‚ÄúDo you believe in love?‚ÄĚ the question comes from the lips of Marie, sitting with her back against the side of the bed in Ruka‚Äôs upstairs bedroom. Four other girls sit in various positions around the central table of the room, and they all fall quiet in pondering.
Marie has always been the true dreamer of the group, and everyone else knows it. She enjoys romance novels, and clich√© shoujo manga, where the hapless but surprisingly powerful heroine finds her destiny intertwined with the young male lead, sometimes even with a literal red string of fate tied about their fingers, and along their journey of self-discovery they find the meaning of life and love and blah blah vomit.
Misaki can‚Äôt roll her eyes hard enough at the question. ‚ÄėLove‚Äô is not really something she describes without a touch of disdain to her voice, without an air of scorn for the entire concept. At least, when it comes to romantic love. Romantic love is a thing of the imagination, a childish concept for childish individuals, a folly to believe in from the start that means nothing but doom or stupidity for those it drags under.
Perhaps she‚Äôs being a bit dramatic with the internal tirade, but at the end of the day, Misaki holds a certain amount of contempt for the idea. She loves her friends, and she loves her family, but a level of involvement beyond simply platonic is beyond her aspirations. No, if anything, it would be an obstacle.
Or so she thinks.
And so her only answer to Marie‚Äôs question is the eye-roll, and the room erupts into gossip without her joining. Madoka is enamored with the idea of it, at the very least, and as soon as she starts into the topic, it‚Äôs like a broken dam that slowly crumbles under the flood of water. Tomoe agrees, but holds a more old-fashioned ideal of romance and slow, sweeping drama, and Ruka, Misaki notices, says nothing, merely staring with a sort of distant, lost expression, green eyes dull at one of the pictures hanging on her wall.
Well, Ruka may not share her derision for the topic, but at least Misaki feels a type of solidarity in Ruka‚Äôs refusal to say much of anything at all.
Some part of Misaki, however, drowned deep within her, beneath the crushing pressure of a night time sea isn‚Äôt sure. The shattered remains of a part of herself she long thought gone stir and grind in the murky depths, but it‚Äôs absurd. Misaki has never been in love, and never, she thinks, wants to be in love.
Besides, she‚Äôs not even a full person. There‚Äôs too much missing, there‚Äôs too much broken, there‚Äôs too much that just wants to fall into the oblivion that she hears whisper gently to her among the fuzzy electrical whine of white noise. How could she hope to give herself over to someone else when there‚Äôs not all of her there to give?
Marie and Tomoe die clutching their faces, visages twisted into a horrified scream. Both of their final moments were spent thinking, feeling, being plagued by the concept of a real place. The foggy yellow tendrils reaching out, framing the moon like a lover‚Äôs fingers caressing the face of their beloved. In the background, the sea splashes a consistent melody and cadence through the abandoned island, water a tenebrous black-blue like a fresh bruise on the world.
It‚Äôs Rougetsu Island, that much is absolutely certain. The place from their long-lost childhood, devoured beneath whatever plague the moon had cast upon them that night when it had swallowed all of them whole.
Misaki has to go back. She has to go back not just because she wants to know the truth, and not because she hears someone trying to call for her, but because she is missing something, she is missing‚Ä¶ someone, and for a moment, her mind wanders back to the conversation just a few weeks prior, but she dismisses it in the same thought.
Whatever she‚Äôs missing‚Ä¶ is not that. It can‚Äôt be that.
The flood of memories is overwhelming; it‚Äôs not a thousand things returning all at once, just a few dozen things trickling, thick and heavy, into the holes in her mind from where her ‚Äėillness‚Äô had left its scars. Nonetheless, it‚Äôs not the volume of memories, but the sheer gravity of them that leaves Misaki sobbing, unable to stop.
She hears the footsteps, and she barely has time to cant her head up, to look at the figure as it approaches, walking slow and deliberate across the Kiraigou stage, deep in the musty, damp underground cavern.
