Trauma Button A Paradox Live Fansite
Hidden Track "MEMORY" (BAE Chapter)
Before Anyone Else.

Hiphop culture has given rise to a new form of performance: phantom lives. Using the mysterious substance known as Phantometal, the phantom rappers driving the movement fuel vivid illusions with their own emotions, even though doing so comes at the steep cost of forcing them to relive their own traumatic pasts.

Then, long ago, in the midst of all of this new movement, Buraikan -- the phantom rappers who founded the movement -- and CLUB Paradox -- the club they called home -- both disappeared without a trace. But recently, four popular teams of phantom rappers received a mysterious invitation; both Buraikan and CLUB Paradox have now seemingly reappeared.

A series of stage battles, known as Paradox Live, began. The four teams clashed with each other, their ambitions and secret motivations, their dreams, their pasts and futures all colliding. Sometimes the competitors cooperated and communicated; at others, they clashed. Throughout it all, they made many new connections and rekindled old ones.

One of the teams at the heart of the storm was the up-and-coming BAE, consisting of Sugasano Allen, Yeon Hajun, and Anne Faulkner. They had their sights set on overtaking the legendary Buraikan, and in doing so, strike out against their families and a society that refused to acknowledge them. Starting from this place of wanting glory and revenge, BAE formed new bonds with the other teams in the Paradox Live.

In the end, after a heated battle and many tears, it was cozmez, not BAE, who took the crown in the Paradox Live. They had not yet fulfilled their dreams, but they had doubtlessly made many new connections.


"... but that doesn't change the fact that we lost in the end," Allen said. "We're going to have to raise the bar even higher from here on out. Got that? Hajun? Anne?"

"No arguments here. However, more importantly: Allen?"

"Didn't we tell you you had to clean up your room first!?"

Anne and Hajun's two-person straight man routine practically shook the apartment, spelling trouble for their shared living arrangements.

It was after the end of the Paradox Live. While the competition was ongoing, they had been willing to give Allen a little leeway on the state of his room, as it was understandable that he would want to focus on other things. Now that it was over, though, something had to be done about it. Unfortunately, cleaning up Allen's room was going to be something of a major undertaking.

Generally, decluttering and throwing away the things you no longer need is a good approach, but a lot of space in Allen's room was taken up by massive piles of records and audio equipment. Out of consideration for Allen's past, they generally tried to stick to a philosophy of straightening up without throwing anything away, but as a result, his things were starting to spill out into the living room. It was starting to resemble less of a living space and more of a second hand record shop.

"Allen has a preternatural gift for hoarding," Hajun said. "If he had been born a squirrel instead of a human, he would be the kind of squirrel that buries bunches of acorns and immediately forgets where he stored them."

"Hehehe. Sugasquirrel Allen would be so cute. Can't you just imagine him with little cheek pouches?" Anne said.

"Well, don't hold back on how you really feel now, you guys..."

Hajun and Anne tended to vent some steam off by giving Allen a hard time and griping about the effort it took to clean up. If they didn't, it would have been a lot harder to deal with. Allen had so much crap to go through.

"You really do have so much stuff," Hajun remarked. "You'd think we'd lived here a lot longer than we have, judging by how much you've managed to accumulate."

"Well, a lot has happened," Anne mused. "Especially since the start of the Paradox Live... I mean, Allen got jumped and cozmez's KANATA took his phantometal, Hajun got dissed by The Cat's Whiskers Daimaou Compla, and then there was that whole thing with me and Allen going all mind-palace to keep Hajun from dying of metal erosion..."

"Sounds like you're leaving some things out, Anne," Allen said.

"Sounds to me like they're leaving some pretty glaring omissions," Hajun said. "Shall we reminisce about some of Anne's failings? That time they tried to use a notebook as a makeshift potholder stands out in my mind."[1]

"Well, that had nothing to do with performance, so it's irrelevant here," Anne said, but then derailed. "... huh? What's this?" They had found something while cleaning Allen's closet that gave them pause.

"Is something the matter?" said Hajun. "I didn't think Allen would be the type to hide naughty DVDs in the back of his closet, but-"

"I'm not hiding anything!" Allen said. "... but, um, what did you find, Anne?"

Anne revealed what was in their hands- a slightly old track jacket. It was slightly beaten up, but still boldly colored and had a very street-fashion vibe. Anne was looking at it with slightly widened eyes.

"You still have this?" they said.

"I mean, yeah," Allen said. "I mean- I bet Hajun still has his too, right?"

"It's still wearable, so it would be a shame to throw it away," Hajun said.

"Right," Anne said, then hummed and narrowed their eyes a little as they looked over the slightly-faded fabric.

Frankly, a lot had happened, not just during the Paradox Live, but as their time spent as BAE even before. There had been hard times, of course- hard enough that it had made them want to cry, but they had always had fun rapping together as a trio.

If I hadn't met Anne and Hajun through rap... Anne said to themself, then rationalized that they were probably just exhausted from the effort of cleaning up after Allen. Even so, as they closed their eyes, it was like they were drifting back in time, searching back through their memories.

The jacket sparked a trip down memory lane for Anne, back to where it started for them.

It was a quiet after-school evening once the bell rang - the kind of night that feels like the whole world is against you. It was about four in the afternoon; Anne had no plans with any friends, and nothing but free time. Somewhere far away, a flute played away in the school's brass band.

Their long hair and skirt swayed as they walked, long and slender legs taking long strides as they walked down the all-white hallway in their school shoes. The thin soles tapped lightly against the tile as they walked with a light tread. Forlorn footsteps sound just the same as any others.

Anne wasn't a fan of these school shoes. Even schools that had elaborate and showy uniforms tend to have the same flat, childlike footwear. This stayed true even at this international school, which did not have a strict dress code. The students were allowed to wear whatever clothes they wanted-- even the skirts that made Anne feel like themself - but the adults' desire to shape all the children into the same mold went far beyond simply forcing them to wear uniforms.

Or maybe they didn't like their school shoes because it felt like the sound was mocking them. It was a reminder that they had nowhere else to go.

Of course, they had a home to go back to; but for 16-year-old Anne, home was more of a place they were obligated to return to, rather than somewhere they wanted to be. They would avoid going straight home after school as much as they possibly could, but there were surprisingly few places that they could really spend time alone in the city. Window shopping was alright and all, but it would quickly wear out its welcome if they did it every day. As such, they spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly around the school after the bell rang. They would wander around to the clubs to which their friends belonged and pop their head in, or wander aimlessly between the library or the school store.

The sound of their shoes on the tile felt like they were saying, you don't have anywhere else to be, huh?; it was the sound of being sixteen years old, and no matter how much they tried to avoid it, being bound to the obligations of school, home, and family.

When it started to get dark, they would usually try to meet up with a friend after their school club let out, or just give up and go into the city alone and try to make it back home in time to avoid getting caught out past curfew. Then, before going home, they would have to take off their makeup and remove their hair extensions. Once they changed into masculine clothes, Anne's time as Anne was over.

Even Cinderella's spell only lasted until midnight, after all.

Then, they would go home and try to give a good excuse for why they were out so late. The go-to explanation was that they were at a study group. They would be met with phrases like please try to come home a little earlier next time or mama missed you so much, and they would just have to grin and bear it, like trying to wait out a chronic headache. This happened every day.

No matter how much it killed them inside, in the end, they couldn't throw away the relationship of mother and son. This was Anne's everyday reality at 16.

"... I'm so bored."

Their murmur was drowned out by the sound of their footsteps as they climbed the stairs. Sunset was always a depressing time, but they were feeling particularly melancholy that day. Perhaps it was because of the horrible dream they'd had the night before that it felt like it didn't matter much where they went or what they did. Maybe this is why they ventured up into the upperclassman's floor, which they usually stayed clear of.

There wasn't anywhere to sit down and take a break up here, and most of the other students had already cleared out. If they went down to the end of the hallway they would just have to turn around and head back the way they came. They considered turning around now and going to buy a drink or something, when something gave them pause. They thought they heard something.

... is someone singing?

