Momoka Oginome heaved a sigh, rubbing her temples as beads of sweat dribbled down her brow and drenched her bubblegum pink hair. The dank lamp light barely illuminated the document grasped between her shaking hands, forcing her to squint in order to make out the spidery, pixelated-
"Goddammit!" she swore, fumbling for a cigarette. Exhaling as the wisps of smoke curled from underneath her chin, she chewed morosely on it and tilted her head towards the ceiling, her arms hanging limp from her sides.
"What's that I smell?" A slender-fingered hand inched across the paneled wood of her office door.
"Blood and tears," Momoka said viciously, removing the cigarette from her mouth and blowing a petulant smoke ring.
"Well, someone's in a bad mood," the voice cooed as its owner elegantly swooped through the door, sporting a fluffy feather boa and at least five sets of fake eyelashes. "Good evening, Momoka-sama."
"Good god, Yuri." She rolled her eyes at her girlfriend, who glided over to her desk with a sly curl of her lips. Her jumbled brain, eager to latch on any topic not having to do with the pile of paperwork piled haphazardly on top of her cluttered desk, wondered how the woman could move so damn gracefully in those monstrosities of hers.
"Practice, my dear, practice makes perfect," Yuri drawled, as if reading her mind, climbing onto her desk and hiking up her pink skirt to expose to the creamy skin of her thighs. She kicked off her stilettos, which landed on the carpet with a thunk, and plopped her feet in Momoka's lap, wiggling her freshly pedicured toes around the black satin of her dress pants.
Blood. Blood red. Her eyes didn't leave the morbid coloring of her toenails.
"Oh, please," Yuri whined, cupping Momoka's face between her hands. "I prettied myself up for you and all you can look at are my toes? Seriously, though- they're nowhere near my finest assets. As a matter of fact-"
"Your toes are splendid," Momoka cut her off, peering around the woman's hips to snatch up another document. "If you'll excuse-"
"Hello?"Yuri demanded. "Geez, Momoka-sama. I thought you'd pay at least a little attention to me. All the guys say I have this amazing sex appeal, but I can't even seduce my girlfriend? And besides, if you keep up with that disgusting habit, the smoke alarm's bound to go off soon." She plucked the cigarette out of Momoka's hands, flicking it into the nearest wastebasket.
"Sorry, but would you mind turning it off for a bit?" Momoka said absentmindedly, opening a manila envelope and peering into its contents. "I'd give in, but seriously, I've got a crapload of work to do. Not to mention I promised my parents that I'd have dinner with them tonight."
"Ugh, you're always so busy," Yuri complained, sliding into her lap and wrapping her arms around Momoka's shoulders. "What is it now?"
"Kanba Takakura." The name slipped out of her mouth before she could stop it. Almost stopping herself, Momoka gave a minimal shrug of her shoulders. She'd signed a confidentiality agreement with her providers, but what the hell. Hadn't she broken enough rules already? "Only sixteen, and already being groomed to become the next leader of KIGA."
"He seems like a pimp," Yuri remarked, leaning over to tug a small photograph out of the envelope. It was square-shaped, the image grainy and blurry, just barely capturing the likeness of boy with scarlet hair slipping out of the back of a warehouse. "So, this is your evidence?
"Yeah. One of my contacts sat on a roof for an entire night just for this," Momoka sighed. "Anyways, he's dangerous, whether we like it or not. His parents blew up that train sixteen years ago, remember? They're nothing more than annoyingly clever barbarians, for all that self-righteous crap they spew. And that's not the end of it. Turns out he's the biological son of the Natsume clan, obediently forked over to KIGA as a consolation prize. Their own son, a pawn for their silly negotiations."
They sat in silence for a moment.
Momoka cleared her throat. "That's classified information, though. You wouldn't believe how deep Tabuki and I had to dig to get that bit of juicy gossip. They try to pass him off as the twin brother of Shoma Takakura. Funny enough, they have the same birthday: the day of that train crash. Strange coincidence, no?"