Once upon a time, Misaki would have enthusiastically described her beloved Onee-chan as many things; ‚Äėpretty‚Äô, ‚Äėnice‚Äô, ‚Äėawesome‚Äô, with a sprinkling of very, very -s to amplify the sentiments. Now, she has words above and beyond the vernacular her child self would have been saddled with, and even then, the words fail her as her memories clear, and she can see the face so long obscured beneath the rippling mask of Blooming. She understands why beauty sometimes is described as ‚Äėtranscendent‚Äô as her eyes meet the woman‚Äôs, rich and bright like molten gold even in the dim lighting of the underground cavern. Misaki suddenly finds it even harder to breathe through the choking sobs. In her soul, a sound unlike any other seeps in like fog in the evening, twines with her own, a peaceful harmony so perfect it‚Äôs almost terrifying. It‚Äôs so familiar and so right it makes the scene feel whole, makes Misaki feel whole, and the sensation is overwhelming, bringing forth a whole new wave of tears she‚Äôs not certain are entirely her own.
Arms encircle her, and she hiccups as her heart pounds its way into her throat, but she barely notices it over the veritable flood within her mind. She just wishes that the image was clearer, that the sound was more crisp. The whole thing occasionally shrieks, distorts, like a television receiving a shoddy signal until it blinks out entirely and Misaki falls into nothing.
Misaki and Ruka are the only two that escape the island. With their memories intact once more, it almost follows that they should feel more whole, but Misaki feels anything but. The entire ordeal instead gives her a sensation like there‚Äôs something missing within her more acutely than before.
‚ÄúDo you believe in love?‚ÄĚ Misaki asks, one night long after the experience as she and Ruka sit on the bank of a river beneath a swollen midsummer full moon, the cicadas buzzing their final goodnights around them in a droning refrain. She stares out into the water, watching the ebb and flow ripple the surface, distorting the silvery reflection. It‚Äôs so nostalgic, she feels her throat tighten.
‚ÄúMy mother said that you‚Äôll know your soulmate because your Lunar Melodies harmonize together,‚ÄĚ Ruka says, thoughtfully, as her eyes trace the shadows on the moon‚Äôs surface, looking over the patterns, darker gray on the ashen surface, so much colder than what they‚Äôre used to. The moon doesn‚Äôt have its pull here, its influence, an entire sea away from Rougetsu Island, but they both feel a connection anyway.
It‚Äôs not the answer Misaki is expecting - if anything, she expected the pensive stare from that night in Ruka‚Äôs bedroom so many years ago and nothing more. Misaki glances away from the water‚Äôs surface and to the side where Ruka sits, and a moment later, Ruka looks down from the moon and over toward her, meeting her eyes, even and unflinching.
Misaki‚Äôs tried, in the time since they made their way back from the island, to seek out that feeling she‚Äôd had once. She finds someone whose presence she can accept, can bring close to her, but no matter how she tries, it never resonates with her own the right way. The closest she‚Äôs found yet is Ruka, but there‚Äôs an awareness between the both of them, an understanding of what it is: Ruka is a Tsukimori Miko - it is in their very nature to have a soothing, complementary sound to others, because it is within their very bloodline to calm a raging spirit. Ruka is not what Misaki wants, no matter how good it feels when they‚Äôre together.
‚ÄúSome day,‚ÄĚ Ruka says, and sounds very sure of it.
‚ÄúIf I even want it to,‚ÄĚ Misaki retorts, with as much of her usual exasperation as she can force into the phrase, pretending she hadn‚Äôt asked such a‚Ä¶ a silly question in the first place.
‚ÄúSome day,‚ÄĚ Ruka repeats, and Misaki swears she can see a little twinkle in the corner of her green eyes before she turns back to the sky, staring, silently enthralled.
A box arrives at Misaki‚Äôs doorstep several weeks later. There‚Äôs no return address, but all it takes is for Misaki to lean over close enough to it to discern this fact when a familiar sensation, like a gentle caress of fingertips along her back, washes over her, raises goosebumps down her arms.
She‚Äôs barely within her room before she tears open the packaging. The doll is wrapped in yellowing newspapers dated almost fifteen years ago, but despite the passage of time, the clothes are neat and clean, the hair well-taken care of, and the porcelain skin undamaged.
