Whispers. Whispers were all that I could hear around me as I walked through the halls toward the staff room where I was headed to begin my first day back at school.

"Oi oi, did you hear? She came back today..."

"Ahh, how terrible; I heard that her father got the media to shush everything up with threats from his men, and he bribed the police to make sure than none of it got out either..."

"Poor thing; for something like that to happen to the daughter of-"

"Hey, it's a terrible thing to happen to anyone, much less someone like her..."

"...the culprit was found dead a week later along with his dog under the bridge near..."

"Seriously? Dead?"

"Asphyxiation. The local detective otaku said that it was a clean job."

Yes. They were but whispers that all talked about one event involving two people, and one of them was...

"Hagiwara-san? Hagiwara Yukiho-san?"

I stopped walking and looked behind me; standing there was the vice-principal of the school that I attended.

"Yes?"

"You just passed the staff room, Hagiwara-san. Please follow me," said the vice-principal as she turned around and entered a room on the right.

Following her, I looked up at the plaque that indeed said "Staff Room", and chastised myself for my carelessness. I shut the door as I entered and turned to face the room at large.

"Yo, Hagiwara. Good to see you back," said the PE teacher, Kimura.

Shivers immediately crawled up my spine, and I barely resisted the urge to cry out in fear, instead choosing to hide behind a file cabinet where his eyes couldn't lay their hands on me. I instinctively clutched my left arm where the scars still remained after plastic surgery, hidden with cosmetics, and I glanced downwards toward my skirt, tears welling up in my eyes. Ahh, Yukiho, you're such a weakling... but it can't be helped, after all...

"Hagiwara-san. These might only be empty words to you, but I will do everything I can to ease your transition back to a normal life from now on, in our school," said the vice-principal, pushing up her glasses, an uncharacteristically warm look on her face. "It will be difficult, I'm sure, but we will do our best as teachers to make this easier for you. Unfortunately, there are limits to what we are able to do for your current... condition."

I numbly nodded. I was afraid to go back, but my father forced me. "No self-respecting member of the Hagiwara family will drop out of education, no matter the reason!" was what he had said. I knew that he was only doing what was best for me, but I felt like I needed more time to come back... however, as a high-school freshman, I could not afford to repeat another year, given the circumstances.

"I am very sorry, but we cannot have male teachers stop teaching your class just because you are there. Neither can we remove all your male classmates from your class. We can, however, ensure that you will not be harassed by dogs in this school, as pets are naturally banned by the rules to begin with," said the vice-principal in a somewhat apolegetic tone. "Speak with your class representative. She had volunteered to take notes for you in the month and a half that you were absent."

I nodded. As expected of Megumi. I should thank her later...

"If there is nothing more at the moment, please attend your first class now. If you need anything at all, please come to anyone among the teachers whom you feel comfortable in confiding with. Your friends must be worried about you as well."

x~~*~~x

Though my father was able to suppress news of the incident from getting out, it seemed that in the city, only the school knew a little or most of what had happened. This was because that the person who had found me was one of the teachers.

"Poor Yukiho-chan..."

"Yeah, poor thing... for such a terrible thing to happen to such a cute girl..."

I endured even more whispers as I left the staff room to head to my first class. It may not be apparent or believable, but I have quite a few admirers in this school. I don't know why they see me as they do, but I now know for sure that I will be unable to even look at them now...

And beyond that, there are a few who aren't just admirers, they're downright crushing on me. Again, I don't really understand why...

"Hagiwara! Welcome back, Hagiwara!"

As I entered my classroom, I immediately found myself face to face with a smiling male by the name of Isshiki. Isshiki-kun had a self-professed crush on me, and I... I...

I screamed.

I screamed in terror, covering my eyes with my hands, ignoring the look of surprise, shock, and hurt on his face as I curled up on the floor, wishing that it would open up to consume me and separate me from this harsh reality...

"Hagiwara? Hagiwara!?"

"N-No, please... don't... g-get away... go away from me, please... I'm begging you, go away... A-AHHHH!"

"Hagiwara? Calm down; it's just me, Isshiki!"

"Get away from me, get away! Please, just go away!" I screamed as I clutched my head with my hands, wishing for him to just disappear before my eyes.

Isshiki backed off upon hearing my words, but the damage was already done. Curled up like a ball on the floor, I was instinctively rubbing my left arm with my right hand, recalling the painful memories of what happened that night...

"What's going on here? What happened to Hagiwara?" spoke a calm voice. It was the World History teacher, Kuzuki.

"S-Sensei, she just collapsed and screamed the moment I greeted her...," mumbled Isshiki quietly.

Despite the fact that I could see them both standing above me, I couldn't see them at the same time. My eyes had become unseeing; a paradox, I'm sure, but one that was brought on because of what had happened, moreso because of their gender...

"You fool. I am aware that the incident was not widely publicized in this city, but even you should not have been unaware of the circumstances regarding it, and as such, you should have acted with more prudence regarding Hagiwara's current condition."

"Ah... H-Hagiwara, I'm sorry, I really am!" shouted Isshiki as he kneeled beside me.

"...go away. Just please... leave me alone..."

Those hurtful words exited my mouth before I could stop them. Not that I could have stopped them anyway. I saw Isshiki back away with a hurt look on his face and I could feel nothing but relief. Likewise, Kuzuki-sensei seems to have backed away as well, and a familiar face soon entered my vision.

