Awakening is a story written in two time frames, proceeding in parallel. I hope that’s not too confusing. It is a story about the importance of self-determination in identity.
This was a very hard story for me to write, being that I spilled a lot of my own darkness into it, and couldn’t do that without probing it deeply. The events in this story are fiction and they are not things that I personally went through, but there is still a lot of me in this, and I know people who have gone through nearly every real-world problem this describes.
A litany of trigger/content warnings:
- stupid politicians
- a shitload of “faith restored” (you’re welcome)
“I won’t go back.”
Stage left (present)
Thousands of chattering fans sat in a stadium just around the corner from where Natsuki stood and tried to push down the butterflies in her tummy. She’d done this many times, at least on a smaller scale, and yet… the butterflies always came. This time, she’d stand in front of a real crowd.
The butterflies careened around inside.
Natsuki looked down at herself, smoothed her outfit straight from a fashion runway. Her black hair reflected the multi-colour lights of the stage, even out of direct view of it.
She felt good. She felt ready. She was born for this, to cheer up anyone who would listen, to brighten their day with cuteness and song.
Brimming with energy and excitement.
She turned to look at her fellow idols of Happybara as if asking, are you ready? They’d been training together for months, for their first big show together. All grins in response.
If someone had told her a couple of years ago that she’d end up being an idol star, she wouldn’t have believed them. No one would have. And yet…
Natsuki embraced the butterflies as a personal omen, energy to feed the crowd, grabbed her microphone, and danced out onto the stage to the upbeat music and the screamed cheers of her fans.
Shoe gazing (past)
“You know, you’re going to run into things if you keep doing that.”
My friend Kieran meant well; he did. But he didn’t understand. I could never face others like he or his friends seemed to do as easily as they breathed the air around them.
No one understood.
Not even me.
Kieran knew, there was no need for me to spell it out. He’d heard it from me many times, and he’d eventually stopped pushing, just taking little snipes at me when I stared at my shoes as I walked, as I was doing at that moment. He meant well, but… well, he didn’t understand.
I ignored the nudge from his comment.
“Look,” he started again, sighing. “I’m just worried about you as your friend, that’s all. Be more assertive. Make more friends. Try to fit in with the other kids.”
I snorted dismissively.
“Fine, fine,” he said, holding up his hands in defeat. “I know. You don’t feel like you belong in this world. Nothing makes sense to you. No one makes sense to you. Everything is askew. I… no, I don’t get it, but that’s part of why it’s hard for me to try to help.”
We walked for a while, saying nothing. Eventually, I broke the silence.
“I actually do appreciate it, Kieran,” I said. “But it’s hard to talk with people that way unless I feel like I exist, like there’s something to push against when I take the next step with my foot. I feel like a ghost. A car that is stuck in neutral, revving its engine and slowly rolling backwards down the hill. What’s the point of me, anyway…”
He stopped me then, holding on to my shoulders.
“Hey… hey. Don’t talk like that, my best pal. There’s a place in this world for everyone, even if you haven’t found it yet. Okay?”
Exit stage right (present)
Natsuki stood on the stage, breathing heavily, sweating, she and her teammates raising hands in the air to pump a fist for the fans as they screamed and cheered. She bowed enthusiastically, several times, to different parts of the stadium as the crowd stood up and clapped more, first one, then another, then whole sections.
“Thank you, everyone,” she said sweetly into her mic, blowing a kiss into a peace sign with a winning smile. “I love you all.” Her eyes were closed then, but she knew that the kiss had turned into a literal heart that floated away like a wizard’s smoke ring.
And then, she and the others puffed into clouds of smoke, themselves, and they were off to the side of the stage again.
“You killed it out there tonight, girls,” her manager said. “That was amazing!”
“Aww, thanks, Aidan,” she replied. “But it still needs work. I know a few bits were off, especially in Rush Ahead.”
“Yeah, well, tonight we celebrate! Practise and hand-wring tomorrow.”
Natsuki just raised an eyebrow at him as the crowd’s chant of “encore” grew louder and louder.
“Got the extra set?” she asked the stage engineers, who nodded.
Natsuki and company ran back onto the stage as if surprised, her fans erupting into cheers once again.
“You should get into a sport,” Kieran started in on me one day. “I mean, there are tons of sports and stuff. Or Karate or something, you know?”
My face withered at him like I’d just stepped in a big cow-pie.
“You know,” he went on, “that stuff tends to make guys popular.”
I didn’t really understand why, at the time, but his words made me feel very uncomfortable.
