The Idols in the Viewfinder

A Love Live! New Melody Project Story


Art by Amber Dill -

The Idols in the Viewfinder
A Love Live! New Melody Project!! Story

Early 2023
Ayase Performance Academy
Chiyoda, Tokyo

Saeko Akiyama adjusted the bag  on her shoulder containing her change of clothes as she gazed up at the building containing Ayase Performance Academy, before reaching out and buzzing the intercom next to the front door. A few seconds later, a soft and familiar voice responded through the old crackly speaker.

"Let me guess...we have an illustrious school idol group at our door?"

"Uh, hey, Nozomi," Saeko said. "Actually, it's just me for now. I know I'm a little early. Sorry about that."

"Oh! Saeko! Please don't worry about that, sweetie. Come on up! The door's open. Elicchi and I are just kicking around the office."

"Cool, thanks."

She opened the door and made her way inside and over to the staircase. One creaky step at a time, she passed the second floor dance studio and arrived at the third floor, where the building's classroom space and the Ayases' office were located.

Nozomi spotted her before she could say anything, and rushed over as she entered the office.

"Saeko, sweetie, it's always so good to see you! You know you're always welcome here, early or not."

"Thanks," Saeko said. "I wanted to get here before Narumi or the others."

Eli gave her a small wave, and walked over from behind her desk.

"Are you just that excited about your big photoshoot today?"

"I'm excited, sure. Even brought the costume, but there's something else that made me wanna get here early," Saeko said as she slipped the bag off her shoulder and laid it on the floor. Her school idol group was, in fact, doing its latest photo shoot today, but Saeko had another topic on her mind, one that required somebody with experience.

She knew she could, technically, have asked her parents, but some things were too embarrassing to talk about with close family like that. Besides, Nozomi and Eli were basically her second parents at this point.

"I wanted to talk to you two about something."

"Oh? Like what?" Eli asked.

Saeko felt herself blush, but pushed ahead.

"I kinda need, um, advice. Like...advice. About stuff."


" know. Girl dating stuff."

"Saeko, sweetheart, you have no idea how exciting it is to hear you say that," Nozomi said with a broad grin.

Saeko immediately felt herself being guided to a chair in front of Eli's desk. Nozomi grabbed another chair and sat in front of her, while Eli leaned back on the edge of the desk, the cool dad energy almost visibly radiating off her.

"Wow," Saeko said, "you two are really ready for this, huh?"

"I'm just so honored," Nozomi said. "What made you want to come to us for this?"

"Well, I guess that, like, you two are easy to talk to. You've helped us out a bunch before. Plus, there's the whole, y'know, gay lady wives forever thing you've got going on."

Nozomi winked at her wife. "I suppose we do have a few things figured out, eh, Elicchi?"

"We do," Eli smiled back before returning her attention to Saeko. "Alright. What's on your mind, kiddo?"

From anybody else, a line that corny would have made Saeko laugh, but coming from Eli Ayase, she appreciated the honest effort.

"Okay,, Narumi and I are dating, right?"

"We might have heard about it, yeah," Eli said.

"The thing is," Saeko continued, "I really, really like her. She's weird, and I know it, but hell, I like weird. Besides, we're all kinda weird, you know? She's really sweet under the Bloodborne samurai thing she's got going on, and she's really fuckin' fun to be around, and, well, I mean...she's really fuckin' cute, too."

"It sounds like everything's going great," Nozomi said.

"Totally! And that's the thing," Saeko said. "I never really talk about it much, but I only ever had one other girlfriend before, back in Kyoto. I was barely out, you know?"

"Come to think of it, I don't remember you ever talking about her," Eli said.

"Her name was Hitomi, and, didn't end well. Like, at all."

Nozomi leaned forward and placed her hand on Saeko's.

"I'm so sorry to hear that. I had no idea."

"S'okay," Saeko said. "It happened, and now I'm here, and things are going way better for me now. Thing is, I know I have this image, right? The tough punk chick, or whatever. People at school probably think I've been around with a bunch of girls, but it's really just Hitomi, and now Narumi. I don't have a lot of experience, is what I'm saying."

"There's nothing wrong with that at all," Nozomi said.

"So I guess what I'm asking is, like...I don't wanna fuck this up. Me and Narumi. I wanna be a good girlfriend. When I look around at all the people I know now, I see you two, and you've been together for, like, almost as long as I've been alive."

"Well, now I feel old," Eli said.

"Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean it like that," Saeko said. "I just mean that you two have it figured out. So, like, how do you do that?"

Nozomi and Eli exchanged a smile and soft laughs before replying.

"Well, that's a big topic," Eli said. "I can't say there's a magic formula, or a trick, or anything like that. It's something different for everybody."

"I had a feeling you were going to say something like that," Saeko said.

"That doesn't mean there's no advice we can give! I think that part of it is just being kind, being patient, and listening."

"Know that each of you will make mistakes," Nozomi said, "and that with kindness, you can learn from each other and both grow together."

"Exactly," Eli said. "And listen, not just when she's feeling down, but when she's feeling good. Listen to what she loves, what moves her, what's meaningful to her, and use that to give her more of those things."

Nozomi nodded. "Just be observant and open, and you'll be able to surprise her with kindnesses both small and large when the opportunity comes up."

"Observant, open, kind...yeah, I can do that," Saeko said.

"The other thing to remember - and I know this sounds cliche - is to be yourself," Eli added. "Be the best version of yourself. Society doesn't always understand people like us, you know...people who aren't straight, people who aren't their definition of conventional. The things you read in magazines and online about dating and romance and love...they're not written in reality for anybody except a very narrow definition of 'normal,' which isn't something you should worry about."

"Narumi wanted to be your girlfriend because she likes you," Nozomi said, "the person you are, just like how you said you like her the way she is. Don't worry about changing yourself to fit some kind of image of the perfect girlfriend. You're both unique girls. Embrace that uniqueness together!"

Saeko nodded. "That makes a lot of sense, yeah. I always did think that all those advice articles and blogs were really, y'know, straight and narrow-minded."

"You don't know the half of it," Eli laughed.

"One of the disadvantages of being people like us," Nozomi said, "is that society doesn't really know what to do with us. That's also connected to an advantage, though: we're not tied to their norms and ideas of tradition. We can feel for each other in ways that are thoughtful and meaningful for us."

"I guess even these days, two girls in a relationship is, like, an act of rebellion," Saeko said. "Now you're talking my language."

"Exactly," Eli said. "Society's more accepting than it used to be, but not accepting enough. So everything you do is still pushing back at the people who think we shouldn't exist."

"Hell yeah, I get you," Saeko said. "Hey...thanks for this, for real."

"Elicchi and I are always here to help you, sweetie," Nozomi said. "You're so welcome!"

Eli nodded. "Absolutely. We've been doing this for a long time. And at any rate, you and Narumi are great together. I know you're going to be okay, sport."

Saeko's eyes met Nozomi's as they shared a barely-stifled laugh. Eli looked back and forth between them, suddenly much more self-aware.


"Nothing," Saeko grinned. "Thanks, dad."

"You really are the darling to my honey," Nozomi giggled.

Before Eli could respond - beyond the perplexed look on her face - the intercom buzzed, and she got up to answer it.

"Ayase Performance Academy, how can we help you?"

A theatrical voice answered.

"From the shadows, we rise to the arcane temple of performing magicks! Madame of artistic knowledge, you are visited by the Crimson Queen's chosen blades, the ones who carry Her endless grace unto the battlefield of idol warfare!"

"Oh, hello there, Narumi," Eli chuckled.

This was followed by an altogether softer and sweeter voice over the intercom speaker.

"Also, I'm here! Miyuki, I mean! Hi, Eli!"

"Your modesty is unneeded, seamstress," the first voice replied. "Your combat abilities are without peer!"

"Yeah Miyuki-chan you're pretty badass if I do say so myself and that's not me being biased just because we're in a girlfriendish way you are just that cool," a robotic monotone added.


The first voice returned. "What say you, professor? Shall ye open the gates so that the school idol group PowerPanic may ascend to their godly heights, and so that I might lay eyes open the bewitching Saeko Akiyama once more, a salve for these weary old eyes?"

Saeko felt herself blush, only made worse by Nozomi's knowing giggle.

"Narumi really is a charmer, isn't she?" Nozomi asked.

"I didn't know that stuff worked on me," Saeko said, "until she showed up."

"Wait, PowerPanic? I thought you girls had all merged into Tempest," Eli said.

"Yeah...the situation changed," Saeko said. "I'll explain when the others get up here."

Nozomi smiled as the office door opened and the rest of the group - Miyuki, Hikari, and Narumi - walked in. All of the girls carried bags with their idol costumes, just as Saeko had, though to her complete lack of surprise, Narumi was already wearing her eye mask.

