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to every bird, his own nest is most beautiful

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While every single day at school isn’t exactly hell, there are always some moments Mafuyu feels like she could genuinely snap right then and there. Of course, she never does, having impeccable self-control (as befitting the “good girl” honor student). Every move she makes further tightens her shackles as the perfect ideal of a young lady. Helping a student with her homework after repeated begging, delivering something for a teacher at lunch, or writing a flawless answer on the board before a sea of sheepish students. Mafuyu does anything they ask her to, and she wants them all to be happy. But it’s so, so exhausting. Some days, she’s truly just done.

On one such day, Mafuyu stumbles home, gives a saccharine greeting to her mother, changes into her comfy clothes, sits gingerly on her bed, and stops. What was she doing? Why is she here? Who—

Stop.

She can feel herself slipping away, desperately trying to claw at the edge of whatever it is she’s falling from. This line of thinking is dangerously close to what happened to her in middle school, when everything started to

…shut down.

-

Kanade finds her in SEKAI, perched atop a lone cross-beam in a messy pile of detritus. Since Mafuyu had asked Miku to leave her alone, the other singers are off talking to each other now, stealing glances at her over their shoulders. (Mafuyu knows they’re looking.)

“Mafuyu, so you were here… Mizuki asked me to ask you something, so I tried to DM you, but you were offline…You seem more and more worried these days.”

“I’ve been using SEKAI just to be alone recently, it seems.”

Kanade cocks her head. “Do you need anything? I want to know how I can help, but I don’t know what specifically you’re having trouble with yet.”

“…I don’t know.”

“Would you like some help? I could sit with you, is that okay?”

Nod.

Kanade hops up on the sideways beam; it’s fairly wide, so she struggles quite a bit trying to swing up onto it. Scooting a bit closer, she lays her hand on Mafuyu’s arm.

The touch grounds her, but it can’t erase the dark, staticky haze clouding her mind. She finds that any effort to speak isn’t worth the energy. None of her body can move.

…The SEKAI is blood red. The stark white void of the sky, now awash in furious crimson. Across the landscape, as far as one could see, a boiling tempest crashes across the cold ground, sweeping away any debris in its midst. Oh… There are easels, speakers, mannequins… Her fish tank.
Mafuyu can’t see anyone, but there are people looking at her. Everyone is looking at her. Go away… this was supposed to be a space just for her… There are so, so many eyes on her… Why won’t they get out… Get out! She desperately claws at her face, digging deeper to hide, to escape. No one should know that she’s like this… She needs to be there for them… She can help… She can be useful… Stop…

 

“Mafuyu.”

Miku?

She blinks. Miku crouches over her, visibly distraught; her hair bow had fallen further askew, her dress is untucked and rumpled, and her very demeanor is frantic.

“…Mafuyu. You collapsed for a long time. I was very worried about you.”

Oh. The sky is a brilliant white. Her friends’ belongings are all right where she last saw them. Pillars and beams of unfinished (or time-worn?) scaffolding remain firmly planted in the ground. No one else has come into SEKAI.

Miku fidgets.

“…Miku…I had…a nightmare…”

Mafuyu suddenly feels deeply tired, and her lingering fear must be showing on her face.

She tries to get up to a kneeling position, but clutches at Miku’s arm. She’s so weak… That horrible vision won’t leave her head.

“Kana…de…”

Before she could muster the effort to say anything else, the three other members of 25:00 appear around her.

“Oh no, Mafuyu… Are you okay?” Mizuki frets.

“She’s crumpled on the floor, of course she isn’t okay!“ Ena snaps. “Hey, Mafuyu, c’mon, can you hear me?” She crouches down, and Mafuyu turns her head.

“…Everyone…”

Kanade exhales at that, still awkwardly standing right where she appeared in SEKAI. …She really isn’t known for her quick thinking.

At the very least, Ena’s able to smile. “You dummy… What on earth happened? When Kanade called us, we were freaking out, you know… We had no idea what happened to you.”

Miku perks up. “…Collapsed. Mafuyu says…it was a nightmare.”

“We were sitting together, when it happened.” Kanade fidgets with her sleeve. “Mafuyu fell asleep on, um, my shoulder, but she sat up really suddenly. She was looking at the sky, but then, she just…collapsed, and pitched forward…”

(Kanade takes a moment to wipe her eyes with her sleeve. Mafuyu’s heart hurts.)

“Miku caught her. It was only from that, over there, that we were sitting on,” (She points.) “but it was really scary to think that… Thank you, Miku… I owe you so much.”

Bowing her head, Miku looks down dejectedly. “I have to keep Mafuyu safe, but I almost failed…”

Mafuyu sits up. “…I’m fine. I just had a nightmare.” She doesn’t know why, but hearing everyone talk about her makes her uncomfortable.

Sighing, Ena offers her a hand. “Then, do you wanna come back to reality with us?”

She grabs it.