“What if I don’t want to be a popular guy?”
“Singing,” I muttered under my breath after a while.
“What was that?” he asked. “Did you say singing?”
“Yeah,” I replied, and I could feel my face brightening for what felt like the first time in ages. “Sometimes, I sing to myself, and it’s like I’m tapping into a deep well of happiness somewhere inside me, and I’m drawing it out and into the world around me… or something,” I trailed off.
Kieran seemed to consider that silently for a while.
“I’ve gotta admit, you’ve got a really nice voice, almost like a girl’s… but you know that’s not going to last much longer. And they’ll probably bully you even more in the meantime. Anyway, isn’t it really hard to get into a career singing, these days?”
A deep darkness that I didn’t understand seemed to reach up from inside me, the polar opposite of the happiness I could draw out with song. The despair closed over me once again, and I shrugged, back to being aloof in a world I didn’t understand.
I didn’t even understand what was wrong.
I joined the damned sports, and tried my best.
Natsuki Kazama lounged in her flat, staring out over the world she called home. It wasn’t, in the strictest human sense, a “real” place, but to her, it was her only home. The only place she existed, and the only one where she felt real.
Somewhere out there, distressingly, she knew that there was a body that housed a brain that powered her, and that body had a head covered in gear that let her brain be in this place directly. Natsuki could hardly remember what it looked like. It was a factoid stashed away in her mind, not a part of who she was.
The ice cubes clinked in her glass, zapping her attention back to her flat. She wiggled her toes, still wrapped up in hose from her show that night, and smiled.
Yes. This is real.
She’d just topped off her tenth stadium performance tonight with Happybara, the troupe of idol girls with whom she’d been performing. It was intoxicating, soaking up the crowd’s energy, and sharing the stage with others in sync just wound it up like a dynamo.
As she often did in these moments of doubt and darkness after a particularly energetic performance, she explored each one of her senses in depth.
Sight: the incredible neon lights of the big city provided endless distraction. There was a whole world out there, a human world, and it’s all she needed.
Hearing: the quiet whisper of an air conditioner was no doubt unnecessary, but the designers tended to take these things seriously.
Scent: the light tang of sweat from her performance, the slight fragrance of what remained of her bubbling soda.
Feel: the clothes still around her, the faux leather of the chair she sat in, the cold of the glass she held.
Taste: she was still rolling a bit of the soda around in her mouth, a kind of cola that didn’t exist… out there.
Natsuki stood and twirled around, feeling her balance, her sense of presence, and she laughed, feeling deliriously alive.
She didn’t know how they did it, what no doubt gargantuan feats of technology were needed for her to exist here, but she didn’t much care at the moment as she headed to the shower to wind down.
Escape hatch (past)
I was walking down the street around Christmas time, I guess. It was hard for me to keep track of time in those days. I’d really let myself go. I’d tried so hard to roll with Kieran and the guys, to be who they seemed to want me to be. But I just couldn’t. I did the social guy things, I really tried. I even grew out a little beard, though it was like having sand perpetually stuck in my shoes in places I couldn’t clean out.
I kept up half-heartedly trying to learn to sing, in the privacy of my own place, but the way my voice sounded in my ears disgusted me.
And here, today, with almost no friends left, and wondering what was the point to me, I was walking around in the happiest time of year, looking at all the couples around me, the happy kids with a bright future ahead of them. How did they do it? I raised my hood and slumped over, hands in pockets, not really sure what I was doing.
But then something caught my eye, something new out for this holiday season. A game system that really put players into the game.
Leave this world behind.
Be whomever you want to be.
Intrigued in spite of myself, I shambled over to stare at the store window, then ended up inside, reading the box. Putting the demo unit over my scalp.
Having an epiphany.
I wasn’t exactly wealthy, but the siren song allure of the game was too much to resist. I left with a box and headed back toward home.
Natsuki dried off from her shower and changed to pyjamas, lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling. She “thought” a desire to see the menu, and it appeared. After a few minutes of looking through nearby object settings, she settled on having the ceiling show a peaceful, clear night sky. The kind of sky that probably only her ancestors got to see, way out in the countryside, with twinkling stars, a galaxy slashed across like a careless paint splatter, and shooting stars. Certainly such a thing didn’t exist out there anymore.
When she woke in the morning, the ceiling had auto-adjusted to a clear blue sky, and the quiet sounds of birdsong seemed to come from unseen perches around the room. She yawned and stood, heading into the kitchen to see if there was anything good.
