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In the end no one saved them and the performance department is shut down. 

Tamao has taken it badly and wanders the school like a spirit. Yuyuko keeps her headphones over her ears, the cassettes whirring in the Walkman. One time, Rui’s certain that she cried but she was too afraid to check in on her. Yuyuko is proud. 

But how did this all happen anyway…?

Ichie has been in a foul mood. Why do they always have to push us around this way? she said before storming out of the rehearsal room. Rui hadn’t thought Ichie ever got angry. And just like that, some part of Rui accepted it. 

Their performance department was gone. No more memories. No more stages. No more Tamao-senpai. If she’d been more talented could she have protected them…? Shouldn’t someone have protected them?

Were they not worth saving…?

X

So she’s not a stage girl anymore. There was a time she had a real shot but it was stolen before she could truly grow. It’s true their rehearsals weren’t particularly rigorous but they were fun. Tamao was kind. Yuyuko would sometimes put in the work and Ichie always had her energy.

Rui helped with fight choreography. They were all impressed by her efforts and she felt valuable. Of course, Ghost Patrol didn’t go as smoothly as they hoped. The script was clunkier than they would have liked and Tamao wouldn’t agree to any script changes. They were short a cast member. Tamao took on two roles. Rui believed that they would succeed. Tamao can do anything. That’s what she thought.

It takes too long to clean their rehearsal room. They’re supposed to get rid of everything. Rui races there after classes but every day it’s tidier as if the beautiful memories that unfolded there never happened. 

Tamao is avoiding her, she knows it, but tells herself it can’t be true. Will Tamao forget about her if she doesn’t see her every day? To think that she one day hoped to shine beside her. So many dreams gone. So many dreams she had never allowed herself to dwell on. It was silly. Anyway, who is she to think she could play someone like Onikage…?

“Rui?”

Rui sniffles, wipes her eyes dry with her sleeve. She can’t decide if it’s better or worse than Ichie is the one to discover her. “Ichie-senpai. I didn’t hear you come in.” She takes a deep shaking breath and then another one but is too flustered to turn around and face her.

“Ah-ha, don’t worry. I move quietly.”

She isn’t sure that’s cause for not worrying. Ichie has always liked her games and pranks. It used to irritate her to no end that she would not take the stage as seriously as it deserved, and now she would do anything to have those days again. Ichie stands at her side, hands planted on her hips. 

“I was just cleaning up,” Rui tells her. “I don’t really want to, but…”

“So you’re the culprit,” Ichie says. Rui parts her lips. “I won’t clean anything. If we don’t clean it, they can’t kick us out!”

“Hm. That’s not how that works, Ichie-senpai.”

Ichie jumps to a sitting onto the table, hands gripping the side, swinging her legs. “We shouldn’t make things easy for them.”

“They’re not giving us a choice. So we need to…” A frown as she grips a tengu mask. “We just need to. We can’t embarrass Tamao-senpai.” Ichie scowls. “Uh. How is, Tamao-senpai? I’ve tried to find her but… she says she’s busy with her studies.” She vowed to herself that she would always follow her but Tamao has hidden herself away. She’s not used to her voice so small and defeated. I’ve let you all down, she said. “Is she okay?” Ichie looks at her. “I— It’s only that I’m worried because. I— I know how important Rinmeikan was to her. Is to her. And this performance department. H—her grandmother was a student here, you know.”

“How are you doing, Rui?”

“M— me? But I’m not.” She shakes her head quickly. “What I’m— how I’m—“ Another shake of her head. “It’s Tamao-senpai that I’m worried about.”

“Tamao needs time.”

“I just can’t believe they’d do this to her,” Rui growls. “And to us. Taking our performance department!” She holds the tengu mask so tightly that the cheek cracks. She drops it, horrified. “I thought I knew what I was meant to do. But without Tamao-senpai and the performance department…” She bites back her anger. “But sorry, I didn’t mean to go on that way. Why are you here,” she looks at her, “if you didn’t intend to help clean things up.”

“I was looking for you.”

“W— what? For me?”

Ichie laughs. “Of course. We’re still stage girls, aren’t we? That’s right, that’s right! And we’re friends.” 

Are they? She never really thought of it that way. Ichie is an upperclassman even if she is… very Ichie. If anything, Yuyuko is a friend, even if she too has been more absent lately. That said, Ichie was the first one to reach out to her when she arrived at Rinmeikan, with her jar of noodles. Ichie smiled so brightly, was so jovial that it wasn’t until later that she realized that the gift was a strange one. “But I’m just a kouhai…”

“Eh! Is that what you think?” She looks mortified. “I mean, you are a kouhai,” she nods to herself, “but we shared a stage. I saw you shine! Just because they think they took our department, doesn’t mean they’ve taken our stage.” She swings her legs, humming, “Tamao will understand in time, too. A real stage girl can’t lose the stage. And I’m not going to let some adult take it, without our consent, as if they have the right.”

But they’ve already taken it… “There are other schools. Frontier, for example.” That always seemed more up Ichie’s alley, anyway.

“Hm? You’re going to transfer schools?”

“No, not me!” She can’t leave Rinmeikan. She can’t leave Tamao or even Yuyuko. “But for you. You’d fit in over there.” They all have light hair and are cheerful girls. 

Ichie shakes her head. “Rinmeikan is the school I had my heart set on, so Rinmeikan is where I’ll stay. Sure, things are tough now, but that doesn’t mean they always will be. I won’t give up. I won’t have another stage stolen from me.”

“Another stage…?”

Ichie’s brow, furrowed and making her look strange, smooths and she smiles again. “Want to make me dinner?” 

Rui lifts her eyebrows. “Make you dinner…?”

“Tamao usually feeds me but… well…” she rubs her neck. “But you look like someone who’d really know her way around the kitchen! Besides, it’ll help take your mind off things!”