Going by ear, they followed the source of the sound, and ended up at a classroom. It was definitely someone performing a song, but it wasn't the kind of thing someone might be practicing for a choir competition. There was, of course, a handily available term for it.

Is that... rapping?

It wasn't totally out of the question. Anne had heard that there were a couple of students, one year above them, that had formed a two-man hiphop club. Indeed, hip hop was very trendy at the moment. Though Anne wasn't terribly interested in it, many of their classmates had been taken up by the phantom live wave, acting like they were rappers. Others had started dressing up in fashions styled after the new wave of popular Black culture. Anne figured that these upperclassmen would probably be like this as well, but if they provided an excuse to linger around school a bit longer, it could be worth it to ingratiate themself to them.

With a spring in their step to accompany their newfound mission, Anne peered in through the window on the door. Two boys were sitting and facing each other, taking turns singing. They were using the classroom as a makeshift studio, hooking their phones up to play music.

Anne laughed a little bit at their earnest but slightly wince-inducing effort. They cracked open the door, intending to ask something like, would it be alright if I joined you?, but what came out instead was:

"-- ah..."

They were met with an intense heat, the sound more a physical vibration than a singing voice. The emotion was raw and pierced through the air effortlessly. A wave of self-assurance rode on top of a clear, resounding rhythm; a wild impulse that needed no further justification; a torrential outpouring of voices, like a wave of bullets, that resonated through Anne's chest with blazing heat and refused to back down. It was too powerful to be called just a song. These two peoples' music that had permeated the walls and become crystal clear once more as it reached Anne and flowed right into their very body.

Though they did not know this yet, a phrase that's meant to leave a strong lasting impression after it hits is called a punch line. They did not need to know this to feel as though they had been punched directly in the face. It rattled their brain, rang in their ears, and set their heart aflame.

Strictly speaking, it was hardly professional quality; it's not like anyone was going to get stellar quality using smartphones as speakers in an abandoned classroom with crappy acoustics. But it didn't need to be great. It was a raw and powerful heat, a defiant cry to the world that they were here, a shout that tore up their throats. The atmosphere in the classroom, combined with the sunset beaming through the window was altogether dazzling. It was almost enough to make Anne cry.

"Um. Who are you?"

Before Anne realized it, the music had stopped, and one of the boys was calling out to them. The boy with messy hair - Allen - looked visibly annoyed, and the boy with straight hair - Hajun - was fixing them with a narrow-eyed stare.

Anne had been too caught up in the sound; their heart was racing, and they were even sweating a little. The echoes of the two boys' song still hung in the air, and the sunlight cutting through the room fell on them like a spotlight. They felt very unwelcome. But when that voice, who just prior had been rapping, asked Anne who they were, they felt like they could give an honest answer. And so they did.

"... Anne. My name is Anne Faulkner."

Whether they were a boy or a girl, how old they were, what clubs they belonged to-- none of that mattered at all. Just their name.

This was how the three of them, who would eventually become BAE, met for the first time: as a group of two and a third newcomer, in a classroom at sunset.


Around this time, Allen and Hajun practicing rap together in the classroom was already something of a routine. Initially, Allen had done it alone, but eventually, Hajun joined in- or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he got drawn into it by Allen.

After Allen's parents burned his precious collection of hip hop records, he ran away and moved in with Hajun. Ever since, Hajun couldn't help but be interested in Allen's hiphop obsession, and the relationship grew from there. At first, some of their classmates would come to gawk at their practice out of curiosity, but over time, this became less and less common. Eventually, their after-school practice sessions were something that was just between the two of them.

Needless to say, when an underclassman that Allen had never seen before waltzed right into their lives in a very straightforward manner, it was something of a shock. However, it only took a couple of days for the underclassman, who went by Anne Faulkner, to become incorporated into their daily routine. They were very up-front, not shy at all, and a very personable individual. This was something of a contrast to Hajun, who tended to downplay his personality in order to make social situations easier.

Their eyes were as soft as cherry blossoms in spring, and the atmosphere around them was as crisp as the air on an autumn day. Since Allen was not particularly gifted at making friends, he felt like he had many things to learn from Anne; but even so, when he first saw them, he was struck by something odd about their shadow as they stood in the sunset, and he couldn't help but be curious about it.

One day, their practice for the day had reached its end, and they were taking a break before heading their separate ways.

Anne picked up a candy bar and waved it around like a baton to accentuate their point as they talked. "But why are you guys still practicing in a classroom? Wouldn't you be better off getting a studio or something?"

"Not really," Allen said. "I think it's easier to make music in the place we actually live our lives. It's easier to get inspired. Also, the blackboard is surprisingly useful, too. It's easy to write down phrases and try them out when we can both see it and write on it and make changes."

"I suppose that's one way of thinking about it," Anne said.

"Also, it's a lot cheaper than going to karaoke all the time, you know?" Allen said.

"Why don't you just go over to one of you guys' houses to practice?" Anne asked.

"Well, I'm living with Hajun at the moment."

"Is that so?" Anne said, tilting their head and glancing at Hajun.

"If we do it at home, Allen will scatter his lyric sheets everywhere and make a mess," Hajun said.


Sensing that Anne was not persuaded, Hajun continued to defend his case. "And he tends to lose track of time, so then we end up having to skip dinner, so if I've been making dak hanmari, which is a one-pot dish that you start making in the morning and eat in the evening," Hajun explained, "if we lose track of time, it will go to waste and we have to recycle it for the next morning's gukbap. I make Allen reimburse me for the cost of ingredients."

Allen scratched his cheek sheepishly as Anne shot him a look.

"So that's why we do it here. If we practice somewhere that isn't home, it puts much stricter limits on how long we spend practicing."

"Is Allen some kind of rap addict?" Anne said.

"He's a hip-hop maniac."

"That has a nice ring to it."

"You guys..."

Even though he was being antagonized, Allen was actually a bit relieved by Hajun's rapport with Anne. Initially, Hajun had thought Anne was a girl, and had been eyeing them with suspicion because of it. Allen had been afraid that they weren't going to get along.

In truth, Hajun was something of a wolf in sheep's clothing. The real Hajun, that Allen was familiar with, was a super-sadistic jerk with a horrible personality, but because he was so soft-spoken, it was often hard to tell that he was being cruel. He always put on a pleasant face while on campus. He said it was just a survival tactic, but this didn't stop girls from chasing after him, nor from him gaining a reputation as the "smiling nobleman". One time, two of his female admirers began a loud argument in public, which Hajun defused with just a few words to each of the girls. Allen asked what he had said, but Hajun had lifted a finger to his mouth, smiled, and did not explain himself. It was all wildly unnerving.

Allen remembered Hajun saying something about it being pleasant when all of the dominoes fall into place. While he trusted Hajun, the ominous secrets that he kept were still pretty scary.

Hajun was pleasant to Anne now, however, because Allen had blabbed that Anne wasn't a girl. Allen hadn't been trying to pry into their business; he was just curious about their silhouette while he was staring at them, but Allen didn't really think twice about it.

When Anne found out that that was why Hajun hadn't liked them, they were strangely happy about it. Indeed, Hajun was rather impressed with Anne, and he especially seemed to respect the fact that they chose to express themself through whatever fashion they wanted to wear.

In this way, Anne had already made a good impression of themself as a junior to both Allen and Hajun.

"But, you know, it's been a few days since I've started watching you guys practice..." Anne said, leaning back in their chair and resting their arms on the back of it. "... rap battling? Is this what you'd be doing on stage?"

"Well, freestyle MC battles are a good way of building your skills and your vocabulary, since you have to work with what you're given," Allen said, "and it's the kind of practice you can easily do with two people. But it's hardly the only way you can compete with rap- when you talk about a battle you're probably thinking of like, the big competitions held at live houses, right?"

"Yeah, I was imagining something like that," Anne said.

"Those are different. Generally, you take your time to prepare your tracks for something like that. That's more what Phantom Lives are all about."

"Is that so? I guess I don't know very much."

"So what we're doing is more like playing catch back and forth. It's not like it's the only way to practice, but it's the easiest way to get some practice in."

Anne nodded as if they understood a word he was saying. Spurred on by this, Allen's mouth continued to run at high speed.