Of course, her body here had no need of that kind of sustenance, but it helped her to feel grounded, and it tasted good.
There weren’t very many “players” like her, plugged into the game nearly 24/7. “Lifers” they called them, as if they were in prison. In the outside, they were denigrated, mothers covered their kids’ eyes, and religious leaders hinted very strongly but didn’t exactly say that they were headed straight for hell. But Natsuki had embraced it; after all, the person she was, in here, was her true self. “Logging out” meant that she would cease to be, in practice. Her consciousness would carry on, but it would be much like a living nightmare where a demon had remade you into someone you were not…
And thanks to a chance encounter with another “lifer”, she’d gotten that body out there checked into a facility where good nurses would take care of it for her. There was no need for her to see it again, as long as she could pay their fees with her singing gigs.
A translucent hologram appeared beside her as she thought another command at the system.
“How can I help you today, cutie-pie?” the girl asked her.
Natsuki smiled at the prompt, but continued to look through her fridge, and said “hmmmmm, how about news?” over her shoulder.
“Inside or outside?” the girl asked.
Natsuki thought about it for a long while, wanting to see if reviews were in for the performance the night before. But I guess I should check once in a while, ugh.
“Alllll right! First up, strike on the Mars colony…”
“Inflation in the Americas…”
“Football in Manchester, back on…”
“Do you actually want me to read you any of the articles?” the holo-girl asked, seeming piqued in spite of her saccarine smile.
Natsuki gave up her search, closing the fridge door, and shrugging at her. “Sorry.”
“Well, here’s one you might be interested in,” the holo-girl continued. “Noise on social that several countries are looking at ways to stop the ‘decay of society’ caused by virtual reality games. Skip?”
Natsuki nearly dropped the orange juice she held.
“N… no. Please, read it.”
“Tory members of parliament today,” the girl started, her voice suddenly shifting to a newscaster’s drawl, “are discussing a new bill that would see new requirements put into place for disclosing the identities of players who…”
In spite of having given it a go at the store, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the device. Or the game with which it connected.
“Virtual rea…” I started, habitually reading it out loud, but the sound of my own voice nearly sent me into a mood again.
Virtual reality: the new frontier. You’re ready to join us using your new NeuroWear™ headset. Start your adventure at Athens, city of ancient Greece, to get your ‘sea legs’. Adventure from there into one of many different worlds: Gods of the Realm, an epic tale set in the Norse world; Fae-walk, where you can meet the forest folk, and even join as one of them; Second Reality, where you may teleport to anywhere in several worlds and build a home, meet neighbours, and so on. Or join the headline attraction, the fantasy, massively-multiplayer online game, Penumbra. Become an adventurer, journey on quests, meet friends, and conquer your fears!
It was slightly overwhelming, to be honest, but I figured this Athens place seemed pretty calm and simple, so I decided to go ahead with the character creation.
I admitted to myself that I was slightly worried about what would happen if something went wrong out here while I was out cold, but the manual stated that I could bring up a view of my flat, and that it would automatically pop up if it detected something. So I settled it on my head, laid down, and pressed the power switch.
I must have blanked out for a moment, because suddenly I found myself floating in a white void, feeling a terrifying lack of any sort of sensory input. But it didn’t last for long, because messages started popping up in front of me, just floating in the air.
Suddenly, I could feel my body, though I still couldn’t see it. It was an immense comfort.
A world suddenly began to materialise around me. I found myself standing in a marble-walled hall, and greeted by an olive-skinned Greek man wearing a robe.
“Greetings, traveller!” he said to me in a voice perhaps a tinge too enthusiastic for my tastes. “Welcome to our fair city! We will soon have you on your way into the streets of Athens, but first, you must tell me about yourself.”
I spent a few dazed moments staring, overwhelmed by the sudden sensations around me. The realism was unbelievable. At very worst, it seemed like a lucid dream. But in reality, it just felt like… reality.
A big window appeared in front of me with some of the bigger parameters: gender, height, weight, body type, and so on. I nearly reached reflexively for Male, since that’s what I’d been trained to do. But then I stopped and thought.
I’ve made a pretty shit run of it as a guy.
I’d love to have the singing voice of a girl. Can I even sing in here? Hmm…
Actually that all sounds like fun, what can it hurt to give it a try? I can always make a new character later.
I raised a hand toward the window, and a ghostly, cartoonish hand appeared where I thought my hand would be. I tapped Female with more confidence than I really felt, giddy at my protest.
