said, sometimes getting extremely angry, but more often than not just being staring her in shock. After the almost possessed, choleric girl concluded her verbal thrashing and leaned to glare deep into his eyes from the same level, all she said began to sink in for both sides. For Naoko she knew she’d committed a grave mistake. She slowly began to think in all the things that could happen to her for having meddled in what didn’t concern her. Daiki knew where she lived and he was as dangerous as he was childish, for he didn’t seem to be able to take critics well. If she’d only let that gang beat up the boy and the janitor without interfering, she’d have no problems by now!

At times like that, in her hometown her childhood friend Masahiro would’ve interfered and impeded her to be irrational and getting herself into trouble. At times like that she wished he’s by her side. Not having him around anymore, the girl would have to policy herself, but maybe what she’d done was beyond repair. Hence the girl began thinking for alternatives for resolving the situation as her anger decreased and her fears increased while staring dead-on inside the boy’s eyes. Maybe calling the police and trying everything she could to get him under cop vigilance, or getting him expelled from the dorm and the school somehow…

She suddenly snapped out of it by a rapid movement. The scared girl leaned back up a little in a reflexive action before noticing it’s just Daiki’s eyes. He closed them. After a long and torturing silence the boy opened them again, looking somewhat sad for the first time, even if he continued trying to keep his bad boy attitude that didn’t deceive Naoko anymore.

“I hate ya. How… could ya do this to me? After I came here to protect ya… Though maybe… y’re not lying. Like… maybe… y’re, like… right,” with his forehead and his jaw trembling as if his face muscles fought over showing or not any emotion, Daiki finally spoke. After thinking a lot over it and glancing over to the silent crowd that watched the scene, he continued, “I’m worthless. Always been, always will be. Sorry… for not being worthy. I’m… not worthy, that’s why I live for an unworthy gang.”

Feeling her heart race at the prospect the boy could change, not because she still cared for that brute who apparently tried to hit her but just to settle matters, Naoko disagreed:

“No! You don’t need to be like this forever.”

Shaking his head negatively, the boy replied in a pessimistic way:

“I dunno how to be any other way. Dunno what’s to be worthy.”

“Well, then learn it!” Naoko insisted. Giving a thanking nod for the boys that held Daiki to release him, the girl excitedly spoke, “What’s to be worthy? It depends, I think.” Reflecting for a moment, she questioned, “What things are worth fighting for, in your opinion?”

Closely observed by the boys who kept him held until instants before, Daiki looked lost.

“Dunno… maybe… maybe…”

Perceiving the boy was already too ashamed to say anything, Naoko eased his burden while speaking slowly, again to give her time to think ahead about what to say:

“It’s okay, you don’t have to say it. Just think about what’s really worth fighting for. If you fight for those things, you’ll be worthy! You’re not worthless for life, you’re just currently being so. You’ll have to choose if you want to keep fighting for that Fumio dude, picking on innocent people and getting yourself hated by all, or fight for things you consider worthy. Just know that like you said I could call you if I needed, Daiki-Kun can call me too to help you if you reconsider. I believe you can be a great person if you try.”

Even though there were machines that have already finished cleaning and drying, no person there dared move a muscle. Gazing at his own feet, Daiki, in a low voice, very ashamed as he was, mentioned after a brief, reflective pause:

“I… want it. I do. But… me and Fumio… and a few of the boys… we’re in the same class. It’ll be awkward to be there alone… Can’t count on anyone. They’ll attack me every day.”

Trying to find a way to bypass that “nitpicky detail”, Naoko replied, pressuring:

“You know what will be awkward? When the police calls your parents telling them his son attacked a girl or something and is under custody, and your school bans your for life and kind of destroys a good chance you have at a better future. Not to say you’ll have to find another place to live. I, particularly, fled from my parent’s house and the idea alone of returning there would make me reconsider any choice I could make, but if that’s not a problem for you or you have somewhere else to stay, scratch that and just stay with the tarnished criminal and educational files reason. And it’s not like you can count on someone right now, anyway. Unless you think you can count on the guy that almost wasted you!”

She knew it wasn’t a very good response because it didn’t solve the problem presented, just put it under a new perspective, but Daiki, though initially looking sour when Naoko mentioned his parents in such a way that the girl could see it clearly, became much more sensible to the plead by the end.

One of the athletic boys, a tall one who’s held Daiki tight during his raging impetus, raised his hand slightly behind the bully, as if asking politely for an opportunity to talk:

“Hm… sorry to interrupt, but if the problem is to have no group to be part of, I think you should consider joining a club. I’m members of the basketball club. Tanaka here too. And I know a guy from your class who’s also there with us. You’re from 3-3, right? They’d not attack a player, it’d have repercussions from the whole team”

Another, shorter boy who also helped detain him, seizing the opportunity, added:

“If for any reason you don’t feel basketball’s your game you can also try the soccer team. I’m part of it, can show you ‘round if you want.”

Bringing his hands shamefully over his eyes, Daiki stood still, trying to calm his voice enough to say something for all those people who stood by his side and lent him a hand after all the stupid things he did. Suddenly, from somewhere in the room a short boy shouted excitedly:

“I’m in the Poetry club! I can also introduce you to everyone there!”

Everyone turned to acidly face the boy who broke the touching brotherhood-like mood. Eventually recovering from the traumatic experience of imagining himself with glasses reading haikus, small poem-like sentences, before Fumio and his goons broke in the poetry club room to punch not only his face, but that of every other intellectual student there, Daiki turned to face Naoko as well as the boys who’ve helped him and thought for a long time.

Even though the washhouse was full and space was precious, the bully, barely able to hold his emotions at bay, abruptly moved. Not really caring about the dozens of other boys and girls there, or merely biting the bullet and doing what he thought was needed, he crouched down on the white-tiled floor as if to sit over his folded legs, but leaned forward. Almost touching the ground with his forehead and supporting that most extreme begging position with both hands clasped, Daiki took most of the free space and even then he almost touched the feet of the nearby people. For the first time speaking in a proper way, in a loud voice, mostly for those with whom he spoke directly but presumably also a little for everyone else in the room, he apologized:

“I’m profoundly ashamed for all the troubles I’ve made all of you go through! I’m aware I don’t deserve the forgiveness and the chance you all present me! Even so, I beg that you all let me join you so I can work with every fiber of my body to help you all however I can and try to correct all shameful wrongs I did! Please let me set this straight!”

The silence that flooded the laundry was so overwhelming only the rain outside dared to break it. People barely breathed as if not to be the first one to dispel it. Feeling strangely happy but also very embarrassed, Naoko glanced to the boys that restricted Daiki looking for someone courageous enough to say anything and make that repented gang member get up, though since she’s the one talking to him to begin with, all eyes circumspectly fell on her.

“Ahem…” the girl, after what seemed like an eternity, hesitantly took upon herself the task, “I’m glad you made this choice, Daiki-Kun. Count on me on whatever you need.” Whisperingly, the girl, getting tense, added in a modulating voice, partially spoken and partially sung, holding a few syllables longer for comical relief and emphasis, “Also, stand up alrea~dy, I’m getting uncomfortable he~re. You’re not a yakuza goon so stop acting like o~ne!”

 

Cleaning clothes in a washing machine had never been so exhausting and time consuming but also rewarding. After apologizing to Hiraku, the boy he and his ex-gang had threatened, and also to his sister, Daiki seemed more relaxed. Still beet-red ashamed for what more than a quarter of the dormitories students had seen, but fine once he’d made up his mind and found solace and a sense of belonging with the boys who’ve restrained him, especially the soccer club one – Daiki felt he wasn’t tall enough to play basketball. Since videos of the incident spread like wildfire across the dorm building and the school students, quickly lots of people knew about his change of heart so his word and mettle were tested right off the bat. On the bright side, the ashamed boy found out people actually supported his shift towards a more dutiful attitude. Boys respected his braveness to admit his wrongs and changing.

Most girls were quite reticent about the way Daiki acted on the videos, as if he’d harm the student who faced him. For Naoko things got excellent, however. Whatever little sympathy she had for the boy was permanently lost and all that’s left was some small compassion for a human being trying to change, but Daiki got extremely disappointed and irritated with himself after watching the recording and seeing how he acted in clear contradiction to his vow to protect her. From that point on the senior student did everything he could to repay her. On a final note, it paid off to wear those flashy clothes Aratani gave her: Naoko looked absolutely stunning on the videos. Unfortunately she also looked scarier than hell, screaming those things as if next thing she’d do was to throw the gang member inside a washing machine and watch him spin for hours.

The rainy day started well: the janitor was absent since the night before, when his old car lost control and crashed in the vehicle of an old geezer during the downpour. No one got seriously injured, but it meant he’d to take care of many things, and as such Naoko could run down the stairs without worrying. By morning the whole school had already watched the videos and it spread through the students’ network issuing a flood of comments, many of which parodying the absurd scene and wishing the ex-gang member good luck on his return to grace endeavor. Daiki joined the soccer club the same day, immediately gaining two friends among his classmates who also took part in it and more than twenty others around the school, many of which belonging to the third year. This, along with the boys from the male basketball club and the archery club, gave him quite a support net to fall on to, making his ex-gang members shy on the idea of taking him by assault in the campus or the dorm building. They still promised a payback, not only on him but also on Naoko for insulting them to a point where boys and girls alike laughed on Fumio’s back.

That made the girl extremely worried, but not only Daiki promised to not let anything happen to her, many boys from the sports clubs also warned the gang members there’d be serious repercussions if they so much as looked her, or any other girl from school, the wrong way. Once the word about Fumio’s harsh ways of trying to get girls spread, many female students denounced the four remaining gang morons to the director’s secretary, which gave everyone hopes that the quartet would be expelled. Unfortunately the director couldn’t attend work that day due to a light injury suffered when some crazy driver crashed on his car the night before, but nevertheless by Friday things were probably going to be settled. Tension went sky high, but since the four were severely outnumbered, they evaded conflicts. Too bad a thunderstorm raged, because the gang could no longer claim the terraced rooftop theirs with dozens of boys itching for the slightest reason to unite like Naoko was seen mentioning in the videos and squish the petty opposition. Demoralized, with their ranks thinned down and besieged, there wasn’t much Fumio and his minions could do but wait.

As class president Miwa told Naoko to calm herdown, from what little info she had on the rooftop gang, they’re one of those thorns that acted through hard to prove threats and little else, it seemed. They’re scary for individuals to face head-on but did no real harm to anyone to justify a full-force intervention by the school. If anything else, they fought themselves instead of others, and when teachers tried to assess if they’re doing something wrong, like baring students from accessing the rooftop, they simply denied it, though as soon as the authorities had turned their backs they resumed their doings, such as the trifling territory wars against no specific targets and with no weapons other than bluffs. No one really tried anymore to cross the lines the gang drew just so as not to test if their threats had any bite along with the barks, but besides a few minor brawls, the troublemakers posed no danger if people were united. What kept them from being wiped-out was that until then they’d given others little reason to get together against the gang. In other words, like Naoko summarized, they’re a bunch of sissies that only knew how to threaten but paled away from any real challenge.

The only problematic part about facing them, according to Miwa, was the supposed dream the gang leader had of someday joining a real crime organization. The idea of clashing against a guy with such a terrifying plan for life scared people. Seeing Naoko got even more worried, Miwa quickly apologized and reassured her they wouldn’t be able to do it, she thought. Their wimpy infamy generated by the video would prevent it, though Naoko insisted that didn’t suffice as proof they wouldn’t be able to join a mafia family someday. So far they’re just students, after all.

The girl didn’t have too much time to worry, though, because her female classmates kept her busy every free minute they had talking about a wide array of topics. At first they invariably related to the incident, but quickly went astray, from clothes to who was the “strange boy” she referred to Daiki had vowed to protect her from in a part of the videos. It worried Naoko she could have said something wrong that her freakish neighbor Katsuro could’ve watched too, but as her friends replayed the video she felt relieved to discover the complete quote was “You said you’d protect me from that strange boy, but at least he mustered up the courage to come talk to me and respected me instead of forcing himself on me or acting like he’d punch my face every time he heard something he disliked!” So she’d actually praised the smiling boy for his courage and respectfulness. Nothing to fret over. Though the more she thought about it, the more she got concerned again. Not that Katsuro wouldn’t like it, but that he’d be encouraged to try again…

During all day Naoko fled from her concerns through social interactions, but as she returned to her room, changed clothes and went, under sparse rain, to the dojo, feelings of uneasiness got the best of her. The more she thought about Fumio’s promise of revenge, the more scared she became. Maybe it happened tomorrow, or maybe it took ten years to happen, once he became a respected member of a crime organization. That boy was seriously problematic, however much Miwa tried to convince her otherwise.

So afraid she got thinking how bad that payback could be that Naoko simply had to show that video to her newly acquired friends in the dojo and tell them the story before the training. At first she did so in high spirits, but after she told them about the vendetta topic the girl took a turn to the gloomy side. Deep down Naoko wanted to be reassured that others would help her if she needed, though maybe she knew too little about the people that trained with her, for after all the fun with the lighthearted part they simply acknowledged the problem but tried to minimize it, telling her there’s nothing to worry about.

That’s because they weren’t being threatened, Naoko imagined. However her training was so exhaustive that Naoko had no chance to think about her problems during it, and no energy to do so after. Only not nauseated like the first time, the girl was nevertheless fatigued. So much she didn’t even notice that woman silently training nearby, and how her master asked her again after the training if she wanted to talk to him about anything that bothered her. She refused, though, thanking him for the concern but declaring there was nothing currently disquieting her.

As class was over and her master called Naoko to ask what troubled her so clearly during that day that her moves seemed shy even though the girl could swear she’s focusing on her exercises, Naoko briefly explained the situation to him. She wasn’t really expecting help from Ban-Sensei, but under the circumstances any advice he could spare would be already appreciated and she asked for such.

After a brief deliberation the old man replied:

“When you think too much about your fears, you lose sight of your potentials and the fact the other party also have fears. They only have the upper hand right now because they threaten you to make yours come true, whereas you don’t do the same for them.”

Quickly thinking about that, Naoko inquired:

“But what can those boys fear that I could threaten to make real, Ban-Sensei? I can’t simply attack them straight on! And they act like not even being expelled from school is a big deal! Not even causing problems that require police intervention, too!”

“Physical violence is just a last resort,” Ban-Sensei explained, “There are a couple of ways you can go. If those boys make constant use of it or threatens to do so, it means they have no other tools to make their desires come true. Yano-San doesn’t have to lower herself to the same level or trying to employ the same tactics your opponent use and thrive on. If there are dreams, however, there is fear those dreams might not come to fruition, and a million ways those fears can become a reality. An expulsion might not be it, but there’s bound to be a way. Find it and explore it with the tools you do have. Alternatively, help them develop other tools to achieve their dreams so they don’t have to rely on aggression.”

“The gang leader’s dream is to become a full-blown criminal!” Naoko insisted, “I can’t help them achieve it. Thought the part of exploring their fears might be plausible!”

“Dreams are never bad things, Yano-San,” Ban-Sensei clarified, “What you do to make them come true is what can be understood as good or bad. Dreams are but necessities and desires, such as to be healthy, to have friends, to not be alone, to be respected or to be happy. If in order to be happy and respected you think you need to steal and threaten people, that’s not part of your core dream, but the goal you set for yourself to achieve in order to fulfill your dream. People hardly ever fulfill dreams because even after reaching a goal, they just set the bar higher and higher. Goals are as limited and twisted as the mind that created them and relies on the tools available to the person, but dreams? They’re almost universal, and never bad in itself. You can’t blame a person for wanting a romantic relationship, though you can blame them for the way they choose to realize it. The same way a person can hurt itself or others if they only have a maul to use in order to slice bread, and wouldn’t be a threat to others if someone lent him or her a knife, everyone has its limitations, and need to make do with tools unsuited for the task. Most of the time people hurt others because of their internal limitations: they don’t have the right tools to fulfill their dreams in an efficient way and create roundabout goals to try and do so.”

Closing his eyes and speaking from heart, the old master continued:

“It may be tempting to judge a person’s goals based on your perspective, but rest assured if a task seems easy for you, that’s because you have the right tools to tackle it, though not everyone do, and certainly they don’t have it because they don’t find a way to develop it inside them, not because they don’t want it. Believe in the purity and goodness of everyone’s dreams, Yano-San, though put their methods to achieve it under suspicion. Act either to help them find better alternatives to reach their innermost, positive needs and desires, or instill fear in them by threatening to ruin the goals they currently set. The second’s only a palliative, though, for the desires and needs of the person would still be unfulfilled, possibly prompting them to try again at a later date with even less adequate tools, maybe not against you, but against someone. And in case all two fail, only then physical violence becomes viable, only to protect yourself and those you care about and only with the minimum required amount of strength to make it do. And even then, if you saw the situation before it came down to that and still had to employ physical violence, rest assured you also failed somewhere along the road. If you’re taken unexpectedly by assault, employ it, but if you had the chance to foresee it and failed to at least try to take steps to prevent it, you can’t truly say you have a better heart than those who attacked you.”

Like last time, her sensei’s words lightened her burden and made her think more clearly. Her fears almost disappeared after her master mentioned the goodness of the innermost needs and desires of anyone. Thinking like that, Daiki had repented after noticing how twisted had become his ways of achieving whatever ends he wanted. To be part of a group or having others to rely on, maybe. Perhaps Fumio and the other boys also just wanted things like having a girlfriend or being accepted, but limited as those numbskulls were, the means they found to make it true were as limited as their brainpower and honor.

Soon after Naoko thanked Master Ban and went to the female’s locker room, that woman dismissively broke the silence and asked her if it was true what others were saying about someone having threatened the girl to pay her back for something. The woman, though looking inattentive to her while folding her clothes, had actually gone through the trouble of trying to bridge the distance between the two, so Naoko felt she had to encourage that somehow. The exhausted girl showed the woman the video and explained the situation. The short female karateka, becoming gradually more aloof and sour while watching Naoko owning the washhouse couldn’t prevent herself from mentioning in an ill-spirited, roundabout way:

“Someone who butts in other people’s businesses and thereafter reduces to nothing a boy who said he liked her and all of his friends, while having to rely on others for protection, practically asks for bad consequences.”

Once again, if Naoko wasn’t tired to the point of asking herself if she’d have the energy to return home, she would’ve counterattacked. It immediately made her decide she’d need to get on that athletics club to help her get in shape quicker. That woman was clearly trying to pick a fight with her, though every time she let her mind slip she became too afraid of the consequences herself and quickly escaped while bearing an apologetic look on her face. It wasn’t common for someone to say her mind like that when it clearly hurt others, that whore should either have brain problems or was beyond wrathful to not be able to control herself. Either way, she once again ruined Naoko’s good mood, though not for long that time. As the girl contemplated Ban-Sensei’s words while watching the rain wet the train’s windows, she suddenly had an uplifting insight.

That ugly, sourpuss, socially inept woman had done exactly what she condemned by butting in other’s lives and reducing another person’s will to zero, while evading the results. She was also begging for bad things to happen to her, but she did that anyway. Looking back, she was a person very few people she talked to in the dojo, while Naoko, on the second day of her training, had already attracted more people around her than the other female had in many years. Also the “reduces to nothing a boy who said he liked her” part felt strangely specific. She could’ve pointed out other much more pronounced characteristics in Daiki-Kun. Why focusing on the declaration he liked her, which was only briefly mentioned once or twice in the video if she recalled it correctly? As her master said, people had good dreams but not always good methods to fulfill them. Maybe that woman, despite all her evident envy, only wanted not to be alone, but in the absence of better “tools”, better social skills or whatever, to fulfill it opted to try and verbally abuse Naoko, who “stole” the attention of the three instructors, the only people with whom the woman talked to in the dojo.

Thinking about that, Naoko suddenly realized the “someone who butts in other people’s businesses” while “having to rely on others for protection” parts of the sentence made a whole lot of sense when she tried to look from that woman’s perspective: a girl came apparently invading her space and quickly became something like a “favorite” of others, meaning the person who was there before couldn’t react without fearing retaliations from the others. That could be seen in her coward acts after she said something stupid. Like her master told her, it’d be easy for Naoko to judge that moron’s acts wrong, but that woman probably just didn’t have the tools Naoko did to perform well in social interactions.

That insight made Naoko all the happier. It wasn’t her fault, but a limitation of another person who made that woman attack her, much the same as it wasn’t anyone’s fault if Fumio was nothing but a critter who couldn’t see how childish he was and had no capability to take no for an answer. They seriously lacked tools to achieve their goals, and it made Naoko somehow cheerful. It’s wrong, but kind of good to know the people who scared and bullied her suffered in their own ways, not unlike that Katsuro grinning boy too. Only it looked too pious and forgiving to help such people get the required tools, and much fairer to just find how their fears could be exploited so as not to make them mistreat her again. It’s clear that dojo woman feared Naoko’s reactions, Fumio must had something that scared him too. Something related to making his goals not coming to fruition, like Master Ban told her. Maybe if he permanently lost his chances to becoming a yakuza goon?

Naoko had also listened to the part where her master told her to scare people was just a temporary solution, though, so while the prospect of paying them back what they deserved sounded more appealing, she returned home thinking whether or not she should try to help those people reach their innermost dreams and, if so, how.

One thing was for sure, though: Naoko’s fears had dissipated and her overjoyed self had returned.

Chapter V – Girls in the Shell

 

The female athletics club meetings occurred every Monday and Friday, though there was also a spare training on Saturdays for those who wanted or couldn’t attend to other days in the week. Since it’s still raining outside, that day the club would make use of the swimming pool. On most schools it’s only open from June onwards, though internal heating systems, a thermally-isolated building, clubs that relied on it and other technicalities Naoko was unaware of made it possible on that school to have it open almost all year round.

After joining the club, Friday became even more intense for the girl since Naoko already had Physical Education in her regular school timetable to begin with. The karate classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays also always left her muscles sore the day after, but that was nothing that more workouts couldn’t solve. She was no expert in body conditioning to know if so much exercise was beneficial for her health, but Naoko felt fine and her lungs and muscle resistances improved noticeably, so she gave it no afterthoughts.

Though the metropolis looked grey and depressing, the day was great. Before classes had even started Naoko heard gossips that the director had expelled gang leader Fumio and put the other three boys who remained in the group on a disciplinary correction course. The leader would still come to the school by Monday with his parents to finish the bureaucracy, meaning his classmates would have to endure one more day with that stupid boy, but it’s enough to cheer everyone up. Especially Naoko: it made her day as bright as sunshine. So much she actually performed better than she expected in Math. She also performed exemplary in English lessons, though that one was nothing out of the ordinary.

Naoko usually did better in English than she did in Japanese, both because the foreign language wasn’t taught in the same depth as the national one and because the girl was already pretty knowledgeable on it anyway. Many games, movies, songs and videos she liked were in English, and some online friends of her also only spoke it. Mostly people related to the games speedrunning international communities and online games she used to play. They’re a lively and funny bunch, that’s for sure, and Naoko learned a lot with them, both related to the language but also other customs. While she could read anything short of a Ph.D.’s thesis on ancient English, could write with only a few typos and understand whatever people said, her spoken abilities were a notch below. She still could make herself easily understood and to think in the foreign language wasn’t too much of a problem, but there’s no way around her accent. Letters like “L” sounded slightly like the “R”s in words like “aurora”, and the “R” itself was an even worse offender. In English it sounded indescribably soft or polished, whereas her accent made it slightly dryer and on a few occasions became a “ra” or a “ru”. Some lone “S” or the sound of it as in words like “nice” became a “su” and some words like “here” were unintentionally pronounced “hea” by her. She knew it’s wrong, she just couldn’t help it – to be fair when her friends from abroad tried to pronounce Japanese words it also sounded wrong and funny. Other than that, the girl had no difficulties with it, her knowledge level in it was far more any school would ask for. If only it’s the same with the other subjects…

Master Ban’s teachings carried her through the P.E. class, the last one before break. While boys were sent to the pool, the girls were divided in two teams to play volleyball in the roofed sports court. So happy she was, in the locker room Naoko started teasing Miwa and her other friends as she saw them in their P.E. white and dark-red attires, and they did the same with her. Under the doubt of whether she or Miwa looked the most stunning – even if the only girl voting for Miwa was Naoko herself –, they started a contest to decide who looked the best, and quickly most of the girls in the class were comparing one another’s outline, asking to postpone the decision until they had their first class in the swimming pool, messing around with parallel competitions for specific features and generally having fun. Thanks to Naoko the place went from being relatively quiet (she called that locker’s room a monastery) to a party with many voices colliding, surprise exclamations and screams, laughs and so on. Amidst the happiness, though, one downcast girl clung to a bench by a wall and stood there staring at a drain on the floor.

The mood of the drama club girl from 2-5, Shiori, was as gray as the skies outside, like usual. As Naoko noticed her standing alone in a corner, the first thing that came to her mind was her first day in that school, when she had three choices of chairs to occupy. The one by the window, now she knew, was right in front of Shiori. And to think Naoko almost sat there. In a week the girl got more or less used to the second row in the front of the class, thanks to her friends. To think she could be stuck with that sobbing girl instead of Miwa and the other fun girls if the class president hadn’t invited her to sit nearby was a terrifying thought.

The short girl looked so down, though, that Naoko felt bad for her. She thought about calling Shiori over to have fun with them, but her intentions would probably be misinterpreted. The wallflower, table-flat girl with the thin glasses would most likely feel insulted to be part of a beauty contest, even though Naoko could actually see some sort of prettiness in her. Her face was beautiful and she had a petit quality that made her adorable. Well, her melancholy aside. But to tell that to her seemed inappropriate, since she wasn’t messing around like the rest.

While the undisputed title of class beauty was awarded to Naoko, the real question became who’d get second place. Miwa and a brunette student that sat by the windowed outside wall close to Shiori, named Sayuri, divided the class’ opinions. Eventually Sayuri got the best by marginal difference.

Informally crowned class beauty, Naoko was also one of the tallest, and as such, the second to be chosen, right after Miwa, by two classmates randomly assigned team leaders by the thirty-some teacher. He wasn’t very handsome, Naoko thought, since his face seemed humorously off, too similar to a baby somehow, but he was very fit and bore an impressive abdomen that showed through his t-shirt. Shiori, being small, skinny and having no friends, was left for second to last. At least she didn’t bring her thin glasses to the fray, though it’s hard to tell how good she’d be without them. Also, though not being fond of team sports, Naoko was on a roll that day and was an actually athletic person, contrary to the one centimeter higher Miwa. The class president, though being fit as a fiddle, couldn’t jump high, slapped the ball with little force, didn’t have particularly keen reflexes and quickly got tired, while Naoko’s only problem was her poor accuracy. Still, she’s able to jump far past the net’s line and block incoming balls with ease.

During a rather disputed point the ball was lobbed in the air from the back of the opponent team’s lines, giving Naoko some time to act. She jumped to intercept the ball, noticing then that Shiori cowed in anticipation. Hence the defending girl decided not to be bad and deflect the ball in the opposite direction. Left, not right. Left. Not right. When the ball came in range, her hand flung violently, hitting the object midair with a grave, low thumping sound, sending it exactly to the right. The ball passed over Miwa before the tired girl could even jump. Shiori started to panic, running in circles and screaming before the ball finally stuck her head with sniper-like precision and sent her flipping to the floor. Then the ball flew upward and fell again over her head before hitting the ground and stopping. Then it most likely would’ve come out of inertia if it could, gaining altitude and falling again on the girl just to show how bad she was at it.

“Damn you, eye-hand coordination!” Naoko thought, “Why can’t you large muscle bundles be as accurate as your sibling in the fingers?! Why?!”

Looking on the bright side, Shiori wasn’t wearing glasses.

Naoko was far from suitable for all volleyball positions, but could perform passably even in the rear ones. Furthermore, to everyone’s surprise, class beauty queen Naoko was not only the opposite of a spoilt girl and finicky player, she’s borderline suicidal. Having no qualms in jumping after a seemingly lost ball to recover it even if it meant crashing flat on the ground soon after, Naoko played like a madwoman. What she lacked in finesse, she more than made up in sheer braveness (or craziness). To her it’s just the way she played anything, every so often getting injured, but for those who watched her persistence, her vigor and her skull thickness were astonishing. Since Naoko knew how to feather a fall from her karate training, her crashes weren’t nearly as brutal as it looked like, but only a trained eye could see that and, apparently, there was none in her class.

Her classmates paled in comparison. Miwa, more so. And then there was Shiori. Poor girl couldn’t even hit the ball. Every time someone threw it in her direction, Naoko’s team got a point and the shy girl looked even more disheartened. She tried not to deflect anything against her, but in the heat of the moment and with her blind aim it wasn’t always possible. Naoko’s team also had a few girls weighting it down, but overall Naoko just blocked most balls right at the net and didn’t spare her classmates chances to demonstrate just how awful they were at volleyball. All in all her class was not very good at it, the only reason that made the also mediocre player Naoko, full of energy but not really skilled, shine. Her team smashed the opposition and in just one class Naoko managed to become Class Beauty Queen MVP, while Shiori successfully defended her belt of Wallflower, Most Clueless Player.

Back in the locker room, everyone was so cheerful that Shiori stood out for Naoko as a little black hole, trying to suck away the joy. Sure, it wasn’t her fault for not being happy, but even the girls from her team, despite the loss, were vibrant. Miwa and many other girls were all praises to Naoko’s abilities and questions about if she hadn’t break any bones, while others were just tired and hungry, but kept talking among themselves. The glasses girl, on the other hand, was even more miserable than before. So much it started to get on Naoko’s nerves, just like she did in the drama club by looking helpless whenever that boy Takumi spoke to the (un)aspiring member. It’s as if Shiori couldn’t see anyone happy, being praised or winning without getting down, and even though she didn’t act, it almost looked like she expected others to notice her sadness and console her. In its own way, that was very egotistical of her.

But once again Master Ban’s wise words appeased Naoko. That girl just didn’t have the tools, the social skills and eloquence, to achieve her dreams otherwise. She most likely wanted to be liked by others, she just couldn’t find the way to do it. And unlike that dojo woman, she didn’t react in stupid ways. It’s as if she suffered alone. Feeling sorry for her, Naoko thought about going to talk to the girl, but since Shiori had no friends and no one to talk to, she’s also the quickest to change clothes, and before anyone knew the girl with a red, ball-like round mark on her face had gone back to the main building under her small umbrella.

Noticing Naoko’s bothered expression as she saw the girl going away, Miwa remarked:

“Is something the matter, Naoko-Chan?”

“Oh, Miwa-Chan,” Naoko was brought back from her contemplation, “I was just thinking. About Shiori-Chan.”

“About the ball you shot on her face?” Miwa risked a hunch, “If that’s it, don’t worry, she knows it wasn’t on purpose.”

“Ah, no, it’s another thing,” Naoko told her, “I was just thinking that Shiori-Chan is always alone and looks… kind of sad. I was wondering why.”

Putting an index finger on one cheek close to her mouth and looking up, Miwa recalled:

“I study with her since I was nine, I think. As far as I can remember, she was always like that. Well, maybe not as silent as those last few years, but definitely quieter than most. She had one close friend until the year before last, but her family moved to somewhere in Hokkaido. I can’t recall where exactly, though. Still, Shiori-Chan is just introverted, I think.”

“Is that so? Still, don’t you think she looks a tad sad?” Naoko insisted, to what Miwa thought for a moment, “Hm… I think I just got used to her being that way that I didn’t notice. Now that Naoko-Chan mentioned it… maybe? Perhaps I should go see if she needs something.”

During the break Miwa did so, but to no avail. Shiori-Chan simply thanked her for her concern but mentioned she had nothing she needed that she could think about. It’s frustrating to Naoko, who could clearly see the girl by the window, observing the rainy landscape, was melancholic and could use a friend. Then again, Naoko’s assumption was hers alone. She could be wrong, even if her gut feeling told her otherwise.

Her mood quickly returned back to vibrant as usual while she went to the swimming pool for her first day in the athletics club. Not knowing anyone was slightly daunting like always, and unlike in her dojo there was no one to welcome her other than a senior girl who did little more than explaining her how the club worked. Under the guidance of a coach, a previous female triathlon champion, the girls trained to break their own records, and the best results awarded the respective person a chance at various competitions, pitting them against other schools. Though there was an external coach, she also supervised other institutes, and the girls’ trained by themselves. Even though Naoko preferred individual sports rather than having to rely on teamwork, it felt boring at first, and the girls paid little attention to one another. Eager to test out her black and red swimsuit, Naoko was disappointed there was no one around that she knew to talk about how pretty she thought it was, and the others seemed to be too focused on her own exercises to care.

Her displeasure was rapidly put aside, though, because as she got in the lukewarm water Naoko felt right at her element. In Naoko’s previous school, the swimming pool was only open from June onwards, but on her new school the place could be used since the beginning of April. The thing she liked the most about pools was the freedom it provided. She could float and spin around if she wanted, walk as if she’s on the moon or pretend to fly. After the initial shock to discover how the Athletics club worked she carried over, testing out her speed and lungs capacity under the coach supervision. When she’s done the coach showed her the results, and in many categories Naoko had performed rather well, generally occupying the fourth or third positions in the swimming leaderboards. For someone who’d just arrived, it looked promising. Then again, most of it could be related to differences in height.

Just as the coach left an excited girl drew close to the lane divider. Looking happy, the pale-blond, short haired student threw Naoko off balance with the thankful tone in her speech:

“Hey, you just need to perform a little bit better and you’ll surpass Rin’s records!”

Naoko glanced in a disbelieving way to the apparently overjoyed girl. It seemed hard to believe someone would really be happy to have her second overall position threatened like that, but no matter how she looked at it, the strange girl looked honestly glad. Naoko reticently said:

“Hm… I’m… sorry? Thank you?” Seeing the girl look bright, she asked, “Hey, huh… you… look kind of happy with it…”

“Heck yeah!” the upbeat girl agreed. Leaning closer and covering the sides of her mouth, she revealed whispering, “It’s because only the first two get to participate in interschool competitions! Gets me dizzy just thinking about the crowd.”

Relaxing, Naoko giggled. “For a sec I thought you’d try to scold me or something, but you’re actually glad I can surpass your records?! You dislike competitions this much?”

“Rin’s not joking! I hate to compete!” the girl replied, “I joined this club just so I could exercise a bit! I’ve no intentions of ever going back to competitions! Last time Rin was so afraid Rin almost fainted, and placed last in front of everyone!”

That girl looked surprisingly lively and carefree. Smiling without noticing, Naoko asked:

“But are you required to compete if you place second or first?”

Getting suddenly preoccupied, the girl quickly insisted:

“Oh, no, don’t tell me you also hate to compete?! No, please, you have to become better!”

“Huh… It’s not that I enjoy competing,” Naoko answered, “I get kind of tense too, but I don’t think I’m scared or anything. Why? Do we get scolded if we lose?”

“Nah, nothing like that,” the eased girl explained, “It’s just Rin’s problem. I just can’t stand to see everyone watching me and expecting me to win. I usually faint when it happens.” With bright eyes, the girl inquired, “Hey, tell Rin: you’re that girl everyone’s talking about, the one who absolutely demolished that boy in that video and ultimately led to the expulsion of that idiotic coward that played mafia boss, isn’t it?”

“I don’t… know about the demolishing and expelling part…” Naoko modestly replied, “but yeah. I’m Yano Naoko, from 2-5. It’s a pleasure meeting you, hope we get along well!”

“I knew it!” the girl exultantly exclaimed, “The others here probably know it too, they’re just too self-centered and boring to say anything. I’m Uehara Rin, 2-1! Call me Rin, okay? Please be nice to me!” after an exchange of radiant smiles, Rin continued, “Hey, Yano-San?”

“Hey, no need for formalities too! “Naoko” is just fine”, Naoko insisted, to which Rin acknowledged in an uplifting way, “Right-O! So, Naoko-Chan? Can I ask you a favor? Big one?” With sparkly eyes the blond girl begged, “Please train hard and surpass my scores! Here in the pool as well as on bikes, on foot and such! What do you say? Please?!”

Cheerful, Naoko happily agreed to try her best, though asked Rin why she couldn’t simply hold herself to stay behind, to which the girl replied mixing first and third person speeches:

“Rin thought many times about doing it. Rin knows Rin came here just to make exercises and have fun but Rin just can’t hold herself back! It’s too troublesome and no fun at all! I want to feel I’m giving it my all, I just don’t want to compete! So please do your best! I’m sure with some training you can help Rin!” The high-frequency girl, just after completing her plead, thought about something and immediately said it, “Ah, can Rin just ask also we don’t make it a rivalry? It makes me uncomfortable. It’s a kind of competition, too. Can we just be friends? Oh, I know, I know! I can help you in whatever you need to improve! Rivals don’t help each other, right? They’re just an incentive for someone to improve itself, but friends help other friends! So… would Naoko-Chan… you know… care to be Rin’s friend?”

“Yay-yay!” Naoko instantly agreed, happy enough to hug Rin and only not doing so by a hair. Rin and Naoko had lots of things in common, as they quickly discovered. Both were energetic, easy-going, easily excitable girls of the same age. The blond girl also always carried a smile and felt that club was nice in theory, but people were too individualistic in practice. Too focused on competing, they barely talked to each other.

Rin was surprisingly fast for a girl around eight centimeters shorter than Naoko and a slim figure. The external corners of her eyes were slightly lower than the inner ones and her cheeks, according to Naoko, begged to be pinched, giving her a cute face. Her hair was beautiful, though in a peculiar way: blond but pale as sun-dried wheat straws. A few random straws were darker than the majority and a few lighter, though the girl told it’s normally like that. A few could be seen sloppily hanging out of her red swimming cap while in the pool, but after the training Naoko could see her full hair, straight though not all that well-kept. As such the uneven bottom curved upwards as if the girl slept folding her tufts unknowingly and didn’t care to comb it too much. It’s kind of untidy, but suited her nicely.

The two went away talking. Each carrying her own color-intense umbrella, Rin’s one being lime-green, they learned they shared some similar tastes. They both liked manga (Rin, to some extent), exotic foods and music. Rin knew how to play a few songs on a piano as her family had one, though the only instrument she really loved and wished she knew how to play was an electric guitar, just like Naoko. She also looked excited when hearing about the I.S.S.G.’s shows, mentioning she’d never, ever have the guts to perform in front of others but she’d love to watch a gig. The blond girl didn’t usually play video games, but she liked a few other kinds a lot, mostly board games. Her only problem was that anything that vaguely reminded her of a competition made the usually positive girl get dizzy and few uncomfortable, even if she played on a team against another one. The kinds of games she liked the most were cooperative ones. She disliked real violence and wasn’t interested in martial arts like Naoko, but she accepted action movies as long as they had some kind of romantic plot mixed in.

Rin was fascinated to know about Naoko’s bustling gaming life, full with friends from around the world, and intrigued about how the speedrunning community worked. From what Naoko told her, even though people were always competing for the best time, most speedrunners actually helped one another by sharing new tricks and information, playing together and such. The charity events that grouped them together periodically caught the attention of the blond girl, specifically. As Naoko described how fun they were and her experiences with friends getting together to play like them sparkled Rin’s interest in trying the same and knowing more about.

The blond girl knew some nice places around the city and Naoko promptly suggested they went to a karaoke the next day after the club. If it wasn’t for the fact both wanted to go home and wash the pool’s water away under another bath, they’d do it that same day, so well they got along together. They had their differences too, like Rin feeling uneasy around boys but also enjoying love stories far more than Naoko. The blond girl also revealed that she admired Naoko’s courage the moment she started to watch that video, but that she couldn’t even finish watching it. Rin detested tensions and conflicts, and declared she desperately wished to be even half as firm as her friend. Overall both felt they complemented each other’s tastes nicely.

Naoko returned beaming a big smile to the dormitory building. As soon as she arrived at her floor, however, something made her uneasy: a packaged gift by her doorstep. She more or less understood most people would be even happier if they received a present, but the girl only reluctantly approached. Wrapped in a shining purple and blue paper and held closed by glistening pink laces, it was eye-candy. People were almost always respectful enough not to touch the belongings of others even if they’re left unguarded, but it doesn’t mean the few boys and girls from her floor wouldn’t have known she’d received such an attention-catching gift.

At first Naoko tried to take it with the tips of her fingers, but the cubic content was too heavy, which made her even more worried. While checking if there’s no ticking sound inside, the girl found a red letter that came with it. Inside it, a few lines stated in trembling character traces as if someone with bad writing tried too hard to make it look pretty

“To Yano-San, Please forgive me for budging in like this with such an unfitting gift, but since you told me you liked action manga, I thought you’d perhaps enjoy something here. If not, I’m deeply sorry! Also I have all the volumes of these collections, I’d be more than happy to lend Yano-San any one, please feel free to ask me if that’s the case! Respectfully, Fukuda Katsuro.”

Just knowing that present came from the grinning boy made Naoko’s danger senses go haywire, even though it’s clear enough the heavy, almost cubic content of it was almost certainly a pile of comic books. That’s the only reason that convinced her to bring it inside. True to the letter, there’re ten manga volumes, all of different stories. She had read only one of those and had already heard about other five. They were action-packed stories, alright, though all the ones Naoko knew had some kind of romantic interaction, either as a background sub-plot or as a core element. Either Katsuro didn’t fully believe the girl would like narratives that were completely centered on fights and wars, or he’s implying something.

Even knowing the content was harmless the girl still felt somewhat apprehensive, which she usually didn’t. On the other hand, it’s a legitimate surprise Katsuro, after asking her about her preferences back in the laundry, had gone through the trouble of giving her not only one or two, but ten books. As suspicious as she was, Naoko couldn’t argue it wasn’t a thoughtful gift. She left it still in the wrap in a corner to think another time about what she’d do with it. All that’s left was to prepare a small bag with clothes to change to the next day and answer messages, one of which from Aratani. Also, there’s the usual calling home for the boring “Hey mom, I’m still alive” talk. Then she’s free.

