Back when I was still figuring out what to do for "Half Moon," I had this idea in mind of a story for Xania that would run concurrent with it. It stayed in the back of my mind for a long time, but along the way I decided I wanted to do something for Michiko and Emi as well. I knew that doing Xania's story on its own would end up being too short, so I figured I'd use all three ideas and put them together in one story. And so, here you have it. "One Degree of Separation." Written between July and October 2009.

For Michiko's, you'll want to have read Next Gen first. For Xania's, FTA; Half Moon is also helpful but not required. For Emi's, reading Half Moon first is a MUST.


"Bubblegum Crisis – One Degree of Separation"

Written by Amanda Stair


"The Day Before – Michiko"

BEEP…BEEP…BEEP…

It's the first sound I hear in the morning. Not the chirping of birds that I loved hearing back in Shikoku as a small child. Not the sound of a light summer breeze coming through my window and making the curtains flutter. No, the first thing I always hear is a harsh sound, artificial. But it's all I can do. If I left the window open here the first thing to greet me instead would be the sound of rush-hour traffic and the smell of smog.

No, I think I prefer my alarm, thank you.

BEEP…BEEP…

I groaned and rolled onto my back, throwing my arm over my eyes while my other hand groped for the off button on my alarm clock. Was it already 6:30? Geez. It felt like I had just fallen asleep, and in a way I just had. I'd stayed up till midnight the night before, frustrating myself with my English homework and the million different verb tenses that I felt like I had to master. Dad tried his best to help me out, but it seemed like even he had trouble at times. Not that I didn't appreciate his help; any sort of life raft to cling to in the middle of the ocean that was my English homework was welcome. I had no idea why it was so difficult for me. Algebra came easy to me, and chemistry wasn't that easy but I always managed to get good grades on the tests in there. PE wasn't my forte but at least I could hold my own during baseball matches and the two-kilometer runs. But English…why was it so hard for me?! Was it because I hadn't been that exposed to it at a younger age compared to a certain friend of mine, who could switch from Japanese to English in an instant and talk like she'd been fluent her whole life? I knew younger kids could absorb languages easier, but…

BEEP…BEEP…BEE—

"Enooough!" I groaned, slapping the alarm clock, making it go silent. I must've hit the snooze button by mistake before. Drat. And now it was 6:40. Still time for breakfast and a shower and a last-minute check on the previous night's homework, but I definitely couldn't lounge around much longer if I wanted to get all that done. I begrudgingly rolled out of bed and stumbled half-asleep to the bathroom, stripping off my pajamas. I shrieked when the water in the shower came out cold, but after a little adjustment it was at just the right temperature to wake me up and not freeze me at the same time. I stuck my head under the water, feeling my hair stick to the back of my neck and my back as it got saturated. Aah, this was nice. I'd gone two days without a shower, definitely overdue, so this was the best feeling in the world. And I would've spent an hour in there if it meant I'd still make it on time to school, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. After washing my body and my hair and shaving the necessary parts, I stepped out of the shower and dried myself off, rubbing my favorite cherry-scented lotion into my arms before getting dressed.

"Hmm…are they getting bigger?" I wondered aloud, turning on the mirror defogger to get a better look at myself in the mirror. I'd just put on my bra, but it didn't seem to fit quite right. The cups seemed tighter than usual. A look in the mirror confirmed my suspicions; you could say my cup runneth over, both of them. A growth spurt, at this age? I shrugged and pulled on my shirt; guess I would have to go shopping for a new bra this weekend.

I blow-dried my hair, afterwards spraying it with hair spray and gel to make sure the style would hold as I pulled it back into my usual looped ponytail. Another look in the mirror and a few bobby pins later, it was good and secure.

"Oh, Michiko, good morning," my mom said cheerfully, busy whipping up what looked like a ham-and-cheese omelet. "Did you finish that assignment?"

"Yeah," I replied, pouring myself a glass of milk. "I hope I did okay, 'cause I heard we're supposed to be getting a big assignment tomorrow."

"Any idea what it's going to entail?"

"No. But Yucchan can probably help me with it," I said with a small giggle.

"Do I need to start paying her?" she joked. "How's her therapy going, by the way? I just know that she got her brace off last month."

"I haven't been able to go to many of her sessions. But ever since she got it off she's been much happier. I can't really blame her. I don't think I'd want to walk around with that thing either."

"I'm happy for her," she said, putting the omelet onto a plate, which I took to the kitchen table and immediately started cutting into. "What a horrible thing to happen, to be shot by one of those blasted Knight Sabers…"

I had to force myself to chew slowly, so as not to gag on my omelet. For some reason, Mom couldn't stand the Knight Sabers. She'd mentioned something about them murdering a Genom executive some years back, and seemed to latch right away onto the idea that they'd somehow sabotaged the summit at the convention center, but I knew better than that. If they fought Boomers, why do something like that? She would say that them not having any Boomers to fight would put them out of business, and so they had to do something to keep the world leaders from enacting some sort of ban on them. It kinda made sense, but they'd gotten by during the nineteen-year lull in Boomer attacks somehow, right? And the chatter I'd seen on the Net had said that their murder of the aforementioned Genom executive was entirely justified. Anything on the Net, of course, had to be taken with a grain of salt, but the theories on there seemed more believable than the reasons Mom would use to convince herself that the Knight Sabers were bad.