I didn’t realise the true depth of my folly until a whole body appeared around me, was suddenly part of me, and I was a part of it. I didn’t understand at the time what I’d done with my simple protest vote, but a 9.0 earthquake couldn’t have shaken me more.
When the olive-skinned man asked if I was still present and wanted to continue, I realised I’d been crying and had no idea why.
Natsuki laid on her bed in her flat, staring at nothing. Even in virtual, going without sleep was an intense drain on both her brain and the rest of that body. That, in turn, became a haggard feeling in the virtual. The technicians outside had sent her several messages in-world warning that going without regular sleep could harm that body and her ability to think and stay alive. Her manager Aidan had sent her several messages, and even knocked on her virtual door a few times; his messages asked why they’d had to do the last show without her. Her teammates had tried messaging her. Concerned fans had started trying to look in “the real” for hints about what had happened to Natsuki Kazama, but none were there to be found; no one knew where the rest of her was located, or where to start.
She gave a slight chuckle without mirth.
It doesn’t matter what I do, or what I want. It always catches up to me, doesn’t it? It always wins, in the end.
Natsuki’s condition had spiralled down further after the first few days of news reports rolled in. Britain’s members of parliament, concerned parents, pernicious media personalities… all had weighed in that allowing people to be whomever they wanted, to take on any name they wanted, was just a gateway to abuse. Predators preying on children and the vulnerable, scamsters stealing money and worse from their victims without recourse. And of course, the “lifers” at the centre of the maelstrom, shadowy figures that did who knew what, grifters living lives from illegal gains in the game, a drain on society.
Basically, what they don’t understand, they must destroy, she thought savagely.
She thought back to the times she’d run onto a stage with her teammates and gave the crowd love, affection, and a good show for honest work. Why did it matter that she didn’t exist out there? None of her teammates were “lifers”, but she didn’t really care what they were like out there. To her, they were who they said they were, who they decided to be when they had a choice.
Natsuki would’ve felt angry or exasperated, or at least sad, but she’d already fallen through those layers.
No matter what I do, it’s not good enough. No one can escape inevitability, eventually.
The thought lifted a weight from her chest, ironically, and put energy behind her again. The bills being tabled might require everyone to use their “real” name, their “real” gender, their “real” appearance in this place. For “safety”. Their passage was practically a given. They were expected to sail through.
Her time being alive might be coming to a close. But she wasn’t going to go into the night quietly.
She sent a message to her manager apologising for missing the show, complaining of an illness, and asking to put on a real to-do for their fans.
And simultaneously, she opened a delay-sent message that would go out to the fan list in a week after the upcoming show.
A new lease (past)
I suppose I’d heard of trans people before I started using the headset. There was something appealing to the idea, but I figured that it just wasn’t me. I didn’t want to modify my body to be the right gender, if one could really do that. I wanted to snap my fingers and be remade, mind, body, soul, and all, as if I’d been born that way. I didn’t want doctors and psychiatrists and politicians breathing down my neck about what I “really” was. I didn’t want to show up in tabloids and on talk shows. That’s not the life I wanted to have, not the fight I wanted to fight; what a waste of time it was to deal with people.
I just hunkered down to pass time until it was all over.
But walking around in Athens, I understood just how wrong I’d been. It’s easy to dismiss something when it’s an impossible dream, a moonshot filled with pitfalls and dangers. It’s an entirely different thing to have that ultimate wish fulfilment wrapped around me like fey magic, the ultimate alchemy.
The Athenian NPCs had given me some kind of a sparkling gown, default clothes. I held my slender fingers up to admire the impossibly clean nail polish that had come with the model. I spun in circles and giggled, noticing several other players nearby laughing at me, but I didn’t care in the least. I laughed back at them, and I was shocked and gratified to see that their laughter was genuine; they weren’t laughing at me, they were laughing with me.
The proprioception support in the headset made it impossible for me to ignore what else had changed for me. I glanced down, then back up, immediately embarrassed.
But I also smiled a little. It all just felt… so… right.
I was teetering on the edge of a cliff of belief, sort of trying to avoid pinching myself awake. But when I walked up to the NPC information counter to ask for directions, my fate was sealed.
“What can I do for you, Miss Natsuki?”
Yes. For the first time, I feel like me. For the first time, I know to whom they are speaking.
I know who I am, at last.
Peak performance (present)
Natsuki had riled up her teammates and her manager both, promising that they’d have the best show they’d ever had. A show to be remembered, a show for the ages. She wrote several new songs and worked herself and her team ragged with practice. The shadow that had plagued her for quite a while seemed to have passed.
