“Mirei, what is it?” Father asks as I smile at the computer screen, a tear silently rolling down my cheek.
“Just reading some messages of support,” I reply.
“I’m sure they miss your music, but right now—”
“Father, I want to make a video today. Will you allow me to work on my own?” I say, directing my smile at him.
“Mirei… I understand your feelings, but now isn’t the time. We have to focus on defeating that girl and—” His voice gradually raises to a desperate shout, his eyes wide.
“Father, you can’t understand my feelings all the time, no matter how hard you try… and that’s okay,” I reply, my smile wilting to something pitiful. “This is something I must do, not just for myself, but for all the people who support me. I have to move forward. If I keep standing still in fear of dying, I’ll stay frozen in time forever.”
“But to do that… to move forward…” he stammers, his expression tightening with anguish.
“Yes, I know... I need the rest of her heart. That’s what all of this comes down to, isn’t it…?” My voice trails off as I look out the window to the now vacant cherry-blossom tree, before steering back to meet his gaze. “But, regardless, I have to walk forward in my own way. I can’t rely on you for everything right now.”
“I understand,” he responds with a reluctant sigh, before standing to his feet and exiting the room with a weak smile.
Aware that I’m working against the clock, I quickly set up my piano and camera, electing to go without candles or other decoration. With only a vague notion of the song I want to make, I start practicing.
The cold weather proves more prevalent in this world that lies closer to reality than the deep dream world, making my bones and joints significantly stiffer. It takes me nearly an hour to warm up, and after another hour I’ve got the song closer to a final version. I use my recording to review my playing, noting down the things I want to change or emphasize, and continue practicing.
My playing is sloppier than normal, having gone without practice for so long. The trance of the deep dream world isn’t there, nor are the shadows. However, there’s a similar feeling hanging around my chest, a feeling of pressure and unease. The pressure turns to a debilitating pain, forcing me to rest and take deep breaths.
In the deep dream world, this is the point where the shadows would force my play to continue, at the expense of its natural energy and quality. In reality, it’s my burden to push myself and provide better music for my supporters.
I hate to think this, but I’m beginning to realize I’ve let that pressure come from my father, as I allowed him to hold my fate in his hands, relying on him to save me while promising to improve myself in return. At that time, I allowed myself to be held hostage by my father’s overbearing, self-righteous love for me.
My playing suffered as a result, and became less spirited. That's when the melancholic Winking Owl was born. A bitter song born of pain and submission to my plight. I’m not sure if it was my father’s involvement that caused me to submit, but the only thing I can do now is acknowledge it and avoid continuing that mistake.
So, I force myself to rest, reading comments of support and playing at leisure. Several hours pass before I perform the new song again, invigorated by my natural process. I can confidently say it’s ready to post, but that will have to wait till “tomorrow”.
My ears perk up as the sound of thunder tears me away from my nirvana. Nightfall has come, bringing with it a great storm. With a deep breath I make for the door. Wasting no time to look at the window, I thrust myself through the doorway and bound down the hallway. It seems I’m early to the draw this time, as nobody meets me on the way to the first floor.
Just as I enter the main hall, the truck crashes through the entryway, throwing shards of brick and glass in my direction. My head and leg are struck by several pieces, but I manage to keep my footing while clutching onto my head.
Opening my eyes and raising my head, I lay my gaze on her just as she appears through the broken wall, breathing hard and staring daggers. As much as I want to face her without any tears, the pain makes them fall.
“Mary, how is it possible for us to be so close despite our wavelength?” I ask, breathing choppily as I attempt to deter the oncoming sobs. Her look of surprise indicates she wasn’t expecting that, even though she seems fully aware of the world’s mechanisms.
“We obviously have different goals, so how?” I continue, stepping toward her. Clearly threatened, she withdraws a handgun and points it at me. “You want your heart back, and I’m not willing to give it up… so we shouldn’t be able to interact. Or is it like your world, where you came to meet me through the fake you? But I guess that sounds strange since this is the fake you.”