The special gift that the ever-mysterious Junko Mihama had shared with Nozomi, the connection to the source of idol energy known as the Resonance, allowed her to feel the girls' emotions through the harmonious song and colors that radiated from them. She only tapped into it for a brief moment, as it was still easy for her to become overwhelmed, but in that moment she could vividly understand how excited and happy the girls were...tinged with an unexpected streak of nervousness from Narumi.

For her part, Narumi wasn't letting on about that nervousness.

"Ah, once more, we warriors in service of the Crimson Queen's musical conquest enter unto the hallowed halls of the academy of knowledge," Narumi said. "Tell me, scholars, how does the day find you?"

"We're doing great," Eli said.

Nozomi nodded. "We were just catching up with Saeko for a bit."

"Yeah, hey," Saeko said.

"Hey indeed, my fair lady of the far lands," Narumi said.

Nozomi watched as Narumi moved in close to Saeko, gazing straight into her eyes as she spoke. Saeko was clearly trying to keep her cool, but the blush in her cheeks was obvious.

"You look, um, really great," Saeko said.

Narumi smiled. "You as well, my dear. I would cross many a battlefield to return home to a beauty as potent as you."

"Aw...geez," Saeko said as she looked away, trying to hide the grin that Nozomi noticed right away.

"Last I heard, there were six of you," Eli said. "What happened to Yoshino and Sakura? You're not Tempest anymore?"

"Aye, therein hangs a tale," Narumi said. "In my efforts to secure Storm Maiden's place in the waning Harugaoka idol battalion, I needed soldiers to advance the Crimson Queen's goals."

"And to give you an excuse to get close to us, because of the crush you had on me," Saeko smirked. "Don't forget that part."

Narumi chuckled. "I admit, I had ulterior motives, but that aspect worked out quite well in the end, did it not?"

"Yeah, it really did," Saeko said. The blush in her cheeks wasn't going away.

"At any rate, Yoshino and Sakura were drafted into my dark plans. They were capable warriors, and I consider them dear friends. However, with our transference to the new grand academy of Yōiku-no-Mori, they wish to pursue their own destinies, and I will not be the one to deny them that."

"In other words Yoshino and Sakura are going to be trying out other clubs you know some people are school idols hardcore style and some people are school idols part-time nothing wrong with either approach but yeah they need to go hoist their freak flags elsewhere for a little bit and I really hope they find their happy places," Hikari said.

"Yeah! But we're all still friends, so it's okay," Miyuki said.

Saeko nodded. "We didn't feel right continuing to use Tempest without them, so we figured out how we were going to do things from now on. Narumi offered to let us bring back the PowerPanic name for the four of us, and we offered to use the Storm Maiden costumes."

"The fusion of our previous identities creates a stronger whole from the sum of the parts," Narumi said, "and now, we are truly unstoppable. The Crimson Queen's good graces flow through us even as we speak!"

"Sounds like you've covered all the bases," Eli said. "I'm glad you four are just going to keep going."

"Absolutely," Nozomi said. "So, are you girls ready for your first big four-person PowerPanic photo shoot?"

Miyuki was practically buzzing, a far cry from the shy girl who first joined the dance studio all those months ago.

"Super ready, yeah! It's going to be so fun to finally have all four of us in photos together! We're having the girl who did our last set, Kaede Yagami, do these, too."

Beside her, Hikari nodded in agreement. "We're probably going to need to just have Kaede-chan hired as our photographer permanently considering how much of her film we're burning but it's going to be worth it we will be captured on celluloid for the adoration of all our fans or at least whoever's paying attention."

"She's badass," Saeko said. "We're lucky she's so excited to take our photos. She can do way better than any of us can."

"I've known Kaede-chan for a while now and I know two things about her are very true one she is extremely skilled with archaic photography instruments and two that girl is a total player like the game on her is peerless nobody throws down vis a vis girl dating quite like her she's like a professional yuri practitioner so she knows girls and she loves to be around girls and take photos to capture girls' inherent girlitude," Hikari said.

"Ah, then it makes sense why the photogramatrix so readily volunteers her services," Narumi said, as she moved over to Saeko and draped an arm across her shoulders. "Who better to demonstrate the appeal of we, the idol blade masters, than  one whomst understands the innate appeal of the being known as girl in all her many forms?"

"Kaede-chan sounds a little like me when I was her age, at least in one particular way," Nozomi giggled.

Eli laughed. "I'm sure she's going to do a great job for you girls. I remember the ones you showed us from your first shoot. She's genuinely talented."

Miyuki nodded. "We'll show you the finished photos when she's done with them!"

"Okay," Saeko said, "if Kaede's almost here, do we want to get changed? She'll probably want to start with us in the costumes."

"That sounds good, Sae-chan. Let's be ready to go when she gets here!"

Nozomi watched as Narumi shot an odd look at her and Eli before replying.

"A fine plan, indeed, my compatriots. Go and don your battle attire. I shall join you momentarily!"

"You okay?" Saeko asked. "Is something wrong?"

"Not at all, my dear," Narumi said. "I simply need to confer about idol business with the ladies of the academy! I shan't be a moment."

"Cool, yeah," Saeko said. She took Narumi's hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. "See you in a few."

As the rest of the group grabbed their bags and headed out of the office to change, Eli sat back down on the edge of her desk, as she did before.

"What's this idol business you need to ask us about?"

Narumi watched and waited for the last of the girls to file out, then dashed over to the office door, shutting it quietly behind them before rushing back to Eli and Nozomi's side.

"That was but a ruse, madame professor. I do require your time to make an inquiry, but it is of a far more...personal nature than I let on."

"Personal?" Nozomi asked.

"Indeed," Narumi said. "I seek advice in the ways of woo and romance, and have decided that you two, being unparalleled in your achievements as leaders in Sappho's grand army, were the natural people to ask."

Well, that explains the nervousness I sensed, Nozomi thought. It was adorable that she and Saeko both came to them on the same day for the same sort of advice.

"You can ask us anything at all, Narumi dear," she said. "Elicchi and I offer advice rather frequently."

"All the time, lately," Eli grinned back.

"Very well," Narumi said, as she sat in the same chair Saeko had been sitting in during the earlier conversation. "As you two may have surmised with the powers afforded you by the blessings of the ancient realm of Lesbos, Saeko and I are entwined in the crimson threads of destiny, exploring that which exists in the synthesis of our two selves."

"Yes, we're aware that you and Saeko are dating," Eli said.

Narumi nodded. "You are as perceptive as I thought. Further, I am quite besmotten with my fair lady of the far lands. She is a singular entity, born of both fire as hot as the very hells that mortals dare not tread, and a tender softness that poets would fail to do justice to."

"That's absolutely beautiful," Nozomi said.

"Yeah," Eli agreed. "You really are a romantic, huh?"

"I have seen much in my years and the places I have traveled," Narumi said. "I suppose it lends me a certain perspective on truth and beauty, yes."

"Aren't you girls the same age?"

"The fine details matter not. The point is, I would quite like to be the finest partner possible to my lovely lady, but alas, despite my considerable charms, I am not precisely experienced in the ways of romance on this plane. My last relationship was long ago, and worlds away from the manner in which this realm operates, and as such, is not always useful for informing my techniques in this day and age."

"Well, I'm not one hundred percent sure what you mean by all that," Eli said, "but we can definitely offer you relationship advice. We're pretty experienced."

"That's right," Nozomi said. "We just had to do this recently, in fact."

Narumi smiled. "Tis music to my ears, professors. So, please, elucidate! School me on the finer techniques of the grand dance of love."

Nozomi exchanged a knowing look with Eli. An opportunity to help both sides of a relationship like this wasn't something to be passed up.

"Well," she began, "let's talk first about listening."

Saeko fastened the last button of her top, slid her mask over her eyes, and tied it behind her head. She regarded herself in the studio's mirrored walls; her new costume was very much like Narumi's, with a red biker jacket-style top, the requisite eye mask, the red boots, and the black gloves, but hers featured red versions of the pants Miyuki had designed previously, instead of Narumi's miniskirt. Unsurprisingly, Hikari had also chosen the pants, and Miyuki the skirt.

The newly reborn PowerPanic was nothing if not coordinated.

Nearby, Hikari and Miyuki had also gotten changed. Now that they were officially dating, the pair were even more inseparable than before. Saeko smiled at them as she reflected on how much good forming an idol group had done for them...and for her, too. Sometimes, it was hard to remember how bad she'd felt back in Kyoto as the band - and her relationship with Hitomi - had fallen apart. Her friendship with Hikari and Miyuki and her new, unexpected romance with Narumi had displaced so many bad memories from her mind.

Power Panic, the Kyoto punk band, had been a disastrous flame-out. PowerPanic, the unlikely Tokyo school idol group, had pretty much changed her life.