Rui takes a breath. “It sounds to me as if you just want to be fed.” Ichie grins. But honestly, she’s lonely. Maybe spending time with Ichie will help things feel more normal again. “All right. I guess there’s no harm in it—“

Ichie jumps off the table, latches on to her arm, hugging it close. “Yay! Rui, I’m so hungry. I think I’m wasting away!”

Rui blushes. Why is she so clingy this way? “You could always cook for yourself…”

“I have! I’ve had cereal and… well, lots of cereal! We’re going to have fun tonight, so much fun! Should we invite Yuyuko?”

“Um, sure…” she fidgets, “Um. But what about— what about—“

“Ah, right, right.” A smile. “I’ll see what I can do, okay?”

“Thank you, Ichie-senpai!”

X

Yuyuko is nowhere to be found. Rui hopes Ichie will arrive with Tamao in tow but it’s just her. Her disappointment must be palpable. 

Ichie lifts her arms as if she were out of options. “It looks like you got as lucky as I did.”

Rui grabs an apron and wraps it around herself despite how tired she now feels. This disappointment shouldn’t slam into her like this. Anyway, she should be grateful to Ichie, even if Ichie’s very laziness is the reason she’s here. “I hope they’re okay.”

“They’ll be fine, don’t worry.” Ichie skips over to her and jumps up to sit on the counter. Does Ichie believe in chairs? She’s so outlandish. Once again she’s swinging her legs. Rui’s eyes follow the curve of her stockinged calves, up to her knees, higher to the bare skin of her thi— she looks away, red-faced. Ichie adjusts, crossing one leg over the other. “What are you making me for dinner?”

“Oh,” why is her heart pounding? It’s not like it does with Tamao. She’s on the spot. Shouldn’t Ichie be offering to help her? Tamao would insist. Ichie is so busy and still lazier than Yuyuko. “It was short notice and I don’t have a lot of money,” she blushes more, “so I’m making takikomi gohan.” She’s planning on buying Tamao flowers. Enjoying her flower beds together may be out of the question but flowers, left somewhere for her. That would cheer her. And there’s a small fox plushy she’s seen. She’ll get that for her, too. Maybe that will make her smile.

Ichie claps. “Ah! That sounds so good!” She hops off the counter and finds an apron. This one is purple and the one Tamao usually wears. Ichie catches her looking and smiles. “I’m keeping it warm for her.”

Rui blinks, surprised. It should irritate her but it’s a thoughtful gesture. “Ah, all right.”

“How can I help you tonight, Sensei?”

“Eh? What— I— what—“

“I’m not any good at this,” she waves to the kitchen. “But I’m more than just pretty. So put me to work!”

Rui swallows hard. She looks around and wonders if she trusts her with a knife. “Would you like to chop some mushrooms?”

“Mushrooms! Yes!” She nods. “Whatever you need, Sensei! The amazing Ichie-senpai is on the job!”

Rui flushes. It’s so weird and she kind of likes it. It doesn’t mean anything. She’s just hungry.

X

“And here we are with our first-year star, Akikaze Rui!”

Rui, who is in the midst of knitting a scarf looks up. She isn’t sure why she’s blushing, but why is Ichie grinning like that and why is she circling her like a shark with her phone?

“Rui! Say something dazzling for your fans!”

Rui blinks. “Um?”

“You heard it here first!” She plops down on the couch beside her, lifting the phone so they’re both in frame. “I’m sure everyone knows Rui. Who can miss the hordes of fans that go to her kendo matches?”

“Um—“ Rui flushes, “that’s not—“ that’s not true. Ichie is making too much of things!

“Not only is she a future stage star in the making, but she’s also been propositioned by many of the school clubs and sports teams. And why not? She’s hard to miss with those long legs and athletic body!” Rui is convinced she’s going to melt into nothingness. She’s so flustered she can’t bring herself to speak, “but Rui has wifely qualities, too. She’s a great cook, and likes to knit soft things for her special ones! Rui, who’s the special girl getting this scarf?”

“Ichie-senpai…! Please…!”

“Hm, Akikaze-san is getting serious…!” She turns off the video and smiles at her. “I’m creating a YouTube channel! It’s going to be about all things cool and cute. It’s a perfect fit for me, wouldn’t you say?”

“T-then why am I on it? Ichie-senpai, you really shouldn’t just do such things…” she looks at the phone as if it will spring back to life. “You speak so carelessly…”

“Huh? I do?”

“All those things you were saying about me…” she shakes her head. “No one’s going to take you seriously…”

“Mh! And what’s so fun about being taken seriously? What boring lives!”

“Tamao-senpai is serious.”

A moment, followed by a nod. “Then let’s appreciate all our differences.” A happy sigh as she leans against the couch, tilting her head back and closing her eyes. Rui observes her a moment before fiddling with her knitting needles. “I’m going to build an audience on YouTube. It’s true I don’t know how to edit or anything like that, but I’ll learn.” Rui doesn’t point out that from her understanding, Ichie isn’t a particularly studious student. “It’ll be easy because it matters to me. Even if it isn’t easy, it’s important to me, so I’ll conquer it.”

“Oh. Well, I guess that’s an admirable attitude…”

Ichie laughs. “Mh, so, have you made your decision?” Rui’s eyebrows shoot up. “What club will you join? The basketball team wants you, so does the soccer club, the cooking club… Lacrosse team… volleyball team… There’s not enough of you to go around.” Rui frowns. “Or maybe you’re not ready to make a decision yet.”