On Saturdays there were a few classes in her school, though only until break. After that, people were free to leave or go to clubs. The rain had subsided for the most part of the day, and though the sky was still clouded the meteorology was promising for the next week. Also the girl had a meeting with her producer by five p.m. and was expected to take care of her appearance to attend it, but until then she’d plenty of time to spare.

The athletics club was much livelier with Naoko and Rin around. The two were the only ones to frequently talk there, and even if they slacked a bit sometimes, the two achieved relatively high performances compared to most of the rest of the team on the racetrack. With the exception of the obstacle course, that the short, blond girl was not good at, most of her other scores were generally good. Still, Naoko was able to beat most of her friend’s records unlike in the swimming pool. There was another girl who’s first in almost every ranking list, but besides her, Naoko and Rin usually figured among the second, third or fourth positions. They’re either naturally talented, blessed by genetics or just too hyperactive compared to the other girls.

The two quickly swept away the sweat and changed to spare casual clothes, Naoko reapplied her makeup and both left for a city stroll. By “casual clothes” it meant Rin’s non-matching red sneakers, green t-shirt and a pink skirt while Naoko, even though wearing a combination of everyday garments Aratani bought her, still looked like she’s going for a fashion show rather than a leisurely walk. Aside from her boots, changed in favor of the black sneakers, her attire was spellbinding as usual, though the girl started to get used to it. Her blond friend, though, was not and excitedly remarked every time they passed by a group of boys about how she thought they’re secretly checking up on Naoko, even if the girl herself didn’t think so. In a particularly crowded street Rin couldn’t stop blushing and bringing up:

“Rin thinks they discreetly looked at you, Naoko-Chan! That’s twelve just on this street! Wow! Oh, look, look! Another group! Shh! They’re coming!… Ah, now’s seventeen! Ahhh!”

“Yeah?” Naoko, laughing at the way her friend looked astounded, replied, “So?”

“I’d never have the guts to walk the same sidewalk as them if I knew they’d look at me! There’re five of them! Rin would be out cold by now! How’s Naoko-Chan so chill around boys?! Oh, Naoko-Sensei, please teach this undeserving disciple your secrets!”

“Rin-Chan? You can’t be serious,” Naoko retorted, “Rin-Chan is a very cute girl! No way you’ve never heard that from boys before!” After a powerful déjà vu experience, she added, “My, my, now I’m having flashbacks with my producer when he said something similar to me! I think now I can understand what he meant… Anyway, you’re always happy and expansive! What makes you so nervous around them?”

“Wish I knew!” Rin replied, “What makes Naoko-Chan so calm around them?”

Reflecting upon the question for only a second, Naoko joked:

“Wish I knew!” Laughing, she elaborated, “No, I’m kidding. I think it’s because I know lots of boys and I know there’s not as much to worry as you think there is. Sure, some boys are trouble no matter what, just like girls, but most are pretty cool people! They can be fun, and to be frank they’re usually more welcoming to me than the girls usually are. I’m having great luck here knowing girls like Rin-Chan and others in my class! That wasn’t the case back at my hometown.”

They talked the whole trip about Naoko and Rin’s past experiences. The blond girl had no traumatic memories that could’ve kick started her fears as far as she recalled. Apparently she was always bashful around boys. Still, she had a soft spot for love stories, and showed real enthusiasm in the way Naoko acted like it was no big deal. Maybe because to Naoko it wasn’t a big deal, really, and she’s convinced it also shouldn’t be to Rin. Seeing her blond friend so excited to learn anything she could to help her with the paralyzing anxiety that tormented her, Naoko felt an urge to intercede and happily promised:

“Tell you what, Rin-Chan: I want to see you overcome your fear! I have absolutely, positively zero idea how I can help you, but we’ll find a way to make you steadfast like no one!”

“For realsies?!” Rin radiantly inquired with dark shining eyes, “No strings attached?”

“Yeah, of course not! Why’d I do something like this?” Naoko returned the question, to which Rin responded while covering her mouth with her hands, “Like, when I told Naoko-Chan to try and beat my records you looked surprised, like if no one would like you to surpass them! But Naoko-Chan is a perfect magnet for boys and is very calm about it, why’d you want to help other girls with boys if you can have all of their attention to yourself?” At the same time the blond girl looked horrified with a thought that invaded her mind and, bowing, she apologized profusely, “Rin’s not saying she’d ever, ever surpass Naoko-Chan! Naoko-Chan is just too pretty! Please don’t think I’d ever try anything with any boy Naoko-Chan might be interested in, I swear! Rin… Rin just wants not to be so afraid and…! And…”

Naoko noticed the blond looked so upset with herself and tense with the vaguest idea she could end up competing for anything, much less a boy with her gorgeous friend, that Rin started to sway as if she’s on a boat by the sea. Her eyes lost focus and went nonfunctional as the girl, suddenly shutting down like a robot turned off, passed out. Naoko rapidly got a hold of her fainted friend before she fell flat to the ground with the cutest blank stare she’d ever seen. Her expression, not unlike if her eyes were substituted by a big pair of “X”s, still looked adorable albeit frightened. Her phobia of rivalries looked worse than Naoko had expected.

When she recovered, Rin got on an apology chain that Naoko only managed to sequence break by rapidly making her way to the karaoke her friend had suggested they visited. With red and lilac walls full of famous bands posters with light bulb inset frames and lots of closed rooms for rent, it’s a popular spot that looked amazing. The room they rented was not very cheap and the rows of cushioned seats surrounding three of the four chairs told Naoko the place was supposedly very affordable only if the bill was split among the twelve or fifteen people that chamber comported. Still, it looked fabulous, with a central table and a large TV close to the door.

Being the guest – even if the idea of singing in a karaoke was hers –, Naoko got to choose the first song. Like it was customary, while one person sang the others waited their turn, enjoyed the presentation and chose the songs they’d sing without interfering, or asking beforehand if they could join to sing. Rin, though, looked more than happy to just listen, and eagerly applauded at the end. Her blond friend insisted the girl sang again, even though it’s Rin’s turn, and asked Naoko to show her a song she could perform, preferably dancing like she’s on the stage. There was not enough space in the room for a full dance and Naoko had only rehearsed once before, so she wasn’t very enthusiastic about the idea, but Rin hadn’t even chosen her song yet, so her guest took another round.

It’s strange at the beginning to dance as well as sing, even for a one person audience, but Rin appeared to be having so much fun that it put Naoko at ease. As she finished her song, though, Rin still hadn’t chosen hers, and became suddenly quiet as she looked down tensely to the lyrics menu.

“Rin-Chan, what’s the matter?” Naoko demonstrated interest in knowing. The blond girl hesitated for some time, answering she’s just indecisive, but after Naoko discreetly insisted Rin finally admitted, ashamed, “I… didn’t think about it through when Naoko-Chan asked me to show you a karaoke venue. But Naoko-Chan is an idol, right? I… I… can’t sing well, you see…”

“Sooooo?” throwing the mic from one hand to the other, Naoko asked in a long syllable, starting to understand what held her friend back. Rin vacillatingly answered:

“So… maybe… Naoko-Chan will… you know… like, laugh at Rin. Or something.” Getting overwrought again she began to formulate the ideas that passed through her mind in increasingly rapid succession, “Because Rin can’t sing well, really. Even if Naoko-Chan doesn’t externalize her laugh, she’ll most likely be laughing on the inside. And maybe you won’t want to come to a karaoke with Rin anymore, because Rin sings so badly! No one wants to hear screeches!”

“Calm down, calm down!” Naoko tranquilized her friend, while sitting beside her, “Rin-Chan is grossly overestimating my own singing capability, and…”

“No, you just sang divinely!” her blond friend stated.

“…and, most importantly, Rin-Chan is taking it far too seriously.” Naoko finished her sentence, “Get real, Rin-Chan: I’m your friend, why’d I laugh at you? You also probably sing much better than you think you do, and even if you didn’t, you’re not here to sing well! We’re here to have fun, not to judge each other! If anything, I’ll support you like you do to me in the athletics club! So? Wanna choose a song you like and enjoy it?”

Slowly recovering, the still pale girl nervously inquired:

“Does Naoko-Chan promise she’ll not get mad at Rin for singing poorly? Or… or not going out with Rin again?”

Throwing the microphone to her friend, Naoko smiled warmly and encouraged Rin to choose a song. She sang it anxiously and really didn’t perform too well, but it’s clear she had a good voice and her otherwise upbeat personality would’ve pulled her through without a problem if Rin didn’t let her fears take the best of her. As she finished and hesitantly glanced back to her friend, Naoko applauded her effusively. Blushing, the blond student claimed:

“Naoko-Chan is too kind. Rin knows Rin sang horribly…”

Standing up and getting close to her friend to grab the mic, Naoko comforted her:

“You’re worrying for nothing! I’m not applauding you only for your singing, but because Rin-Chan overcame her fears and sang! That’s a lot! You deserve to be praised for that!”

Her friend’s face got brightened by a big smile. Naoko invited Rin to sing together the next song, to which the nervous girl accepted with a hopeful expression. It took them almost half an hour before Rin got completely comfortable, but it’s worth it. When intimidated the girl was like a hard to crack oyster, closing herself in her shell, but with patience she slowly opened up, showing once more her pearlescent nature. The joyful personalities of both girls flooded the rather empty room with the energy of twenty people, as the usual custom of alternating turns was discarded and the two sang together all songs, while shouting and laughing in between. Naoko too overcame her initial anxiety of presenting like in a stage, noticing how stupid she’d also been for getting even slightly nervous about it, and invited Rin to learn a few dancing steps. Naoko herself only knew a handful from the single two hour class she’d done before, but it’s enough to get the two guffawing loudly over their unsynchronized and silly choreography to the point of gasping for air and feeling their abdomens hurt.

One hour was all Naoko could afford, both because of money getting dangerously low and also due to time constraints, but they’re having so much fun she wished they could stay at it until they had no energy left to sing and laugh. On their way back, while Rin breathlessly talked about how thrilling it’d been to sing with an idol and how they should totally do that again another day Naoko’s cellphone rang. It’s an owner of a games store asking if the girl was still interested in a clerk position she’d applied to and been interviewed for two weeks prior. It’s nice to receive yet another job proposal, though once again she had to politely turn it down. Not before asking Rin if she wanted to have a part-time job, though.

“Rin would love to!” the girl explained while speaking in third-person like she sometimes did, especially when saying something negative or didn’t want to involve herself with, “Unfortunately Rin’s family is very strict about her studies and didn’t let her do anything that could detract Rin from her homework and private classes. I’m sorry, Naoko-Chan. But thanks for the generous offer! Also, I don’t know much about games, I’d be shy there.”

Once the job proposal was declined, Naoko asked:

“Is Rin’s family that severe? What private classes do you do?”

“Many boring classes!” Rin responded, “Math, sciences, history, English… Rin studies from Monday till Friday after getting back home. Before Rin had even more teachers, like the piano one, but now I only have about seven…”

“Seven?! You’ve seven private teachers?!” Naoko exclaimed, and her friend confirmed, “Yup. Though one of them is very nice, really! She teaches Rin philosophy!”

Raising an eyebrow, Naoko enquired why her friend studied it, and she happily explained:

“Rin’s parents require Rin to study each school subject every year. Some teachers teach Rin more than one subject, or subjects from a more advanced grade. In turn I can choose every year something of my liking to learn! I’ve already studied astrology, theology, mythology, psychology, French, anthropology, German and such. Last two years was German!”

Staring with unblinking eyes at the smiling girl as if she’d seen an alien, Naoko stood still as if paralyzed with a gaping mouth, holding her cellphone midway to her back pocket.

“What?!” Naoko abruptly exclaimed, “You know anthropology and psychology and stuff… and German?!”

“Well, I’m not fluent at German,” Rin modestly explained, “I only know enough to survive, though I know how to read kind of well! Rin was looking one day for an easy storybook in that language to read… but instead Rin found Also Sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen from a philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche! Rin painstakingly translated it, and found it so funny Rin decided to study a little about philosophy this year!”

Blinking without moving anything else for some time, Naoko suddenly rallied:

“You’re telling me you know French and theology and play a piano and have seven private teachers and have read an Also Spinach Zara-whatever philosophy book in German but you’re ashamed of speaking with a single airheaded boy and you’d clam yourself shut in a game store because you don’t know about stupid games?! What’s the problem with you, girl?!”

For a few seconds Rin’s frozen excited expression was just altered by eventual blinks from her starry eyes. The girl then returned to a previous topic as if nothing had happened:

“Speaking of games, Naoko-Chan knows a lot about them, right? Can you show me something about that speedrun thing you told me about?!”

Facing Rin’s vibrant countenance, Naoko half-closed her eyes and agreed:

“Yeah, right, way to change subjects! Fine, let’s pretend I didn’t notice your maneuver. Yup, I can show you around that, sure. I need to leave to work by four thirty, but are you going to do anything until then?”

Bringing Rin to the dorms, Naoko showed the amazed blond girl her room.

“Sorry about the mess.” Naoko quickly apologized while opening the door, already knowing she’d left her futon and her videogames messily lying around. Rin, though, seemed as marveled as if she’s entering a castle. Leaving her sneakers by the entrance, she exclaimed:

“Naoko-Chan really lives by herself! It must be the best thing ever! It’s fabulous! Oh, this dragon-patterned futon just screams “Naoko”! I loved it! Your room’s perfect! You’re so lucky!”

Naoko tried not to look as excited out of humbleness, but those were her thoughts exactly. Grabbing her laptop, Naoko invited her friend to sit in the only place there was to do so, the futon, and asked Rin what electronic games she knew about.

“Hm… I don’t know many. I never had a video game. My parents think it’s a boys’ thing and it would distract me. I’m… kind of at a loss here!”

“You… never played a video game?” Naoko sounded even more lost. Rin disclaimed excitedly, “No, I have. A few friends used to have those handheld video games, and I’ve a few games in my cellphone and computer, but they’re so hard I can barely win the first level!” She showed Naoko the ones she had on her nice but overly-decorated cellphone. A few of which were real classics, “Oh, and I liked to play those gaming machines they have at shopping centers and on some hotels, those cabins with buttons and sticks or plastic guns!”

“Arcades,” Naoko told her, glad to know it, “You’re just like my producer, then! I’m also trying to make him play games! Okay, I’ll just show you a few videos of people speedrunning those classic games you’ve with you and we’ll go from there.”

Showing her a list of videos, she chose one. The rectangular screen was divided in one big area where the game was played and two smaller ones. One containing technical information like its title, the name of the person running it, an expected time to finish the playthrough, an inscription of the name of the event and a number in the hundreds of thousands preceded by a dollar symbol. The other presented a fixed camera shot of an auditorium. Close to the cam there was a sofa were the player, along with a few other people, sat.

“How’s your English doing, Rin-Chan?” Naoko asked, “If you need I can translate it.”

“Don’t worry, thanks! I’ll be fine.” The blond girl enthusiastically responded “Why? Are they going to talk in English?”

“Yup,” Naoko affirmed, “I chose to show you an event I like a lot, but there are others, including a few in Japanese. This one’s an international summit that occurs twice a year, next one occurring on summer. Both are conferences to raise money for charity. Speedrunners try to complete the games as fast as possible and perform a few challenges while people donate money for the cause. Everyone on that couch is a speedrunner, though almost always only one play at a time. Since not everyone can play and speak at the same time, the others, who also run the game and know it very well, comment it. Sometimes the runner does so too.”

“They aren’t competing against each other then?” Rin questioned, and her friend said:

“Nope. Well, there are a few rare occurrences where two or more runners face each other for the best time, but then again, they’re not there to win or lose, they’re trying to raise donations for a charity. Some are more serious, but quite a few makes jokes and genuinely look like they’re having fun. I’ve already watched all those videos, I know this runner. He’s a funny one. Look.”

She showed her friend a few quick videos. The guys from the videos annihilated many games Rin had on her cellphone and couldn’t even beat the first stage. Both the runner and the commentators mentioned tricks and how they executed seemingly impossible feats, joked about past stories of failures, pointed out trivia about the game, credited members of their speedrunning communities for discovering certain exploits and more, all the while making it look easy. A few times a voice interrupted them to read comments of donors, and the number of dollars on the bottom right corner gradually increased. A few comments were jokes while others talked about real life stories of people close to the supporters fighting against diseases the institutions that would be benefited with the donations tried to eradicate. Even then, the mood was always bright as the people on the couch quickly drew attention back to the games and the absurd skips they did that a casual player would never do.

At a particular moment in the fourth video presented, the player forced the main character through a seemingly solid wall, making it get beyond the usual area into a dark void, only to appear seconds later at another part of the game world, beyond a gate. Confused, Rin asked what had occurred, to what Naoko informed:

“There are different running categories for each game, like completing one hundred percent of it as fast as possible or just rushing to the end. Some categories accept the use of glitches, which are mistakes the programmers committed when creating the game. Some mistakes can make the game stop working or making it impossible to beat, but a few can be taken advantage of to do things that weren’t supposed to happen. In this video the player character went out of bounds, meaning it got away from the area the game usually occurs on. With it the runner was able to walk across the edges of the map and bypass a locked door. That door usually requires the average gamer to go to a different level and do lots of stuff to get the key, and then backtrack to the door to open it and proceed. It usually takes half an hour to do so, but by getting out of bounds and bypassing the door, then getting inbounds again, the speedrunner lost just about five seconds. Some categories wouldn’t allow it, but this is a glitch run, meaning the player can do anything the game allows, even exploiting programming mistakes, to get through. This game, to an average player, takes about twenty hours to complete, but this speedrun gets it done in less than forty-five minutes by abusing some known glitches.”

“Wow! Though this way they’re not enjoying too much of it, are they?” Rin reflected.

“Do you think that’s the first time these people play that game?” Naoko retorted, laughing, “They’ve already finished it hundreds of times! They already played the game as intended by the developers and saw probably all there’s to see from it before reaching a point where they have the skills to force their way through the game and skip major sections like that.”

“Makes sense,” the blond girl agreed in awe, “Just a question: skipping things like that isn’t kind of cheating?”

“Not according to speedrunning rules,” explained Naoko, while getting up to look if there’s anything in her minibar she could cook for lunch for them, “Cheating is using external devices and things the game isn’t built with, like if you hacked the coding with a computer to alter things in your favor before playing it. Also, some old games didn’t allow gamers to save their progress, so they presented password systems where players could jump back to a specific level they’ve supposedly already beat, but that’s also considered cheating because you can just go right to the last stage. A speedrun involves you starting a game in its original state from the beginning and finishing it quickly, so anything the game gives to you between that is okay, but external resources, messing with cartridges and other media, tilting the console and so on are not. That’s why going out of bounds for exploiting a programming flaw is alright but playing an altered game or, say, plugging in an external source that hacks the coding to make you invincible is not. But if you can somehow abuse a mechanic that’s already inside the original game to make you invincible, that’s fine by rules as long as the category you’re running allows glitches and exploits like this.”

Initially Rin found it very complicated to understand what was going on, but Naoko patiently answered all of her interested friend’s questions while she cooked lunch for them. Granted, some were very basic but still curious, like the reason why a few games played by the speedrunners from that convention, the majority of which clearly coming from English-speaking countries, were written in Japanese. Naoko told her it’s because some games with lots of texts, like Role-Playing Games, could have different ways of depicting letters and characters depending on the world region they’re translated to. The English versions of a few games presented texts one letter at a time while the Japanese one could show the entire text box in just one frame, meaning in the long run players could save a few seconds by playing the Japanese one even though they didn’t speak Japanese. They already knew the game well enough not to need the texts anyway. Other questions were not as easy to answer, however, like how certain glitches worked.

Letting her friend play her video games for some time while she cooked, they both ate lunch while enjoying the videos. When she offered her friend some fruits as dessert, the blond girl quickly turned down in amazement:

“It’s such an expensive-looking package! And what’s this?! Melon slices?! Rin could never take it from Naoko-Chan! It must’ve cost you a lot!”

“Eh… no, it’s a gift.” Naoko explained it, making Rin’s eyes sparkle, “A gift?! That’s a very thoughtful gift! Is it Naoko-Chan’s birthday or something? Rin’s sorry for not knowing!”

Letting the video run on mute, Naoko explained to her friend why she received that present, to which Rin was staggered.

“In an inversed way, that’s so romantic! Naoko-Chan saved that boy in distress and he thanked you! Aw, now I want to save boys too! Do you think they’ll like me for it?!”

“Huh… I’m pretty sure they’d already like you for other things, there’d be no need to save them,” Naoko responded, “but… yeah? Well, that’s unusual to occur, I’m sure they’d see even more easily the unique girl you are. Though, really, it’s not worth the trouble, you can get in a mess doing so and boys already have plenty to like in Rin-Chan without all the fuss. Why?”

They briefly talked about the reason a beautiful, cute and fascinating girl like Rin felt like she should save a guy for him to want to get close to her, but to no avail. After that, Naoko got a hold of the controller and played the games her friend had sluggishly and painstakingly tackled. It was exactly the same games, only this time it’s the hostess playing, and a few parts that took the blond girl minutes to complete, Naoko breezed through in seconds. Dumbfound, Rin asked to try a trick and Naoko showed her an easy one, which her friend practiced during almost twenty minutes while the hostess changed clothes in the bathroom and got ready for the meeting.

While she reapplied the eyeliner the curious voice of her friend asked from the other side of the wall, “Naoko-Chan! I just noticed that open gift package on that corner! Another gift! You’re a present magnet! Don’t tell me it’s another present from that boy! Are those manga?”

Taking a moment to understand what Rin was talking about, she suddenly remembered while finishing her makeup and taking her toothbrush:

“Oh! Yeah, it’s a present. But not from that boy. It’s… huh… from another boy that lives in the dorms building too. He asked me what kind of stories I liked and gave me those. You can take a look if you want.”

After a couple of seconds, Rin called even more excited than before:

“I’ve read two of those! Pretty good stuff! I’m so envious of you, Naoko-Chan! To receive such a present from yet another guy! That boy also has excellent taste!”

“Wha-?!” Naoko interjected, washing her mouth clean of toothpaste before continuing, “No, don’t get your hopes high on him, Rin. He’s… not very… Wait, you said you’ve read two of those? But… but I’ve only ever read one, and I consider myself a big fan of manga! Is it possible that you’re even more than me?! I’m so proud of you!”

“Huh… don’t know!” Rin replied, “I like manga, but it’s not as if I read a lot and I only have, like, fifteen tops in my collection! Though I know a few. I’d no idea Naoko-Chan liked romantic stories too!”

Getting out of the bathroom looking puzzled, Naoko disagreed:

“I don’t, and these manga aren’t about romance. They’re about action! At least the ones I know about, though there are four there I can’t really say.”

Grabbing one of the comic books Naoko had already heard about, though never cared to read since it had a romantic couple as the central plot drivers and little action, Rin mentioned:

“Take this one as an example! Rin gets it there can be a few action moments on this one, but it’s a story about love!” Leafing through it, the blond girl described it with exultant eyes, “The sad story of a boy and his mutual love with a school girl who’s actually a weapon of mass destruction created to unwillingly decimate people in a war, if Rin remembers correctly. It’s very touching and talks about many subjects other than love, such as duty, ethics and free will! I love it, it’s so sad but cute! What would Naoko-Chan do if she was a governmental secret weapon whose only reason to exist was to kill, but fell in love?”

Naoko thought about it for a second. Not about what she’d do, but about how she’d say that to Rin, because in her mind things looked as clear as day.

 

“No, Naoko-Chan! We can never be together!” a tall, short grayish-brown haired boy cried from closed eyes behind his thin-framed glasses while hugging her dearly.

“Why?” Naoko would reply, crying together, unbeknownst to the many pillars of smoke rising amidst the bombed city around them. Holding her tighter against his blue uniform, the boy would reply between hiccups:

“Because you’re the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, chosen for having the highest compatibility rate of all people with the defense system attached to you!”

“Bwa, bwa, that’s very sad, bwa, bwa…” Naoko would unrealistically cry, though only until the information sank in. “Wait. I’m what?!”

Looking at her right arm Naoko would make a big weapon come out of it while metal wings popped out of her back. Surprised, Naoko would certainly smile radiantly and her eyes would gleam reflecting the solid, high-caliber multi-barreled gun. Getting free from that sobbing loser’s hug, she’d obviously say the only thing that would make sense in this circumstance:

“Awesome!” In a second Naoko would be flying away at ultra-speed, leaving that gloomy boy to watch as numerous explosions in the distance painted the horizon red and lit his face and glasses. Because what’s the point in being the ultimate weapon of mass destruction if she didn’t caused destruction? Well, maybe she’d not leave him completely, of course. After Naoko had laughed enough raining tactic missiles down, she’d eventually come back, landing close to him. In a touching reunion, she’d, once again, say the only heartfelt thing reasonable in this situation:

“Can shoot ballistic missiles from my fingers! Don’t need you anymore, sucker!” Taking a small rock from the debris around, she’d toss it at his head before flying away again, cutely laughing while sending lasers and bombs tearing down at enemy vessels, buildings and little screaming people beneath her alike just for laughs. Sure, Naoko wouldn’t be such a good defense system if she destroyed the country she’s supposed to protect, but eventually she’d make it even by leveling the ones she’s supposed to attack too. And probably most of the world along with it, because why not?

 

After some time laughing loudly and evilly, Naoko snapped out of her imagination and calmed down. Facing Rin, who looked slightly suspicious, Naoko answered with a cute voice:

“Sorry, I just remembered a little joke. About the love story? Yeah, tough question. What would I do if I was a weapon of mass destruction who fell in love?” The girl giggled for a sec before changing subjects. “Anyway! Nice to know Rin-Chan not only likes manga, but knows quite a few already! Can’t say I like love stories, though, so if you want to take any of the ones there that focus on romances more than on action, feel free to do so.”

“No, Rin can’t take any! Thanks for the offer, but it’s an incredible present from a boy to Naoko-Chan!” Rin refused with her hands covering her mouth, too shocked to even bow. “That boy must like Naoko a lot to give her such a nice gift!”

“Don’t worry, that feeling is not mutual.” Naoko guaranteed, “If you really feel bad about it, I can also lend Rin-Chan the volumes you want. It’s not like I have time to read those anymore, they either don’t pique my interest or are very long stories.”

“But this one’s really good!” Rin pointed to the one she’d previously used as example, “Naoko-Chan should read it! Maybe you’ll start to like love stories too!”

“Or maybe I’d need something happier than a forbidden love between a boy and an armada turned girl if I’m to like love stories.” Naoko countered, to which Rin eagerly responded, “Good idea! Okay, let’s trade then! Naoko-Chan lends me one of those and I’ll bring, like… five from my own collection to school next Monday so you can also choose one! I’ll make sure to choose only short stories, don’t worry! What do you say?”

Love stories didn’t exactly interest her, but just to make Rin happy Naoko accepted the exchange and let her borrow a comic book from the pile. Soon after, the two left. Her friend told her she’d loved her room, the karaoke and to know about that gaming community, and was going to look for more info by herself. Naoko thanked her for the amazing day and apologized for having to go to work, though the blond girl, looking just as thankful, mentioned it’s not a problem.

Taking the train to The Paragon Idol agency, Naoko barely saw the trip, so happy she was with the memories of that day. Rushing to the office to get in time, Naoko ran upstairs, her platform boots thundering against the steps. Reaching the last floor exhausted from the run from the station until there, she quickly knocked and entered her producer’s room huffing.

“You’re still one minute early,” Aratani remarked, “And I could hear you rocking the stairs like a hurricane. You don’t need to rush like that, Naoko-Chan.” Opening a small smile, he invited, “Come take a seat, I’ve good news for you.”

Walking around the still clustered office was even harder than before due to her platforms. The place was still cramped with trash, only somewhat better organized, and the only major difference was the inclusion of a few posters of idol bands. The girl quickly asked:

“What are those posters? Do you produce them too, Produ-San?”

Running his eyes through the famous bands around the walls, Aratani commented in a disbelieving tone:

“Huh… no. They’re all well-established idol bands, some with many years on the road. Don’t tell me you don’t know any of those? Naoko-Chan doesn’t know about, say, AK1/47?”

Getting immediately pumped up, Naoko responded with unfaltering certainty:

“Of course I do! The AK-47, or Avtomat Kalashnikova, first manufactured in 1947 in the Soviet Union, is an assault rifle officially accepted in the Soviet army by the end of that same decade! It went through many overhauls during the years but many decades after its initial production, it’s still used around the world! It’s considered a reliable weapon, with passable accuracy to hit targets up to one hundred meters away, good cadency of fire and low production cost! It has a more or less unimpressive “life expectancy” of around ten thousand rounds, though some can surpass it. It’s also an easy to maintain weapon and its parts are easy to find and replace, it resists harsh weather well and are not all that heavy for a trained soldier! It’s an also popular weapon for modifications and can receive anything from simple clip size increases for its thirty-nine millimeter bullets to the addition of grenade launching adaptations!” After thinking for a second if she’d forgotten anything she knew, Naoko asked, “Hm… Why did you ask me about a gun? Weren’t we talking about bands, Produ-San?”

Keeping his cool so as not to freak out, Aratani gave himself a face palm.

“Naoko-Chan, please tell me you made up everything you just said. How the hell do a girl like you knows about military weaponry from ninety forty seven Soviet fucking Union?!”

Looking as confused as her producer, Naoko explained simply:

“It was created in soviet territory during Cold War, but it’s one of the most famous guns of all times! Practically every first-person shooter game you play has an AK-47 or a model produced after it, and a few games explain a lot of details about the equipment a player can have. It’s hard not to know it even exists if you play war games, and it only requires you to be a little curious and patient to read everything the menus say to eventually know this kind of stuff. The rest I learned on the internet!”

“For all that’s good, girl!” Aratani chided her, “Don’t you ever show anyone these kinds of knowledge like that! You speak as if you’re a grizzled veteran who knew from your own experience about this gun you said! At least tell others beforehand your data comes from games, because the way you said it I’d believe if you told me you’ve already shot a gun in real life!”

“Video games are real life too!” Naoko protested, mockingly cowering in her chair, “You’ve no idea the horrors I’ve already seen!… Mostly due to my own ineptitude, really… but horrors all the same!”

 

“I’ve spotted one!” Naoko claimed on her headset years ago, speaking low so as not to wake up her parents at three a.m. and doing so in English since her online friends were all from abroad, “He’s over one of the two towers by that funny, big building! He’s mine!”

“Roger that, Straight Girl,” a guy with a thick, manly voice spoke from her team acknowledged, referring to her in the joking way her usual international friends liked to call her. It’s because the two characters that composed Naoko’s name, like she once explained them, were that of “straight, correct, docile, fair, sincere” and “child”. They liked the irony of her father having named her that way as if he wanted Naoko to be a good, well-behaved girl only for her to become so critical to him and doing lots of things her father disliked. Playing so much being one of these things. Well, at least she was sincere… They liked how “Straight Girl” sounded better than “Straight Child”, though, and it became her nickname among the other players.

Naoko pressed the aim button and looked through the magnifying scope of her precision rifle, hunting for her prey in silence. Crawling over the rooftop of a building, she slowly made her way to the left so that she could get a good sight of her target, hiding with another rifle at the top of a bell tower of a church of sorts. Slowly, slowly and sneakily she moved, not letting her sight off her scope even for a second so that she’d grab any opportunity she had like the professional she was…

And then the rooftop was over and her character fell off from its edge, spinning to his ridiculous death many meters below. Staring the screen unbelievingly with tired and frustrated eyes reflecting the bluish light of the monitor, Naoko dropped her forehead on the keyboard.

“I’m out, guys.” She spoke to the keys, groping her way to the mouse and only lifting her head slightly to see where she was clicking to exit that stupid game as soon as possible.

 

“Oh, the horrors of war and of ineptitude…” Naoko commented with wide-open, non-blinking, fixated eyes while hugging her folded legs. Getting back to normal, she interrogated, “But why’re we talking about it?”

Sighing, her producer explained her:

“We were talking about an idol band from Akihabara called AK1/47 before you started to freak me out with talks about weapons and Russia. I was going to ask you if you didn’t know those famous idol groups on the posters to tell you I don’t produce them, but let’s change the subject quickly before my tiger-loving, weapons-specialist idol worries me even more. First of all, I’d like to congratulate Naoko-Chan for having already amassed around one hundred fans on your fan club… without having performed a single time yet.”

“Huh? How?!” Naoko questioned, surprised. In a cool expression, her producer reacted, “That’s also what I wanted to know, so I investigated. And apparently there are a couple of videos with tens of thousands of views on the internet about a girl just like you scolding the life out of a gang boy. Ring any bells?”

Seeing the man cross his arms and face her, Naoko suddenly got what occurred. Lowering her head, the girl bowed and apologized, quickly explaining all that happened. Her producer, though clearly not happy, didn’t reproach her, instead merely cautioning the girl:

“I get it. Okay, you did some good deeds and I’m actually glad to see you care for others to the point of intervening in favor of a boy and your janitor, and capable of persuading others to the right path. I’ll not tell you it’s wrong, all I ask is that you think about the consequences of it next time. And not only for your career, that’s the least of our concerns. You can create enemies with the wrong people, Naoko-Chan. I know that boy was expelled and all, and that I don’t need to tell you that, but please, be careful.”

Seeing the cheerful girl was left burdened, the man changed subjects with a casual smile:

“But I’m happy you’re wearing your new clothes. They simply looked too good on you on those videos. Atta girl. Now, for the real good news: you’ve your first work right tonight.”

Brought back from her downcast state by the shock, Naoko frightfully interrogated:

“Oh, no! Don’t tell me you want me to perform! I’ve only done one day of lessons! I…!”

“Hey, hey, chill out, Naoko-Chan,” Aratani coolly calmed her down, “Of course not, I wouldn’t risk your image in a presentation just yet, knowing you just started learning how to dance. That’s why I looked the whole week for other work you could do. Turns out a company that sells pillows and bed stuff is always looking for stunning girls to pose to ads. I have other companies interested in your photo book too, from cosmetics and fitness stuff for gyms to natural drinks and so on, but until now only one signed a contract so far. So here, sign this paper and by 6:30 p.m. you’ll be resting your locks on said company’s new pillows and matching spring blankets. Just pretend you like it even if you don’t, stay awake and before you know we’ll have accrued some change to get us back closer to positive. Got any questions, Naoko-Chan?”

As the girl finished reading the simple and straightforward contract, her eyes got wide and her feelings of shame were lost among a mixed surge of excitement and suspicion.

“Wait! It says here three hundred thousand Yen?! Being paid three hundred thousand for pretending to sleep with a smile?! Isn’t there something wrong here?!”

“You’re not being paid three grand to pretend to sleep smiling,” Aratani corrected her, “You, along with a few other models, are being paid three grand for being a gorgeous girl who, by pretending to sleep with a gracious smile, will surely attract customers attentions to a huge company’s new line of pillows and stuff and help generate hundreds of millions, billions of Yen. Also, remember: that’s the total amount the agency will receive. Your share’s fifteen percent, meaning forty five thousand. Still as impressed as before?”

Astonished, the girl hesitantly signed the contract after certifying herself there was nothing to fear about it. Though much more reassured, Naoko exclaimed:

“It’s still quite a bit of cash for just a few photos.”

“Maybe, but in Tokyo it’s nowhere near enough, unfortunately,” Aratani brought her back to reality, “That’s why I’m already looking for many other companies. I think by next weekend we’ll have more work to do. I’m also negotiating with that same company we’ll be going in half an hour from now to extend our contract for a few more ads. Let’s see how it all plays out. The important thing is that the companies seem to like what they see in you, Naoko-Chan. This first contract is actually a weak one, but I accepted it anyway so we can have something on our portfolio to show clients. When a corporation sees other big companies had already contracted you, they become much more open to my advances and new contracts get easier to close, so the more your face gets out there, the more familiarized the public and the contractors become with you, and business gets better and better.”

Astounded not only by that calm young man’s honesty but also by his business savvy, Naoko commented casually:

“I never thought you had to think about so many things, Produ-San! Until now I thought you just scheduled lessons, cared for my image and made bureaucratic works for I.S.S.G.! What are your other incumbencies, Produ-San? What does a producer do, exactly?”

“More than we’ve time to discuss, unfortunately, since I still want to talk with you about another topic,” Aratani stated, “but basically, aside from what you said, a producer tries to find good contracts. It means he visits potential clients, attends to events to strengthen his network, sends prospects to companies and such, which currently take up most of my agenda. I’m also required to take care of the paperwork for any show you’ll be making and making sure you’re on top condition for it, which I’ll hopefully be doing in the near future. I manage your fan club, research new trends, take care of copyrighted songs, clips and contents you’ll have someday, make contact with the media, yada yada yada. Also, I’m required to close contracts for non-ranked shows, but that’s still a long ways off. So no, I don’t just sit here all week waiting for Sunday to be your chauffer and slave you to the bone in many hour long courses, don’t worry about it. Actually, my weekends are the most relaxing time for me, when I can usually kick back and see the things I planned during week unfold, staying nearby just in case it didn’t go as intended. And since I’m also the owner of this agency, I also need to pay its taxes and room rent, take care of your payment and so on, but that’s easy, actually. Oh, and also send home the many other girls who come here looking for work, but this part’s even easier with the office the way it is right now. So there, my work in a nutshell.”

“I… had no idea.” Naoko said, in lack of better words, “And I thought my week was full.”

“Speaking of which, how’s your first week here?” Aratani leaned in over his table and put his elbows over it, clasping his hands in front of his mouth, “Did you enjoy it, Naoko-Chan?”

“Huh… beside that stupid mess I got into, you mean?” Naoko, in a sorry way, asked, to which her producer nodded and stated, “Yeah. I take it you’ve already noticed not only that companies won’t want to associate their brands to a girl who gets infamous for clashing with gang boys, but also that it could be dangerous for you. If you learned your lesson, it’s fine, let’s forget about this topic, shall we? What about the rest of your week? Did you like the school, the city, living by yourself, knowing new people, things like this?”

Naoko briefly recounted her first days in the capital, so briefly in fact she didn’t even mention things like the karaoke or her dojo, and while she did so she gradually recalled how wonderful it’s been. So far for every good thing she experienced, she also found that wasn’t as nice, but until then she’d given more importance to the negative things than they deserved, since the positive ones far outmatched the cons. Having her own room in a dorm full of good people was awesome, even if Katsuro and Daiki lived there and were kind but rubbed her the wrong way; getting in a class with Miwa and other lovely people too, and that drama queen Shiori was the exception, not the rule; her dojo only had one stupid woman and seventy-some nice, reassuring and interesting men, including her remarkable new master; her friend Rin alone was spectacular and would already make the athletics club worth the trouble just by herself, but the exercise was a nice bonus. The city was fantastic even under heavy rain, and Naoko had so much to do she’d barely no time to chill in her room, to which the girl was glad. Nothing was perfect but Naoko never felt so alive, and counting her blessings made her even more radiant.

Content to hear about it, Aratani joked:

“It seems everywhere Naoko-Chan goes, she becomes the favorite member. Too bad nowadays idol groups are losing some space to individual presentations, a few years ago you’d become a supported member of many fans in your band. Well, guess we can still make you shine brighter than other idols in your class and leave them green with envy, so no waste here.”

“Idol groups are not a big thing anymore?” Naoko inquired, and her producer half-agreed:

“Not like they used to be half a decade or so ago. They’re still huge in terms of business, but became kind of luxury articles, that have immense value but not the same high demand they used to have. The Idol Star System favors individual idols. As such, current generations of idols are getting more and more specialized and extreme. You saw it on that show, I think. Every idol looked very different from the others, even though most of them come from a time where bands were still the main thing. I think you remember that lady who won the competition, nicknamed Vyper, but I don’t know if you remember, for example, one of the first Metal class girls at the beginning of the show, with a purple and green hair. Do you?”

“Violet Lily?” Naoko quickly responded.

“Exactly. They’re both part of a band one day. Izumi and Sayuri. Vyper, whose real name is Izumi, being around Naoko’s age now, and Violet Lily, who by that time was also known by her real name, Sayuri, was one of the youngest. She’s thirteen, I think. Sayuri’s name character composition translates in English to “small lily”, so you can see from where she took her stage nickname, though I’ve no idea about Vyper’s one. Anyway, you can see the two have a darker take on the thing than the others, because the band they came from leaned heavily on the punk style, full of black clothes and intense makeups. But after they went solo, you can see they developed their own flairs. That’s what happening to idols nowadays: instead of following a common style from a band, they try to create their own characters. Things are getting more and more individualistic as girls have to carve their own niches. It’s a concept that draws its influence heavily from international solo singers and celebrities. The I.S.S.G. was created to be expanded to the world, so it’s no wonder there’s a kind of Western-style trait on it that urges girls to be different and attract more attention than others instead of working with your peers for the greater good.”

Entertained, Naoko smiled, though only in the slightest.

“I didn’t know Vyper and Violet were once part of the same band! That’s cool! Though… Produ-San? You seem a little… critical about… standalone idols, or is it just me?”