The studio door opened, and Narumi burst in. Somewhere between Eli and Nozomi's office a floor up and the studio itself, she had already changed into her own outfit, and Saeko gazed across the room at her as she approached. Narumi was fired up on her particular unhinged brand of energy...and, as always, looked like a curvy fireball that made Saeko's hopelessly gay heart skip a beat.

My weird girlfriend is so fucking cute.

She was shaken from her girl trance as the studio door opened again, and another force of girl appreciation stepped into the room.

Kaede Yagami looked pretty much exactly as Saeko remembered her from the day of the first PowerPanic photo shoot and live stream all those months back. Despite being shorter than Hikari, Kaede had the presence of a pro wrestler, standing as big and boldly as her small stature allowed. She wore a simple lavender t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and pants that were only a few steps removed from cargo pants, with pockets undoubtedly filled with film canisters and other camera gear. Once again, her pitch black hair was pulled up into high twintails framing perfectly trimmed bangs that hung above bright, energetic amber eyes.

And, just as before, a 1980s film camera in well-loved silver metal hung around her neck from a similarly-aged leather strap.

"Heya, cutie crew," Kaede called out with a wave. "How're my favorite idol babes doin' today?"

Saeko waved back. "Hey, Kae-chan."

To her surprise, a second figure emerged from the doorway behind Kaede. This girl carried herself differently; in contrast to Kaede's bright and vivacious personality, she seemed to shrink back out of the spotlight, looking around the room like she wasn't sure she should be here. She was taller and heavier-set than Kaede, with plain shoulder-length brown hair, and wore a simple black skirt and tan blouse. A canvas bag covered in pockets hung from her shoulder.

Saeko thought she didn't seem so different from how Miyuki was when they first met.

"Everybody, I wanna introduce you to my bestie since I was just a kid," Kaede said, as she presented the new girl like a game show prize. "PowerPanic, this here's Yuuna Hanazono. Yuuna-chi, this is Saeko, Narumi, and Miyuki, and you know Hikari already."

"Hi," Yuuna said, giving them a tiny wave.

"Good to see you as always Yuuna-chan I hope the day finds you well and the man isn't keeping you down or whatever," Hikari said.

"Hey, Yuuna," Saeko said. "It's nice to meet you."

Miyuki smiled at her. "Totally! Kari-chan's told me about you!"

"Well-met, fair Hanazono," Narumi said. "We are honored by the presence of any whomst the photogramatrix considers an ally!"

The look of confusion on Yuuna's face was so strong it could probably be seen from space, and Saeko decided to step in and clarify.

"She also means it's nice to meet you."

Yuuna nodded. "I guess Kae-chan wasn't kidding about you, Katou-san."

Narumi laughed, that big belly-shaking full-bodied laugh that Saeko had come to know so well.

"Aye, I can promise you, my dear, that any and all stories you have heard about the Crimson Queen's chosen general are entirely true! Even those that contradict the other ones!"

"Especially those," Saeko added.

"I brought Yuuna-chi along 'cause I needed an assistant on this shoot," Kaede said, "and she was nice enough to volunteer!"

"I mean, you prodded me a little," Yuuna said. "No offense to you girls, of course. I just don't know much about photography."

"None taken," Saeko said.

Kaede wrapped Yuuna up in a hug. "Aw, you don't gotta know about it! I just need a hand, so I can focus on the lovelies in front of the camera!"

"You're gonna do great, Yuuna-san," Miyuki said. "It's gonna be so fun today!"

"Hell yeah it is," Kaede said. "Now, Yuuna-chi, could you double-check the lenses and film stocks I packed in the bag? I just need to step over here and have a little talk with the talent 'bout boundaries and stuff."

"Sure, yeah, no problem," Yuuna said.

"Awesome! PowerPanic, babes, would you join me over in the corner?"

Saeko wasn't entirely sure what was going on, as the four of them had talked about this sort of thing with Kaede already in a group chat, but she wasn't about to push back at her.

"Oh, yeah, sounds good."

The four of them walked over to the corner of the studio with Kaede, who huddled them close together and leaned in conspiratorially, speaking in hushed tones.

"Okay babes, sorry 'bout the skullduggery and shit. I'm not tryin' to re-establish what we talked about already. See, it's more like...I need you gals' help."

"What do you need our help with Kaede-chan none of us have any photography skills at all unless everybody else has been holding out on me I believe most of our talents lay in music and in my case electrical soldering," Hikari said. "Do you uh need something soldered because I actually have a soldering iron on me I keep one taped to a part of my biological construct in case of emergencies like say do you need something hijacked or recalibrated for dark purposes I mean I'm not gonna judge here I am the model of discretion."

"I'm pretty sure Kaede doesn't need any crimes committed," Saeko said. " you, Kae-chan?"

"Hey now," Kaede said, "I didn't-"

Hikari leaned in closer. "Anything at all really I am ready to contribute if you have a target in mind say some kind of valuable you need retrieved or a political target embarrassed perhaps."

Miyuki went wide-eyed. "Kari-chan, no crimes! I don't wanna get in trouble! You got lucky at Otonokizaka!"

"Perhaps your photogram device has been capturing the souls of ancient warriors," Narumi said, "and you need one who is most skilled with arcane blades to rectify the curse you have brought upon this land?"

Kaede put a hand up. "Gals! I don't need crimes or arcane whateverthefucks! I just need your help with Yuuna-chi."

"How can we help you with Yuuna?" Saeko asked.

Kaede took a deep breath. When she spoke, it was the first time Saeko could tell she was being entirely serious.

"See, here's the deal. Me and Yuuna-chi, we've been friends for a dang time. For the longest while, she was into music, a big way. She took piano lessons, and she got really good."

"Wow really I never knew that," Hikari said.

"Yeah, that's where the problem comes in," Kaede said. "Last few years, I dunno, she's changed. I think, like, the pressure of school, the world tellin' her she's gotta get a job or settle down when she's an adult, whatever, I think it's crushed her."

"Damn, that's relatable," Saeko sighed.

"Indeed," Narumi said. "The doldrums of this realm are a powerful foe."

Kaede nodded. "She stopped playin' piano and kinda just stopped doin' anything else. Just sits in her room and scrolls on her phone and stuff. She doesn't have the spark anymore, and it makes me sad, y'know? I miss when she was happy and creative."

"That's really sad, Kae-chan," Miyuki said. "What is it that you want us to do?"

"I wanna try and convince Yuuna-chi to go for the music track at Yōiku-no-Mori," Kaede said, "and maybe one of the clubs. Not sayin' it's gotta be the idol club, could be the light music club, orchestra club, whatever. I just don't know any music girls from our class, is the thing."

"That's kind of surprising to be honest considering how popular you are with the girls you know in a super duper gay sense," Hikari said.

"Right? 'Cept it's like I told you that one time, Sae-chan, I usually throw my dating net out farther than our schools, 'cause of discretion. I've photographed school bands, and, y'know, I've dated girls in school bands, but not in our part of town."

"I remember, yeah," Saeko said.

"So I figured, like, maybe you gals could just take some of that big ol' idol energy and love of music and stuff, and like, direct that in a blast right at Yuuna-chi, y'know? Ain't that what school idols do? All the feelings and the enthusiasm and going to Love Live and whatever?"

"Well, we're not exactly normal school idols," Saeko said, "but we can try our best."

"That's all I'm hoping for," Kaede said. "I'm gonna keep workin' on her, but I just wanna surround her with positive music influence!"

"Aye, this sounds like a job for the eldritch warriors known as PowerPanic," Narumi said. "I feel this is a task we can handle!"

Saeko smiled. One of the things she loved about Narumi was how eager she was to throw all of herself into helping people. For a girl who'd showed up as a rival, Narumi was a genuine and kind girl in reality, and...

Wait, she thought. Love? Where did that come from all of a sudden? We've only been together for a handful of months. Why am I...

" say, my fair Saeko?"

She shook herself back to reality to find Narumi, Hikari, Miyuki, and Kaede staring at her, waiting for her to speak.

"Sorry, what was that?"

"I had inquired as to whether or not you agreed to take on the quest before us," Narumi said.

"Oh, yeah, uh, totally! I'm always down to help out."

"Thanks, gals," Kaede said. "You're the fuckin' best!"

She stood and pulled back from the huddle, clapped her hands, and turned back toward Yuuna.

"Alright, I think we're ready to do this thing! All the gear lookin' good, Yuuna-chi?"

"Um, yeah, think so," Yuuna said. "I sorted everything like you showed me before."

"Hell yeah! Then let's get this show on the road! Idol cuties, let's start by having you girls pose over near the mirrors on the wall, and I'll shoot from an angle to keep me out of view, cool?"

As Saeko moved over into position as instructed, and Narumi, Miyuki, and Hikari joined her, Miyuki was practically glowing.