Rui doesn’t want another group. It would feel like a betrayal to the performance department. It would mean to accept that she’s given up on this dream but she isn’t sure that she has. She’s disappointed that Tamao isn’t rallying around them. She probably needs time. Once she has that time she’ll come around. Yes. She’s sure of it. “It’s as you say, Ichie-senpai.” A moment. “Ichie-senpai, can I ask you something?” Ichie cocks her head and waits. “Aren’t you already a fairly popular person?” Ichie never stops moving. She greets everyone. It seems as if she’s friends with every person she encounters. She’s always warm and effusive. “Why do you need a YouTube channel about cute things…? Don’t people already know that about you?” 

Ichie smiles. “I’m a performer. I need an audience. Don’t worry, your sweet little Ichie-senpai isn’t giving up yet!” Her what??? “Tamao needs time. It’s true, it’s true. But while she takes that time I can’t stop moving. That’s why I’ve been hiding away all our performance department props and costumes. I’ll hold them until we’re ready to make our debut again.” She shakes her head. “Giving up isn’t something I do. And,” she says, “I know it’s not something you do, either.” Rui is ready to protest. “Ah! I remember how nervous you would be when you got on that stage! It’s the same with your kendo matches. You have all those nerves, running through you. Exhilarating and terrifying! But you always came back, Rui. That means you’re a fighter, too.”

A fighter. She’s trained in kendo all her life and somehow she never thought of herself that way. Ichie hops to her feet. Rui’s startled. “Are you leaving?”

“I’ve bothered my guest star long enough.”

Rui huffs. “You’re not going to put that online, are you?”

“Why not? Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll make you look good. It won’t be hard.”

Huh…?

X

The packs of girls follow her everywhere. They follow her down the hallways and in the cafeterias, when they get ahead of themselves they even trail after her into the classrooms. An uncomfortable, choking feeling swarms around inside of her growing hotter by the moment. Why do so many of them want her attention? Why when Tamao still hasn’t spoken to her after their performance department was taken away? I failed you. All of you. Do not put your dreams into my hands. I cannot hold them. Her voice was so strange and vacant. There was no anger or defiance; only defeat.

I want us to do something for her, Rui told Yuyuko. We need to help her. We need to get her back to what she was.

Yuyuko only shook her head. Leave her alone for now.

But that’s the last thing Tamao needs. If she’s left to her own devices, she crawls further into herself and becomes more dejected. Why won’t Tamao let her help? Why isn’t she allowed to comfort her? But what can she do? How can she help someone like Tamao? What arrogance! She finds herself running into the bathroom and closing the door to the stall, closing the lid on the toilet, and sitting, legs pulled to her chest.

Huh, where’d she go? One of the girls says. I could have sworn she came in here, says the other. Akikaze-san is so dreamy! I still think of her in that Ghost Patrol uniform! Rui puts her hands over her ears and tucks her head down. Please, just leave me alone, she wants to shout at them. But she doesn’t say anything. She only waits for them to go away. Eventually, they do and she still waits another few minutes.

She stands, fingers braced against the wall. She peers out the sliver of space between the wall and the door before exiting. A deep breath. Okay. It’s okay now. She washes her hands, washes her face, stares at her reflection. She doesn’t see it.

X

And strike…!

The blow lands, the match won. A group of girls giggle and cheer. Rui pulls her mask away, sweaty and red-faced. Ichie and Yuyuko sit in the audience clapping politely and Rui feels cold guilt needle into her. She smiles and trots over and Ichie and Yuyuko stand. They’re both such small girls, probably some of the smallest in the school.

“What are you two doing here?” Rui asks.

“Is that any way to talk to your doting fans?” Yuyuko asks.

“Yukko…” Rui shifts, “don’t tease me that way.”

Yuyuko chuckles. “If you want to blame anyone, blame Ichie-san. She insisted you could use our support,” she casts a glance to the side, “but it seems like you have more than enough.”

“And, and! Now we’re all together!” Ichie stands on the bottom bleacher so she can hook an arm around Rui’s neck, phone in hand, “look at this pretty girl!” Rui expects a picture of Tamao and gets one. Tamao looks beautiful and elegant but withdrawn, her gaze unfocused. “She has a big test coming up so she couldn’t make it.”

“Don’t you have that same big test coming up?” Yuyuko asks.

“This is more important!” she hops down from the bench. “Good match today, Rui. You’re always so impressive.”

“Thank you,” she mutters, “but I’m not really…” she bites her tongue and forces herself to meet their eyes. “Thank you for coming. Both of you. It’s nice for us to be together.” It makes her feel warm, like she could cry. They came for her. Both of them. Maybe they haven’t forgotten. Maybe those memories were precious after all. “Even if…” 

Yuyuko and Ichie’s smiles are pale and bittersweet. “Hey, I have an idea!” Ichie says. “Let’s get donuts to celebrate!”

Yuyuko yawns. “So long as you pay, Ichie-san. I’m a poor kouhai with no money to my name…”

Ichie’s surly before grinning. “All right, all right, you’ll just have to owe me!”

“That’s not very senpai-like of you,” Yuyuko says.

“Ah-ha, that’s just how things are with ‘Ichie-sans’.” She looks at Rui. “But what do you say? You’re the star of the day.”

Rui blushes. Why is she like this? Why is she doing this? Why is she saying these things? She wants to ask her. But Yuyuko’s here. “It’s just a kendo match…” She’s spent too many hours training since they lost the performance department. Gripping the shinai, putting all her focus into her swordwork is the only thing keeping her steady. “But— I won’t turn down a donut.”

Ichie cheers. “Go change. Yuyuko and I will wait.” She glances at the other girls. “And look here. Yuyuko and I stole you long enough that your fans got bored and moved on. For today, at least.”

Rui smiles, earnest. “Thank you. I won’t keep you waiting!”

Ichie smiles and sits, and Rui goes to the changing rooms, trying to remember the last time there was a bounce in her step.

