I am going to die.
The words kind of floated across my mind, just randomly surfacing from amid all the other thoughts vying for my attention, like whether or not I should drink something before going onstage and such. Most people would probably be freaked out by that sort of, well, premonition, if you will. It wasn't so much a premonition in my case as it was certainty, but whatever. It didn't really matter what it was anymore. It was going to happen whether I liked it or not. I didn't have to like it. I'd made up my mind and resigned myself to the fact, and that was it.
Aya was far more important to me than saving my own sorry ass.
Anyway, it wasn't as if I had much to live for anymore, aside from Aya and the Aogiris; Chidori and Toya were already gone…
And Kei… The hollow space he'd left in my heart still ached whenever he crossed my mind. Every time I glanced at his ring on my finger I would see his face, hear his last words to me rasping past the blood in his throat, feel his dead weight in my arms as the breath left his body. I felt my chest tightening and I pushed the memory away – if I let myself dwell on him now, I'd melt into a liquefied mess on the floor. I could do that later. I'd be with him soon enough.
It would be blatantly dishonest for me to say I was unfazed by the prospect of dying in…about an hour or so. I was scared beyond belief, make no mistake. When I thought of how much I would lose, the friends I would never see or speak to or laugh with again, my stomach contracted into tight little knots and my face heated 'til tears formed in my eyes. I'd clenched my hands so tightly my nails were biting into my palms, and I had to force myself to release them.
Breathe, Shuro. If you cry now, your throat will close up.
A few heavy, shuddering breaths later my throat and face had relaxed, but the tears refused to stem themselves. I shook my head and gave a halfhearted, self-deprecating laugh.
Look at yourself, you stupid, sentimental fool. Now your eyes are all swollen up. Snap out of it. You're acting like a girl.
I gave another derisive laugh at the thought. What was wrong with my acting like a girl? Regardless of how I was raised, I was one, wasn't I?
Time to "come out of the closet", sweetheart. They're going to find out, one way or another. You can't be a boy forever. You can't lie to yourself forever.
"Stop it, Shuro, stop it!" I whispered to myself, pressing the heels of my hands to my eyes to try and stop their tearing. My words sounded jagged, half laughter, half sobs. "You've got to do this. Aya and her baby mean more to you now than anything, you know that, especially since she doesn't have Toya to protect her anymore. If you back out on her now, overwhelming odds are that she and her unborn child will die in that lab. Rightfully, you should've done this sooner if it meant you could've kept the Mikages' grimy paws away from her. Aya saved your life, remember? If anything, the least you can do for her is return the favor."
I felt selfish, being afraid to die. I'd been so protected – well, more like overprotected – all my life, by my parents and my managers and by Kei. Sure, I'd always felt isolated and confused and hostile toward my family for turning my into the screwed-up he-she that I am. But never once had they ever been sorry that they'd had me, or that I was around. They still loved me, no matter how many times I'd blown up at them or sworn to hate them forever for what they'd done to me.
I couldn't even begin to comprehend what kind of shit Aya had been put through since she turned sixteen. What fresh hell must it have been for her, every day, to wake up and know that she had no family to love her and stand by her? What with her mother in a coma, her father, Toya, and Chidori dead, and her brother at the mercy of the Progenitor, she was so fortunate to have the Aogiris to turn to. Especially Yuhi; he'd follow her to the edge of the earth and back. And now, held captive by Kagami, even her "adoptive" family had been taken from her.
That made my own stupid problems and fears pale in comparison.
You're an idiot, Shuro, if you have the nerve to think you're worse off than she is. You have nothing truly important left to lose by dying for her. You owe Aya and her baby the chance to live.
Having thoroughly berated myself, I drifted to my mirror to check how swollen my eyes were from crying. After I fixed them up with a few layers of stage makeup, I glanced back down to look for the gloves I was supposed to wear tonight. But before my gaze even made it to the tabletop, it hit the blue-purple diary-like notebook Kei and I used to write our songs in. Gloves forgotten, I picked up the book and randomly paged through it, letting my eyes wander over the comments he'd written in the margins and admiring his stupid little doodles. The pages toward the end of the book stood in stark contrast to the others, covered only in my own messy handwriting. Some had tearstains smudging up the ink. I couldn't stand to look at the words I'd written, words without any trace of my partner in them. They brought me only memories of pain.
As I turned back to the middle of the notebook, something fell from between the pages, fluttering to the floor. It was a photo of Kei and me, taken on my birthday, about two weeks before he'd died. On the back, he had scrawled,
Hey, Shuro! Remember this? You turned 18 today! Ha, you're an old geezer now, like me! Anyway, have you been wearing that ring I gave you? You'd better be. I busted my butt trying to find one that matched mine, since you're always stealing it from me. So, now that you've got your own, a) don't steal mine anymore, and b) don't lose it, you absentminded nimrod! I did not look through seven different jewelry stores and search for hours online for my health. But whatever. I'd have done it even if there was only one ring like it on the entire planet. You know I'd do anything for you, right?
I smiled at the picture. I remembered that. I'd lost the ring three days later. Kei had gotten pretty angry with me for it, make no mistake, but he'd forgiven me. We'd never been able to stay mad at each other for very long. The longest we'd ever gone without speaking was a day and a half. At least, that was the longest while he was still alive.
Would you have wanted me to keep living, Kei?