She herself had slept like a baby for days. There was certainty in her heart, and she knew that this pain wouldn’t last forever. The vote for the new bills about online identity were only a week away. After that, it wouldn’t really matter, because Natsuki Kazama had an expiration date.
She thought back to that day in Athens, so long ago. On a whim, she’d chosen a model that looked vaguely East Asian, and then she sat thinking for ages at the name prompt. Eventually, remembering a brief obsession she’d had with J-pop and K-pop idols, she’d mixed up names from a few and landed on Natsuki Kazama.
She’d occasionally popped into Penumbra to noodle around, but the place she’d really felt at home was Second Reality; Natsuki wanted to live her life around other people living their lives, but without the awkwardness, and it was a brilliant success for her. And then she met the other “lifer” who helped her arrange to never need to leave again.
No, no, no, she chided herself, waiting just offstage again with her team. Now isn’t the time.
“Ready?” Aidan asked, and at the enthusiastic thumbs up from her and her team, they poofed onto stage in a cloud of smoke. It was an effect they hadn’t used for quite some time, and the symmetry of the bookends pleased her inside.
The show went off without a hitch; the fans were thrilled at all of the new songs, with new and different choreography. The audience even demanded two encores. Finally, everyone else poofed off the stage again, but she remained behind.
“It’s so good to see all your faces here, tonight,” she said to a roar of cheers. “I just want to tell you that I love you all, and your support means so much to me and the whole Happybara team. Keep it real.”
Natsuki flashed the crowd a peace sign and then walked off the stage, tears finally threatening her eyes as the reality of it all sank in.
A week later, her team and her manager, and all of her fans, received her delayed-send missive, and it was only then that they realised that all of the new songs had been written and choreographed to work without her.
A star is born (past)
I didn’t really like my out-world life very much, but I tolerated it much more readily now that I knew who I was, and had a place where I could be myself in peace. I kept thinking that maybe I should go back and make a new character that looked more like a female version of myself, and with a more typical English name. But somehow I always ended up saying, naahh, maybe later. There was both a very positive association with my first experience in Athens in this character, and a sort of delicious enjoyment of anonymity, putting on a completely different face.
I did actually give it a try, but even with the right gender, the new character felt like a stranger again. Somehow, I had imprinted on Natsuki.
The choice was eventually taken away from me one day, when I was just walking around in the little local neighbourhood “downtown”. I’d been idly singing to myself; I’d been practising for hours in my room at an inn nearby, and even if it wasn’t the same muscles I was training, the headset was happy to let me map new memories to my muscles here. The joy I’d always wished for, when I said to Kieran long ago that I’d like to sing, came back to me in full.
“Yoooo!” a voice called out to me, startling me so much that I stopped singing and looked in the direction of the coffee shop from which it had come. A ruggedly handsome man in an apron came running out. “I don’t guess I can convince you to sing in my shop? I’ll pay you in v-coin!”
I felt my head tilting of its own volition, looking at the man. Did he seem familiar? No, probably just someone I’d seen around town.
“Uhm…” I started uncertainly. “You would really want to listen to me sing? You’d want to pay me to sing to your customers?”
“Duh,” he said with a giant grin. “Have you listened to yourself? Holy moly. Cute, too.”
I felt myself blushing. It wasn’t my “real” body he was complimenting, but then again, I had designed every aspect of this one, so he was giving me a double-compliment.
“Uhm… Sure? I guess so?”
He clapped his hands together, doing a little dance, and said “Yes! I’m Aidan, by the way.”
I was taken aback again, but managed to ask, “All right, Aidan. I’m Natsuki, nice to meet you. When would you like me to come by?”
A guitar player materialised to join me, and soon we were doing unplugged sets on a regular basis. More and more people came just for the show, and of course they also bought coffee and snacks.
It was during that time that the coffee shop owner approached me with a proposition.
“Natsuki… how would you like to go into business with me?”
“Aren’t we already in business, Aidan?”
“No,” he replied, shaking his head. “I mean yes, but no, that’s not what I meant. Let me start again. I know we talked about your love for J-pop and K-pop idol shows. How would you like to start one?”
I stared back at him like I had no idea what I was looking at, and it must have showed on my face, because he laughed himself into tears.
“Well, just give it a thought. You know where to find me.”
The next week, he sold his coffee shop, and we started to work on the first pieces.