X

The donuts were good but it’s the company that Rui continues to find herself thinking about. It’s strange how much time she’s spending with Ichie these days. Rui barely noticed her before, outside of wishing she were more respectful to Tamao or would take things more seriously. She was never disciplined. Tamao never was either, in many ways, but Ichie kept their spirits up. Nothing ever seemed to languish too long with her bright energy.

Rui touches the door to the rehearsal room and looks inside. The sun is setting and the room is cast in purple and pink glows. Ichie is there, stacking a box on top of another one and trying to lift both. She wobbles, sets them down, and starts to rearrange them. Rui enters and closes the door behind her.

“Nothing!” Ichie says. She turns, panicked. When she sees her face, she smiles. “Oh. Rui! What are you sneaking up on me for?” She plants her hands on her hips, all the tension slipping from her body. 

“I thought you might be here.” She didn’t know that until this moment. Ichie cocks her head. “Um. What are you doing, Ichie-senpai?” She moves to her to look into the boxes. She sees a few weapon props, folded costumes. “Where are you taking these…?”

“Ah…! Well… I’m trying to find spots for them but I’m running out. The teachers are so vigilant!” She complains. “Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiink I could store some of these in your kendo locker room?” The look on her face must give something away. “It was only a suggestion,” she brings a hand to her chin, “well, I’ll figure it out.”

“This belongs to the school. They’ll notice it’s gone.”

“The students made this. We made this. It’s ours. Our hard work. Our sweat and tears. Our dreams. This is just a club to them.” She frowns and picks up what Rui recognizes as Miroku’s jacket. “Don’t you want to wear this again?”

“Of course I do…” 

“Put it on! Put it on now!”

“W—wha—“

Before she knows it, Ichie’s set the jacket aside but she’s unbuttoning the small top to the school uniform and helping her shrug into Miroku’s jacket. How is this happening and so quickly at that? But even so, just the brush of the fabric against her skin makes her think of that night they performed their Ghost Patrol for the school. It wasn’t enough to win them a slot at the performance festival. If they’d had another cast member maybe it would have been different. She runs a hand along the sleeve of the uniform.

“How does it feel?” Ichie asks. 

Rui screws up her brow. “It feels sad.”

A moment. A nod. Ichie takes her hands and Rui nearly jumps. “If you feel sad, it’s because it still matters. And that means you haven’t given up. That makes me really happy, Rui. I’m not giving up. And I won’t let you give up, either.”

Rui doesn’t know how she ends up crying. She’s so embarrassed. She’s crying on the shoulder of such a tiny girl. And she’s so tall, too. It must look ridiculous. If anyone saw, they might laugh. Ichie who always laughs doesn’t laugh. Ichie strokes her back but doesn’t say anything. It’s not Tamao. It isn’t right. This is all wrong. But afterward, she feels better.

X

She only ever sees Tamao from a distance. She only ever sees her back. Yuyuko is by her side, some of the time. Other times it’s Ichie bopping alongside her, hands laced behind her back, speaking animatedly. Even if Rui can read Ichie’s back, she can’t read Tamao’s. She thinks her face is ducked down.

Ichie pauses, turns back. Rui nearly scrambles behind the tree but stops herself, lifting a hand to wave. Ichie smiles, waves back, and keeps moving with Tamao. Rui thinks of the flowers she got Tamao, the way Tamao displayed them as if they had been given to all of Rinmeikan. She thanked her for the stuffed fox, looking at it for a long time before returning it. If I accept this you’ll keep chasing me. You’ll expect something. You’ll give it meaning that isn’t there. You won’t do it consciously, but that hope will remain. I won’t be so cruel. She turned on her heel and left without another word.

Rui stood motionless, feeling as if she would throw up. She didn’t know what to do with the fox and ended up throwing it away before fishing it out not ten minutes later and washing it. Why bother? What’s she supposed to do with it now? She considered Ichie before dismissing the thought. She won’t give her something secondhand.

X

Ichie opens the door, looks up at Rui in surprise. “Ah, Rui.” A smile. “Sorry, but Tamao’s not in.”

“Oh. Um. That’s all right.” She knows Tamao’s not in. Tamao has been attending to the flower beds with Yuyuko. Rui didn’t have the courage to go to them. “I was actually looking for you, Ichie-senpai.”

“Well, you found me!” She rubs her neck and stands aside to let her in. “What’s up? You don’t usually visit.”

“I know. Um, are you busy?” Rui asks. Ichie shakes her head. Rui nods. “I made lunch. It’s nothing fancy, just some onigiri. But…” she bites her tongue, “I thought you might like some.”

“Oh, this is perfect. I’m starving and was going to have some cereal but then I realized I’m out!” She waves her over to the couch and Rui follows, sitting beside her. “Cereal’s great but you’re always hungry not long after.” She picks up an onigiri and has a bite. She clutches her stomach and hums. “So good…! Rui, you’re good at everything. That’s not fair, showing your senpai up!” 

“I don’t think I’ve shown you up or anything… you could probably do the same if you… if you practiced a little in the kitchen, Ichie-senpai.”

“My mom doesn’t trust me around knives so I never got around to it.” She runs a hand through her hair. “Ah-ha, maybe I’ve been spoiled a little. Tamao always cooked my meals… I’ve tried to make her a few,” she stretches her hands out. Small red cuts line her fingers. “But I haven’t had a lot of luck.”

Rui takes her hands and looks at her fingers. “You ought to be more careful, Ichie-senpai. Do you remember where the ointment is?” Ichie looks perplexed in response. “Wait here.”

She stands. She remembers where Tamao kept the medical kit. One time they were cooking together. Rui got so distracted watching her that the knife slipped from her hand, clattering to the floor but not before slashing her foot. Tamao took care of her, humming a song as she placed ointment and wrapped bandaging around her. It was all worth it, she thought. Getting hurt was a bargain if she could spend time with her.

