Chapter 21:

melting point

dreamcatcher


I had no idea where I would be going to play this rushed concert. Therefore, my shock upon being escorted into a massive baseball stadium by black suits had certainly been plastered on my face.Bookmark here

Earlier in the morning, I had woken up to JC’s phone buzzing with an incoming call. To our surprise, the caller ended up being my father, who instructed JC to meet up with his men. He had heard about my involvement on the internet, where apparently the entire country was talking about it. He was brief with JC, not allowing him to ask any questions, and only left one message that held any sort of sincerity: “Please, keep my daughter safe. And do not let anything become of the other girl until I’ve arrived.”Bookmark here

With that, the phone call had ended, leaving the two of us to ponder. I explained my relationship with my father, and my misgivings about him in this world. JC affirmed those misgivings. “Like I’ve been saying since the beginning, we cannot account for the behavior of NPC’s. Even if this one is tailored to your world, we should be wary. At the very least, he could have only gotten my phone number from your phone— in which case, he lied about your phone being lost in the snow. For some reason, he didn’t want us to be in contact… I wonder why, though.”Bookmark here

After that, JC insisted I take a shower while he went out to get me a change of clothes, his glistening hair and clean white button-down suggesting he had just taken one himself. The shower offered little relief to the perpetual cold, and by the time I finished, he was knocking on the door. Upon stepping out wrapped in a fresh towel, I discovered the shopping bag lying just inside the doorway.Bookmark here

The light-blue collared top and pink skirt suited me better than I’d expected, aided by matching blue stockings and a white coat. The only article I questioned was the pink heels. Not even in my recitals had I ever donned something so flashy. As I wondered what my father would think of them, JC insisted I get ready to leave.Bookmark here

While we waited for my father’s men to pick us up, I pretended to succumb to the cold, crossing my arms and pulling the hood of my jacket over my freshly curled hair. Only a few people passed us, too distracted by the cold to recognize me, before the car arrived and brought us into town where snow and ice covered everything.Bookmark here

An overabundance of cherry-blossom trees served as the only notable scenery, despite being mostly covered in snow themselves. Even here, there were many times more trees than people. Those who did brave the extreme cold by foot or bicycle moved almost robotically.Bookmark here

Crowds of people had already begun to form around the stadium, leaving me biting my lips while we made for the entrance. The suits managed to shut the gate behind the car as we followed the underground tunnel, parking in a corner at its end.Bookmark here

We were then met atop an elevator by bundled-up concert organizers. They treated me like a celebrity guest, wasting no time in showing me to the main stage— the snow-covered field, where an exquisite heart-shaped stage lay centerpiece.Bookmark here

Until hearing the organizers make small talk, I hadn’t realized it was the most popular baseball stadium in the country. This only gave rise to more nerves, and as we subsequently met the famous band in our backstage area, I found myself stricken by an unsettling feeling.Bookmark here

Standing weak-kneed in a small crowd of bandmates and producers, I try to respond politely to the stunning red-haired girl who led the band as their vocalist icon. However, too many thoughts race for me to pretend to be socially sound, so our conversation ends with her sincere expression of support for what I’m trying to accomplish.Bookmark here

What I’m trying to accomplish today— that very thought is what's making my mind run like a washing machine’s spin cycle. My goal should be specific, but it feels vague. Moreover, JC put me up to it. It’s true that I feel compelled to do something for the world I changed, but I can’t help but wonder if there's any meaning in doing so. Why should I need to influence people if the end goal is to leave this world to fade into dust while I return to the real world? If this is some kind of simulated trial, how can I be sincere about helping those I intend to forsake?Bookmark here

Despite that, my life is on the line. But, so is Mary’s. And there’s no reason I deserve to live any more than she does. So, why is JC taking my side? Presumably because it’s my turn this time, and it’s me against the fake Mary. Though, he did say he doesn’t wish for either of us to lose our hearts. What exactly does he want, then? What is his true role?Bookmark here

There must be a reason Mary can’t trust him, and a reason he worked so hard to gain her trust in her world. Somehow, he’s guided us flawlessly up to this point. Despite that, Mary didn’t win. And if I don’t take the most extreme measure, it seems unlikely I will either.Bookmark here