Leaning back and relaxing, Aratani shook his head dismissively:

“I’m sorry, pay me no mind Naoko-Chan. It’s not that I dislike standalone idols. I wouldn’t open an agency like this if that was the case. I just… let’s say I have my point of view about I.S.S.G.’s methods. Can’t complain, though, it’s possible to gain lots of money in this business and is always challenging and fun. And it’s not like there isn’t differences between girls in bands, on the contrary: there’s plenty. The shy girl, the happy one, the girly, the serious one… Only difference’s that in bands this mix work because it caters to many tastes of fans, bringing more people to watch them and more revenue for all. It’s a good thing, because the differences bring variety and strengthen the group, whereas currently it distances the girls. But no, it’s not as bad as I make it sound, and it can be fun. Forget I said anything. There’s just one thing I…”

He stopped, as if Aratani didn’t want to go on. Having hooked unintentionally Naoko’s attention, though, her producer continued:

“See, this system doesn’t completely eliminate bands, including among otherwise solo idols. A few agencies focus on special contracts to group up standalone stars for special concerts. Violet Lily, for example, is sometimes seen in a band created just for girls with colors in their names. I can recall being Cyan, Scarlet, Coral and Violet, but there are others. That’s an unintentional coincidence for the most part, but a few well-established and keen producers are able to capitalize on this and create a special squad-sort band out of it. There are others, too, including of girls who began on bands and are now tackling solo careers on their free times. It’s not impossible, just harder. Anyway, I would eventually have to tell Naoko-Chan this, so might as well be now. Just take this as an advice, it’s nothing to spoil your happiness or anything, okay? The thing is, you’ll most likely find, once we enter you in gigs, that some girls may not be as friendly as maybe you’d like. I’ll tell you this now so you can put your mind to rest: it’s nothing against you. You’ve no problems and they don’t hate you no matter what they say. It’s just that I.S.S.G. pits girls against one another right from the start, fighting for a top position. Some get reticent with all this rivalry and find it hard to open up to others. It’s nothing personal so don’t feel discouraged if it happens, got it? I know it makes little sense to give you this peep talk right now instead of before your first show, but I’ll remind you of this again in due time, alright?”

This aversion to rivals made Naoko remember a few people, like that woman in the dojo and Shiori from her class. Also, Rin-Chan, who’s not only afraid of rivals but of rivalries and competitions in general. Thinking back, if Rin liked to compete or was opposite to people who could take her place she’d probably never have come talk to Naoko to encourage the new club member to surpass her personal records. Naoko began to get why her producer was averse to making idols compete and try to be different to surpass the others instead of uniting and letting their dissimilarities complement one another.

“Anyway, on to business,” Aratani lighten up the mood, “We still have twenty-some minutes, so before we go I’d like to go over a few explanations about the Idol Star System score mechanics, so we don’t have to go over it all in one single seat before your first presentation, okay? I believe I’ve already told you every ranked presentation with an examining board is evaluated under five categories, right?”

“You mean, like, Dancing and Singing?” Naoko gave it a shot, and Aratani confirmed:

“Exactly. There are actually seven categories, but two of them are kind of unofficial. People call them the “Secret Categories” or “table turners”. They’re just a bunch of personal tastes that can influence judges and a few bonuses and penalties, so we’ll skip it for now. Let’s focus on the five official ones: Singing, Dancing, Aesthetics, Devotion and Memorability. If you paid close attention during that show last Sunday you’ve probably noticed a lot of numbers on the score totals, with each judge giving five scores to every girl on every dance.”

Nodding, Naoko recalled:

“Yeah, I remember those. Especially this “Devotion” thing. I thought it was very strange.”

“Yes, it’s a very… how can I put it… “extreme” naming for a category,” Aratani agreed with a smile, “The previous name was even worse, though: “Idolatry”. I get it make sense because it has an “idol” part to it, but after the reformulation the I.S.S.G. came under to make it more international-friendly, they discovered “idolatry” is generally used in negative contexts in many countries, and opted for “Devotion” instead. It’s still debatable, as some directors of the corporation thing the term “Crowd Interaction” would be more neutral. No matter the real name, this category in informally called “Crowd Control” by most producers and idols, so if you ever hear it, know they’re talking about the Devotion score, okay?”

“I like Crowd Control!” Naoko talked her mind exultantly, “It gives me the impression I’m a powerful sorceress raining down meteors and lightning bolts over hordes of enemies to keep them at bay and obliterate their numbers! I liked this category!”

Unfaltering and cool, Aratani remarked in an ironic way:

“The only thing you’re obliterating with these games are your own neurons, Naoko-Chan. Ahem… We’ll talk about Devotion on another time, first let’s go over Singing and Dancing.”

“Oh, you’ve already told me a few things about the Dancing one, remember?” Naoko pointed it, “After I finished my tests! I remember a few things… but I could use a recap, I suppose.”

“Yes, it’s true,” her producer confirmed, “I’m glad Naoko-Chan recalls it. Let’s begin by it, then. It’s composed of five sub-categories like every other one. In Dancing we have Mood, Stage Presence, Choreography, Execution and Assertiveness. Mood is if your dance captured the feel of a song. Stage Presence evaluates the use of the space of the stage. Choreography is a fixed score about the planned movements you’re supposed to perform. Execution means how well you managed to perform your planned choreography. Last but not least, Assertiveness evaluates if you showed confidence in the stage. Your dancing teacher will tell you more about this one during your classes. Can we go over to the Singing one?”

“Yup,” Naoko agreed, though adding, “Oh, just a question! A shy girl will always have crappy Assertiveness scores, then?”

Reflecting on it for a brief period, Aratani replied:

“It’s a good question. Like everything, it depends. The stage persona an idol incorporates is different from her real self, and the score takes this into consideration. A girl can behave like an introvert cutie, but have high Assertiveness scores, because judges can evaluate it’s part of her acting. Also, a girl can act all reserved but still sing loudly and don’t flinch away from the audience, meaning she has lots of confidence and is merely acting. It’s different from an idol who, even with a smile and a frenetic choreography, stays as far away from the public as possible, makes no eye contact with her fans and generally behaves nervously. Overall outgoing idols end up with slightly higher Assertiveness scores, but that’s maybe due to a bias of judges toward extrovert types. The judges are humans, after all, and can be slightly fooled, but in theory, no, Assertiveness is not a measure of how ample your moves are per se, but if you demonstrate confidence or not in your acting.”

“Oh! Okay then!” Naoko nodded, “So, what about Singing?”

“Once again, your singing instructor will go in the tidbits with you, but I’ll give you an overview of this category,” her producer announced, “Singing is divided between Voice Quality, Lyric Quality, Lyric Difficulty, Interpreting and Rhythm. Voice Quality evaluates if you have ample or narrow vocal amplitude, can reach high and low pitches, if you can modulate between them with ease or not, if you can project it or it’s hard to hear, these kinds of things. Lyric Quality and Lyric Difficulty are both set and unchanging scores evaluated by professional musicians as a song is submitted for approval on I.S.S.G. for the first time. The Quality one means how deep and rich the lyric is, their technical metrics and rhymes composition, use of vocabulary and lots of other stuff. The Difficulty measures if it has lots of pauses for breathing or not, if it forces quick oscillations between high and low pitches, if it has sustained solos for long periods, etcetera. Basically if it can be sung perfectly by an asthmatic seven year-old girl or if only the crème de la I.S.S.G. and professional songstresses can dominate the beast. While both are fixed in value, Interpreting means how well you performed the chosen song, so there’s no point in choosing an absurdly hard composition just for the large fixed points in Lyric Quality and Difficulty if you’re unable to sing it correctly and end up with a ridiculous Interpreting score. Also, Interpreting evaluates the individual flails and personality an idol gives to her music, since no two people will sing the same song in exactly the same way. Finally, Rhythm. It’s self-explanatory: if you don’t sing along with the instruments or the electronic sounds your score will get hurt, otherwise you’ll be fine. Many rookie idols take Singing for granted because of the two fixed scores, but it’s actually one of the hardest categories to master. Also, some people are naturally gifted with good voices and there’s only so much one can do about it, so some idols will naturally have an advantage here.”

Agreeing, Naoko recalled:

“I saw that on the show! That Umeko-San lady sang like an angel! If it wasn’t for that stupid Aesthetics score, Vyper would never have a chance!”

“The Aesthetics category is not stupid, Naoko-Chan, it’s an integral part of presenting yourself, not only on stages but to other people in general.” Aratani declared, “Take a lawyer for example. No one would believe him or her if the person wore a leather jacket over the skin instead of a suit. But yes, I see where you’re coming from. Umeko-San is an amazing idol with an incomparable voice. Though I can assure Naoko-Chan your voice can at least get very close to that kind of perfection with enough training.”

Forcing an acidic laugh, Naoko discredited him:

“Now you’re exaggerating, Produ-San.”

Turning to his computer, Aratani replied while getting a song started:

“I knew you’d say that, Naoko-Chan. So I decided to randomly choose a song Umeko-San sang during the beginning of her career to make my point clear. Bear in mind that she began about ten years ago, meaning she’s part of a band. Six or seven girls in total, I think. There are other voices during this song, but every girl gets a solo part, so I’ll point it out to you when is Umeko-San’s time to shine so you can hear it for yourself.”

An energetic, upbeat and happy song began sounding. The moment a chorus of female voices excitedly started to sing, Naoko got a powerful feeling of nostalgia. The easy and catchy lines were simple, maybe even a little bit silly, but in an unpretentious way. The music was obviously not made to be the next hit of the century or to discuss deep topics, it’s just a cheerful, carefree song, and Naoko liked it just the way it was.

She knew that song, though she could only remember fragments of it. In fact, it brought more memories of her childhood back than recollections of the lyric by itself. The rough, dry and warm feel of a carpet over which she laid down, chest on the floor and legs folded and up in the air. The hot summer sun flooding the living room through open windows. The brightness of her old TV, on which an open-air show was performed in front of a huge acoustical shell amidst the lush green trees of an enormous park somewhere. The enthusiastic group of girls in blue dresses full of frills. Some taller, some shorter, all beautiful and funny. Almost all with long, gorgeous hairs. One a wavy light brown, the other a straight dark curtain. One in particular, the one Naoko liked the most, was a mesmerizing light blond that reflected the sunlight like a golden mirror. All of them danced with joyful choreographies and made the public go crazy. Naoko vaguely remembered wanting badly to be among the cheering audience and to be blond.

So lost in warm, cozy, nostalgic childhood memories the girl almost didn’t notice when Aratani mentioned “Now’s Umeko’s solo”. A very young, girly voice full of energy took the central spot. Though lovely and cute, it’s full of glass-scratching high-pitches and technical imperfections. Caught by surprise by the nostalgia and by that amusing teenager voice that Umeko once had, Naoko burst in laughs. The cheery song kept going until a high-toned end as a road ending in a precipice, leaving only silence after it. Turning off the screen and facing Naoko, her producer asked her a quick “So?”.

The girl stood numbingly recalling fond, half-forgotten memories of when she was six or seven year-old for a few seconds before declaring in thrilled shock:

“I can’t believe it! I remember this song! I remember watching on TV a show with a few girls in a park! It’s so nostalgic! I don’t know if this song belonged to Umeko-San’s band or what, but I can recall it!”

“What did you think about Umeko-San’s voice at the beginning of her career?” her producer questioned, to which Naoko laughed. “Produ-San, it’s so strange to hear her like a teenager! It’s as if it’s a completely different person from the Umeko of the show we watched last weekend! Are you sure you’re not trying to deceive me or anything?”

“I swear it’s the same person,” Aratani guaranteed with a cool smile, “Hard to believe, right? But it’s true. Once a girl matures into a woman and her vocal chords stabilize it’s too late to make any drastic changes on it, but on the other hand it also becomes more harmonious. Less peaks of hormones to screw it up, meaning more control over it and a cleaner, more polished singing. Of course Umeko-San was born with a fabulous voice and trained it, but I’m just showing you it’s not impossible for Naoko-Chan to reach the same kind of vocal perfection in six or seven years if she trains hard. Your eighty-eight Singing score in the tests didn’t take in consideration the two fixed lyric values, meaning we evaluated you highly in Voice Quality, Interpreting and Rhythm. You have good vocal amplitude, cleanliness, cadency and other important attributes without ever having trained it. I’m not joking when I say you have potential to get at least close to Umeko’s singing level. Certainly not by tomorrow, but some day. I’m telling you, Naoko-Chan is perfect material for a fan favorite member of a band and a solo star.”

Reassured, Naoko opened up a room-warming smile. Aratani, grinning back, joked:

“Oh, how I love to see you happy. But you know what I love more than it? Pestering you. You may have Umeko-San’s potential, but don’t try to imitate her in every regard. Get your dancing fixed up unless you want you get bested by a well-endowed, catsuit-clad stunning girl. Unless… we get you a catsuit too! Now, I’d like that!”

Instead of explaining about the Aesthetics category in the remaining minutes before departure, Aratani used the time to laugh and protect himself from slaps. He could explain the rest another time when he wasn’t being attacked.

The work for the bedding company on a photographic studio was smooth as the white and rosy pillow Naoko was put to rest on. It felt somewhat cold for extended periods of time, which was exactly the innovation the company was trying to sell during that spring. With specialists predicting high-temperature records for that year, it’s no surprise a pillow that could remain chilly for longer would sell as much as ice-creams during spring and summer.

She was given comfortable and fresh clothes, just a simple, white sleeveless tee and small, pink pajamas shorts, and put in an impeccably clean, well-illuminated and whitey bedroom scenario only broken by an ice-blue flower and its two small green leaves. It’s not as easy to feel relaxed with a production team of six people and Aratani close-by watching her pretend to sleep like an angel, but since Naoko just closed her eyes and tried to rest her head while making the least amount of wrinkles on the pillow, it wasn’t hard. Ten minutes and hundreds of photos after, she’s out of there. They even gave her the fresh, comfy, enthralling and adorable pajamas free of charge, whatever that was worth.

After getting back home Naoko felt as light as a plume. Umeko’s old song still played on her head, giving her nostalgic vibes from the sunny, blue days in Shimabara. For the first time since she’d arrived in the capital Naoko felt the faintest of desires of getting in touch with something from her hometown. Not her parents, that’s for certain. But the ocean water, or the smell of wet soil of the plantations from distant terrains, or a glimpse of the haze that formed over the hot spring pools by Mt. Unzen’s foothills, anything. Actually, anything that reminded her about her childhood.

Under the lukewarm, crystalline water of her shower Naoko fell into a trance of sorts, remembering when she was seven. When there wasn’t much to do, but life felt like an adventure by itself, a feeling she’d only regained after moving to the megalopolis. Looking to her feet, she let the aromatic shampoo run white over her black hairs as water washed it away, and her eyes rested over her black and white good-luck charm anklet she never remembered she wore. At that time when she recalled her childhood, though, it made total sense. She’d completely forgotten to call her long-time friend Masahiro. Last time they met he looked very sad, but it’s been a week since then, so he should probably be alright by now, she thought.

As soon as she got out of the bath and put on her new pajamas she sent him a message asking how he was doing. After some time she got a surprised response of him, and both talked through texts. He asked how was life going, and Naoko told him how wonderful it was to live in the capital. Her room, her friends, her school, her dojo and the Athletics club, her job, the city… The more she thought about it, the better it seemed. She told him about Miwa, her other female classmates and Rin so much Masahiro eventually asked her in astonishment if she hadn’t made any new male acquaintances. Naoko replied it’s obvious she did, including most of her classroom, the karatekas at the dojo, a few senior boys from sports clubs who’ve helped her and so on. She briefly mentioned the ex-gang boy Daiki and grinning weirdo Katsuro, though not in details so as not to spoil her happiness.

Masahiro’s astonishment immediately faded away. The boy still felt gloomy on his texts, even though saying it’s good to know Naoko was happy. Since Masahiro always took a nosedive into introspection and melancholy when Naoko talked about other men, she changed subjects to her job, telling him all the things she’d already done and how much she liked her producer for his cool but funny personality, his business knowledge and reliability. And once again Naoko notice she’s talking about a man and Masahiro got all the more low-spirited. That was something Naoko hated in her childhood friend. Still, getting in touch with him seemed nice while it lasted, so after the longing was gone she quickly ended the conversation so as not to harm her high-spirits.

On Sunday she returned to the office for a brief talk about the Aesthetics category before going for an extended, eight hour long lesson chain.

“Aesthetics is composed of Idol Presentation, Attire Presentation, Composition, Image Impact and Final Integrity.” showing Naoko photos on his computer as examples, her producer explained her. “Idol Presentation has nothing to do with the clothes, but rather about the girl herself. If she looks like she combed her hair, put her makeup and took time to look pretty or if she looks like the last bath she took was two weeks ago. Also, things like teeth prettiness and other factor influence here. It’s one of the most controversial subcategories of all, because in practice gorgeous girls almost always get the upper hand even if another, less pretty idol had put in the same amount of effort on her hygiene and body care. You don’t have to worry about it, though. Naoko-Chan will most likely cap this subcategory on most presentations as long as you take good care of yourself. Really, it’s hard for any idol to get a low score here, especially after the initial classes when you gain access to stylists and hairdressers before most gigs, offered by I.S.S.G.”

“Is there something like this?!” Naoko questioned eagerly.

“Yes, though until you get to Wood class your only bet is your private stylist. And even after having access to this convenience many high-class idols still prefer private service providers like that hairstylist I sent you to, and to whom you became his therapist. That place is frequented by many top idols, including Water-class ones. I think even one of the five current Star class idols sometimes go there, so really, after you had that experience even the best professionals the I.S.S.G. has to offer will not look like much, I suspect. Anyway, where have I stopped?”

Under the admired eyes of Naoko, who imagined again just how much a haircut at that place could cost, Aratani resumed once he remembered:

“Right, Idol Presentation. After that there’s Attire Presentation. It’s almost the same, only for the clothes. It’s a value given to the condition of the costume. Not really if it’s pretty or not, but rather if it’s well-kept. If dresses don’t have wrinkles, leather is not dried out, if the cloth has no unintended holes, wigs are not worn-out, if things that should shine aren’t opaque and so on. Once again, it’s just a criteria I.S.S.G. created to force agencies to take good care of costumes. The producer needs to be very sloppy and the idol very inattentive or lenient to lose points here. Then there’s Composition, where things get really complicated. Composition takes numerous factor into accounting: if your clothes match, if it makes sense, if it’s aesthetically pleasing, if it fits perfectly or falls too tight or too big… It partially draws from the idol too. If we took Vyper’s costume of that show we watched and put it on a cutesy girl, even supposing it fit her body perfectly the score would be lower because, let’s face it, it’d look odd. Also it’s influenced by the song. If you bring an angel costume to sing a thumping, heavy beat music full of screams it’ll also detract from your Composition score. It’s very easy to lose points here.”

“I remember the Aesthetics score of Vyper changed a bit between songs,” Naoko cited, and her producer agreed, “Precisely. It’s most likely due to Composition. On that attire, which works on a sexier note, she used to get slightly higher scores when acting sexy than when being just fun-loving. If Vyper decided to sing a sad song that had nothing to do with the way she presented herself, her Composition score would most likely plummet.”

Grinning, Naoko joked:

“Well, no Kamijira costumes on stage, then, right?”

“You betcha!” Aratani immediately stated. After a pause, he disclaimed, “Well, not quite. There’re rare few whimsical and rather strange competitions where it’d actually win you many points, but in general, no, no giant lizard, city-stomping Kamijira attires. Though it brings me to the Image Impact subcategory, where the more unique the costume, the better. Obviously I’m not talking about Kamijira-levels of uniqueness, but still. Some attires can be very detailed and pretty, but are also tried and true to the point of feeling somewhat average to the public. The secret to Image Impact is creating your own personal style, something that people can know it’s you even if they don’t see your face. Think of it as an aesthetical fingerprint mixed with a surprise element. And here’s where judges’ personal tastes are supposedly left out, because if a costume makes sense on a shy girl they’ll have to consider it even if their likings were different.” Grinning, he added, “I, personally, would only like to see women on stages, no girls allowed, and only in skinny vests, bikinis and such, but it doesn’t mean I would be able to blame them for wearing something else if I were a judge, for example.”

“Thankfully! At least there’s a perv fail-safe mechanism to keep dirty people like you at bay!” Naoko replied with puffy cheeks.

“Unfortunately,” Aratani mockingly added, “Well, it leaves us only with the Final Integrity to explain. It’s an evaluation on the final condition the outfit is seen after the presentation is over. If spangles fall from a tiara or the whole tiara is lost during a dance, if plumes fall down from wings, a stiletto heel breaks, the cloth get too many wrinkles, anything that changes the state of the garment in an unintended way, it’s deducted from here. Also it counts not only the state of the cloth, but of the idol as well. In practice it’s very hard to get maximum score here because if your hair gets slightly messy after dancing or you lose your breath it’s detracted, though usually it’s also not too bad. The only excuse is if the changes were made by external, unforeseeable causes. For example, if it’s raining, you go there and somehow get wet it’s your fault because even an oyster could have seen this coming, but if the sprinkler system of an auditorium gets broken and ruins your costume and your makeup you’re not blamed for it.”

Taking a look at his black and silver wristwatch, Aratani wrapped it up:

“And that concludes my explanation on the Aesthetics category. Many idols and agents like it because it’s the easiest one to get points on, even if it has one of the most finicky subcategories of all in it, Composition. Overall expect heavy opposition on this front, but since you’re already at an advantage due to Idol Presentation, we can also play this game and send the rivals packing. Higher class presentations include subtopics on each subcategory, like if a costume is particularly expensive or if it has any special meaning, like a nature-friendly attire associated with a song that talks about protecting the environment. Things like that. But there’s currently nothing to worry about it. Do you have any questions, Naoko-Chan?”

Thinking for a moment, Naoko asked:

“Just one, actually. My dancing instructor mentioned something about difficulty modifiers like… heels, platform boots, wearing things that can fall off… Things like that.”

“Yes, there are these.” Aratani explained, “Though they usually fall of in one of the two Secret Categories, that of Bonuses and Penalties. Modifiers are counted separately from the Aesthetics but the final modifier multiplies scores of four Categories. On Aesthetics, specifically, it also multiplies four subcategories: Idol Presentation, Attire Presentation, Composition and Image Impact. Then the Final Integrity is added separately. Note that every one of the five subcategories equate to twenty points maximum, and can’t go higher than this. So if you already have twenty points in, say, Attire Presentation and get a modifier of one point two, it doesn’t mean your final Attire Presentation score will be twenty four points. It’ll still be capped at twenty. But if it was, say, ten, then after the modifier it’ll go up to twelve. Just as a final note, a few rare rule sets alter these values, uncapping them for modifiers or changing their respective values to give emphasis on specific subcategories, but that’s a nonissue for most of the shows. If we ever get into a competition with funky rules I’ll let Naoko-Chan know beforehand and will help you prepare accordingly, don’t worry. Any more questions about Aesthetics or modifiers?”

“Hm…” Naoko thought for a moment. Suddenly curious, she asked, “Oh, I’ve one! How much does platform boots add to the modifiers?”

Her producer, raising his shoulders showing he didn’t know, searched on his computer files for a moment and responded, looking at his screen:

“Platform boots which are five centimeters or higher nets you a five percent bonus, plus one percent for every extra inch, up to a maximum of ten percent. So yours, being around three inches tall, nets you six percent I think.”

“Can I see what’re the biggest bonuses?” Naoko asked, and Aratani, while letting her, warned, “This incomplete list only serves as a reference. Also, if I were you I’d not think about wearing these things just for the modifiers. Some of them are even prohibited on a few stages as far as I’m aware, like ice skates, since they can ruin the floor. Not to mention it’d be next to impossible to dance on those.”

Ice skates were among the items that conferred maximum bonus points, equal to ten percent. At nine percent were some of the most extreme stiletto heels and rollerblades. That list only showed footwear, so Naoko’s curiosity wasn’t totally satisfied, but it’s curious nevertheless.

Aratani decided not to give information so far about the other two categories, Devotion and Memorability, because Naoko would already have a lot of things to remember on that day. She got sent to an eight-hour long lesson session, composed of four classes of two hours each. Two of those were Dancing classes, while the other two were Singing and Body Language like usual. The four hours of Dancing were divided in two parts, separated by the two other sessions so as not to extenuate her too much, but nevertheless it drained the girl dry of the last bit of her energy. It was as exhaustive as it was productive, and Naoko felt if she had just a little less physical constitution and body conditioning she’d be screwed.

In her dancing exercises she learned and practiced the most basic movements and poses. According to her instructor, the difference between the two was that movements were part of the choreography and expected to be performed during the songs, affecting her Dancing score, while poses served mostly the purpose of increasing her Devotion one, though it could also impact others. They were just stances throw in between moves to interact with the crowd and the cameras. A good act at the right time could give the audience the impression the idol called for them, and could also emphasize a specific part of a song. It’s easier to chain movements than poses since the last were static while the first could fluidly link together.

Besides those her instructor told there were other, higher level elements to a presentation like Comebacks, Steppings, Stances and more. Two or three comebacks would be taught relatively soon, for they’re used as a last resort to turn a flop into an artistic movement. Despite this, they were only going to be presented in-depth at a later date just like steppings, which revolved around moving around while looking pretty in order to make use of the whole stage. Stances, on the other hand, weren’t even going to be taught there, for they revolved around mental postures, for what little Naoko could understand. Her instructor declared even she didn’t understand how those worked but they’re more like powerful psychological elements than choreographic ones. Only a few idols knew anything about it and even fewer, mostly Water class ones, made use of it. One thing she’d eventually learn that, while nowhere near as complex as stances, were psychological elements too that she’d be taught there, according to her instructor, was called Mimicking. Basically they’re imagination exercises that let an idol adopt a few behaviors they drew from mental sources, like acting as an animal or as another person. They’re hardly as useful as Stances, but could add some variety and were treated like moving poses, mixing it with steppings to some very interesting results. But, then again: high-level material. Naoko was expected to learn the basics before anything else.

Since Naoko had done no homework from the body language class aside from the unintentional training of body postures at her meeting with Katsuro and Daiki at the laundry, she got to work double to catch up with the instructor on that class and learn new things like breathing techniques to calm down and the use of mental visualizations to train muscle coordination even without actually employing them. That second one made Naoko initially reticent, for it sounded almost like magic to train movements to be performed just on her mind, but surprisingly it worked. She noticed she could prepare herself to execute anything from choreographed moves to karate blows and swimming member coordination just by going into meditation and using visualization techniques. It’s hard for her, but possible nonetheless. In fact, Naoko discovered the thing she’d done in her tests imagining a blond idol by her side was a much more advanced visualization technique than she’s being taught, though there were also trainings to perform that in more reliable and practical ways.

Naoko paid special attention to the Singing classes since her producer showed her Umeko’s teenager voice. Her instructor not only let her rehearse a few songs she’d most likely perform in her first presentations but also began training her on improving her vocal amplitude, increase her capacity to modulate it on the fly and reduce noises, among other things. Noises, like her teacher explained her, were tiny (or not so tiny) imperfections created by unwanted air circulation inside the vocal apparatus. The woman quickly noticed Naoko had a small septum deviation just by the way her inhaling through her mouth could be heard on the microphone and by how some nasal sounds seemed slightly off. She told her it only detracted minor points on the first many classes, but on the top tiers it could chip her score noticeably, and proposed trainings to help her mitigate these effects while training her on improving the maximum acoustical frequencies her voice could reach.

Beyond that spectrum, which in Naoko’s case was already good in her teacher’s opinion, she could reach slightly higher or lower frequency ranges through the controlled use of falsetto, though ideally they’d train her so she could perform naturally on those ranges. Falsetto was a process through which a person could reach an octave or so beyond their usual vocal range, though almost always with a loss at tone quality, resonation and other important characteristics, making it sound usually breathier. It’s a last resource to be used if a song demanded it, but since it sounded worse and the prolonged use of it could strain the vocal system, it’s best used on the least amount of occasions possible.

Naoko was also given homework lessons about musical theory so she could understand what was an octave, a frequency, a note and so on. She was also given information to study about solmization, both the international solfège, Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti scale most people knew but had no idea what its purpose was, and its Japanese classical counterpart, I-Ro-Ha-Ni-Ho-He-To. Apparently it only served the purpose of teaching scales and pitches, but since the girl didn’t know what the purposes of those were too, it’s useful.

Finally, her last dancing class got her rehearsing a few dances she could use on her first few presentations, according to the songs she’s also being taught. At the end of the lesson the teacher also called in about ten girls around eight years old that were waiting for their collective class to begin, to watch Naoko perform a few presentations. It served the purpose of getting her ready for exhibiting herself in front of an audience. Naoko was already worn-out badly, but the prospect of having a cheering crowd pumped her up and carried her through the last ten minutes of class. She got somewhat nervous, far more than it seemed reasonable for the circumstances, which at first made her clam up. Only it reminded her about Rin and her panicking at the karaoke, and deciding not to commit the same mistakes her friend did Naoko forced confident postures and tried to relax and open up from her defensive shell. It all went well and the applauses cheered her up.

When it’s over, Naoko could see her effort had many similarities with the memory of Rin overcoming her fears in the karaoke, though exhausted as she was she couldn’t reach any conclusions at the time as to why was that so. After training karate on Thursday, attending to the Athletics club the two days after and eight hours of classes on Sunday her body itched for a respite. Furthermore, she’s supposed to train her dancing outside of her classes too, though the girl had no idea where she could do so. Aratani suggested she found an isolated part of a park or asked on her school if she could use the theater when it’s vacant, but the more Naoko though about having to move ever again, the more she came to like those visualization teachings.

Once everything was done and all she wanted was to go to sleep, Naoko found out she had lots of messages to read, a lot from her friends, both in real life and internet ones, asking how was life going or why she’s absent for so long from online games and communities.

It got her thinking. On her parents’ house she always craved to play when she’s not roaming the town, but now she hardly wanted to do it. If she felt no need to play now that she had so many better things to do, did it mean her gaming habits were just a way to give her a sensation she’s achieving something that now she really was? It’s clear to her she used it to escape having to talk with her parents, and to lock herself on her room without doing nothing would be maddening. Also, she knew it’s something else that allowed her to get new friends, but so far she’d never thought about it as a means of giving her a false sensation of accomplishment. Not that she didn’t like it anymore, but she just didn’t feel the need to play something she’s already familiar with, and that would net her no revolutionarily new experiences.

For once Naoko was glad for not wanting to play and for not wanting to dwell on internet communities. Even her childhood friend Masahiro decided, in the girl’s understanding, to stop being stupid and resumed his sending of messages. As if he’d not been silent for a whole week waiting Naoko to take the initiative of looking for him. He’s also back to his usual self, worrying for her well-being and wishing her a good night, but despite being very happy, she wasn’t in the mood to talk to him, or anyone else for that matter. Furthermore her social media was overloaded with requests of people from her school to connect with her. Too many people asking for attention and making her jaded with it. So Naoko simply decided not to answer any messages that day. Maybe some other time, when she wasn’t so bushed and people were not overwhelming her with useless small talk.

Chapter VI – In Pursuit of Dreams

 

Looking down to her extremely old and crappy cellphone, the picture of two birds on its gleaming screen reflecting on her glasses, all she could wish for was that someone, anyone sent her a message. Even small talk would be fine. Her entrance boxes in e-mails, messages, social media and everything else were so empty if it was studied by science mankind could probably discover a new kind of vacuum with never before seen emptier qualities. Even the artistic photos she liked to take of nature and landscapes with her equally old photographic camera, that sometimes got her a comment in social media, were not netting her anything anymore. It’s as if people got bored not only of her photos, but of her as well. Hearing Naoko apologize to her class friends for not answering them the night before because she had more than seven hundred message threads, requests, notifications and communication trash to look at and decided not to bother, Shiori could only wish she had one hundredth of it.

That was something that pissed her off. Why people flocked to clearly insensitive girls like Naoko, who didn’t feel the need to respond to others, when nice ones who could give others the attention they deserved were left in a limbo? People really liked to suffer this badly? Or were they just stupid? What people wanted Shiori to do to get even a little bit of attention?

At times like that the girl usually fell into long meditations, but the answers she found were invariably the same: simply put, she was ugly and Naoko was beautiful. Beautiful people received lots of praise from others since they’re born, so they had fewer reasons to be afraid of others and could become more extroverted. Being so, they could attract more people, and they in return would have even more people to praise them, creating a cycle. Shiori wasn’t so lucky. She’s just a below average girl, in her opinion. Others didn’t praise her, and required her to constantly prove herself based on her smarts or other qualities for her to even receive attention. Worst of all: there was no way around that. People already made no efforts to be with her to begin with, it wouldn’t cut to imitate the loftiness she saw on Naoko toward others because it’d only repel them even more.

She hated herself so much for admitting she wanted to be as beautiful as Naoko that Shiori couldn’t even stand to face her classmate, but it’s true. For as much as Naoko looked very friendly, she could also disdain all the clear signals of interest almost all boys from her class sent her and it only teased them to try harder. That charming boy named Takumi with whom Shiori studied together for the past seven years and because of whom she enrolled on that stupid drama club was a perfect example. He never gave too much attention to her, but tried so hard to get even the slightest bit of Naoko’s attention it’s disgusting. Every damned time Takumi found a chance to talk to her, he reminded Naoko about how the drama club could contribute to her career. To be fair, even if aloof, the idol was arguably very kind to others in this regard and politely refused again and again. Shiori knew if she’s in Naoko’s place she’d be much less nice to that imbecile who couldn’t take a hint. If anything else, it motivated him to insist even more. The glasses girl had never seen that handsome boy act so much like a puppy. It revolted her.

She lost herself so badly in her sweet imaginings of how marvelous would her life be if she’s a drop-dead gorgeous girl too that she noticed far too late she’s expected to pay attention to lessons and take notes. When her teacher dismissed her class to the break Shiori got pale and desperate. She’d once again lost sight of the subject at hand. How’s she supposed to get exemplary grades to get even the smallest bit of others’ attentions if she couldn’t even concentrate on classes? A few year before her daydreams were nothing more than a distraction during free time, but currently it happened on a daily basis and weighted against her on her studies. Her grades followed a downtrend over the years and even her natural intelligence, the only thing the girl felt she could positively talk about herself, could only carry her so far. She had to pay attention to that class, and without any friend she could ask for help all Shiori could do was pray the contents she’d lost wouldn’t be required to understand the ones from subsequent lessons, though it usually was.

While she sat still, ruminating about problems, one interesting event surrounding Naoko brought her back to reality. Two intelligent but not really handsome or sociable boys talked between themselves like they usually did while the idol was about to leave class for a stroll with her friends. Those two hardly ever spoke to other people in the class, thought it looked like they had a few other close-knit friends on other classes. In fact, they studied along with the glasses-wearing girl for about six years and she knew almost nothing about them. They sat close to the windows and talked about some kind of game involving swords and magic as far as Shiori could tell, though she didn’t understand anything about the topic to make any sense of it. But the instant Naoko unintentionally overheard their mumbo-jumbos her eyes sparkled. The girl eagerly barged in, asking if they talked about something she referred to as “RPG”, whatever it could be.

Even though Shiori knew absolutely nothing about the subject, the conversation that took place only three chairs away from hers amused the girl. The two collected boys where initially petrified, their postures stiff and their shaky voices merely responding in short sentences. Shiori was naturally an amazing observer and listener and could see that from miles away, though Naoko apparently did not. The excited idol asked lots of questions with apparent excitement, such as if the game they referred to was a “tabletop RPG”, if they already had a group, who was the “Game Master”, what kind of “system” they used, what narrative setting they liked to play on, what kind of characters each player preferred to role-play as and so on. Again, Shiori had no idea what it all meant, but before her eyes a kind of miracle happened.

The initial shock of the boys grew bigger, but their fearful expressions gradually gave in to surprise. One, wearing contact lenses and bearing an untidy brown hair, asked in disbelief:

“Does Yano-San really like to play Role-Playing Games?”

“Yup!” Naoko excitedly replied, “Well, the ones I play are just computer or video game ones, to tell the truth. I never played a tabletop RPG before, I just heard a lot about in on the internet. It looked so cool! I always wanted to know how it’s to play it!” Scratching her cheek with an index finger and looking frustrated, she contradicted her own speech, “Funny thing is, just yesterday I was happy about not wanting to play games anymore since I moved in, but here I am having a relapse. Oh, well. Hey! Do you guys play RPG with those cool dices?!”

Nodding, a boy with dark hair parted in the middle, sending two fringes over his forehead, opened his pencil case and took a small blue object from it. Initially Shiori thought it’s a ball because it looked roughly spherical, but a closer inspection revealed it’s actually composed of many numbered faces. Handing the dice to the astonished idol, the boy told her:

“Yes, the rule system we follow make use of dices. This one you have is a D20, because it has twenty faces. We also employ the D4, D8, D10 and D12 along with the D6, which is the classical six-sided dice.”

The class president discreetly came closer and Naoko, with starry eyes, showed her friend the dice. Miwa, getting suspicious, inquired the two boys, getting them afraid again:

“What are you boys doing with dices on school? You do not intend to gamble, I expect.”

“No, Miwa-Chan, don’t worry,” Naoko intervened in their favor, explaining, “These kinds of dies are not used on gambling, they’re used on a kind of game called a Role-Playing Game, or RPG for shorts. Basically a few people get together to role-play as characters in a story that one of the players, called the Dungeon Master or Game Master, creates. People say what their characters do, the Master tells them about the world around them and what enemies and non-player controlled, secondary characters do in response, the players react to that and the story unfolds. They use the dices to solve if someone succeeds or fails in any task that require skill to be performed, such as hitting an opponent with an attack. It’s hard to explain in a few words, but trust me, it’s not gambling. And it’s so nice to see an actual dice like this! Wanna roll it and see who gets the highest value?!”

Though not very enthused like her friend, Miwa laughed.

“Seriously, Naoko-Chan, do you play these kinds of things too? That’s so you.”

“Nope, never had a chance to play this, no one I knew played tabletop RPGs,” Naoko explained, “I just know about it because I play electronic RPGs. The ones from video games are usually very different, but they come from the same source, so I’ve already got curious and tried to learn about it! But no, I actually know little about tabletop ones.”

Turning to the boys, Naoko thanked them for letting her see the dice. Shiori could feel in the air they wanted to invite her to play whatever it was, though they didn’t and Naoko left with Miwa and the other girls for a walk around the school. As soon as she went away the two boys started to discuss what had just happened as if they’d been graced by the visit of a goddess. Next thing it looked like they’d do was to ask themselves if she’s really human. She’s just so something new, for them at least. Worse, a few others who stayed in the classroom during break also got to talk about it. Initially Shiori thought the majority of the class would make fun of the popular girl for liking such silly games, but on the contrary, they all seemed thrilled. The shy, friendless, glasses-wearing girl couldn’t understand why this happened. If she was the one doing that, all her classmates would most likely mock her, but it seemed like whatever Naoko did was okay!

All the while, it’s the first time Shiori found she was unable to get angry with Naoko, though she had no idea why. Maybe because for once she wasn’t unknowingly getting the attention of the handsome boys with an ease that made Shiori envious. The girl, despite being very popular, had approached two unsociable boys, and looked very happy and gentle. She hadn’t act like the extroverted, fun but standoffish girl Shiori came to expect her to be. Naoko looked sincerely interested in that game even if the ones talking about it were a pair of socially-awkward boys, and didn’t care what others could think about it. Her friend Miwa had acted like she came to expect Naoko to be fun-driven like that, in fact. And to get those two boys out of their shell like that, even if just a little, was a feat even the reclusive girl had to acknowledge.

It got Shiori thinking again fervently. About how incredible would it be if she was beyond reproach from others like that. About what would she do if the situation was inversed and a stunning boy came to talk to her about something she liked. Photography, movies, literature, anything. About how such a little act made those two snap out of their tiny shells of worlds. And why nobody did the same to her. Why nobody seemed to care to try and take her out of her shell. What was the problem with the others? Or maybe… what was the problem with her?

 

The Athletics club had meetings on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, but attendance was required during only two days of the week. Since Naoko’s body was hurting a lot she decided to give it a pass and go ask for permission to use the school theater during whatever free time it had for practicing her songs. The secretary told her it’s unfortunately not possible because even though the theater had many schedule vacancies, the only student group typically allowed to make use of it and request permission for its use was the Drama club, because they’re responsible for the maintenance of that space. However, the secretary told her if their members scheduled an hour for her to rehearse, even if it has nothing to do with the club itself, it’d be acceptable since those students would be vouching for the correct use of the facility.

Naoko didn’t want to rehearse her singing and dancing in a public park and she couldn’t afford to rent a big place every day just for it. Her dorm room was barely big enough for her to walk around it, dancing would be a no go, and she’d definitely not dance in the building’s courtyard. Her best bet seemed the school theater, which was enormous and acoustic. Its walls were also soundproof, meaning people on the outside wouldn’t even know she’s rehearsing. It looked good, but Naoko wasn’t one to ask for favors. Still, it seemed she had little choice on the matter if she really wanted to be ready, so maybe she could do them a favor in return to even it out.

She texted Rin to meet her by the theater with the manga the girl wanted to lend her and went there to try and talk with that boy from her class, Takumi, who constantly invited her to join the club. He’s her only contact there, maybe he could get her in touch with whoever was in charge. And the vast majority of people on the club were very nice to her the only time she’s there. She hated to ask favors to people but maybe they’d accept it nevertheless. It’d still be awkward to tell she needed to do so because they could ask why her agency didn’t pay her extra classes then, but if she just told them she wanted to improve by herself, perhaps they’d buy it.

Even though she waited until the end of the rehearsal to enter, Takumi looked very pleased to see her. Naoko ashamedly explained him she wanted to practice her songs and dances outside of working hours and explained she liked that theater so much she asked the secretary if she could use it. She explained why she’s directed to the drama club and, bowing, asked if Takumi could help her in any way, promising she’d return the favor to the group somehow. He introduced Naoko to the senior girl in charge of the club, a brunette of average height and a stern face called Jissoji Chiasa.

She didn’t look too welcoming, though Naoko had already partaken from a few exercises on the drama club and recalled that girl being very outgoing and open despite her serious semblance, so she humbly retold the situation and asked for help. That she could return the favor of any rehearsing hour the club could schedule for her. For some time she looked reticent, not wanting to downright decline but also looking uneasy. It’s because of the responsibility of lending the whole theater to anyone who was not even part of the drama club to begin with. If something happened to the facility or to herself during her rehearsals the club president Chiasa would be blamed and the club could have a hard time with the director. Takumi, though, intervened, proposing that Naoko joined the drama club. Her presence there could attract the interest of many students to watch their plays, and maybe she could even make a show for the students as a way to pay the favor back.