Rui finds the kit, opens it. Everything is there. Rui tells her where the kit is kept. “It’s important to know these things.” She sits beside her and takes her hands, using small alcohol pads to clean the wounds. “You should be more careful.” She applies the ointment. Ichie’s hands are even softer than Tamao’s. Is it because she’s so lazy or is it some part of a beauty routine? “Your hands are important.”

“Right, right. I messed up, but I didn’t mean to. Mom’s an awful cook so she never taught me. Ah! But that sounds bad! My mom is great! Really great! Just not in the kitchen.”

Rui smiles a bit. “What about Tamao-senpai?”

“She always insisted on doing all the work,” she blushes, “I think it was faster for her that way.”

Rui unwraps tiny bandages, enough for all the little cuts. She feels Ichie’s gaze on her face as she applies the bandages and blushes. “Why don’t I teach you sometime? I’m not as good as Tamao-senpai… but you should know.” Ichie chuckles. “What…?” Was that presumptuous? Stupid? She shouldn’t have said anything. Why would Ichie-senpai—

Ichie leans forward and kisses her cheek. “You’re so reliable, Rui. Let’s practice until I have it down. I won’t let you down, Sensei!”

Rui’s frozen. She kissed her cheek. Ichie kissed her cheek! She’s on fire. She tries to move or say something and can’t.

“Oh. Sorry. I probably shouldn’t have done that without asking. Usually not asking is more fun but when it comes to people, it’s important to be kind. Ah, that was a little more thoughtless than usual for me.”

Rui blinks.

“Are you angry?”

Rui blinks again. She realizes she’s still holding onto her hands. She shakes her head. 

“Are you sure? Sometimes it’s okay to be angry. It can be healthy, you know. Your feelings matter, too.”

“I’m— I’m not— angry,” she mutters. “I’m surprised. I…” never thought that would happen. Is it something that Ichie goes around doing? Kissing random girls…? She was kissed by a girl…! She tries to slow her heart. It isn’t Tamao so it doesn’t count. Even so, why can’t she make her heart stop pounding…? She’s still holding her hands. She nearly yelps and lets go. She covers her face with her hands. “I’m sorry, Ichie-senpai, I’m so— I’m so— ah— I’m flustered, I’m not crying!” She lowers her hands and looks at her. Ichie smiles. She searches the smile but finds no mocking. 

“Good. I’d hate to make a pretty girl cry.”

Rui lowers her face, growing hotter still. “Ichie-senpai…” Why is she saying those things? She’s not pretty… She’s… tall and awkward and… 

“If you want I can be on my best behavior moving forward and it’ll never happen again. Ah! I mean… with stuff like this. I can’t promise other stuff. Like, I’m still going to continue to try to revive the performance department. You can’t talk me out of that.”

“No.”

“Hm? No?”

Rui stares at the medical kit in her lap. “I mean… I didn’t say… I didn’t say you could never do something like that again. You’re my senpai, after all.”

“What does that have to do with it? We’re friends too, right? That’s more important than ‘senpai’ and ‘kouhai’.”

It’s just like Ichie to be so contradictory. Yuyuko calls Ichie ‘Ichie-san’. She’s always found it so disrespectful, but she wonders if she could ever call her something similar. 

“Not everything has to fit into neat little boxes, Rui. Think how boring the world would be if it did.” She takes the kit from her lap, closing it carefully. “Now, will you show me exactly where you pulled this from? I know you told me, I know… but I’m afraid I’ll forget if you don’t show me. Can you show me…?”

Rui looks up at her, swallows, nods, and stands.

X

They cook together. And Ichie doesn’t want to forget her fight choreography so Rui spars with her. At first, she’s terrible, which is strange given how light she is on her feet, but she keeps at it until eventually, Rui is able to come up with more daring fight sequences. The truth is that she’s missed this. If she thought anyone would be by her side, she imagined it would be Yuyuko. But Yuyuko spends so much time with Tamao these days. If I accept this you'll keep chasing me. You’ll expect something, Tamao said.

She hasn’t shaken the words. She doesn’t want to accept it but she knows she’s right. She’s wanted her to go back to herself. To get them together again. If it was Tamao who said she wasn’t giving up on their performance department, would she fight against her the way she resists Ichie? She doubts it. That’s unfair to Ichie. And maybe it’s unfair to Tamao to wish she was more like Ichie. Everything is wrong if she can think something like that.

Ichie steps forward and strikes. The shinai hits Rui’s helmet. Rui isn’t sure what’s happened. Ichie whoops, throws her helmet off. She drops the shinai and runs around, arms outstretched. “I did it! I got you! Ah-ha-ha! You’ve underestimated me!” Rui removes her helmet. “Nothing will keep your beloved Ichie down!” Beloved? Who said that…? Ichie runs to her. “Well!”

“Um. I can’t believe this has happened.”

“That’s right! You’re such a good teacher, Rui! You’ve even made something of me.” She frames her hands into a heart shape over her heart. “Thank you!” Rui bows her head. Is this like Yuyuko? Should she go along with it? Is there any point in telling her she was only distracted? 

Rui stares at her, blushing, looking at her happy face. She feels so guilty. She should be happier. “Um. You’re a quick learner, Ichie-senpai.” Ichie laughs and Rui’s face gets redder. “What’s funny?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing. I think it’s sweet. I know I couldn’t have gotten that shot in if you weren’t a little distracted. But you’re too nice to just say so.” Ichie reaches up, cupping Rui’s face in her hands and squeezing. “No wonder the girls are crazy about you. Tall, athletic, talented, kind, good looking, and sensitive.” 

Those are too many things. Too many things. She’s a sweaty mess. A sweaty lightheaded mess. “Ichie-senpai, when you talk that way…” Ichie cocks her head. The truth is that Ichie is very pretty. Second to Tamao, she’s the prettiest girl at the school. Unlike Tamao, she hasn’t left her side since everything has happened. Her eyes sting, she’s so grateful to her. 