"It used to be that there wasn't really as much culture about enjoying music with other people, and during that time, there were little underground movements and trends that popped up under the surface. And the freestyle rap battle is kind of like the origin point of the current phantom live movement, to the point that there are even some old school rappers who think that phantom lives are like a perversion of what hiphop is supposed to be."

"Uh... huh," Anne said, nodding dumbly.

"Allen, you're losing them."


Allen was on the cusp of getting caught up in his own little world, and Hajun's admonishment snapped him back to reality. Anne was completely lost.

"Uh, sorry, Anne. I got carried away."

"It's fine," Anne said. "I'm learning a lot. There's a lot I still don't know even after watching you guys, so you can go ahead and tell me more about rap if you want."

Allen looked ecstatic. Hajun looked mortified. Anne did not understand why until mere moments later.

"Well, where do you want to start... Anne, how much do you know? About rap, I mean?" Allen said.

"How much do I know... uh, well, what's the difference between hiphop and rap?"

Anne would never again see Hajun make an expression that quite so clearly and intensely said you just asked the worst possible question as the face he made in that moment.

"So that's where we're starting from...!" Allen murmured.

"Ah, no, it's fine, you don't have to trouble yourself with answering a silly question like that-" Anne began, but when they looked at Allen, he already had one arm folded and was tapping his temple thoughtfully with the opposite hand. Anne got the distinct sense that they had really asked the wrong thing, but it was too late to take it back now.

"How should I put this..." Allen said. "I think, first of all, hiphop is a way of life."

Anne felt an immaculate sense of dread. "Alright...?"

"And rap," Allen said, "is the cry of people who live by it."

"Right, right," Anne said. They were in trouble.

"I don't even know where to start," Allen said. "Like, obviously I want to tell you about phantom lives most of all, but there's a lot of groundwork to cover before I can get there. I think we should start with the four pillars of hip hop, that's essential."

"And those are?"

"To put it simply: DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Later on, people started calling knowledge the fifth pillar, and nowadays we generally call the MC the rapper."


"In other words, rap is one of the major ways of expressing hip hop, and it's evolved even further, into," and here Allen raised his voice, "phantom lives!"

"There's no need to yell all of a sudden!"

Allen was undeterred. "If you ask me, I'd say that nowadays, illusions have been added alongside the original five pillars, so I think you could say there are six pillars now. There are some rappers who have described it that way. Hiphop's actually got a really long history and it's always kept evolving, so the Phantom Lives are really a part of history in the making!"

"When did your face get so close?"

"You know Buraikan, right? No? Well, MC Yasha and MC Shura were two legendary rappers who helped spread this new form of hip hop around the world and changed the culture even further. But then one day, both of them completely disappeared, but there was no stopping the wave they started, and it's just kept on spreading all around the world without slowing down at all ever since. I don't really know what happened to them, but they helped phantom lives take music to the next level.

"The first time I saw a phantom live, it was next level. It didn't hold a candle to a Buraikan show, but it was more than just music for the ears, it was music for the eyes, too! The vibes are so intense, it's like, BANG! BOOM! It's like, a feeling, it's something you can't just hear, you know!? And with illusions you can use visuals, not just the track, to express the worldview, with three-dimensional phantoms having a chemical reaction with the lyrics, the sky's the limit! And phantom lives aren't just the next step for rapping alone, I think it's also really tied in with mixing the culture of graffiti in with the MCing. If you have the chance, if you're interested at all, Anne, you really have to see one live! There's tons of them happening at the venues around here, it's super easy to find a show.

"Oh, also, and this is just a hot tip from me to you, you know that karaoke place near the train station? The dude who runs it is super into phantom lives so there's lots of flyers for venues and live houses nearby if you look. Of course, I don't think you necessarily need to even see them live to get a taste of how great they are. There's this team, XXXX - they're disbanded now, but even old videos of them are amazing! I really wish I could have seen them live before they broke up. I respect them a lot, but I don't think that I want to make the same kind of music as XXXX did. If I'm going to do rap, I'm gonna try to outdo them, and then of course I want to overtake Buraikan, the very first phantom rappers, and also-"

"Earth to Allen," Hajun said with a dazzling smile.

Allen knew well that this was far scarier than if he were glaring, so he tried to brace himself, to no avail.

"You realize that this airheaded nonsense is why you keep losing battles to total newbies, right?"


As if Hajun's words were physically stabbing him, Allen doubled over, and fell to his knees as though his shins were being kicked out from under him. It was a very theatrical collapse. While they looked at him with concern, Anne whispered to Hajun.

"Allen is the one who taught you, right, Hajun? Did he lose to you or something?"

"Yep. As you can probably tell by now, Allen is a hardcore hip hop maniac. He knows what he's talking about, and his technique is way better than mine, and I'd say I'm quite competent at freestyling. That was a bit of a lie just now; his problem isn't his technique at all," Hajun said.

"Then how did you beat him, if he's so good?" asked Anne.

"His problem is that he's really, really bad at coming up with disses. He loves hip hop so much that if you diss him really well, he'll consider it and then nod and agree with you."

Anne paused.

"You know what? Yeah, I believe that. That tracks."

Anne chose not to mention that Hajun seemed to have a gift for dissing people.

"So, to make a very long story short," Hajun said, "hiphop is an artistic genre with many constituent parts, including fashion and dance. Rap is, more or less, a style of singing that is one of those constituent parts."

"Wow. When you explain it, it actually makes sense," Anne said.

At Anne's words, Allen's shoulders visibly tensed. It was like an impatient puppy that Hajun had told to sit and wait and be quiet for five whole minutes. Anne had to look away so as not to laugh at him; it was super cute.

"Really, though," Anne said, looking at Hajun, "you're really good at explaining things. Didn't you say you've only been rapping for about a year?"

"I had to do my own research to understand what Allen was talking about," Hajun said. "I could probably give lectures on the history of hip hop at this point."

"I didn't realize that fashion was considered part of hip hop," Anne said. "It's called B-Kei[2], right?"

"Generally speaking, yes. It's said that the entire trend of oversized fashion started because of poor rappers who couldn't afford to buy things in the proper size, but ever since it gained popularity, it became a fashion statement rather than a financial one."

"That would explain the trend for oversized things," Anne remarked.

"To be honest, though," Hajun said, "I don't think that most people who wear the style are actually particularly familiar with hip hop culture."

"I get it, though," Anne said. "It's like, rappers' fashion is more about looking stylish and street-smart rather than over the top, right?"

"Right. Especially for phantom rappers. The way you're dressed onstage is very important; you need to be able to adapt to the contemporary styles and scenes."

"And it's important to know what kind of person the words are coming from," Anne said. When it came to fashion, they were much more receptive to the idea of hip hop. If they were going to be onstage, they would naturally want to look good and convey who they were through their style. For Anne, fashion was the easiest way for them to express themself and feel comfortable with themself.

"But you two aren't exactly worried about the fashion part of it, are you?" Anne said.

"Not really," Allen said.

"I can't say I am, myself," Hajun said.

"Why not?" Anne said, but it was clear that they weren't going to be in agreement on this just yet, and they rolled their eyes. When they looked at Hajun, he shrugged noncommittally.

"Even if I dressed nicely, it would throw off the balance with Allen if he still dresses like a slob," he said.

"Oh?" Anne looked at Allen, who looked rather embarrassed and uncomfortable. "Then why don't you care about the way you dress? You've got a nice face, it's kind of a shame to waste it."

"... like I said," Allen said, "I'm living with Hajun right now."

"Do you not have the money to buy clothes or something?"

"Oh, it's not like that at all, Anne," Hajun said. "Even Allen can manage to hold down a part-time job, and sometimes there are cash prizes from the live events and concerts."

"What's his excuse, then?"

"Whenever Allen has money," Hajun said, "he spends it on records and music equipment instead of things like food, clothing, or shelter."

"Oh my god," Anne said, "he really is a hiphop maniac."

"Just as I said," Hajun said cheerfully.

Allen withered under their combined stares and furrowed his brow, making a grumbling noise. "But it's fine," he said. "Right now, I'm more worried about sounding good than looking good. The records and equipment I have are- wait, crap, I don't have them with me. But the point is, right now the important thing is passionate lyrics on a solid track!"