And to think that my best friend was actually part of that group that Mom hated so much… That she would put her life on the line to protect people like my mom, who hated her… But Mom didn't hate Yumeko herself. She just hated the Knight Sabers. But of course I couldn't tell her that Yumeko was the purple one, as much as I'd have loved to just to get her to shut up. Oh, to see the look on her face if I told her. But no. I'd sworn myself to secrecy. She'd told me her secret in utmost confidence, and I'd seen how much it pained her to answer my questions truthfully, to relate her story of what really happened at the summit on the night of March sixteenth, even if she couldn't remember it blow-by-blow.

She'd died twice on the operating table. She'd have been better off getting a cybernetic leg than trying to make do with her mangled one. Or at least that's what I'd been told. But thankfully she and Priss had refused to replace her leg. I knew how they both felt about cybernetics, even ones deemed medically necessary. Even before I knew her secret Yumeko hadn't liked Boomers. Getting a cybernetic leg, in her opinion, would've made her one of them. I could understand her line of thinking, but I also knew there was a bigger reason for her refusing: the Olympics. She would be ineligible for them if she'd replaced her leg. She wasn't about to sacrifice her Olympic dream just for the sake of convenience. I had to admire her for that, even though she went through so much pain to make herself walk again, to be rid of that brace she hated so much.

She could walk now, to be sure. But would she make it to the Olympics next year? I had my doubts. But that didn't mean I wasn't going to encourage her every step of the way. I had to. If she believed, I had to, too.

"She's still planning on getting to the Olympics," I declared. "She's not gonna let that stop her."

"It's a long shot," she sighed. "And she knows it."

"I'm sure she does. But if that's the main thing motivating her to get better, then who am I to say there's no way she can make it?"

Mom smiled at me as she flipped another omelet in the pan. "You're a good friend to her, Michiko. Why don't you go with her to her therapy session today?"

"But she still has half-days at school. I can't cut out."

"I didn't say cut out. And didn't she start school again full-time once she got it off?" I mentally slapped myself upside the head. Of course she had. How could I forget something that obvious? Maybe it was because we didn't have any afternoon classes together. "Go after school then, as long as you don't have too much homework to do. She's there till about seven or so, right?"

"Yeah."

"So even if you can only be there for the last few hours of her session, I'm sure she'd appreciate it."

I nodded. I hadn't been to one of her sessions in several weeks. I just had to see for myself what she could do now. Maybe Linna was having her do other moves now, since the brace was no longer there to get in the way.

"Did Dad have to go in early today?" I asked. I couldn't hear the shower adjacent to Mom and Dad's bedroom going, nor could I hear him humming as he usually did as he shaved.

"Yes," she sighed. "Some other problem at work that they just couldn't solve without him being physically present. I swear, the people he works for, they just can't think for themselves at all. They'd rather collect paychecks while sitting on their butts instead of earning it by doing of the real work your father does. That's not how the real world works. Oh, I can't wait until the layoffs start."

"Layoffs?" I repeated. "Are there problems at his job?"

"Oh, they're going to be downsizing a little bit. Don't worry about your dad though. He's far too important to be let go, but those other guys I just mentioned…" She let a smirk play across her face as she dished up her omelet and sat at the table with me. "Reality's about to give them a hard slap in the face. If they think they can make money just by being a chair-warmer and delegating the hard work to people like your father, they're sorely wrong. I don't want you to be like that, alright, Michiko? I don't want you to think you can just get a paycheck by being an OL and answering phones all day. If you want to make real money, you have to do real hard work. You have to be prepared to stay late, to make sacrifices in your social life…"

"I don't have much of a social life…" I interjected, but she continued on, ignoring me.

"…And you can't expect to be making the big bucks right off the bat either. Even after you get out of college, you might need to rent one of those one-room apartments for a while. But it's ok. It takes time, but as you work your way up…"

I sat and drank the rest of my milk, only listening with one ear as Mom went on her rant. I knew that she wanted the best for me, that she didn't want me ending up as some deadbeat or living in one of the housing projects in district 3. But really, did I have to hear this same rant two, maybe three times a week? I could practically say it word for word, as each rant was practically verbatim of the previous one. Go to college, get an excellent job, don't be one of those women who sacrifices her job to dote on her husband, when or if she finds one.

Was this a case of 'Do as I say, not as I do,' then? It was what she did after she got married and had me, after all. I didn't quite understand. Was she regretting quitting the work force? Or did she just want me to have opportunities she missed out on?

I didn't have the guts to ask. I swallowed the last of my omelet and said, "That was good. Thanks, Mom."