“When I talk that way…?”

Rui hugs her. She regrets it almost immediately. Ichie is her senpai and anyway, she’s in love with Tamao. She thinks she is or ought to be. Why is she doing this? She almost lets go but Ichie melts into her. Isn’t she sweaty and gross? Ichie holds her closer. Rui closes her eyes and breathes. She’s warm. Relaxed. And then she’s hot, so many electric feelings coursing through her. She’s afraid to breathe, terrified that Ichie will discover her.

Ichie nuzzles against her. “What strong arms you have, Rui.”

X

Ichie surprises her with dinner and donuts. Rui surprises them both by kissing her. She doesn’t know what she’s doing and it’s mostly a brief moment of mashing her lips against Ichie’s. A surprised muffled sound from Ichie and then Rui pulls back, mortified, spilling apologies everywhere. It’s a trick how she feels around her. It’s completely against what’s right. The excitement and the nerves used to be reserved for someone else, but now in her spare time, she’s thinking about Ichie, looking forward to seeing her. She dreams about her. Vivid dreams, that wake her up paranoid and disappointed.

Ichie pulls Rui’s hands from her face and Rui averts her eyes, unable to look at her. She’s never done something like that. It’s so rude! How could she! How could she do a thing like that…? How can she just assume that Ichie is like her?

“You caught me off guard,” Ichie says. She stands and locks the door to the dorm room, locking them in, locking others out. She joins her on the couch again, meets her eyes. Rui tries to not let her imagination run off with her. “Don’t look so serious. This can be fun, too.” Fun…? Ichie kisses her cheek. Rui warms. Her nose. Rui would laugh if not for nerves. Her ear.

Rui trembles, growing hotter with every offering. Ichie rests a hand on her knee, leans forward, breath brushing against Rui’s lips. Rui looks back at her, looks at the shape of her mouth. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” Rui musters, barely able to hear herself. “I want to but I don’t know. I’m so nervous.” She’s going to choke on her heart. That’s what it feels like.

“Why don’t I start us off, then…? You can take over when you’re ready, Sensei.”

Sensei…? Take over…?

“Is that okay?” Ichie asks.

Rui bites her lower lip, nods. 

Ichie palms her face. “Do you know how many girls would kill to be in my place right now?” She asks. Rui blushes more. She doesn’t know. It’s something Ichie’s saying. Nothing more. “Close your eyes.” Rui gulps breath and closes her eyes. A kiss to the curve of her jaw before Ichie’s lips are on her own.

X

It’s impossible to focus in class. It was bad enough when she was transferred over to the general department. But after what happened with Ichie she finds herself thinking about it nonstop. She hasn’t seen her since that evening. She wants to see her again but what will she say…? Will that happen again…? It’s wrong isn’t it, since she devoted her heart to Tamao. But Tamao has barely spoken to her since the department shut down. It’s been nearly two months since then… and Ichie has been… well, Ichie. But considerate too and attentive. Not only that, somehow she always manages to make her feel special or at ease. Does she know that she’s doing it…? To think that she gets to do that with such a beautiful girl, and a senpai at that…

The teacher calls on her and Rui nearly screams, jumps to her feet. Yuyuko wakes up, looking at her bleary and curious. 

The rest of her classes take ages to pass. Finally, classes end and Rui doesn’t know what to do with herself. Should she seek her out? She thinks of Ichie in her arms. She’s so small and fits so perfectly. Ichie told her she had strong arms. Does she like being held by her? 

She returns to her dorm room and turns on her computer. Yuyuko isn’t here. That’s a relief… She goes to YouTube and finds Ichie’s ‘Ichi Ichi Channel’. She has several playlists. ‘Costumes’, ’Singing’, ‘Performances’, ‘Cooking’, ‘Project Rebuilding the Rinmeikan Performance Department’. Rui narrows her eyes. She wants to go through all of them, but she has to start somewhere. Maybe it’s morbid curiosity. She clicks on ‘cooking’.

Ichie pops into frame, wearing a white apron with a giant pink heart in the middle. Hi, everyone! It’s yours truly, Otonashi Ichie! Today, we’ll be talking about safety in the kitchen! Did you know knives could be sharp? She raises her hands to the camera and Rui sees her bandaged fingers. She must have made that video after she attended to her. That was the day Ichie kissed her cheek. She warms. Not everyone is as lucky to have such caring friends as I am, so today, I’m going to teach you how to wield a knife so you can prepare a meal for your special ones! She picks up the blade cautiously. Sensei, if you’re watching, I hope you’re proud! W-what!? Rui peers closer. Um. I think like this. Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll be getting more training soon and I’ll update this video then! And not to worry, if I cut myself I’ll just edit it out!

She looks at the comments. Most of them are encouraging, telling her she looks cute. A blonde girl with what looks like could be a headshot for a modeling agency with ponzu in their user name. Why not just wait until you’re actually trained? You are not at all qualified to be in the kitchen! 

That’s a little rude. At least she’s trying. Rui smiles and tries to leave a comment but she doesn’t have an account. She sits there, trying to think of a user name when Yuyuko returns. Rui slams the computer shut and stands, heart pounding. She picks up her phone, clutching it to her, and goes out to greet her.

Yuyuko smiles. “Rui. I thought you’d be with Ichie-san.”

Ha, what does that mean…? She wishes she were with Ichie. Is she changing…? Guh, what does this mean…? “I could say the same about you.” Yuyuko lifts her eyebrows. She says what she has known and thought about endlessly but hasn’t said. “You’ve been spending a lot of your time with Tamao-senpai.” Yuyuko’s eyes glaze over but she doesn’t respond. “I wish…” A moment. “I wish she could bear to be near me.”