She sifted through the envelope, pulling out another file. A boy, slightly shorter than his "twin", stood in front of a train station, hands in his pockets. His eyes, wide and fearful, seemed to dart around the platform in a display of jittery motion, betraying the anxiety that lurked behind his rigid demeanor.
They were a pretty shade of sea foam green.
"I never would have guessed they weren't brothers," Yuri said softly.
"And, what about this kid?" She tapped the photo with a manicured nail. "He a world-class Kamikaze pilot too?"
"No, he hasn't done anything particularly suspicious- as of now, at least. Tabuki's posing as a science teacher to watch him. I arranged for his homeroom teacher to resign, allowing him to take his place. But as of our agent's latest report, he's still an ordinary high school student. Estranged from his traitor brother, it seems. But unusually close to his younger sister." Momoka swiped the picture of the boy away, revealing a girl, dainty and frail and clad in a simple white gown, standing on stage in front of a cheering crowd, hand-in-hand with two familiar girls.
Yuri squinted at the image. "Is that-"
"Yeah, Double H," Momoka finished. "The popular idol group. Apparently they were friends when they submitted their application to that agency, but she got sick right before they became stars. Himari Takakura. I spent about a dozen all-nighters trying to find out more about her, but it's like she appeared out of thin air. Nothing at all."
"Pretty fucked-up family, if you ask me," Yuri scoffed. "So, they're your targets? These three kids?"
"You could say that." Her face hardened. "Who can predict what they'll do next? They've left Shoma and Himari alone so far; for the moment, they only seem interested in corrupting Kanba as much as possible. Just in case someone tries to off them, I guess."
A silence, only ruptured by the muffled tap of Momoka's slippers against the floor, ensued.
"Well," Yuri stood up, smoothing down the front of her dress, "I've got a premiere to be at, with Tsubasa and the others. Enjoy dinner with your family, sweetheart."
"So you didn't just pretty yourself up for me?" Momoka teased, a crooked grin making its way onto her face.
"Oh, poo yourself." Yuri threw her a mocking pout, about to waltz out of the room when she stopped. "Hey, Momoka?"
"I'm thinking of...coming out soon."
It was as unsure as she'd ever seen the usually flamboyant, outgoing Yuri.
Momoka remained impassive. "Well...whenever you're ready."
Their eyes met. Yuri nodded, giving her a tight-lipped smile before flouncing out. "Thanks. See you later."
"Yeah. Have fun."
The door creaked close.
"Well, Momoka," she muttered to herself. "You might as well get going."
She'd started ordering herself around once the struggle between her organization and KIGA had escalated, like a remote control to a robot. Treading lightly as not to disturb the stony silence that now had no filled her flat, Momoka shuffled to the kitchen, filling up her thermos with coffee.
The fragrant steam warmed her frigid hands as she stuffed it into her purse, throwing on her brown overcoat, pale blue scarf, and rabbit earmuffs: the perfect nondescript disguise to get her where she needed to go, since she was smart enough to know that KIGA would resort to any twisted method to get a bullet in her head and her mangled body six feet under, where she could no longer scheme against them. Taking extra safety precautions was never a bad thing.
"Now you have to go outside, Momoka," she said, taking a deep breath and stepping outside into the chilly winter air. The streets were filled with the usual holiday hustle-and-bustle, golden tinsel, tiny white lights, and the pungent smell of pine crowding her senses as the traffic whistled by.
Momoka hailed a cab, peering around to ensure that no one had seen her before clambering inside; she could have sworn she'd seen a masked figure skulking around the corner. Exhaling shakily, she sunk into the worn leather, fastening the seatbelt over her chest.
"Something wrong, ma'am?" an vaguely accented voice spoke from behind the plastic cover.
"No, I'm fine." She gave him a lemony smile. "Just a little winded is all. To the Masaki Apartments, please."
