Everyone seems out of sorts the next day, making morning practice long and tedious. Senga wasn’t sleeping well even before Nikaido deserted the futon and crawled into Senga’s bed, claiming nightmares. Fujigaya is still sulking from the day before, and even Kitayama is more brusque than usual. Yokoo stops trying to mediate after Fujigaya tells him to fuck off for the third time, and even Miyata’s unflagging group ai starts to thin a little from too many friction-filled days in a row.
Tamamori is a bundle of nerves about his recording session that afternoon, making it impossible for him to focus even as much as he usually does. He trips over his own feet and miscounts, and the reach of his long arms is almost as much a danger zone as it had been right after his first growth spurt.
“How do you expect to be center when you can’t even do the backing?” Kitayama finally demands, completely out of patience with Tamamori’s flail. Tamamori turns to give him a look over his shoulder, cheeks pink and eyes narrow.
“Don’t,” Senga says quickly, before Tamamori manages to say any of the things he’s obviously thinking. He puts a hand on Kitayama’s arm; they both know that yelling at Tamamori will only make the situation worse. “Tama-chan, let me help you out a bit, okay?” He looks to the others, willing them to just please do what he says. “Take a break?” Leave us alone for a while, is what he actually means.
Whether they get it or are just sick of practice, everybody else goes, either into the changing room or outside to get some air. Miyata squeezes Tamamori’s shoulder before dragging Nikaido out with him.
“Drink this,” Senga says to Tamamori, pushing a water bottle into his hands, eyeing the way Tamamori’s shirt is stuck to his skin with nervous sweat. “You’re going to get dehydrated, if you aren’t already.”
“Sorry,” Tamamori mumbles, taking deep breaths, trying to calm himself down. It doesn’t seem to be working. “I can’t focus on it. Even if I could sing it, I shouldn’t be center, I can’t...”
“Shut up,” Senga says, but it’s gentle. It makes him think of debut tour, Tamamori strung out from drama filming and missing all the choreography practices, the way he used to look desperately at Senga like he was drowning. “I can fix it. Trust me, okay? Relax.”
“Okay.” Tamamori heaves another heavy sigh, and his shoulders loosen a little. “It’s your dance, I guess.” He swallows a few gulps of water. “And ugh, it’s so hot in here.”
Senga makes a non-committal noise, and keeps his eyes away from the mirror.
When their manager comes to collect them for the afternoon, the dance needs more practice but is workable. Tamamori grits his teeth, eyes narrow with concentration as they show her their progress, and he makes it through with only some small mistakes.
“Good work,” their manager nods in approval. “More than good enough to film with, and we can cover the awkward bits with solo shots. Hurry and get cleaned up, I have the feeling we’ll need as much time in the recording booth as possible.” She gives Tamamori a wry look, and Tamamori scuttles off first like she’d snapped him with a towel.
At the recording studio, they divy up the lines while Tamamori works with the sound tech to get the bulk of the main lines recorded. Tamamori still looks like he’s about to throw up on his shoes and is drinking like a fish, but in spite of that his voice holds up well for all but the highest lines.
“You’ve almost got it,” their manager assures, and then she shuts him in the recording booth with a case of water. Tamamori looks at the rest of them plaintively through the glass as their manager shoos them out to work on their own parts. Miyata blows him a showy farewell kiss before Kitayama and Nikaido shove him out the door.
“Ne,” Miyata sidles over to Senga during the break that they eventually take to rest their voices, “thanks for earlier. Since Tama-chan didn’t do it properly himself, I bet.”
“It’s fine,” Senga assures, glad to see Miyata’s smile is back. “Won’t be the last time.”
“It won’t!” Miyata chuckles with Senga. “He sounded pretty good, though, right? I was relieved, it seems like it’ll work out.”
“Hey,” Senga leans in a little closer to whisper, “want to sneak over and see how he’s doing?”
Miyata’s eyes light up, and they sneak out of the room before the others notice what they’re doing, down the hall and into the other recording room. The sound tech is absorbed in his controls and monitors and Tamamori’s back is to them in the booth, neither of them noticing Senga and Miyata sneaking in and closing the door quietly behind them. Senga frowns at the sweat-dark patches of Tamamori’s back and under his arms, and the half-empty case of water bottles on the ledge. Beside him, Miyata’s brows knit with concern.
“Try that line again,” the tech is saying, cuing up the music. Tamamori’s shoulders shift as he draws a breath, one hand coming up to press nervously against his headphones. Tamamori does the lead-in line all right, but his voice turns shrill at the high note, making both Miyata and Senga cringe. “Would it help if I fed the original vocals back into your headphones?”
“They aren’t on now, right?” Tamamori’s voice sounds confused and breathy, like he’s not getting quite enough air. “It sounds like someone else was singing, though...there isn’t anyone else there, right?”
The tech glances over his shoulder, starting a little when he says Senga and Miyata. “Senga-kun and Miyata-kun have come back in just now.”
“Senga-kun? Oh.” Tamamori’s voice gets even softer, pausing in strange places, and it’s making Senga’s arms prickle. “Sorry I caused you trouble earlier...hey...it’s really warm in here...”
“Just a few more tries,” the tech soothes, “I’ve almost got what I need.”