Yuyuko steps out of her shoes and pulls the hoodie back from her head. “It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?” she asks, her chest growing hot. “I followed her here! I— I believed in her stage and the performance department! I wanted to share a stage with her and continue to make beautiful memories. But she won’t even talk to me! It’s as if she’s forgotten all of it, all we had. She won’t talk to me but she’ll talk to you! It’s not— ” fair, she bites back the words. She lowers her head, bites her lip. “I’m sorry for yelling,” she mumbles, “I just don’t understand any of this.” She looks at her. “I don’t even see you anymore.”

A faint smile. “Have you searched for me, Rui?”

“Have I…” her face burns.

“Anyway…” Yuyuko says, “maybe this was all inevitable. With rakugo, anywhere can be my stage, just about. But still…” her smile is pained for an instant. “Tamao-senpai… she’s grieving and when we grieve we need distance, I think.”

Rui thins her lips. “Ichie-senpai thinks she can restore the performance department. She’s not giving up and I want to believe her. I want to restore the department, too. I won’t give up the stage.”

“We’re four students, trying to restore a stage that no one wanted to be a part of.”

We wanted it. You, me, Ichie-senpai, Tamao-senpai…! That mattered!” She thinks of Ichie, nods. “It still matters.”

“Hm.” She brings a hand to her chin in thought. “I don’t disagree. But I’m not sure what we can do about it. Tamao-senpai… she’s just a girl, after all.” Another small smile. “And that’s okay.”

A moment. “What do you two spend your time doing?”

“Not much of anything. We drink tea and read together.” A beat. “It’s a lot to me. I’m a quiet presence. I think…” she tangles her fingers, not quite able to look at her, “it helps…”

A breath. So Yuyuko can give her what she can’t. “I see.” 

Yuyuko’s face reddens. 

“Is she eating enough?” Rui asks.

A small nod. 

Rui’s phone vibrates. Rui looks at it. Ichie’s sent her a gif of an animated dancing donut. She smiles without meaning to and Yuyuko moves past her. Rui stashes the phone. Ugh. That was rude… “Sorry, I didn’t mean—“

“It’s fine,” Yuyuko says, moving to her collection of tapes. “There are a few stories I wanted to share with Tamao-senpai. I was only stopping by for that.”

“Oh…” She bites her lower lip, holds close to the phone. “I— I think I’ll get going then… or…” should she get going…? “Will you be going there…?” 

Yuyuko nods. 

“How long will you stay…?”

“As long as Tamao-senpai wants me to,” she glances at her, “or Ichie-san kicks me out. Ichie-san flutters around like a butterfly when Tamao’s near. She doesn’t bother her, really, but I think it’s her way of reminding her she hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s strange for a senpai.”

Rui nods, her heart pounding so fiercely it’s difficult to hear her own thoughts. They have a conversation Rui can’t remember and then Yuyuko’s gone. She sits on the bed and decides to text Ichie. But what should she say…?

She makes a few attempts. Thank you for the donut gif. Is one. Or… I saw your cooking video! And, Was it real to you, what happened? She can’t send any of them. She’s pondering what would be the right thing to send when Ichie texts. Hiya! What are you up to?

Rui breathes. That’s easier to respond to. Not too much. Yukko just went off to spend time with Tamao-senpai.

More rakugo, huh? Tamao’s lucky! Those stories are so funny, sometimes it feels like my sides will split when I listen to them. So Ichie’s been there too when Yuyuko has shared those stories. That makes sense. But doesn’t it make them sad to be together without a department? To be together without her? Or is it easier to not be reminded…?

What are you up to, Ichie-senpai? Are you busy?

Maybe I am. That depends.

On what?

On you. She sends a smiley face.

And just like that her heart’s beating too fast again. Would you like to visit?

Would you like me to?

She swallows. Yes. I’d like that very much, Ichie-senpai.

See you soon, Rui. Ooh! Want to make dinner together???

She suspects she only wants to be fed. Will you help?

Of course, of course! I can’t let down Sensei, after all.

She blushes. Please hurry.

It isn’t too long before Ichie’s there. Rui nearly trips over her feet getting to the door. 

Ichie holds out a box. “I brought you donuts! I placed an order this morning from your favorite shop. Don’t think this girl sends out gifs for nothing! I always—” Rui pulls her inside and kisses her. Oh …! What has she done! She can’t— she can’t just assume— she can’t just— 

Ichie’s redfaced. She sets the box of donuts aside, takes Rui’s hands, and looks up at her. “It’ll be better when I’m ready for you.” A smile as Ichie meets her eyes, despite that her neck and chest are now growing as bright as her hair. 

“Is… Is it really okay…?” For them to do this. For a kouhai to do this. A kouhai to do this to a senpai. With a senpai. 

“Do you want to?” Ichie asks. Rui nods. “Then it’s okay.”

“Oh.” But she feels so nervous now. Doing this slowly. “Um… um. Okay.” Should she keep her hands in hers? Maybe that’s okay. It used to be Tamao to hold her hand when she was nervous, but it's been a while. What if she doesn’t do it right? Did Ichie like it before? She’s thought about it so much. “Ichie-senpai…” A slight cock of Ichie’s head. “Why are you so nice to me…? I mean… you’re so beautiful—“ She feels guilty saying so, even if it’s true. She is beautiful. It’s different from Tamao’s beauty, but she’s noticed and wishes she hadn’t, “and you’re popular and… you’re not shy around anyone…! Every time… I have to talk to strangers I… become a mess and—“ a huff. “Even with you a little sometimes. Especially lately…” A moment, “it’s just… when I’m with you I want to stand a little taller. I try not to stand out… because I always seem to no matter what I do… but with you— it’s… it feels okay, maybe.”

Ichie smiles. “I’m really happy to hear that. Cute girls like you should never hide themselves away. What would all the rest of us have to look forward to?”

“Ichie-senpai, you’re really too much…” All she ever does is feel flustered around her.