"I'll get the dishes," she said, taking my plate and glass from me. "Go check on your homework. It's about time for you to go."

"Okay."

I went to my room, where my homework was spread out over my desk. I organized it by subject, then gave each of the assignments a quick glance to make sure I hadn't made any careless mistakes. Satisfied, I put them in my backpack, followed by the textbooks I would need for the day. I wasn't worried about most of the assignments; as usual, it was the English one I was worried about. Maybe I'd have Yumeko take a look at it before English class if there was time. And if I hadn't made too many dumb mistakes, maybe she could help me with some of those before I had to turn it in…

I shook my head. I was getting distracted. I had to get going.

"Bye, Mom!" I called as I headed out the door. "See you tonight!"

"See you!"


The bus stop was a short walk away, and when I arrived several other people were there waiting, not all of them students. Some were on their way to work, holding heavy-looking briefcases in their hands, still looking half-asleep. I couldn't blame them. Even after my shower my body still wanted to go back to bed. But school beckoned. But on the bright side, it was my last year of high school. Only seven more months of this and then I was free…until college anyway. And Mom was adamant that I go. Of course I was planning on going. I was still looking around at the different schools in the city, then I would have to take the entrance exams for those, but studying for those on top of doing my regular homework… My head spun at the thought. I'd have no life. Not that I did anyway.

When the bus arrived I stepped on, inserted my bus pass, and was pushed to the back as more people suddenly crammed on, leaving me little room to breathe, let alone turn around or adjust my position. And so in that position I stayed, occasionally having my ribs crushed as more people got on, for the next half-hour until the bus arrived at my stop, two blocks from Kihi. I was able to get off the bus, my ribs and lungs thanking me for doing it in quick fashion, and after a moment to take time to learn to breathe deeply again, I took off in a quick stride, the occasional sunbeam able to break through between the tall buildings surrounding me. At least they appeared at all; it got downright depressing when the sky was overcast. It would make the buildings seem like huge shadowy figures, glaring down at you. Although some would say Genom Tower always did that anyway, rain or shine. I had to admit, they had a point. That thing was just creepy.

Cars were starting to fill the student parking lot when I arrived, and I wasn't surprised to see Yumeko's assigned spot still empty. I was actually starting to place bets in my head as to whether or not she would actually show up today. She was famous for ditching, although she hadn't seemed to do too much of that lately. Not to mention she hadn't been suspended at all. THAT was a surprise, though she did come close when she had had a blackout in the cafeteria several months ago. I'd had to convince Principal Vermotti that it was unfair to suspend her based on something she obviously had no control over. Still, I was afraid for the next time she would get set off. Would she kill someone? Get expelled? Maybe it'd be Boh she'd black out on next. That would've been almost funny. He creeped me out sometimes.

Speaking of Boh, he was one of the few kids who had arrived at literature class before me. He was sitting in his usual desk, reading a large book that I doubted I would have had the patience to sit and read…until I read the title of the book.

"I Am A Cat?" I quoted aloud. "That's a Soseki novel."

"Yes," he mumbled, giving a nod, not looking up from his book.

"I think I read that once. What part are you at?"

"When the cat is dancing around the kitchen with the treat stuck in its mouth," he replied, a smirk playing on his lips.

"Oh, that part." I laughed nervously. "I felt so sorry for him. And then that part at the end…"

"Yes, but he had it coming to him."

"That's horrible. And how do you know what happens anyway?"

"This is my third time through the book."

I almost gagged in my mouth. Third time through a book of that size? Was he a masochist? "Lemme guess, the next one you're gonna tackle is The Tale of Genji, right? Or War and Peace? Or maybe even The Canterbury Tales for English class?"

"Genji is quite the character," he said, turning the page. "Not unlike a guy you used to be close with."

I grimaced. I knew whom he was referring to. "I know. I couldn't stand reading the part where he forced himself on Murasaki, then wondered the next day why she looked so nervous around him. Couldn't stand it."

"Because he basically raped her, or because she was twelve?"

"Both. It's disgusting."

"It was normal at the time to take young wives. Isn't it like Romeo and Juliet?"

I could tell he was being facetious about it, and I didn't like it at all. "They weren't much older, but at least they were in love."

"Weren't you in love with Masahiro?"

"…Yes. But he didn't feel the same for me." I shook my head. "Why am I talking with you about this?"

"You're the one who brought the subject up."

I let out a harumph and went to sit down in my seat, taking out my literature books. He irritated me so much sometimes! And to bring up those memories of Masahiro… It wasn't something I didn't like to remember. I had been stupid, thinking he loved me. Of course he didn't. Why would a thug like him possibly fall for a frail girl like me? In the end, all he had wanted was sex. And he had succeeded, pressuring me into giving him my virginity in his truck on that rainy afternoon, only to ditch me almost immediately afterwards. I had learned I wasn't the first girl he deceived, and I ended up not being the last either. It was a lesson I had learned the hard way, not to trust or give your love too freely, or your heart will be crushed.