The club president Chiasa got interested. That time Naoko was the one who vacillated. After all, she hated theater plays, she didn’t want to bother being close to that Shiori girl who seemed so sad whenever she’s around and she wasn’t sure her producer would accept she did a free gig. The last argument was the only one she mentioned, though. She hesitantly told them she could try to persuade him to it, but that her contract was very strict about her payments. She told a few lies just to see if she could dissuade them to force her to join the group, though her argument only posed difficulties to her special exhibition. In the end she felt forced to excuse herself and take some distance to call Aratani, just so she could show others she’s interested in it.

Aratani was more than happy to allow her a single free show if it meant she got free publicity on her school, experience under her belt and a whole theater to rehearse. Just to make it more worthwhile, he proposed a counteroffer in which Naoko had at least one hour and a half of rehearse time every day she could spare for it, because most real shows she’d perform in the future would generally be as long as one and a half hour. Naoko, grinding her teeth at the prospect of having not only to act in a theatrical play but also perform an extra gig, but unable to tell her producer that without having the others know of her real fears, presented the proposal to the club president. Chiasa immediately agreed as long as her producer accepted to promote their play however he could. He counteroffered accepting to promote it, but only on the girl’s fan club and the agency website, and only as long as Naoko had a significant role in it. Also, he’d want to personally supervise the preparations for her show on school. Chiasa replied, Aratani replied her reply and so on for about fifteen minutes.

Serving as a messenger between both sides since she’s the one talking on the cellphone, Naoko got gradually more worried. First, she’d be in a play and do a show. Then she’d have a central role in a thing she hated. Then her show would not be free anymore, but people would have to donate food for a charity because it’d give her gig more perceived value and could be better promoted. Then the promotion was getting bigger and bigger. Then Naoko would have two hours to rehearse. After that, the club members would have to be able to watch some of her rehearsals. Eventually Naoko passed her cellphone to Chiasa so she could negotiate directly with Aratani, because the girl didn’t want to hear any more about all the things that would happen. Both the drama club president and her producer had a megalomaniacal sides she discovered the hard way they possessed, because when Chiasa finally hung up the phone, she looked content. Shiori, who stood in the distance along with many other club members waiting the results, looked miserable in contrast. Naoko looked even more so. The only redeeming thing was that Rin, who’d arrived in the middle of the conversations, smiled radiantly, more and more enthusiastic as she watched Chiasa make her friend’s play and gig greater and better.

“It’s settled, then! Welcome to the Drama Club, Yano Naoko-San!” the club president Chiasa happily said while giving Naoko back her cellphone, prompting lots of energetic applauses. Shiori was so wretched she could almost not even muster the strength to clap, but it’s compensated by Rin, who jumped and cheered loudly as five people in one. The helpless Naoko, grabbing her cellphone back, thanked with a faint voice and an enormous desire to punch Aratani, Chiasa and Takumi, “Thanks, guys. You’re just… the best.” Thinking about the play she’d have to participate, and as a main character to boot, the girl asked as an introduction, but really using it more as a begging, “Please be nice to me!”

The Drama Club’s meetings occurred on Mondays and Wednesdays, meaning with that, her karate trainings at Tuesdays and Thursdays and the Athletics club on Fridays and Saturdays Naoko had a full agenda. Chiasa told her she’d have two hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after club hours to rehearse her songs. Even more, group members who wanted could stay to watch her as long as they all understood it’s practice hour and not a show, meaning she’s expected to commit mistakes, restart songs, fumble steps and so on. Just like rehearsals of a theatrical play. Apparently Aratani thought it’d help her get used to an audience and Chiasa understood it’s a nice bonus for the club members after their hard works.

Pulling Rin with her, Naoko quickly got away from there before she couldn’t bear to smile gently anymore and murdered someone. Thankfully her friend was there to cheer her up. After some congratulatory talk Rin presented five manga books she took from her school bag.

“Sorry, Naoko-Chan! I told you I’d bring five manga about love stories that were short and that I thought you’d like, but there’s only four I could find that matched these criteria!”

“But… there’re five here,” Naoko noted, to which Rin explicated, “Yup! But only because Rin took a fifth one for completion’s sake! It has no action, however… I don’t know if you like slice of life stories as well, but it’s the only short one left Rin had, and since Naoko-Chan told Rin she had little time left to read, Rin thought it’d be best to stick with it. It’s kind of strange and its love story’s arguably not that great, but Rin likes it anyway just for its novelty! And also for being Rin’s first manga ever.”

The moment Naoko glanced through the five volumes, it quickly became obvious which one was the oddball. Among four who seemed to have at least a few action sequences and fantasy features mixed with the romance, there was one with no outlandish elements. Not very interested, Naoko just glanced through its pages, but in a split second her eyes caught something she’d never expected to see in any manga. Backtracking to the page that piqued her interest, she found a big stock market chart full of vertical stick-like lines and oscillating bands running up and down around it.

It made Naoko recall that time when she was looking for work and, after thinking about many possibilities of jobs she could have that didn’t rely on others, briefly thought about the stock market. She knew nothing about it, but back then it felt cool to gain lots of money from behind a computer and not having to get in touch with clients and such.

Suddenly getting curious, Naoko began browsing through its pages.

“It’s this one Rin-Chan was talking about, right? What’s this about?”

“Like I said, there’s no action in it!” Rin disclosed just to be sure, “Well, it follows the story of a boy who’s hired as a very well-paid private teacher for a girl. Turns out she’s a secluded multi-billionaire girl who has basically no contact with the outside world, lives alone and the only thing she knows about is how to operate stocks. Then their relationship evolves from the trust they create and a few things happen involving another boy who…”

“Yeah, yeah, love’s very nice and all,” Naoko quickly interrupted, not sounding nearly as much interested as her enthusiastic friend “Does it actually teach something about stock markets or is it just a thing that happens to be in the plot?”

Blown away by her friend’s excited question, Rin evoked her recollections for a moment.

“It only briefly mentions a few aspects, if Rin recalls it correctly. It does not really teach anything, though it introduces the topic somewhat. It falls a bit short not only on the romance but also on the stock thing, it won’t turn anyone in a stock trader, but it deserves merit for mixing both in an interesting way! After reading it even I was curious to learn more about it! But since Economics is not my cup of tea I preferred just to daydream one on my private teachers was a handsome boy and I lived alone! And then he’d take me to dinner! And we’d go to a park…”

Quickly glancing the other manga, about otherworldly feats, hard to believe coincidences and impossible romances, Naoko decided to give that one about the rich girl a shot. It made Rin very happy, since the girl told her she had more real-ish love story comic books than action-packed ones and was itching to show her friend her small collection.

That story looked promising, she saw after getting back to her dorm and reading a few pages. The only thing left then was to do her homework, both from school and from her Sunday classes, using visualization to help her overcome the space limitation when necessary.

The next morning the skies had cleared up back to an infinite blue, even if clouds could be seen here and there. For the first time Naoko went with Miwa and her classmates appreciate the scenic view from the rooftop terraces, now that the gang had been dissolved with the expulsion of its leader. The place was crowded with students who wanted to savor the regaining of that awesome chilling spot, and though she unfortunately met Daiki there, he looked different. Less bravado made for a nicer person, even though Naoko’s memories made her wish nothing more than that he stayed far away from her.

Still, he’s accompanied by many boys from the soccer club, and those from other sports clubs were also there. Part of that victory was theirs, after all. And since Daiki came talk to Naoko, she eventually was able to have a talk with the boys who’ve helped her in the washhouse by restraining the ex-gang member, which was pretty sweet. Receiving her as the person that made that victory possible, the high-spirited guys welcomed her warmly, joking about tipping others never to screw with that irascible girl and about making her the mascot of the teams. With Naoko’s easygoing and fun-loving personality coupled with those boys’ friendly attitudes they quickly kicked off a conversation about the male sports clubs, Naoko’s membership of the female Athletics one and so on.

Eventually Naoko spotted Rin and a few female friends of her class roaming around, and called her. She knew Rin was afraid of boys’ attentions but since she’s also part of the Athletics club and the guys, even the senior ones, looked so welcoming she though it’s a good opportunity for her blond friend to get used to talking to boys. Perhaps she’d just never been able to talk in a friendly environment. Rin, just as Naoko expected, was frozen rock solid by fear as she’s introduced in the circle and could barely mutter a word, but Naoko supported her by cheerfully talking in her stead and bringing up her excellent personal records. From there she revealed how they first met each other, though the way Naoko recounted the facts was, like always, biased by her own take on them. And her take on the facts invariably leaned on the extraordinary and the comical.

The way she painted Rin as a carefree girl who just wanted to kick back and enjoy the exercises, getting happy for someone who could try to surpass her records and being generally cute and funny while doing so, kept everyone interested. A few retellings of how at first Naoko perceived her friend’s absurd take on the newly arrived athletics member and how Rin turned out to be an easily excitable and hilarious company got not only the sports boys, but Rin’s friends, Miwa and all those around laughing. Naoko didn’t mention anything about her frights of competitions or boys, though, merely chalking her acts to some kind of positive, small eccentricity of the blond girl.

When they got away to return to their classes, Rin looked completely ecstatic. Finally getting to recover from her petrification, she seemed capable of flying with the amount of overjoyed gestures she made while talking about her thumping, high-frequency heartbeats and how the experience was thrilling. She got afraid the boys were laughing from her supposed strangeness, but Naoko and the other girls quickly related it’s the other way around: they seemed to love her upbeat ways, or at least what Naoko told them about her, and seemed totally interested in knowing better that cute and amusing girl.

That reassurance made Rin smile brighter than the sun and frenetically talk in awe and disbelief about how her meeting with the sportsmen, especially the senior boys, was a memory she’d forever cherish. The way she excitedly spoke about it, an unknowing listener could imagine she’s the first person to establish well-documented communication between Earth and a friendly alien race of identical physiognomy that’d forever change humanity’s take on life, the universe, itself and so many other aspects. Said listener would probably be disappointed when discovering it’s just about a girl getting introduced to a group of boys and being barely able to speak her own name while at it. Still, Rin looked so grateful and exultant, like she’d won some big championship, that Naoko couldn’t be happier for her friend.

On this occasion Naoko also got to meet Rin’s class friends and introduce the blond girl to Miwa and the others from 2-5. Unfortunately the break was over quickly, because the two groups actually got along well thanks to the funny friendship of the two. Later telling Miwa and her classmates about her karaoke with Rin – or at least the part Rin wasn’t scared half way to death – Naoko got them interested in joining a singing session any Saturday after school – provided Miwa could find a way not to bypass her obligations of taking care of her younger brother. The group returned to the classroom in such a lively mood, laughing and talking frantically, that it startled the people already there, silently waiting for the teacher’s arrival.

From there the day remained nice. Even the sourpuss woman from the karate dojo didn’t spoil the fun. Naoko used the commuting time to read the comic book Rin lent her, and while it really only briefly scratched the surface of the stock market subject, it nevertheless got her curious to learn more about it. Also the story, while very simple, was nice for a pastime.

Naoko could already feel her various body conditioning trainings making a difference, she’s even able to do her daily homework after arriving on her dorm room, and while she’s tired for brain activity intense studies like the ones from her school or her musical theory, the ones revolving around training her voice and imagining dancing steps were not a problem. She’s initially reticent on doing vocal exercises loudly, but there were no nearby neighbors and she didn’t care too much if others heard her, as long as she didn’t disturb them and vice-versa. On a sad tone, though, Naoko “discovered” the fruits she’d been gifted were eaten when she groped the package and found out the one that was already in her mouth was the last one.

The following day was just as fantastic, including some small talk with a few senior students on the rooftop terrace again that got her classmates impressed and showering her with questions when she tried to eat. The theatrical play of the Drama club she somehow got into was the only thing worrying her. To complicate matters club president Chiasa got big ideas on her mind, that much was clear from the instant she grouped everyone to explain the current situation:

“For those of you who left as soon as last meeting was over, let me introduce a new member of the Drama club, 2-5 student Yano Naoko. For those who don’t know, Naoko-Chan is a new I.S.S.G. idol, and she came asking if she could use the theater to practice. She joined us over the condition she got a few hours of rehearsal time and a central spot on our play.”

“That’s my producer’s idea, guys!” embarrassed, Naoko quickly noted.

“Yes, it’s true” Chiasa confirmed with an excited smile, “To return the favor, her producer accepted a few terms. Naoko-Chan will perform a special show here to raise food for charity, and it’ll also give the Drama club quite the visibility. Our own play will follow suit. Because of it, we’ll also have her agency’s help on the promotion of the play! Hence her central spot. We’re expected to help her increase her fan club counter of registered members, too, so the promotion gets more effective, so let’s do our best, everyone. Furthermore, we’ll be able to watch Naoko-Chan’s singing rehearsals! But bear in mind, everyone: it’s just that, a rehearsal, not a show, so she’s bound to make mistakes and retakes, so please be supportive to her so she can get better and better, both for her career and for our sake! And, last but certainly not least, her producer agreed on a most generous donation of one hundred thousand Yen to help our club!”

Everyone applauded effusively. Even Shiori, who looked more miserable than ever and was the only one who didn’t seem thrilled, got shocked by the last part. Naoko herself forced a smile to cover her agape, surprised mouth. Chiasa told the thirty-some members:

“Thanks to it, this year we’ll probably don’t need to take money from our own pockets for the costumes! Following our tradition, we’ll still buy cloths and other materials and sew our own garments, though, both for those who’ll be here the next year to know how it’s done and so we can save cash for backgrounds, invitations and scenic objects. We’ll still do our customary fund raising campaigns for the same reasons, so stay sharp, everyone! Okay then, let’s begin?”

The stage exercises for interpretation took the majority of the meeting since the narrative that would be played was still not decided. Chiasa and a few senior students seemed to know a lot about the subject and constantly brought techniques they’ve researched to show the others. From relaxation to character interpreting, memory training, voice projection, diction and acting exercises and more, there was a myriad of things to learn. Despite Naoko’s aversion to theater plays, she could see many applications of those teachings on her job, so it hooked her attention.

While some of the exercises were very strange, borderline embarrassing to do like trying to feel and interpret a madman or screaming the vowels A, I, U, E and O as loud as she could in unison with the others, they’re actually fun. After overcoming the initial shock and uneasiness, Naoko found herself laughing of a few uncanny theatrical practices but performing them anyway and enjoying doing so. Even looking the shy Shiori trying to yell or getting red as a strawberry when being required to incorporate the mindset of a crazy person and act in accordance was hilarious.

Though the introverted girl had huge difficulties to let loose, she tried hard to overcome them. In a sense, it was reminiscent of Rin struggling with her fears, which made Naoko develop a little more sympathy for the girl with the glasses even if she acted aversively to Naoko.

Not to mention all those exercises really helped Naoko both with technical aspects and in getting comfortable with the others. She noticed that after she started to have fun, what looked excruciating became rather pleasant. All the theatrical rehearsals she had in her life before focused exclusively on performing a specific character in a specific play, and not in developing the actors and actresses’ abilities to do so. To memorize lines of a script was a pain for Naoko and she’s still hesitant about the moment when it started to happen, but so far it’s better than she imagined.

The sun was setting when it ended. Shiori escaped in the first opportunity she got, but Takumi, Chiasa and many others decided to stay to watch her first musical rehearsal. Before the start of the session at the Drama club Naoko was apprehensive about having to practice in front of the members, but the crazy exercises she made along with others and the fun she had made her feel right at home. The dancing still got her a bit worried, but applying all she had learned so far about relaxing on the Drama club, on her Sunday lessons and from the experience that came from Rin’s unfounded fears to dance in front of her friend at the karaoke, she put her anxiety aside. She’s surrounded by friends there too. They knew that was a practice session and that mistakes would certainly happen. Most importantly, she could demand they supported her efforts or she could send them packing for not respecting their side of the deal. Remembering herself of all those things and letting the funny craziness that lingered after interpreting a mad person fill her with a nonsensical disregard for the opinions of others, she put herself to practice the few songs that she’d already trained during her classes the Sunday before.

The stage seemed immense for just one person. Naoko wondered how she was expected to make use of it all to receive a good score in the Stage Presence subcategory of Dancing. It puzzled her even more that the double stage she saw on the show Aratani let her watch was many sizes bigger, but all idols seemed to occupy it like they were giants, whereas Naoko felt like an ant in her school theater one. Though she still hadn’t learned how to move around, so it’s okay.

She went backstage and changed to an attire she’d yet to experiment, but which Aratani had bought exclusively for stage use. A three-tiered red and black miniskirt, a frilled and laced sleeveless crimson dress-like shirt, a pair of black gloves and her black platform boots. When she turned the background music on and went back onstage she’s met by astounded expressions by all the girls. The boys, on the other hand, all had the most unassuming countenance as if they tried too hard to compensate the astonishment the girls felt free to express by looking way too casual. Their frozen mien, hardly blinking eyes and the sepulchral silence they made betrayed their apparent nonchalant aspects. The girl knew guys well enough to see through the masquerade of their self-control working feverously not to let them act too wondered. For as much as she understood and appreciated the respectful behavior, though, it’s kind of underwhelming to dress in a way she though so charming only to be met by boys with poker faces. Cowards. She wouldn’t hold it against them for showing a little appreciation, as long as it was courteous.

Naoko focused on singing and getting her choreography right while not forgetting to maintain the spread legs idle and a smile. There were so many things to remember she felt like she’s juggling ten balls at the same time and constantly forgetting something. But eventually it began to sink in that she should only stand still with legs apart, meaning one less thing to worry. Her constant smile began to tire her face muscles after some time and she started to worry she’d look like that eternally grinning Katsuro weirdo, so she let her mouth sing naturally without tension and only smile when she wasn’t saying anything. Little by little she began to get the feeling of how it worked.

The first music-stopping mistake she committed made Naoko lose part of her supposed indifference for others’ opinions, though, and the girl nervously glanced to the audience. They remained as composed as ever, as if nothing had happened. Once again Naoko reminded herself she’s overreacting like Rin when the girl was afraid and kept on. It’s annoying that she had to remind herself many times the same thing until it gradually got absorbed by her brain as a natural modus operandi to be. Slowly but surely her doubts diminished. In the same proportion, a hard to describe pleasure grew on her. Naoko never thought she’d feel anything more than embarrassment dancing in front of an audience, but once she felt at ease it got immensely satisfying. It’s hard for an arguably humble girl like Naoko to admit it, but deep down she found herself enjoying being watched and applauded way more than she thought she would. She could easily see herself getting used to it.

There were a few things harder to get used to, however. She’d already noticed on her dancing classes that her long hair wobbled a lot. It irritated her, but instructor Sato Mayumi told her it looked very pretty, so she decided not to give it attention and press on. Moreover, it was harder to dance wearing a miniskirt than wearing mini shorts, like she thought, and it required her to be doubly careful not to fall from her platforms. It’s an insidiously risky combination, though her choreographies presented no complex elements that could favor a trip over. As long as she’s careful, things should be fine.

Two hours were allotted for practice, far too long for the audience to watch the same four songs replayed again and again, no matter how much they liked it. One by one the students went away between songs, bowing respectfully as they did so. If before the club session Naoko wished nothing more than to practice alone, the presence of the supporting spectators was so pleasing she got wishing they stayed longer. Despite twenty-six of the thirty-four club members being around for the rehearsal at first, it seemed a lot less than that in such a big theater, and each one that went away made it even emptier.

About twenty minutes left to the end of her practice her cellphone rang on the backstage. Excusing herself and taking a mental note to always silence it before going on a stage, the girl turned the music off and answered it. Her producer’s slightly tense voice greeted her:

“Naoko-Chan? Aratani Kouta here. Can you talk right now or are you busy?”

“Produ-San!” Naoko eagerly replied, “I’m rehearsing my songs! It’s incredible! At first I wanted to punch you for letting the Drama club members watch my practice, but it’s amazing! I loved it!… Hey! I just remembered! Did you promise to give one hundred thousand Yen for the club?! I know it’s none of my business and I believe in your expense planning, but… are you sure about this?”

Her producer, unwinding, spoke in his characteristic tranquil voice:

“If I tell Naoko-Chan how much it costs anywhere in Tokyo to rent a simple, non-acoustic saloon without built-in speakers or illumination for just one hour you’re probably going to understand why a onetime payment of one hundred thousand Yen for six hours per week use of a real theater is a no-brainer. Also, you’re going to be a central figure in your play and lots of people will know about the event, we need to make sure it looks good. I didn’t “give” money to your club, I “invested” it. As soon as the media get to know a new idol’s employing her talents to raise awareness of a noble cause and food donations to a charity it’ll more than pay itself up.”

“I… had no idea you’d thought this through like this, Produ-San! Well played.” Naoko had to admit, “Though I’m curious: I understand it’ll revert back to us in the form of better image and more public awareness for us, but how does this revert back to money, exactly? I believe in Produ-San, I just don’t understand how it works.”

“Companies want to associate their brands with reputable people,” he detailed, “The same way I told you they won’t want to have in their ads a trouble-making idol, it works the other way around too. You donate food, people respect you for your generosity, companies who want to look respectable call me to have you on their ads. The better your fame and social standing the more you’re worth to them. Remember your first work, that pillow ad that netted us a measly three hundred thousand Yen? Well, it’s already three times the amount we’ll be paying to your school Drama club, and trust me, it’s chump change compared to how much other ads can pay. A well-organized event like the one we’re talking about can net us seven-digit contracts even if Naoko-Chan is still unknown by the general public. Got it?”

“Oh, now I got it! You’re very smart, Produ-San!” Naoko happily complimented him, to what the young man drolly retorted, “Can you repeat that, please? I’ll record it so I can use it as my alarm. Nothing beats waking up in the morning with a cute voice saying “You’re very smart, Produ-San! You’re very smart, Produ-San!”. I think I’ll even make it my ringtone too.”

Playfully letting her voice turn sour, Naoko implied while smiling:

“Very smart indeed. A little too smart for your own good. Just saying.”

“Point taken,” Aratani said, and his voice got a slightly more serious tone, “Listen, Naoko-Chan, I have good news and bad news. Well, not exactly bad, but still.”

Losing her smile, the girl listened more carefully.

“Good news is that we already have a contract for next week, and a few other companies are inches away from signing up with us too. Bad news is that, since we can’t really count on what’s not certain, we’ll have to take some extreme measures to make ends meet this week. Meaning a small ranked gig.”

The girl stood a few seconds looking puzzled and trying to understand what she heard.

“A gig? Okay, but where’s the bad news?”

A loud laugh came from her cellphone. Unwinding, her producer said:

“Well, I got all worked up and ready to apologize for putting you through an audition so early and Naoko-Chan dismisses it just like that. That’s golden. Like I said, it’s not bad news per se, but I rather not had put you through it so soon. I apologize for it and also for worrying you, if that’s the case. But again, that’s a last resort just for this week, only because we currently have no ad contracts for it. I plan never again needing to rely on last minute shows like this. I promise.”

Only then Naoko understood why her producer was worried. She’s really going to present herself. Only two weeks after she had accepted her job! Trying not to concern herself, she asked:

“Produ-San? Just tell me: do you think I’m currently able to… like… perform well?”

Aratani took a moment to answer to that.

“I won’t lie to you, Naoko-Chan. I’m a little worried. I’ve faith in you and I absolutely know you’d have no problems demolishing the competition if you had maybe two months of training. Your instructors speak highly of your, and I trust in them and in your capabilities. But with only two weeks of classes, plus a third next Sunday… I genuinely feel bad for putting you through this so soon. I’ll tell you more about it on Sunday, but don’t worry, I’ve chosen a beginner’s gig. You don’t even need to win, anywhere among the top five is fine. I have faith you can do it, but don’t be disheartened if things don’t go as planned. I mean, it’s not the end of the world if it happen. Also, I’ll be trying to close contracts for this week until the last minute, and if I manage to do it, which seems likely, there’ll be no need to get on the gig. I’m calling you just to let you know about it and to ask you to try and practice as much as you can during the rest of this week, just in case. Can you do it?”

Even though her producer told her not to worry, there’s no way she’d be able to do that.

“Hm… sure. Just… can you tell me what will happen if I can’t get among the top five?”

“Hey, Naoko-Chan, don’t worry.” The man calmed her. Pausing silently for some time, he regretfully revealed, “Next time I’ll call you mentioning I have two good news, just so you don’t worry. Like I said, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll just have to take a small loan. I’d rather not, because I’ll have a small fixed interest rate I’ll have to pay even if I repaid the debt one minute after claiming it, but it’s no biggie. And we already have a contract for next week, so I’m guaranteed to pay off the debt in a few days. The only real downside’s that due to I.S.S.G.’s nonsensical policies, new agencies in debt gets a lot of extra bureaucracy to fill and a few penalties like no discounts in a couple of services, meaning I’ll have to pay the full price for your Sunday lessons next week. It could set us back a few bucks, but really, don’t stress over it. Things will be fine anyway, I’d just rather not go into debt and have unnecessary bureaucracy for me and, more importantly, for you to fill if I can avoid it. Trust me, it’s alright. Okay?”

Aratani hung up only after apologizing for worrying her and reassuring if any contract appeared he’d cancel her participation at the gig, but nevertheless Naoko lost the will to dance during the last ten minutes she had. Still, that was the time when she needed to do it more than ever. Returning to the stage, she resumed her practice for the five spectators who’d stayed until the end: Chiasa, Takumi and three other boys. So preoccupied about her upcoming first show, the talk about loans and penalties and so on, she moved in stiff ways and her smiles got hard to believe. No one in the audience pointed it out and when the five, along with Naoko, went away they acted like nothing strange had taken place during the last three songs. They praised her skillfulness and cheerful ways. Chiasa also commended her on her marvelous outfit and overall prettiness, whereas the boys fell silent again and just agreed with unnecessarily emphatic nods. It alleviated some of her tension, though not all.

It’s the first time Naoko really felt the exercises her instructor gave her to practice home were more than just pastimes. Of course she knew it’s part of her job, but so far it looked more like fun then work. Returning to her dorms two hours and some later than usual she found the janitor, Mr. Yamamoto, tending to the potted plants on the courtyard while a few pairs and trios of students stood talking nearby, appreciating the enjoyable night. Naoko couldn’t find in herself peace to do the same in spite of wishing to.

She couldn’t take it off her head on Thursday, especially after Miwa pointed in the corridors a stunning senior girl who proudly carried a small metal necklace in the shape of the I.S.S.G.’s star and planets logo. There were seven tiny stars on its purple and navy-blue border, five being white and made of plastic and the other two being colored gems. She had short hair and was accompanied by four other girls. Despite smiling, she paid no mind to the people around her. Miwa mentioned that brunette girl, four inches lower than Naoko regardless of being one year older, was the only other idol their school had. While the idol looked cheerful, something told Naoko she was not very accessible. The two briefly exchanged looks as they passed by one another on the corridor, and the short idol, showing a semblance of interest, inquired suddenly, after they had already crossed:

“Hey, you look a little familiar. Aren’t you the one who faced that gang boy from 3-3? The idol some people talk about?”

Naoko stopped and turned back. Evaluating the pretty girl with a confident smile that questioned her, she agreed, introducing herself:

“I’m Yano Naoko, from 2-5. Nice to meet you.”

The four girls that accompanied the idol opened space on the corridor, though the idol didn’t seem to have that kind of common sense. She introduced herself with a rather average voice from the middle of the hallway:

“I’m from 3-2. Sky idol Fujisue Reiko. Nice knowing you. I can’t see your medallion, though. What’s your class, Naoko-Chan?”

Reiko was either too friendly or too upfront to call Naoko by her name without her consent like that right on the first time they met. Sure, she was on the third year and was, thus, Naoko’s senpai, so she’s not expected to be as respectful as the girl from second year, but that was a little uncalled for. Since it’s a little nuisance, though, Naoko let that slip. She’d be more impressed about her Sky idol rank if she hasn’t forced the girl to state her own class:

“I don’t think I have any medallions…”

Losing part of her interest, Reiko seemed slightly disappointed, though not enough to break the conversation:

“Ah. A Dark idol. For how long have you been there?”

“Since the second week of this month, I think,” Naoko retorted.

Regaining some of her interest, Reiko started to say something, but got quiet until two students had passed in front of her – in fact, she was the one in the way, despite getting slightly annoyed with the others for “their” intromission. The first year girls lowered their heads and apologized while quickly passing between the two, clasping both hands in front of them as if they cut through the air. Only then Reiko said, interested:

“That’s better, I thought Naoko-Chan had been an idol for some time already! The way some boys from my class seem to know you, it’s as if you’ve already been on the road for some time.” With an uplifting smile, she raised her fist in front of her chest and said, “I’ll tell you what I’d like people had told me when I started, then: don’t be discouraged, Naoko-Chan! Don’t lose sight of your dreams! It took me a year to get to the Sea class and another year and a half to reach Sky class! It takes time. Let’s see how long Naoko-Chan takes to reach Sea class! You look promising. Perhaps we’ll meet someday at an audition! Keep me informed, would you?”

As they parted ways, Naoko was left with mixed feeling. She thanked Reiko for her encouraging words, though that girl seemed to lean a little on gratuitous rivalry. Also, while it’s good to know it took time, two years and a half to reach the second class was actually a discouraging statement. It could very well been a backhanded encouragement. Reiko looked a little self-centered and judgmental too, though she’s no doubt upfront and happy. At least she treated Naoko better than other people, giving her some importance too. Naoko didn’t know what to think about her. When Reiko discovered Naoko was still a Dark idol seemed to think less of her, but knowing the girl was only like that for less than two weeks somehow sparked her interest. She also sounded genuine enough when stating her wish to be informed about Naoko’s progress. If it was an attempt to compare each other to belittle Naoko or to measure if she was worthy of being her friend was hard to say, but her interest was the opposite of what Naoko would expect from a person wanting nothing. Maybe she really looked forward to a worthy rival. Her voice didn’t seem all that great, but it’s hard to say how well she performed on stages.

Miwa was also uncertain about what to think. All she knew was that people usually respected Reiko but found her too unreachable, albeit charismatic in some sense. For good or for bad that girl became yet another thing to occupy her mind. Luckily or not Naoko and Reiko hardly met since they’re on different school years and also their classrooms were on different floors. At least until Naoko was promoted she expected Reiko not to be a frequent appearance in her life.

It was only on Friday that Naoko managed to get some respite of her doubts after training with Rin on the Athletics club. She looked so happy when she was informed her friend would be performing for the first time that she couldn’t stop asking questions and commenting on how it would be a treat to watch. Rin apologized for not being able to since her family restricted her to do lots of things, but she would be rooting for her. Though there was no Drama club session that day, Naoko had the theater held in reserve for her rehearsal. Before Rin even asked if she could, her friend invited her to watch at least a little of her practice, mentioning she’d ask for permission if needed.

To have Rin as the only audience was a delight. The girl had private classes in an hour so she regretfully told her she could only stay a few minutes, but it’s enough to cheer Naoko up. When she left the auditorium felt an unsettling void, and for the first time the girl discovered she’d rather have it full than empty. To sing to nobody was disconcerting, and she found out she performed better when others cheered for her than when there’s no one to do so. It was an eye-opening experience. On the other hand, at least she could focus on her choreography. She’d already practiced the same four three-minute long songs for four hours last Sunday and for two more in her school theater, not mentioning the visualization sessions she’d been practicing every free time she had, so besides starting to get tired of them she gradually got the hang of it on yet another two hours of practice.

The choreographies were simple, the easiest one enough to get her seven points out of twenty in that subcategory and the hardest, nine. This in an entry-level, Sea class gig, which was the lowest possible rank besides the unofficial Dark idol class in which Naoko was. According to her dancing instructor, as classes increased the exigencies did so too, so a choreography worth nine points in a Sea class competition would hardly be worth more than one in a Water class gig.

Her instructor told her the secret at the beginning was not to want lots of points in high-level choreographies, but rather to focus on Execution. Judges could see when an idol choose a high-score choreography she wasn’t capable of performing properly, and had many ways of penalizing her. The reason being I.S.S.G.’s business was to provide entertainment, and idols that fumbled lots of complicated moves were not entertaining. If many started doing it, that could even tarnish the company’s reputation. As such, the corporation encouraged idols to perform simple dances well instead of complex ones in a bad way. Not to mention judges tended to have more sympathy to girls who fulfilled what they committed themselves to execute, even if a simple performance, than those who promise the impossible and fall short.

An eight-point choreography for a Sea class presentation was easy even for rookies to master and could easily net sixteen or more points in Execution if well-performed. If Naoko made good use of bonuses, like her attire difficulty multipliers, she could amp those scores by a reasonable margin, whereas an idol who tried and failed to perform harder dances could end up not only with very low Execution scores but also with penalties, though her instructor hadn’t delve in details about how it worked. Just that Naoko’s initial fears she’d be undercut by her excessively humble choreographies were unfounded and that, provided she danced well, she had every chance to beat a high-level step routine from an unprepared competing idol.

There was also another component she had to take into consideration: on the few initial classes the gigs were usually small. They occurred in small show houses, restaurants, a few private parties companies threw for their employees and so on. As such most venues had only tiny stages, fit for a singer but not really for dancing. Some were so tiny that Stage Presence wasn’t even scored by judges, because even if the idol stood still she’d already be making use of most of the space available. A complex choreography like the ones Metal and Water-class idols performed were only suited for big stages. For a beginner idol, an overly complex choreography full of jumps and wide moves was not only unrequired but could also be detrimental due to stage size. Since there’s no way to know beforehand the amount of space she’d have to dance, the safest bet was to train simple choreographies. Worst-case scenario the idol would have to move around between movements and poses to make use of all the space, but that was no big problem.

Naoko focused a lot of her attention on her dancing skills, because she’s already an arguably good singer as far as her instructors told her. She could remember their words clearly. Her voice was tuned and melodious, excellent by the average person’s standards and still good by idol’s ones even though she had no previous training. There’re only little occurrence of noises due to a lack of technical capacitation so far, easily remediable with vocal practices, and her most glaring flaw was still minimal and would only negatively influence her scores on the mid classes onwards, and only by marginal amounts. It’s about a flute-like feel to nasal sounds due to her small internal septum deviation. It wasn’t externally visible, but it affected the way the air moved inside her nasal cavity and influenced especially nasalized sounds.

Thankfully most songs made for females to sing had little or no use for such, so as long as she stayed away from the few lyrics that did and refrained from humming onstage too much she’d be fine. True to it, the only resonating sounds required by the songs her singing instructor asked she trained were produced in her throat or chest, though she’d given the girl home exercises for nasalization. The septum deviation was only a nuisance because it forced Naoko to breathe through the mouth, and on especially dry, polluted or cold weather the air could affect her vocal chords or, on extreme circumstances, damage her larynx. It wouldn’t happen if air was inhaled through the nose since it is naturally moistened, warmed and purified as it flows through the nasal apparatus. She’d have to take special care of herself under such adverse climate conditions, but that was currently nothing to worry about.

She never though singing could have so many technicalities, but overall she’s a good songstress even still not knowing the theory behind it that could help her to improve beyond regular standards of excellence. Her main concern at the time was getting her dances right. Since she’s alone it’s possible for her to slack off a bit, but the fear of not being ready for the upcoming competition made her sustain an almost uninterrupted streak. In two hours she’s able to practice each of the four songs nine times from beginning to end.

She went back to her dorms room exhausted. Like usual at that hour the janitor tended to the plants, his eyes passionate and his movements unhurried. There were not that many plants on the courtyard, but he took forever on this task when compared to how agile he was to solve every other thing. Naoko got to her dorms, ate, took a shower, discovered she’d forgotten to put out the trash from the past few days, changed back on to casual wear to bring the non-combustible trash out – each type of trash had a specific day to be collected – and when she got back again on ground floor Yamamoto-San was still at it.

The students that sat around on that warm night didn’t even bat an eye to him, but the man caressed the leaves and even whispered to them. Naoko, for one, found that soothing and amusing, though that was the kind of thing most people wouldn’t care about. Liking plants for the prettiness they granted to an ambient but not really having the discipline to tend to them, Naoko merely enjoyed what a few individuals like the janitor were capable of. It’s mildly entertaining and very relaxing to watch him prune and pamper the vegetation, though she could only stand to do it for a minute tops.

It reminded all the relaxation techniques she learned, and put them to use after doing her homework. By that time Naoko was already so tired she soon fell asleep. She always dreamed but generally forgot what she dreamed about, though that time was different. Even after awaking she still retained a fragment of it, where she was trapped in a catacomb-like room with only two doors and the water-level rising. There were two tigers there, one protecting each exit. One looked very old, ugly and weak but also famished and prone to attack if she got close, while the other was extremely young, gorgeous and robust but well-fed and, because of it, apparently not much of a threat as long as she didn’t behave improperly. She had the conviction she could try fighting her way out through the penurious tiger, though not only it still posed a big risk but she didn’t want to harm any animals if she could avoid. Also, she loved tigers: after all, they’re such powerful and imposing creatures.

Since the water-level gradually rose, she needed to get away or she’d drown, so she walked slowly towards the strong and well-fed tiger. The big feline just lied in front of the door, but his muscular mass blocked it from opening. She had to make it move somehow, and fast, but not in a threatening way. Then she remembered having her lunchbox filled with delectable food, her favorite ones, that even she wanted to prove, and her cellphone inside it for some strange, dream-like reason. Maybe the food would draw it out, but not only the animal seemed very well-fed and unlikely to budge just because of food, it could also prompt the hungry tiger to strike her. However, her cellphone began to ring from inside of the lunchbox, putting Naoko on a dilemma of opening it or not.

She eventually did so, and the famished tiger slowly began to crawl in her direction, crouching menacingly. The desperate girl answered her cellphone to discover it was Aratani calling her to ask where she was, because she was late for her birthday party. The desperate girl explained the preposterous situation, to which her producer, in a cool voice, suggested her to interact with the bulky tiger. She should bow down respectfully but not show any fear or it’d eat her alive the second it sensed her apprehension. Then she should invite the tiger to her party too. She wasn’t supposed to make any big claims about it because the party would be rather small, and as soon as the giant animal arrived at that and felt frustrated he’d also devour her. But she also shouldn’t downplay the fun of her party, or he’d not be interested and wouldn’t move. And she should not think about the tiger, but about the enjoyment of the party, because the animal seemed scary and vastly superior on the interaction between the two. On the happy party, however, she’s the star and the tiger merely another guest, though he’d still be a guest of honor.

She had to be respectful but not fearful, humble but honest and centered on fun but not egotistical. As the girl did that the tiger moved, Naoko mounted on it and they both crossed the door in time to narrowly evade the famished animal behind and the rising waters. It wasn’t the complete dream, but merely its final part or so it seemed, because it’s the only one Naoko recalled. Dreams never seemed to make sense, but for some reason it lingered on her memory.

Raining clouds amassed on Saturday, though the forecast for Sunday was sunny. The group on the Athletics club got on bicycles provided by the school for the triathlon training and Naoko lost the count of how many laps she and Rin did around the racetrack. When assessing her times, Naoko surprisingly got first place, surpassing even the girl who’s always first on every other event. She used her bike a lot back on her hometown, and though Shimabara had quite a few plane streets near the sea, it also sported numerous inclines elsewhere. The previous first-place student had faster laps on the beginning, but she couldn’t maintain her pace for as long as Naoko did and eventually fell to second place. Rin, being third even before Naoko carved a new record, wasn’t concerned about that event, but was overjoyed nevertheless by her friend’s results. The same couldn’t be said about the previous champion, but Naoko was fed up with others disliking her for being better than them and simply ignored the vexed girl. People on the Athletics club hardly ever spoke to one another, so there’s no reason for any of the two to talk either way.

Once they finished training, Rin showed Naoko a charming ramen shop she knew about after discovering her friend loved that kind of food when both talked about lunching together. Once again the place was expensive but excellent, prompting the guest to joke about going bankrupt if she went out with Rin every Saturday. Rain started to pour as soon as they got to the bar-like venue, anyway, so all the other plans both created for that afternoon and evening were cancelled and Naoko simply invited the blond girl over to her place again.

Rin was more than happy with it, but Naoko felt doubly so. Not only was friend always fun to be with but that way Naoko had no time to think about the forthcoming show. As soon as they got to her room, Rin started talking about her discoveries on the speedrunning subject she did during the week. Naoko, on the other hand, apologized for only having read about three chapters of the first volume of the manga her friend lent her because of her rehearsals. While they watched more speedrun videos and Naoko talked about her doubts for the next day Rin said:

“Rin couldn’t imagine Naoko-Chan would be anxious about anything! She’s able to sing and dance on the karaoke and in front of thirty Drama club members, and she’s never afraid of boys! She even spoke her mind freely and conquered everyone’s attention on the rooftop that day! Naoko-Chan single-handedly conducted the conversation and made all the senpai and everyone else laugh and have a good time!”

“But that’s different from being in a show where one hundred or so people paid for a good presentation,” Naoko claimed, “It’s my job, and people expect I perform well. Also, if I don’t rank among the top five my agency will go into debt, even if just for a week. That’s what my producer told me, at least, but who knows if he’s not euphemizing it just to make me not worry?”

“Is it this serious?!” Rin questioned in a concerned voice. Naoko, noticing she had troubled her friend, quickly tried to go back on her words, “Nah, probably not. I’m just nervous and getting worked up for nothing. My producer’s not one to lie, if he says things will be fine even if I fail, I bet it’ll be this way. Sorry for making Rin-Chan worry.”

“But… but is Naoko-Chan sure?!” Rin insisted, “Is there anything Rin can do to help?!”

Pinching Rin’s cute cheeks, Naoko smiled warmly.

“Aw, you’re totally, irresistibly adorable! Thanks for the support, Rin-Chan! Just having you by my side cheering me up is already a huge help!”