“You’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of the dreamscape, haven’t you?” she says, baring her teeth at me scornfully. “Even so, you don’t understand a thing.”
“Huh?” I mutter, shocked by her biting response. “But it’s true that the real Mary is inside you, like me in the first world… So what am I missing? How do I bring you out of that fake? I want to be with the Mary who's been helping me in the deep dream world— I haven’t given up on that!”
“You’re blinded by your selfishness, like a spoiled child,” she says, her face twisting with resentment. “You really are pitiful.”
I stand stock-still, frozen by her words. She takes advantage of my pause, firing the gun. The bullet lands just next to where a shard of glass is stuck in my thigh. I wince at the pain, but instead of falling, I grit my teeth and take a step forward on the wounded leg. A cold numbness courses through the wound, allowing me to take another step forward.
The tears pouring down my face harden into ice, specs breaking off and falling while others stick to my cheeks. “In that world, JC was with you,” I mutter. “He guided you and brought you to me. So, fake Mary, where is JC now? Why am I forced to fight alone?”
Another shot is fired into my other leg, and I find both legs buckling before I can struggle against the pain.
“You’re too confident in the devices of your world,” she says, dropping the gun and withdrawing a long knife. “You’re just trying to get information to use next time, so I’ll just open you up now and take my heart back before you can reset!”
She lunges at me, aiming the knife at my chest. Just as before, a patch of ice blocks its path. However, she reacts quickly. Her supposed empty left-hand flashes a smaller knife, and drives it into my chest above the patch of ice before I can react.
Ice immediately forms around the impalement, but not before she cuts the hole wide enough to sink her fist into. I feel her hand coil around my heart as her momentum sends us crashing to the carpet.
My piercing scream fills the air, freezing it just as it had the first time. Mary strains herself in the attempt to pull my heart skyward, her face going purple. However, something stops her.
“Wha—” she mutters, eyes wide. I’m just as surprised as her, as what I feel is not her hand around my bare heart, but around a thick, impenetrable layer of ice.
The toxic air paints our skin with a thick sheet of ice, and her hand is buried under the expanding ice within my chest.
As she struggles in vain, coughing blood onto the block of ice growing around her arm, a tear rolls down her cheek.
“This is the best shot I have… at living a life without fear,” she cries, her tears freezing on her face as they fall. “This is my only chance to break free from my fate. I won’t just fade away!”
“Mary…” I mutter, my words seeping out like frozen venom and eliminating any remaining oxygen from the room while pillars of ice sprout from the walls. As the trail of her frozen tears connect to my own, my vision goes white.
I open my eyes, and immediately roll out of bed and lunge for my computer. My father enters like usual, delivering a pitiful speech, but my focus lies only on the screen. Today’s comment reads: If you ever feel like your fate is written out for you… just remember that only you can be the driver of your story. Take your fate by the wheel and break through whatever barrier you’re facing.
I blink my eyes furiously, like a flickering light. My gaze shifts toward my father, who gives me a curious look. “Father, will you be away this evening?” I ask plainly.
“Ah, yes, I do have some work to see to,” he replies, taken aback by my sudden inquiry. “But, why—”
“I see… you’ll be careful, won’t you? I’d like to see you tomorrow,” I interrupt, smiling transparently.
“Yes, of course,” he replies, nearly in tears. “I’ll be sure to see you tomorrow, then.”
As soon as he leaves, I tidy up and prepare my personal stage for performance. Once ready, I turn the camera on and bring my hands to the keys. Thanks to my practice from the previous ‘today’, I execute the song exactly how I’d imagined. My face bears a smile as the keys sing the tune my heart wrote out. My voice comes out shyly at first, but grows to a sweet, triumphant cry at the song’s climax.
I quickly review the footage of the performance, finding no flaws, and waste no time in connecting the camera’s hardware to my computer. I upload the video to Shiburei’s channel, applying the thumbnail— a fan-made drawing, wherein I’m lying in a field of cherry blossoms. Nerves stir up my chest as the video renders, before popping up on my feed.