But at least I was able to spare my friend from being deceived as well…

My ears perked up when I heard the sound of stilted running coming down the hallway. I smiled; I knew that sound. It was one I had heard almost every day for the last month.

"Yumeko!" I exclaimed when sure enough, she came around the corner and into the room. A mop of brunette hair set on top of a face with expressive, happy red eyes. Her left leg swayed slightly underneath her, but held up.

"Yo, Michiko!" she called. "How goes it?"

"Ok, except for him." I jabbed my thumb in Boh's direction.

"Ignore him. He's so depressing." She gave me a smile, which immediately cheered me up.

"She started it," Boh stated flatly, inserting a bookmark before closing his book and putting it away. "We were having an honest conversation about fictional romances and how they compare to real-life ones. A bit too honest for her, perhaps."

"Who said romance is dead? It can't be if it was never alive," she said, sticking her tongue out before sitting down at her own desk.

"It's ok, Yumeko," I groaned in a pained voice. "Just let it go. Class is gonna start in a few minutes anyway."

She looked at me, and seeing my expression, just nodded. "Ok…"

"It was stupid of me to say anything, anyway." I laid my head down on the desk, groaning again. She had tried to understand, but it was hard to explain to someone who not only had never fallen in love, but who just plain hated all men outright. "Better to have loved and lost," and all that? It wasn't lost though. It wasn't even real, not from his end. And that was what pained me the most. And even over a year later, it still pained me to think about. But it was a mistake I wouldn't let happen again. I knew better now, even if it came at a cost. And Yumeko did get back at him, in her own way, I guess.

"Time to start, everybody!" Mr. Nami bellowed, strolling into class. "Settle down, settle down. Time for attendance. Asada!"

"Here."

"Asagiri!"

"Here," Yumeko mumbled.

"There's a shock," he mumbled right back, eliciting chuckles from everyone. "Capri!"


I had been surprised about Boh reading a Soseki novel because in literature class, we had been reading another Soseki novel, Kokoro. I would have preferred Botchan, but c'est la vie, right? Anyway, after that class Yumeko and I headed over to our trigonometry class, where she tried not to fall asleep listening to another of Mrs. Sasaki's lectures while I diligently took notes. That was nothing new; I imagined she probably took the opportunity in English class to catch up on sleep every day. With her being fluent and all, she wouldn't have missed a thing. A wonder she didn't ditch that class. Or maybe it was because it was so easy for her that she may as well stick around. I don't know.

I got a surprise in my English class. The big assignment that I'd thought would be assigned tomorrow… It was being assigned today instead. I went cross-eyed at the thought. For Yumeko it wouldn't have been difficult at all, but for me…well, you may as well have asked me to translate the Bible. It loomed that large for me. Normal speech was hard enough, but for this assignment the teacher was giving us song lyrics. Lyrics?! Wasn't that playing dirty? People could have all sorts of fun with lyrics, wording things different just so they'd fall into the A-A-B-B pattern of rhyming. And just to mix it up, he gave everyone an English song to translate into Japanese, and a Japanese song to translate into English. Thankfully he didn't ask for us to make our translations rhyme, or I really might have been tempted to rip out my ponytail in frustration. At least he had that much mercy.

I looked at the two sets of lyrics he had handed me. Everyone had gotten assigned different songs, so there was no way to cheat off somebody else. "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)," I read aloud, looking at the English song. "What's that?" I looked at the Japanese song. Yume Miru Shoujo ja Irarenai. That one didn't seem familiar to me either, at least judging from the song name. I made a mental note to look up the songs on my computer when I got home, but before I could look over the lyrics and start running them through my mental dictionary, the teacher got us started on something else.

Fourth period was chemistry, where we each got assigned a chemical to do a ten-page report on. My eyes were practically spinning in my head. Only through fourth period and I already was in homework up to my ears. Just the English homework alone was going to keep me up late, and now a report on vanadium?! My only consolation was that we had a week to do the report, so at least I could put it off for now…

After fourth period was lunchtime. I took out my lunchbag and unpacked my rice balls and bowl of udon soup, while Yumeko stood in line and bought a sandwich of questionable quality from the lunch counter.

"You sure that's fresh?" I queried, wrinkling my nose as she took a bite.

"No," she replied. "But it tastes ok, at least."

"What songs did you get to translate for English class?" We didn't share English class – she had that class right after I did – so I had no idea.

"The English one is My Friend of Misery. I know that one, so that's easy. The Japanese one is Pajama Jama Da. Pfft."

I immediately went through the dictionary in my head. "Misery…zetsuboo?" I wondered aloud.

"Close. Muzan." The word I'd chosen in Japanese was the one for 'despair.'

"And 'my friend' is watashi no tomodachi. Or I guess you could shorten it to just tomodachi. So…the song is called Muzan no Tomodachi? What kind of song is that?"

"Or Watashi no Muzan no Tomodachi, I guess." She smirked and took a bite of her sandwich. "And I think the other one is an anime song, but I'll have to look it up. I don't know it. What'd you get?" I showed her. "Heh. I know that English one, but it'll give you fits."