Tamamori’s next breath is more like a shudder, but when he hits the high note this time, it makes all three of their jaws drop.
“Excellent work, Tamamori-kun!” the tech praises, and Tamamori’s shoulders slump, his water bottle slipping out of his fingers. “Do you want to do a few more, or are you satisfied with that?”
Tamamori doesn’t answer, only gives a sort of wheeze. The way he won’t turn and look at them is giving Senga the creeps. Tamamori’s next breath is more of a rattle, and Miyata shoulders the tech aside to press down on the call button himself.
“Tama-chan, are you okay?” he demands, panicky. When Tamamori does start to turn their way, there’s the crunch of plastic, and Senga wonders just how many water bottles are on the floor in there, before he gets a good look at Tamamori’s face.
Tamamori’s bangs are plastered to his forehead and sweat is beading at his temples. Tamamori’s face is so pale he looks almost green, his eyes fever-bright and bulging a little, darting from side to side. His mouth is moving but he’s barely getting any sound out, only some high-pitched wheezes.
Suddenly he shrieks so loudly it makes Miyata and Senga both jump six inches, like the noise is being squeezed out of him, the pitch a grating, prolonged parody of the high note he’d hit moments before. He chokes, sound cutting off just as abruptly, then vomits a flood of shockingly pink fluid against the glass of the booth before his eyes roll back in his head and he collapses.
“TAMA!” Miyata screams, but Senga beats both him and the tech to the door handle of the booth. There’s an awful few seconds where it refuses to open no matter how hard he twists it and he bangs on the door with his other fist, all of them yelling Tamamori’s name.
At last the door gives and practically flies open on them, as if someone on the other side had let go suddenly. Senga and Miyata drop to their knees next to Tamamori and shake him without success, a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth, while the tech stands above them and yells into his phone for an ambulance.
“He’s just torn up his throat a little,” their manager reports when she comes out into the hospital’s waiting room. She’s projecting as much calm as she can, but Senga can read the tightness at the corner of her mouth and eyes. “He just needs a few days of rest, and then he can come back to work. He should make a full recovery if he doesn’t strain his voice for a few weeks.”
Senga heaves a sigh of relief, and Nikaido’s deathgrip on his hand loosens enough that Senga’s fingertips tingle with returned bloodflow. Across from them, sandwiched between Kitayama and Yokoo, Miyata’s face is still pale and his expression pinched with worry.
“Fortunately we already have everything we need recorded for the single; he’ll just have to sync during performances,” their manager assures. “He’s sedated for now, and it’s too late for visitors, so let’s all go home and get some rest.”
Kitayama stays behind to talk about the schedule, and Miyata refuses to budge until he can talk to Tamamori’s mother. Yokoo offers to drive Fujigaya and Senga home, since it’s not so far out of his way. Fujigaya hasn’t really said anything since they arrived at the hospital and out in the car he doesn’t even bother to fight Senga for the front seat, merely climbs in the back and closes his eyes, arms folded across his chest.
“Hey, Watta?” Senga says after a few minutes. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Yokoo says, eyes on the road. It’s raining, the streets slick, and Yokoo is as careful in driving as with everything else.
“Do you think something weird is going on?” Senga asks. “Ever since we got the new studio...and I found the song? We’ve all been fighting a lot, and now Tama...”
“It’s just pressure because our schedule’s so tight,” Yokoo soothes. “I feel a little freaked out too, but it’s because we’re worried for Tama-chan. He just put too much pressure on himself and he didn’t take care of himself properly, it could have happened to any of us.”
“He was drinking all that water, though.” Senga frowns. “And he said some strange things too, right before it happened. He said it felt like someone was in there, singing with him, and he was too warm, like I--”
“That’s because Tama is a headcase,” Fujigaya snaps from the backseat, cutting Senga off. “He’s twenty-three years old, and maybe if we didn’t baby him so much, he’d learn and things like this wouldn’t happen!”
“Taisuke, stop it,” Yokoo tells him, and Fujigaya falls silent with a huff. “Ken-chan, don’t let it get inside your head too much, okay? Everything will be back to normal in a few days, you’ll see.”
Senga tries to take Yokoo’s words to heart after Yokoo drops him off, to take a warm bath and relax and get a good night’s sleep, but it only lasts until he gets a mail from Nikaido.
Did you write on my mirror when you stayed over? My sister is giving me all kinds of shit about it.
He feels like a five-year-old, but he goes to his mother’s room and crawls into bed with her. Fortunately she assumes he’s upset about Tamamori and sets her book aside without asking any questions, just strokes his hair until he falls into an uneasy sleep beside her.
In the morning, his mother says their schedule is definitely too much and to tell their manager that even idols need breaks.
“You were singing that song of yours over and over in your sleep,” she says, and Senga’s breakfast has zero appeal after that. She elbows him on the way by, wiggling her eyebrows. “And who’s Miko-chan?”
He whips out his phone as soon as she turns back to the sink and does a search for Cherry Sweet, heart trying to crawl into his throat as he thumbs down to the member list. He frowns when there’s no Miko on the list, no idea what that means.
“Hey, Miyacchi,” Senga says, as soon as he comes in the door at work. Miyata looks up, eyes dark-ringed and miserable, and he looks like he spent the whole night at the hospital. Senga feels bad for him but has more pressing concerns. “When you were looking in the box, did anything have the girls’ names on it?”