He left the curb in a puff of smoke, coasting past the nighttime glow.
"Mister, I'd like your opinion on something," she spoke up, feeling unnaturally brazen. "What do you say makes the world go 'round?"
He glanced in the rearview mirror, his eyes hidden by a pair of cheap sunglasses. "It's not my place to answer such questions, ma'am."
"Oh, please," Momoka insisted. "It's not like I'll report you or anything. Small talk is allowed, correct?"
"I suppose," he agreed, albeit reluctantly. "What makes the world go 'round? Well, if I wanted to be practical, I'd say money."
"Huh." She pondered his clipped response. "Well, that's stuff a bit too complicated for me. I mean, everything's really twisted already. So, I guess if somewhere were to ask me that, I'd say...caffeine. Pure and simple."
"Caffeine?" His gruff voice took on a tone of incredulity. "Are you screwing with me, ma'am?"
"No, I'm saying it 'cause I believe it! There's something beautiful about it, though, wouldn't you agree?" she chirped. "I mean, most adults drink coffee, right? It's what gets us through the day. I'm sure it's the same for you, mister."
"Well, I guess."
Momoka couldn't help but feel that it was a pacifying remark. She'd had her fair share of those.
"I know, I know. Weird question, right? A weird question from a weird girl, I suppose."
They fell silent.
"Hey, ma'am...I dunno, but you look sort of familiar."
"Oh, do I?" she said convivially, plastering a smile onto her face. "Yeah, I get that a lot. Commoner face, I suppose."
"Nah," he said slowly, sounding suspiciously curious. "You an actress or something?"
Momoka reached in between the folds of her coat, fingering the small handgun that had been fastened to its interior. She despised the things, and had initially abstained from carrying one on her, but like Tabuki had reasoned, it just couldn't be helped. The dangerous were targeted, and KIGA was no exception, what with their reputation of wiping out the slightest threat in a blinding instant, no questions asked. It was a miracle that she had stayed alive so long.
She counted the seconds as the local cafe her sister frequented passed by, eyes on the rising fare on the car's control pad. Two minutes, just two minutes.
"No. The red carpet isn't for me," Momoka finally said, the metal cool against her clammy palm.
"Oh, really? It's probably nothing, then."
She breathed an inaudible sigh of relief. The idea of having to kill a man with whom she'd just shared a reasonably pleasant conversation made her queasy. "Yeah, I'm about as not blue-blooded as anyone could get."
Fortunately, it wasn't long before he was parking near her family's apartment, jutting his head towards the door. "Nice talking to you, ma'am."
"Likewise." She reached into her purse, pulling out a wad of money and slapping it into his outstretched palm. "Keep the change. Thanks for being such interesting company." Accepting his gratitude with a curt nod of her head, she marched primly out of the car, keeping a watchful eye on her surroundings as she strode to the door of a sleek apartmentment building. Her eyes on the warmly glowing lobby and its silver chandelier, she rang up. "Hey, Mom. It's Momoka."
"Momoka, dear!" her mother's voice greeted her, dull and static-y. "Come on up! Dinner's waiting!"
The door clicked open. She stepped inside, mouthing a quick "hello" to the bony receptionist and padding over to the elevator. Slipping into the antiseptic silver box, she prodded the "4" button, immensely grateful that no one had joined her. The doors soon slid shut with a chirpy ping, beginning the smooth trip upwards.
Momoka let out the breath she had been holding, slumping against the cold metal wall of the elevator. Caffeine makes the world go 'round, she hummed to herself, parodying that American bus song she'd listened to as a toddler. Unconsciously, she reached into her bag for the thermos, dribbling some of the bitter liquid into her mouth.
Before she knew it, the doors were opening, revealing her her teary-eyed mother.
"Oh, Momoka!" she cried, throwing her arms around her daughter's shoulders.
Stiffening, Momoka willed herself to relax into her mother's embrace, patting her on the back. Her hair smelled faintly sweet and spicy, a fragrance that had permeated her graying auburn hair and teddy bear apron.