"I'll pay you to translate it for me!" I pleaded, half-serious.

"I could…but then the teacher'll wonder why it's done so well," she joked.

"You're right." I slurped up some of my noodles.

"You'll be ok. You should know most of the words on sight. It's just a matter of putting them together."

"Yeah. That's what I'm afraid of. You could say I've got Wernicke's aphasia when it comes to English."

For once, Yumeko looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. "Huh?"

"Fluently nonsensical."

She laughed. "Oh c'mon, I don't think you're THAT bad. You at least know what you're trying to say. You'll get it."

"You think so?"

"Sure! I bet you'll still do better than most of the other kids in your class. You at least make an effort."

"Heh. Thanks, Yucchan."

She smiled and finished off her sandwich. She had faith in me. And that was enough. Tonight, for sure, I would try to do that English song and make it sound like it made sense. But then again, she had ripped on the teacher himself for speaking in bad English sometimes, so how would he even know if it was right or not?

I laughed at the thought.

* * * * *

It was a pity that I didn't share any classes with Yumeko after lunchtime, because even when I couldn't talk with her during class, it seemed to make the time go by faster. As a result, the rest of the day tended to drag on. I went through the motions in my art class, and music class went alright. In gym class today though, we were having our weekly two-kilometer run. At the starting line, the other girls I was racing against did their pre-race warm-ups, and I did the same. I wondered how I would do today.

When the teacher fired his pistol into the air, most of the girls took off at full speed, while I started out at a moderate pace, along with several other girls who'd apparently had the same idea as me. I had learned the hard way that if I tried to start out fast in a race, I would only wear out faster, so I tried to make an effort to just keep one pace the whole way. Along with that, I had to breathe properly. In the nose, out the mouth…in the nose, out the mouth. It was hard to remember sometimes if you were caught up in winning the race, but I didn't want to win. I just wanted to finish without feeling like my lungs were on fire.

In the end, my lungs were burning, but I wasn't as bad off as some of the other girls who'd finished ahead of me, looking like they were about to puke right there on the grass. I didn't win, but it looked like I was in the top twenty, at least, which was enough for me.

"Ishiodori!" the teacher snapped at me. "You gotta try harder! You can't just go about this at a leisurely pace!"

"What's wrong?" I asked. "My time wasn't that bad, was it?"

"8:34," he said.

"That's good. And I was in the top twenty."

"I know you can do better. Do what you do during the sprints."

"But that's short-distance running. That's different."

"Don't argue with me, alright? I just wanna see you do better next time."

I made a face and shrugged, sitting down on the grass while the rest of the girls finished the race and it was the boys' turn to run. I needed the bursts during sprints; that was the whole point. But if I was running for a longer period of time, like I'd just done, there was no point at all if you were gonna start lagging once the energy from the first burst ran out. He was a gym teacher; shouldn't he know about those things? Sure, I could go along with what he said and go ahead and start out strong next time, but then I would end up like those other girls, retching in the grass after the race. And what if my time was worse? He would probably yell at me to try harder anyway. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and mulled as the boys started their race.

After gym class, school was over for the day, but as I planned to help out Yumeko at her therapy session, I figured it would be a waste of time to take a shower, so I just changed back into my regular clothes and headed out. Home was only a couple blocks from the gym Yumeko was at, so I headed home first, once again caught in the crush of humanity on the bus and once again having to learn to breathe again once I got off. After dropping off my backpack, I walked those couple blocks down to the Beehive.

When I arrived, one of the other instructors was leading a large group of students in a yoga lesson, while off to the side, I saw Linna instructing Yumeko on an exercise bike.

"On the bike today?" I asked, walking up to them.

"Oh! Micchan!" Yumeko exclaimed.

"Hey, you stopped," Linna chided, wagging her finger. "Keep pedaling until I tell you to stop."

"But this is boring."

"I know it's boring, but just five more minutes."

"Okay, okay."

Linna walked away, looking sure that I could keep an eye on Yumeko while she went into the main office to make a phone call. I turned and looked at my friend, who pedaled away furiously, as if the faster she pedaled, the faster time would go by.

"Don't wear yourself out doing that," I said. "I'm sure she has other things in store for you after this."

"Of course she does," she said, panting. I could see the muscles bulging underneath her leg sleeve as she pedaled. "And I say, bring it on. I can take it. It's probably more running anyway."

"Can you handle running?"

"Sure!" She suddenly winced and stopped, putting a hand to her thigh.

I took a step closer. "You okay?"

"Yeah." She rubbed her thigh. "Just got a spasm all of a sudden."

"You gotta watch out for that," I said with a sigh. "Did she tell you to go at high speed?"

"No. But you know me." She flashed me a grin, which only made me sigh again. Yes, I did know her, which was why I had asked. She had a tendency to push herself too far sometimes.

"On the bright side, at least you CAN ride the bike. When you still had your brace I don't think you could."