“What? The...oh, that box.” Miyata thinks for a second. “Yeah, a few of the posters did.”
“Was there a Miko?” Senga asks, his intensity making Miyata lean back a little. “Did you see that name?”
“No...” Miyata jumps when Senga grabs his arm.
“Are you sure?” he demands. “Nowhere at all?”
“Ow, geez, Ken-chan, I’m sure!” Miyata shakes Senga off and rubs at his arm. “What’s up with you? Who’s Miko?”
“Nevermind,” Senga sighs, not up to explaining. He’s being silly, like Yokoo said. Maybe he was just talking in his sleep after all. “Sorry.”
“Ken-chan, can I ask you something awful?” Miyata’s voice is low, and he’s staring at the floor when Senga looks back at him.
“Okay,” Senga agrees.
“You don’t think...” Miyata keeps pausing, like he can’t bring himself to say it. “It’s weird, right? The doctor said he’d overused his throat, but Tama was drinking all that water...he couldn’t do that in just one afternoon? Until he was bleeding? Tama knows better than that...”
“I guess it’s possible,” Senga says, but it sounds doubtful even to him. “What other reason could there be?”
“You don’t think somebody did something, to the water?”
“Miyacchi!” Senga protests. “Who would do that?”
“Maybe it was supposed to be a prank,” Miyata hastens to add, but his voice falls back to that anxious, unhappy pitch right away. “Or else someone who really wanted to be main...” His eyes dart to the side, where Fujigaya is carrying on with far too much forced cheer in front of Nikaido and Yokoo.
“He wouldn’t do that!” Senga insists, most of all horrified by Miyata’s lack of faith in the members. It’s scarier than Fujigaya’s recent meanness by far. “None of us would do that. It was just an accident, things will be back to normal in a few days.”
He hugs Miyata, maybe a bit desperately, but Miyata seems to need it, and clings to him tightly. Maybe they both need it, really.
“You’re right,” Miyata says, although the way he repeats it a few more times, like it’s a calming mantra, say that he isn’t entirely convinced.
Senga would feel a lot more convinced himself if Fujigaya doesn’t bring up exactly the same topic that afternoon.
“You think that’s something that never happens?” he asks. Senga looks up from the row of costumes he’s rifling through and glances over his shoulder. Fujigaya is sitting at the makeup counter, examining his skin in the mirror as he unscrews the cap off whatever miracle moisturizer he’s using this week.
“Cute little Ken-chan, so innocent.” Fujigaya sighs like it’s tragic. “Although I guess you haven’t had to fight so hard for your spot, have you? You think those girls we took this song from didn’t kick and scratch at each other to be center? There’s plenty of juniors who would do a lot worse than spike a water bottle to take my spot.”
“Stop it!” Senga cuts him off. “I know you didn’t do anything to Tamamori, so why are you saying shit like that?”
Fujigaya shrugs as he rubs the cream into his skin. “It’s just the truth. Aren’t you sick of being back four? Wouldn’t you do something about it if you could?” Senga is so sickened by Fujigaya’s suggestion that he can’t even answer. Fujigaya tsks at him after a second. “I guess you wouldn’t--AAAH!”
Fujigaya’s shriek makes Senga’s hair stand on end. He whirls around, but there’s only Fujigaya staring at the mirror, face pale under the cream, the jar dropped to the counter with a clatter.
“What?!” Senga demands.
“Nothing, it’s nothing.” Fujigaya shakes himself. He picks up the jar of cream and screws the cap back on with shaking hands. Sweat is beading on his forehead. “And why’s it so warm in here? I can’t stand it.”
During filming run-through that afternoon they put Fujigaya in center, in case Tamamori won’t be back in time, and Fujigaya’s doesn’t even bother hiding his pleased expression. He keeps fussing with his makeup, even, until the touch-up girl scolds him.
“Don’t get comfortable there,” Kitayama tells him when he starts to get insufferable about it.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Fujigaya looks over his shoulder, and Senga, behind Kitayama in formation, shivers at the cold look in Fujigaya’s eye. “Lead vocal should be center, right?”
“You’re not lead vocal,” Miyata pipes up from the other side. For once he doesn’t quail when Fujigaya turns his glare Miyata’s way, the hard expression looking entirely out of place on Miyata’s face.
“And anyway, why isn’t center lead dance?” Kitayama demands. “That’s sure as hell not you. Isn’t it more important that the PV looks good?”
Fujigaya’s expression turns thunderous, cheeks going blotchy pink, but before he can say anything, the director calls for their attention and says they’re going to try a test run with the cameras, to see about angles and so they can get used to the lighting, which is supposed to be a strobing effect.
“We’ll see who ends up main,” Fujigaya growls under his breath as he turns back around. He reaches up to itch at his make-up again.
“Stop touching your eyes!” the touch-up girl snaps.
Senga finds himself watching Fujigaya over and over, as if his eyes keep being drawn towards him. He tries to tell himself that it’s just because Fujigaya is positioned at center, that’s where his eyes are naturally drawn, but by the fifth or sixth try he can see there’s definitely something off.