“So what are you going to do about it…?”

A breath. Grim determination. She leans down, meets her eyes once more, gets a smile in return. She kisses her. Ichie kisses her back. It’s like a dance with Ichie able to follow her every move. If it’s slow, firmer, hotter, Ichie goes with her. Every moment that passes Rui feels more at ease. Eventually, Rui wraps her arms around her, lifting her off her feet. Ichie circles her arms around her neck, holding her close.

X

They sit beneath the tree, Ichie resting against her shoulder. Rui’s just told her about how her grandmother had once played Onikage and her own dreams of having followed in her footsteps. She still hasn’t told her family Rinmeikan closed their department. If she says it, it’ll definitely be real and anyway, she wants to be spirited away by Ichie’s assertions, and believe that there’s still hope. It’s not so impossible, is it? Don’t stories love an underdog?

Ichie’s hand brushes against hers and Rui links their pinkies. Ichie chuckles, turning her face to kiss her arm. Even over their school uniform, she can feel it. Ichie is far too bold. She sees a group of girls heading their way in the distance. Ichie notices too and straightens up, their hands unlinked.

“Otonashi-san!” One of the girls starts. Ichie smiles up at them. “It’s too much, isn’t it?”

“Huh? What’s too much?” Ichie asks. “Yui-chan, what’s the matter?”

“As if you don’t know,” another one says. Rui recognizes her as a member of the basketball team. She wears her hair in braids, she’s fairly tall, even if she isn’t taller than Rui herself. “Your department has been closed! Akikaze is being kept from other opportunities!”

Ichie blinks. Rui blushes, humiliated. Oh. Is this…

“Eh?” Ichie asks. She gets to her feet and stares at the girls who all tower over her. Rui remains seated, still not quite grasping what’s happening. “But Rui’s in a club with me—”

“Come off it, Ichie-san!” Rui looks to this girl, dark hair, dark eyes, a volleyball player, she thinks, “you’re both in the general department now! You’re not in anything together!”

Ichie rubs her neck. “Well, it’s true that they closed the department, but they haven’t taken our stage. Rui and I are still stage girls! That’s why—“

“That’s not how it works!” A lacrosse player, maybe…? “All this time, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity to work with Rui-chan!” So many voices, all talking over one another, “She could make a real difference to our clubs! And still, you keep Akikaze-san to yourself! You’re so selfish, Ichie-senpai!”

Rui jumps to her feet, shaking. “No!” She says, stepping between Ichie and them. “You take it back! You apologize!” Everyone falls into silence. “I mean it!” She repeats. “You apologize, right now!”

The girls have all gone red in the face, unable to meet their eyes. Ichie tugs on her sleeve. “Rui, it’s okay—“

“No, it’s not! You don’t deserve that…! I don’t deserve that. I could have joined your clubs. I’ve told you, that I’m not interested. What I want, that matters.” She flushes as she says the words, realizing only after she’s said them, that she’s heard them before. “Ichie-senpai… has helped me— Ichie-senpai always helps without asking for anything. And she’s not wrong. Our performance department isn’t gone! We’re going to bring it back! We’re going to find a way, no matter what!” Apologies to her, contrite, Rui shakes her head. “It’s Ichie-senpai you should be apologizing to.”

They apologize. Ichie smiles and forgives them. The girls go away. She and Ichie sit again. Ichie takes her hand. “Rui, you were so cool…! My hero…!” She squeezes her arm, “I thought you were going to stomp on them! Oh, you’re going to get so many kisses later.”

! Really? “You do realize that you’re smaller than all those girls…? They could have all stomped you.”

“Ah-ha! I’m too cute to stomp on! And my beautiful Yojimbo would have made it impossible…!”

Rui heats, the promise of kisses not enough to calm her completely. “They shouldn’t have talked to you that way. They had no right.” The anger begins to build in her again. 

“Hm, maybe that’s true… but you’re someone worth fighting for, Rui. Whatever you want, you can do it. So I believe you can make any team stronger. They fought for you. But I’ll fight for you, too. And I won’t apologize. You can’t make me.”

“Ichie-senpai…” She really wants to kiss her. If only they weren’t outdoors with so many students. “I won’t let you down.” A moment. “I think… that Yukko feels the same way that we do. About our department. So… whatever we have to do… I think if we ask Yukko, she’ll join us.”

Ichie nods. “Yuyuko’s a really good writer. I’m sure she could write a great script for us.”

They sit in silence. “What about Tamao-senpai…?” Rui asks. It feels strange to bring her up even if Ichie never seems to mind. “I know she loves the stage and this school. This is… momentary. I know… there must be a way to bring her back to us.”

Ichie nods. “I think you’re right! It’s like a puzzle…! Agh, I’m not very good at puzzles, but I bet we can figure this out! We will, we will!” Rui nods, reassured. She takes her hand and their fingers lace. Ichie rests against her again. 

“Aren’t you worried about others seeing?”

“No. I’m trying to show off. Take that, volleyball team!”

“Eh? Ichie-senpai…”

Ichie chuckles. “Rinmeiki.”

“Huh?”

Rinmeiki!” She sits up.I think that— I think that’s what we should—“

Ichie’s phone rings. A strange, particular ring. Ichie picks up the phone and they stare at the black screen, a round logo flashing with a spinning giraffe.

“Who is it…?” Rui asks.

“Don’t know. Ah! Maybe someone saw my YouTube videos and wants to offer me a seiyuu contract! Wouldn’t that be cool? I’m so cute and charming, too. I’d be a real moneymaker!” 

They stare at the phone a bit longer. 

Rui’s stomach is in knots. Even Ichie looks apprehensive. Does she feel the same way…? “Shouldn’t you answer that…?”

 Ichie flashes a nervous smile, brings the phone to her ear. “Hello?”