Falling star (present)
Natsuki had written a message to the “lifer” technicians to let them know that she was coming out. They warned her to wait a day or two so they could try to re-tone that body’s muscles a bit, as they’d atrophied after the months they’d lain still.
When she received the all-clear, she was standing on her balcony. Many metres below, the city, her beloved city, was going on about its daily business, sun high in the sky. She didn’t want to leave it.
I don’t want to go, she thought.
Natsuki called up the player menu and tapped “Log Out” before she lost her nerve. The world rushed away from her.
At first, she felt very confused. None of the feelings of her body made any sense. Her eyes didn’t want to open. Her limbs felt numb, and some of them felt put together incorrectly. She tried to groan, but the deep undead moan that issued from the body was deeply unsettling.
Suddenly, a panel to her side hissed open, and her whole body was moved to one side as it slid out of a compartment on the wall.
“Hold on there,” a voice said next to her, thumbing her eyelids and shining a flashlight in them. “Welcome back to the world of the living, sir.”
Natsuki had been having pangs of self-doubt, but the “sir” nailed it back down.
“Uhh, are you sure you want to close down your account with us, sir?” the receptionist asked. Natsuki was already feeling the urge to stare down at her feet again and tune the world out. It had been a while, but there it was. “There’s a bit of a waitlist to get back in.”
Natsuki nodded at the woman.
“Also,” the receptionist asked, “do you have somewhere to go? Friend to stay with or whatnot… it seems you’ve had us as your mailing address.”
Natsuki didn’t want to speak, didn’t want to answer, didn’t want to hear that voice. It had been quite some time since she felt that she didn’t want to hear herself vocalise in any way. But she managed to eek out a response and leave the clinic.
This is hell, and I have gone to it.
Natsuki tried to keep the thoughts at bay, but she couldn’t deny them, and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth fighting against. The bills had passed parliament, after all, and would be going into effect within a month. Natsuki Kazama was a ghost, an aberration living in someone else’s body, in a city she no longer identified in any way as her own.
Natsuki had to reference the government ID she’d been passed back from the clinic to fully remember her out-world personal details. She mumbled her way through booking a room at a nearby hotel that took v-coin that she had in abundance, still. She’d asked for a high floor room.
She sat there in the room, looking out over the night lights of the city. England’s not a bad place, she thought, except that it’s full of arseholes. The incongruous thought sent her into a tailspin of slightly mad laughter with that hideous voice. She felt like she was in a train, on rails, the destination speeding toward her, or perhaps she was speeding toward the destination. She didn’t really care. She didn’t want to go where the train was taking her, but her choices were gone.
With a familiar feeling from that “Log Out” button, she didn’t want to lose her nerve, so she headed for her balcony.
“I won’t go back.”
Exit stage right, Natsuki Kazama.
Not yet (present)
The beeping woke her first.
What a horrid sound. Wait, why is there beeping?
Where am I? I…
Then she remembered.
Oh. I did that. Well, I tried, anyway. Obviously it didn’t work out, unless this is some hell-god’s idea of a joke afterlife.
The half-chuckle that issued from her throat brought a startled response from somewhere near her side.
Slowly, her eyes fluttered open, and she instantly regretted it. The light was entirely too bright.
Also, every single limb in her body hurt like no one’s business.
“Hi! Yes?” The voice next to her was way too loud, but it went on anyway. “Sh… He’s awake, yes! Please come quickly.”
Whoever is next to me is kneading my hand in a way that feels oddly familiar. Something someone had done to calm me, in the past… before shows?
“Natsuki, can you hear me?”
Finally, she opened her eyes to stare at the person next to her. It took a few moments to call up the dusty memories, but she recognized him as Kieran.
“Why…” she croaked. “Why… what did you call me?”
A teary grin spread across his face, and suddenly she knew where she’d seen it recently. But her mind wasn’t quite working properly, and the thought slipped away as two nurses swept into the room.
The nurses checked all of her vitals, poked, prodded, asked for breaths in and out, every kind of check until she was nearing a scream. But just as suddenly, they seemed to be done.
The remaining nurse breathed in heavily, then let it out.
“I don’t know what happened to you,” she said. “But we have to keep a watch on you until the police can come make a report. Don’t go anywhere.”
Natsuki started to laugh, thinking of all the cords and tubes attached to her, but it quickly turned into a grimace from the pain.
Finally, she was alone in the room with Kieran again, and the thought re-centred itself.
“You…” Natsuki started, flustered. “You were there the whole time. Why did you never tell me, Aidan?”