"M-Megumi...chan?"

"Yukiho-chan, calm down, please... I'm here, so calm down, okay? Isshiki-kun won't hurt you... No one will hurt you anymore, I promise."

Megumi continued to talk to me until I calmed down and stood up, shakily walking to my seat which was thankfully surrounded by girls and not boys. She sat beside me and gave me a smile of reassurance as Kuzuki-sensei resumed the lesson.

x~~*~~x

"I'm sorry for causing so much trouble, Megumi-chan..."

"It's nothing. We're friends, aren't we, Yukiho-chan?"

Megumi handed me a large folder containing a large stack of paper. "These are the printouts that you'll need for the time that you missed. You'll also find photocopied notes of yours truly in there," she said with a proud smile on her face.

I smiled for the first time that day. "Thank you, Megumi-chan... I'll make it up to you somehow..."

I didn't know it at the time, but it was those words that I had just uttered that would change my life forever.

"Now that you mention it, there is one thing you can do to make it up, Yukiho-chan."

A devilish smile was on Megumi's face.

"Eh?"

"Well, last week, I figured that you'd need to do something constructive to, uh... get over your trauma. And since you're cute and a lot of boys like you, that trauma just won't do at all. So... I submitted a resume about you to an idol production agency."

"E-EH!?"

I was in shock. An... idol? Idols... usually have male fans. But deep down, I knew that Megumi had a point: I couldn't live forever in fear of the opposite sex, not when my father's associates and guard were all composed of men.

"Yeah! It's an idol production agency called 765 Productions. They were impressed with your image based on the resume I sent you and you've basically qualified for the final audition for the cut next weekend! Isn't that great, Yukiho-chan?"

"F-Final audition!? But... I don't understand what they could see in someone like me... All I do is write poems that no one ever reads, traditional tea brewing, and blogging..."

Megumi laughed. "I'm sure it's because of your looks and personality. You're popular here at school, right? For the same reason, I believe that a combination of those is what led you to be really appealing to them. Plus... I know it's not my place to do this, even as your friend, but: I want you to get over your fears. I don't want that man to rule over the rest of your life, moreso that he's gone now."

I nodded. "I understand, Megumi-chan. Um... let me think about it, okay? I'm not sure if my father will be okay with the idea either, so I won't let him know until I've decided, or something or other..."

Megumi giggled.

"Well, anything that works, Yukiho-chan. I'll be here for you, so don't worry about it. And I'll make sure that the boys in our class take it easy on you!"

"...thanks, Megumi-chan... I'll be in your care as always..."

Once again, I let myself get caught up in Megumi's pace and I agreed, even though I didn't know anything about being an idol. Still, I knew deep down that I had to face my fears, even after what had happened...

x~~*~~x

"Phew... I think I lost him... someone, anyone, save me...!"

I looked around and saw that I had run into a dead end in the alleys. Now would be a good time for my father's men to show up...

I took my phone out of my purse and frantically dialed my father's number.

"Pick up, pick up, please...!"

Voice mail? Oh no, oh no oh no oh no...

A howl and a bark.

I slowly turned around despite my entire body protesting against this action, and there...

"I found you... Yuki-chan."

"S-Stay away from me! D-Don't you know who my father is? Y-You won't make it out of this if you touch me..!"

"Tch. You underestimate me, Yuki-chan. Now be still and let me have you. It'll be all over soon... Yuki-chan."

I screamed and called for help... Help that didn't come until it was too late. The mongrel leapt towards me in a flash and pushed me onto the ground, then it bit my left arm.

Pain. Pain like I'd never felt before surged through my entire body. I felt the dog's teeth sink into my arm as I screamed in pain; the man was already unbuckling his belt and unzipping his pants as he kicked the dog away to stop it from mangling my arm. Yet, I felt no gratitude toward the man.

"Fucking dog, you ruined my prize... Ah well, it won't matter, since you're mine, Yuki-chan."

As the man knelt, I vaguely noticed that the dog was now blocking the way to the alley, scaring off any onlookers. I knew then that I was a goner.

"It'll be all over soon, Yuki-chan~"

x~~*~~x

I awoke in my futon with a start.

"Ah... I dreamt about it again..."

I held my knees with my arms and started crying. I couldn't help it. But no... I didn't want this to happen... not tonight, the night before the second audition, the audition that I had decided to go to without my father's knowledge.

I wanted to rebuild myself as a person, and yet again, I'm failing even before I take the baby steps. Was there anything left for Hagiwara Yukiho in this world?

"I can't... I don't want it to end like this... It doesn't matter if I don't get accepted... as long as I try my best tomorrow, I can at least live with myself.

I continued to cry for a few more minutes. The vividness of the dream did not allow me to go back to sleep, so after I had calmed down (with assistance from certain drugs that the family doctor and psychiatrist had prescribed for my post-traumatic stress disorder, or whatever they had called it), I decided to review the song that Megumi had written for my audition at 765 Productions tomorrow. I had to thank her for that later, no matter the result; she even got her boyfriend Hiro to compose the song for me. Though I may not be able to thank Hiro myself, I can at least ask Megumi to pass on the message for me.

"That's right... Tomorrow... Tomorrow is a new day, and it will be my..."

First Stage.