"Didn't you just say," Anne said, "that the entire point of phantom lives was that it wasn't just something you experienced with your ears?"

Anne was truly starting to understand what Hajun meant by hiphop idiot.

"No, no, no. Right now we need to focus on bringing together the best possible sound." Allen looked slightly miffed as he rummaged through his bag, before finding a flier and pulling it out to show it to Anne. Brightly colored pop-art letters leapt across a black backdrop.

This must be graffiti, then, Anne thought. They read the letters out with their native accent, and then rephrased it in Japanese.[3]

"Digudaguruubu.... Dig Da Groove?"

"Yep," Allen said. "It's a big outdoor music festival type of event."

"It looks like it's being held without illusions?" Anne pointed out, and Hajun followed up before Allen could.

"It's a large event being sponsored by a record company. Ever since the big phantom live boom, there have been events like this popping up all over the place. Lots of up-and-coming raps have been using them to get their feet in the door to debut in the major leagues. It's not a phantom live event because it's supposed to focus on the music, and give newcomers a chance to get their names out there and get discovered."

"And, lemme guess. You two are going to be participating in this?" Anne said; Allen and Hajun nodded in sync.

Rather than simply agreeing, it was a motion that signaled their will and determination to take on this challenge.

Even now, though, Hajun brought in a slightly cynical perspective to bring them back down to earth. "Now, to be clear, most of the performers are there by invitation for having made a mark in competitions and the like as of late. We, meanwhile, just got in on the lottery application in order to fill the spaces left behind when other performers have dropped out or turned down the invitation."

"I mean, even if you're just the backup, it's still really impressive!" Anne said.

"Well, maybe so. For the time being, Allen and I have been getting some good results participating in club rap battles... but those are just events held by and for high schoolers. This is a shot to stand on stage alongside some semi-professionals and proper adults," Hajun said. Then, he added in Korean, "they're making the mistake of underestimating us."

"Who gives a shit?!" Allen exclaimed, speaking from the chest. With a dull thud, he pounded his fist into his opposite palm. "Even if we only got in by lottery, we still have to seize this chance! We'll stand on that stage and prove who we are!"

Anne was a bit taken aback by Allen's sudden determination. Just a few minutes ago, he had been a foolish and sheepish boy, but now there was a fire in his eyes. Even Hajun's cool gaze and narrowed eyes were backed up by a kind of passionate light. It was the kind of aura that's impossible to fake, that requires real and genuine passion. This was the passion that had drawn Anne into the room the first time they had heard Allen.

"Hey, you guys," Anne said. "Why are you two doing rap?"

"Isn't it obvious?" they both said, nearly simultaneously.

"I'm going to show the world who I am with my music," Allen said.

"I'm going to show the world who's truly the best," Hajun said.

Neither of them hesitated for even a moment. It was a showing of more than confidence- it was a display of their unshakable will. Their determination itself reached Anne's ears. It shook the air, it shook the space between them, it shook the entire world and all of the people living in it.

And it shook Anne.

In that classroom, on that evening, the two boys standing before Anne in the sunlight pouring in seemed impossibly, monumentally bigger than they had before.

"And you can do that with rap?" they asked.

"You can," Allen said with a nod, and then he held his hand out into the light. It cast a long shadow against the floor tiles and the far wall, blocking out the light. "The thing is, hip hop was born out of darkness."

"Darkness?" Anne said.

"Yeah. It comes from ghettos, and gangs, and oppression, and strife," Allen said. "In a world that had gone totally to shit, the violent energy that it takes to resist suffering, took shape as music. The fights that kept breaking out in the streets turned into music, and then into dance. That became discos, and they gave birth to rap, which has spread all across the world now."

"... that's quite the painful pedigree," Anne said.

"I guess it is," Allen agreed. "But I don't think it's a bad thing that it comes out of darkness. The entire world around us. The public eye. The voices of adults. I think of those as a bright light."

"... a light," Anne repeated.

"Yeah. But it's not the warm, comfortable kind of light. It's the kind of light that burns your skin and that makes you go blind. It's aggressive, and it's selfish, and it pours down from on high with a mind of its own, blighting everything it touches."

Anne looked out the window. The brilliant rays of the setting sun melted the outline of the city outside and flooded into the room. They had to fight to keep their stinging eyes open.

"And in that light..." Allen raised his hand, his gaze following the way his shadow moved across the wall. "The shadow is the mark your body makes when you stand against it. The shape of your own sound tearing its way out of a rotten world. I think maybe that's what rap is."

Allen's shadow, a clear reflection of himself, completely eclipsed him in size.

A shadow. An illusion. These words, that had seemed so vague, were starting to take shape in Anne's mind.

"... I'm getting hyped," Allen said. "Let's keep going a bit more, Hajun."

"Works for me," Hajun said. "I could stand to do a little more today."

Hajun took a sip from his bottle of mineral water, and then handed the bottle off to Allen, who took a sip of it as well. More than just passing the bottle around, it was something of a sign of their determination to unify their voices and their sound.

Allen pulled out his phone and played a track. The sound of the dancing snare drum carved out a space in the world, setting out a bouncy rhythm, befitting of the sing-song lilt of the word hip hop itself.

"A BPM that's a bit closer to a house music vibe... Hajun, are you into it?"

"It's good by me. It suits the mood, I think."

"Then shall we?"

In a tournament battle setting, you don't play rock paper scissors to determine who goes first; the first participant who takes the mic and hops on the beat gets to go first. In this case, Allen took the first turn.

He took a moment to let the track sink in and reverberate through his entire body before he tried to turn anything back out. He didn't want to jump the gun; he wanted to truly listen to the sound before he put his voice to it. That way, when he did jump in, the power of his voice would pierce through the sound and dance on the rhythm. Even before the first rhyme came out, he had to feel the flow and the motion of the track.

His voice was a harsh yell that came out of his stomach, not his chest. Even if his flow was a bit too aggressive, there was simply no other way that it could be. The power in his voice was how he expressed who he was. Once he had a feel for the track and the flow, the rhymes came naturally to him. The words flow into one another as if he was playing Shiritori[4] with himself, and it naturally flowed into a rap that was more instinctive and primal than technically skilled.

Then, he handed off to Hajun.

His interpretation of the track was wholly different from Allen's. By contrast, Hajun's flow gently caressed the melody with a sensual nuance, and he punctuated his lines with a light exhale, like a loving whisper right in the listener's ear. His every word was chosen carefully, venom wrapped in sweet chocolate, interwoven with a sort of tingling feeling to make a pleasant impression.

The lyrics were dreamy and enticing and drew you into the depths of his cruel disses. Hajun's rhymes were like a rose with thorns, his flow like a cat that rejects your advances to pet it. He switched deftly between Japanese, Korean, and English, picking and choosing words from all three languages to best match the flow. All of this combined to make Hajun's rap.

Allen and Hajun's sounds were completely different-- their voices were different, they clashed, their philosophies were completely irreconcilable, and yet somehow, they came together with a similar feel, and they made the air in that classroom shake.

There were times that their alternating verses came together, melding into one singular track; Anne was entranced by those times. It felt like if you could bridge the gap between those moments, then it would be perfect. It was exciting to imagine.

Allen had said that hip hop was an art form borne of the shadows. Rather than lashing out at a world that had treated you poorly, it used that pain and that negativity and sublimated it into creation.

The sunset had already begun to sink below the buildings outside, but it still shone defiantly and vivid red on the two students as they raised their voices. The shadows they cast on the far wall were like a shadow-puppet play. Anne couldn't help but think again of that word: illusion.

They must be struggling, they thought to themself. They must be struggling against something and turning it out into a desperate cry. They couldn't help but think how very cool of them that was. Perhaps that was what hiphop was.

Anne cherished this time that they got to spend immersed in the vibes that these two were building up. We exist, we're here, we exist in this world, with all the energy of youth that makes it possible to declare such a thing wholeheartedly.

They loved it, they loved it, they truly adored it, so much that it filled their heart to the point it was painful.