I pulled my gloves on and glanced at the clock – oh gods, I didn't have much time left. An overwhelming wave of fear washed over me. My stomach roiled with anxiety and I tried to press it down, drawing in one deep, shaky breath after another. I looked at the photograph again hoping it would calm me, and soon my stomach settled as I watched my hands slowly stop trembling.
"Kei," I murmured, "…this is it. The big moment, my final concert… Our last hurrah…" I could feel myself choking up again.
Startled, I whipped my head around, looking for the source of the voice calling my name. I knew that voice…
"Chidori? Well, now…" I replied. Her babyish face watched me from the mirror I sat in front of. Her huge doe eyes were sad.
"Is this the only way?" she asked, cocking her head to one side. "You've chosen a one-way street…"
"I know." I choked around the tight knot in my throat. "But it leads to a wonderful goal." I closed my eyes, thinking about Aya and Yuhi and everyone else, and smiled. "It's the best thing I'll ever do…for the best friends I've ever had…you, Yuhi, and Aya!"
Chidori's face bloomed into a wide beam, kind eyes narrowing from her smile, but her voice trembled as she replied.
"All right, Shuro! Go do it! Knock 'em dead!"
I grinned through the tears I felt collecting in my eyes again. Screw stage makeup. I was beyond caring how I looked.
"Shuro! It's time!"
I jumped at the sound of my manager's voice and snapped my head up from the mirror. When I looked back down, Chidori had gone.
A warm, serene smile spread across my face as my anxiety melted away. This was it. I rubbed my finger over the ring I wore – his ring. I'd sworn to myself on the day he died, that from the moment I slipped it off his finger, I'd never take it off.
I brought the ring to my lips, kissed it, and left the dressing room.
I'd never sung like this before. The notes flowed together so smoothly, dripping from my mouth like pearls. It was exhilarating, this feeling of release that only song could bring me, such purity of sound.
I'd never been so at peace.
Memories of those I sang for welled up in my mind; Aya's eyes, Yuhi's smile, Chidori's laugh, Mrs. Q's funny faces, Suzumi's wisdom. Surprisingly, I found myself among those in my thoughts. I sang to give myself the courage to fulfill my promise. I hoped with all my heart that Aya could see me now…
"Everybody!" I called to the sea of faces around me, "As you know, I'm on my own now…but as long as you're here, I'm not alone! Be one with me! Be my strength!"
It was such a sobering experience, seeing and knowing so many people were there for me.
"Y'know, thanks to you, this is a day I'll never forget. It's your passion, your energy, that fills this place and charges me up. It's because of you…that I'll be able to make my last song really cook! Before that, though…"
I swept my gaze over the arena, and dredged all my courage up from the depths of my soul. The word "fear" couldn't even begin to cover what I was feeling right then.
"…I need to say something, because you deserve the truth…" I swallowed, feeling the sweat slowly drip down my back.
It was now or never.
"I, Shuro Tsukasa…am really a woman."
The collective gasp and then complete silence were staggering.
"Believe me, it's no joke." I went on."We thought we had to deceive the public, for the sake of GeSANG…but I'm so sorry we did it." I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and went on.
"Y'see, Kei had a dream, and I was willing to live a lie to make it a reality. I…" My voice broke. I didn't care.
"I loved him…with all my heart. And I don't regret that. But I lied to you. And for that, I am deeply sorry." I could feel such a weight being lifted from my shoulders as I spoke. It felt wonderful.
"Let me also say thank you! For everything!" A resounding cheer rose from the crowd, and it moved me, the staggering number of people who cared for me. I hadn't been expecting a good response to such a confession, and this…this was amazing.
"You're the best!" I could feel my voice wavering from the joy welling up in my heart. I was so, so happy…
"Okay, this is my last number!" I paused, swallowing. If they only knew how final it would be.
"You know it, so please sing along! It's a song written by Kei…for GeSANG."
I closed my eyes and let energy radiate out from my core, giving in to the goddess inside me. My hair lengthened, my voice grew stronger, purer, and…I finally felt comfortable in my own skin. My voice exuded such power, such peace, such love for the ones I would die for, I could've sworn the air around me glowed with it.
I could finally see myself as beautiful.
But such power came with a price. Soon after I'd changed, the rush of the transformation wore off, my hands began to tremble, and it became harder and harder to hold myself up. The only part of me that had retained its strength was my voice.
Hang on, Aya…I'm setting you free!
I labored to finish my song, and when I was done the tears streamed down my face. Pain took its hold in my bones, and every inch of my being ached as if it was about to collapse in on itself. As it got harder and harder to breathe, I struggled to hold back the violent sobs threatening to overtake me.
"Kei…" I whispered, squeezing my eyes shut and tensing up, trying to ward off the pain. Oh gods, everything hurt! And…more than anything I wished with all my heart that hecould with me here.
"It's okay, Shuro, shhhh. It's okay. I'm right here. You won't have to go through this alone."
The evanescent, familiar voice wrapped around me and I opened my eyes, so surprised at the sound. I'd wished, for so long, to hear that voice again!
Kei's spirit entwined his fingers with mine and he smiled, winking at me as he raised a microphone to his lips. I laughed, letting the tears flow freely, and sang with him, one last time.
Aya…I hope…you find happiness…as great as mine is right now.
As my vision started to go black I could feel myself falling, and I was suddenly, fiercely afraid. Until he caught me. Kei's strong arms tightened around my body, and I returned the gesture, burying my face in the curve between his shoulder and neck.
"I missed you, Shuro, so much…"
"Kei…I missed you, too."