“But that’s not enough to help Naoko-Chan perform better or her agency not facing the risk of going into debt…” Rin desolately replied. Suddenly her eyes brightened up, “Oh, I know, I know! Rin can subscribe on Naoko-Chan’s fan club! More fans mean you get more visibility and people get to go more on your shows, right?! I can invite the people on my online networks to subscribe too! Hopefully they’d do the same for others and your fan club will grow bigger!”

“I’m really grateful, but that’s not necessary, really…” Naoko tried to explain, but Rin was already at it. Using a nice, next-gen cellphone she decorated with countless spangles, fake gemstones and shiny, glittering patterns that made it as discreet as a hundred fireworks exploding all at once, she looked for Naoko’s fan club. After subscribing and sending invitations, the girl browsed the thumbnail-sized photos of people already on her fan list.

“Oh, look! It’s a guy from my class! He’s your fan too, Naoko-Chan!”

“He’s part of the Drama club,” Naoko replied after glancing over his photo.

“I know this one… and this one… There’s quite a few people from school, right?”

“Yeah,” Naoko agreed, “most of them subscribed after watching those videos where…”

“Hey! Look! Isn’t this that ex-gang member boy you argued with on those videos?” Rin asked in awe, pointing to a small photo of Daiki with his regular frown, “That’s amazing! Naoko-Chan manages to get even boys she fight with to like her! Oh, I wanted so badly to be like Naoko-Chan!… Oh, let’s see who’s your first fan!… Hm. Yeah. He looks like a happy guy!”

The instant Naoko glanced back to her friend’s sparkling cellphone and saw a maniac-like grin, her spine chilled. Katsuro had been the first person to subscribe as her fan!

“Well, that explains his strangely accurate hunch about my liking of manga back at the washhouse, when he told me it’s just because other people were saying that on the school corridors…” Naoko thought out loud, and since her friend didn’t seem to understand, she explained, “There a section in the fan club where my producer included information about me like blood type and preferences. This boy Katsuro probably saw it. He’s the one who gifted me all those manga.”

“He looks fun!” Rin commented while looking for said section, and before Naoko could tell her how Katsuro really was the blond girl exclaimed, “Naoko’s an A+?! What?!”

“Whatever’s that supposed to mean.” Naoko retorted. Rin immediately explained in a passionate way, “Blood type affects people’s personalities! Like Rin! Rin is an O+! O-type are optimistic, easily excitable, flexible and energetic people! They’re unfortunately a little airheaded and a few can be very irresponsible! I know that’s a trait of mine I’m very careful about! But Naoko-Chan being an A-type? A-types are serious, cool, reliable and fair, usually intelligent but also a little stubborn and judgmental! Rin… Rin’s confused…”

“Rin-Chan… do you really believe in these superstitions?” Naoko asked, to which Rin eagerly replied, “But they’re not superstitions! There are lots of studies attesting its reliability!”

“Yeah, it looked very reliable in my case!” Naoko stated sarcastically, “Forget about it, the only thing you discover when you see a person’s blood type is A+ is that you can kill her in a blood transfusion if you inject B or AB types. It’s like trying to grasp someone’s personality by his or her name. I can attest it doesn’t work. And so can you, right? “Rin” is written with the same character for “cold”, and yet you’re far from being a cold person, right?”

“Yup!” Rin agreed, “But a name is something others give to you when you’re born! Or at any other time. It’s not a biological part of you like your blood type!”

“Well… yeah, it kind of makes sense.” Naoko thought about it for a second, but then quickly contended that logic, “But then again, my hair and my skin colors are also part of my biology and I’m pretty sure they have no influence on my personality, intelligence or such.”

“Waa! Naoko dislikes veggies!” Rin brusquely interjected, changing her focus back to the fan club’s facts about Naoko in a heartbeat and leaving her friend disoriented, “And loves ramen! Which I already knew. And candies! We’re practically twins! And… meat? Oh, well! That’s good too, I suppose! Oh, oh, look! Naoko-Chan likes cats too!”

“Cats?” Naoko asked, reading the page carefully while still trying to follow the blond girl’s rollercoaster-like train of thoughts, “It says “felines”, not “cats” there.”

“What’s the difference?” Rin asked, “You like all felines in general? Like lions and panthers too?”

“Yeah, they’re nice,” Naoko replied, to the astonishment of her friend, “though when my producer asked what real-life animal I liked the most and I told him it were tigers he put “felines” there just not to cause trouble. He said it could shock people.”

“Tigers?! Naoko-Chan likes tigers the most?! What about kitty cats?!”

“They’re okay,” she agreed, “I had one back in Shimabara, though it usually lived in the streets and only came home for supper. I still like dogs better as far as domestic animals go, but my favorite ones are still tigers.”

“What is there to like in tigers?!” Rin asked, “They’re dangerous! And not cute!”

“Yes, they’re dangerous and not cute! I like them exactly because of it! They’re capable of tearing anything apart without so much as breaking a sweat, and looking cool at the same time! They’re so badass! What’s there not to love in those powerful, majestic creatures?!” Naoko replied. Suddenly something came to her mind. The memory of a lunatic meeting with two tigers in a flooding catacomb. Blown away by the unexpected reminiscence, she told, “Now that you’re saying about tigers, I remembered a dream I had last night that coincidentally involved tigers.”

Rin’s thrilled eyes sparkled brighter than her cellphone and the girl instantly asked to know about it. Letting the speedrun video unfold to nobody, Naoko forced herself to recall her dream and, little by little, pieced together the fragments as she, amused by its craziness, retold it. Rin also laughed while her hilarious friend related an already absurd story in an even more outrageous way. Still, when it’s over her guest began to joyfully reflect while speaking:

“Naoko-Chan’s dream is amusing! Hm… it shows some kind of conflict or impasse as far as Rin can tell! Like you had two choices, between a poor and dangerous route and a prosperous and relatively safe one! Though you’re on a time for some reason and the one Naoko-Chan chose could very likely destroy her if she made something wrong, hence a big anxiety! And you cited a party you’re supposed to attend? One your producer had invited you?”

“Huh… yes,” not really understanding what her jolly friend was doing stating the obvious, but letting her be happy anyway, Naoko said, “After I answered the cellphone that was in my lunchbox.”

“Right! A lunchbox filled with delicious food!” Rin spoke excitedly, thinking aloud, “Your favorite ones, right? Like… favorite… favorite… Like something… you like? Something that’s good for you? Good! Yes, something very good! Makes sense! You had something very good, but the famished, weak and ugly tiger prevented you from revealing it for some reason!”

“What’s Rin-Chan attempting to do, anyway?” Naoko asked, getting curious.

“Rin’s trying to decipher Naoko-Chan’s dream!” she explained with a vibrant smile, “Every dream has many meanings! Only it’s, like, codified in a way only the deepest parts of your mind can easily understand! We need to decode it to grasp its meanings! That’s no coincidence, that’s synchronicity! It’s so exciting! It’s like an adventure into Naoko-Chan’s deeper self!”

Skeptical, the girl asked if that was also part of her studies about blood-type and personality matching, but Rin denied it:

“Nah, that’s because Rin studied a little bit of psychology! Rin goes on a therapist since Rin was ten! Before that, Rin was afraid of many things, like thunder, the number four and every animal with four legs. And mirrors, cars… Now Rin’s only anxieties are about boys and competitions! Rin’s almost free from her fears! Yay! And then I started to study a bit of psychology too! I discovered some sources from Europe that believed in a kind of deep part of the mind called the “Unconscious”! And a few authors go even beyond and mention it could be only the tip of a collective unconsciousness of sorts that linked people’s minds through their pasts and other hard to explain natural occurrences! Since most original books were in German, though, I decided to study that language! Well, not because of it per se, I already wanted to study German since I was little! One of Rin’s ancestors was German too! And he had such an adventurous life! Rin’s ancestor was a young merchant in Germany whose family’s specialties were Asian products! Then he had to leave everything behind when he was just seventeen due to Jew persecution and lost even his family! His father had many contacts over the world and a Chinese friend of him took him under his protection! They had many problems with the authorities, travelled the world and met fascinating people! He learned many languages and the tools of his trade and became a dashing explorer and trader, sometimes making shady businesses with the Chinese Triads and other mafias around the world! His adoptive father died in the meantime without heirs and my ancestor assumed the business! When the war was over he made a fortune almost overnight exporting goods to Japan! It’s around nineteen forty seven he met his soon to be bride and…”

The way Rin unbelievably painted that story was so creative and captivating Naoko could clearly see it: her blond ancestor, who probably carried a retractable gun up his sleeve and ventured into millennia-old temples in search for riches met his future Japanese wife while he drove. And the charming man swept the girl on his arms as he drove by on a motorcycle. At high speed. Under the rain. While they were chased down by Chinese mafia goons. And he tried to save the world. Preventing secrets of a spring of eternal life in the Himalayas to fall on wrong hands. Driving among ruins of a destructed city. A very well-known city in a very likely place, like Malaysia, Kuwait or South Pole. With Peruvian temples and Egyptian pyramids on it. And bombs raining down around them. Two years after the end of the war. Because screw the logic.

Obviously Rin hadn’t really mentioned these things, but the girl was so excited she made it look like her ancestor was more of a gallant thief than a merchant. It’s a very nice painting, although Naoko could see a “few” problems on her friend’s narration. Still, eventually Rin returned to the original subject, after a twenty minute digression:

“…and that’s why I wanted to learn German! Oh, and also because of a few texts about psychology. They weren’t from Germany itself but were written in German nevertheless. But anyway! Dream interpretation is one of Rin’s favorite pastimes! Rin did that a lot in the past for herself! We can try to interpret Naoko-Chan’s dream if she wants!”

After so many slightly suspicious accountings, Naoko was not very confident about the results they’d get to, but gave Rin a chance just for fun. Strangely, though, the things Rin helped Naoko uncover from her dream by asking her what came to her mind when she thought about every element that composed the narrative made sense. More sense than she expected, anyways. And while some aspects could be easily perceived on the girl just by knowing the stressful situation she was put in, others were not known even by Naoko herself, though they also felt very familiar when unearthed. It took both almost an hour to get to a conclusion, albeit part of it was due to Naoko’s inexperience in interpreting dreams and Rin’s tendency to digress.

Basically, the choice between the old, hungry, ugly and weak tiger she could maybe defeat but didn’t want to and the young, pretty, strong and well-fed one was understood by Naoko to be the choice she made between keep living on her parents’ house, that well-known, old life with few perspectives and her father always censoring her, and her new life in the capital, full of opportunities. Tigers, though, were liked by the girl for their dangerousness and power, meaning even the young and well-fed one that marveled her could destroy her if she wasn’t careful. She’s on a timer from drowning because both she couldn’t stand her old situation anymore and wouldn’t be able to live on her old home for long, and because she had only so much time to make enough money to keep living in Tokyo and preventing her agency from getting into debts. The young tiger wouldn’t budge, too, the same way her problems wouldn’t solve themselves. She had to do something.

She had a lunchbox full of delicious food even she wanted, but she was afraid to reveal it because the old tiger could attack her, much in the same way she had many qualities she used to hide fearing her father would censor her harshly. It’s Aratani’s voice calling for her that made her open the box, the same way it’s her producer who helped her free herself both from her old house and lifestyle, but also from mental shackles that made her afraid to dress to impress, sing and dance for others and reveal a few of her qualities. Things she was born with or that composed her, like her prettiness, cheerfulness and honesty that her father criticized. Though by doing so she got the old tiger slowly crawl in her direction, the same way Naoko, now free from some of her bindings, feared she could be sent back home due to a failed business attempt if they didn’t get the money they needed in time. Even then, Aratani mentioned she was late for her own party and instructed her about what to do to get through her problems unscathed.

She had to be respectful but not fearful, humble but honest and centered on the fun she could provide but not egotistical. Doing so, she’s expected to invite the young, powerful tiger to her party. The tiger could easily rip her to shreds if she’s not careful the same way the fans and the audience could undermine her career from the get-go if she committed some mistakes. Namely, be frozen by fear instead of merely respecting the audience, or not respecting them at all; not promising more than she could deliver for it could create frustration, but also don’t promise any less than her best or the public could be uninterested in giving her a chance. And also not focusing on the audience, for they were many and she, only one. Conversely, if she only thought about herself, she could ignore mistakes she could commit that the spectators would not tolerate. She had to find a balance, because she’s the star of her party. An idol in a show. The audience was not the focus, but her, though a party without guests was no party at all. They were important, though she couldn’t concentrate on them or her fears would paralyze her. By doing all of it, she’s able to mount on the tiger in her dream and narrowly escape, much in the same way she could also gain the audience’s favor and ride her way to freedom.

Watching Rin ask her questions and slowly make sense of an apparently absurd story, like all dreams seemed, the girl gradually shifted from skepticism to curiosity and then awe. Despite believing in things Naoko though to be superstitions, like the blood-type and personality links, Rin was actually capable of interpreting a dream and revealing things even Naoko didn’t know about her own self. Or, like the blond girl explained, simply wasn’t consciously aware of it, but knew unconsciously. Of course, it wasn’t Rin who made sense of the dream, but Naoko herself, as she answered her friend’s questions about the first things that came to her mind when she thought about tigers, water, parties and so on. Her friend wasn’t even aware of Naoko’s tense relationship with her own parents or the answers to her fears regarding her oncoming show, she couldn’t simply have said those things out of the blue hoping they’d be right. The conclusion was too spot-on to be left to chance. Seriously impressed, Naoko inquired:

“I can’t believe it! That was amazing! How do you know how to do it?!”

“Rin told Naoko-Chan!” the girl explained with her cutely high-pitched, animated voice, “Rin studied a little bit of psychology and have a therapist for six years now! Actually, Rin learned how to interpret dreams because Rin had horrible nightmares every night! Recurrent nightmares! Rin couldn’t even sleep and was having problems at school! So Rin’s parents looked for help from a renowned psychologist that used dream interpretations, and Rin’s therapist taught Rin how to interpret her dreams and how to create a dream diary! Rin stopped having nightmares in less than a month, but she liked the process so much she still do it every day even now! Rin’s unconsciousness teaches Rin lots of things, though some are very hard to accept and apply. Rin’s still not capable of doing a few things even after years of warnings! Like Rin’s fears of talking to boys! It’s like Naoko-Chan’s dream, that tells her not to fear the audience and focus on herself, but not exactly how’s she supposed to do it. Rin knows Rin’s fears of boys and of competitions come from Rin’s fears of rejection, but it’s still hard to find a way to solve it! But compared to who Rin was, Rin’s much, much better now! That’s how Rin knows it! Hey! I know, I know! Does Naoko-Chan wants Rin to teach her how to interpret her own dreams? This way Rin can repay Naoko-Chan for trying to help her overcoming her fears of singing and talking to boys! And for helping her not to have to compete in the Athletics club’s future competitions! And teaching about games! And a lot of other things! How about it?!”

Impressed, Naoko replied smiling:

“That’s incredible! Looking at Rin-Chan, who’s always so cute, sweet, upbeat and happy, I never would’ve guessed she had to overcome so many hardships in the past! I seriously doubt I’ve helped Rin-Chan nearly as much as she says, though. But I’m still at it! And yes, I’d love to learn about how to interpret dreams! Thanks a bunch! It seems awesome! Like magic powers!”

“Isn’t it?!” Rin exclaimed, her eyes gleaming enthusiastically, “It’s almost like you could read your own mind!”

With an excited smile frozen for a second, Naoko reduced it and replied:

“Huh… Rin-Chan? You make it look far less awesome when you put it like that…”

She tried to make sense of it by talking about the differences between Consciousness and Unconsciousness, and things that could be beyond that in the mental and social realms, but Rin was no specialist in psychology and her train of thoughts was too convoluted to maintain an explanation for more than two minutes without getting sidetracked. As such, they quickly changed subjects to other matters and Naoko was left to piece the confusing information by herself. Though she ended up no closer to understanding how to interpret a dream than she was before the beginning of the conversation, the interpretation of the dream of the two tigers was a shocking experience that left her calmer, albeit puzzled. She paid it no mind after the subject was dropped and while Rin was on her room, as the two discussed about boys, games, songs, preferences and more. Naoko finished reading the manga her friend lent her so the blond girl could take it back and taught the blond girl how to cook rice to create simple onigiri – rice balls.

With apparently no experience preparing anything other than instant noodles on a microwave oven, Rin was a disaster in the kitchen, but whatever she learned, no matter how basic, thrilled her. For a girl with knowledge in many complex things, she sure was helpless on even the most trivial everyday tasks. Naoko found it amusing to watch her friend trying to comprehend how to operate a stove as if it’s rocket science. To Rin’s defense, though, she mentioned being used to eating out with her parents and her favorite foods were sweets, meaning she consumed lots of cold or ready to eat snacks. Not to mention sugary treats were capable of calming her down no matter how anxious she got. All in all, not a healthy choice, but a delicious one at that.

Only after her friend went home Naoko was able to ponder about her dream, and of her mind strangely telling her things she didn’t really know about. Though in a sense she kind of knew all those things all along. It’s just like when her producer bought her a pair of boots, the first in her life. She wanted it badly, but while she was thinking about how the others would react, she was scared by the possibility people would act in overly critical ways just like her father would. When she stopped focusing her attention on other people’s opinions and turned back to her own desires, however, she was able to wear it. In doing so she also discovered others weren’t nearly as terrifying as she thought they’d be. Her imagination created a scary scenario with her worst previous experiences where everyone would act like her father, when reality proved to be much less troublesome. Wasn’t it what her mind was telling her to do again on the show? To focus on herself, the songs she already knew how to dance and her desire to be watched like when the Drama club members attended to her rehearsal? Paradoxically, was her mind telling her to stop paying attention to her own judgmental imagination and, in concentrating on her desires and positive traits, experience the real world rather than her scary fantasy of it?

It looked like a very roundabout and complex way for things to work. If her mind didn’t want to scary her with her thoughts, why didn’t it step aside in the first place instead of forcing the girl to consciously focus her attention on her own desires and not on what she believed other people would think of it? Yet thinking about her own mind as an alternate entity, separate from her, seemed a long shot, even if that was the impression Rin gave her when explaining about the consciousness and the unconsciousness. Anyway, once she established a link between what she already did when wearing her new extravagant footwear for the first time and the events that were still to unfold, her anxiety waned, giving in to calmness. That night Naoko was able to sleep peacefully and wake up renewed and ready.

While she commuted by train to Aratani’s office and felt the energy that flowed to her by merely being around other people, she gradually got pumped up by the idea of presenting herself. She already knew her few dances and songs by heart and the incredible sensation she felt by practicing in front of twenty-some students warmed her chest. If that was already good, how much better would it be to gig in front of five or more times more people and be paid to do so? The only thing Naoko noticed was that the instant her attention turned to the thoughts of the audience she lost her confidence. When she centered herself back on her desire to do those things, to be watched and to sing, her courage and drive to win returned.

Furthermore, the sun invaded the windows and bathed the passengers, faintly reminding her of that nostalgic show she watched on the TV back on her childhood. The one where a group of idols on a sun-soaked acoustic shell on a crowded park sang that cheerful song that Aratani showed her Umeko singing during the beginning of her career. If Naoko’s first gig was to be even one thousandth as fun as that, and it helped her perhaps someday doing a similar show, she’s more than willing to sing that day! The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to be on the stage that very minute.

She ran upstairs with thundering steps and arrived at the office breathless but radiant. Her producer also seemed content, but seeing the girl so brisk baffled him.

“Let’s do it! When’s the show?!” Naoko burningly stated as soon as she opened the door. Aratani, scratching his head and looking confused, asked her to sit down while rumbling, “I swear it must be easier to comprehend the illusion that pervades our supposed reality and transcend it into Buddhahood than to understand women! Damn it, Naoko-Chan, last time we talked I was left with the impression you’d be mortified for today, and yet you almost break my door in excitement as you enter?! Not that I’m complaining, but still! Care to explain what happened?”

“Show! When?! Speak!” with flaming eyes Naoko ordered bluntly, to which her bewildered producer replied, “Huh… Remember when I told you we’d only do that audition for the gig as a last resort, in case I wasn’t able to net us an ad contract until then? Well, I thought you’d like to hear the news that I worked myself half way to death these days and got a job for us right on this week and a few for next one… but apparently you’ll try to stab me instead, right?”

He handed her a two pages contract that the girl, while not exactly unhappy, looked slightly disappointed while she began to read.

“So there’ll be no show?” Naoko asked, to which Aratani inquired, “Is Naoko-Chan sad?”

“No. Not sad, I’m just…” the girl thought about it for a second while reading the contract. Noticing the value of it, she continued, “Oh, seven grand?! That sweet! I… uh… To tell you the truth, I was just excited for the show today. At first I was really afraid, but after thinking about it and with the help of a friend of mine I just understood it’d be nice.”

Aratani faced her puzzled.

“Well… We already got what we needed, so Naoko-Chan has no responsibility whatsoever to do it, but since I have already registered us there and paid the entry fee, we can technically still to it if you wish.”

“For real?!” Naoko immediately replied. Taking a moment to muster up the good feelings of her practice sessions and from the nostalgic park exhibition from her childhood, she lit her passion again and asked, “So, can I still do it?! Is there a penalty for losing?”

“Other than the entry fee I already paid and which will not be reimbursed anyway, no. No penalties for losing.” Aratani explained, “Though, to be frank, I’m slightly worried that a loss at your first gig might discourage Naoko-Chan. It’s a common thing to happen, I might add, and even though that’s a competition for rookies, most idols there had between three and five months of training before attempting it, so Naoko-Chan, having only three days including today, would have nothing to be sad about if she lost. Especially since she has no obligation to compete on that audition, much less rank among top five. Even so, I’m reticent here because I don’t want you to feel bad in case you lost an audition.”

The girl lowered her face back to the ad contract. As she thought about the possibility she lost, even if she had no pressure to go well anyway, anxiety began to well up on her. Though that was an already well-known problem with an already well-known solution for her. Asking herself what was her desire and trying not to focus on anyone else’s opinions, not from potential spectators and certainly not from judges, she felt a slight hint of enthusiasm as she imagined herself in front of a small crowd. Curious, she questioned:

“Produ-San, do you know how many people would be watching my show?”

“Well, at first you’d have an audition, where the only ones present would be other idols and their respective producers, along with the judges and a few businessmen from I.S.S.G.” Aratani explained, “Probably the hardest part, since you’d be surrounded by your competitors, around thirty idols or so. If you manage to rank among top five, your real gig would be on a high-end restaurant known for its already traditional musical presentations every Saturday and Sunday nights. Every week there are idols presenting themselves there, they’re long time clients from I.S.S.G. Show prospects never mention the number of spectators, but I’ve been there once. From what I remember, I believe the house capacity is around two hundred seats.”

“Two hundred?!” Naoko exclaimed, “Two hundred people to watch my first gig?! Are you crazy to think about sending me to a place like that from the get-go, Produ-San?!”

“I said two hundred seats, not necessarily two hundred people.” Aratani replied, “If a couple take a table for four, that’s two less seats available. I’d estimate around one hundred and thirty to one hundred and fifty people would be there. Also, remember they’d not be there just for you, Naoko-Chan: there are five idols to present themselves, one after the other. And to be frank, while the show plays a large role in that restaurant, people are also entertained by the food and the beverages, so don’t get your hopes too high. It’s a very nice place for a first exhibition, though: the place looks fancy and after a glass of alcohol most people get to enjoy shows more than they would otherwise. And you get to start with an already nicely numbered audience. None of those private parties with forty people crap that sometimes people pay I.S.S.G. to do, and to which the corporation requests greenhorn idols to attend. Trust me, it was a perfect first gig opportunity. Only we don’t need to go through this hassle anymore. Not just yet, at least.”

That sounded an amazing opportunity to Naoko that got her pumped and thinking. Not only it looked good, but he was right on the “not yet” part. For as much as Naoko got anxious thinking about it, she’d have to do gigs sooner or later anyway. And when she thought about it, her anxiety was not different from her desire to get onstage and be applauded like she was on her school theater, only with added fears related to her losing sight of her wants and focusing too much on how others could react to her. In bad ways, of course. In fact, wasn’t it the way Rin used to think to get her so scared? In the karaoke, her friend was afraid Naoko would be displeased about the blond girl’s singing, would laugh at her and never again want to go out with her. That was clearly a worst-case scenario thinking. Rin was focusing too much on how Naoko could react to her in the worst possible ways. And so was Naoko, when thinking about the crowd of her possible first show. They wouldn’t be there to judge and censor her, but to enjoy a meal and have fun. When that occurred to her, the fears that tainted her desires and transformed them in anxiety dwindled and the thrilling thoughts that made her pumped up during the train trip returned.

“Well, Produ-San is right.” Naoko, getting brisk and positive again, retorted, “But, like you said, we don’t need it “just yet”. Eventually I’ll have to make my debut, right? And you’ve already paid the entry fee anyway, right? And you said that we’ve nothing to lose attending to it this time? So how about you let me try it? I swear I’ll not get down if I lose!”

Grinning, the man coolly stated:

“That’s not something a person has entirely under her control, so I don’t know how Naoko-Chan plans to keep her promise if she loses, but you have a point. Well, I guess we can give it a shot. The worse that can happen is that I’ll have to lend you a shoulder to cry and then have to send my wet suit to the laundry.”

“Produ-San should send his whole office as well!” Naoko snapped, “See if they can remove this tobacco and alcohol smell from it!”

“There you go again with your olfactory hallucinations,” her producer retaliated.

Chapter VII – Baptism of Light

 

Due to the reintroduction of the audition and the possible subsequent show her schedule for the day got a mess. Naoko would have a dancing class until ten a.m. and the photographic modeling work after it. Then they’d have until three p.m. to lunch and rest. By four thirty the audition would be over and she’d have a singing class from five till seven. By eight she’d be presenting herself on that restaurant, provided she had ranked among the top five in the audition.

The dancing class was mostly focused on rehearsing the same fours songs she was already tired of training, and introduced only a few new tricks for her to use: one recovery act and one stepping. A recovery was a move to use if she fumbled something. In this case, her instructor taught her the most basic way to cutely come back from a fall, if it happened – since that was the biggest threat for Naoko, since she’d be on platforms and probably nervous during the presentation. If she noticed she’s about to fall, instead of trying to prevent it she’s to make it as cartoonish and unrealistic as possible, meaning she’d be turning a mistake into something that, while distracting, would at least be amusing. Then she was merely to look surprised to the sides while still singing, jump back up, shake off the dust, smile and keep going as if nothing had ever happened. It’d still detract points from her, but at least not as much as if she fell, felt sorry for herself and got ashamed. There were other, more complex and effective recovery techniques that actually transformed a fall or other mistakes in a pose or a false choreographic movement, but for starts that was good enough.

The stepping was another important aspect. Steppings allowed idols to make their way around stages without walking in a boring, average way and losing points and crowd appeal while doing so. Being treated as an idle, only a moving one (even though a “moving idle position” made no sense and, hence, was named “stepping”), it was easier than recoveries most of the time. The one Naoko learned, one of the most basic of all, was called the No-Frills Cute Catwalk Stepping. It was little more than an exaggerated walk, and resembled someone trying to walk on a rope. Each foot was to be put in the same alignment as the previous one and the knees were supposed to fold as little as possible. The steps were to be large and confident, though not overly so. The legs movement was a standard of all Catwalk Steppings. What put the No-Frills Cute Catwalk one apart from the others was the way the free hand or hands were supposed to look. Resting casually on the sides of the body with arms slightly flailing like any regular walk, the hand or hands were to be folded upwards in a way that their palms faced down and stood parallel to the floor with the fingers close to each other but not touching one another. It gave the walk a girly feel. There were other Steppings made to evoke different feels, but for starts it’d suffice. In any case Naoko already had her songs to practice and could not afford to lose time on new moves.

After the tiring lesson, it was a lucky thing that the ad she’d be producing was for an isotonic drink to recover her energy, or so she thought. The product was already on the market but three new flavors were going to be introduced: raspberry, blueberry and grapefruit. Each drink was given an according color: pinkish-red, blackish-blue and orange, and the ads for each flavor were going to feature a different girl. Naoko was chosen to star the blueberry one, while a red-haired girl and a blond one were selected for the others.

“Associating those drinks colors to hair colors was kind of creative!” Naoko joyfully gave her opinion, “How does a blueberry taste, though?”

“Admen are incredibly creative people,” Aratani sarcastically commented, “Unfortunately they almost invariably prefer not to use their creativity and instead fall back on the old and proven selling strategy of giving a feminine face to their products. At least you’ll get to prove and know how blueberry tastes! This way I don’t need to come up with taste descriptions.”

There were two problems, though. First, Naoko wasn’t really supposed to drink anything, but to pose as if she was happily about to drink it. She tried a few times to smile and turn the open bottle just before its content escaped, but the photos looked strange, like she was smelling the content rather than proving the juice. Though she was instructed to do the same as the other two models had done before her and appear just to sip it, sipping didn’t cut either. Though the photographer looked happy enough with it, Naoko did not. She couldn’t smile too well while trying to do it. Her agency was being paid seven hundred thousand Yen just for starters and a small weekly fee for internet ads according to number of accesses, so it’s best to look good.

Asking the production team to try another time turning the bottle all the way, she did one more take. One of the many photos per second the cameras took finally looked amazing enough to satisfy the girl, and certainly the admen. In that picture, a frozen fraction of a second, Naoko looked stunning, with slightly closed, yearning eyes like that of a person who had really made exercises and craved for an isotonic drink. Her smiling lips slightly opened so that the refreshing juice that gushed out vividly from the bottle a few centimeters away could get inside. Her lustrous hair moved around through the movement of her head. It’s a drink for sportspeople! It had to look vibrant, lively and refreshing! And more than any other girl she nailed it, surprising everyone at the studio with her idea and its fantastic results. So thought-provoking, so full of movement and desire, so much better than just sipping it!

Though that was just a photo. After that split-second the blueberry drink that spilled from the bottle gushed over her entire face, invaded her nostrils and washed away her eyeliners before entering on her eyes. A second after looking so gorgeous, Naoko was coughing, with reddened eyes, trying desperately to breath and just being miserable. Ten minutes later she could still smell the blueberry juice drops inside her nose. When the photographer yelled to everyone it was perfect, all the girl wanted was to chop his neck off.

Second problem was that it didn’t taste like blueberry at all. She was given quite a few bottles to hopefully be seen in public drinking it and promote the brand even more, but as Aratani proved it while he drove back to his office and stopped at a traffic light all he could say was “it’s passable, but has nothing to do with blueberry. It’s just like many supposedly strawberry-flavored red things produced from industrial chemicals and sugar. Most taste good but bear little resemblance to the actual fruit. Well, guess Naoko-Chan is not going to know the taste of blueberry today! Who would’ve thought it!” One hand chop from the frustrated girl later and her producer went back on his word, driving around looking for a yogurt shop just so Naoko could choose its toppings with a few of the small indigo fruits and taste it.

It’s good, sweet and acid. The citric flavor was the part that was almost completely absent from the isotonic drink, and its sweetness was watered-down due to probably being cloying in big doses. Still not bad, just not the same taste as the real fruit, like her producer previously told her.

After lunching Naoko was taken back to her dorm to rest a little before being driven to the I.S.S.G.’s headquarters. There were numerous elevators there, a few leading only to the first floor Hall of Fame, others to the hotel and restaurant area at the top floors while yet others taking people to the offices and to six auditoriums used for both auditions and shows. To know how to move around that tall and bulky building required some practice.

Right at the reception desk a tiny girl with braces who spoke sentences Naoko barely understood asked two identical girls and their old producer right in front of her on the line a few things. They all answered it as if they could completely understand the questions and acted in accordance when required to do something Naoko couldn’t even fathom what.

“I’m shhvorry to insfjform you thaxmhrt thebxlyre’s no suchbgdg thinhbgg as a doublbvdtjke idwlvzxol presentxvbpqrtation,” the secretary said.

“What?” a very old-looking producer, with flimsy gray hair and a pair of brown, square-framed glasses that made his eyes look enormous in comparison to his short height looked completely clueless. At first Naoko thought the old geezer didn’t understand the garbage that girl asked, but the man reluctantly insisted with a feeble voice, “But that’s… very unfortunate! I… I’ve made a registration, you see.”

“Sincybgxlye youbhx madghbje onlyxch one registrxchjghation,” the attendant told him with her incomprehensible speech problems, though only for Naoko as the others acted like she spoke as any average person, “I’m shchxzkjorry to ashjxk you tjuhgdhis, but you’ll havcthgfe to chxjhgtoose only one gjylchirl to partchxicipatxcwje on the auditxqtktion.”

Both twins, maybe around fifteen years old, turned frustrated faces to the helpless old man while he looked inside his century-old looking brown leather suitcase. Taking lots of papers out from it, he painstakingly began reading them, so close to his glasses that he almost looked like he was kissing it.

“I can’t see any rule against duos here in the event description,” he pointed it out.

“Itxzcvh’s in the agjxwhency’s subsckckckription and idhhyol’s regjxhtchistration’s contrhkbtracts,” the attendant explained, and the old man took another eternity juggling papers, dropping them on the ground and asking the frustrated twins to grab them while he looked around his dusty suitcase for the correct form. When he found it, he read it for another half century or so before saying, “I can’t find anything like this here, missy!”

“Firshzxt paragjbvcwqraph,” the secretary calmly mentioned, and the old gaffer returned to the first line. After staring at it for another decade, he asked while handing it to one of the girls, “Sakura-San, please read the first paragraph to me.”

The beautiful twins exchanged annoyed looks. They were both the same height, around one meter and fifty six, brown eyes and had shining caramel hair, though one sported it in a long ponytail and the other in odango, a double bun of hair tied on the sides of her head from where pigtails emerged from. The one the man referred to as Sakura wore odangos, though it’s the ponytail one who, irritated, took the papers from his shaky hands and told him while reading it, “I’m Sakura! Man, you’re so clueless!… Hey! It’s written right in the first paragraph as the lady said! Only individual presentations unless specifically mentioned otherwise! Why didn’t you told that sooner to us, are you stupid or what?!”

“Please respect me, little lady!” her producer politely asked.

“Who’re you calling “little”? Me and Harumi are both taller than your dehydrated, shrunk body!” Sakura furiously replied, to which her producer retorted talking to himself, “Women these days! Back in my days they actually knew how to respect the elderly!”

“Back in your days women painted their teeth black to look beautiful!” Sakura raged, using as example a millennia-old old tradition that died out by the first two decades of the twentieth Century called ohaguro, in which it was considered elegant to die the teeth black to set women and sometimes men apart, generally if they were from aristocracies, on ceremonies or when women got married.

Aratani and Naoko exchanged discreet looks while the old producer and Sakura discussed, and the other idol remained silent. Eventually the man decided he’d not let Sakura participate in the audition and instead gave the place to her sister Harumi. The quiet girl had an acid expression when she ironically thanked him.

“Thanks a lot, that’s exactly what I signed for. Because I had absolutely not told you explicitly before that I’d be mortified to present myself alone when I questioned you if I’d have to! And you said I’d never have to! Because I clearly didn’t want to feel confident and be with Sakura!”

“Good! That’s what I like to hear!” the old man replied. Harumi, not descending into anger like Sakura but becoming razor sharp, contended him, “Someone doesn’t really understand the meaning of “irony” here. What about our choreography?! It’s made for two!”

“I have faith you’ll do just fine, Haruko-San!” her producer tried to cheer her up, to which the girl, sighing, corrected him, “It’s Harumi.”

As the two were about to leave and glanced back to Naoko, the girl and her producer stood sober and sad in respect for the twins. Sakura, still irritated, asked what they were looking for, but Harumi quickly asked the two for forgiveness. Naoko decided not to pick a fight and was merely sincere:

“No, I’m the one to be sorry here. Sorry for your circumstances. My condolences to you both. I feel your pain. Really do. I can’t even begin to comprehend your daily sufferings…”

Nodding, Harumi and Sakura thanked her for the kind words. The odango-haired one introduced themselves:

“I’m Mizushima Harumi and this one’s my twin sister Sakura. Pleased to meet you!”

“I’m Yano Naoko. Call me Naoko,” she did the same, “And this is my producer, Aratani Kouta. The pleasure’s mine!”

The girl with the ponytail, Sakura, quickly requested her while presenting excited eyes:

“Hey, Naoko-San? Don’t you want two girls on your team? Isn’t your agency looking for hardworking twins?! We can dance, sing, make coffee, anything! I know where you can find a duo if your producer wants!”

Abashed, Aratani explained while looking the old man getting away:

“Ha-ha, I’m thankful for the offer, though currently our agency is quite small and can’t really afford to produce more idols, though I’m sure there’re plenty of other agencies dying for a cute and talented duo.”

“Thank you, but if we can’t present ourselves on stage at the same time, what’s the point in having twins on the cast?” Harumi asked, to which Aratani hurriedly clarified with an increasingly concerned expression as he saw Sakura and Harumi’s producer walk away, “Though almost all competitions are made around individual presentations, there’s still lots of value for fans to cheer for twins. Also, single presentations are only an issue on ranked shows. Non-ranked ones are free of constricting rules, meaning both Mizushima-San can present themselves. You both can make an awesome career centered on non-ranked shows and only dwell in ranked ones for class promotions.”

“What’s a ranked show?” Harumi asked to Sakura, who retorted, “What’s a class?”

Not only Aratani, but Naoko as well got baffled. The twins had absolutely no idea about anything! Seeing their almost blind old producer stopping near a window of the thirtieth floor and knocking on it like a door, Naoko’s producer nervously instructed:

“Why don’t you girls have a look at the official Idol Star System Generation website? There’s a Frequently-Asked Questions section there and a phone number dedicated only to agencies and idols to ask questions! I hope you girls find what you’re loo… No, wait!”

Cutting the conversation short, Aratani desperately ran to grab the humpback old producer that forced his way through the glass while complaining that door was jammed before he unwarily threw himself out of the window. The twins looked helplessly in Naoko’s direction. Sakura urgently begged, “Please save us, Naoko-San!”

Harumi got directed by the gibberish-speaking secretary somewhere, and after that her was Naoko’s turn. According to Aratani, who apparently understood everything that secretary asked, she was questioned if she wanted to register a nickname to be used on stages. After thinking for a while, Naoko declined it and was sent to the same place Harumi was a few minutes before. It’s just a small place with a fitting room, a computer and a green background surrounded by reflectors and lightings. A photographer asked Naoko to get changed and then come back to take a photo for her Credited Intro. It was that image that announced the idol by showing here name, the symbol of her agency and her face over psychedelic backgrounds. She simply had to look to both directions while smiling and she was good to go.

In her black and red dress Naoko and her producer walked to a large double door. Before entering her producer handed her a thin, black tiara, to which the girl asked:

“What’s this for? My hair’s already black, no one will see this tiara if I wear it!”

“That’s the point,” Aratani stated while handing her a pair of black and red ribbons, “While your attire is top-notch, I felt something was missing, so I brought you this. Strap this on the tiara and you’ll have laces on your head without needing to wrap a tuft of hair and messing your haircut. Also, before we get in, I just want to tell you one thing.”

Getting the frilled tiara on her head, the girl listened closely.

“I already told you that you don’t have any pressure to win this, but I haven’t yet mentioned this: Naoko-Chan is capable of winning it. I haven’t even told you about the Devotion or the Memorability scores yet, but you don’t need to know those right now. Just do your very best and I’ll be proud no matter what the results are, okay? If you need me, I’ll be right by your side, just call me.”

The girl felt warmth envelop her as her producer coolly told her that and opened the auditorium doors immediately after. A catchy song, though sang in a nervous voice, reached their ears just as they entered a huge place with overlapping balconies, easily fit for seven hundred spectators or so. At the time, though, there were only about sixty people there. Roughly half of them were girls in colorful outfits and the other half, people in suits. With only one exception, all producers were men. Even though most suits were black and the others gray or brown, a few producers also stood out in the crowd. One wore a white suit and a big hat. Another was an absurdly muscular and tall man with a butch out hair precisely cut with one quarter of an inch around the entire circumference of her head full of pulsating veins. His big moustache and eyebrows made him quite the character. He barely fitted in the seat and surely attracted more attention than his diminutive idol.

The atmosphere in the auditorium was tense. Idols performed to three judges, two women and a man. They sat right in front of the big stage, bigger than Naoko’s school one. Even then, there were markings describing a four meters long by two in depth rectangle in its center, and idols were supposed to stay between those lines. According to Aratani, it’s because the restaurant in which they’re going to perform only had a tiny stage on it.

No one dared to speak there, It’s immersed in such a tense atmosphere, where each pair of idol and producer sat separated from the others, that Naoko began to feel butterflies on her stomach. The thought of having to perform to such a hostile audience gave her shivers. Aratani, noticing it, found them seats at the farthest corner of the auditorium and whispered her:

“I told you the auditions were the worst part. Naoko-Chan is getting nervous, right? Don’t be. Focus on any other thing.”

“What can I focus on?” she asked, to which her producer suggested, “I don’t know. Think about one of your stupid games, perhaps?”

“They’re not stupid!” Naoko insisted, “And I can’t! I feel like I’d lose my concentration! Like if I’m not here and now I’ll forget my dance steps or something!”

“You’ll only forget it if you get nervous,” Aratani argued, “But okay, let’s find something here and now to concentrate. Hm…” After some thought, he smiled, “Hey, can you see those two girls around here somewhere? They were before us on the line, but still aren’t here?”

Smiling too, Naoko drolly opined:

“I think Harumi-San and Sakura-San might be getting led astray somewhere. Poor girls.” Laughing, Naoko whispered back, “I thought only the idols were going to stand out here, but quite a few producers are just as showy! Look at that juggernaut over there!”

“Where? Oh. Wow!” Aratani immediately noticed the bulky behemoth, “And his idol’s so small! He’s the real show there! I wonder if her idol’s not afraid of him.”