Fujigaya seems to know it too, getting more and more agitated every time the director calls stop. The director isn’t even yelling at Fujigaya, just keeps frowning as he checks his monitors and calls for lenses to be cleaned and focused. Fujigaya keeps scratching at his face and neck, muttering something about his moisturizer.
“One more try,” the director encourages. That’s when it all goes wrong.
Just as the vocals start, Senga can see the hitch in Fujigaya’s step, going just out of time with the rest of them. It’s subtle, Fujigaya gets himself back on track for a few seconds, and then breaks down again as Fujigaya’s head keeps darting, like he’s looking at something off to one side, then the other. Nobody else seems to notice, the strobing of the lights probably hiding most of it, the others concentrating on themselves and the director on his monitor.
Fujigaya freezes, spine straight like he’s been shocked, and when he turns around the wild panic in his eyes makes Senga’s blood run cold. Fujigaya seems to be staring at something over Senga’s shoulder, and even though Senga knows there’s no one behind him, suddenly he’s convinced there is, can practically feel their breath on the back of his neck.
“Stop!” Senga yells, but nobody can hear him over the throb of the music. “STOP!”
They sure hear Fujigaya’s scream, pitched high enough to crack glass, and then his foot slips off the edge of the stage and he goes down with a sickening crash that seems to last forever in Senga’s ears.
The lights come back up, everyone shouting, and the five of them scramble to the edge of the stage, panic etched on all their features. Fujigaya is unconscious, blood already pooling underneath a nasty gash to his head. Where he’s sweated his makeup off, underneath Fujigaya’s skin looks red and broken.
But what makes Senga cry out are the angry marks around Fujigaya’s throat, livid enough that Senga can still see them when Kitayama pulls him away and presses Senga’s face against his shoulder.
Their manager doesn’t have any spare moments to reassure them this time, spending their whole visit to the hospital in the corner on the phone, telling people, or sometimes shouting at them, that it was just a small accident, Fujigaya-kun will be fine, there’s no need to cancel anything, until the nursing staff kicks her out to use her phone outside for disturbing others. Fujigaya hasn’t regained consciousness, although the doctor insists that’s normal for someone getting such a shock, and that all the medication for the allergic reaction are probably helping to keep him asleep.
“You saw those marks, right?” Senga says in an undertone to Yokoo. He’d tried talking to Kitayama first, but Kitayama looks lost inside his own head, arms crossed and jaw set. Nikaido had to be given something to calm him down and is out cold on Yokoo’s other side across the uncomfortable hospital chairs, head in Yokoo’s lap. Miyata has already gone to visit Tamamori, sweet-talking the nurse into taking him despite the late hour. The whole staff here seems to know him already.
“It was an allergic reaction,” Yokoo repeats the doctor’s words stoically. “He was trying that new cream, you said. Allergic reactions can affect the skin rapidly, you heard the doctor. He said it closed up Fujigaya’s whole throat.”
“The marks on his neck!” Senga insists. “Watta, you had to see! He looks like somebody choked him!”
“He must have done it to himself, scratching at his throat when it closed up,” Yokoo says stubbornly. “Ken-chan, stop, you’re giving me the creeps.”
Senga subsides, seeing he won’t get anywhere, but knows what he saw. Those marks weren’t scratches, they were bruises, and there’s no way Fujigaya could have positioned his hands to give them to himself.
The only way they make sense if somebody, or something, choked Fujigaya from behind. Senga excuses himself to use the bathroom, and when he’s in there, stares intently into the mirror.
“I know it’s you doing this,” he says, waiting for his reflection to change into that other Senga again, or maybe the girl he keeps seeing. “Why are you doing this? Are you Miko? I’m the one who took your song, why don’t you do something to me! Leave them alone!”
There’s no answer, still him in the mirror, close enough that his breath is making it fog. Shaking, he draws back and wipes at the clammy sweat breaking out on his forehead.
“Why?” he whispers, and he’s not even surprised when the word starts appearing on the fogged mirror, drawn by an invisible finger.
“What’s the point of practicing?” Miyata demands at the studio the next afternoon. They had a late start, and even so Yokoo just called to say that he and Nikaido will be late because he couldn't get Nikaido to wake up until just a few minutes ago. “They can’t seriously still be going forward with this?!”
“What do you expect them to do?” Kitayama crosses his arms and eyes Miyata down. “If we cancel the single, do you know how much money they’ll lose on us? The sound’s already done, we’ve got some footage of Fujigaya. We can just use body doubles for some of the group shots, and put in their solo shots in post-production.”
“But--” Miyata starts angrily.
“The fans will never know,” Kitayama cuts him off. Miyata drops his eyes to the floor. “Be a professional, can’t you? Your cute little Tama-chan will be back in a day or two, until then we can practice with me as center.”
“I don’t think anybody should be center!” Senga blurts out. Kitayama gives him an exasperated look, but Senga steels himself to go on. “First Tama, and now Taipi? As soon as they get made main, something terrible happens!”
“They’re just accidents,” Kitayama says.
“They aren’t!” Senga pleads. “Miyacchi and Taipi both said things about somebody drugging Tama’s water.” Miyata glares at Senga for dragging him into this, but Senga ignores him. “They could have done something to Fujigaya’s makeup too!”