I don’t even have to wait five minutes before the views start racking up, and comments begin pouring in. The comments comprise mostly of those absolutely shocked by my return, proclaiming that I’m back from the dead, and showing their support for me and the new song.
In fact, the volume of views and comments continues to soar higher at an alarming rate. After thirty minutes, I check the view count again, and jump to my feet, craning my neck to look closely at the monitor. The new video has already accrued twenty million views— twice the amount on Sunscape.
The comments now vary so widely they don’t even seem to be about Shiburei or the song anymore. They’re talking about the ‘Ice Age Apocalypse’ and the apparent miracle of the sun showing through the clouds at the sudden posting of my video, some appointing me as the ‘Apocalyptic Princess’. Several comments argue that the son of God was right all along, having prophesied my rise as the goddess of a new world. I search the comments avidly, looking for one in particular. Finally, I find it, posted only minutes prior.
It’s wonderful to see the blooming of your world after being frozen in time for so long. I can’t wait to see what becomes of it once you’ve truly got your hands on the steering wheel. For starters, how about a live performance with the nation’s former sweetheart and your inspiration, ‘The Blinking Owl’? Imagine how that would melt the frozen-over hearts of the people… But, Flightbound, huh? I can’t think of a more fitting sequel to “Winking Owl”. It’s about time that hard-working little owl took flight, after all. Signed with a wink.
JC’s comment garners thousands of likes almost instantly, and comments such as ‘this fake Jesus has been here since her very first video, and always has something weirdly prophetic to say… what gives?’ and ‘what are you two doing to the world? This seems like some grand scheme that I don’t understand… but I don’t like it.’
As I ponder JC’s comments as well as the rapidly multiplying replies of various tone and intent, I notice the view count has reached forty million.
My head and chest are stricken with pain as I attempt to process the situation. How could so much attention fall on me? And just because I posted a video for the first time in over a month… is it a product of my world?
All I can think now is that I have all these people watching me… so many more people that I can’t let down. The thought of failing so many people fills my head, and gives me the impression that it’s being squeezed from the outside. I close my eyes as my vision begins to blacken. The striking pain makes my consciousness waver, as the tightness in my chest increases at a parallel.
“Oh no…” I mumble, trying to force my eyes open. However, it’s already too late. Everything goes dark, and while I can still feel my distant body standing, I find myself playing the piano in the deep dream world. The cycle of candlelight, joy, shadow, and apathy proceeds. I’ve become so used to it that I can go along with the mind-numbing sequence, the origin of my frozen heart.
I’m so used to it that I navigate the cycle with flawless play, simultaneously moving my numbed body in the dreamscape. I don’t know where I’m going, or how much time is passing, but I keep moving. I surpass my prior mastery, breaking the cycle by replacing apathy with a never-ending crescendo, confident I won’t have to see this dream again.
“Mirei…” her voice echoes from somewhere in the world full of shadows. My focus undeterred, I listen closely. “If you defeat me, I want you to know it’s okay. I understand how strong your desire to live is after watching you play here for such a long time. I’ve been here longer than you know, watching these memories, these shadows that torment you. I understand your pain, your fear of dying, but even more so your passion and desire to live. I’m sure you know which one is more important now, so it goes without saying that you’re as strong as any.”
Her calm, gentle voice begins to trail off, and a soft hoot sound comes from somewhere behind me. I break my focus and slowly turn my stiff neck to the place the window should be.
“But you should also know, she— no, I, won’t ever stop fighting. As long as I have something to fight for, I’ll never fade away.”
My gaze finds the shadowy window, its open pane offering a direct view of the owl perched on its sill with one eye closed. The crescendo finally ends as my consciousness is ripped from the deep dream world and thrust back into my body in the dreamscape. I’m instantly assaulted by freezing wind and the dead, noxious air surrounding me.
In between myself and the truck crammed inside the wall, she stands before me once more, her hands adorned with some sort of spiked gloves. Her gaze penetrates mine as she steps toward me, prompting spears of ice to rise like snakes around me, poised to strike. Without thinking, I shoot her a wry smile as I take control of the ice and step forward to meet her.