"It's exciting, isn't it?"

"What, the photo shoot?" Saeko asked.

"Sure, yeah, but also, us getting to help Yuuna-san! I hope we can get through to her!"

Hikari nodded almost imperceptibly. "We will Miyuki-chan I think we can spread the music love pretty well as you know I am considered exceptional in my ability to show enthusiasm for subjects."

"We'll do our best," Saeko said. "This is one of those situations where it'd be nice to have Cotono Yazawa here to use that 'protagonist energy' she has."

"Oh, I think we shall do quite well on our own," Narumi said. "We will refill the good Madame Hanazono's heart with a renewed appreciation for the bardic arts, just as you, Saeko, filled my heart with enchantment."

Saeko glanced over at her and gulped.

"I, uh, well...I mean, you know, uh..."

Narumi leaned in close to her and stared into her eyes.

"I do so enjoy flustering you, my dear."

Saeko was saved by Kaede walking up, camera in hand, a look of intent on her face.

"Alright, could you gals give me a lineup, left-to-right, Saeko, Narumi, Hikari, Miyuki? Squeeze in nice and tight, and we'll try some good poses.  Let's go, babes!"

Streets of Akihabara
Chiyoda, Tokyo

After getting a series of photos at the dance studio, the group had changed back into street clothes - apart from Narumi still wearing her mask, of course - and left the studio in search of new settings. As she had months ago, Kaede led them through the city, finding interesting photo spots and backdrops where Saeko had only seen the everyday fabric of Tokyo. She was impressed with Kaede's eye for framing and posing, something she herself lacked, though Kaede would probably feel the same way about Saeko's ear for analyzing songs.

All the while, Yuuna had been pleasant, but a bit...distant. Kaede hadn't been kidding about her detachment. It wasn't an exact one-to-one equivalent, but she reminded Saeko of herself a bit, from way back in May when she'd first come to Tokyo. She'd been lonely and bitter and hurt; in Saeko's case, it had manifested as hostility to her surroundings, and in Yuuna's case, it seemed like a kind of hollowness.

Maybe Kaede had the right idea. Finding a way to spark Yuuna's love of music again could make all the difference. It had worked for Saeko, after all. Meeting Miyuki and Hikari, becoming an idol, dating Narumi, writing music as part of had turned her life around dramatically.

Narumi. She thought about what Nozomi and Eli had said, the advice they'd given about being a good partner. Narumi was, obviously and aggressively, an unusual girl, but Saeko had learned in their time together that she still had all the sorts of feelings that less eccentric girls had. It was just a matter of understanding how she expressed them.

Saeko was determined to come up with something special to do for her, before the day was over.

The sensation of pressure on her hand brought her back to the moment and recentered her wandering mind. She looked over to find Narumi there, squeezing her hand as they walked through Akihabara on their way to the next location Kaede had scouted.

"You seem lost in thoughts, dearest Saeko."

"Yeah, sorry, I guess I was," Saeko said. "I was just thinking about, uh, Yuuna's problem, you know?"

"Aye, quite understandable," Narumi said. She nodded in Yuuna's direction, walking ahead of them next to Kaede as she explained her old camera to Miyuki and Hikari. "We, as the elders of the battalion, should take the initiative to engage the Madame Hanazono in exploratory conversation."

Saeko nodded. "You're right. We just need an excuse to..."

She trailed off, as she recognized the specific part of Akihabara they were walking through, and realized they were near one of her favorite live houses.

An excuse had just presented itself.

Narumi seemed confused. "What is it, my dear? Do you sense the presence of evil? Dark forces? Perhaps the Strawberry Traitor Iku Mori is about? Shall we go to arms? I will fashion an improvised weapon, and-"

"No! No weapons needed," Saeko said. "I think I know a way to break the ice with Yuuna."

She moved up closer to Kaede and tapped her shoulder.

"Hey Kae-chan, you mind if we go by Cosmic Club for a second? It's just over there on the other side of the street. I just wanna see who's got shows coming up."

Kaede looked down the street and nodded. "Totally! Actually, that building might make a good backdrop."

For the first time in several minutes, Yuuna actually spoke.

"Cosmic Club?"

"Yeah, it's a live house," Saeko said. "I've been there a couple of times since we moved to Tokyo. They have a great sound system. You ever been, Yuuna-san?"

"Me? Oh, no, never been there."

Saeko couldn't help notice that Yuuna was looking fairly intensely at the venue as they approached.

Miyuki looked up at the club's sign. "So, is this place, like, really loud?"

"It can be, for sure," Saeko said. "I got to see my favorite band, Kansai Chaos Agent, here. That was like a month after class started last year."

"Aye, the group of bards whose promotional material adorns the walls of your sleeping space," Narumi said. "I know them well."

"You ever hear of that band, Yuuna-chi?" Kaede asked.

Yuuna shook her head. "I haven't, no. What kind of music do they make, Akiyama-san?"

Saeko smiled. Got her hooked, time to reel her in.

"Well, first, you can call me Sae-chan, y'know."

"Oh. Sorry."

"Nothing to apologize for! Just don't worry about it, okay?"

"Sure, um, Sae-chan."

"Now, to answer your question, they're a queercore punk band. Four-piece. Two guitars, bass, drums. They play loud and fast. I've always loved them, plus I get really inspired on my guitar when I hear them play."

"I can vouch for that, indeed," Narumi said. "Once the fair Saeko began introducing me to these particular musicologists, I found myself rather captivated and felt motivation to continuing honing my skills on the bass guitar as well!"

"Yeah that band is awesome I remember the first time you played them for us Saeko-chan they ripped my face off in an affectionate sense and made the emotional simulation core of my biological construct execute the subroutines associated with feeling things," Hikari said.

"Oh, that's cool," Yuuna said. Despite her restrained nature, Saeko got the feeling she was being genuine. "Um, this might be a silly question, but what's queercore?"

"It's punk music that deals with, like, y' stuff," Saeko said. "Gender and lesbians and whatnot."

"Musicians in service of Sappho's grand army," Narumi added.

Kaede nudged Yuuna gently. "See, these girls are like me, if ya get my drift!"

"Ohhhhh," Yuuna said, then her eyes went wider and her cheeks took on a noticeably redder cast. "That's cool. I didn't mean to be weird about it. I just don't have any, um, experience, with...stuff."

"I get you," Saeko said. "It's cool. What kind of music do you like?"

"Um, well, I don't think I've ever listened to punk. I doin't listen to much anymore."

"Did you listen to things in the past?" Miyuki asked.

Yuuna nodded. "Yeah, like rock and pop with keyboards in it. Classical sometimes, too. I used to play, so I liked music with keys in it."

"That's awesome what kind of keyboard did you use me I'm technically the keyboard player in our music making though I'm not so presumptuous as to call myself a keyboard player really it's just part of the electronics and computer stuff I live with it makes sense to me so I do it and I like to combine different modules and circuits to make sounds I use a Korg MS-20 myself," Hikari said, in her typical zero-breaths-or-punctuation manner...which, thankfully, Yuuna seemed to have no trouble parsing.

"That's cool. I had a Yamaha digital piano. Or, um, have. Still have it, it's just in storage. Nothing fancy."

"If a keyboard mage she be," Narumi said, "I should think another of your favored groups may be to the Madame Hanazono's taste, my dear."

"Oh yeah, for sure," Saeko said. "Yuuna, you should listen to Afterimage sometime."

Yuuna cocked her head to the side slightly. "What's that?"

Saeko smiled. Yes! It's working!

"They're queercore, but they have a keyboard player. They're, like, one of my other favorites. Haven't seen them live yet, though. You might like them! The keyboards would make the punk more appealing to you, I think."

"Oh, yeah, maybe," Yuuna said. "Um, thanks for the recommendation, Sae-chan."

Saeko didn't want to press the issue too far - just the fact that Yuuna had expressed any curiosity at all made her feel like she was doing well - and at any rate, the arrival of a new voice calling out to her from down the street interrupted the moment.

"Is that PowerPanic? Hi!"

The girls turned in the direction of the voice, and Saeko was delighted to see the approaching face of Momo Fuchigami, the girl who had sabotaged her own idol group to help them teach Iku Mori a lesson at School Idol Festival. After SIF, Momo had dropped out of socializing, and none of them had heard much from her in months.

"Momo, hey! Haven't seen you in a while," Saeko said.

"Yes it is pleasing to my logic core to see you again Momo-chan," Hikari said.

"Well-met, Former Strawberry Seamstress," Narumi said. "It is good to see you again after so much time and tide!"

Miyuki rushed over and gave Momo a hug. "We missed you!"

"Thanks. I missed you, too," Momo said, hugging back. "I didn't mean to worry you."

"Oh yeah, Momo," Saeko said and gestured at their photographic companions, "this is..."