“I’d be for sure!” Naoko agreed in whispers, “Seems the kind of guy who arrives at his office and says to his idol…” she whispered in the lowest pitch she was able to, “Good morning! Let’s get to your schedule for today… but before that, I’LL HOLD YOU BY YOUR WRISTS AND ANKLES AND USE YOU AS WEIGHT TO DO FIFTY BENCH PRESSES! Wrrruaaahhhh!”

Naoko impersonated a frowning man lifting weight. The two broke in laughter and had somehow to keep it low. Aratani got dragged into the joke in a voice as low as possible:

“Can you imagine how was their first day together? ‘So this is an idol agency and we’ll get you into classes so you train all the important things you’ll need to become a successful idol. Things like arm wrestling! Weight lifting! Calisthenics! And my special secrets to get a pair of treasures like these two bad boys here!” Aratani made a ridiculous impression of a person kissing his own bulged biceps, getting Naoko almost to laugh too loudly. Covering her mouth she controlled herself and mocked:

“While every girl practices by dancing and singing, his idol is obligated to accompany him on a forced forty kilometer march and meditate under a waterfall!”

“And while you have body language classes, she has body building ones!” Aratani added insult to injury, and Naoko made it even worse, “And while I’m sleeping at 4 a.m. his poor idol is drinking four raw eggs and being put to do pushups and punch sandbags while he screams on her ears “That’s how I like it! Punch it harder! Like a cruel angel, girl! Become a legend!”

The two laughed together for almost half an hour while idols presented themselves, most of them nervously so. At some point the twins arrived at the auditorium with their clueless, senile producer and Naoko waived to call them. Harumi wasn’t even wearing a special outfit, but just the same plain clothes she used when she was on the line. The two joined them and while the old man slept snoring in his seat, Harumi, Sakura, Naoko and Aratani continued to make fun of that behemoth of a man and other strange producers and idols around. Aratani was skeptical to let the twins know they were making jokes of other people, but Naoko open-heartedly invited them to notice a few of the most bizarre characters in that place and in less than a minute the sisters were also contributing to the mockery. Sparing no one, not even the judges, the four laughed for almost another thirty minutes until it was Harumi’s turn.

Her choreography was clearly intended for a paired dance, and the girl got so terrified that she ultimately did poorly. It scared Naoko a bit, but she had so much fun on the last hour that when she was called to the stage she still couldn’t stop grinning as she passed by lots of people they had secretly joked about. The uneasy expressions of the audience in general only made it funnier, and she couldn’t even take the judges seriously. It was a saving grace just like when her imagination started tossing skirt-clad turtles on top of her future dancing instructor during her tests. At that time Naoko didn’t know that woman was such a nice person, all she could see was her serious face, and the fun she made of her helped the girl to chill.

Contrary to what she was expecting, her audition was very uneventful and only stayed on her mind because it’s her first time presenting herself in front of judges. The only song she was expected to sing was cheerful like all the other three and her mind was at peace, having a blast, and that was all that mattered. When she finally understood she was really being evaluated and her anxiety began to well-up, the song was over, her simple choreography done impeccably and her voice only slightly off due to so much laughter. She wasn’t nowhere near the most technical idol there, but her scores were high nevertheless.

When the audition was over the judges presented everyone their averaged final scores on a big screen. Naoko got eighty six points on Singing, getting her tied on the second position, and seventy seven on Dancing, securing her an also incredible second place. Her Aesthetics got her fourth place, and while Devotion was not really good, only eleventh position, the girl ranked third in Memorability. Overall, she managed to narrowly nab the fifth place between thirty one idols. Though Naoko was unimpressed, her producer was exhilarated.

“Produ-San, why are you so happy? I mean, I am too! But I ranked fifth, not first.” she pointed out, “To be content is one thing, but you look like about to have a heart attack.”

“Naoko-Chan! That was amazing!” he evaluated, “Can’t you see? Second in Singing, third in Memorability even though I hadn’t explained you this category yet and second in Dancing! Second! And you only had two weeks to train! Second, see?! That’s the part you got the most trouble in your tests at the beginning! I was so unsure at the time I gave you a clear sixty by then, meaning if your instructor had given you even a point less you’d be out! But I see she was right in having faith in your talents, for she gave you four points more than I did.”

“What?!” Naoko replied, baffled, “I thought she’s way stricter than you! You dirty…”

“Back to the subject!” Aratani insisted ardently, “Your fourth place in Aesthetics can be corrected with the use of more accessories and a choice of attire that’s more in line with your happy personality and song. I told you: one of its subcategories is Composition, where they evaluate if your clothes match with your acting, lyric and so on. And you’re wearing a black and red dress and miniskirt, black gloves and gothic-like platform boots, but you’re so radiant and your song and dance, cheery. It probably hurt your Composition score. Even so you got fourth in the most disputed category! As for Devotion, I should’ve told you sooner what it means. You made no poses, no appeals, didn’t look too much to the judges and so on, meaning you kind of forgot your audience. It’s the reason why you got eleventh place in it! If I had only foreseen this and was a little bit more careful with your outfit, Naoko-Chan could’ve easily nailed second or third place with just two weeks of practice! That’s insane! Most girls here got months of training! Sure, most don’t have the renowned instructors you do either, but still! What’s not to be happy about fifth place under all these circumstances?! Naoko-Chan was awesome there!”

Naoko felt a surge of happiness. Blushing, the girl humbly said:

“That was only because Produ-San helped me stay calm and have fun, while other girls looked so afraid on the stage they were unable to show what they’re truly capable of, I suppose. Thank you for helping me, Produ-San!”

“All I did was making sure Naoko-Chan would be herself on the stage, Naoko-Chan did the rest,” he coolly insisted with a smile, “It’s your merit, diamond girl, no need to be modest about it.”

So happy she suddenly became, Naoko took a few seconds to notice Sakura wasn’t by her side anymore. She sat a few seats away, hugging her desolated sister Harumi, who’d finished in the twenty-third position. Meanwhile their senile producer continued to snore. Glancing back to Aratani, Naoko inquired him with her eyes while asking:

“Produ-San? Do you think we can do something for them?”

The man, sighing, stood up. Keeping his cool, he signaled Naoko to follow him and walked in the direction of the two. As his tall figure overshadowed them, the twins snapped out from their sobbing talks, looking surprised.

“Sorry to barge in, but I need to ask you girls a question: what exactly you both were taught about the idol business? Do you girls know what subcategories compose the Aesthetics score? Or do you even have a stage outfit to wear on auditions and gigs to begin with?”

Seeing the two looked helplessly lost, Aratani said while taking a business card from his pocket:

“I imagined as much. Here, take this. Ask your producer to call me. If he refuses, call me yourselves. I can’t currently produce other idols and I wouldn’t “steal” girls away from other agencies even if I could, but I can help you girls understand the whole business and give you directions. The Idol Star System and how it works, the classes, the categories, how can you both amass fans and get on non-ranked shows, what’s a non-ranked show to begin with, these kinds of things. If you girls were chosen in a test following I.S.S.G.’s parameters, I believe you have potential. Don’t feel bad for your results, Mizushima-San. Once you and your sister understand how things work and prepare accordingly, I’m sure you two will be very successful. Drop me a line if you girls need any help… or, more likely, if your producer needs any help, and I’ll see what I can do, okay?”

Sweeping away her tears, Harumi took Aratani’s black card with the diamond symbol of the agency on it with both hands and, after looking at it along with her sister as if trying to memorize all its information, she questioned with a trembling voice:

“D-do Aratani-San r-really mean it? That he thinks… w-we can be successful? Even after seeing m-me… perform so horribly?”

Trading looks with Naoko, Aratani declared:

“Definitely. For a girl who basically has no knowledge on what composes the scores or how anything works here, who has no stage outfit, whose choreography was made for two and who apparently told her producer beforehand she was afraid to ever performing without being accompanied by her sister, to still rank above seven other girls who probably trained and were aware of the rules, had stage outfits and weren’t kicked in shock into a stage is really something. And to be fair, twins are really appreciated by fans, with the right promotions and correct management I can see you two having a nice career. Really. Only thing is that your producer will need help. To not even know the I.S.S.G. is made with individual presentations in sight is… worrying, since all producers are required to attend to a preparatory course and get evaluated in a test before being awarded the title by the corporation.”

“Is it true?!” Sakura asked, “Harumi, how do you think Ikeda-San got through the test if he’s even unable to read? Do you think he cheated?”

“Or maybe he did it when he was young, nine hundred years back!” Harumi guessed.

“Or maybe it was Hamasaki-San!” Sakura assumed. Turning to Aratani and Naoko, she explained, “Ikeda Hiro is the owner of the agency since it started operating about a month ago, but he had a young producer with him, Hamasaki-San. He was the one who evaluated us and such! But Hamasaki-San left only three weeks after getting employed. Right, Harumi?”

“I think Ikeda-San said something about Hamasaki-San being unable to keep working anymore,” Harumi said, “Something about antidepressants overdose.”

“Oh, yeah, right!” Sakura recalled, “The coma thing! Hey, remember that time Hamasaki-San started screaming after talking to Ikeda-San, drank lots of his pills along with rice wine and threatened to burn the office down?! That was the coolest day ever! I miss Hamasaki-San…”

Harumi got up and bowed deeply to the shocked duo that silently overheard the twins.

“Thank you very much, Aratani-San! Naoko-San!” Harumi said, and Sakura, bowing too, added, “Thanks a ton! So we can really call you guys for help, right?!”

“Ah… yes,” Aratani, taken aback, confirmed, “Though the more I hear about it, the more I ask myself if I’d be able to help you girls on the situation you’re both in. But yes, call me and I’ll, uh… see what I can do for you two.”

Leaving the twins, Naoko was happy for ranking among the top five and happier that her producer was such a cool and nice guy to offer to help the poor girls. By the door they met a slender producer in a white suit uselessly demanding his ten thousand Yen entry fee back since his idol had lost. Naoko didn’t even have time to mention the apparently expensive entry fee when they saw a new batch of idols and producers coming, one of which wore a zebra-patterned suit and another sported a flamboyant, huge black hat and shades indoors. Each auditorium had about eight auditions per day, Aratani explained, and then a show, so the foot traffic was intense there. Naoko’s problem wasn’t with the amount of people coming and going, but rather the characters she saw there. It’s more of a circus than a company! Not that she complained, though. It’s far livelier this way than it’d be if there were just a bunch of boring people in plain suits.

Aratani left Naoko on her singing class and left to his office, only coming back to take her to the restaurant. At that time her producer wore a different suit, still black but decorated with red and orange details on its left arm and shoulder resembling a stylized fiery decal. His shirt was not white anymore, but a wine red and his tie was a lustrous black. Wearing reapplied cologne, a silver watch and a pair of tiny, stud-like diamond earrings affixed by pressure, the tall young man looked mesmeric. As soon as Naoko saw him, she joked:

“What are you doing, stealing the attention like that?! I need no competition here! Go back and only return when I’m the prettiest one around!”

Grinning, her producer coolly reassured her in the same vein:

“For a girl as direct as you, Naoko-Chan sure goes to great lengths to tell a roundabout compliment. Though you’ve nothing to fear, not even New Year’s fireworks would take away the eyes of others from a lady like you.”

He stared deeply into her eyes without faltering and Naoko sustained it for as long as she could with a serious face. Blushing heavily and ultimately being the one to deviate the sight first, the girl burst in laughs and queried while hiding her cheeks with her hands:

“Damn you, Produ-San! How can you say such things without even batting an eye?!”

“Because I know I don’t need to, generally after I say things like that you bat my eyes for me,” he mocked, “See? Naoko-Chan can learn with me how to take compliments without uppercutting someone to Mars.”

“Or I can uppercut you to Mars until you learn not to make me blush with your cool-cool boy replies!” the girl reacted, to which the man snapped, “Suit yourself. Just take care not to hit my suit, will you? Fine fabric and all. It’s hard to find a laundry with people that know how to clean it.”

“Aaaand yet another cool reply. Thank you for choosing Naoko’s space line, I’ll book your flight for when you’re not wearing your fine fabric suit,” Naoko responded sarcastically, “No, seriously, what’s with the fancy outfit? Got jealous of that guy wearing a zebra-pattern suit, Produ-San?”

Laughing, Aratani conducted Naoko to his car while saying:

“Nah, mine’s better. Truthfully, though, many producers have special attires for presenting themselves in press conferences or while their idols are performing. We’re on a show business and we’re all part of the show. A few go beyond what’s reasonable, as if they really tried to shine brighter than their own idols. Vanity runs rampant in this line of work. But humbleness is no excuse, either. Most producers back in the audition weren’t wearing anything too fancy simply because they weren’t going to be mingling with fans, but rest assured quite a bit of them have alternate costumes. When trying to create an otherworldly experience to fans and causing the suspension of belief, one of the most important elements in the idol industry, every detail counts.” Opening the door to Naoko and going around to get inside, he added:

“Not to mention I was craving for an opportunity to wear it. Thought it’d take longer, so I was reticent at investing on it right from the moment I started the agency. Thankfully I listened to the wise words of a professor I had at university. Criminal Code chair, pretty boring stuff despite the fact that many people enjoyed the subject. The best thing he taught me was that a good suit is the single most important investment a good lawyer makes. Second one is a solid education. I think he was wrong, though.” After a brief pause to concentrate on a traffic intense cross, the man resumed, “A good suit is the single most important investment any person makes.”

“Meaning we pay lawyers first and foremost to look good, and only then to help us with our problems? Great.” Naoko sarcastically countered. Aratani disagreed in a drolly way:

“Nope. People choose them based on the confidence they transmit and expect them to solve their problems. A good suit just means you give a better impression and will have clients. After that, it’s up to you to live up to the expectations. It’s like this everywhere, really: try to get on stage wearing baggy pants, straw hat, socks and a horrible sweater and look what happens even if your singing and dancing skills were the best in the universe.”

“I get it makes a difference for idols, and a few other professions,” Naoko granted, “Yet having a solid education still seems more important for a lawyer, in my opinion.”

“As long as you have clients, yes, but you won’t get any without looking reliable no matter how good you really are. And since you need clients to survive, it’s kind of mandatory to look sharp, unfortunately. Or not, depending on how you look at it. I, for one, don’t complain to wear a good suit. It’s better than a sweater and straw hat.” Changing the subject, Aratani told her:

“Naoko-Chan, I just remembered: while I was preparing the fan club web page for the photos and maybe videos I’ll be uploading, I noticed something very strange: your fan counter went up by another one hundred or so and is still increasing. Mostly decent-looking people in suits. They’re salarymen and office ladies, I presume. I’m curious: were you involved in any other absurd argument, this time with a salaryman or something, that I need to know?”

Confused, Naoko denied it, and the two lost about twenty minutes debating from where those fans could have come from. Maybe from one of the companies they worked for, though it’s impossible to tell. Getting nowhere, Aratani simply dropped the subject:

“Alright, Naoko-Chan, as long as there is nothing bad going on, it’s fine, I suppose. Also, we’ve more pressing matters to talk about. Here are a few points about your presentation.”

 

With small and well-trimmed bushes decorating its frontage covered in wood-pattern paint and large windows, the restaurant was impressive. Its internal décor, full of black light luminaires, mirrors and abstract paintings, was as fancy as its menu. It presented a half-circular stage with two meters in radius and, near the kitchen, a communal dressing room with two smaller fitting rooms.

The big problem Naoko assumed she’d have were the four other girls there, who spoke to no one. The small room was silent as a tomb. When she greeted the others as she arrived, almost in time for the show due to her Singing classes, the other four pretended not to hear her, immediately infuriating Naoko. The girl greeted even louder, almost shouting on the ear of one of the four, and only then they unwillingly answered, in disdainful tones. They really acted like snobs. Probably because of petty rivalries and because Naoko was ranked the lowest in the audition. She began to wonder if it’d be any different if she was the first.

The reason why it wasn’t the biggest problem was that Naoko had only ten minutes to change and was off to the show. Being ranked fifth place, she was the first one to present herself, so she had barely no time to feel the horrible atmosphere. On the other hand, since the room was close to the kitchen Naoko was tortured by delicious smells that made her stomach growl.

As she was called by her producer, Naoko left the dressing room and took a deep breath. She couldn’t quite tell if her tummy hurt because of anxiousness or hunger, but it wasn’t pleasant so the girl recalled all she had learned so far: relaxation techniques, body postures to inspire courage, a focus on her desire to feel the positive vibes of the audience and a few of the jokes they had made during the audition to help her chill. As she stepped on the stage, all lights were turned to her, making it hard to see the crowd, but even so there were innumerous silhouettes she could more or less recognize. So many people sitting by their tables but not a single talk. The only sounds were that of a few western-style cutlery against the tableware. Despite being relatively calm, anxiousness started to boil inside her.

Not waiting around for it to worsen, Naoko quickly took a hold of the microphone and stood in the center of the stage, while a soundtrack began to play. Behind her she could feel the reddish light of a screen turn up, and she took a quick glance out of curiosity, only to find her name, her eyes and the diamond-shaped symbol of her agency, The Paragon Idol, presented on a red horizontal strip over a black and pink background. Like Aratani told her to do, Naoko immediately put a large smile and, trying to feel joy even though her fears partially prevented it, she introduced herself as vibrantly as she could:

“Good night everyone! I’m Yano Naoko! I’m so happy to be here tonight with you all! Please support me and enjoy the show!”

Those lines felt incredibly fake to her coming from loud speakers all around, though hopefully no one would’ve noticed. It was so strange to hear her voice getting thrown back at her! Her mind began to sabotage her asking why was nobody replying to her greeting, and the girl had to answer herself that people were eating and listening to a show, it’d be doubly rude for them to break the silence. With her eyes still trying to get used to the spotlights, Naoko began singing, though for a horrible second she forgot the first movement. After she recalled it, though, the dance flowed with ease.

Taking care not to fall from the small stage and performing her dance accordingly, the first few minutes were tense, though merely singing gradually soothed her mind. When the second song began playing Naoko’s eyes were habituated enough to the dazzling lights that bathed her that she started to make out the physiognomies of the spectators. Since she just looked in their general direction but not really to them, they still looked like faceless masses, but since a few heads were slightly swaying to and fro as if enjoying the beat and the singing, she began to feel at ease. By the end of the second song she also found Aratani walking around the corners while snapping photos and capturing videos, giving her some security to know he was there.

When the third song started Naoko finally noticed she was still alive. No knives were thrown at her. No tomatoes or boos. It could’ve been an idiotic discovery, but made all the difference. From that point on Naoko relaxed and started to enjoy her presentation. When she moved due to her choreography, each spotlight created a luminous phantom line on her eyes that scrambled her senses. Her voice outside of her was almost surreal. It’s like an out of the body experience. For a moment she felt herself dancing automatically, as if her arms and legs moved independently of her will. Her voice vibrated on her throat and sent tingling sensations down, while the volume and weight of her attire as she moved sent mixed signals up.

When the third song was over the silence of a few moments until the final, upbeat melody began playing annoyed her. She jumped at the task of singing the last song of the show already feeling a little sad it had to end so soon. Three minutes passed like three seconds as the vague image of everyone silently watching her made her thrilled like few times in her life. The song was over and was followed by a round of applauses was one she wanted to last forever. She only regretted not being able to enjoy the show sooner.

“Thank you! Thanks, everybody!” Naoko concluded it while bowing. Standing up and amply waving her free hand, she added “I’m Yano Naoko, please look up for me. Bye-bye!”

Handing the mic to the next girl with the same disdain she was received in the dressing room, without so much as looking to her face, Naoko left exultantly. As she returned to the fitting room to change her clothes back the place was still as silent as a graveyard. Only this time, Naoko was so radiant it felt different somehow. Instead of feeling scorn from the others, all she could feel was anxiety in the air. They were greenhorns like her, too, after all. Nevertheless they acted like aloof snobs.

While she changed back something occurred to her as she faintly listened to the song of the girl who sang only passably at that moment: even though she’d been ranked fifth in the overall results, Naoko was chosen the second best dancer and songstress! Also her third place in Memorability and fourth in Aesthetics despite the costume incongruences with her songs and personality were nothing to be ashamed of, either. She’s in fact one of the best among the five, and with only two weeks of training! Of course, the other girls appeared to have no control over their anxieties and performed worse than they probably could, but still. Self-confidence was part of the show, too. Those girls were very attractive and appeared talented, but somehow Naoko managed to be among the best! That actually surprised her more than it probably would’ve surprised any other person who watched her perform.

Only then fully comprehending what Aratani told her in his overjoyed moment after the audition, Naoko felt beaming brighter than any light. Changing and going away, she wished the three tense idols in the dressing room good luck, not caring in the slightest if they’d respond or not, and left smiling. Discreetly getting away with her producer, Naoko waited until she was in the car to let loose a stream of highly excited gabble, hard to understand due to how fast the girl spoke. Her frenetic talk was mixed with ample and rapid gesticulations, pointing to her own nose and hiding her cheeks and crossing the index fingers to create an “X” like symbol and punching the air and making a “V” with the index and the middle fingers and so on. Aratani merely stood listening and driving in silence while the cheery and agitated girl bombarded him with her impressions and thoughts, and about how happy she was.

The thrill of presenting herself was addicting. So much Naoko didn’t even remember to ask how much they’ve received from that gig, but nevertheless questioned if they were going to register on a new event the next weekend, to which her producer agreed, though saying:

“If you’re feeling so confident and liked it so much, sure, we can do it, though let me just remind you that my rush to land us a contract this week actually got us already a few next one, and some others are still in the horizon. And since right now most shows are small, it’s not only a risk but also one that pays somewhat less than our contracts. Sure, it gets you some stage visibility, helps me feed your fan page and, most of all, gets you show points, which I’ll explain later but are required for class promotions, and experience on the real deal, so I’m more than willing to let you shine in exhibitions. However, if the schedule for your classes, modeling activities and shows get too tight, I might be required to ask Naoko-Chan for a chunk of her Saturday, a thing I’m currently trying to avoid. Is this acceptable?”

The girl paused. Her Saturdays with Rin were among the highlights of her week, and as such she explained it to Aratani.

“But if there’s no other way, maybe I can explain it to Rin-Chan. I’m sure she’ll understand.” Naoko hesitantly presented a counterpoint to her own argument, though her producer opted to suggest as an alternative, “What if instead you invite your friend to watch your show? We can arrange one with an audition on Saturday, and then you two go meet and have fun. If you’re selected for the gig, I pick you and your friend at your place later and drive you two to the show. We can more than afford one hundred tickets with the amount we’re paid, buying one for her is no problem. And if you do not qualify, you get to stay at home being consoled! Sounds like a plan?”

“Except for the part of me not qualifying, it does!” Naoko confidently replied, still pumped by the exhibition’s adrenaline and getting excited about the idea of taking Rin to a show.

“Okay, it’s settled, then.” Aratani agreed, “Just take a hint and keep your invitation to your friend as low-profile as possible. You don’t want other girls you know to get jealous about it, and they will if the discover. Trust me. Either this or we’ll have to take a whole battalion every time, and while we are paid a decent amount per show, currently it’s best not to have to treat too many people to it. Meanwhile I’ll find you a gig for Saturday next time.”

Nodding about the invitation secrecy, Naoko enquired:

“Is Produ-San positive we can find a show on Saturdays?”

“Not only we can, but it’s also easier to find it. Though Fridays nights and Saturdays are prime time for high class idol shows, there are quite a few for the lower classes too. Many clubs, restaurants, parties and such make use of Saturdays to request gigs. I avoid it whenever possible so you can do your homework and dedicate yourself to school activities, but it’s the best day of the week for shows. Sunday comes in second, Friday in third. Monday’s the worst day of the week for shows if you’re wondering. Then again, Monday is the worst day of the week, period.”

While he drove, her producer let Naoko see the photos and watch the videos of her presentation that Aratani would be uploading to the fan club website once he got back to the office. The girl, taking his cellphone to see it, asked in surprise:

“Produ-San is going back to the agency again? It’s already almost nine p.m.! Don’t you sleep or anything? Why don’t you upload it tomorrow, or from your home?”

Looking lost for a moment, the man evaded the question:

“It won’t take more than a few minutes. And it’s on my way home, I can say that. Don’t worry about it.” Glancing to the bothered girl, he insisted, “I said no worries. I won’t work myself to death, so stop looking at me like this and turn your puppy eyes to the cellphone already. It was a solid presentation, especially the last two songs. Too bad the image quality is only average at best. I’ll buy a professional camera first thing tomorrow.”

Though a little bit concerned for her producer for a while, eventually Naoko was sucked back to the enthralling experience of her first show. It was strange to see it from another perspective, but it looked surprisingly better than she thought it would. Being a rookie, she imagined her inexperience would’ve been more obvious, but no, she was dumbfounded to discover she actually looked idol-ish. Nowhere near as good as Umeko, granted, but not as shabby as her imagination made her to be. It didn’t look like she was nervous on her first song, maybe just not as pumped as she got on the second half of her twelve minute performance. In fact, what detracted the most from the experience was not her fault: the photos and especially the videos her producer made had a somewhat amateurish feel to the framing, with small unintended shaking effects and such, but it’s not a big deal either.

“The image quality is not as big of an issue as the poor cameraman suffering from Parkinson’s disease!” Naoko commented in a tongue-in-cheek way. Her vexed producer faced her for a moment, but was unable to maintain the serious mien and laughed it out.

“Now that you mentioned it, I might also have to invest in a medical check-up and some photography classes for myself. Either this or find a Parkinson’s disease-free freelancer.”

Despite her witty remark, Naoko was amazed by what she and her producer were able to achieve. After the adrenaline rush receded the girl was left physically and mentally exhausted, but as content as she knew to be possible. Thanking him a lot for the day when she was left by her dorm, Naoko wobblingly made her way to the elevator, noticing only one person in the courtyard: the janitor, appreciating the hazy moonlight among his beloved plants.

There were many messages for her like usual, but while most were not worth the effort to answer, a few got enough of Naoko’s attention to warrant an answer. Her childhood friend Masahiro had been texting her every night since the previous week, and while it’s never about interesting or important things, it’s nice that he wished her a good morning and a good evening every day. Naoko wasn’t always in the mood to respond, but usually she did so. That time, though, she felt the urge to tell him about her first show.

So tired she was, Naoko didn’t detail it as much as she would otherwise, or if she hadn’t already discharged all she had to say on her producer, but it was enough to make a small conversation. Or rather, a monologue, since Masahiro was the listener type. Still gloomy, but interested in hearing her, he promised to look for the videos and photos on her fan club page. Even more, he told her he’d subscribe there to help however he could.

When her friend Rin subscribed Naoko felt a little off, though at the time she couldn’t quite tell why. When Masahiro told her that, though, it got clear to Naoko something was amiss and the reason for it: he was the first friend she had in her life. The guy who was always by her side in her hometown, and a rare person she knew she could blindly trust. For such a longtime friend to become merely a fan made Naoko feel empty. Of course, he wouldn’t really be a fan, he’s only going to subscribe on her fan club to help her get a bigger number of people there. Still, it bugged her to the point where she asked him not to. Not out of humbleness, but really meaning it. Masahiro knew her too well to understand she wasn’t just being polite, but he did so anyway.

The girl felt a small void inside her for the next twenty minutes and kept texting him without even knowing why. Maybe just to make sure he hadn’t changed. Eventually, though, it got clear he’s still the same guy she always knew: quiet, respectful, a little fun at times, a little gloomy at others, but always there for her. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Only then relaxing, she bid him good night and went prepare her lunchbox and all she needed for the next morning. Though she hadn’t said anything to Aratani while he playfully bashed Mondays, it’s one of her favorite days of the week. It’s just so full of new opportunities!

Chapter VIII – The Eyes Have It

 

Smiling radiantly to him, the sun greeted Katsuro happily with a divine feminine voice:

“Good morning, Katsuro-Kun! Have a wonderful day!”

The boy, while walking down a beautiful boulevard around sky-high buildings and with the pavement painted pink by the many cherry blossom petals of the many sakura, or cherry, trees in full-bloom, energetically greeted the sun back with utmost respect:

“Oh, good morning, Sun-Sama! Let’s do our best on this marvelous day, shall we?!”

Walking down that fabulous street, from where he could see deep blue skies and the sparkling, snowy summit of the imposing and gorgeous Mt. Fuji, Katsuro was soon greeted by a lovely cat that leisurely walked by:

“Wonderful morning to you, Katsuro-San!”

“A wonderful morning to you too, Kitty-San!” Breathing deeply the fresh Spring air, the smiling boy opened his arms and commented, “What an absurdly lovely morning! Absolutely nothing can go wrong in such an outstanding daAAAAAAAAH!! THE HECK IS THIS?!” he shouted as the earth shook violently and the breeze became a strong wind that turned purple with malevolence.

With a thundering oomph, molten rocks suddenly erupted from the top of Mount Fuji, ascending well over twenty miles before raining down over the city like meteors in a devastating salvo. Flaming rocks pierced buildings, sending the smoldering ruins crashing down among explosions and cascades of debris. Thick, dark puffs of fumes arose from the exposed volcanic caldera, gaining the upper atmosphere and spreading dark clouds as far as the horizon.

“No! Protect yourself, Katsuro!” the worried feminine-voiced sun advised the boy before being eclipsed by tempestuous clouds, pervaded by purple lightning. The towering, pitch-black pillar of smoke rising from the colossal mountain began to unnaturally fork itself. It became two, then four, and finally eight columns, each one having more than a kilometer in diameter. United by its base, the eight subdivisions appeared to sustain the tormenting clouds like branches supporting the massive canopy of a titanic, evil tree. The thick fumes that formed the pillars gradually got more and more dense, to the point where it didn’t resemble smoke anymore, but black rocks that somehow kept moving. Suddenly, the eight segments began to contort and twist in a way normal volcanic lumps of debris would never do. The way it started to move closely resembled a bunch of snakes.

And, true to it, the branches tops slowly descended from the thundering clouds. Each one sported a pair of raging, inferno-red sharp eyes on its serpentine heads. The forked pillars had become an eight-headed viper, twenty or more kilometer tall, made of coal, black stones and dark, glassy shards that gave it a slightly crimson hue due to reflecting the burning Aokigahara jungle by the mountain foothills and the fires that ravaged the capital. The monstrous snakes opened its mouths all at once, exhibiting pairs of shadowy fangs easily the size of some of the highest buildings of the world and lighting the terrifying skies with an infernal red clarity that came from inside their throats.

The eight-headed abomination didn’t appear capable of moving away from the volcano on its base, but towering over the city with the range of its necks reaching the high atmosphere and capable of sending earth shockwaves and hurricanes by merely twitching, the demonic creature looked easily capable of reducing Tokyo to dust at its whims and covering the entire planet in a dark blanket of poisonous, ice-age inducing miasma.

From the mantle of dusky clouds, a myriad of hellish creatures began falling, some winged and some not, a few resembling humanoids while others as grotesque as a pile of tentacles and eyes, the majority of which the size of a person or a car but a few as big as a cargo airplane. As they flew over the desperate crowds or fell over them, the monsters started spitting fire and slashing their way through the people.

“Ah!” the population screamed as they ran past him, “Is there no teenager, high-school boy about the same age, height and physical appearance of Katsuro who could save us?!”

“I wish there was! Unfortunately that can’t be me because I’m just a regular boy with no power to overcome such a threat!” Katsuro replied in an overly specific way while standing still, “I have absolutely no chance against that monster and as such I’m going to stand here, right beneath that immense building that’s obviously not going to fall over me, while I dramatically introduce the main character to the manga readers showing I’m just an average guy concerned with the well-being of others but powerless to stand against the dramatic threat that menaces the world!”

Meanwhile, in a huge, open stadium on the other side of the city, the one hundred thousand or so spectators stopped cheering for the dazzling top idol who performed the show as they saw the skies turn black, quakes hit the surroundings and monstrosities fall down from the twisted torment. Naoko interrupted her world-class presentation and looked up in disbelief as the…

Now that Katsuro thought about it, he didn’t know if there were idol shows at morning. Thinking about it for a second, he decided it’s best if his story began at night. So he scratched the part of the sun greeting him, changed it to the divine female voice of the moon and resumed it.

…as the darkening skies became scary and…

But thinking about it, the sky turning pitch-black wouldn’t be as impacting during night as it would in the day. So he decided it’s best to maintain the morning setting, the sun greeting him at the beginning and simply imagining there were idol shows at morning. He wasn’t sure, but there probably were. And, in any case, he was the one inventing the story, so he could do whatever he wanted. And since in his plot Naoko was an international celebrity, he just pretended her fans sought after her so much she had her schedule full from morning till evening with shows. Yes, that’d be convincing enough! Back to the narrative, then.

…as the darkening skies became scary and flaming rocks started to fall. On Naoko’s earphones a male voice called her in a hurry, once again using the tremendously respectful “Sama” suffix:

“Yano-Sama! Here’s the Prime Minister! We need your help!”

“What’s the situation, Prime Minister-San?” the girl, not really appearing concerned, but still worried for the safety of others, asked.

“The army confirmed Yamata no Orochi has surfaced! Its current location is Mt. Fuji, but there’s no telling for how long it will be there! Also its appearance is opening increasingly big dimensional rifts from which not yet documented evil Youkai are assuming physical forms and invading our world! It will tear the fabric of the universe apart if Orochi is not stopped!”

“I’m on it!” Naoko excitedly announced, but the Prime Minister prevented her:

“No, wait Yano-Sama! I know your special, Youkai-hunter secret powers are capable of destroying Orochi like your ancestors did in previous incarnations every time it appears, every one thousand years, but to do so you need to find a special boy that for some random reason is able to summon the energy of Chi slash Chakra slash Prana slash Power of Protagonism slash whatever mysterious power that everyone has but also for whatever reason no one is able to manifest! The boy probably knows nothing of how special and awesome and heroic he is or that he can unite the will of humanity in inexplicable ways that we’ll try to explain anyway when the manga series drags several chapters behind the anime and we need to create twenty filler episodes! Until then, just trust in the oddly specific specialists we have in a secret department of our Government and find that boy! We’ve been following him since the beginning of his life, and we’ll send you his coordinates! I’m sorry for taking about two minutes to explain all of this in the middle of a dire circumstance when it should’ve been better if we had told you it all during training, but please find this Fukuda Katsuro boy, our only hope despite the fact that you’ll be the one doing almost all the work! Your mission is to not let Yamata no Orochi destroy the planet!”

Waiting patiently with crossed arms, Naoko finally asked:

“Can I be on it now?” The Prime Minister replied simply, “Yes.”

“I’m on it!” Naoko excitedly announced. Throwing her small, black microphone into the air, she yelled, “Transform!”

The stadium and its panicking audience got substituted by a psychedelic, seizure-inducing flashing background as the girl’s idol clothes, full of frills and laces, shone bright. They disappeared in an instant, leaving behind only white sparkles with an uncanny capacity to be at the exact position to obstruct the view from her intimate parts. Her tossed microphone conflagrate itself and expanded amidst blue flames. Wires, gears, a trigger and four pairs of parallel magnetic rails extended from its tiny insides. Four long tubes with one palm of caliber each appeared out of nowhere and encompassed the rails. When the flames extinguished, the mic had become a two meters long, four-barreled cannon. With a black luster and full of useless external blue lights and wires that people would simply pretend had some real use in the mechanism of the gargantuan weapon, it was an awesome apparel to look at.

As the cannon fell back to Naoko’s right hand, black, semiliquid filaments extended from it. Sliding through her body, it quickly solidified into boots, gloves, a tiny jacket with high collar and skinny wears that were clearly not inspired by bikinis despite looking almost like one, only with small extra details. It’s a very serious battle suit, and while it left about eighty percent of her body exposed, it supposedly offered extreme protection like any high-tech armor would, while resorting to the well-beaten and eye-rolling excuse that its lack of unnecessary weight granted the scantily clad girl high mobility. Because high-tech magic.

Holding with one hand the cannon, that would almost certainly weight at least three hundred kilograms, like it was a chopstick, the girl, out of the psychedelic background and back to the stadium, saw many meteors falling in the direction of the crowd. Actually, with a velocity of almost three thousand miles per hour, they should’ve already hit the ground way before, but since the Prime Minister was talking in an intermission during the last three minutes and time was apparently frozen during her transformation, the rocks were still falling. Naoko raised the cannon and opened fire.

Bluish, comet-like shots of energy the size of a big watermelon burst out of the four barrels in high frequency, almost ten projectiles per second. Shooting with improbable precision, the girl mowed the car-sized molten rocks while still in the air, reducing them to countless fragments. The audience applauded her feverously.

“We love you!” a fan shouted passionately, “Thanks for reducing twelve or so car-sized rocks that’d probably kill ten people each in thousands of small, flaming fragments the size of a fist that’ll most certainly spread over a wide area and take away hundreds, if not thousands of lives! You’re the best, Naoko-San!”

“You’re welcome!” the girl happily shouted before departing hastily, not seeing when a rock hit that happy fan on his head.

While all that happened, Katsuro was still standing in the middle of the boulevard street. Man-eating humanoids carrying scythes attached to their arms attacked people all around with lightning-fast, preemptive strikes without even blinking, but for whatever reason seven or so surrounded him, slowly and dramatically crawling their way to what, for all the monster knew and cared, was just another regular human. The boy worriedly looked around, asking himself if that’s how it’s going to end. Then…

Though, as Katsuro thought about it, his imaginary persona wouldn’t look too heroic if he asked such things. It’d be better if someone else did that.

Okay, so instead of it, he’d saved a small girl somewhere, somehow, and she asked that while hugging to his leg. The boy, facing the evil creatures that prepared to attack but inexplicably never did so, told her, “Don’t worry, I’ll get us out of here somehow.”

…But then again, he wanted Naoko to save his character. And a tiny girl would be a liability in the oncoming fights… So screw the tiny girl, there was no tiny girl there. So instead he was worried for other reasons. Maybe… more monsters? No, too cheap. Oh, right! The falling building he had planned to implement in such a stealthy way no one would be waiting for it!

At the instant the creatures prepared to leap over him, a faster-than-a-bullet flaming rock punched through a skyscraper right next to him, exploding its windowed façade with a deafening bang and piercing it entirely, only to emerge on the other side and smash against yet another building. The vertiginous structure started to lean over Katsuro, dropping countless debris and glass shards that mysteriously didn’t hit him or the enemies surrounding him.

“Oh, no, that immense building that was obviously not going to fall over me was struck by a rock and now is falling over me!” he exclaimed, while his enemies also stood silent, contemplating the oncoming ruin. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a loud, powerful engine hum got to his ears. In the distance, from one side of the boulevard street, a single blinding headlight shone.

A large, black motorcycle sped through the debris at about two hundred kilometers per hour or so. Its wheels were made of a lead colored, metallic sequence of overlapping plates, making it look dented. Three exhausters of a silvery alloy on each side looked like the closed wings of a diving eagle, and left behind a trail of white fire. The engine rumble was deep and resonating like a lion’s roar. The vehicle was nothing less than impressive. From the top of it a stunning dark-haired girl holding the handlebar with one hand and an immense four-barreled cannon with the other let go of the steering bar, extended her arm out and shouted to the boy:

“Quick! Grab my hand! Even though at this speed we’d both probably have several life-threatening fractures by attempting to do this, you need to grab my hand if you want to survive!”

She apparently had a very powerful voice to be able to shout so many things from afar in the time the two-hundred kilometers per hour vehicle took to close in the boy, but despite that, Katsuro, in a split-second, decided to give it a shot. Grabbing the arm of the mysterious girl (scantily) clad in black and being pulled to the backseat without any injuries while the pilot ran over one of the monsters and sped away, Katsuro held himself tight to her. The skyscraper came crashing down behind them as the two narrowly evaded the gigantic impact.

Numerous creatures along the street turned in their directions when hearing the engine. A few of them carried not scythes anymore, but crossbows armed with grenade-tipped bolts strapped to their arms. The mysterious girl quickly turned the motorcycle with inhuman reflexes and, evading a salvo of arrows that exploded behind them, trained her own huge cannon against the hundreds of monsters that obstructed the road. Blue light missiles sprayed forth, opening craters and tearing dozens of the creatures in the way with its piercing and exploding properties.

“Hey, don’t I know you?” Katsuro asked as he took a moment to glance at the stunning girl he held tight. For no ulterior reasons, of course. “You seem vaguely familiar!”

“I’m an internationally acclaimed idol!” she told him, speaking loudly to be heard among the explosions and the wind, “I’m Yano Naoko! Just call me Naoko!”

“I’m Fukuda Katsuro! Pleased to meet you!” he told her, “Oh, so you’re an idol?! Maybe I’ve vaguely heard about you once or twice, hence the familiarity!”

“I’m happy that you’ve heard of me!” she declared while the motorcycle rammed a few monsters, turning them into blood splatters and flying limbs, “I’ve heard about you too! You’re humanity’s last hope for no apparent reason! I need your help to defeat Orochi, that eight-headed abomination that towers above the city!”

“What?! Me?!” Katsuro looked at the back of her head in disbelief, “What do you mean, help you defeat that thing? I’m just an average boy! I… I don’t have any weapons! Any skills! I can’t! It’s too much for me! Insert here self-deprecating, pity-generating speech!”

“Maybe you’ve never unleashed your powers yet!” Naoko yelled while shooting and running over creatures as they passed by in mind blowing speed, hardly even slowing down to deviate from the rubble that piled all over the infinitely long and straight street, “but in fact you’re special! You possess the power to converge mankind’s hopes and willpower and unleash it unlike any other person for reasons we’ll probably only cover in the second or third OVA! Until then, just bear in mind that insert here touching motivational speech!”

“I’m hardly worth of what you think about me!” Katsuro insisted, “But if it’ll make you feel better, sure, let’s go straight to that menacing, apocalyptic monster because despite I’m being just an average guy, I’m somehow not afraid or riding directly into a fray with a twenty kilometer tall, multi-headed serpent! It’s not like I have family or anything, and I’m certainly not afraid of meeting a painful, untimely demise! Let’s try to take it and a horde of hellish monsters just the two of us! Yeah, why not?! Let’s go!”