‚ÄúMiya‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ She whispers, an awe-filled hope in the breathless tone of her voice, and she pulls the doll to her chest, buries her nose in the silken hair. Miya smells of dust, but something else, too, faint and unmistakable and like a familiar place where Misaki belongs. Her heart soars, races, leaves her feeling dizzy.
She falls asleep with the doll in her arms, and dreams of a beautiful forest, still and quiet but for the rustle of wind and sleepy motions of animals in the underbrush. It‚Äôs the most peaceful dream Misaki‚Äôs had in years. The next morning, she places Miya comfortably in the corner of her bed where it belongs. She wishes she could bring the doll with her everywhere like when she was a child, but if age has done anything, it has given her at least enough pragmatism to know that is not the wisest idea, and she leaves for the day feeling better rested than she has in so long she doesn‚Äôt remember.
Misaki‚Äôs answer comes just a few days later, when she wanders down a long, winding trail off a sidewalk on a whim. She follows the river she and Ruka had sat on the shore of not long ago, footsteps crunching over the dirt, grass, and leaf litter still clinging to the area from the previous autumn. The air is rich with the sound of birds and insects, cloyingly sweet with the scent of late-summer flora. She hears the sea before she comes to it, and the sharp crunch of dirt shifts to the softer scuff of sand and rocks across it as she steps onto the beach. Rougetsu Island is across this sea, she knows, and it would be so easy to take that ferry to return. Further off-shore, she can see the moon reflected on the sea, undisturbed, unmarred, a glimmering gold disc on the water. Around her, the trees and brush quiet with the coming dusk.
She feels it first, ‚Äėhears‚Äô it with her sixth sense. It‚Äôs a soft sound, a single note at first, long and held, before it shifts into another, and another, crystalline in clarity and perfect in cadence. She feels it blow within her as though carried on the wind from across the sea itself, swirl about, then curl around her own sound, though not so physical as that. It takes but a moment for the two sounds to overlap, to harmonize, to perfect, like the other half of an orchestra sitting down and finally joining the melody.
There‚Äôs a combination tone within her, a reverberating sound above and below the sounds of her soul, of the approaching figure, of them combined, and rather than turn and greet her companion, Misaki closes her eyes and tilts her head back, and merely listens as the chord is struck. In her mind, she sees the moon, gorgeous pale gold, low in the sky, above a forest at the shore of a sea. The deeper water, undisturbed, perfectly reflects the moon, the trees rustle only faintly in the breeze, the sea waves wash gentle and consistent only upon the shore, providing tempo for the melody. It‚Äôs so vivid in her mind, it feels more real than the scene she is actually standing in. She feels as though she is watching herself, where she is at, from someone else across the sea, or perhaps atop the water, looking back.
It‚Äôs flawless, it‚Äôs beautiful, and Misaki remembers a note scrawled in shaky hand Ruka showed her once, robbed by time within the moon of its complexity, explaining, ‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs for you‚ÄĚ:
hangs over a quiet
we‚Äôll meet again
we‚Äôll meet again
Misaki feels fingertips brush against both cheeks, pushing back until her head is cradled gently between a pair of warm, soft hands. Goosebumps rise along her arms and shoulders at the touch, at the way it amplifies the sound within her, and how good it all feels.
There has only been one person in the world that made Misaki feel complete like this. Whole. Like the sound of her soul finally has all the parts and instruments the way it should. It feels so wonderful, she‚Äôs not sure how she managed to live without it for so long. She cracks her eyes open just a sliver and finds them met with a honey-gold gaze that she realizes she missed so much it physically hurts. Her heart jumps into her throat, and it takes several moments before she can say anything; she‚Äôs dizzy and trembling with the high of just one touch. She knows now what it means.
‚ÄúDo you believe in love?‚ÄĚ Misaki asks, unsure if she actually spoke aloud. The sound hits a gentle, slow crescendo in response, until she‚Äôs not sure where she ends and the other begins and she leans forward into an embrace like falling.