"Actually, I know this girl, I think," Momo said. She gave a small wave to Kaede. "You're that photography club girl, right? Um, Yagami-san?"

"That's me! But you can totally just call me Kae-chan, if ya wanna," Kaede said. "And this here's my bestie, Yuuna Hanazono."

"Hi," Yuuna said.

"Nice to meet you, Hanazono-san," Momo said. "I'm going to guess that if you're all out here together, it's PowerPanic photoshoot time again?"

Saeko nodded. "Yep. Kaede's taking full-group shots for us before class starts at the new school, since Narumi's officially in the group now."

"Indeed," Narumi said. "I bring the divine right of those blessed by the Crimson Queen, and bestow it upon my cohorts. It simply must be captured in photograms for all the world to see!"

"Hell yeah," Momo said. "Really glad you four are continuing together. I'm sure Igarashi-sensei's going to be happy to have a group in the new club that isn't led by somebody like Iku."

"How's everything been for you since SIF?" Saeko asked. "You sticking around? Heard from Iku at all?"

"I haven't heard a single word from her. I know she signed with that record label, and I doubt I could talk to her now even if I wanted to. Figure she's going to try and steamroll the club with her label BS, which already makes me hurt."

"Aww...I know you two used to be close," Miyuki said. "I'm so sorry you have to deal with this."

"Thanks, I appreciate it," Momo said. "Think I'm going to stick around in the club, though. Don't want to give her the satisfaction. Plus, I like idols too. I've got as much right to be there as she does."

"That's the spirit," Narumi said. "You have much honor, Seamstress. Never let those who betray your kindness take that away from you! Remain steadfast and claim your place upon the throne!"

"What she said, more or less," Saeko laughed. "Seriously, you're a badass, Momo. We'll all be glad to be in the club with you."

"The feeling's mutual," Momo smiled back. "Guess we're not done being idols together, after all."

Kaede stepped over and wrapped her arm around Momo's shoulders. "Ya know, if you're gonna be an idol again, you're gonna need pics! Hit me up! I'll take good care of ya!"

Momo laughed. "I might take you up on that, Kae-chan."

"So Momo-chan what are you up to today anyway what's brought you to Akihabara are you going to Citrusbooks or something," Hikari said.

"Oh, no, I was actually seeing another friend of mine," Momo said. "She's a musician, in a band and everything."

Yuuna seemed to perk up just a bit at this information.

"You have a friend in a band?"

"For real? What band?" Saeko asked.

"She plays guitar for Downbeat Darlings," Momo said. "The other girls in it go to Tokunaga, over in Adachi, but my friend was a Harugaoka student. She's going to be at Yōiku-no-Mori with us. Wants to help start the new light music club."

"Why's she so excited about the light music club at the new school?" Yuuna asked.

"Igarashi-sensei told her that the light music club's going to have a lot better resources at the new school, same as the idol club, and my friend's a real badass guitar player, so Igarashi-sensei really wants her to be a big part of it."

"That sounds great," Saeko said.

"What's your friend's name?" Miyuki asked.

"Ririka Takanagi," Momo said. "She's kind of quiet, but she was one hundred percent the best guitarist at Harugaoka. So damn cool. You and her would probably get along, Sae-chan."

"Hell yeah, that's awesome," Saeko said. "I definitely want to meet her sometime."

"Do you think the new light music club will be pretty big?" Yuuna asked.

"Dunno," Momo said, "but probably. Definitely bigger than the ones at Ayamegaoka and Harugaoka, 'cause even those were always full."

"That's how I ended up in the idol club," Saeko laughed.

"Oh yeah, that's right! Plus, I heard they want the new school to have an arts focus," Momo said, "so I bet it's going to be a big deal."

Miyuki stepped closer to Yuuna, as innocently as she could.

"Are you interested in the light music club, Yuuna-san?"

"Me?" Yuuna asked, a look of gentle panic on her face. "Oh, um, no, I...I was just curious is all."

"Oh, hey, before I forget," Momo said, "Sae-chan, Riri-chan told me that Afterimage is going to be playing here pretty soon."

Saeko snapped to focus on that piece of information.

"For real? Here at Cosmic Club? No shit?"

"Yeah! They haven't announced it yet. Riri-chan heard it from somebody she works with at the music store. They're announcing it later today. Might want to get tickets, 'cause you know they're gonna go quick."

"Yeah! Maybe, damn."

Narumi placed her hand on Saeko's shoulder. "What's the matter, fairest Saeko?"

"I'm saving up for a new audio interface for my laptop. The one I have is starting to die. Don't have the money to get tickets right now. Damn."

"Hmm," Narumi said.

Saeko waited for more, the inevitable grand proclamation of epic battle to score tickets to the show, but nothing came, which was quite strange for Narumi. Saeko wondered what was up with that.

A twinge of anxiety tickled her brain. This is it. She's getting tired of me. She's going to break up with me. I know it. This is how it ends. It's going to end just like it did with Hitomi, and-

She pushed the bad thoughts back. Things with Narumi had been going well. Of course she might get anxious and compare it to how things fell apart with Hitomi. She knew how her own brain could be when it came to relationship stuff.

Still, Narumi was being weirdly quiet, and that was at least a little unsettling.

"Anyway, it was good to see you girls," Momo said, shaking her back to reality, "but I have to run home. You're going to show me the photos when they're done, right, superstars?"

"We will, yeah! Promise," Miyuki said.

"For sure yeah we totally will and don't be a stranger okay Momo we should all hang out soon or maybe we can do a raid in Airship Chronicles Online soon or something," Hikari said.

"Sounds good," Momo said. "Kae-chan, good to see you, and nice to meet you, Hanazono-san."

Kaede grinned and flashed a peace sign. "Later, babe!"

"Nice to meet you as well," Yuuna said, with a tiny bow.

"Talk to you later, Momo," Saeko said.

Narumi still seemed distracted, but she offered up a "farewell" before Momo headed off down the street.

Kaede raised her camera and gestured toward the live house. "Alright, idol cuties, I've still got film to burn! Miyuki-chan, Kari-chan, could you stand there by the sign? And Sae-chan, you and Narumi-chan will stand just a little more over here, and I want you two to give me a little attitude, okay?"

Saeko looked over at Narumi. She still seemed to be lost in thought, and once again, that anxiety that Saeko always tried to deny started bubbling up inside her-

Kaede's voice startled her. "Sae-chan? You okay?"

"Oh, yeah, sorry," she said. "Yeah, I can do that."

Koume Children's Park
Sumida, Tokyo

True to the last time they worked with her, Kaede had burned through so many rolls of film that Saeko had lost track. It seemed likely that if her mother didn't literally own a photography studio, she'd have to get a job just to afford it all.

The six of them had worked their way through Akihabara and returned to their home ward across the river, Sumida, capping off the day with some shots around the iconic Skytree tower, just as they'd done at the beginning of that original photo session months prior. Now, they were spending some time hanging out and decompressing in the small park across the street, and Saeko couldn't help but smile at the way the moment rhymed with those that came before.

That first photo shoot had been where she'd realized Hikari and Miyuki were going through something that turned out to be the awkward beginnings of their own relationship. The same day, she'd also realized that she did, in fact, have a crush on Narumi just as Narumi had on her.

Not long after, she'd met Narumi at the aquarium across the street at the base of the Skytree to tell her about what was happening with the school merger, a meeting that ended with the both of them confessing their feelings for each other. The moment their relationship had officially begun.

Now, here she was again, still trying to tamp down the anxiety that something was up with her girlfriend.

Narumi had eventually returned to her usual self, for the most part, as the rest of the day had gone on. She still seemed a bit distant, and even a little distracted, though. It was so unlike the girl Saeko had come to know, and that gnawed at her brain a little.

She thought back to Nozomi and Eli's advice, about listening, being kind, being observant...she had to keep that in mind, and not obsess about the possibility of bad outcomes. Narumi liked her. Just because something was up didn't mean that the problem was between them.

She'd just have to try to find out later, when it would be more tactful to bring up.

In that moment, she realized her mind had drifted again, and she returned to the ongoing conversation being led by, surprisingly, Yuuna. After the encounter with Momo and all the band talk, Yuuna had started becoming more engaged as they'd explored the city, and in the last little while she'd spoken more than she had the entire rest of the day.

"So, what's Igarashi-sensei like as a music teacher?" Yuuna asked.

"She's great," Miyuki said. "She's so nice and patient! She cares about everybody in the club. You could see it when the old director made her put us and Strawberry Starlight in competition with each other. She really didn't like that."

"Yeah and she knows a lot about music she knows theory and stuff and I think she plays multiple instruments even though obviously in the idol club we don't really get to see her playing but I know she does I've heard her mention it," Hikari added.

"I heard her say that she played drums a lot, and I think she also plays piano," Saeko said.