“That’s what I like to hear!” Naoko said eagerly, “Hold tight despite the fact that if it wasn’t a fictional creation I’d surely be slapping your face for it!”

Leaving an unusable street full of craters and dismembered bodies behind, the two made their way to a cliff and accelerated past it into a suspended highway that thankfully existed nearby. Many stopped cars crammed the way but, also thankfully, a few of the lanes were almost pristinely unobstructed, save for a few more monsters itching for a road kill. From the highway it was possible to have a clear view of the sky-reaching eight-forked snake atop Mt. Fuji. Its fangs spit jets of magma around the burning metropolis as if it was venom, and every time the heads made brusque movements collectively, the mountain beneath it sent pyroclastic flows from the flooding exposed caldera of the volcano. Bending the laws of physics, the motorcycle approached the foothills without tephra mists outright killing the two lone riders on the storm by clogging their lungs because… the mysterious energy that emanated from Katsuro created an invisible aura around them didn’t allow that! Yes! Perfect explanation to say “because the mangaka hates laws of physics and don’t want them interfering with his manga” in an acceptable way! It could also explain other things, like how Naoko’s long hairs flowing through the wind were not getting inside Katsuro’s eyes and mouth! Because of the aura of lazy, half-cooked mystic powers able to alter physics!

Flying creatures reminding thorn-covered wasps the size of bears flocked around them. Naoko let loose of her cannon in all directions, felling quite a few. More descended from the darkened heavens, though, and the girl, excusing herself, jumped into the air while her motorcycle mysteriously managed to maintain velocity and control while ascending the bumpy elevation. Stepping on one of the wasps while mid-air, she jumped again and shot its ugly face off from point-blank. Kicking and gunning the enemies down as she jumped from one to the next, the girl rose higher and higher. A few spit fire as she got in range, but Naoko merely pierced the flames as if it’s nothing and proceeded to mincemeat the attacker.

When she couldn’t go up anymore due to a lack of wasps close by, the girl spun around, launching a deadly salvo downwards to eradicate the remaining enemies she hadn’t yet plug full of holes and turned her weapon skyward, to where a continuous horde of flying small fries spawned. Aiming at the group coming in their direction, the girl activated whatever mechanism there was in the cannon to alter its form. The four barrels were each divided in many small, long parts that rearranged themselves in twenty small ones. The immensely versatile gun rapidly launched a blinding barrage of laser-like blue bullets that fragmented into even smaller projectiles, the same ten salvos per second. Spreading like a shotgun-meet-Vulcan machinegun, the flying horde nearby was turned to Swiss cheese before getting close.

Reverting the weapon back to the four-barreled variant, Naoko once again altered its form through magic shmagic inputs to the technological marvel, and its barrels separated from one another. Attaching it to her back in another hard to explain, magnetically magical way, its spread tubes turned flamethrowers propelled her forward like jet turbines. With her makeshift wings, the idol and world savior flew back to her motorcycle. Making her cannon go back to normal and falling on her seat, the girl resumed the driving.

“That was incredible!” Katsuro complimented her, though the girl downplayed it, “Nah, it’s nothing. Trash mobs are nothing to worry. We’ve bigger problems to concern ourselves with.”

Eight serpentine pairs of gargantuan, fiery eyes turned downwards in their direction. Yes, the colossal eight-pronged snake had very good eyesight to detect such a small threat from the top of its miles-long height. One of its head opened its mouth and spit a rain of blazing boulders that fell all around them. Naoko shot a few and evaded others that crashed in thundering booms close to them, though many more started rolling down the mountain.

The girl opened fire, reducing them to bits with her shots, and predicting a follow-up attack, she immediately altered her cannon form to another cheap, overpowered one. The four barrels mixed together in one huge, two foot-wide caliber gun. Holding the trigger but not releasing it, blue light began to accumulate inside, slowly forcing the external filaments that composed the walls of the already compensatory weapon to widen even more while letting small sparks fly through gaps. The head that sprayed the useless salvo of rocks swooped down, its immense mouth wide-open.

Rising her cannon heavenward, she released the trigger. An obfuscating light came out along with a deafening thunder, and the gun recoiled with such force that sent the motorcycle spinning off-balance. A black orb filled with blue lightning was launched up while the enormous head stroke down. The orb, generating a weak gravitational field that pulled the sandy impurities in the air towards it and sucked them in like a black hole made its way up, getting swallowed by the vast mouth. For a moment the creature kept advancing, as if it took such a big creature so much time to get to the ground from the top of its height.

“It’s still coming down at us! Naoko-Chan, it’s going to kill us! What do we…!” Katsuro started to scream while the motorcycle spun out of control, but suddenly a titanic glowing blue explosion erupted from its neck, severing that head off in a gush of magma-like blood. “Never mind, forget I said anything.”

Naoko sped up the motorcycle – which apparently could reach any velocity, because she was always accelerating it and was yet to decelerate it once – in order to evade the mammoth severed head from crushing them. The impact of it against the rocky mountain elevation sent yet another earthquake around and lifted a small sandstorm. The seven remaining heads watched in silence the headless neck fall lifelessly and exchanged surprised looks.

“Wraghwrawraw?!” one of them inquired, and another, with a decided tone, exclaimed, “Wraw! Raw rawraw grawl!”

Suddenly, all of them turned their wrathful countenances to the tiny duo below and pounced in quick succession, one after the other. Turning her spinning motorcycle sideways and accelerating (again), the front wheel raised off the rocky ground and the back one along with the six flaming exhausters, spraying gravels everywhere, propelled them forward. With Katsuro screaming like a sissy and the girl getting to charge her cannon again, the two barely escaped one of the heads. It crashed right behind them, sending quakes and strong winds everywhere. Fighting to control the bike, Naoko dropped the wheelie and turned somewhat backwards, running parallel to the neck of the first head as a second one hit the ground hard beside them, sending the vehicle flying. Its metallic, dented wheels hit the first snake’s neck and got to climb it vertically.

A third and a fourth head swooped in their direction with a fifth one close behind, prompting Katsuro to scream even more. Instead of Naoko trying to evade them, though, the girl shot the charged, mini-black hole projectile roughly between the two closest heads. As they drew nearby, the dark orb exploded without even touching them due to the cheapness of the Deus Ex Machina properties of the highly technological cannon. The explosion, like a small blue sun, ripped off half of the skull of each head, sending them dead to each side. The fires hadn’t even completely dissipated, though, when the fifth snake pierced the remaining blue blazes with its huge mouth glowing bright red.

“Hang in there! And stop screaming or I’ll kick you off!” Naoko ordered while driving straight into the gapping mouth. The colossal mouth swallowed them, making the two other heads that still hadn’t attacked smile and head bang one another in commemoration.

For a moment the head that swallowed the motorcycle looked content too. Then a small explosion opened a hole in the side of its neck. Then another and another. As the two rode their way down its throat, Naoko went trigger-happy with her oversized cannon. Even without charging up, it still packed quite a punch. Perforating the neck numerous times from inside out, the girl eventually drove the bike off of one of the openings she created. Never minding the presence of lava inside the gargantuan snakes, the two escaped unscathed, falling close to the mountain top. Near the volcanic caldera overflowing with magma and toxic vapors that didn’t affect the two because the story would end in a ridiculous way, the two drove around the mountain summit, from where melting ice caps descended into a deluge and the bike blazed above the slush because it’s too fast, too shiny and too cool to get stuck on rapid-currents of mud.

“We’re still alive! Thank goodness!” Katsuro yelled while holding Naoko tight to the point of suffocating her. Seeing the sharp eyes of the girl turning murderously to him, the boy quickly let loose and resumed his cool acting, “I mean… yeah! Four heads down! We can do this!”

Suddenly, in an eruption of magma and volcanic ash that solidified instantly, the severed neck from the first downed head sprung back another immense skull and came back to life.

“We can’t do this! We’re dead!” Katsuro instantly backtracked on his word. “Aw, come on! It can regenerate itself back again?! I didn’t remember the legendary Orochi to be able to act like that! Are you sure that’s not an oversized Greek hydra?”

“Have you ever fought against the legendary Orochi?” Naoko cynically inquired.

“Uh… No.” the boy had to admit, and the girl nailed it, “Then shut up.”

“Okay… but if so, what’s the plan?” the boy changed subject.

“Concentrate on awakening your powers while I buy you time,” the girl told him. Seeing he was about to ask something, she immediately added, “If you ask me how you’re supposed to do it I’ll drop you into the lava.”

Katsuro quietly closed his eyes and started to reflect upon his supposed powers, embarking on a spiritual journey inside himself while the girl evaded giant serpents, falling rocks, fissures, magma spills, fumaroles, lightning bolts, evil winds, otherworldly minions, acid rain, dimensional rifts that tore the fabric of the space-time continuum, lahars, tephra storms and such. Eight colossal tails sprung from the ground around Mt. Fuji and started whipping at the motorcycle too. Getting desperate after many tense minutes, Naoko asked:

“So?! Anything yet?! No hurries, it’s not like we’re facing a life-threatening situation and running low on time to prevent the universe from collapsing!”

As she poked the boy behind her she heard a loud snore. Screaming louder than the hissing sounds of the regenerated eight-forked viper heads combined, Naoko got the boy back in action. While she lost her concentration yelling at him, an immense head swept away at them, getting her to scream.

“Oh no! An immense head caught me off guard while I was screaming at you, you stupid, and despite the fact that we’ve already been swallowed once and have escaped unharmed I’m still going to act like it’s a big deal and in spite of the fact that I have plenty of time to scream all of this but I’m still unable to react because that’s the meaning of being surprised oh no!”

Sensing the impending doom looming over him and, most importantly, that girl that he clearly wasn’t hopelessly captivated by – that’s right, just because of the doom of the two, not because the Earth was going to hell – a powerful surge of dormant energy sprung out of his hands. Assuming a purely coincidental shape resembling a long and curved sword made of bright lightning, he swept the weapon horizontally in the air while moving to hug Naoko tight and getting in front of her as if it’d actually make a difference. Because it’s the only logical thing to do: attacking with a short-ranged blade while the enemy is still one hundred meters away.

Instead of a usual swoosh any normal, metal sword created, a thundering boom silenced all other sounds as the still air got suddenly agitated. A colossal mass of air spreading from one side of the horizon to the other was dragged around by the luminous, ethereal sword and the evil, purple winds got swallowed by an immense horizontal hurricane. The unnatural storming winds that brew, from a breeze to impossibly brutal seven hundred miles per hour, gradually extinguished the fires that ravaged the sinister suicide forest Aokigahara and the capital. Even then, the furious winds seemed not to affect the buildings, the people, the animals or whatever remained of the city, merely quenching the infernal flames and cleansing the area of the monstrosities that invaded from beyond. The gales, as if controlled by a superior intelligence, merely slid around objects and living beings while eradicating evil Youkai.

Ascending the mountain from behind the duo, the raging sacred winds vaporized every creature it came across and exploded against Orochi like huge sea waves hit a small boat. The rock-hard surface of the eight-headed snake started to turn back to smoke as it once was and the titanic creature slowly melted away. Its external walls, and then its fiery inner parts cracked and broke, its fragments getting swept away by the impossibly fast winds aimed upwards. Its magma fillings was cooled off and torn asunder, as the snake was decimated and its pieces got trapped inside the rolling hurricane. It ascended to the skies, tearing through the dark clouds and purifying it back to an intense blue where the sun could shine once again.

“That was amazing! Oh, Katsuro, I’m so happy!” Naoko screamed while turning back to hug the boy. “Please continue to protect me forever! There’s just one last thing we need to do to save the world!”

Deep down on the volcano glowed a dark bulb of pure malevolence, from which fumes slowly began to recreate the snake. Naoko, unlocking the limiter on her cannon – because it’s obvious her cannon’s output was being limited until then – began charging the weapon again.

One minute later, after jumping to the stratosphere and appreciating the beautiful circumference of that marvelous blue world she swore to protect, she aimed her white-hot cannon down at the crater. A huge, pure black beam streamed downwards. The beam shone into the ground zero, making the mountain sparkle. And suddenly the planet exploded into trillions of tiny fragments.

“Yano-Sama?!” the Prime Minister called her from her earphone, “What happened? Your mission was to not let Yamata no Orochi destroy the planet!”

“Prime Minister-San? Mission complete!” Naoko announced through her earphone, “We did not let Yamata no Orochi destroy the planet! We did so ourselves!”

“Hahaha!” he laughed in high-spirits, “Oh, Yano-Sama, how clever of you! Technicalities are marvelous things indeed! Excellent work! I and all politicians of ex-Earth are proud of you!”

Floating around in a small rock, Katsuro could finally breathe easily the pure, fresh vacuum from space and appreciate the marvelous view from the Earth turned into an asteroid cloud. The bright sun bathing all in its glorious, harmful cosmic radiations gave it an even more beautiful tone to it. The girl’s motorcycle floated nearby and after a moment, Naoko dropped into its seat, with an exultant smile on her face and happily accelerating twice just so the sound of the engine that wasn’t supposed to exist on space called his attention. “Vroom vroom!”

“Naoko-Chan! I was worried about you! Welcome back! Great work!” Katsuro gladly complimented her with thankful eyes.

“I couldn’t have done it without you, Katsuro-Kun!” she thanked him, “I’m so happy you’re here with me! Why don’t we go for a stroll in the park?”

“What park?” he asked, to which the girl proposed, “There’s a park near your school, right? Why don’t we go around the planetary debris looking for the seven Serpent Virgins that when reunited can grant us a wish, ask for the world to go back to normal and then go to the park? Do you like ice-cream?”

“I love ice-cream!” Katsuro explained, “It’s my favorite thing after cheesy all-encompassing plot mechanics made to protect a story from falling into unwinnable situations!”

“Me too!” Naoko happily agreed, “What’s your favorite ice-cream flavor?!”

 

Katsuro stood by the side of the stairs of the dormitories with distant eyes and drooling mouth, daydreaming about him, Naoko, giant serpents and world “salvation” (only in the broadest of senses). He’d watched the videos of her first presentation during the night before and could hardly sleep, thinking how close he was to such an incredible person. Well, actually he could hardly sleep because he had a tendency of sleeping after he got back from school, meaning he traded the day for the night, when it’s less noisy, but even so.

The ambient of the videos looked impressive and though it’s hard to tell how many spectators were there, it’s surely a lot – or so he thought. Also, he’d never seen her on that black and red attire. It’s a dream. His imagination had been formulating ideas all night long, a few about how he could talk more often with the girl, but most about unrealistic fantasies. Maybe he’d even draw a few of them.

While the boy absentmindedly waited near the stairs, Naoko came running down. Seeing him, the girl froze. Since the daydreaming, half-smiling guy looked unaware, though, she carefully sneaked her way past him, one step at a time. When she’s out of harm’s way Naoko resumed running down until the last flight of stairs. Stopping, she calmly walked down the last few steps, greeting the janitor that always stood nearby to watch, and then proceeding to rush to the school. Not that she was late: classes were just too early.

Naoko had a lot to tell about her first show to Miwa and the others. Many of the girls of her class and some of the boys stood nearby during the break to hear her recollections, see photos and watch the videos. Though it’d been just twelve minutes of show, there was also a lot to say about the audition before it. Her recounting of the twin idols, their senile producer and her describing almost everyone in the auditorium that day got her friends laughing nonstop. It’s dangerous to eat around Naoko while she narrated her experiences, for two students choked on their food while laughing. Even the usual and not so funny questions that her classmates asked, like how was the experience of singing for a crowd in such a chic place, were turned into unintentional jokes:

“It’s awesome! Everything was like a dream! Well, during the show, at least. Before it I had to face four frowning idols that looked like they’d just finished sucking lemons, no one spoke to no one, and the dressing room was too close to the kitchen. The restaurant owner probably decided he wanted to torture the artists there, because the smell was just so good! So I was there trying to get changed quickly and concentrating on my presentation that I’d be doing in five minutes and my tummy was all “Rawrooooarawr!”, roaring like a tiger! I thought people would hear it more than they would hear my own voice! If I had to stay there for fifty minutes like the first ranked idol did, when they came to tell me it’s time to go to the stage they’d probably find me chewing on my chair!”

What impressed Miwa the most was that those too boys that were usually distant to everyone and just talked about their games actually looked interested. After getting their attention drawn by the laughing crowd in the class, they looked in their direction and paid attention to Naoko’s tales. After the classes were over and everyone was put to clean and organize the room as they regularly did the class president told Naoko the two got as far as chuckle after a few of the jaunty girl’s remarks. They hadn’t left their seats to get closer, but just getting their attention to something else was already a big victory. Miwa mentioned that as the students got to clean the classroom.

“I’m loving this year more than any other thanks to Naoko-Chan!” Miwa told her, “I’ve never seen our class so united. Until last year it’s hard for people from different groups to get together like this. During the exams it used to get even worse here at school. It’s a high-end, demanding institute, and people historically tend to be a little distant to each other here. You made me remember it when you said about how the idols in the audition and in the dressing room on the restaurant you performed acted distant to their peers. Especially when compared to you and those twins you told you before the tests, with whom you had fun for half an hour while everyone else stood serious and concerned. Seeing those two boys starting to open up to the rest of the class… or, rather, to you, fills me with joy. I don’t know how there are people like you, able to bring others together like that, but does Naoko-Chan suppose it’s something one can learn how to do? Even if just a little? Or do you think it’s a natural gift that can’t be developed?”

“That’s so nice of you to say those things, Miwa-Chan!” Naoko stopped scrubbing the floor for a minute to thank her, “But why are you asking me this? You’re just as good as me, if not better, in uniting people! When I first came to our class, it’s you who called me, made me feel at home and introduced me to others! That was never the case for me with other girls, they usually act with me all reticent. It always took me months, years perhaps, to get them to open up! Why did you ask me that? Miwa-Chan is the best!”

Pointing to her own nose for a while, Miwa looked surprised.

“Eh? Me?! I never thought about it this way. It’s just expected that class presidents try to make new students get along with the others, it’s not really a gift or a merit of mine. I studied with many of our classmates for years now and we’ve never been so unified, even though last year I was already our class representative. I asked you that because I really don’t feel I’m able to get people to work together, though I still dream of studying in a class where everyone gets along fine. Sure, nothing can be perfect, but at least now’s much better than before! We still have a few students aside, unfortunately. Shiori-Chan is my biggest concern since you pointed her out, but there are others.”

Looking around the class as people cleaned it up, Miwa whispered:

“Those two boys for example. Then there’s Hideo-Kun and Keiichi-Kun who are also aloof, and Minoru-Kun who, despite trying sometimes, still has no real friends. Sadao-Kun is another problem entirely too, for he has friends but tries to make fun of others and promotes discord. Kayo-Chan is also something, being only a little more participative than Shiori-Chan… Well, you can see our class still has quite a ways to go. Naoko-Chan is doing incredible things to us, but I can’t just sit here and expect you to do all the work! It’s my dream to unify this class, and I wanted to contribute, even though I have no idea how. That’s why I asked you if you think such ability is something with which you’re born with or it can be developed.”

Most of the people Miwa mentioned were already well-noticed by Naoko too. Ueda Hideo was a black boy, though technically his skin was not even that dark, but he still had lots of difficulties to get accepted in the group, or so it seemed. Hisakawa Keiichi was another boy who didn’t mix with others, though contrary to Hideo, who seemed somewhat interested in doing so, Keiichi didn’t have Naoko’s support. He was that handsome guy who always acted aloof. Then there was a meek-looking boy called Enatsu Minoru and a secluded girl called Yamasaki Kayo who brought her textbooks wrapped in a transparent plastic bag and had no lunchbox, always bringing a big fish slice with gluing rice on a paper to eat. Both of whom Naoko had never really paid attention. They just seemed extremely introverted but not completely cut off from social contacts like the glasses-wearing Akitomi Shiori, for example.

And then there was the class clown, Tsujii Sadao. Stupid boy that thankfully had no guts to make jokes of people like Miwa, Naoko, a boy from the basketball club that also studied on their class and so on. That short, unfunny and cowardly Sadao just picked targets that couldn’t easily defend themselves to make fun of, and only when they’re isolated from the rest. Naoko had never witnessed him making any particularly insulting jokes to anyone while she was close, but rumors about him and two classmates that found his tasteless humor hilarious abounded.

Finishing cleaning a big cabinet on the back of the classroom where the two girls spoke in private, Miwa looked up to the rest of the class, each doing his part to tidy it up, and asked:

“Can Naoko-Chan give me any ideas of what should I do?”

Even after thinking for a while, Naoko was unable to find an answer, so Miwa instead questioned her:

“It’s a hard question, sorry for asking. Let me ask you something else, then: can Naoko-Chan tell me what does she think that unites people?”

“What do you mean? Like, parties, similar tastes, activities and such?” Naoko asked for some clarification, and proceeded one she found her friend confirming, “Well, I… think these two things are great for getting people together. Group activities and similar tastes, I mean.”

“Hm… yes. It makes sense.” Miwa agreed, “You’re able to talk to those two boys about that game with dices and they seem to be opening up a little bit to you. Hearing you, at least. Now I feel bad for having asked them if their favorite things were related to gambling. It’ll probably make it harder for me to get them to open up.”

“We can still do the activities route!” Naoko suggested, and Miwa agreed, “Good idea! I can’t think of anything we could do with our entire class as of now, but I’ll think about it. Do you have any suggestions, Naoko-Chan?”

Scrubbing the same spot on the floor over and over without really noticing, Naoko said slowly, pondering about it:

“Involving our whole class? Well… Not right now, but I can think about it too. What comes to my mind is the karaoke we said we’d do, but it’s not something for everyone.”

“The karaoke!” Miwa suddenly remembered, surprised, “It’s a great idea! It’s not for everyone, but it’s a great idea of an activity we can do nevertheless! Previously, when you said “activity”, I was thinking about things we could do in the school, but that’s eye opening. We don’t need to do it here!” After a second, she looked a tad frustrated, “Though I fear I might have a problem doing activities outside of our classes.”

“Why? You have any problems?” Naoko stopped sweeping the floor and interrogated. Her friend, acting a little disappointed, explained, “No, not a problem exactly. It’s just my younger brother. I think I told you once or twice about him. Since my parents always arrive at home late and frequently have to travel on business I have to take care of him. I… It’s a little frustrating that I usually have no time for myself. As soon as I leave classes, I go pick my brother at his school. I’m the only class president in the school to not take part in any clubs, for example. My weekends are almost invariably spent at home too, since my parents always travel during them. I only have some respite when my brother goes to play on a friend’s place, but I end up tied and unable to do things I wanted.” Shaking her head, she rapidly emended, “That’s not that bad, though! I can dedicate myself to my studies, so there’re perks too, pay me no mind! I’m just thinking aloud about how I can formulate activities outside of school.”

Even if dismissing it, Miwa didn’t look too convinced about her own talk concerning the perks of being tied up and unable to do things she wanted, as she put it herself. Naoko couldn’t help but feel bad for her friend:

“I remember you saying you have a younger brother, but I didn’t think it’s like that! That… must be rough. I know you can dedicate yourself to studying and all, but that’s no excuse to being imprisoned at home! Especially if you don’t like games or anything like me! Back home, I’d probably feel in paradise if my parents traveled so much, but I don’t have siblings to take care of. And I still felt trapped there too! I know how it feels! You need help, I tell you!” Thinking for a moment, Naoko asked, “How old is your brother, Miwa-Chan?”

“Eleven,” she replied, to which Naoko looked a bit daunted, “Kind of too young for us to drag along to a karaoke, right? Though maybe there are things we can bring him together…”

With a thankful but negative face Miwa opened her mouth to say something, but Naoko promptly interjected eagerly:

“Oh! That’s right! We can bring him to an amusement park! This way every person we bring along can take turns to look after him and Miwa-Chan gets at least a day to be together with others during her weekend! What do you say, eh? Eh?”

Miwa smiled thankfully. She politely refused it, stating her friend needn’t concern herself with it, but Naoko was not one to take “no” for an answer when it came to people tied up by their families. The two walked away from the classroom but Naoko kept insisting on activities they could do, as long as they programmed themselves with a week or so in advance so she could make her work schedule coincide. She got suddenly interested in helping her friend, and began to look for ideas as to what they could do, not only during weekends but also to let Miwa do clubs and other activities from Monday to Friday. Eventually she asked:

‘What if your parents hired someone to be with your brother?”

“You mean a babysitter?” Miwa asked, “My parents probably wouldn’t accept it. It’s my responsibility, after all, why would they pay for another person to do what’s my obligation?”

“What, they can’t pay or something?” Naoko promptly asked, only then noticing how intrusive she’s being, “I mean, sorry for asking you this! It’s just that… I don’t know…”

“No, it’s okay,” Miwa calmed her down, “It’s not about money. My parents are kind of well off. They both work at a big carmaker. Their jobs require them to work and travel a lot, but they have good positions inside the corporation. It’s not about money, but about having responsibility. They’re both very responsible, and expect no less from their children. Well, from me, at least. My younger brother kind of does whatever he wants, is only average at school and my parents are okay with it, but from me they expect somewhat more. I’m the older sister, you know. I need to set a good example.”

The unhappy but resigned way Miwa revealed that was particularly bothering. Naoko, taking care not to cross lines repeatedly, opinioned:

“I’m no one to intrude in your life, I know it. And your parents are probably right in teaching you to be responsible. But Miwa-Chan is already one of the most responsible people I’ve ever met! Having someone to help you take care of your brother will not make you suddenly become a lazy bum! And you’re sixteen! To be locked up at home at such an age is nothing but cruelty! When are you planning to be able to have a weekend for yourself? When you’re fifty?”

Miwa’s eyes suddenly started to water. Naoko, not expecting that in the least, quickly continued before her friend accused her of intruding:

“I’m not saying your parents are doing anything wrong, but come on! Even they must have fond memories of that age and certainly don’t want their daughter to waste away one of the best parts of life like that! I understand they’re probably not going to get a babysitter because your brother is not a baby anymore, but, I don’t know, how about… someone else? Someone to take care of him…” Naoko suddenly remembered Rin, “A private teacher! Yes, what about it?! Your parents would probably want your brother to be as responsible and knowledgeable as his older sister, right? What if they hired a private teacher to stay with him for one or two hours a day? This way he’d get better at school and you’d have some free time! You don’t need to slack off, either! You can go to clubs, for example! It’d still be a responsible thing to do and, like you said, you’re the only class president in our school that’s not currently in any club! I’m sure they can comprehend all of this, right? There are only benefits for everyone!”

Gladly seeing her friend getting to control back her emotions, Naoko proposed:

“Do you remember that blond girl from 2-1, Rin-Chan? She has currently, like, seven private teachers if I remember correctly! If you want I can ask her if she can give me the contact info of them and you let your parents decide which one or ones they want to hire! Sounds good?”

Her friend looked very interested, though she reluctantly replied:

“I don’t know. I mean, I’d certainly love it! But… I… don’t know if I have the courage to ask my parents to do it… It’s… I need to set an example for my brother, and…”

“What?!” Naoko interrupted, “Miwa-Chan, then that’s not your parents’… ah… “fault” anymore, for a lack of a better term. That’s your fault! You’re the one demanding too much from yourself! I know it’s important to be responsible and sacrifices are sometimes required, but if “sometimes” becomes “always” there’s got to be a mistake somewhere! I take I’m not one of those people that would die working or anything, but I’m committed nevertheless! I do what I say I’d do! Isn’t that enough? To uphold your promises?”

Noticing she had strayed too far and that line of speech would end badly if Miwa simply said “that’s what I do, I uphold my promise of taking care of my brother” Naoko subtly and seamlessly changed topics back to a better one:

“But to sacrifice yourself like this? I think not even your parents would be happy if they took a moment to think how responsible you became, to the point of sacrificing your youth staying at home and just studying all the time! It’s good, I know, but not if that’s the only thing you do in your life! What kind of example will you give to your brother then? To waste away his youth too? Would you like him to learn this kind of thing?”

Getting she was once again putting unnecessary pressure on her friend’s shoulders without actually solving her problem, Naoko reconfigured her speech yet again to focus on Miwa’s parents supposed point of view in hope it’d convince her friend:

“It’s not like your brother is a baby anymore, he’s eleven! He doesn’t need you to be all the time with him! On the contrary, to get him a private teacher will get him to become much more responsible! You’re not the only one that needs responsibility, right? And yours is already well developed, Miwa-Chan! Too much, I’d say! I think your… well, I don’t know your parents, but I think they might agree that currently a private teacher will be able to help your brother more than you will. It’s a different person, teaching him and stuff. If your brother is only average at school like you say when he’s only eleven, he’ll probably have to develop responsibility and study hard as soon as possible too, or he’ll have problems in high school! And you know it! I get it you want to be a good example for him, but ultimately you’re probably not helping him as much as you think you are, Miwa-Chan, as if you, say, let him have a private teacher and learn school subjects and how to be responsible too! To set an example is fine, but your brother also needs to train it if he’s to develop responsibility!”

Suddenly having a nice idea popping on her head while the two walked out of the main building and she spoke, like all ideas before – Naoko usually had no clue of the things she’d say when starting a conversation, they crossed her mind out of nowhere as it developed – she went for the final blow:

“If just a matter of looking others be responsible is all it takes to make a person become responsible too, you’d not even need to do anything for your brother to train your responsibility like your parents supposedly say! All you’d need would be to look at their example and voila! And you know that’s not the case! You need to practice being responsible to be so, and if you stay over the shoulder of your brother pampering him all the time, he’ll not develop himself! So do yourself and your brother a favor and ask your parents about these private classes for your sibling. Tell your parents all I told you and I’m sure they’ll agree! It’s the best thing for everyone and you know it!”

Stop talking, Naoko stood silent for just a second, thinking she was over. But then she felt the urge to blabbermouth a little bit more, just to make it clear to her friend:

“Just don’t sabotage yourself while doing so, Miwa-Chan! You’re not doing it only for you! You need to accept you’re not as all-powerful as you’d probably like to be and can’t single-handedly teach your younger brother everything and also make he become a responsible person just by looking at you.” Finally getting it done, the girl concluded, “Whew! My tongue’s exhausted! But that’s it! You can count on me! Whatever I can do for you, just say! Oh, we can ask Rin-Chan tomorrow for her private teacher’s contacts too! And then you can get into clubs and we can plan activities for the class! So, after all this, what do you think, Miwa-Chan?”

Miwa’s unsteady lips smiled. With a lower voice than she commonly used, maybe to make sure it didn’t fluctuate as much, the girl spoke:

“Thank you, Naoko-Chan. I’m really grateful for your concern and for your ideas.” Miwa opened her bag and searching for a pencil and paper, “Better take note of the arguments while I still remember all of them!”

Naoko excused herself, already late for the Drama club meeting that she was, but she asked Miwa to keep her updated. Miwa stayed behind, sitting in a bench by the school’s backyard while writing down all the arguments. As she silently followed Naoko walk away with increasingly watered eyes, two warm teardrops retained at great costs until then rolled down around the class president’s glad face and wetted the paper beneath.

The people at the Drama club congratulated Naoko on her first gig once she thanked them for the invaluable help by letting her rehearse. Though they were already subscribed to her fan club due to the negotiation Aratani did, only the club president Chiasa, Naoko’s classmate Takumi and two other people had watched her videos until then, so the remaining ones decided to watch it after the meeting. During it Chiasa started to discuss what kind of story the members wanted to play on the theater that semester, but since most people didn’t manifest themselves, she brought an activity where pairs would briefly discuss their narrative tastes and jolt it down on a paper. Then the pairs would change until everyone had talked with everyone and the results would be debated.

One by one, Naoko started to discuss in pairs what kind of story they wanted. Many members were surprised, like people always were, to discover the girl’s likings of stories full of action and twists. It was nice until she had to talk with Shiori. As the girl with the glasses saw Naoko, her eyes turned cold and fearful. Sighing, Naoko remembered herself of the talk with Miwa and of her impressions that Shiori was as sad as she was reserved. Like her producer told her when talking about other idols, it wasn’t personal, they just felt the need to protect themselves from supposed rivals, but it didn’t mean they all hated one another or anything. Applying this logic to her classmate, Naoko walked to Shiori while noticing the girl looked as scared as melancholic. Trying to be encouraging and letting her cheerful, upbeat personality guide her, Naoko greeted her and immediately asked what her favorite stories were.

The girl with glasses could barely speak, and preferred to return the question while she supposedly though about an answer. Naoko, naively, pointed out Shiori was already talking about it with the others, only then understanding the girl wasn’t really unaware of her tastes, just too afraid to talk. However, trying to undo that proved to be worse, so Naoko simply played along and answered about her favorite kinds of narratives. While she did so, she found Shiori glanced continuously to the sides, as if assessing the others, and avoided visual contact with Naoko.

When Naoko finished her remarks, she was completely clueless as to how to tell Shiori it was her turn. Most of the other pairs had already finished and looked in the direction of the two girls, writing for them to finish so they could continue with the activity. Her classmate looked down to the piece of paper where she wrote her tastes and those of others down. The one she held shaking. She opened her mouth and whispered vacillatingly, “I… like… stories about… about… f-friendships and… biographies of… people that over… overcame uns-surmount-table hardships…”

While she tried to speak, her eyes got full of water for no apparent reason. With her face down, the girl glanced everyone around in rapid eye movements until she could bear it no more. Asking for pardon, Shiori suddenly ran away as the first tear rolled down, leaving Naoko baffled. Seeing Shiori run backstage to the restrooms, Chiasa asked Naoko in disbelief:

“What happened?!”

“I don’t know!” the girl, getting worried about what others would think, explained, “I didn’t do anything! I don’t know what happened, I swear! I asked her to tell her tastes, she asked me to do it first, I did so and when it was Shiori-Chan’s turn she… Well, that happened!”

“Well, I saw that, I was watching,” Chiasa told her with a concerned look on the face, “I just imagined… Don’t know… It never happened, maybe you noticed something… I don’t know. Wait, I’ll see how she is doing. Everyone! Keep doing the exercise! I’ll be back in a moment!”

Since most people were watching, they saw Naoko wasn’t at fault, but it still worried her for some reason. The club president left backstage and took almost twenty minutes to return, along with an extremely ashamed Shiori.

After the meeting was over, and while Naoko went backstage to change clothes for her practice session, most of the members got to watch the videos of her stage debut. Seeing Shiori quietly getting away, Chiasa rushed to her and spoke in private.

“Hey, Shiori-Chan! Leaving already? Don’t you want to stay with us for a bit?”

The evasive girl was surprised to hear someone calling for her. Though looking to the others, who were all watching the idol’s videos on their phones, she reticently inquired: “I… but… why?”

“Why? Because you always leave so soon, and I thought maybe you’d like to be with the others a little,” Chiasa reasoned, “You told us during your first time here you wanted to integrate the club to overcome your shyness, right? Well, I thought you’d like to be with the others if that’s your objective to be here. Of course, that’s just an invitation, don’t feel pressured.”

Shiori hesitated. The small, timid girl looked interested in staying, but at the same time she didn’t.

“I… I’m just… I don’t really like shows… too much, that’s all…”

“It’s not a show, it’s just a rehearsal,” Chiasa said, “But you don’t need to be here for it too. We can just go out and talk. Are you doing well?”

The timid girl nodded in a thankful or apologetic way, meaning she’s fine without using words. The club president, troubled, drew closer and, in a lower voice, inquired:

“May I ask you something, Shiori-Chan? You look a bit hesitant around Naoko-Chan. Sorry if it’s a wrong assumption, it’s just my perception. Did something happen between you two? Be it here or elsewhere? You don’t need to tell me, but I can help you if you do.”

Giving the impression of being a tad sad, Shiori denied it:

“No… nothing like that. Nothing… happened. I just… I don’t… know. I’m sorry for bothering everyone. I… I need to go. Excuse me.”

Seeing Shiori bow and get away as if escaping, Chiasa was left troubled. She went backstage, waiting for Naoko to change, and asked her the same question. Looking worried, the girl said:

“What? No, nothing ever happened between us! I never even talked to Shiori-Chan before! In fact… it’s fun. In a sad way, I mean. It’s fun you mention it, because I was talking with a friend of mine earlier, who is also our class president, Miwa-Chan. That’s why I was late for the start of our meeting today. Among other things, we were discussing how to bring some people from our class together with the rest. Shiori-Chan is one of them.”

Naoko briefly explained her impressions since she first met Shiori, the way she acted in class, how she looked especially miserable during the numerous times Takumi invited Naoko for the club, her reticence of joining it because of Shiori, Naoko’s long story of hardships with girls in her life, the only time she thought about trying to make Shiori join the fun during a Physical Education class and so on. It’s an abridged, ten minute-long version of the events, but it gave Chiasa a good idea of what was happening.

“And like Miwa-Chan, I’m just as clueless as to how we could integrate Shiori-Chan to our class,” Naoko revealed, “Shiori-Chan always looks so sad… I’d like to help her, but it seems my mere presence is enough to make her even gloomier, to the point where I regularly go out of my way to avoid her just so Shiori-Chan doesn’t look as bad. But… that’s not going to solve anything, I think. Even Miwa-Chan had already tried to ask if she wanted help, but she always closes herself to everyone. And contrary to others, I don’t even know what she likes! How can I even attempt to start a conversation if she gets afraid of me like she was today? Does Chiasa-Senpai have any idea we could employ to bring her closer to the others?”

“Well… Not really, unfortunately, Shiori-Chan was introduced to the Drama club last year but even today she’s still a mystery to me,” Chiasa exposed, “Last year she personally asked me to have a very small role on our play, which kind of contradicts her explanation of wanting to become less timid. Now that you mention Takumi-Kun, though, it starts to make sense. She joined us soon after he did and she was usually fond of him. The eyes have it when a person likes another, and her eyes had it. Since Takumi-Kun seems to just have eyes for you nowadays, I can understand it.” After thinking for a moment, she rapidly added, “Even so, Naoko-Chan is not at fault here! Shiori-Chan was already like that ever since she came here, last year. I’m glad to hear you’re interested in helping her. I’ll try to think about something, and you can count me in if you or your class president finds a way to achieve this goal and need any help.”

Rehearsing the same songs over and over, Naoko was already so used to them she could even have glimpses of thoughts about the matter, though nothing conclusive. She still thought it’d be hard to get close to Shiori if she didn’t even know what were her preferences, and asking seemed a bad idea. Even when Naoko asked Shiori about her favorite kinds of narratives the girl looked troubled. Saying she like stories about friendships and biographies of people that overcame hardships made her hesitate, cry and run away. Recalling that moment over and over, though, Naoko was left with the impression Shiori was ashamed of it, or was afraid of how the others would react. Stories about friendships and overcoming hardships? That looked the opposite of how Shiori acted! She’s always lonely and evading everything and everyone.

That made Naoko’s mind suddenly click, though. She’s looking for stories with elements she didn’t have in her life! It’s an obvious thing, but it took Naoko quite some time to comprehend. Thinking about it, wasn’t that the same with Rin, who was afraid of boys but had a fall for love stories? Weren’t they both trying to experience through narratives things they were unable to, or at least felt like they were unable to, have in real life? How many people used narratives that way, to live in fiction what they couldn’t do in reality?

Eventually her mind digressed. If that was the case, would it apply to Naoko herself too? What was she expecting to live with action stories that she was unable to in her life? The girl quickly laughed it out, though. Action stories usually had impossibly exciting settings with superpowers, magic, epic fights and such. Of course she couldn’t do those in real life!

Though, deep down in her mind, something told her that wasn’t the case. No one was able to do such feats, but not everyone was interested in these kinds of stories either. Still, the girl dismissed those thoughts. They had nothing to do with Shiori and the task at hand, after all.

The theme about stories hooked Naoko’s attention, though. When she went back to her dorm and after calling her parents, getting her lunchbox ready and so on, she felt before going to bed the desire to play a few games. She also texted Rin about her private teachers for Miwa but also requested the next volume of the manga about the stockbroker girl she lent her.

In the morning Naoko, accompanied by Miwa, met Rin during the break. Rin handed her a couple of volumes, the entire story – which was not that long, anyway – and the contacts of her private teachers to Miwa. During the free time Naoko helped the always funny Rin getting a little more used to talking with boys, though the girl looked as helpless as ever. After parting ways and while going back to class, Naoko asked Miwa:

“Changing subjects, did you already say anything to your parents about the idea of the private classes?”

“Not yet. I’m a little nervous about it,” Miwa answered unsurely, “I tried to talk with my younger brother about it first, but he downright rejected the idea. If I told my parents about it then, my brother would probably undercut it. Now I’m trying to figure out how to convince him.”

“Convince him?” Naoko repeated, getting upset, “Convince him?! Tell me, Miwa-Chan: does someone needs to convince you about frequenting classes?! No! That’s not something you get to choose, you’re forced to do it! There’s no convincing. The same way works with your brother: he will have to study in high school someday. Or have a job. These kinds of stuff. He needs to become a responsible person, that’s not a matter he has a choice on! That’s not like you to act as if something that is an obligation needs convincing! You’re always so firm!”

Nodding, Miwa agreed in a strangely bashful way:

“Naoko-Chan is right, isn’t she? My firmness at school is, however, limited to the school. I don’t know what happens to me, it’s as if I’m a different person at home. I… admit I have a few difficulties imposing limits to my brother, though I don’t know why.”

“That’s all the more reason for your parents to have a private teacher taking care of him instead of you!” Naoko replied, taking her friend by surprise. Stopping next to the door of their class, Miwa pondered about it:

“When Naoko-Chan says all those things it makes complete sense to me, but the moment I have to put it in action, I just… flinch. I forget the reasons I memorized for an hour straight. I can imagine myself negotiating it, but when the real situation presents itself, I simply falter.” In a half joking, half serious way, she added, “I wish I had you with me at home to say all those things to my brother and to my parents! Ha ha…” Looking down, she returned to her old self, “Some class president I am. Unable to be forceful and do what’s best even for my own brother.”