I glance at the smiling man who’s having a jovial conversation with one of the event’s producers. He catches my glance and shoots me a quick wink, as if to tell me to relax. However, something about his gesture strikes a nerve. I feel like I'm remembering something that I shouldn't have memory of, as if his wink planted an idea in my head.Bookmark here

A vague idea that, buried beneath his polite confidence, there is a grand plan— one he may not even remember yet. That whatever he may be hiding, and the reason Mary inherently distrusts him, could instead be a reason to believe in him.Bookmark here

With that in mind, I smile weakly at him, resolving myself to the task at hand. After an hour or so of practice, we prepare to take the stage. My show-mates lead the way behind a line of security mixed with black suits, and we emerge from underground onto a gated path leading to the stage. Bookmark here

The field, as well as the stadium seating, is consumed with people roaring in unison as we make our way to the center. I simply stare in shock at the infinite faces of clamoring NPCs, prompting JC to take my hand and lead me up the stage’s steps. Following my show-mates onto the stage, I reluctantly separate from JC and find the expensive black piano in the middle.Bookmark here

The hard wooden bench calms down my shaking legs as I sit and observe the bustling crowd. The gate surrounds the stage, accompanied by countless security guards who are doing their best to keep the crowd from toppling the gate over. Compared to them, I’m severely underdressed for this weather. Everybody aside from myself and the suits seem to be struggling against the sub-freezing temperature. Whereas, I'm sweating, a warm nausea filling my stomach as my hands shake relentlessly.Bookmark here

Without any warning or introduction, The Blinking Owl’s vocalist raises her mic and signals the band to begin performing. They open with one of their most popular and upbeat songs. The massive crowd sings and dances along with the lively performance, while I distance myself from the entire spectacle to try and regain my lost nerves.Bookmark here

There isn’t much opportunity for me to accompany this song with piano, so we had elected to wait for the next song. As the first comes to an end with uproarious applause, I take a deep breath and force my frozen nerves to wake. I’ve done this too many times in the deep dream world for something like this to stop me.Bookmark here

Still not entirely sure of who or what I’m playing for, I strike down on the keys, providing a stoic intro to the second song. The band follows me flawlessly as practiced, and we venture into the song with every bit of passion the crowd had been expecting. I play as I had in the deep dream world, but my performance isn’t as flawless as the one I recorded yesterday. Luckily, the other instrumentals mix enough to mask my lack of precision, and the song ends with even more applause than the first.Bookmark here

A third, slower-paced song begins. As my part begins, I rush in a panic, and quickly grow self-conscious of my pace and accuracy, unable to hide behind the other instruments. I fall behind trying to compensate, only to overcompensate to catch back up. As this cycle bounces back and forth, I become a slave to my efforts, exactly as I had in the deep dream world— something I thought I’d overcome.Bookmark here

While I immerse myself in the frantic movements of my fingers, a single crack of thunder resounds from somewhere outside the stadium. Rain begins to fall onto the crowd, which withers, already weakened by the cold. Several bolts of lightning find their home amongst the crowd, causing people to scatter in panic, running over others. Brawls begin to break out across the stadium seating as well as the field.Bookmark here

The cause of this becomes clear as JC rushes onto the stage, pointing toward home plate, where a group of several dozen are storming through the sea of panicked people. There’s no doubt about it— she’s here. And she manipulated the weather while I was struggling to play.Bookmark here

If that’s the case, though, I just have to take it back. Fake or not, I can’t let her steal the world from me, and I can’t let her bring more harm to the people in my world. With gnashed teeth I continue playing, prompting the hesitant band to continue. Our tempo rises with passion rivaling the intensifying storm, and we finish the third song, leading directly into the fourth— my song, Winking Owl.Bookmark here

The storm continues as Mary comes into view, pushing through the crowd toward us. The crowd begins fighting back, picking her group off one by one. The vocalist sings my melancholic acoustic song as I play the piano, accompanied by minimal instrumentals. As I make out Mary’s face within the crowd, my courage grows, and I sing into the mic atop the piano.Bookmark here

Just as I do, my fingers flow across the keys smoother, producing a more striking melody. The crowd, which had largely turned its attention to Mary’s group, sings along almost in complete unison. Conscious of their response, I continue my precise playing, careful to maintain the rhythm circulating the stadium.Bookmark here

Mary’s group makes significant headway in their march toward us thanks to the crowd’s immersion. However, the heavy rain turns to something else as we approach the song’s climax.Bookmark here