"Huh...really? That's cool," Yuuna said.

The girl may have been hard to read, but just in the time they'd spent around her today, Saeko could tell that something music-related was awake and active in her head again.

"The bardic instructor at our academy was quite solid as far as these things go," Narumi said, "but I look forward to seeing the abilities of this one you know. If she was fit to take on the combined education of both academies, she must be a formidable professor indeed."

Saeko glanced over at Kaede, and their eyes met; Kaede gave her a subtle nod, and mouthed thank you at her.

"Well, I guess we'll let you babes get on outta here," Kaede said. "Plus, I've got some film to organize and get ready for developin' thanks to you girls!"

"Yuuna-san, do you live close to Kae-chan?" Miyuki asked.

Yuuna nodded. "About a seven minute walk from the photo studio."

"We've been almost-neighbors there since we were kids," Kaede said. "Which is funny, 'cause we're like at the opposite end of Sumida from you cuties!"

"We can't thank you enough for everything you've done for us, Kae-chan," Saeko said. "Your photos are going to kick ass, I just know it."

Kaede bowed theatrically. "All in service of celebrating the beauty of girls, my friend! Besides, anything I can do for you, I'm happy to. You girls are cool, and there ain't no way I'm gonna let somebody like Iku Mori get all the glory. I got your back, babes!"

"And it was super nice to meet you, Yuuna-san," Miyuki said. "I hope we can hang out again sometime!"

"Oh, thanks," Yuuna said. "Yeah, I'd like that too, actually."

"Farewell and safe travels, our photogrammatic artisans," Narumi said.

"See you later Kaede-chan Yuuna-san," Hikari said.

Saeko watched as Kaede and Yuuna walked off in the direction of the Skytree train station, off to catch the next train to Higashi-Mukojima Station, which would leave them with an easy walk to Studio Yagami. After they started across the street, she turned her attention back to Hikari and Miyuki.

"So, what are you two up to tonight? Did you want to hang out or something?"

"Oh! Well, um, we would, usually," Miyuki said, her cheeks growing increasingly red, "but, um...Kari-chan and I are doing something."

Hikari nodded. "Yeah we're going to go hit up one of Miyuki-chan's favorite shops we need to see if a figure she wants is in yet and you well we're also going to go to the aquarium and then go get some food together in a sort of spending time alone together sort of way if you understand my meaning."

"So...a date, then," Saeko grinned.

"Well done, my compatriots," Narumi said. "May the Crimson Queen's good graces smile upon this evening's courtship rituals!"

"Thank you Narumi-chan I promise I will do my very best to be the absolute smoothest biological construct vis a vis putting the tenderest moves on Miyuki-chan this evening."

"Kari-chan! You're gonna embarrass me," Miyuki said, before quietly adding "but, um, I'm looking forward to it."

"I'm not surprised," Saeko laughed. "Have a good night, you two. And have fun."

"Goodnight, Sae-chan, Narumi-chan!"

"Take it easy cool and sleazy," Hikari said.

And with that, Hikari and Miyuki headed out into the city for their date. Saeko watched with a warm smile, and then looked back to Narumi.

"Hey, so, um, speaking of tonight, would you like to-"

She paused; Narumi had turned away from her, and had her face buried in her phone as she furiously tapped away at the screen, standing in such a way that it was obvious she was trying to keep Saeko from seeing what she was doing.

"Narumi," Saeko said after several seconds, "um, you okay?"

"Aye," Narumi responded, with no further elaboration, as she continued tapping at her phone.

At this point, the anxiety had crept back into Saeko's head, and was eating at her. Logically, she knew that Narumi wasn't Hitomi, that things weren't going to fall apart like they had before. Unfortunately, logic sometimes had trouble staying in control.

"Listen, I don't know what's going on, but you've seemed kind of distant today. Is something going on? Did I do something?"

Narumi remained silent for a few more seconds, and then, with one dramatic final tap, turned back to her and looked up from her phone, with a look of deep satisfaction on her face.

"It is done."

Saeko had no idea what was going on at this point.

"What is done?"

"My mission, which I admit was a covert one, and alas necessitated utmost secrecy as I worked in isolation from you."

Saeko stared back at her for several moments.

"Okay, what the hell is going on?"

Narumi stepped closer, grinning up at her, those icy blue eyes framed by the eye mask as strikingly as ever.

"I conducted research and subterfuge using the intel given to us by the former Strawberry Seamstress, and via my distance relay" - she patted her phone - "I have acquired papers which shall allow us to witness the bards you expressed a desire to experience with your own eyes and ears."

By this point in their relationship, Saeko had evolved a pretty good filter for processing Narumi's particular way of speaking, but even so, it took her a few seconds to realize what her girlfriend had just told her...and as she did, she felt the anxiety in her head being replaced by a huge wave of warmth.

"Wait, you got us tickets to Afterimage? For real?"

"Quite so, my dear," Narumi said. "I did not wish to reveal my machinations until I knew if they were to be effective. My apologies for keeping you in the dark."

Saeko stared back, trying to speak but feeling overwhelmed as she simultaneously cursed her bad brain. I am such an idiot. She was just trying to surprise me. Why would I assume the worst? Look at her. She's so fucking good to me, and here I am, just thinking the worst for no reason. In the moment, she did the only thing that felt right to her.

She didn't care who saw them. She leaned in, wrapped her arms around Narumi, and nuzzled against her cheek.

"Thank you," she said softly into Narumi's ear. "That's amazing. You're so fucking sweet."

Narumi was probably surprised by her sudden display of soft emotion, but if so, she didn't let on.

"It is a pleasure and joy to make you happy, my fairest one," Narumi said as she wrapped her arms around Saeko and hugged her back. "I shall always endeavor to do so."

"Me too." With a final squeeze, she let go and stepped back, looking into Narumi's eyes. "That's going to be a killer show. I can't wait."

"Indeed," Narumi said. "I have but one request for the evening of the performance."

"What is it?"

"Do you recall the attire you wore during your initial photogrammatic session, before we two had become fully entwined by the crimson strings of fate?"

Saeko thought back to that day, and remembered. The ripped jeans, the fishnet top under her was one of her most aggressive looks, for sure.

"Uh, yeah, I remember it."

"Wear it for me," Narumi grinned. "In return, I shall wear something similarly engaging for you."

Saeko gulped. "Like, uh, those shorts? And the purple top? And that one choker with the chrome heart?"

Narumi didn't answer, but the look on her face told Saeko all she needed to know, and so she gave Narumi her own answer immediately.

"Yes! Yes, okay, I'll wear it."

"That will be a night to remember, then," Narumi laughed.

Saeko could feel her cheeks running hot, and tried to pivot smoothly back into her usual cool self, not entirely successfully.

"So! Um, speaking of nights. Tonight. What are you doing tonight? I mean, you know, if Hikari and Miyuki are on a date, then maybe we could-"

"My dear, I relish the thought of spending the evening in your company," Narumi said. "The answer as to whether or not I wish to go out on 'a date' with you is always, eternally, yes. What do you say to dining and companionship? Perhaps an excursion to the gameatorium nearby on our way?"

"The arcade? Yeah, I'm down, for sure. Wanna head over now?"

"Let us go, my fair lady of the far lands."

With that, Narumi took her hand, and gave it a squeeze. Saeko felt a little rush from that, and then they headed in the direction of the arcade.

"Where do you wanna get food after?"

"With you, I can dine upon anything," Narumi said. "I never eat so well as I do when I am in your company! I am open to your suggestion."

"Aw, hell, I don't know too many special places," Saeko said. "I can't imagine I'm getting any fancier food than you usually do."

Narumi chuckled. "Well, as you know, I do live alone. Unfortunately, amongst my many, many skills, cooking is the one that is most atrophied, to the point of uselessness I'm afraid. On my own, I mainly subsist on packaged rations I acquire from the local commissary."

It hit her that she had never fully considered Narumi's life in that way. She'd learned after they started dating that Narumi lived alone. When she'd asked about parents, Narumi had only said that they "dwelled elsewhere." Saeko had never pressed the issue, but now she realized that Narumi didn't have family at home and never seemed to have learned to cook for herself.

This is exactly the kind of thing Nozomi and Eli told me to listen for, she thought. Narumi never gets to have a home-cooked meal. It's time I did something about that.

"How about this," Saeko said. "After the arcade, let's skip going out."

Narumi perked up in curiosity. "Oh?"

"Yeah. Instead, let's go to my place for dinner."

"Are your elders having a feast at your domicile?"

"Actually...they're going out for dinner tonight. So we can go to my place, and I'll cook you dinner."

"Truly?" Narumi asked. "I knew you possessed some such skills, my dear, but I had no idea you could conjure an entire dinner with only your own abilities."