"Nope," she concurred, starting up again, this time slowly.

"What about your gymnastics workouts? Can you do those yet?"

"Haven't tried. But I will soon. Gotta get going on that again if I wanna be able to try out."

"For the Olympics," I finished.

"No, for the circus," she quipped, laughing. "Of course the Olympics!"

"Okay, you can stop," Linna said, reappearing with a bottle of water in her hand. She took a long sip as Yumeko stepped off the bike and wiped her bangs from her eyes. "Let's head outside now."

"What did I tell ya?" Yumeko remarked as all three of us headed out the door and outside. She'd been right.

Linna instructed her to alternate her running. Speed-walking for the first lap, a jog for the first half of the second one, as full a run as she could manage for the last half, then a jog for the full third lap, then a full run for the fourth and final lap. Yumeko just nodded, while I stood and looked at them both, slack-jawed. Could she really handle that? She hadn't been out of the brace for THAT long, only a month. Full-on running already? I was almost afraid to watch. No, no, I told myself. Linna was a professional. She knew better than I did about what Yumeko could handle at this point. Still made me afraid to watch, though. Last thing I wanted to see was her landing face-first on the pavement upon trying to run. Especially if she was having spasms in her leg.

"Go with her," she suddenly said, pointing at me.

"Huh? Excuse me?!"

She laughed. "Run with Yumeko. You heard me. Make her try to keep up with you."

"That's not a fair race though."

"You saying I'm a lame runner?" Yumeko asked.

"No, no, I didn't say that!" I said, waving my hands in front of me, laughing nervously. "I didn't say that at all! I'm just saying—"

"I'm kidding," she said. "I know what you meant. I'll be fine."

"If you say so." I sighed and gave an embarrassed smile. She was always pulling my leg like that. You'd think after being friends with her for the past ten years, I would know when she was doing that. But she got me every time. But she was sensitive about her leg, even if she tried not to let that on. So I was never sure if I'd actually hit a nerve or not. Not that she would tell me if I ever had.

We got going on the first lap around the building, going at a speed-walking pace, which Yumeko was managing pretty well. I could barely detect her limping at all, which amazed me. She really had made quite the bit of progress since getting the brace off. I knew from this morning, though, that she still had a limp when she ran, so I wondered how she would do once we got to the jogging phase.

Before I knew it, we'd already gone around the building once, which meant we had to kick it up another notch. I started jogging, as did Yumeko, who managed to keep up with me. Then again, I wasn't going at full speed.

"You're doing good," I said, turning around so that I was jogging backwards. "Really good."

"Now you're showing off," she teased, nodding at my jogging backwards. "I know you can go faster than that."

"Sure, but this isn't a race. I'm just here to help you run."

"So do it. We're almost at the halfway point."

I turned around to start jogging properly again, and once we were at the halfway point she yelled at me to go full hilt. I did so, and promptly left her in the dust as I went running as fast as I could back to the front of the building. I stopped once I reached Linna again, feeling guilty, as I couldn't even see her behind me anymore, but Linna urged me to keep going.

"Make her push it," she said. "Make her want to keep up with you."

"Are you sure?" I was doubtful. I'd feel bad if she hurt herself trying to keep up.

"I'm sure. Keep going."

I nodded and started jogging again, as that was what the third lap was. Still, I did feel bad for leaving her behind, so once I got halfway around the building, I stopped and waited for her. It took another minute or two, but eventually I saw her coming around the corner again, and I smiled and waved.

"Don't wait for me," she growled. "Keep going."

"I wanted to wait."

She stopped once she reached me. "You don't need to do that. I can do it just fine. Besides…" She grinned. "I'm the purple one, remember? Just pretend you're a Boomer trying to get away from me. That'll give me enough incentive to catch you."

"That's horrible!" I gasped, though I had to admit the mental imagery was amusing.

"Just like the games we used to play when we were little, right? Remember?"

"Of course I remember. That was your favorite one, and you always had to be the blue one."

"Yup." She leaned against the wall and sat down, and I did the same. "It was just a game then."

"And now…" I looked at her sleeve-clad leg. "You're playing for keeps."

"I know. No one's playing dead now. No starting over and having the others get back up again. No more 'I won't die this time.' Once it's over, it's over. It's…really different from how I thought it'd be."

"What did you think it'd be like?" I asked.

"I dunno. Just…different." She shrugged. "You hear about how easy it was for them way back in the day to kill Boomers. But when you do it yourself…" She sighed. "You know just how much work it takes to do it. They make it look easy 'cause they've been doing it a long time. But once you do it yourself, it's just hard. It's hard work just to stay alive, let alone try to kill them at the same time."

"Different from a video game…"

"Way different."

A real-life video game. That's what she was playing. And she couldn't just erase her data and start over. She couldn't eject or pause that game and come back to it later. She was stuck in it, for eternity, it seemed. And I couldn't join her party and help her, even if I wanted to. What could I do?