“Well,” Kieran started, leaning back in his chair, and seemingly at a loss for words. “I didn’t actually realise who you were at first. You were that different. But after you started singing for my shop, I saw the signs of my old friend, finally living her dream. Your gender doesn’t matter to me. You do. But I figured knowing who I was would set you back, so… I just stayed quiet and supported you.”
Natsuki’s thoughts were bouncing aimlessly around, not landing on a particular solid thought, until she noticed the room, properly noticed it, for the first time. She’d never seen so many balloons, flowers, get well cards… all addressed with the right name.
“Do they…” she asked, gesturing at the mess.
Kieran laughed a little. It looked like the first laugh he’d had in a while, like a rusty reflex.
“Oh, none of them know who you are or where you are. I wouldn’t do that to you. But after that damned letter you left them… shite, Natsuki. What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking,” she said after a few moments, “that my life was about to be ended by politicians and I’d rather deal with it myself… That’s a really rubbish excuse, isn’t it?”
Kieran stared at her for a moment and muttered, “’long as you know it. You’re damned lucky you didn’t check for trees down below.”
“So,” Kieran started again, after a few moments of silence. “Speaking of that moronic letter, you started a real firestorm. You’ve got some really fanatical fans, you know. There’s a court injunction on those stupid bills and talks of MP recall campaigns.”
“What?” Natsuki whispered, confused.
“Yeah. Yeah! All you. Why didn’t you just speak up the normal way? You didn’t need t’… Ah geez…”
After a few more moments of silence, Natsuki said, “Y’know, Aidan, I had a raging crush on you. Isn’t that awkward?”
It felt very strange to be saying with that stranger’s voice, but it felt right to say it. Aidan squeezed her hand.
“Fix yourself up, love,” he said as he stood. “We have a lot to catch up on, you and I, but for now… we both need some sleep.”
That moronic letter (past)
As many of you may know, several laws have been tabled regarding free expression and freedom of identity in virtual spaces. Specifically, those laws want to take them away from us. I cannot condone this.
We’ve built a little safe haven for ourselves in this world. We have community, we have love, happiness, joy, sadness. We are no less real than what’s happening “out there”. And yet, we have been accused pre-emptively of being… well, I won’t do their job for them and repeat it.
There are members of our community who have chosen a different identity and a different appearance than their “real world” selves. Some who simply want a change, some who don’t want to attract “real world” attention to go with it, and some who are vulnerable members of the community who need a separate identity for whatever reason.
I don’t talk much about it, but I am one such person.
And since it looks inevitable that this terrible future will come to pass, you will have to carry on the fight without me. I don’t exist in their “real world”.
Love, always. Natsuki.
When you’re in the hospital for this kind of thing, they don’t trust you very much for a while. I guess I can’t really fault them for it. But I had plenty of time to think, and plenty of doctors to help me think about it.
They’d moved me to another room that was substantially less… hospital-ly. I was sure I was still being monitored, and I had to go to appointments several times per day. I wasn’t allowed to leave. But I didn’t mind too much, honestly. It felt strangely like a safe cocoon in there.
I sat there at my little table eating the food they’d brought me, a little balanced-to-perfection diet. They’d had to give me something different from the others in here, because my body had taken a beating over the year plus I’d been in “lifer” mode. And I thought “my body” because…
Staring at the gathering collection of well wishes and presents that fans sent to Aidan, because he still hadn’t told them where I was or what exactly had happened to me, I felt as though I was standing on the precipice of some momentous realisation, a liminal space. The god-like back room of reality.
Natsuki existed here, too. Somehow, like a beloved fictional character that had walked off the page or out of the videos, and stood before me… I was here. In my mind, I was still Natsuki the idol. Whatever had been before, had long ago passed away. Passed through me, and beyond me, and only I remained.
There were presents.
My boyfriend manager was coming to visit.
My name was plastered all over the news in regards to the dreaded bills.
Somehow, I, Natsuki Kazama, existed out here, too.
Sure, I didn’t look like much, but I realised that there was really only one solution to this. To do what I always should have done. Not ending myself.
The UK might have had hangups about online identity, still, or maybe identity in general. Maybe it stemmed from the country’s strange past, going over the years from the sun never setting, to a place from which the world had largely moved on. But all of those people had at least seemed to have moved on from their hysterical hand-waving and gatekeeping on trans people.
I had a word for myself, finally. Trans.
Oh, we were still the subject of a little too much scrutiny for my liking, but there was considerably less trouble in transitioning, especially if one could show a psychiatric need for it, and a long “real life” history… no trouble with either of those, all things considered.