“Ken-chan!” Miyata scolds, looking even more uncomfortable with the idea than when he brought it up himself.
“I don’t think it’s one of us!” Senga holds up his hands. “But there’s plenty of staff, maybe even a crazy fan! Something about this single is just wrong, don’t you feel it? Ever since we came here, ever since we got that song, it can’t all be a coincidence.”
Kitayama at least seems to think about that. “You think someone is doing this to us?”
No, Senga thinks, but if that’s what it takes to make you stop. “Yes.”
Kitayama sighs. “I’ll try and talk to Manager-san, but you know it won’t change her mind. She already called this morning to say I’d take over main until Tama-chan comes back.” He checks his watch. “She’s picking me up in an hour for an appearance, though, so I guess today’s a waste anyway. If you’d rather...”
Miyata has his bag over his shoulder and is dialing Tamamori on his phone before Kitayama is even finished talking, barely sparing them a wave goodbye on his way out.
“I’ll stay until Watta and Nika come,” Senga offers, setting his bag down. He doesn’t feel like dancing really, but he doesn’t want to be alone either. Kitayama nods and turns towards the mirrors while Senga starts stretching.
He doesn’t bother to turn on any music, the only sounds Kitayama’s sneakers squeaking on the polish floor and his breath. Senga gives up the pretense of stretching and just watches as Kitayama closes his eyes and gets really into it, rolling and twisting to some beat he can only hear in his head. The bank of mirrors in front of him reflect back half a dozen other Kitayama’s, perfectly in rhythm and just as breathtaking to watch.
Until one of them starts doing something different.
At first it’s just a split-second behind, a body roll that goes on a beat too long, but then the image starts doing moves that the Kitayama in front of him isn’t doing at all, in counterpoint, and all the hair on the back of Senga’s neck rises.
“Mitsu?” he calls softly. “Don’t stop dancing, but open your eyes.”
He knows that Kitayama obeys, because all the reflections do, and then Kitayama skids to a stop. His shoulders are heaving, and his face is pale.
“You saw that, right?” Senga asks, desperate to not be the only one who is going crazy here. Kitayama nods, stepping closer to the mirror that was causing the trouble. It’s the one he found the tapes in, he realizes as Kitayama taps at the glass. “Don’t!”
“Shhh,” Kitayama says, distracted. He tap harder, mirror Kitayama exactly in sync with him now, waves his hand in front of it, pulls a few faces.
Then mirror Kitayama grins all by himself, sharp and mean, and Kitayama stumbles backwards, falling onto his ass with a thud.
Kitayama turns himself around to face Senga without standing up, his face pale and serious. “Do you know what’s going on here?”
Senga starts to shake his head, then stops. “Sort of.”
“I think you’d better start at the beginning, then,” Kitayama says. It takes Senga a few false starts to try and explain about the mirror and the girl, but once it seems like Kitayama is actually listening to him, it all comes tumbling out. Most of the way through, Kitayama motions for Senga to keep going as he reaches for his bag and tugs out his laptop.
“I already tried that,” Senga says. “There was no Miko in the group. And the girls on the uchiwa Miyata found, none of them were her.”
“Did you look up the fire? Properly, in the newspaper report?” Kitayama asks, and Senga shakes his head. Kitayama clicks around a little, then makes a noise of triumph. “Ah, got it. It says five girls died in the fire. Three of them were trapped in the changing room, and one of them...out here.” Both and and Senga look at the mirrors with a shudder, and then back down at the computer. “The fifth girl was near the entrance, so they found her in time. She suffered burns and smoke inhalation, but she survived. Her name was Honda Kaoru.”
“Wait, you said five girls died?” Senga frowns. “But one survived? So that’s only four.”
“Four in the group,” Kitayama clarifies. He scrolls down a little more. “The fifth girl was a backdancer who worked in the agency. It doesn’t list her name, but that could be your Miko.”
“But...” Senga looks around. “If they were out here...why couldn’t they escape? It’s an open room. Why stay by the mirrors? And why would a backdancer care about a song for a group she wasn’t in?”
“We’re still missing something,” Kitayama agrees. “The last girl still lives in Tokyo.” He looks up at Senga, expression tense with interest. “Should we go ask her?”
The apartment is on the ten floor of a high rise in a stylish neighborhood, and Kitayama remarks idly in the elevator that the girl’s family must have been well taken care of after the accident to keep quiet. They’d been in the car and halfway there before Senga remembered that Yokoo and Nikaido were still coming to the studio. He’d mailed Nikaido to say that they wouldn’t be gone long, and to stall their manager if she arrived before they got back.
The girl’s mother is reluctant to let them in when she answers the door, but Senga puts on his most guileless face and Kitayama says they’re fans and only want a few moments. They know about the accident, he says, they’ll be sensitive.
“Well,” Honda-san sighs, stepping back to let them in, “maybe it will make Kaoru-chan smile if someone besides me tells her she’s still pretty.”
She seats them at the low table in the living room, and a few moments later ushers her daughter in to sit on the other side, then leaves to make tea. Kaoru is thin and nervous-looking, and doesn’t seem that much older than Kitayama, except for the dark circles under her eyes. She still is very pretty, aside from the burn scars down the left side of her face. Senga glances down and sees there are scars on her left hand too, before Kaoru tugs her sleeves lower over them.