Her friend looked so distressed that Naoko reluctantly said:

“Miwa-Chan knows I’m nobody to barge in your home and suggest anything to your parents, but if you want, I can… talk with your brother. Or something? Though I have no idea how much will that help.”

“Oh, no! Please, don’t concern yourself! I was just kidding.” Miwa told her. Recovering her usual firmness, she assured, “I’ll find a way to do it, don’t worry. Naoko-Chan has already been an enormous help, I’ll do the rest. Somehow. Even so, thanks for the offer!”

The two went inside their class. Miwa went straight to her seat, but as Naoko did the same, something called her attention. Those two boys who always talked about games and had barely any connections to the rest of the class were involved in an apparently electrifying multiplayer local match using a pair of handheld video game consoles. The way they talked about combos and button sequences involving a direction and a chain of inputs, it’s probably a fighting game. A little because of the talk she had with Miwa the day before about unifying the class and a lot because the way the boys reacted, it looked an awesome brawl, the curious girl zeroed in and silently tried to watch the match. Only as the two saw her attempting to gander it, they paused the game and discreetly tried to hide the screens. Though trying to look casual, both blushed and were clearly nervous.

“Hey!” excited, Naoko repeatedly touched and separated both index fingers in front of her chest and joyfully petitioned in a cutesy way, “Can Naoko take a tiny-teeny peek?”

The two exchanged nervous looks. Naoko, getting slightly uncomfortable with the anxiety the boys demonstrated, reassured them:

“Don’t worry! I know about games! You boys are playing a fighting game, aren’t you?”

Pale, one of them, with black hair divided in the middle and fringes falling over his forehead, asked in the most self-betraying casual voice ever:

“Did Naoko-Chan… saw it?”

“No, I just overheard you guys talking about combos and I though it should be a fighting game, but…” Naoko started to explain herself, but stopped, “Hey, why are you guys so tense?”

The boy with a messy brown hair tried to lie saying they weren’t tense, but he just lost his breath for a few moments. Seeing Naoko was getting suspicious, the two looked one another. They probably thought about turning it off, but it’d only raise even more distrust. As so, they hesitantly showed the screens while saying, “But… please… let us explain!”

The moment Naoko looked at the unpaused screen, she recognized the game and understood why the tension. It’s a fighting game with a female-only cast. Despite having arguably solid and fun fighting mechanics, one of them revolved around the tearing of clothes as the fighters got hit or performed a few special attacks. When completely torn the combatants were left in nothing but their underwear.

The two boys petrified under the void, cold stare of Naoko, with semi-closed, unimpressed eyes. They tried to say something about the game but the girl, intimidatingly resting her hands on her hips, interrupted it in a sour voice:

“Don’t bother explaining, I know this series. A friend of mine lived behind his father’s game store, I’ve seen games like this being played more times than you boys can imagine.” Though reminding herself she was the one asking for a chance to watch the gameplay, Naoko cut them some slack and merely changed topics, “Okay, let’s pretend I didn’t see that. Do you guys have other games?” Getting eager again, she mentioned, “Like, I have a few! If you guys also have any of those, I can bring them tomorrow! It’s been long since I had a multiplayer match on those, since I’m currently only playing it on my computer!”

She told them the eight only games she owned for that console, and while it’s a small number, most were full-blown action games or mixed, action-RPG ones. Surprised and enthusiastic, the two confirmed to know about all of them and to also have a few. They had little time to talk before the teacher arrived at class, but the eager Naoko promised the equally eager duo, if not more so, to bring one game to school the next day.

By the end of classes the two boys came talk to her again, asking if she had some time to talk about the multiplayer games she said she like to play on the computer, but this time she excused herself. Making up her mind, Naoko quickly departed, following the class president that in the last two days looked slightly troubled.

“Miwa-Chan! Wait up!” Naoko caught up with her in the lockers area by the entrance of the school, “Are you going to pick your brother at his school now? I only need to take a train in one hour, so I kind of have to kill time like always. Can I come along?”

Surprised, Miwa opened her mouth, but instead of saying anything, merely closed it back and smiled. The two walked out of the gates together, talking, Naoko describing the incident with Shiori in the Drama club last day and Miwa asking about her chat with the two boys. Then the conversation got sidetracked and Miwa started to talk about her hobbies when Naoko asked what did she like to do with all the time she spent at home.

“Besides studying, you mean?” Miwa asked, and Naoko repeated, “I said “like”! Don’t tell me you actually like to study, Miwa! That’s just wrong! I said what do you like to do in your free time! Come on! Free time is me time! What you do as a hobby, not for being responsible or for others or anything like that!”

Laughing, Miwa reflected about the inquiry:

“I like movies. I watch series and soap operas. I read books too. Oh, I also like to cook. What? Don’t look at me like that! It’s true! I enjoy experimenting in the kitchen. You can see sometimes I bring different food to eat during break. That’s me experimenting. Sometimes it ends well, while at others… Well, at least I learn with my mistakes! And it’s fun. I also have a few potted plants at my home that I like to take care. There are miniature fruit trees, some vegetables and some ornamental plants. It’s relaxing to tend to them, and some gives me ingredients for my culinary inventions.”

“Well, now you’re officially the second person I know that really like to take care of plants, so I can’t say the janitor from my dorm is a one of a kind weirdo!” Naoko joked, and told her friend about Yamamoto-San and his night garden tending habits. While, as usual, Naoko’s retellings leaned on the absurd aspects and made Miwa laugh, the girl was also pleased to hear about that man and the passion he showed for plants.

Laughing, they arrived at another school, situated at the corner of a block. Many parents waited in front of the gates and lots of children stood in the garden next to the exit. Miwa waved to a group of kids playing and a boy, looking frustrated, bid the others farewell while the rest stared at the other high-school girl nearby. Contrary to Miwa, who was even slightly taller than Naoko, the boy was rather short for his age. Even then, his facial lines, with a thin nose and slender, small chin were very similar to Miwa. While on the girl they made her look very pretty, they gave the boy a somewhat feminine face that, while beautiful, made he look a little fragile too. Even then, his frowning expression was as boyish as it came.

Raising his eyes from the ground when the boy got close to his sibling, he looked perplexed as he noticed the unknown girl in high-school uniform.

“Naoko-Chan, this is my younger brother Tamotsu.” Miwa introduced him, “Tamotsu, this is my classmate and friend Yano Naoko.”

The boy stood still in silent contemplation. Naoko, smiling, greeted him with a high-spirited “Hey there! Nice to meet you!” but the boy, as if still trying to comprehend what was going one, timidly responded “Hi.” His sister immediately scolded him:

“That’s not how you properly greet new acquaintances! Introduce yourself right now!”

Looking frustrated, the boy did so against his own will:

“Hello, my name is Horiuchi Tamotsu. It’s a pleasure to meet you, please be nice to me.”

“That’s better,” Miwa evaluated severely. Relaxing a bit, she told him “Naoko-Chan is the friend of mine I told you that is an idol.”

The boy, looking back to Naoko with his quiet, perplexed but reserved countenance, replied a concise “cool!”, not too enthusiastic but a little more admired than before. Naoko smiled back again, though the boy remained silent and resorted to nodding when his sister questioned:

“Did you remember to put your coat in your bag? Did you fold it? Let me see.”

Taking his backpack off, Miwa opened it to check if it was there and only then, returning the bag to the boy, proceeded to walk away. After a few steps she said:

“You’re awfully quiet today. Is it because of Naoko-Chan? Or did you do something bad in school?” The boy denied having done anything wrong, and Miwa proceeded, “Well, Naoko-Chan, he looks timid and well-mannered now, but I can assure you he’s the opposite of it.”

Naoko, walking on the left, glanced across Miwa to the quiet boy on the right, looking down to the floor. By the way he walked and the look on his face, he was probably just uncomfortable, and since the ambient got a little tense, the girl decided to ask:

“Soooo, Tamotsu-Kun! What do you like to do?”

Miwa faced the silent, short boy from above and waited only a few moments before instigating him with a somewhat severe voice:

“Hey, Tamotsu, Naoko-Chan asked you a question. Tell her what you like to do. Tell her you’re always plugged on your games.” Turning to her friend, she explained with a hint of criticism, “He likes to play video games a lot. That’s the only thing he does the whole day.”

With no way to ask Miwa in a way that wouldn’t sound offensive to stop criticizing her brother, Naoko decided to try again talking to him about something his sibling wouldn’t be able to speak in his place:

“Video games? Cool, I like it too! What consoles and games do you have?”

The boy, glancing over to Naoko and looking a little disbelieving, mentioned a few games he had. To his surprise Naoko looked animated and started talking about them. She didn’t actually like the few games he listed, mostly about races and a few not so amusing action titles, but she enthused over them just to show she knew what she’s talking about. Also, while she didn’t say that to her friend so as not to embarrass her, most of the games the boy named weren’t really for video game consoles, but for smartphones and computer-like devices. Miwa probably didn’t know the difference and simply used the words “video game” like an umbrella term for every kind of electronic, digital games.

“But do you only have five games?” Naoko insisted, and this time the boy looked more responsive. He told her about a few more and the girl, in an energetic tone, replied a few simple comments about them. She actually didn’t use to play smartphone games too much and hadn’t played many of the ones he told her, but the mainstream game industry had a “problem” that was, in this case, a saving grace: the abuse of franchised games. Each major gaming company had a few flagship series that they milked to the last drops. Since to create AAA games all around the world was very expensive, at least dozens of millions of US Dollars and usually more, and marketing costs alone could easily make up for a large chunk of the budget, to create a successful game was a risky and difficult task. As such, once a new intellectual property was accepted by the public and found followers, companies typically took advantage of the feat to transform a standalone title into a franchise. It allowed them to sell new titles for an already existing fan base, and with a name people already knew about. And while a AAA game could take many years to be done, simpler games could take only a few months and be sold for relatively less profit, but keep the series name in the minds of gamers. Many of the games Tamotsu mentioned, while for smartphones, a platform Naoko didn’t enjoy too much, were installments from well-known franchises for video games and computer devices. Hence the girl’s salvation: she was able to generalize the knowledge she had from the video game counterparts and make broad statements. It’s a cheap tactic, but it worked.

Soon the boy opened up and Naoko could ask him about actual video game platforms, where she was at home. Miwa discreetly traded positions so that Naoko could stay in the middle of the trio and talk to the boy without obstructions. Amazed a female friend of his sister would know so much about things he also liked, Tamotsu initially asked questions that clearly tried to assess how much the girl knew. Naoko, however, had much more experience than him not only about games, but about conversations, and after each answer she gave, she retorted with a question too. About classic games that served as inspiration for the ones he mentioned, titles that had similar mechanics to the ones from games he thought were so innovative, curiosities about the consoles and so on. Questions she could almost guarantee the boy didn’t know the answers.

And he didn’t. If she wanted, she could have lied and he wouldn’t even know, but it wasn’t necessary, she knew more than enough about the subject to impress an eleven year-old boy. Soon, instead of trying to test Naoko, Tamotsu was the one trying to prove himself. He made bold statements about games, some of which were incorrect and others just exaggerated, and in both cases Naoko had no qualms to call him on that. The boy still had a mentality that the world was born with him and knew nothing of the many generations of games that existed before him. Even mentioning trivial facts about very well-known games from the beginning of the game industry, back in the decades of nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies was enough to shock him.

Conversely, his “incredible” facts were either well-known by Naoko or too insignificant for her to care, like about a specific object or creature in a specific level of a dumb game. Naoko, having an uncanny ability to talk with boys, even if kids, didn’t ever minimize his knowledge and kept her fun-loving attitude, though she also didn’t feign any awe about silly trivia and his claptrap. Her data was much better, in any case. And since all he told her was either too basic, incorrect or not that interesting, even though she maintained her cheerfulness and positivity she end up looking a next to impossible girl to impress. A true challenge. This wasn’t calculated by her – or as Rin would say, not consciously calculated anyway – but it had an enthralling effect.

It was only a brief conversation, since eventually they stopped at a crossing where they’d part ways, and even if they stood there for a couple of minutes, it wasn’t too much. Even so, fifteen minutes was all it took to make Tamotsu go from a quiet boy into a happy chatterbox. With his high-pitched, child voice getting loud with enthusiasm, the boy started talking about his records in his games just when Naoko was about to go, and did so right when the conversation was getting extremely exciting for the boy. It’s the best moment to leave, she knew it. On the downside she’s unable to talk about the private classes to help Miwa like she wanted, but Tamotsu looked so radiant it’d only break the mood. Better let him have some fun and get to like her a little before asking him favors or force him to accept things.

Looking seriously impressed, Miwa bid her farewell as well and Naoko left for her karate training. Even though the conversation with Tamotsu was certainly not too interesting for Naoko, the girl still felt somewhat satisfied about it. He looked nice. Maybe a little too active, but that was to be expected from a boy his age. Miwa, on the other hand, seemed very severe with him. She probably had some anger stored up, Naoko could feel, though it’s also to be expected. To be unable to go out because of a brother five years younger should be horrible. And to see her parents letting he do as he pleased while bugging Miwa to set a perfect example would be even worse, though since Naoko didn’t know Miwa’s parents, she couldn’t really say how much of this was true and how much was part of her friend’s imagination. Naoko was one to say imaginations could be many times worse than reality. She could only hope that was the case, for she liked Miwa too much to let the girl be imprisoned like that. No one deserved that, much less the first and one of the best school friends Naoko ever had in the capital.

Her desire was to quickly solve the matter, but it’s of no use to worry about that. She put those thoughts aside using the travel time to read some more of the manga Rin lent her and dove into fantasies of knowing how to make fortunes in the stock market.

 

“Must be awesome to be able to hear a two hour show free of charge three days of the week!” a charming boy with stylishly messy black hair who had just finished cleaning the windows said while watching in his phone a video. “And this Naoko girl is actually good! I kind of wish I had free time to spare for the Drama club, Chiasa-Chan. Probably wouldn’t join it just to watch her shows, but it’s a nice bonus! Even unknown idol’s show tickets in a place such as the restaurant from this video can cost three thousand Yen or more for one hour, and that’s not even mentioning what you’re going to eat! I’m sure if you tell others of it there’ll be more people joining the club.”

“It’s not a show, but a practice session, and we don’t need people joining the Drama club just to watch her rehearsal afterwards,” Chiasa replied while brushing the desks of her classroom, “But that’s not the best part! We’re going to have money for this year’s theater play and even support from Naoko-Chan’s agency to promote it! Along with her own show in our school, of course. It’s going to be a blast! Oh, I’m so excited for this year’s play!”

In the distance, facing the teacher’s table he scrubbed, a short boy attentively overheard the Drama club president and that guy from the soccer club talk. Katsuro wasn’t smiling, since he only did so when people could see his face, but as soon as he finished cleaning the table he would instantly put on a grin again. He couldn’t help it, it’s automatic. Though at that time the boy almost let a tiny, real smile fold his lips. It’s the first time he heard about Naoko being on a club. And thankfully it wasn’t a girls-only one!

Though the next instant his happiness faded away. It’s still the Drama club, and he was terrified of theater plays. Along with masks, it’s an extreme fear he had. Actually, not just theater plays, but anything that forced him to present himself in front of others. Why did Naoko had to take part in the Drama club? Why didn’t she choose a club he’d have no problems in enrolling? Why didn’t she choose the calligraphy one, where he’s already a member?!

Though wasn’t that to be expected from a girl like her? Every time Katsuro saw that girl or heard about her he liked her more. She was kind but distant with him when she introduced herself to him, and she was always upbeat, positive and energetic! He always saw her running down the stairs in the morning! And she probably had lots of things going on in her life, because she always seemed lost in thoughts and never appeared to notice him. She’s usually gentle, happy and very humble, but could also be very scary and cold as a snow woman! She played it tough and was too perfect to be true, he thought, but she was the first girl Katsuro actually felt something deep for.

That made him ponder what was he doing with his life and if there was a way out of the darkness that surrounded it. When watching her debut videos, he felt captivated. For her, yes, but also for her lifestyle. He never had any interest in the outside world, really, but seeing her perform in such an awesome restaurant with a cool atmosphere and lots of people enjoying the show… it made him go as far as wanting to go out of his room! So far he only did so for school and feared once he graduated, he’d have no reason to leave his bedroom in his parents’ home anymore if he didn’t manage to get to a university as soon as possible.

Reminding himself that after watching on his room the videos of that girl – so close and so distant at the same time – he looked back to his reflex on the mirror and told himself he’d not commit the same mistakes he’d been making his own life and try all he could to be with her, Katsuro felt a cold wave of fear slipping down his spine. Well, now he knew Naoko was a member of the Drama club, a place he could join too. Only problem was that not only he was too paralyzed by fear to even talk to the girl under normal circumstances, he was also petrified by the idea of getting on a theater play. Then again, it’s as if the prayers he hadn’t done because he doesn’t pray had been heard. Now he had a chance to actually be with her (and a lot of others, unfortunately). Unlike in the stairs during morning, when the girl was always on a rush. A real chance. Only no one said it’d be easy.

Frozen by the mere idea of getting on a stage, Katsuro lost himself again in thoughts, pondering what he should do.

 

Drawing her own handheld console from her bag after eating the contents from her lunchbox, Naoko sat near the two boys. Miwa got closer to look, as did many of her classmates. Though most of the female students cared little or nothing for games, the novelty of the situation made them flock around, loudly cheering for Naoko even though they didn’t understand what was going on and some couldn’t even see the small screens.

After choosing a free-roaming arena battle game that pitted every player against all the others and a few weak cannon-fodder enemies controlled by the dumb artificial intelligence, the three students got to choose their combatants. Loading previously saved files, each got their usual characters. The two boys, once again hesitating and nervously looking to the crowd that amassed nearby, contrary to their expectations, revealed their avatars while explaining them to Naoko, though in reality saying it out loud so that everyone could hear their oh-so-fair reasons for selecting those characters as their main ones.

The messy brown-haired one, revealing a small, cute girl in a lilac dress and graciously holding an intricate stave, quickly said, “This character has the highest raw magical output in the game, making her a powerful Damage Per Second dealer, albeit being a glass cannon due to her low physical resistance. Her Area of Effect attacks are also amazing and can stun-lock multiple enemies easily! That’s the only reason why I play as a girl! I swear!”

“Right…” Naoko said with a non-convinced voice and face. At least most of the people around knew nothing about that game and presumably believed in that lie.

“As… As for me…” said the boy with the dark hair parted in the middle while vacillatingly presenting a tall, ridiculously well-endowed female fighter with ash-gray hair, crimson eyes and skimpy attire that regally sported a bow, “I just play as her because of the high evasion rate and… huh… long-ranged attacks being very versatile. That’s all.”

“O-okay…” Naoko, getting slightly uncomfortable, quickly chose her own character. A huge, bulky, barbarian-looking man with an enormous dark beard, burning eyes, clad in a sinister black and red spiked armor and holding a pair of colossal hammers eternally on fire. Under the wide-open eyes of everyone around, Naoko eagerly introduced that behemoth with a bloodlust-infused grin, “That’s my fighter! I chose him because he’s so fucking badass! Let the bloodshed begin!”

In less than ten seconds the two female combatants were being hammered brutally into the air and chased by an onslaught of burning projectiles before falling and being pummeled into submission by fiery flurries of blows. The two boys scratched their heads at the same time while their supposedly vastly powerful and technical fighters had their life bars drained by Naoko as if she drank it from a straw. Smiling cutely, she commented under applauses:

“Ah, I never get bored of it! It always feels so satisfying! One more round?!”

While the girls around cheered, many boys started to make fun of the two secluded players, making them look gradually less confident, easy to beat and getting more introverted every round. The worst offender was Sadao, the coward student who liked to importunate and make fun of defenseless people. Naoko, getting worried the two players were closing themselves again in their shells, waited after another victory to defy all the male students who were mocking:

“Oh, you guys are laughing so much, you must think you’re so much better than them, right?” turning to two particularly irritating guys, one of which the short class clown Sadao, she challenged, “You and you. Here. Against me. Now.”

From behind his large, freckled nose, Sadao lost part of his smile. The two sad gamers gladly passed their consoles to the hands of the new unwilling challengers, and Naoko focused. Despite she having trampled the two previous boys because their character choices were simply aesthetical and held no real chance despite their attempts to say otherwise, they were actually very good players, and she managed to beat both repeatedly with her overpowered monstrosity. As such she wasn’t too concerned about those newbies, but Naoko nevertheless had a point to sustain and couldn’t afford to lose.

And she didn’t, like she imagined. Even after giving her new opponents a few moments for them to get used to the controls, she obliterated them.

“Ha-ha! What were you losers laughing about a few moments before, again?” Naoko laughed loudly right in their faces as soon as she delivered the final blow. It’s a slightly cruel thing to do, but the two well deserved it. Sadao, the sore loser he proved to be, blamed his inexperience in that game, but the other boys and even girls, out of spite for that coward clown or merely following Naoko’s snarly remarks, followed her laughs. Butt hurt, Sadao left the console as well as his partner for another duo Naoko high-spiritedly and cutely (for the most part) challenged.

“Now, let me see… ah, you two there! Yes, yes, exactly you, Takumi-Kun! Long time no see! Having fun there, right? Let’s see how much you’ll be laughing after you and your happy friend Gorou-Kun face me IN MORTAL COMBAT! Get over here!”

Two by two, the girl decimated all the male students of the class who had been mocking the original players. The two secluded boys, at first looking ashamed by the supposed public humiliation Sadao started, got back to joy as they watched Naoko rip through all opponents. A few boys who’d previously laugh started to dissipate before their time came, but Naoko asked the girls around to prevent them from escaping and resorted to infallible tactics to make any boy do what she wanted him to:

“Are you fleeing?! What, so afraid you’re running from a girl?! Are you a man or what?! Are you admitting you’re a sissy? Be a man and come back here! Show me what you’re made of after I’m done with your merry little friends here!”

Pride was such an easy target and an immediate critical hit on boys, Naoko knew. The break wasn’t even over when she finished felling the two last guys that were laughing. The ones that hadn’t been mocking the secluded duo were spared, but as of the rest, at first it looked a little shameful for the losers to be called on by Naoko in a purposely flippant act, but eventually so many were defeated it got funny. The apparent absurdity of the situation got not only the female students laughing and cheering loudly, but also the male ones. Rooting for their peers and laughing out of disbelief after every round, the boys were taught an important lesson that day: not to make fun of introverted people, and especially not in front of Naoko. Not the most important lesson, which would be how to change character to ones that actually stood a chance against the one the girl played as, but an important lesson nevertheless…

It’s a different break, but an immensely fun one. Even the two otaku who initially faced Naoko rooted among the crowd – for the girl, of course. It let the two cheer, commemorate and laugh side by side with Miwa, Sayuri and all female students that watched the matches. The pair reclaimed their honor and their handheld consoles with deeply glad faces once Naoko defeated the last opponent and, in an upbeat tone, declared to all:

“Get rekt! Yup, like I thought! You guys were laughing of Akio-Kun and Hiroto-Kun, but they’re the best of you all. And no lame excuses about they being the owners of their games and such! Guys, assume your “wreckedness”, it’s much better than being sore losers!”

The only one around who wasn’t laughing or having fun, paradoxically, was the class clown Sadao, so Naoko rated it a ten out of ten, “would play again” type of job well done. Applauded and being awarded yet another informal title on her class, the now Class Beauty Queen MVP Hardcore Gamer girl’s trophy was to get the two otaku boys to open up a little more not only to her, but to the rest of the class too. After the amused crowd dissipated Akio and Hiroto turned ecstatic to Naoko, who immediately apologized:

“Hey, boys, sorry for putting you all through the trouble. I hope you guys don’t be sad by the jokes at the beginning. The other boys weren’t insulting you two or anything. They’ll also think twice after doing that again, okay?”

Looking glad, the two bowed slightly, almost a nod. The boy with the black, divided hair, Hiroto, put his console back on his bag and eased the seemingly troubled girl:

“Thank you, Naoko-Chan is very kind. You’ve nothing to apologize for. It was amazing.”

“You bet!” the thrilled boy with untidy brown hair and contact lenses, Akio, agreed, “Naoko-Chan is incredible! Granted, your character was also…”

Akio silenced. Naoko, smiling, satirized:

“Was what? Come on, tell it! “Overpowered”, isn’t it? You knew, you both knew it, and yet you guys chose female avatars saying it’s because of magic output and agility and whatnot! Ha!” Seeing the two look embarrassed, the girl calmed them with a happy face, “Guys, it’s okay to play as girls if you want! Heck, I play as a huge, hammer-wielding barbarian man from hell! I’m not going to judge you two or anything! Just don’t make dumb excuses for it! I’d respect a guy much more if he actually said he chose his female avatar just because he thought she looked smoking hot! It’s not like you guys are fooling me and I’m still here, not judging you two, so just drop the acts, okay?”

Though looking even more embarrassed, the two exchanged looks and chuckled about their own faces. Hiroto, the dark-haired boy, changing subjects, asked in a shy and roundabout way, sometimes correcting himself as if speaking with his own mind:

“Uh… Naoko-Chan? Speaking of games, we were discussing… like, me, Hiroto-Kun and two others who play RPG with us… And we were discussing that conversation we had the other day about RPGs, remember? The one Naoko-Chan said she had never played a tabletop RPG and wanted to… I mean, f-from what I… we understood Naoko-Chan appeared to… to know how to… No, not to know how to play, because Naoko-Chan probably knows it already, at least theoretically, but, ah… When Naoko-Chan mentioned, from what we understood, that she’d be interested in playing it. Remember? And we were discussing it, and… well, our group only has three players. Well, four people, but I’m the Game Master, so I don’t really count as a player. And many adventures are made for a four-player party in mind, so…”

Seeing the teacher standing by the class door to talk with another instructor before coming in and the girl getting ready to go back to her seat, Akio hesitantly but quickly invited her:

“We thought, maybe Naoko-Chan would like to, you know, give it a try… or something? You know a lot about games, we can see it, so… What… what do you think? Would you like to…? You know, we can teach you and… No, not teach, but… You can play RPG with us… if you want. It’s okay if you don’t want too! Just… an invitation, but…”

With no time left, Naoko smiled and happily agreed in concise sentences:

“Sure, I’d love to! Thanks! I’m a bit short on free time, but after classes we talk about when we could arrange a play session, okay?”

Returning quickly to her seat, Naoko left the two boys awestruck. They weren’t the only ones excited, though: she had no idea how she would make it work with her full agenda, but she was eager to try it. Despite the anxious way of Hiroto, the boy who would be the Game Master, from what little she knew about tabletop RPGs it looked like a fun experience she wanted to have.

After the end of the classes Naoko wanted to hear from Miwa how her situation was, but before it she quickly told Akio and Hiroto she had a full schedule on that week, though they could try to arrange a play for on the next. In fact, it wouldn’t make too much of a difference since her Saturdays and Sundays would be full anyway, and she had clubs and dojo classes during week, but she felt bad about saying that to the two secluded boys who looked so exhilarated. Postponing taking this decision, she left for the Drama Club, but not before inquiring Miwa if she had any progress in her endeavor.

“I haven’t talked with my parents yet, since I still couldn’t find a way to do so without my brother interfering,” she revealed. Naoko raved back, though in a joking way, “Miwa-Chan, for the love of all that is good, stop postponing taking this decision! You look just like me, who just postponed a decision I had to make! Stop following my examples! What’s the excuse now?”

Giggling for a moment, Miwa stated:

“For as much as my parents would comprehend all those arguments, they’re just too soft with my brother. They always end up doing what Tamotsu wants. If my brother refuses himself to have private classes, my parents will most likely comply. Things are like this in my home.”

“Oh… I’m sorry to hear that. That’s bad,” Naoko told Miwa, who contrary to her speech, in fact looked cheerful, “It’s okay. Also, Naoko-Chan, my brother was fascinated about you! I’ve never seen him as excited as after we’ve gone our separate ways yesterday. Well, I have, but you get the idea. He couldn’t stop asking questions about you. He even looked for your fan club when we got home.” Laughing, Miwa happily told her, “You should have seen his sad face when he found out only people aged thirteen and older could subscribe! Ha ha!”

Enjoying the conversation with a smile until the last bit, Naoko acidly pestered:

“Hey, Miwa-Chan? Why did the part of your speech where you got the most happy was when telling me your brother got sad?”

“No reason at all!” Miwa responded in an upbeat way, “In any case, he asked me if you’d be coming again today with me to pick him, and of course I told him you wouldn’t. And he got disappointed again! Haha! Anyway, that’s only to say he liked you a lot. He looked eager to see you again and said not even his friends know as much about games as you do. I can’t recall the last time he spoke with me for so long. I don’t get it how you’re able to do it, Naoko-Chan! First my brother and now those two boys from our class! Is video games such a universal topic for conversations?!”

Trying not to look fazed by her friend’s curious reactions to her brother’s frustration, Naoko nodded in agreement, though relativizing it:

“It is for most of the boys, anyways. It’s not as fail-proof with adult men, though: the older they are, the less they tend to be interested in it, or at least less enthusiastic about it, with some exceptions. With girls and women it’s also a mixed bag, but in my humble experience it won’t do you nearly as much good as it will with boys. Maybe it’s just me who was unlucky enough to only ever meet a handful of girls who liked it. I know there are a lot out there, but I had no luck in finding that many. So, not really a universal topic, but if you like games, it won’t do any harm to bring up the subject either, especially with eleven year-old boys. Or game otaku, whatever.”

“Still, it’s pretty useful,” Miwa maintained, “I’d like to know about it. Or rather, I’d like to like it. This way I’d at least have something in common to talk about with my brother. I suppose Naoko-Chan would make a far better older sister than me. In less than fifteen minutes you already made him like you more than he probably likes me.”

“Or I’d be the exact opposite of you, just play with him and not make him do anything he had to and ultimately be a horrible older sister!” Naoko gave her friend an alternate perspective to cheer her up, though Miwa didn’t look sad in the slightest despite all she said. It’s hard for Naoko to tell if she should be glad or not by it, but the girl opted to use the opportunity to insist, “But since he liked me so much, I think we can use it to our advantage! Or… your advantage.”

Returning the smile, Miwa joyfully admitted:

“If I were to bet on one person who can do it, I’d bet on Naoko-Chan! I should tell you to not bother, but… since we started talking about me having some free time, I dream with it every night and have gone as far as make plans of what I’d do with two hours for myself every day from Monday to Friday! So… I know it’s very egotistical of me to ask this, but…” Miwa bowed reverently and sustained it while asking, “Please, can you help me achieve it, Naoko-Chan? Or at least try, it’s alright all the same.”

Both because helping her friend made her happy and to break that awkward moment, Naoko immediately responded:

“Stand up already, there’s no need for it, Miwa-Chan! Of course I can help you, and of course I will! Wasn’t that the plan to begin with?”

Straightening up her posture, Miwa looked very animated and optimistic.

“Thank you, Naoko-Chan! I don’t think I remember we having a plan, but having you by my side fills me with hope!”

“Don’t mention it!” Naoko replied with an also energetic disposition, “Though Miwa-Chan is right about the plan part. Okay! So we’ll make a plan!” She uttered a few words in a lower voice before reverting it to normal, “Only I’m kind of late again for the Drama club meeting, so we’ll have to do it tomorrow, but! We’ll make a plan! Let’s call it Project… ah… Project Freedom!”

Clapping lightly, Miwa agreed, albeit with a small note:

“It’s settled, then! Thanks, Naoko-Chan!… Though did we really need to name our plan? Not that I’m complaining! It’s a nice name! Sounds like an idol band placeholder name. I couldn’t expect any less from you!”

“Ah… does it?” Naoko inquired, looking puzzled, and Miwa confirmed, “Yes. I thought you did that on purpose! You know? The way lots of idol bands, before getting a final name, receive a placeholder one that often starts with “Project” in it?”

For a while Naoko looked even more puzzled. Miwa, also getting lost, questioned:

“Huh… Naoko-Chan… didn’t know that? But… I thought you… as an idol… would…”

“Miwa, let me tell you something,” Naoko clarified it, “Last time my producer asked me a question about idol things I confused a band with a Russian assault rifle. First lesson you need to learn: all I know is how to dance and sing my few songs, don’t ask Naoko questions about idol-related stuff. You probably already know more about it than me. Just don’t tell that to others.” Leaving Miwa baffled, Naoko wrapped it up, “Anyway, let’s discuss our plan tomorrow! Let’s make it Plan… No, Operation! Operation, ah… Operation Free Miwa-Chan for Great Justice!”

That was a solid idea! To make a plan! Now all they needed was an actual plan, but Naoko wasn’t concerned about such trifle detail. She left in high spirits for the Drama club, rushing into the theater and asking the people already on the stage for forgiveness for being late. The club president Chiasa, calming her down, said:

“Don’t worry, Naoko-Chan, we hadn’t start yet. I’ve just introduced to everyone our new club member, my classmate Fukuda Katsuro.”

As Chiasa uttered that name and gesticulated with her hand in the direction of a short boy lost among the crowd, his already large and edgy grin grew even bigger, his non-smiling eyes wide-open turning to look at the girl with evasive, rapid movements. Naoko froze, shivers descending from her nape down the spine the instant the girl saw her creepy, snake-faced neighbor. His posture was completely retracted, maybe even more than Shiori, and a vein pulsated on his partially hidden, sweating forehead. He wasn’t even able to move properly, his muscles – or whatever little musculature he had – awfully tense.

Just as him, Naoko was on edge during all session. Notwithstanding his overwrought smile being spine-chilling by itself, the boy often sent unintentional glances over to her, which he immediately corrected while trying to act casual. Of course, she could be getting paranoid and be imagining things, but her gut feelings were almost always spot-on about those kinds of incidents. After a series of relaxation exercises which Naoko was hardly able to do and a few other teachings, Chiasa continued prompting people to talk about narrative ideas for plays, and while Naoko had many concepts in her mind, she wasn’t able to express them. The thought of attracting attention to her while speaking and having Katsuro look to her was too much.

She’d never noticed how intense the dark circles under that boy’s eyes were. He’s either having bad sleeping patterns or she just never had the displeasure of facing him under good lighting conditions. The only time she’s forced to do so, during the laundry incident, the place was too bright and the girl too afraid to see anything. Now she’s only too afraid. The boy also couldn’t even say a word during the meeting and every interaction he had to do with others was artificial and calculated. Even then, it’s abysmal.

Once the meeting was over, Naoko suddenly remembered she’d be staying there rehearsing for two hours and usually people only stayed to watch for a few minutes. Her mind immediately began fantasizing worst-case scenarios. What if she’s left alone with him? He, watching her from the empty auditorium. What could he do? Or even worse: what if, when she finished practicing and returned exhausted to the dark backstage bathroom to change, she raised her eyes from the faucet only to find his creepy smile from behind her in the mirror? Desperate, she called Chiasa to the backstage, and as the woman started inquiring if she had any idea about how to bring Shiori closer, Naoko interrupted her:

“No, not yet. Listen: please, please, will Chiasa-Senpai stay to watch my rehearsal until the very end today?” Noticing the girl was upset and concerned, the club president asked what had happened and Naoko told her about Katsuro since she first met him and how he stood by the stairs of her dorms every day. Chiasa, listening attentively, muttered:

“I know him, he studies in my class for years now. Yes, he’s… somewhat strange, I know. But I can assure you he’s fairly harmless despite arguably looking scary. He just lives in his own world. In class all he does is to draw. I understand your concerns and I know it’s no use telling you not to be afraid, but trust me, he’s not the threat he seems to be. At first I was scared too, but you get used to him, that’s just how he is. He smiles when he’s nervous, and as far as I know, he’s very afraid of people. It’s a miracle he wanted to join our Drama club! I thought he’s terrified of theaters!”

“Please, Chiasa-Senpai…” distressed, Naoko begged, “…stay with me today! Just today! I’m sorry for troubling you! I’m… just… I’m afraid to be alone! Sorry! But he lives close to me! I know he waits for me every day in the morning! I just know it! Please…”

Seeing the girl was almost about to cry, Chiasa reluctantly agreed to stay with her that day. It gave Naoko some respite, but she’s still too scared about the next week to think. Her desire was to get away and never come back again to the Drama club, but she needed the precious hours of rehearsal. The club president, though assenting, requested in a serious voice:

“If you need it so much, I’ll stay with you today. But, Naoko-Chan? Let me ask you a favor too: please give Katsuro-Kun a chance. I know he’s strange. I know he’s scary. I personally don’t like him too much and I don’t know anyone who does. You don’t need to tell me that. But please, all I ask is that you give him a chance at our club.”

Unwillingly remembering her horrible imagination about the smiling boy appearing behind her on the female backstage restroom’s mirror, Naoko shook negatively her head, giving a step back. The club president, getting worried, pleaded in an unusually grave voice, mentioning things that haven’t even occurred to Naoko yet, but probably would eventually:

“Please! I know if you get so scared and go away we’ll have problems like we did last years. Okay? I know it. We need you here. For all the support your agency gives to us, for all the promotion, and because I can see you’d be an incredible actress. You cheer the others up, you’re… we just need you. We like you. I wouldn’t risk losing you, and if I was put in the spot of choosing between you and Katsuro, I’d… I’d choose you. There, I said it. But… please. Please, Naoko-Chan, I ask you… I beg you: please give Katsuro-Kun a chance! I know him for years! There’s nothing to fear from him! I’d personally take responsibility if anything occurs!”

Upset, Naoko sighed. Thinking while facing the club president’s concerned face, the girl weighted the risks. She’d not yet thought about her importance to the Drama club before. To know Chiasa would choose her over the boy was slightly reassuring, but her fears only worsened when thinking even that wouldn’t stop the boy if he really had ill intentions. So what if she expelled him if he attempted something? He’d already have made what he wanted by then. Her desperation grew so strong that, in a moment, she could clearly see herself facing the terrifying assailant in the bathroom. The boy trying to grab her. She, exhausted, reacting. Only, even tired, she was still stronger and taller than him. A chop to the neck, a bite, a punch to the plexus, anything, and once the boy flinched she could blind him. Hit him below the belt. Pull his head against the sink. Though what if he was armed with a blade or something? She’d need something to also protect herself too. Maybe… she’d need to conceal a metal baton or something similar somewhere. In her footwear, perhaps. As a decoration on her gloves. Whatever.

Everything changed. Her fear gave in to some sort of calmness, though not really. She’s still tense, only she could imagine scenarios and prepare accordingly. There was a big problem in the president’s speech which the scared and irritated girl pointed out in a slow pace to get the message clear, aggravated and without the least remorse:

“Chiasa-Senpai, if I’m left alone with him during a common rehearsal day and I, after draining my energies away dancing for two hours, open the door of the toilet of that dark woman’s restroom backstage only to find him waiting for me with a knife or something, would you take responsibility for whatever happened? And, more importantly, what would I care if you did?”

Too shocked to even seem outraged, Chiasa vacillated:

“Naoko-Chan! That’s…! He’d never…! That’s… not going to happen!”

“How can you be so sure?” Naoko questioned, gradually transitioning from looking scared to looking scaring, her eyes getting ice-cold and her demeanor shifting, looking calm, collected and, for whatever reason, a little bit dangerous. Her eyes had something in it that was past fear, like if the girl was actually living in the moment of her frightening imagination and became capable of doing anything to protect herself. Anything. Chiasa had never seen Naoko look like that, and the way the girl suddenly changed in the dusk of the backstage was intimidating. Coupled with her straight questions and hard to bend arguments, the otherwise cheerful, humble and easygoing girl got frigid, calculating and imposing, her eyes borderline cruel, but in a subtle way that couldn’t be called on. Getting extremely uncomfortable and left speechless, the club president unconsciously turned a little to face the light that came from the stage through an opening on a side of the backstage.

“Y-You… are right…” she said hesitantly, looking scared as if she’d seen a ghost, “I… will be… with you during your… rehearsals.” The plural on “rehearsals” was nice, she had to admit. Naoko, not really comprehending why the club president got so scared out of nowhere but trusting it’s because of the grim scenario she painted, and not really caring for Chiasa at the time, left to the restroom to change. There she analyzed the whole place, the three toilet cabins in front of a large mirror and three sinks. There was nothing to be used as a weapon there, but Naoko still had her school bag. She could throw it on Katsuro if he appeared, provided the shock didn’t make her faint first. She also had her lunchbox inside her bag, and her tiny, retractable umbrella.

She suddenly had an idea: an umbrella! It could be useful, provided she found a sturdy one to buy. It’s such an obvious choice of object resembling a sword or a club that she’d be surprised if no one sold modified or sturdier-than-normal umbrellas on the internet.

The presence of Chiasa during the rehearsal got her calmer, but Naoko was already strangely chill. Previously she thought she’d be unable to so much as appear onstage in her attire for gigs, but not only was she serene about it, Katsuro didn’t faze her in the slightest. True to her hunch, the boy stood there during her whole practice session, along with the increasingly concerned Chiasa, but Naoko managed to perform as usual. In fact, better than usual.

Previously she focused on herself and forgot the existence of others until she’s fine with it, but at that time it’s different: she sang and danced while fully aware of the others, but not caring in the slightest for anyone else. What others would think was not a concern. For the first time she really felt that even if the auditorium was full, she’d still be able to act in the most carefree way in the world.

Her chest felt a little off, as if there was a hot knot inside her, not unlike what she felt when food appeared to get stuck midway. Still, it wasn’t nearly as intense and the girl only briefly noticed it before forgetting. Despite the little nuisance, she never felt so good on a stage. Like she’s in control of everything. As if she’s performing for a pair of bunnies or tree stumps. Irrelevant. Like what happened in the laundry, she noticed that whenever