I sing the most chilling, passionate note of the song, just as the falling rain begins to freeze. As it falls, the sea of people become covered in a blanket of ice, which spreads like wildfire across the stadium. One by one the people find themselves immobilized under the coat of ice. The collective rhythm fades away at once, leaving only us performers to finish the sad, melodic song.Bookmark here

The song ends as I stare in wide-eyed desperation at the keys, as if pleading for them to undo the icy wave. Tears stream down my cheeks before freezing as I look around the stage. Only the place where I sit at the piano has not been frozen solid. The band members are all frozen solid, as is JC and the suits. Only the sound of my hoarse breath resonates through the frozen air. I stand up to survey the field, and confirm that she, too, has been frozen solid.Bookmark here

I sink to my seat, my arms falling limply to my side and my head hanging. Once again, I’ve resorted to freezing the world due to my own failure. For some reason, though, I’ve left only myself this time.Bookmark here

There’s no point playing anymore, is there? I wouldn’t be playing for anybody, so why am I still here? Why did the world not restart once more? Admittedly, I don’t want to do this another time, so maybe that’s why. I don’t want to have to shoulder so much responsibility, to play for so many people, anymore. So, what should I do, now that I'm here alone?Bookmark here

Perhaps this is what I wanted all along. To play on such a stage to my heart’s content, with none watching, none to enjoy the song but myself.Bookmark here

All along, I thought I’d simply had the desire to live. However, deep down, it’s likely that I never truly believed I’d live. I really only wanted to freeze time, and enjoy my life before it runs out. If this is the result of that wish, then this opportunity is nothing more than one made of blissful surrender.Bookmark here

And so, with nobody around to hear, no one left to play for but myself, I bring my cold fingers to the keys. The chords of Sunscape play lightly, tumbling along like a snowball bouncing down a hill before shattering. My voice emerges weakly as the song travels into its first phase, and I play unlike ever before. Without the urgency of the deep dream world, the pressure of my recording studio and bedroom, and the expectations placed upon me— not by my father, or my fans, but by myself.Bookmark here

I was the only one ever expecting anything from anybody. The shadows compelling me were none other than my own. My father’s sinful actions were compelled by my selfishness, and Mary’s heart was stolen as a result of that selfishness.Bookmark here

And now that I've had my wish granted, I can do nothing but play this song until my selfishness has been satisfied. Whatever may become of mine and JC’s plan, I can only play this one song for myself.Bookmark here

I enter an otherworldly trance as I play, singing like a carefree child. I imagine the faces of my late mother and my broken father watching me proudly as I gleefully perform.Bookmark here

The cold seems to dissipate as I open my eyes, free to observe the world without worry of losing my focus. The chords continue ringing, and with each of them, the temperature escalates. Beyond the clouds, the sun emerges, and expands across the sky.Bookmark here

Engrossed by the sun’s sudden outbreak, I continue the song to its climax. As I do, the clouds vacate the sky, and the snow and ice scaling the stadium gradually dissipate— revealing a field of pink grass underneath the feet of the freed crowd of NPCs who collectively reel while gasping for air.Bookmark here

The bandmates, too, move once more as the ice melts into gleaming puddles on the stage. They slump down, dropping their instruments as they struggle to catch their breath. JC checks on his hair, recovering rather quickly. He surveys the murmuring crowd, before turning back to me as I finish holding the song’s final note.Bookmark here

“Well, you really did melt their hearts,” he says, smiling at me. “Now, there’s only—”Bookmark here

He’s cut off as something slams into the side of his head. A black leather boot and slender leg flashes across the top of the stage’s steps as he crashes down them. A girl with incomparable beauty emerges and takes JC’s place atop the steps. Her long black hair blows fiercely in the wind brought forth by the sudden scattering of clouds. Her black jacket, blouse, and pants are tattered and void of any weapons. However, her pale face emblazoned by the beaming sun behind her bears something beyond fierce.Bookmark here

I kick my heels across the stage and run to her, my eyes wide with realization. It’s like this is the first time I’ve gotten a good look at her face in my world— the first time I’ve actually seen her expression.Bookmark here

She’s slow to react, surprised by my sudden advance. She grits her teeth and clenches her fist as she lunges for me. However, I’m too fast. As if all my hesitation had melted, I throw myself at her faster than she throws her punch. Instead of punching back, though, I dive into her opened arms, and wrap my own frail arms around her slender back.Bookmark here

