Skyward Ragyou’s arms stretch as she lets out a deep yawn. “It sure is gettin’ late. We stayed out for a long time, huh? Aaaah, but it’s so laaate! I don’t wanna get on the train home at this hour. S’gonna be nothin’ but a bunch’a weirdos, y’know?”
“…T-then maybe we should’ve gone home earlier…”
Mio’s criticism falls on deaf ears. Or perhaps she’s just blatantly ignored. So many times, with Ragyou, it’s genuinely difficult to tell what does and doesn’t get noticed.
On that note, the seemingly tiring gyaru pivots back to her tiny teammate with a look in her eye that can’t mean anything good. “Miiic-chin. I just had a killer idea! I’ll just crash at your place! Let’s have a sleepover!”
“Ah, no good? You don’t wanna?”
“I-it’s not that. But… your parents…”
Ragyou winks with a silly little salute as she pulls up a screen from her Link to show her little friend. “S’all taken care of, see? I already got permission.”
No responses left, Mio goes quiet, averting her eyes out of habit. Perhaps in a bid to prevent Ragyou from seeing the unease behind them. A classmate… in her house. Her room, in all likelihood.
What if she thinks I’m…?
Before Mio has a chance to attach an adjective to that thought, Ragyou leans down to her. Those bleached blonde locks of hers hang low as she matches her eyeline to the nerve-wracked girl. “Micchin. If it makes you uncomfortable, just say so and I’ll-”
Kikuchi-san… isn’t like that. She wouldn’t…
“You can come over… if you want to.”
Her curiosity overpowering her desire to smile, Ragyou tilts her head. “You don’t have’ta ask your folks?”
Then again, Mio takes a moment to envision her mother, the energetic and eccentric woman she is. Then she turns away from Ragyou. “I have a feeling that won’t be an issue. No… it absolutely won’t.”
Ragyou blinks. “Okay?”
Back at the shophouse, the woman in question sits on the living room sofa, swiping her hand across a holo-screen. The display on the television across from her changes with each swipe, each time to one news station or another.
Her typical vigor is… nowhere to be found. With her head resting against her free hand and a rather spiritless look in her eyes, she appears fatigued, if anything. A far cry from her usual liveliness.
The way she flips from channel to channel, with those brief, attentive pauses… she’s looking for something. Something she isn’t finding. One channel after another, her disaffection only deepens.
Not one of them is talking about it…
Something does manage to catch her eye, stopping her hand just as she prepares to swipe to the next channel. A woman on the screen, short, in a white lab coat, standing at a podium before a crowd. The banner across the bottom reads “City Director Amamiya on plans for new Hydroponic Park.”
Mio’s mother stares at the digital screen. Whatever the woman before her says goes in one ear and out the other. Her focus is on the woman, herself. This City Director.
“Even you, huh?”
The opening and closing of a door pulls the woman out of it, soon followed by a small voice that puts an instant smile on her face. “Tadaima.”
Up she springs, racing to the entrance. “Mio!”
Her arms reach out, wrapping around her daughter and pulling the child close as can be, smothering her in the affection that only a mother can give. “Okaeri, Mi- oh…” She sees when she lifts her head. The pretty thing standing right behind her kid with a grin and a wave. “Who’s this?”
Not a word Mio says is anything close to intelligible. Not with her face still buried deep in her mother’s sweater.
“I’m Micchin’s friend, Kikuchi Ragyou! Nice to meet’cha!”
Ragyou laughs off her rather casual intro, rubbing the back of her head. “To tell the truth, I was gonna ask her folks if it’d be cool for me to sleep over since it’s late and I live pretty far. I totally didn’t expect her to live with her big sis, though!”
Eventually the woman points to herself. “I’m… Mio’s mom.”
“…Heh…? ” Still smiling, too stunned to change expressions, Ragyou looks right down at Mio, just as she frees herself of her mother's dizzying hold. The girl nods and Ragyou turns her head straight to the older Morioka, even pointing at her. “You’re…”
Both Moriokas stare back at her.
“Huh? What? Huh?! For real?! Hold up! You’re lyin’, right?! No way you’re old enough to be Micchin’s Mama!”
The elder Morioka sets herself upright from her daughter, putting her smile back on at the amusing stammering of their guest. “Mio, keep this one, okay?”
“Really? You sure you’re not just saying that?”
In truth, Ragyou needn’t say anything. Vigorous nodding is the only appropriate response. One that allows the Mama Morioka to bask in the glory of the girl’s admiration.
At the same time, Mio watches from the sidelines in silence as the two loud people hit it off, laughing about this or that. Yet it’s while she does so, sitting on the outskirts of this friendly moment, that it dawns on her. The feeling from before is… entirely gone. That tension in her gut. The pressure in her joints and muscles.
The instant Ragyou begins chatting with her mother. When Mio recognizes the fun her mother is having by talking to Ragyou. Those feelings simply vanish. It’s a lightening sensation. A wave of relief.
While the two of them continue to chat about beauty techniques or whatever it is, Mio slinks away to the living room and plops down on the sofa. She stares at the television across from her, now on a commercial break from earlier. Though her eyes pierce right through it and into that space only she can reach.