“Honda-san,” Kitayama says when Senga doesn’t say anything, “we told your mother we’re fans, but that’s not exactly true. We’re in an idol group ourselves, you see, and our agency bought your dance studio a few weeks ago. Since then some strange things have been happening. I know it might be upsetting, but could we please ask you about the accident?”
“It was a fire,” Kaoru says, her voice soft, her gaze not exactly fixed on either of them. “They all died. I’m the only one left.”
“You were in the middle of filming your PV, right?” Kitayama prompts. “We heard there was a NG that postponed filming.”
“Ami-chan’s ankle was hurt.” Kaoru heaves a little sigh. “She was center for the dance, and she should have been resting, but she wouldn’t give up her spot...her ankle gave out and she fell off the stage and hit her head. Just a concussion, but we had to stop.”
“Were you fighting about who would be center?” Senga asks, sitting forward a little. Kaoru bites her lower lip, looking ashamed.
“It was so competitive, you have to understand,” she says. “Risa said center should be the lead vocal, and Shiori said it should be cutest. Ami-chan knew they’d take it away from her! She said they’d done things to her...”
“Put something in her water?” Kitayama asks. “In her makeup?”
Kaoru’s eyes turn glossy, and she tips her head forward so her hair hangs in her face. “She tried to tell me, but I didn’t believe her. She was paranoid sometimes...she kept saying she knew they’d replace her because she wasn’t popular enough. That’s why she needed to be main this single, why she took Natsumi’s song.”
“‘Closer?’” Kitayama asks, and Kaoru nods. “It was a solo for Natsumi?”
“No, it wasn’t for her, she wrote it for...” Kaoru cuts off, biting down even harder on her lip.
“For Miko?” Senga wants to know, making Kaoru’s head jerk back up, expression panicked. “The backdancer who died in the fire, it was her, wasn’t it? Who was she? Please, Honda-san, you have to tell us, it’s very important.”
“Yes.” Kaoru’s voice is almost a whisper, so that Kitayama and Senga have to lean forward to catch the words. “She was our backer, and sometimes a body double if one of us was busy or hurt. There were rumors she might replace one of us in Cherry Sweet because she always worked so hard, always stayed late hours and hours, and we’d all been scolded for not practicing hard enough after we debuted.”
“Natsumi wrote the song to show off Miko?” Kitayama guesses.
“They were best friends.” Kaoru nods. “Before debut they did everything together. Natsumi was the one pressuring our manager to let Miko try out...when Ami-chan found out, she went crazy. She stole the song from Natsumi and said it was hers, a new single for the group.”
“Mine,” Senga murmurs, a cold chill working down his spine.
“Something happened to Miko before, didn’t it?” Kitayama asks, and Senga starts. “She didn’t die in the fire, did she?”
Kaoru’s face crumples as she begins to cry in earnest, and Senga hisses, “How did you know that?”
“Because why would they just stand there, in front of the mirrors?” Kitayama shrugs. “Maybe the girls in the other room didn’t know there was a fire, but out in front they would have known right away. Why wouldn’t they run? Why wouldn’t they try to save the others?”
Senga swallows hard. “But if Miko was already dead...”
“It was an accident!” Kaoru sobs, hiding her face in her hands. “A stupid prank, to make her look bad! She had a latex allergy, so we took a glove and rubbed the powder on her towel, on the clothes in her bag. She was sweating, she must have breathed some of it in when she rubbed the towel on her face and she choked...Natsumi went crazy...they ran into the changing room to hide from her, but I hid behind one of the mirrors. It got stuck and trapped me, it was so dark, and there was all this smoke...”
“Natsumi started the fire,” Senga guesses, Kaoru too hysterical to answer, but he’s sure he’s right. “She wanted to die with her best friend.” He feels sick, thinking of life without Nikaido, and shoves those feelings aside.
“Miko was so stupid, she didn’t understand!” Kaoru is barely intelligible between sobs. “She thought all she had to do was practice harder, just dance. She didn’t understand how things really worked! We tried to tell her, don’t stand out! She wouldn’t listen! She wouldn’t!”
Honda-san rushes in that moment, and takes one look at her hysterical daughter before ordering Kitayama and Senga out. Kitayama offers an embarrassed apology as they stand, but Senga is still thinking hard.
“But they didn’t find you behind the mirror,” he says, and Kaoru goes still, rigid in her mother’s arms.
“It popped open,” she whispers. “I tried to run to the door, but the smoke, I fell. She was just sitting there, in the middle of the flames, stroking Miko’s hair. Just stroking it over and over, talking to her, she kept saying--”
“Out!” Honda-san orders when Kaoru dissolves back into sobs. “OUT!”
On the way down in the elevator, Kitayama tries to get Senga to talk to him, but Senga is wrapped up in his own thoughts. Something about Kaoru’s story is nagging at him, something serious, something he missed.
“She kept saying,” he murmurs, “over and over, what was she saying?”
“Why does it matter?” Kitayama shakes his head. “We know the truth now, how they both died, maybe that’s enough.”
“Mine,” Senga’s breath catches as he realizes, “that’s what she keeps saying, keeps writing, ‘mine.’”