I was lucky, really. A close shave later, a trip to the hair stylist… my generally slim body let me look androgynous at worst. All of those months of voice training I’d received “in there” had made it fairly simple to learn how to manipulate my voice.
The first time someone at a shop called me “young lady”, I nearly forgot what I was there for.
I’d started replacing my wardrobe, and I started on hormones.
I was shocked to find that I’d been smelling horribly to myself, and just how much better the hormones made it.
I almost felt comfortable in my own bones.
But there was still something… off. I was getting used to being who I was, but I still didn’t feel like Natsuki any more. In some ways, Natsuki was a reminder of a very good time in my life, but also a very bad time in my life. Natsuki was at the centre of a maelstrom of turmoil, for me.
And the name I was born with sure as hell didn’t apply.
Aidan had been talking to me, and I’d spaced out. I was holding his hand over the table at the restaurant, absently massaging his palm.
“Call me Natalie,” I said suddenly, interrupting him. “Out here… it makes more sense, and I guess I want this self I’m building out here to have a different name, anyway.”
Aidan smiled and nodded. “All right. Natalie, it is. I like it. I like you.”
The next day, I obtained my deed poll to get new identification.
Back into forward motion
My own bed at my own flat (once I’d found one again) was a much nicer place than the cold platform that they’d put me on, back in my “lifer” days. It didn’t hurt that Aidan was lying next to me.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, nodding. “No. I mean… maybe. The farther I get, out here… I know it’s a weird thing to say, but I miss Natsuki. I wasn’t doing all of that just to get away from something. I really loved it. I wish I could do it again.”
He smiled at me before turning on his back. “Let’s do it.”
We both put newer model headsets on, and signalled to enter the virtual world once again.
I woke inside in the same spot that I’d left so many months ago: my balcony. I guessed they didn’t reclaim those spaces when the user quit paying? Whatever the reason, I was relieved to have the familiar space to ease back in.
I nearly yelped out of my skin when my holo-helper appeared next to me.
“Hi there, Natsuki Kazama! It’s sure been a while. Is there anything I can help you get started with again?”
After calming myself down again, I thought the familiar thought, and a configuration window appeared next to her. I felt ashamed that I’d had this trusty friend there every day to keep me company, and I’d never even named her.
“Aww, thank you for naming me, Natsuki!” the chipper holo-girl said. “Aileen can help you with so many things!”
I gave her a thumbs up, but replied, “I’m good for now. Thanks.”
It was early morning on an overcast day. The time didn’t flow the same way here as it did outside, so that was more or less coincidence, but it felt momentous anyway. The dawn of a new day.
I joined back into the message boards slowly. At first, fans were suspicious. They thought that maybe someone had hacked my account and was posing as me. But I met up with my teammates from Happybara, and they knew it was me, even though something had obviously changed. I received everything from tearful hugs to scowls and scolding, but in the end, we made up, and plans were laid.
We’d all log in during the evening, UK time, and practise, practise, practise. It felt really good to be moving again, to be singing in this great voice. It felt really good to know that all of me was here, and behind this 100%. It even began to feel good to log out each day, spending time with Aidan out there and exploring who I was once again.
Everyone wanted to know what had happened to me, but I said I would explain at the upcoming show.
And finally, the day arrived…
Reach for the stardom
I found myself once again standing on a huge stage in a sold-out stadium, bowing in all directions with the rest of Happybara, sweating but… well… happy.
The crowd roared around us, and I raised my mic.
“Thank you! Thank you! It’s so good to see you all again, and we love you!”
I let it go on for a bit, and then held up a hand, saying “I have something else to talk with you about.”
Eventually, the crowd quieted down again, and I began to tell them, heart to heart, what had triggered my literal fall from grace and sanity.
“I’m sorry to have fallen over, I’m sorry to have failed you all when the world needs happiness and cheer the most.”
Someone high in the stands yelled out, “the world needs you!” which led to some laughs, along with another round of cheers and applause.
I could feel myself blushing, but I continued on.
“I hope you’ll continue to come to our shows, all of us. It’s so nice to be here again.”
“And I’m planning to donate all of my part of the show proceeds to helping trans people in need, and to fighting against the powers that be telling us who we’re allowed to be.”
More applause, and they even started to stand to clap.
I raised my fist in the air, and the rest of Happybara did likewise, taking a queue from me. A few signature fist-pumps later, we all poofed into smoke like the good old days.
Well, the old days, anyhow. There were even better days yet to come.