"I totally can," Saeko said, "and I'm gonna show you. You deserve a good home-cooked meal, made with lo-"

She froze. What the fuck? No, don't go there. Don't ruin it. Don't push too-

"Made with what, my dear?"

Saeko realized that Narumi was staring at her, an anxious look visible on her face below her mask.


"Um, you know, made with,"

A long moment hung in the empty space between them, then, suddenly, Narumi grabbed her arm and pulled her off the sidewalk into a nearby alley. It had been a while since something like this had happened, and she'd forgotten how strong Narumi was.

Narumi pushed her against the wall of the building in the alley and leaned in, her elbow by Saeko's head, their faces only a few centimeters apart. Saeko could feel her own heart pounding, and she got the impression that Narumi's was as well.

"I need you to know," Narumi said, her voice quiet and soft, "that the emotion you intend to put into your is that which I put into what I do for you."


"Indeed. It is a word not to be taken lightly."

"I know."

"And I wish you to understand, dearest Saeko...I do not use it lightly."

Saeko felt like she could barely breathe, like her heart had leapt into her throat. This was not, in any way, how she'd imagined her first time having this conversation would go...but then, nothing about Narumi was expected, was it?

"I don't use it lightly, either."

Narumi smiled, and with her other hand, reached up, grabbed her mask, and pulled it off her head. Narumi only ever took the mask off for Saeko, and only in their most personal moments together, which made the mood at this moment that much more weighty.

And, as always happened when Narumi took the mask off for her, Saeko swooned at how ridiculously gorgeous her girlfriend was.

"If that be the case," Narumi said, "then perhaps you would like to use that word directly?"


" you, Narumi," Saeko said.

For an instantly, it seemed like Narumi's entire persona fell away from her. In that brief moment, the gothic fantasy warrior general was gone; in her place was a teenage girl, grinning from ear to ear as she heard those most important of words for the very first time.

"I love you too, Saeko," Narumi said.

Saeko felt pure, unfiltered joy. Her life had started to change as soon as she'd set foot in the idol club at Ayamegaoka, and now, that transformation was truly complete.

Saeko Akiyama was a school idol. She had real, genuine friends. And now, she was actually in love. The her of a year ago would have thought this was impossible, and yet, here she was.

"I love you," she repeated.

Narumi beamed back at her. "I love you!"

Saeko laughed. "I love-"

The last word was muffled as Narumi leaned in and kissed her, a long, intense, and unrestrained kiss that made Saeko melt against the wall. She reached up, slid her hand behind Narumi's neck, and pulled her closer, kissing back without a single care about the outside world.

It would be several minutes before they regained their composure and continued on their way to the arcade.

That Evening
Studio Yagami
Sumida, Tokyo

Yuuna followed behind Kaede as she strode into the photo studio. Her friend had not lost a single gram of energy after walking all over Tokyo carrying her camera, which was typical; Yuuna, meanwhile, wanted to crawl into bed and sleep, even before the sun went down.

Kaede's mother, Nara, was putting away some film at the large sink near the back of the studio, and gave them a warm smile as they entered.

"Welcome back, girls! I was just clearing out my last batch. I had a feeling you'd want to get started on your shots tonight, sweetheart."

Kaede gave her mom a salute. "Yep! You know me! I think I got some killer stuff today!"

"I have no doubt," Nara said. "Yuuna-chan, I hope you enjoyed yourself, too. I'm sure listening to either of us prattle on about photography can be a bit much!"

"Oh, no, um, I had a lot of fun, Nara-san," Yuuna replied, in the extremely informal way that she and Kaede's families used with each other. "I learned a lot about lenses and stuff. And the idol girls were nice."

Nara beamed back at her. "I'm so glad to hear it! Are you going to be staying for dinner, dear? Aki-san is making shogayaki tonight."

Like mother, like daughter; Kaede's mother had lived with a woman named Aki for as long as Yuuna had known the Yagami family, and to nobody's surprise, they'd officially married when Tokyo had legalized same-gender marriage the previous June.

"I have to get home, but I appreciate the offer very much," Yuuna said. "I'm going to be helping my mom make dinner tonight."

"That's lovely, dear. By the way, how is your sister? Is she excited to be starting junior high?"

"Hina-chan is doing well. She's very excited about it, yes."

"That's an understatement! I think she's just about bouncing off the walls," Kaede laughed.

"That sounds like the Hina-chan I know," Nara smiled. "Well, I'm heading upstairs. Kaede-chan, the stop bath was all used up, so I left out a fresh bottle of Ilfostop for you."

Kaede gave her a thumbs-up. "Thanks, mom! You're the best."

"Have fun, sweetie. I'll call you when dinner's ready. Yuuna-chan, have a nice walk home."

"Thank you, Nara-san," Yuuna said with a small bow.

After Nara left and headed upstairs, Yuuna shot Kaede a jokingly accusatory look.

"So,'re going to be up all night developing film, aren't you?"

Kaede grinned. "You know me too well, Yuuna-chi! I'm just so damn excited! Every roll that comes out of the chems is a whole new little world to discover! And every one of those worlds is full of beautiful pictures of cuties!"

"You really do only think about one thing," Yuuna laughed. She felt like she'd barely talked while they were hanging out with the idol girls, and here alone with Kaede, her social anxiety cork was removed. She never felt as comfortable loosening up around people as she did with Kaede.

"Girls are the best thing to think about! And I hope you know that on our first day as official Yōiku-no-Mori second-years, I am gonna take your photo, Yuuna-chi!"

"Don't waste film on me, Kae-chan."

"It's not a waste to take photos of a pretty girl."

Yuuna shook her head. "You need to get your lens cleaned. Maybe take an eye exam, too. I'm not that special."

Kaede stepped up in her face and playfully poked her in the shoulder.

"First, that's just not true. Second, it's important to capture the big moments! Besides, I can never have enough photos of my head-turning best friend!"

There she goes again, Yuuna thought. Kaede was always talking up her looks, though Yuuna never considered herself much of a knock-out.

"You're biased, Kae-chan. Also, I'm not trying to turn heads. I just want to get through the next year. I had everything figured out at Ayamegaoka, and now everything's all jumbled up from the merger."

"Yeah, yeah, I hear ya," Kaede said as she stepped away and placed her camera bag on the counter by the sink. "I'm just sayin', you're gonna turn heads, whether you're trying to or not. I mean, y'know, I don't wanna assume. Maybe you'd rather be turning some guy's head. I'm not the girl to ask about that kinda stuff."

Yuuna sighed. Why were we even talking about this? None of it mattered.

"No, I don't want to turn some guy's head. I don't think about turning anybody's head, because it doesn't happen."

"You still really think that, huh? Well, I'm not gonna push you about it," Kaede said, even though Yuuna felt that was probably untrue. "Either way, I'm still going to tell you that you're cute, because it's just reality!"

Yuuna couldn't help but smile at her. Kaede never, ever ran out of positivity, and it could rub off on just about anybody, no matter how hard they resisted.

Kaede, of course, noticed her smile instantly.

"Aww, there's my Yuuna-chi."

"If you say I should smile more," Yuuna glared in her best faux-threatening fashion, "I'm going to throw you into the river."

Kaede laughed. "Nah, it's not like that. I just like making you happy."

"Smooth, Yagami. No wonder you're so good at getting girls to let you take their picture."

"What can I say? I know what my skills are!"

Yuuna shook her head and laughed back. "Okay, well, I should get home before you talk me into a whole shoot. Um, also, thanks for bringing me along today."

"I was glad to have ya," Kaede said. "You were a big help!"

"See you later, Kae-chan."

Yuuna turned toward the studio's front door, but Kaede called out to her before she got too far.

"Hey, Yuuna-chi, uh, one other thing."

"What is it?" Yuuna asked as she turned back.

"What did ya think of the idol girls?"

"Um, they were cool. Definitely different from most of the idols I've seen."

"For sure! All the stuff in the music program sounds so neat too, huh?"

A switch flipped in Yuuna's head. She knew exactly what Kaede was getting at.

"Kae-chan, not this again."

"What? I'm just saying!"

"I know what you're saying," Yuuna frowned. "Did you just bring me along today to try and talk me into the music course?"

"No way! But, I mean, you could think about it a little, maybe."

"You know I'm done with music."

Kaede walked over to her and took her hand. "I know you're done with music for now. You're super talented! It's just, y''s sad to see you give up on it."

"I didn't give up," Yuuna shot back. "I stopped getting better, and the world kept telling me it was pointless anyway. Music gave up on me."

"That ain't true, babe," Kaede said. "Junior high, high school...this shit can suck, I get it! There's a lot of stress and it can really fuck you up! You gotta fight and make a place for the things you love, and you'll get better at them! The whole world's tellin' you to get ready for work or settle down with some dude, even if you don't wanna! It's BS, but it doesn't have to be like that!"