For reasons they didn't entirely understand, they felt like crying.

"Seriously? After I told him to put your college application in as soon as possible... but there's really no room for anything in his head but hiphop. Allen's hopeless."

"Ahahah. You're not going to hear me arguing that point."

The entrance hall was completely dark. Hajun and Anne were left waiting together for Allen, who had to stop by the staff room. At this time of night, most of the students were gone, and it was so quiet that it was like the school building had fallen asleep.

But that wasn't the only thing. After school, Anne usually met up with Allen and Hajun once they were already practicing, so it was somewhat unusual for it to just be the two of them hanging out with each other.

When Allen and Hajun were together, they had a good rapport and struck up conversation with each other, and Anne was able to interject and jump into their conversations; but while they were alone, Hajun was defensive and put up a barrier between himself and the outside world.

Frankly, Anne wouldn't have thought twice about it if Hajun had only ever spoken a word or two to them, as that just seemed to be the kind of person he was; but because Anne had met him through Allen and hip hop, they were able to notice the discrepancy between how talkative he was with Allen and how quiet he was otherwise. If they hadn't met through rap, then Anne was pretty sure they would never have had cause to talk to each other.

"Hey, Hajun," Anne said, "why did you decide to start rapping with Allen?"

"Why are you asking so suddenly?"

"Just call it curiosity. Feel free not to answer, if you don't want to share."

Under normal circumstances, Hajun would have brushed them off; but perhaps it was because they were standing here together, in a hall so dark they couldn't see each other's faces, that Hajun decided to spill.

"Allen's a horrible communicator, you know."

"Sure is," Anne said as though by reflex.

"He has a mean face, and he isn't particularly friendly. But when it comes to the things he's interested in, he's completely laser-focused. It's kind of a pain, to be honest. At first, I had no interest in being his friend."

"Well, no need to hold back, since he's not here, tell me what you really feel," Anne said sarcastically.

"Oh, make no mistake, I'd say it to his face. But," Hajun said, and took a deep breath, and squashed down the feelings of embarrassment into his chest for the moment. "His rap was good."

Anne glanced over at Hajun out of the corner of their eye. They couldn't see Hajun's expression.

"I've been involved with Allen and with hip hop for about a year now. I think I understand it a lot more now than I did. I think hiphop is probably to Allen what your clothes are to you."

"My clothes?" Anne said, curiously picking up the hem of their skirt; this was a gesture that Allen complained a bit about whenever they did it.

"Indeed," Hajun said. "It's a means of expressing yourself, of unabashedly presenting yourself the way you want to be seen. If even a clumsy poor talker with bad communication skills like Allen can really express who he is so clearly when he raps-- don't you think that's interesting?" Knowing that Anne couldn't see him, Hajun looked up at the darkened ceiling and laughed a little bit. "I hadn't known that something like that was possible before meeting him."

Anne batted their long eyelashes at Hajun. "Have you said any of this to Allen?"

"Absolutely not. There's no way I could ever say something like that."

Anne was not yet as attuned to when Hajun was lying as they would later become. "Ahahah. You can be a real pain in the ass too sometimes, Hajun."

"Anne, do you think that Allen is the only person I can be mean to?" Hajun said, smiling menacingly at Anne.

"Oooh, scary," Anne said, giggling and covering their mouth with their hand.

Then, they added in a low murmur to themself:

"Unabashed, huh...?"

But the sound of their slightly bitter murmur was muffled by their fingers.

"Are you sure you really want to do this, Anne?"

"I could have simply bought this myself, you know."

It was a Saturday. Allen and Hajun had been summoned by Anne on urgent business, which ended up being taken around to various shops and dressed up like fashion dolls all day.

When they inquired what Anne was getting at, they informed them that this was their gift to them: clothes to wear on-stage. Anne chose them based on their own knowledge of the latest hiphop trends and their own fashion sense.

For Allen, they chose vividly-colored street fashion with a royal air. The clothing line they chose pieces from had a modern, assertive presence against a backdrop of hip hop style. Meanwhile, for Hajun, they chose an outfit that gave off the air of luxury while not being too overtly masculine, in order to accentuate Hajun's natural refined sexiness.

"Consider it a gift to send you off," Anne said, scratching their cheek with a bit of a smile. "Since tomorrow is Sunday, you know? That's when Dig Da Groove is happening, right? I've been listening to the two of you rapping for this long, and I couldn't sit on my hands any longer without doing something to contribute. The clothes you wear are part of your stage presence, right? Let me be your stylist."

"Yeah, but this stuff isn't cheap..." Allen said.

Anne dismissed him. "It's not that bad. All of this stuff is from discount outlets, after all."

"Even so."

"And," Anne continued. "I've got way more money than you do. I took up a temp job."

"Anne, you shouldn't bully Allen so much," Hajun said.

"Ooh, that coming from you? When did you start a career in comedy?"

Allen groaned. Anne and Hajun laughed, but then Anne continued.

"The least you can do is take the stage with outfits I've picked out. It's the closest I can get to you guys without actually being on stage with you. This way, our vibes can still resonate with each other."

"Anne..." Allen tightly gripped the bag containing the clothes they had bought, and then he opened his mouth to speak again. "The song I made for the competition. I let you listen to it yesterday. What did you think of it?"

"Mmm. It was cool," Anne said. Allen and Hajun both fixed them with a stare, and Anne was quick to elaborate. It wasn't like them to mince words. "It really was cool, I'm not lying," they said, "but there was something a bit uneven about it. It didn't quite click. It was like two sides of it were fighting with each other rather than coordinating."

"You certainly do tell it straight," Hajun said, shrugging his shoulders in mild irritation, but also in resignation.

Allen opened his mouth to respond, as if he already had a defense pre-planned. "I think the track itself is really good, and I think that my flow and Hajun's flows both work well on it. But..."

"It doesn't work quite so well when it's both of our flows, right?" Hajun interjected.

"Yeah. I think that anyone listening to it with an unbiased ear they'd agree," Allen said.

Anne knew that they weren't looking for validation, but they couldn't help but ask. "Is that the song you're going to be using for Dig Da Groove?"

"Yeah," Allen confirmed with a nod. "Even if I spent all night working on it, I don't think I'm going to be able to fine-tune it enough. It's barely finished. But I think it's our best bet for us to go all-out rather than play it safe."

"Well, it's true that the song itself may top out at a six out of ten. But then all Allen and I will have to do is both take it up to eleven individually," Hajun said.

"No problem," Allen said back.

Anne couldn't help but laugh. They were still nervous, but even so, it was hard to deny Allen and Hajun's determination to prove that they existed. "I'll give my all from the audience," they said. "By the way. What are you calling yourselves? Like as a team name."

At that question, Allen and Hajun exchanged looks, and they answered in unison.


"I like it," Anne said. "Like always going further beyond, right?"

To Anne, it sounded like a declaration of purpose-- it sounded like a voice calling out from somewhere far away and high above.

It was a quiet night- the kind that feels like the whole world is against you.

"... phew."

They would just narrowly make curfew.

After Anne parted ways with Allen and Hajun, they had to hole up in the men's restroom in the park.

The bathrooms at the train station were a no-go. Whether they went into the men's or the women's restrooms, people would gawk and try to start trouble if they spotted them. The worst thing to do would be to let rumors start. Word would get around and get back to someone's ears.

A stagnant bathroom wasn't the most pleasant place to breathe deeply; but whether they wanted to do it or not, they still took a deep breath. If they tried to hold it in any longer, it felt as though their chest would have collapsed in on itself from the pain. They carefully removed their familiar feminine clothes-- a form-fitting shirt, a skirt short enough to show off their legs, high heeled boots, hair extensions with an underlayer of color. One by one, with every piece they took off, Anne disappeared bit by bit, like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle one piece at a time. Eventually, all that's left is the dull puzzle mat underneath.

They pulled replacement clothing out from the travel bag that they had left in a locker and changed into it.

The size wasn't wrong, per se, but the thick slacks felt too heavy and bulky on Anne's thin body. They put on a belt, buttoned up their shirt, pulled on a jacket, and stuffed their skirt and other clothing back into the bag. As they left the stall, they were greeted by the sight of themself in the mirror by the sinks. Under the harsh, unnatural white lights of the electric lamps, Anne gazed upon their reflection.