Her face and body go still with shock, and a short gasp reaches my ear. I hold onto her firmly, yet as gently as I can, burying my face in her shoulder as she slowly brings her hands to rest on my back.Bookmark here

“I was wrong, wasn’t I?” I whisper through choppy breaths. “There’s nothing fake about you, Mary. I've been misunderstanding things all along. I even dreamt of your encouraging words when you weren't even in the deep dream world. You're right, I've been so selfish...”Bookmark here

“I…”Bookmark here

“You only wanted to live,” I continue in a shaky voice, maintaining my grip on her. “You’re not any different from me. It's not like you were against me because you weren’t the real you. You just don’t want your heart taken from you. The dreamscape used that, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t real, right?”Bookmark here

“That’s… right.”Bookmark here

“I understand now,” I sob, still holding tight. “In the last world, you absorbed the part of you that split off when your heart was taken. Then, there isn’t any such thing as a fake or real Mary… you’re just you. So, when I told you I was the one who had your heart, it simply triggered the part of you that wishes to fight for her freedom— the part you regained in your world. You were on my side until you learned that, because you realized my victory could only come if I take the rest of your heart… isn’t that right?”Bookmark here

“Yes…” she mutters, her lips quivering as I feel a tear fall from her cheek onto mine. “So, why are you clinging to me, unless you really want to…”Bookmark here

“I don’t want to take it,” I reply as I nestle my head against her shoulder. “I won’t take it, no matter what happens to me or this world. We promised to help each other if things got scary, right? So, can you trust me?”Bookmark here

She hesitates, her hands trembling. “I…” her voice trails off, and she finally tightens her arms around me, returning my hug. “I think I can, yes.” At that moment, I feel something twinge in my heart as it presses against hers. The ice that had covered my heart melts, sending a warm feeling down my chest.Bookmark here

“What is this?” Mary inquires, still holding onto me. “I feel something stirring around my heart… like getting out of an ice bath.”Bookmark here

“You had ice protecting your heart, too?” I exclaim, shocked.Bookmark here

“Did I? I guess that means you melted it, huh?” she mutters, chuckling through her nose.Bookmark here

“But why would you—” my voice halts as the twinge in my chest turns to acute pain, staggering me.Bookmark here

“Mirei? What's— ah!” Mary grunts with pain, and we both slump to the stage floor, grasping at our hearts. The crowd collectively gasps, but only one person approaches us.Bookmark here

“Such an ending never would have worked, would it?” a familiar voice sounds from beyond the steps of the stage. My eyes grow wide as the tapping of footsteps grows closer until his figure emerges.Bookmark here

“Father…?”Bookmark here

“My dear… it’s time we settled this.” His stern, yet caring voice matches his calm, determined expression. “Now, leave everything to your father.” His words laced with something sinister, my father crouches to a knee in front of the crumpled Mary, and withdraws a lustrous dagger.Bookmark here

“Father…what are you…” I mutter, struggling to speak. My heart feels as though it’s being beaten like a snare drum, tightening up with each throb.Bookmark here

“Please relax, dear,” he says as he wrestles Mary’s hands away from her chest and forces her straight onto her back. “Your time truly is moving forward now. As you wished, you melted away the ice that froze you in place, so you must now bear the heat of the great power you enacted to move forward.”Bookmark here

Mary fights against his grasp, trying to wrench herself away from him. He responds, twisting her body as their scuffle leads them to the steps. He pushes her down two steps, slamming her back into one of the corners. As a stifled cry leaves her, I sit up and look dazedly toward the sun, whose prominence seems to be growing with each second.Bookmark here

“Mirei, look how the sun is moving,” my father groans, struggling to break through Mary’s desperate defense. “Now that your time is moving, there isn’t much of it left. Whatever your plan was, it only succeeds if you let me retrieve the rest of this heart for you.”Bookmark here

The sun shines brighter than I’ve ever seen, lighting up the world as if for the first time. My father’s words don't surprise me, but they do strike me— as if the answer had never been so clear, the solution so opportune.Bookmark here

He punches Mary’s chest, just above her heart. Her arms fall limply to her sides as tears streak silently down her face. I force myself to my feet to get a better look at her. Despite losing strength due to the pain, her expression isn’t showing any signs of defeat. Of course, she hasn’t given up. She never would. That makes it clear what I should do, for both our sakes.Bookmark here