“Yeah, her song,” Kitayama says. “We stole it, just like those girls did, or you did, that’s why she’s been after you even though you don’t care at all about being main. That’s what started this whole--”
“No,” Senga insists, heart starting to race with panic. “She doesn’t care about the song! She cared about Miko! She’s not saying ‘it’s mine,’ she’s saying ‘you’re mine!’ They took her best friend and...”
Suddenly it’s like Senga can’t breathe, throat closing up as he chokes on fear.
“Nika,” he gasps, fumbling for his phone, nearly dropping it from numb fingers. “She’s coming for Nika, she can’t have her best friend back so she’s coming for mine. Pick up!!” he hollers at the phone, while Kitayama starts pressing the ground floor button over and over, like that will help.
They break at least a dozen traffic laws on the way back to the studio, Kitayama weaving around cars with single-minded intensity while Senga dials Nikaido and Yokoo’s numbers over and over, getting progressively more and more panicked as he gets no answer from either of them.
Senga sprints from the car before it’s stopped moving, hollering Nikaido’s name as he throws the door to the studio open and runs inside. The air inside is so much colder than outside that it slaps Senga in the face, the mirrors all fogged over, and Senga barely registers the handprints all over them, the word “MINE” scrawled dozens of time, even the faint noise of Yokoo yelling and pounding on the door from the changing room.
All he sees is Nikaido’s form crumpled in front of the mirror.
“NIKA!” he screams, dashing over and dropping beside him, screaming his name over and over as he shakes him.
As soon as his hands touch Nikaido, cold is replaced with heat, and when he looks up the mirror in front of them shows a girl with her hands on Nikaido, instead of him. She’s crying, as she looks up at Senga, clearly yelling even though Senga can’t hear a sound. Before Senga can say anything, she disappears and the mirror shows an entirely different scene, all the lights on, the studio as it was fifteen years ago, a group of girls practicing the dance Senga is so familiar with. When he looks over his shoulder, he sees nothing, a dark room, but when he looks back, the whole story plays out in front of him, soundless but still horrifying.
He sees Miko at center, right in front of the mirror, the girl in the ponytail with her hot pink T-shirt knotted at her hip. He sees her skin going splotchy and her reaching for her towel, obviously struggling to breathe. He sees Natsumi run in from the back, late to practice, just in time to see Miko collapse, clutching at her throat. Natsumi falls to her knees beside Miko, shaking her and yelling, sees her beg the others for help and the others just standing there watching, no one even going for their phone.
When Natsumi stands, her face is twisted with rage and terrifying. The other girls scatter, three of them running to the changing room, and Kaoru slipping behind the mirror, just like she’d said. Natsumi grabs a broom leaning against the wall and marches over to a spot on the floor, then pounds the butt of the broom against it, over and over. Senga gets it after a second; that’s the spot where the floor pulls up to reveal the connections to the sound system. The song must still be playing from practice, and Natsumi is trying to make it stop, trying to destroy it.
When the floor starts sparking and smoking, Natsumi’s face relaxes, almost calm as she watches the flames start to lick the edges of the floor. She drops the broom and goes back to kneel beside Miko, pulling her into her lap, stroking her hair, just like Kaoru had said. She’s rocking back and forth a little, and even though Senga hasn’t heard anything else, he can hear the word she keeps repeating, over and over.
“Mine, mine, mine...”
The scene in the mirror disappears, leaving only Senga kneeling next to Nikaido in the dark room. He realizes tears are pouring down his cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, “I’m sorry...”
“Mine,” Natsumi’s voice whispers, behind him.
When he drags his eyes up to the mirror, Natsumi is standing right behind him, her clothes scorched and burnt, and the smell of burnt hair stings Senga’s nose. She looks like herself in the mirrors reflection, but when fingers walk themselves from Senga’s shoulders, down his arms, her skin is mottled and dead, burnt black in places and livid red in others. The smell is choking, stinging Senga’s nose and throat and lungs like smoke.
“Mine,” Natsumi’s voice whispers, right in his ear, her dead, blackened fingers clutching at Nikaido’s shirt, right next to Senga’s.
“No, please,” Senga sobs, clutching Nikaido’s shirt so tightly that his knuckles turn white. “Please, I know what they did to you, I know they killed your best friend, and I’m sorry, but Nika’s mine! Taking him won’t bring her back! Please don’t take him away from me!” He squeezes his eyes shut and hangs on for dear life as hands seize his shoulders and shake him roughly “Please, don’t! Please!”
“KENTO,” Kitayama’s voice snaps Senga’s eyes open, and he realizes the hands on him are pink and healthy and alive, Kitayama shaking him.
“Mitsu?” he asks, vision blurry from tears even when he tries to look up.
“Let go, I don’t think he’s breathing!” Kitayama says, pushing Nikaido flat to the floor and dropping to his knees beside Senga. He leans down to listen for a heartbeat, and behind them Senga hears the slam of a door as Yokoo finally frees himself from the changing room. He’s already got the phone to his ear by the time he reaches them, yelling into it for an ambulance, and hurry up for fuck’s sake!