Short hair. Men's clothes. Only their makeup remained, sticking out like a sore thumb with the rest of their appearance.

"... haha..."

They loaded up a cotton pad with makeup remover.

This stuff is really harsh on my skin, but it takes everything off really well. How lucky am I to have it? They thought to themself as they wiped from their forehead to their nose. It felt like they were taking a pencil eraser to their own features. They laughed a little at the thought.

The real reason they had started working part-time jobs was to try and save up enough money to live on their own as soon as they got out of school. This was their only goal. After meeting Hajun and Allen, they had been taken aback by how proactive they were about their problems, and how passive they had been.

It was true that their song was still very rough. But even so, Anne knew that Hajun and Allen rapping on stage, standing in the spotlight in the clothes that Anne had chosen for them... somebody going to remember it.

Even if it was reckless or inelegant, the fact that they were willing to take up that challenge was sure to leave a mark.

Anne left the park, then took a detour to leave their bag in their locker. Like they were waving goodbye to themself, they locked up their skirt and wig. Then, they headed home.

The shuffling sound of their footsteps in sneakers intermingled with distant car engine sounds. Moths flocked around and clung to the cheap streetlights. With a heavy heart, they arrived at home, and the door felt strangely heavy in its turn when they pushed it open.

"Welcome home, Anjin."

Just as she always did, their mother greeted them. "You're late today. Did something happen?"

"I just couldn't find the book I needed, so I had to try another bookstore that was a bit further away," they said, coming up with an excuse immediately.

"I see. Well, be sure to call me if you're going to be late. I worry so much about you," she said. "I was starting to worry you'd fallen in with a bad crowd."

"Yeah, no, I'm sorry. I'm alright."

"I just don't want to imagine you getting wrapped up with any freaks or things like that."

"It's fine. Really."

Their conversation went on like that. Probably. They barely processed any of it; the night completely passed by in the blink of an eye, completely sliding off their mind.

They broke off the conversation at last by saying, "I'm going to go get changed. I need a bath." With that, they began to retreat to their room. Then, their mother's voice called out to them suddenly, like she was noticing something.

"Ah. Your hair is getting a bit long."

The sound froze them in their tracks and coursed through their veins like poison.

"We'll have to get it cut tomorrow. I'll book you an appointment at a hairdresser."

Anne breathed harder, trying to unstick their frozen brain. Blood surged out to their numb fingertips, restoring sensation with the rush of oxygen. Finally, they managed to form words.

"... yeah. You're right. It's getting to about that time. It's getting to be a real pain."

Why couldn't they get angry? Why didn't they fight back when she badmouthed their friends? Why couldn't they even protest when she made the unilateral decision to cut their hair? They felt miserable. They felt pathetic. There were so many things they wanted to say, but their voice didn't feel like it was truly theirs.

They felt cold, as if all of the blood had rushed out of their head; their silent bedroom was so much colder than usual. The air was as unmoving as if time was standing still. Only then did they realize they were standing in the dark, and moved to turn on a light.

Standing front of them was a young man in immaculate clothes with a beaming smile plastered on his face.

"... who the hell are you...?" Anne murmured bitterly, and as they spoke, the young man standing in the mirror's lips moved as well.

They already knew that this was who they were, but could they really say this was who they wanted to be? Were they going to be okay like this?

Standing all alone in their room, there was nobody who could answer that question for them.

And then came the day of.

Anne made an appearance amidst all the chaos on Sunday. Dig Da Groove was an outdoor event held like a music festival, giving it a totally different kind of energy from performances in music clubs-- not least of all due to the huge capacity and the massive stage. It must have taken a lot of cooperation from powerful event organizers to pull it off. Anne had arrived early and taken a spot right near the front. Up this close, the size of the stage made the authority and impact of the event seem all the more real.

A phantom rapper with whom Anne was not familiar took the stage as the opening act, and then he took his place at the judge's table. Taking a look at the schedule, they figured they could stay until Allen and Hajun took the stage. They wouldn't be able to stay long enough to hear the results announcements or the exhibition show afterwards, but they had no choice.

Their haircut appointment was later that evening.

While the other participants taking the stage weren't professionals, a lot of the heads in the audience seemed to be familiar with a lot of them.

Anne, of course, had no idea who any of these people were. Even so, it really put all the time that Anne had spent watching Allen and Hajun practice into perspective.

... These people are all really good, they said to themself.

As could have been expected from the fact that they had been extended specific invitations to perform by the organizers, many of the groups that took the stage were skillful and expressive on another level. Flows that sometimes eschewed the need to rhyme; downer songs where they didn't dare raise their voices; performances that made the most of the empty space on the tracks; the performances had a deep and profound understanding of sound itself- they had their choice of styles to pick and choose from at will.

Rap wasn't just a game of coming up with rhymes. It was about artists who used their musical ability to express their worldviews on stage.

Even from Anne's biased point of view, they weren't sure that Allen and Hajun were going to be able to live up to that level. But even if they couldn't, their passion was undefeatable. Anne kept telling themself that.

Eventually, time passed until Allen and Hajun took the stage. The two of them looked standing on-stage on the set decorated with graffiti, dressed in the clothes that Anne had picked out for them.

It will be fine. They can do this.

The song began. The beat was low and aggressive; it suited the both of them well. (In retrospect, the track had a similar feel to FREAKOUT.)

They can fight. They can leave a mark on the world.

Go for it, Allen, Hajun. Show them what you've got.

As if mocking Anne's silent encouragement, something went wrong with the equipment. The track began to fall apart.

At first, it was on Hajun's part. It had been going smoothly, and his flow was on point. After all of their freestyling and his own natural courage combined to make it sound effortless. The song was off to a strong start. Allen, too, was certain that Hajun's rapping was resonating with the audience- and then the track started to fall apart. The tempo had changed. Hajun was shrewd, and immediately noticed that something was off.

Like the domino effect, one trip-up led to another. The need to match the beat butted heads with reticence to go off-script from the lyrics they had written ahead of time.


Under other circumstances, Hajun wouldn't have been thrown off by this; he would have been able to roll with the punches and course-correct. But out here on this outdoor stage, one slip up was enough to cast the unease of this new outdoor stage into stark relief. It was different from performing in dimly-lit dive clubs and live houses. Here, he could see the sea of faces staring at him in the bright light of day. The pressure hit him harder than he had been expecting.

He had written the lyrics with Allen in preparation for this day. They had polished these rhymes to a mirror sheen, and the pressure to hit every phrase perfectly made a single mistake feel like it undermined all of it. All of that effort that he had put in was coming back to bite him in the ass. Hajun got so caught up with hitting the lyrics as-written that he and the track completely diverged.


Hajun's impatience got passed on to Allen like a virus.

They had the courage and the nerve to stand on stage, but they were still immature. When the handoff happened, Allen tried to make up for Hajun's mistakes.


Allen was acutely aware that they were losing the audience, but he was more afraid that this would only compound Hajun's fear and back him into a corner. So he raised his voice. He let loose with a powerful flow, changing up the lyrics on the fly; he attempted to drown out any accusations and insults before anyone had the chance to say anything. -- such was the depth of his care for Hajun, and his determination not to lose this competition.

But it wasn't really Allen's rap anymore. His forceful voice and his adlibs, which he had been hoping to use to hype the audience up, simply made the mismatch with Hajun's part all the more obvious.


The more Allen bullishly charged forward, the more Hajun's mistake stood out. Impatience had screwed them both over, but he couldn't stop himself; he kept trying to push it farther and farther. He was so single-minded that he was barely listening to the track. Allen could barely even hear his own voice, but he could see the disapproving expressions on the faces of the judges; he could even see Hajun's face, the corners of his mouth twisted into a grimace.

He couldn't hear the track, or his friend, or his own voice, but he could hear the disdain from the audience all too clearly.

"This is barely even rap at this point."

This is what finally killed Allen's flow; the performance was broken and there was no saving it.