Her mother wiped her eyes, stepping aside to peer inside the apartment. "Ringo! Momoka's home!"
Her sister, heavy-lidded marmoset eyes cast towards the ground and hands fidgeting behind her back, shuffled outside. Her close-cropped hair was tamed with a green headband that matched her pastel school uniform, oddly doll-like in contrast with her gawky teenage body. "Hello, onee-chan."
"Hey Ringo!" Momoka greeted, tousling her hair affectionately. "Long time no see. How's school going for you?"
"Fine," she mumbled.
"Congrats on getting in, by the way. Ohka's is a great school. A couple friends of mine went there for high school. Good things, only good things."
"Ringo!" their mother chided, placing a hand on her shoulder. She smiled apologetically at Momoka. "You'll have to forgive Ringo, my dear. She's going through your teenager phase, as you can see. She'll be smuggling boys inside the house before we know it!"
"Why don't we go inside?" Momoka suggested hurriedly, glimpsing the darkened look on her sister's face. "What's that smell?"
"Oh, yes!" she warbled, eager for a change in subject, waving them into the apartment. Taking Momoka's coat from her and hanging it in a nearby closet, she gestured to the living room's cream-colored couches. "I'm not sure if I told you this, but Ringo's quite the cook, you know! Curry's her speciality. I told her to make some tonight!"
"For me?" Momoka smiled at Ringo as they sat down, deliberately about a half-meter away from one another. "I'm honored. And of course, totally pumped to try it."
Her mother washed her hands at the sink, stirring the simmering pot on the stove. "Something to drink, dear?"
"That can wait. Is Dad coming home for dinner?"
She frowned, and Momoka knew immediately that she'd made a mistake. "I told your father that he should at least come home for dinner; your visits are special occasions, of course. But no, he said he was busy with work and was ordering from his office." She clucked her tongue. "Honestly, that man. No sense of sentimentality."
"No, no, it's fine," she assured him, forcing a laugh. "Give him my best, will you? I wouldn't want to interfere with his work."
"That's the thing." Her mother began to set the table, smiling fondly as she placed a third set of cutlery at what had been Momoka's usual seat while growing up. "If you're too lenient with him, he'll forget about what's most important."
Momoka stared at her clasped hands, feeling that familiar pang of guilt for the umpteenth time.
Her mother slipped on a pair of hot-pink oven mitts, carry the still-bubbling pot of curry to the table. "Apple curry, coming right up!"
"Ringos for Ringo, huh?" Momoka smiled, offering her hand to her sister as she stood up. "That's cute."
Ringo pointedly looked away, clambering to her feet and walking to the table by herself.
Momoka frowned, trying to quash the disappointment welling inside of her. They took their seats, murmuring a quick "itadakimasu" before digging in. Wetting her lips in anticipation, she dolloped rice into her bowl, drizzling a substantial amount of smoky-sweet curry onto the steaming grain.
She nibbled at a tiny spoonful, her eyes widening in surprise at the mingle of flavors dancing across her tongue. "Ringo, this is amazing!"
"Like I said, she's quite the chef." Her mother beamed, dabbing her lips with a napkin.
They ate ravenously, the silence only interrupted by satisfied murmurings and quiet slurps.
"How's your job going, Momoka?" she asked, finally breaking the ice. "What have you been up lately?"
Momoka winced. Keeping the details of her job away was the hardest thing about...well, whatever what she did was. She swallowed a bite of curry to stall for time, letting out a brittle laugh. "Oh, the usual. Business is going well."
"Business? What sort of business?" Ringo asked, surprising both her sister and mother.
Momoka frowned, noticing the slight tremble in the girl's fingers.
"My business?" She searched her mind for a sufficiently vague explanation, finally settling for, "Oh, it's just an investigative agency working for the government. New clients daily. It's really been taking off."