"C'mon." Yumeko stood up. "Gotta start up again or Linna's gonna come after us."

I chuckled and stood up myself. "You're right, you're right."

"Now get going. I'm gonna catch you for sure now."

I got started jogging again, with Yumeko giving me a two-second head start, then started jogging after me. "Soon enough, Micchan! Soon enough!"

"Almost at the fourth lap! You sure about that?"

"You just watch!"


Yumeko wasn't able to catch me, but she did make it all four laps, which seemed to satisfy both her and Linna, and after the therapy session was over, we all rinsed off in the shower and went our separate ways, with Yumeko heading home on her bike while I walked the few blocks back to my apartment building. It was wonderful to see her making such progress, although the more she made, the more scared I was inside, knowing that each positive step she took was a step towards heading back into battle against Boomers. I'd already told her it wasn't my place to convince her to quit, when it was already obvious getting back into battle was what she wanted to do. I didn't know, though, if she wanted to fight again just because of the thrill of battle, or if it was because she wanted to help her friends out. It could've been both, for sure. I had my suspicions as to who the other four Knight Sabers were, but I didn't say anything to Yumeko, and she seemed to appreciate that. She'd been uncomfortable enough just admitting that she was the purple Saber. And she had seemed to know I was on to her. Even if part of me hadn't wanted to know if she was one of them, I was glad she trusted me enough to tell me the truth when I asked.

I felt bad, wishing for her not to recover so fast. I didn't want her to fight. I wanted her to stay safe, and being out there on the street toe-to-toe against Boomers was the least safe place I could think of. But at the same time I wanted to see her achieve her Olympic dream. I was conflicted. I wanted to help her, somehow. But maybe being there at her sessions with her was all I could really do. I wasn't anybody special. I wasn't a Knight Saber. I was just her friend; that's all I could have been.

Will it all work out, I wonder?

I looked to my left as I walked through the parking lot, seeing Masahiro revving up his motorcycle. I turned away quickly, but it was too late. He pulled his key out of the ignition and stalked up to me, try as I might to reach the entrance of the apartment building before he did so.

"Hey there," he said with a grin. "Why so late? You have cleaning duty after school today?"

"No," I said quickly. "I was helping Yumeko with her therapy."

"Her leg's still jacked up?"

"Not so much now. She's getting better every day."

"Good, good."

I spun around on him. I knew what he was trying to do. It was obvious, even to me. "Don't…don't you dare think you can get to her through me. Don't you dare think that I don't remember every day what you did to me. I'll always hate you for that. I loved you, you know!"

The grin was still on his face. "What's the big deal? It was just sex."

"It's what you did after that that makes me hate you!"

"That's what a lot of guys do, babe. Screw ya then dump ya out on your ass. I was just preparing you for what the reality is."

I swallowed hard. "The…the reality is that YOU are one of those guys! YOU are the one who introduced me to that reality! And I HATE that you're claiming you're doing this, to me, and to other girls, to prepare them for the real world! They don't need you to do that! And Yumeko's had enough of an introduction to reality to deal with the likes of you coming on to her! And you know what? You know what?" I took a breath and balled up my hands into fists, clutching them at my sides. "I could say the same about Tsubasa! He's giving YOU an idea of what to expect from the real world once everyone knows what you're really like! I almost hope he kills you! Then no one would have to know, and you wouldn't be able to do anything to anybody else like you did what you did to me! They'd be better off! I'd be better off!! And don't you DARE ever try to be buddy-buddy with me again! What you did hurt me a lot! I can't ever forgive you for that!"

Masahiro looked amused.

"W-what's so funny?!"

"You're really getting yourself worked up."

"And that's funny? I'm not laughing!" I reached up, and almost as if my body did it of its own volition, slapped him across the face. His head barely budged, but it certainly wiped the smile from his face. "I hate you, Masahiro!! I always will!! So just leave me and Yumeko alone already!!"

I turned and ran inside the building, not stopping until I reached the elevator, which magically opened the moment I reached it. I pushed past the people who were exiting and punched the button for the sixth floor, and once the door closed and the elevator started its trip up, I leaned against the wall and took a deep breath. I was sure he was going to come after me for hitting him. I was a girl. Surely a guy like him would take offense at being hit by a girl. On the flip side though, Yumeko had hit him lots of times, and not with an open hand, either.

I exhaled. I could feel my heart pounding against my chest, threatening to burst through. What I had just done…what had driven me to do that? I never thought I'd do that, yell at Masahiro, yell at anybody, for that matter. Not like that. It was almost…exhilarating. Maybe I had just gotten fed up and just snapped. The palm of my hand still stung from the slap, and as I looked down at it and flexed my fingers, I realized I'd never slapped anyone before, either. But if anyone deserved it, it was him.

"I hate him," I moaned, blinking tears away from my eyes as the elevator stopped on my floor and I exited, heading down the hallway towards my apartment. It wouldn't do for me to be crying when I walked through the door. I didn't want Mom to know what happened. She didn't even know the truth behind me and Masahiro breaking up.

