318 – New Hopes
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A bit of a transition chapter before we go full idol simulator and focus on Prodigy for a while. I think. That's the plan, but as always, we'll see how it goes, haha.

A small bakery in Roppongi Hills. Since it was early in the morning, it was still closed. But it wasn't empty.

Kai got out of his car and stood in front of it, pursing his lips.

There were some lights on upstairs. It seemed like they were already awake. But asking them like this after what happened-

No.

John was right. This was a chance for them to fulfill their dreams. The wishes that Kai couldn't grant were now able to be fulfilled, if only in part.

Sumire, Yura, and Sayuri.

Kai took a deep breath and then pulled out his phone to make a call.

Silence. Nothing but the dial tone of the call connecting. And then...

"Oppa?"

"Yura? I'm outside of the bakery right now. Could you let me in? There's something I want to talk to you and the others about."

"You're outside?!"

The sound of scrambling. Heavy footsteps. And then in a few minutes, a cute but pudgy girl ran over to the door, unlocking it.

"Oppa!" Yura put her phone away and then crossed her arms. "You should have called last night! Sumi and I would have been waiting with treats already!"

Kai smiled and said, "I only just found out this morning, so- Actually, let's talk inside." He glanced around and then walked in.

Yura noticed and frowned. She closed the door behind Kai and locked it. "Did something happen, Oppa?"

"First, are Sumi and Sayuri here too?"

Yura nodded. "They're both upstairs still."

"Could you get them? I'll wait down here."

Yura frowned and then said, "Oppa. Is... Did something happen? About us?"

Kai laughed. "Something did happen, and it does concern you girls. But it's good news."

Yura's frown turned into confusion.

Kai waved his hand and said, "Again, we'll talk more when you get the others."

"...Okay, Oppa."

With that, Yura went back upstairs.

As she did, Kai took a seat in the guest area. There was a basket of magazines nearby, so he idly flipped through. And as expected...

"So they haven't given up on it either."

It was mostly new issues of popular culture. Idol magazines and new developments in entertainment. The sort you would expect laying around in a place like that.

Those new issues were still untouched. Pristine.

From that, it seemed that the girls either didn't receive many customers, or their customers weren't the sort to sit around and read magazines. That meant the ones who usually read those magazines were probably the girls themselves.

And among the magazines that were read...

The most recent one that looked well-used was a copy that printed the interview with John a while back and speculating about Project MirAIs. Other than that, the magazines that were well-read were the ones featuring Mystic Bouquet and their meteoric rise to success... and subsequent plummeting as the scandal broke.

Kai sighed and placed the magazines back. When he did, a delicate voice called out. "Uncle Kai?"

Shortly after, a deeper female voice called out. "Boss? What's going on?"

Kai looked over, examining them all.

Was it habit? Or was it natural after all their time together?

The girls were standing just like they did on the covers Kai just examined.

The lead, Sayuri, standing in front. The delicate Sumire standing behind her to the right. And the energetic and bubbly Yura standing behind Sayuri on her left.

They were different now.

Sayuri's charming beauty was gone. Her silky black hair was cut short, only hanging to her shoulders. Her charming facial features had turned sharp and haunted, with dark bags under her eyes.

Sumire's delicate nature had turned fragile. Her body was thin, and her clothes looked more like a bag on her than proper attire.

Yura... She was still energetic and bubbly. But the fit body she had been so proud of in the past was gone, replaced with pudgy fat.

Still, they were the same as they were back then when he met them. Looking up to him, trusting him while also concerned that he might be putting in too much work.

Kai couldn't help but chuckle when he realized that.

"...I think you're right, Rara." Sayuri turned to look at Yura and said, "Boss has gone off the deep end."

Yura gave a serious nod and looked at Kai. "Oppa. Did Tsuki finally become rebellious?"

Kai's chuckle turned into a full laugh and he shook his head. "No. Nothing like that. It's just..." He smiled. A relaxed one. "Some things change, but some don't in the end."

The girls looked at each other, sharing a confused look.

Kai's smile widened and he said, "Make yourselves comfortable girls. I have something important to say- No, to ask."

-----AI|IA-----

The arrangements were all prepared beforehand. As a mission for the future of Project MirAIs and the girls relying on it, John had gone out of his way to help Kai convince his girls to help.

And to start off that convincing, Kai had done his best to replicate their first meeting. So...

A private booth, with Kai on one side and the girls on the other. A five star restaurant, completely rented out to prevent anybody overhearing. Staff that were completely on his payroll so that even if they heard anything, they wouldn't talk about it.

Kai couldn't do that anymore. Even if he still had connections, he didn't have the pull or resources to accomplish that anymore.

But John did.

Yes. John did, and so...

"What would you girls like to start off with? Drinks? Appetizers?"

A suave blonde man with blue eyes and hair parted to the side. A sharp black suit and an unassuming air.

'Goddammit, John.'

Was it because he wanted to make sure this was a success? To see how Kai acted under pressure? Or to meet the girls firsthand without them knowing?

Kai's friend had perfectly transformed himself into a typical foreigner working at a fancy restaurant. Even his voice was different, talking with a bit of a stilted accent just like a person who was still learning Japanese.

Yura looked at John and then back at Kai. "You know that you don't have to force your friends to talk in Japanese."

Sumire giggled and said, "Uncle Kai is being considerate as usual."

Sayuri shook her head. "And he's being a bit pushy again because of it." She sighed and looked over at John before speaking in English. "You can talk in English. We aren't fluent, but we can understand it at least. And could I have an apple juice?"

John nodded. "Wakarimasu. Eigo ok..." After that, he switched to a posh English accent and said, "Then I'll ask again. What would you and your friends like to start off with?" He glanced at Kai and said, "He's footing the bill, so please, don't hold back."

'...What do you mean I'm footing the bill?!'

That was what Kai wanted to say. But he purposefully kept his expression neutral. Especially after he saw Yura and Sumire's reactions.

Yura sighed and then looked at John. "Same. Apple juice please."

Sumire held up her hand and said, "Orenji, please."

John nodded. "I'll be right back with those then... And the usual for you, Friend? Black coffee?"

"...That's fine."

"Understood. Until then, please, enjoy yourselves."

With that, John left, disappearing in to the kitchen.

And then it was just Kai with the girls. His girls that he promised to turn into famous idols.

An awkward silence stretched, and then Sayuri sighed, breaking it. "Boss. You know you don't have to go all out like this anymore."

Yura nodded and said, "That's right, Oppa. Aren't things tight because the police cracked down? And there's Tsuki to take care of now too."

"Yes." Sumire spoke up and said, "We would have been fine talking in the bakery."

Kai shook his head and said, "This is long overdue in any case. And like what he said, feel free to order whatever you want. The chef's a crazy guy who can cook any and everything."

Knowing his friend, after taking things into his own hands like that and personally taking their orders, John was probably the only guy in the kitchen too.

"A crazy guy?" Sumire tilted her head.

"It's a long story. But for now." Kai laced his fingers together and said, "...Tell me. What do you girls think about helping me manage and train a new idol group?"

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