Her spoon hit the table with an echoey clang. "Oh, give me a break!" Ringo shouted, leaping to her feet, her shaking fingers gripping the edge of the flowered tablecloth. She glowered at her, the dark rings under her eyes more prominent than ever.
And that, in itself, was one of the only things left in the world that could break her.
Momoka had spent all of her long twenty-five years fighting for something.
Peace for her baby sister, bundled in pink. Peace for Tabuki, so he wouldn't have to hide his scars. Peace for Yuri, so she could smile at the flashing cameras without wondering if she-if she-
And now her enemy had returned, perhaps she was now fighting for the world itself.
When had the truth begun to blur?
Momoka felt numb, watching her sister cry tears of frustration.
"You're such a bad liar." Ringo's voice shook, her lips upturning in a mocking smile. "'Ringos for Ringo? That's cute. Oh, my new business is taking off. Investigative agency.' Well, sister? Wanna fess up now and tell us how ugly you really are?"
Her mother's eyes flitted from one daughter to the other. She seemed at a loss for what to say. "Ringo, surely you don't mean-" she faltered, at a loss.
"Ringo." Momoka blinked away her tears. "I just- I won't deny that I've lied. Lied a lot, then lied some more. To you and the rest of the world, but I...just know, my job- it's something I have to do."
"And why can't anyone else do it?"
She seemed as vulnerable, as tiny and raw as ever, the little wrinkled baby she had always been.
"Well, it's a pretty tough job. No one else really wants it."
Before Ringo could say another word, her phone began to vibrate intensely in her pocket, a jangling melody blaring from the speakers. Momoka muttered an "excuse me", before whipping it out, eyes widening at the caller ID.
"Tabuki!" she exclaimed, forgetting her company for a moment. In a jerky motion, she stood up, her chair scraping against the tiled floor. Bowl of fast-cooling curry forgotten, she tossed a thin-lipped smile in her mother's direction, shoving her phone back into her pocket and leaning forward to press a kiss to her cheek. "I'm sorry, Mom! Something just came up. From work, you see."
Her mother leapt to her feet, peering worriedly at her daughter. "Is something wrong? You mentioned Tabuki- is he alright?"
Momoka stumbled to the couch, hefting her purse onto her shoulder. "No, no, it's fine. I just have to take care of something," she assured them, slipping into her coat and tightening her scarf. "Take care!"
"Come back as soon as you can!" her mother called after her, reluctantly taking her seat. "We have dessert waiting!"
Fully knowing she wouldn't be back anytime soon, Momoka forced a lemony smile and was soon out the door, shutting it behind her. Taking quick, shallow breaths, she did her best to banish the look of betrayal on her sister's face, peeking back at her cell, a voicemail already in her inbox. Cursing under her breath, she called him back, taking the stairwell.
He answered on the first ring, foregoing any pretense of courtesy and launching immediately into his message. "Momoka, thank God I got to you. There's something-"
"You shouldn't have called this number. It was compromised a week ago, remember? I sent you the new number three days ago," she chastised, her footsteps echoing in the musty corridor.
"Sorry, sorry," he mumbled, sounding not at all apologetic. "I forgot. It's really urgent, and I apologize for interrupting your dinner, but- it can't wait."
"Understood." She reached for her pocketbook, flipping through it and pulling out a map of the local area. Years of broken engagements had trained her well, quashing those traitorous feelings of resentment and sending her catapulting into action without so much as batting an eyelash. "Meet me at checkpoint 3-A in fifteen minutes. It's within your area, right? Even so, it's best for me. Think you can manage it?"
"Well, do I have a choice?" She could hear the sliver of a smile in his voice.
"It's against protocol to answer a question with another question."
"It's been a while since I've heard a joke from you," came his fond reply.
"Roger that. I'll be there."
There was a pause.
"You there, Tabuki?"
"It's like when we were kids, huh?"
"See you, chief."
Momoka let out a sigh, exiting the stairwell.
It was going to be a long night.