Anne, sitting near the front, was stunned. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Sure, the song was rough, but it wasn't supposed to be this bad. If they hadn't had that technical trouble, they would have been able to perform to their fullest potential. But even if it was only bad luck, this performance was--

"What awful rap."

For a split second, Anne thought that had come out of their own mouth; but it was the guest who was sitting next to them, his face twisted with distaste. Like a ripple effect, the murmurs and complaints began to spread. It drowned out not only the rapping, but the sound of the track as well.

"These kids are dragging down the average."

"Who the hell invited these brats?"

"This shit's wack as hell."


"We didn't come here to hear bad jokes!"

"Get off the stage if you're gonna come with that limp shit!"

"There's no heat at all. Who cares?"

"Stick to the school festival circuit!"

Before Anne knew what had come over them, they were yelling at the audience members near them. "... all of you, shut up!" It was all they could do to shout. The audience's cruel words felt like they were threatening to blow out Hajun and Allen's flame as carelessly as if they were snuffing a candle.

"Allen is... Hajun is..."

They didn't know anything. They didn't know shit about Allen. They didn't know shit about Hajun. They didn't know about true rap, of all the hours they spent putting in the work after school, of their genuine vibes.

"It's not supposed to be like this! They can go further! They can do more! None of you know anything about Allen, about Hajun, about 'Furthermore'--"

"Who asked you and who the hell cares?" someone jeered.

... it made sense. Why would anyone care if this stage was their first and only exposure to them? They only had about three minutes to make an impression, and that was all that mattered to the audience. It was frustrating beyond words. Anne wanted to tell everybody. They wanted to tell everybody about what they had seen of Allen and Hajun. If they couldn't see that, then it felt like they were denying the comfort that Anne had found in it.

"Allen is awesome! And Hajun is cool as hell! And they both really, really love rap, and--"

But no matter how they tried to put it in words, there was nothing they could say that could convey it.

"Who the fuck cares? And--"

As far as the audience was concerned, Anne was just being disruptive. The guy yelling back at them probably felt like he had every right to get up in Anne's face even though they were complete strangers.

"Who the hell are you?"

That question cut like a knife.

Anne had asked themself that for a long, long time. It was a question whose answer they had been looking for, themself.

Then, it burst. Like a balloon that had been inflated well past its limit, that question was the needle that made it explode.


Before they knew what they were doing, Anne leapt onto the stage.

Their inner self was screaming, demanding to be shown to the world, demanding to tell the world the way they truly wanted to live. Say it now, or it's all for shit. It was like time had stopped in that moment as an unexpected guest crashed the stage.

The two on stage and the audience, the latter of whom having never seen Anne in their lives, were equally taken aback. They were all transfixed by the sight of Anne taking the stage with their long brightly-colored wig flowing behind them and their long legs slinking out from under their skirt. The clack of their heels on stage matched the tempo of the track, just as they were hoping for.


Anne was sick of all of it. Nobody knew shit about anything. Nobody knew shit about anyone. Not about the things Anne loved, or the people they loved. People felt free to just run their mouths and talk shit.

Who are you? Who am I?

They were sick of being something they weren't.

Anne grabbed the mic away from a startled Allen. Then, they cried out into the mic.

"I'm Anne Faulkner! Nobody else but Anne Faulkner!"

It was a simple introduction, but it perfectly matched the rhythm of the track.

What was the criteria for rap? It didn't have to rhyme. It didn't have to be sung in a specific way. That wasn't it. What mattered was that it was proof of your own existence. Proof to stand testament to the world. With that conviction given voice, it was Anne's very first rap.

And it was the first time that the three of them shared a single sound.

The words poured out of Anne's mouth without a plan. They had no lyrics prepared, nor any particular rhyming technique. They simply felt the sound of the track and let loose with everything they wanted to say, everything they felt, in the moment.

"I have no use for superficial rap! Get that shit out of my face![5]"

It was a very strange phenomenon. They hadn't accounted for it at all on the track, but Anne's voice and rapping fit in perfectly, like a missing piece they hadn't known they were missing. Their voice was different from both Allen and Hajun's, feminine and smooth, but it somehow matched the vibe perfectly.

Even if nobody knows it yet, I'll force them to hear it. With music, I'll prove my own existence to the world.

Maybe they're onto something.

Anne spilled their heart out on stage, baring the maelstrom inside their head at the top of their lungs.

"And it's my turn to ask all of you: who the hell do you think you are?!"

And on that note, after that brief verse, they handed the mic back off. The lyrics were perhaps a little messy, but they had done their job.

Allen was momentarily stunned, but not in a bad way. Anne's jumping on stage without warning had been surprising; but more than that, it fascinated him. Anne's voice was smooth, but strength resonated through it. Using nothing but words, they launched a counterattack against the world. It struck a chord with Allen- it was the true spirit of hip hop as he understood it.

Allen had received the vibrations of Anne's voice, and had been passed a mic that still reverberated with their echo. He stared at Anne for a moment, then cracked a smile.

"Anne. Thanks for the wake-up call."

That was all that needed to be said, and he said it sincerely. It didn't have anything to do with rap. Not really. But from that moment, the atmosphere on stage changed.

Allen's rapping took off. If a half-assed adlib fell flat, then just take it again from the top. He threw all of their prepared lyrics out the window and he went forward responding to what Anne had given him to work with. There was no point in sticking to the script any longer.

This is who I am. How about you?

Allen's powerful voice had regained the original charm that it had lost, and in fact, had redoubled on it. He met the sharp, clapping beat of the track with a razor-sharp flow. It was pure music, neither impatient nor intense; it was just about enjoying the sound that they created here as friends.

Like passing off the baton in a relay race, he handed off to Hajun.

You can do it, right? he seemed to be saying without words.

Show them what you can do.

... let me show you the real thing.

Hajun's rap took up where Allen's left off, following on his powerful energy.

Almost like he was making up for his earlier mistakes, Hajun intentionally danced around the rhythm of the track, incorporating it into a deliberate performance. He paid no heed to any of the established rules, freestyling adlibs in both Korean and Japanese and using a chopped rhyme scheme. He even riffed on his own mistakes, taking the chance to play up his own cynical, sadistic kind of appeal. Even so, he wasn't trying to take the spotlight away from the others; it was a team effort. Hajun's aggression was interwoven with the sound he had inherited from Allen.

Then, the mic went back to Anne.

Inheriting Hajun's rhyming and Allen's flow, Anne's own rap became more sophisticated and complex. They let the track and their passion guide the way, spontaneously spinning words into rap. They kept the mic going, every verse answering the one that came before it. It was almost more like a relay than a rap performance, but the pieces all came together as one song.

Our voices that can reach beyond the sound

Our song goes straight ahead

Go beyond the limits, past the distant thunder

Gather up your heart and let it shine

The words came out one after another. It was like all of the missing pieces had clicked into place. A single unified vibe took over the stage, as though the song had been written for all three of them from the start. Allen and Hajun's voices were brought into harmony by Anne's.

Then came the final hook. The three of their voices overlapped. As if they had somehow communicated with each other, despite their performance being largely improvised, they all came together. There was only one thing that any of them could say, and all three of them did.

"Before Anyone Else!"[6]

It was overwhelming, and echoed in the air. For the first time, they felt energized, electrified. The booing had disappeared.

In the light of the outdoor stage, their three shadows danced like phantom illusions. The air was buoyant and light. Every pulse was a beat, every breath was percussion. They were nothing but sound. Nothing existed but hip hop.

When the track stopped, there was a moment of silence, and then an eruption of cheers. Even if this was a bit of a silly thought, it almost felt like the audience was reflecting their own energy back at them.

In that moment, if only that moment, the entire world belonged to the three of them.

"And the winning team is... Dam.D.AM!"

The team Furthermore, which was supposed to have been only Allen and Hajun, had been disqualified from judging due to Anne's crashing the stage.

"Well, no surprises there, what with such an upset happening."

"I'm sorry, you guys. You got disqualified because of me acting selfish," Anne said.

"You say that, Anne, but it doesn't seem like you actually feel that bad about it."

"Of course I don't. It felt amazing."

None of them were too upset about the outcome.