Senga just sits there, helpless, tears streaming down his face and clutching Nikaido’s hand in his as Kitayama thumps on Nikaido’s chest. When Nikaido’s eyes snap open and he drags in a ragged breath, Senga collapses on top of him, burying his face in Nikaido’s shirt and squeezing him as tightly as he can.
“She tried to take you!” he wails, hardly making any sense even to himself. “Nika, I thought you left me!”
“Stupid,” Nikaido answers, voice rough, and he hugs Senga back just as tightly. “I never would. Just don’t let go.”
“I won’t,” Senga promises. “I won’t, I won’t.”
With nearly half their members hospitalized, there’s no choice but to push the single back. Senga sighs in relief when Kitayama brings the news to Nikaido’s room, where Senga’s been telling the whole story to Nikaido, Tamamori, and Miyata. Fujigaya woke up about the same time as they brought Nikaido in, but he isn’t mobile enough to visit yet, so Yokoo is keeping him entertained as best he can.
“That’s a relief,” Nikaido sighs, flopping back down on his pillow.
“No kidding,” Tamamori agrees.
“Is that really good enough?” Kitayama asks, looking at Senga. “What difference is a couple weeks going to make? We should get them to cancel the whole release.”
“No,” Senga says slowly, “I think it should be okay. We found out what happened, how Miko died. I think that’s what Natsumi wanted. Like I said, she didn’t care about the song. It should be just a song, now.”
Kitayama eyes him for a moment, then shrugs. “If you say so.”
“Quit talking about it,” Nikaido says, slipping his hand into Senga’s and squeezing it tight. “It’s giving me the creeps.”
Their few weeks of vacation go by quickly, and before they know it they’re on their way to their first live performance of “Closer” to promote the new single. They all look rested, for once, and their manager says they ought to take advantage of that while they can.
Senga is feeling excited, ready to go, when in the make-up chair beside him Yokoo goes tense while he’s checking the news headlines on his phone like a proper adult.
“Ken-chan,” he asks, “what was the name of that girl you and Hiromitsu went to see?”
“Hm?” Senga looks up from his DS. “Honda Kaoru. Why?”
“She’s dead.” Yokoo looks up to meet Senga’s eyes, expression grim. “She jumped from her apartment balcony, a suicide.”
“What?” Senga feels light-headed suddenly, his skin turning clammy. No no no, he thinks, it’s over, it’s over!
“It seems she left a note, confessing to killing another girl at their agency.” Yokoo shakes his head. “That’s so sad. After all this time, too. I wonder why?”
“Why are you sweating so much?” the make-up girl asks Senga, tutting as she dusts him with more powder.
“Don’t you think its...a little warm in here?” Senga asks.
He feels like he can’t catch his breath, can’t think straight or focus on what the host is asking them during their interview. His gaze keeps darting from side to side, until Kitayama demands to know what’s wrong with him.
“I feel like someone’s watching me,” he admits, resisting the urge to wipe at his face and mess up his makeup.
“You’re on television, millions of people are watching you,” Kitayama points out. They’re sent to standby just then, interrupting their conversation. Senga tries to keep his eyes on Nikaido as they move to the stage, but Nikaido seems entirely normal, chattering away with Miyata.
He takes a deep, slow breath and tells himself to calm the fuck down, it’ll all be over in four minutes and twenty-three seconds. When the music starts and his body knows what to do, he’ll feel better, he’s sure of it.
For twenty or thirty seconds, it’s true, Senga forcing a smile and letting his body do what it’s supposed to, before he notices Tamamori in front is not exactly in rhythm. His head darts this way and that, like he’s looking for something, his feet stumbling through the familiar steps on his own. Tamamori freezes, spine straight like he’s been shocked, and when he whirls around, eyes wild with panic, Senga already knows what he’ll see when he turns his head.
Natsumi is standing right in the middle of their formation, hair hanging over her face so that all Senga can see is her cruel smile.
“NO!” Senga yells, but it’s lost in the sudden BOOM of one of the lights above exploding in a shower of sparks, the screams of the audience. It all seems like it’s happening in slow motion, Tamamori stumbling back, slipping off the edge of the stage, grabbing at Fujigaya’s sleeve and dragging him down as well, Miyata running towards Tama and the slow arc of the light that swings down and smacks into the side of his head. Senga turns away as Yokoo and Kitayama jump down and make for the emergency exit, swallowed by the crowd.
He only cares where Nikaido is, still across in his symmetry position from Senga, collapsed to his knees, eyes wide with fear as he stares out at the panicking crowd. Senga stumbles towards him as quickly as he can, stepping over debris and ignoring the showers of sparks raining down from the lights that are still suspended.
“Kenpi!” Nikaido yells as soon as Senga gets close enough to grab. Senga tries to pull him to his feet but Nikaido yanks him down instead, hands digging painfully into Senga’s arm.
“I’m here, I’m right here!” Senga assures, leaning in close so that he’s sure Nikaido can hear. He wraps arms tight around Nikaido, feels Nikaido shaking against him. He tries again to heave them to their feet, but Nikaido is useless, dead weight.
“Don’t leave me!” Nikaido pleads. There’s a dangerous creak and the sound of support cables snapping.
“I won’t, ever,” Senga promises, pressing Nikaido’s face into his shoulder so that he won’t see the scaffolded lighting tipping over, right on top of them. “You’re mine.”