My father’s thin blade begins its downward arc into her chest. Just before it reaches her flesh, however, he freezes, and drops the knife down the steps and into the pink grass.Bookmark here

“Mirei… why?” he huffs, coughing blood onto the thin spear of ice coming out of his chest.Bookmark here

“Even if you aren’t really my father…” I say, my voice shaking as I fight back tears. “I still can’t help but feel like it’s you. Which is why I want to say a proper goodbye to you.”Bookmark here

He turns to me, eyes wide and struggling to breathe. “But I only ever wanted to protect you…”Bookmark here

“And I thank you for being my protector all this time, Father,” I reply, lowering my guard and allowing the ice to melt into a puddle around him. “You’ve done so much for me… and you’ve always been there for me. Even though you were hurting, too, you always took care of me first, and me alone. And… I took that for granted. I let you be the scapegoat for my selfish desire, and drove you to ruin Mary’s life. This is all my fault, which is why I have to make it right, now— I can’t rely on you anymore, okay?”Bookmark here

He takes a step toward me, tears rolling down his quivering cheeks. The devastation in his expression forces my tears to pour like a faucet. “MIrei… my dear Mirei… I love you,” he groans, struggling to lift his hand toward mine.Bookmark here

I offer him a weak smile, and extend my hand toward his. However, his own hand stops before they meet, and his eyes flicker like candlelight. Suddenly, his body is engulfed in flame, or rather, it becomes flame right before my eyes.Bookmark here

“You’ve done well up until now, Miss Mirei,” a different voice seethes from within the humanoid swirl of flames. Its deep whisper pours from wisps within the flames, and it begins hovering like a balloon toward the overbearing sun. My father’s body is gone, leaving nothing but the floating shroud of flames.Bookmark here

“You should have waited until I obtained the heart for you, then killed him,” the familiar voice hisses with satisfaction. “Did you do this because you realized it was me imitating your father?”Bookmark here

“You were convincing, but you knew too much about this world,” I answer, glaring at Aku’s unsettling figure as he glides toward the sun.Bookmark here

“Well, I did emulate him perfectly, so that nothing I did would be any different than what he would have done,” he says, his thin wisps forming a malevolent grin. “You can rest assured of that, at least.”Bookmark here

“That’s why I did it…” I reply, looking down. “Not just because you needed to be dealt with, but because I needed to settle things with him before he committed any more sins for my sake.”Bookmark here

“Ah, in that case,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone. “I hope you’ll find yourself more callused by the time we next meet. There isn’t much time before this sun descends upon your cold, broken world.”Bookmark here

With that, Aku’s figure shoots like a comet in reverse toward the sun. A sound like bubbling lava emanates in the distance, and the sun blasts patches of itself around like a firework display. The screams of the crowd reach me, taking my attention away from the daunting spectacle.Bookmark here

“The sun is falling to the earth!”Bookmark here

“We’re going to be burned!”Bookmark here

“First the ice, now the sun will destroy us!”Bookmark here

“Please save us, Apocalyptic Princess!”Bookmark here

“Hurry, take Mary and get in the car!”Bookmark here

The last voice steals my attention from the masses, and I look to see JC making for the abandoned car. The black suits are dissipating into shadows around him and floating away like Aku had, but the horde of NPCs have nearly broken through the barrier.Bookmark here

Despite my heart searing with pain, I force my body to move down the steps, reaching for Mary. Before I reach her, though, she manages to sit up, and grasps my hand, her expression as determined as ever. I swing her arm along as I stride down the steps, and together we run through the pink grass and throw ourselves into the backseat of the classic car.Bookmark here

JC slams on the gas pedal, whipping the car down the path and through the underground tunnel. As he speeds toward the exit, Mary and I lean on each other, clutching our chests as we gasp for breath.Bookmark here

We quickly reach the outside, where small fires have already broken out amidst the pink grass and cherry-blossom trees lining the road. “The sun really is falling to the earth…” JC mutters, gazing with awe at the spectacle. “Well then, where to?”Bookmark here

Still clutching my chest, I raise my opposite arm, and point straight ahead as my choppy breaths grow deeper. “Isn’t that… obvious? We’re going… right into the sun.”Bookmark here

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