"Michiko," I heard her call out once I opened the door, "is that you? How does shrimp tempura sound tonight?"

"Sounds good," I replied, trying to sound cheery.

"How was school?"

School? I'd almost forgotten about that…along with all the homework I just now remembered I had to do. Oh crap, those songs. I had to translate those songs! "It was ok," I said. "That English assignment got assigned today instead of tomorrow, so that was a surprise. And I have some reading to do for literature class, and a paper to do for chemistry…"

"Well, that can all wait until after dinner. Help me, would you?"

Mom took care of preparing the shrimp and the tempura batter while I prepared the rice and the vegetables. Once I had the rice in the rice cooker, I peeled the carrots and cut them into long strips. Setting those aside, I grabbed hold of a cucumber and cut it into slices, letting the occasional one 'accidentally' find its way into my mouth. Mom looked at me and pretended to scowl at me, but only ended up stealing a few slices for herself, both of us snickering.

It always seemed like the moment dinner was ready, Dad would come strolling through the door, no matter how late it was ready. That proved true tonight as well, for I was just done arranging the vegetables on the plates when I heard the door open and his booming voice came echoing through the apartment.

"Where's my two favorite gals?" he shouted.

"In here, Dad!" I yelled back, setting the plates on the kitchen table. "You had to go in early again, huh?"

"Yeah. You'd think I was the only one who knew how to do anything at that place, y'know?"

"Mom was saying the same thing."

We all sat down and had dinner together, with Dad ranting on about his day at work while Mom was equally passionate about how his coworkers shouldn't be relying so much on him, that he ought to get everyone's salary if he was the only one doing anything of worth, stuff like that. I just smiled and stuffed a piece of tempura into my mouth. It normally irritated me to hear this same routine every evening, but after what had transpired outside earlier, it was nice to know some things never changed.

Alas, that also applied to the amount of homework I had. I'd always have just enough done to keep my head above water, but that was about it. After dinner I had to try to stay afloat in the midst of my translation of the English song into Japanese and the Japanese song into English. I logged onto the computer and quickly searched for the sound bite for the English song, tracking it down easily on a website that had a whole wealth of twentieth-century songs.

Clicking 'play,' I was greeted with the sound of a synthesizer, followed by a guitar. I smiled, looking at the date of the song. 1982. Many of Priss' songs were inspired by songs from that decade, the 1980's. No wonder I had felt instantly at ease with the opening notes. I listened to the song, reading the lyrics, mouthing the words as I went along, listening to the song several times to be sure I had them right.

I ran my eyes over each line. I thought perhaps the first course of action was to write down each word that I knew. The first line in English was "Here we stand." I wrote koko over here, and since we seemed to refer to two people and not a multitude of people, I wrote futari instead of watashi-tachi, and 'to stand' was tatsu, so I wrote that over stand.

"Worlds apart, hearts broken in two, two, two," I read aloud, groaning. This looked much harder than the first line. I skipped it and went to the next one, "Sleepless nights." 'Sleepless' meant 'couldn't sleep,' and I knew 'night,' so I was easily able to translate that into nemurenai yoru. "Losing ground" was next, and I skipped that as well. I could already tell this was going to be a long night, a sleepless night indeed.

"I'm reaching for you, you, you. I think I can do that," I said to myself. 'To reach' was todoku, but that was more like when you reach a destination, not reaching out for someone. I looked in my dictionary for the term I was looking for, and found sashinoberu to be the closest definition to what I needed. 'You' would likely be kimi in this case, so I wrote that down as well. "I wonder if I should repeat 'you' three times like it does in the song," I wondered aloud. "It does 'two' three times earlier too. It probably won't rhyme, but…I probably should. Let's see, so 'I'm reaching for you, you, you' would probably be Watashi wa kimi, kimi, kimi ni sashinobeteru…"

I skipped down to the chorus and found myself singing aloud, even without the song playing, unaware of just how poignant the lyrics were, as I didn't understand them. "Somebody love will find you. Break those chains that bind you. One night will remind you how we touched and went our separate ways. If he ever hurts you, true love won't desert you. You know I still love you, though we touched and went our separate ways…"

It helped that I found myself liking the song. It would have been much more of a chore if I had hated it. Maybe I could get this done tonight after all, and maybe even have my translation make some sort of sense.

"Are we still on for tomorrow, Michiko?" I heard Dad call out from the living room, his voice booming even through my closed bedroom door.

"What's tomorrow?" I called back.

"The 18th. That movie you wanted to see should be coming out in stores then, right?"

"Oh! Right! Getting popcorn?"

"And candy and all the junk food you could eat," he laughed.

"It's a date, then! Tomorrow night, in front of the TV!"

I smiled to myself and went back to work on the song. Yes. Tonight would end well, and tomorrow, after an afternoon with Yumeko I'd have an evening with Dad, doing our weekly ritual of watching the latest comedy. I couldn't have asked for a better day.

END "The Day Before – Michiko"