Yuuna sighed. "Maybe it doesn't have to be like that for you, Kae-chan. You were born to do what you do. I'm just some girl who thought she could play piano. Piano isn't going to pay the bills when I graduate."

"You don't know that," Kaede said. "Besides, ain't it enough to just do it? It makes you feel good! It makes you feel real!"

"Not when you can't get better at it. I just feel like a failure."

"You are not a failure, Yuuna Hanazono." Kaede grabbed her and wrapped her up in a hug. "Don't you ever say that about my Yuuna-chi."

"'re sweet," Yuuna said quietly, "but I just don't think I can do it."

Kaede released her hug and stood back, still holding Yuuna's hand.

"I don't wanna be a jerk or nothin' about it. I'm just sayin', maybe you should think about it."

"If you think I'm going to be an idol, you really have lost your mind," Yuuna said.

Kaede laughed. "You don't have to be an idol! I never thought you'd go for that! But there's a bunch of other stuff you could do! Maybe you should talk to that girl that Fuchigami-san mentioned."

"The guitar player?"

"Yeah! What was her name...Takanagi-san! You could be the keyboard player in the light music club!"

Yuuna sighed back at her. "Goodnight, Kae-chan."

"All I'm askin' is that you think about it," Kaede said. "For me."

Even now, Yuuna could feel her resistance weakening. Kaede was good at that.

"I can't promise you anything...but...I'll think about it."

Kaede practically glowed. "Thank you, babe! I'm so glad!"

Yuuna laughed quietly to herself as she turned and walked out of Studio Yagami's front door and onto the streets of northern Sumida. Kaede always had that effect on her, even when she didn't want her to.

Studio Yagami was located on a narrow street, surrounded by both homes and other small businesses like a screen printing shop, a clothing store, a sushi restaurant, an optician, and a pet store. It was the kind of cozy place that made up much of this part of Sumida, and Yuuna always felt at ease when she walked the route between the studio and her home. She crossed to an even tinier street - barely more than an alley - and began her walk back.

All the way home, Kaede's words ate at her. It wasn't as if she hadn't wrestled with all of this herself, over and over. She felt like she couldn't go back, couldn't re-engage herself with music, couldn't subject herself to the possibility of failing again. It hurt when she let go, but it might hurt even more to go back.


Being around the idol girls and getting to talk about music again did make her feel something. Though she would never want to be an idol herself, those girls - especially Saeko and Narumi, as weird as she was - were genuine music lovers, and being able to talk to them in a somewhat knowledgeable way? She couldn't deny that was nice, even though she'd been in shy mode around them.

She had never seriously considered the possibility of switching to Yōiku-no-Mori's music course, but now, the idea spun around in her head, and for some reason, it wouldn't leave.

Before she realized it, she turned one last corner and arrived at her home. The Hanazono house was modest, but nice. It was built of thin white brick with dark wood accents, and was compact in dimensions but stood three floors tall. This house was newer than the first house she remembered from childhood; her mother had wanted to start anew and leave sad memories behind after her father passed away when she was four.

She opened the front door, took her shoes off, and placed them in the shoe rack, then retrieved her slippers and slid them on.

"Mom? Hina-chan? I'm home," she called out as she climbed the stairs up to the main floor.

Her mother, Umeko, was seated at the dining table with her laptop open. She looked up at Yuuna as she entered, and gave her a warm smile.

"Welcome home, honey! I was just finishing something for work. Hina-chan's still out with her friend. How was your outing with Kaede?"

"It was fun," Yuuna said as she walked into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. "I didn't know too much about the stuff Kae-chan was asking me to do, but she explained it for me."

"That's good to hear," Umeko said. "And you got to meet your school idols, too, didn't you?"

"Mm-hmm, they were nice. Very unique."

"You have to be pretty unique to be a school idol, I think," Umeko chuckled. "Anyway, I'm going to start on dinner in a bit. I'll come get you once I'm done with this file, if you want to go relax in your room for few minutes."

"Thanks, mom, that sounds good."

Yuuna returned to the staircase and went up to the top floor, down the narrow hall, and into her bedroom. It wasn't anything too fancy, but it was enough for her; a simple wooden desk ran beneath a long rectangular window, and her bed sat under the larger windows on the front of the house, looking out in the general direction she'd just walked from Studio Yagami.

She pulled the chair out from her desk and sat down at her open laptop, and tapped the keyboard to wake it up. She still had something on her mind, something that Fuchigami girl had mentioned while they talked in front of the live house in Akiba.

A few taps on the trackpad opened a browser window, and she typed in a search term:

Downbeat Darlings

Immediately, she was rewarded with results. She opened the band's online profile page, and there they were. Ririka Takanagi - Guitar, Airi Otakawa - Bass, Izumi Moeta - Drums.

She didn't recognize Otakawa-san and Moeta-san, the other two girls, which made sense considering they went to Tokunaga High in Adachi. Takanagi-san, though, went to Harugaoka, and since that had been just across the street from Ayamegaoka, she swore she could vaguely remember seeing this girl around before.

The photo matched her vague memories. Ririka Takanagi was tall, taller even than Miyuki Shimada was. She was slender and wiry, with short, shaggy reddish-brown hair that hung in messy bangs across her eyes. Her outfit wasn't even trying to be especially girly; a simple t-shirt and jeans, with an unbuttoned flannel shirt on top. Just from her photo, she seemed quiet, introspective-looking even, and Yuuna caught herself focusing on her more intently than she'd meant to.

Resting on a stand next to her in the photo was her guitar, red and curvy and aggressive-looking, with a Gretsch logo on the headstock.

She browsed around some more, and eventually found some videos from the band's live shows. The first one was titled, simply enough, Downbeat Darlings - Live @ Artemis, 16 July 2022, and she clicked it.

As soon as the music began, she was transfixed.

The band played ferociously, in perfect sync. Unexpectedly, it was the bassist, Otakawa-san, who sang, leaving Takanagi-san to concentrate on playing guitar. And play she did, ripping out snarling, interesting melodic riffs and chunky, growling chords. When the performance reached a guitar solo, Takanagi-san closed her eyes and wailed on her guitar as if guided by something far larger than herself. She was intoxicating to watch, and when the video was over, Yuuna clicked to the next one, and the next, and the next.

She was completely fascinated by this girl, and had lost track of time, which she only realized when she heard her mother's voice behind her, standing at her doorway with a warm smile on her face.

"I'm ready to start dinner, Yuuna-chan," Umeko said.

In panicked surprise, Yuuna slammed her laptop's lid closed and spun in her chair.

"Mom! Oh, yeah, okay, sure! I'm ready."

Her mother gestured at her laptop. "You don't have to be embarrassed, you know. I'm actually really glad to see you watching something about music again. No blushing needed."

It was only then that she realized her cheeks were hot.

"This? No, it's was something that one of the girls today mentioned. I was just curious, that's all."

Her mother sighed, and seemed to be thinking about something for a moment before she spoke again.

"Before we start dinner, I'd like to talk to you, sweetheart."


"Um, okay, sure."

Umeko walked over, sat on her bed, and stared at the floor for a long moment.

"I'm so sorry, Yuuna."

The words smashed together in her brain in a confusing heap.

"Why are you sorry, mom? You didn't do anything."

"That's exactly it," Umeko said. "Honey, I've watched you these last few years. I know you've been...I'm not sure. Down. Unmotivated. Sad. Like something's missing."

Yuuna looked away. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You do, though. This house used to be filled with music, honey. Your music. Now, it's not."

"Mom, I-"

"No, this is important for me to say," Umeko said, as she reached over and placed a hand on Yuuna's arm. "I didn't pressure you about it. I suppose I thought that you'd come out of it on your own, and I didn't want to push you and make you come to outright hate music. But I think that was a mistake."

"What are you talking about?"

"I should have tried to do something, something that would at least encourage you. It's not my finest moment as a mother, and for that, I'm sorry. I wish I'd kept you connected to your talent, because you have a truly wonderful talent, sweetheart."

Yuuna sighed, and took her mother's hand in her own.

"It's not your fault, mom. just seemed like the world was telling me that it was a waste to focus on music. That made me have problems, like I wasn't getting better, and it made me feel like a failure. I just couldn't handle it anymore."

Umeko looked at her; to Yuuna's surprise, she saw tears rolling silently from her mother's eyes. She said nothing, but leaned over and wrapped Yuuna up in a hug, and gently patted her back.

"You are a special and talented girl," Umeko said quietly. "I want to find a way to help you get that back."

Yuuna glanced over at her closet, which she had accidentally left open that morning when she left. There, in the back, behind her clothes, just barely peeking out of the darkness, she saw it.

The padded gig bag that held her piano.

"Mom...have you heard about the music program at Yōiku-no-Mori?"