“What… was I worried about? Kikuchi-san is…”
“Huh?” Time moves so strangely whenever Mio drifts off into her head, this way. As much as she swears she’d only just sat down, here Ragyou is, standing right in front of her. “Y-yeah?”
Ragyou flashes those pearly whites of hers and Mio’s guard blows away. “Mariko-chan’s really nice, isn’t she?”
The two of them certainly seem rather familiar already.
“Which way is it to your room?”
Meanwhile, Mio’s mother stands by the entryway, watching with a rosy smile. The kind one can only make when touched to their very soul. How many emotions could such an expression even bear?
As Ragyou grabs Mio by the wrist and pulls her onto her feet, only one thought comes to mind. A friend… Way to go, Mio. You’re really trying hard, aren’t you?
That reaction helps. Those tense feelings swirl up inside of Mio yet again, only for Ragyou’s awed response to kill them in one fell swoop. The girl really is like a large child, in retrospect. Still, Mio can’t seem to remove herself from her place in the doorway, rubbing her arm as Ragyou bounces on inside.
So many posters.
So many figures.
So many shelves, all lined with manga and anime. Physical copies, at that.
It’s enough to make the excitable one’s eyes sparkle and shimmer as she darts around, looking at everything. She’s careful enough not to touch, but marvels at every nook and cranny of Mio’s room.
“Micchin! This stuff is amazin’, i’nnit?! Come to think of it, downstairs is a bookstore!”
You’re… just noticing that?
“So you guys’re super good at gettin’ your hands on all this real, tangible stuff, huh?! I get that! Nothin’ like havin’ the physical thing you can touch, right?!”
The feeling that follows that curt response is… something different. An anxiousness of a different sort. As if formed by a desire not to lose something. To let something slip through her fingers. Not to be outdone, though, are the alarm bells blaring in the back of the girl’s mind. The snagging sensation all throughout her body. Like being dragged down with cement weights.
Mio feels her mouth opening, her lungs filling with air. Just as well, though, a voice whispers in her ear, telling her to be sure. Not to mess up. So loud. So painfully, crushingly loud. Then…
“You looked like you wanted to say somethin’. Or did I get that wrong?”
Of course. Always the lifeline.
Mio shakes her head. “Mm. Just that… I know how you feel.”
“Right? Collectin’ stuff you can actually feel is fun! Like all my plushies! They’re so soft and cute and huggable and-!”
“I don’t think that’s really the same thing…”
A while later, Mio sits at her desk while Ragyou thumbs through a manga from her shelf. An adventure story of some kind. With a group of heroes venturing out together on some globetrotting quest to save everything they hold dear. Typical fantasy epic.
More and more, Ragyou finds herself engrossed, sitting there on Mio’s bed, shockingly quiet. Even her own little Maron sits on her back, peeking over her shoulder and seeming to read along.
Mio looks up from her sketching to where Ragyou sits, turning another page without being able to tear her eyes away.
“You ever wonder what it’s like?”
“Outside of… the city?”
Ragyou nods, pausing on a page as her eyes settle on an image. The panel isn’t in color. It’s not especially large or intricately drawn. Yet there her eye stops, drawn to something about it. An image depicting the characters running through a vast field under a wide open sky.
“I know they always tell us somethin’ real bad happened a long time ago. That it’s supposed to be super dangerous. There’s stuff out there way scarier than any Familiar. But the way they keep sendin’ people like us out there…”
It’s not a comforting thought. It evokes memories of Kikaijima’s speech, just earlier in the day. The line about sacrifices. As if these are things they do by choice. Is it making a sacrifice… or being used as one?
“D’you think it’s possible to…”
The girl may trail off, but anyone could see where she was going. Mio turns forward, unable to say a word. Certainly none that would answer anything. All she can do is clutch her scarf, still snug around her neck, remembering her promise to Jun.
Mio swivels around to find Ragyou shutting the manga and setting it down on the bed.
“Aah! Hey, nevermind all that. I was just thinkin’ out loud. So anyway, we should totally get some rest, right? Mariko-chan showed me where the bath was, so no worries about all that. I’ll go first, ‘kay?”
Up the gyaru springs, scuttling off to the washroom, leaving Mio there in her place.
“It was a good question…”
The gecko appears right on Mio’s shoulder, his little forked tongue poking out. “What it’s like out there. I wonder if she really wants to know…”
Again Mio sits at a loss for words. With Ragyou gone, though, she turns back to face her desk, opening a drawer and finding a folder, tucked inside. Right at the front of that folder is a familiar sketch. “The Three Idiots.”
And if it’s really possible to…
“Don’t think about it. We’re winning. Right?”
After a protracted delay, Mio nods and puts the sketch away. “Mm…”
The very next day, Mio and Ragyou both enter the classroom together, Ragyou yawning on her way through the door. “Phew! I hardly got any sleep at all!”
Mio, with rings beneath her eyes, seems to fare no better. The look in her eyes, though, makes very clear the desire to utter the phrase “I told you so.”
If only she were so bold.
“Heya, Di!” Tired or no, some things never change. Sharp as ever, Ragyou instantly sniffs out the vacancy in the room. “Whoa, where’s Charlie?! She’s never late!”
Diana sits back in her seat, seeing her two partners in. “The Ice Queen’s off doing some mock exam.”
“Heh? Mock Exam?”