As they were leaving the staging area, one of the judges called out to them. Even Anne recognized the face of the judge-- he was a very famous phantom rapper.

"You guys' show was a total disaster. Like, a complete trainwreck. Like, you guys didn't score a single point. Winning the competition was completely out of the question."

"Tell us something we don't know," Allen said, perhaps a bit too bluntly. He wasn't sure if this guy was coming to pick a fight with them, and he was prepared to stand his ground, but he was given pause when the man continued.

"But. I gotta tell you the truth. It reminded me of what hiphop is all about. You're not going to win any awards like that. But those cheers are yours, too," he said, and turned away.

They were dumbstruck for a few moments. The cheers of the audience echoed in their ears. It was the sound of the audience cheering for the team that had been declared the winner-- but it was the exact same sound that they had been met with after their performance.

"... did we get complimented just now?" Anne said.

"... no. We can't be happy with that kind of backhanded compliment," Allen said.

"That kind of empty praise isn't going to cut it for me, I'm afraid," Hajun said.

"... haha. Of course not. I'd be shocked if it did," Anne said.

As the three of them took their leave, laughing as they did, the judge from earlier stood watching them from the side of the stage. He wore a complicated expression, caught between a smile and something more understated.

Noticing this, a man wearing a suit approached him. "Is something the matter? Were you interested in that team?"

"Ah, no, it's nothing. I was just smoothing things over with the spring chickens. It's nothing Alter Trigger would need to check out."

"Hmm... Well, alright," the suited man said. "This year's actual winner looks fairly promising. We'll just have to see how much good they'll do for the movement, now that they've got the leg up afforded by winning today."

"You're certainly proactive, aren't you? I'm not sure what you guys' plan is, but you certainly seem to have more on your mind than money," the rapper said, then paused. "That sure was a very strange equipment malfunction, though. Making the dregs look worse in order to make the top performers look better in comparison, maybe? ... or perhaps I'm overthinking it?"

"It's not something that you rappers have to worry about. Don't start spreading rumors or getting suspicious. Just keep the spirits of the scene up with your phantom lives, as you have been doing."

With that, the man in the suit left.

The judge pulled a face at the man's back as he left. The event proper -- whose purpose was to discover promising new talent -- had been great, but Alter Trigger's sponsorship left a sour taste in his mouth.

Not sure what you're hoping to gain by trying to astroturf it when the scene's already doing fine without help, he said to himself. It's not like Buraikan are coming back anytime soon. They popularized phantom lives, sure, but the era of explosive growth like that is over. Even CLUB Paradox is long gone...

The rush of heat hadn't left their body.

It was a burning heat, unlike anything Anne had ever felt. The beat had synced up with the beating of their heart; the rhymes had come straight out of their nerves. The audience's eyes had been transfixed onstage, and then had come the tidal wave of cheers. It was all too much to take in, and too intense to deal with.

At the heart of it was the feeling of having left a mark on the world-- the conviction that their sound had resonated with another person. It was the kind of unique high that only people who truly put themselves out there could reach. Even though they had lost, they had still made the audience cheer. Even if they had been disqualified, the excitement that they had made people feel was real.

And if that was how it felt to lose, then what would it feel like to win? How much more intense did that fire burn for the people who had taken the top?

Once they had that thought, there was no going back.

It was certainly possible to enjoy music on your own, but there's an entire world about sharing it with others, competing against others. Once they had seen that, they had been irrevocably changed by it.

In hip hop, the word "dope" means to be cool or stylish, but if you were to trace the word back, you'd find it had another meaning, and... well, perhaps it was apt to say that it only took one hit, and they were already addicted.

That was why, on the same night as they crashed the stage, Anne got into a fight with their mother for the first time in a long time.

They skipped their hairdresser's appointment; in fact, they came home still wearing their wig. They were sick to death of pretending to be something they weren't.

It didn't make him feel any better about doing it. Their mother cried, and it broke their heart. Family is family. They didn't want to hurt her; they just wanted her to understand.

Accepting that they couldn't understand each other was a necessary first step.

Anne gathered all their nerves, prepared themself in heart and soul. The very day that they graduated from high school, they left home.

"... goodbye, mama."

Anne spoke to the door of their house as they left behind a place filled with memories both painful and nostalgic. They set out on their own, but they already knew their destination.

Pulling along a suitcase, they walked through the windy spring day, and their long hair fluttered behind them. The trees, covered in new buds, weren't the only ones beginning a new season.

Before long, they arrived at the plaza square where they had agreed to meet up. Hajun and Allen were already waiting.

"Hi, guys. Sorry for making you wait," Anne said.

"So Anne's going to end up moving in with us, too, huh..." Hajun complained.

"You say that," Allen pointed out, "but you were the one who led the cleanup effort on the spare room for them."

"I mean, I'm a necessary addition, right? Both in your team, and, you know, in your life in general," Anne said.

"You have your uses," Hajun said.

"Oh, Hajun, you're so charming," Anne said sarcastically, then giggled; Hajun wore a smile that was still a little fake.

Allen was the only one looking serious, and he cleared his throat.

"Is something the matter, Allen?" Hajun said.

"You're not about to rescind the offer to let me join you guys, are you?" Anne said.

There was a moment's pause before Allen realized that he was being addressed.

"No, it's just that- I was thinking. Since it's going to be the three of us now, I've been thinking we're going to need a new team name. I've been trying to come up with a good one all day," Allen said.

"I think that's a good idea," Hajun said. "Since we're different now than we were."

"Really? I think it's fine as-is," Anne said. "That whole vibe of having further to g-"

"No, I think I've got something that will suit us better," Allen said. He spoke aloud the words that he had spent so much time thinking up in earnest, announcing what their name would be.

"We are... BAE."

"Before Anyone Else... BAE. It's really been a long time since then," Anne murmured to themself. They were still sitting in the cluttered room, holding the jacket that they had once given to Allen. In the time it took them to murmur this to themself, they had finished their long trip through their memories. But thinking back on all of it... it was more than just nostalgia.

"Hey, Allen. Hajun," Anne said, turning around and unfurling the jacket. The jacket -- vivid but slightly faded as it was -- was like a flag that symbolized their original ambitions. "This isn't the end, right?"

"Of course it isn't," Allen said.

Hajun laughed and shrugged. "It's just as Allen said. We still ended up losing in the end. We didn't even get the chance to go up against Buraikan. Stopping now would besmirch the name of BAE, wouldn't it?"

"It would, wouldn't it?" Anne said.

Allen nodded enthusiastically. "Just because the Paradox Live is over, that doesn't mean we're going to stop rapping. First things first, we have to beat cozmez. We'll beat the winners of the last round, and then we'll surpass Buraikan... and then, one day, we'll take our sound to a place higher than anyone has ever been before."

"With our hiphop," said Anne.

"With our rap," said Hajun.

The Paradox Live had ended. But in the end, the three of them -- BAE -- had not lost sight of why they had named themselves that. It wasn't over yet. They weren't satisfied yet. They would surely keep rapping in the future; they would pick themselves up and keep running from here. One day, they would catch up to everyone and take the lead.

"Before anyone else"-- that's what the word means. ... Well, that's what it means in a literal sense. In actual usage, it means something a little bit different.

The person I love the most.

The three of them reaffirmed their goal when they repeated what their name meant. But, certainly, they held the other meaning of the name close to their hearts.

As long as they had the same vibes, they always would.

[1] This is a reference to the Fanbook short story.
[2] "B-style". One guess what "B" stands for.
[3] Obviously I'm switching the order here just so it makes sense; they read it in English first and then rephrase it with Japanese phonetics.
[4] A word game where players have to say a word that begins with the concluding kana of the last player's word. Example, yoinked wholesale from wikipedia:
sakura (さくら) > rajio (ラジオ) > onigiri (おにぎり) > risu (りす) > sumou (すもう)
[5] There is some rhyme/rhythm/cadence to this part, and all the lyrics in this section, but trust me: you don't want me to try and come up with proper lyrics. I'm way too white for that.
[6] This is in Japanese (誰よりも先に), as it is every time when they say it as such afterwards - but I'm capitalizing it because, well. BAE, lol.