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gifts for the monster on your top bunk

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Yuzuko came in with smiles and band-aids. Unlike the professional tan medical tape her father kept, Yuzuko's were brightly decorated - covered in cartoonish mascots and pictures of candy, cheap things that fell off her elbows with the same fervor she trained with.

That in of itself, Ringi wouldn't have minded, glancing over during breaks.

Not until Yuzuko would say, toothless grin aside, "I'll lend you some if you need them!"

Bloody knuckles were easier to handle than that horrible smile. Even her father's complaints were tepid in comparison to relief at wiping it off Yuzuko's face for a moment.

"If you don't come across as apologetic enough," he would say, "Her parents will not let her return."

That was the way those foreigners went. If not for her father's interest, she could have washed her hands of monsters and their friendly conspiring.

Alongside bright red gloves, the closest thing to candy she owned, Ringi wrote - May the best one win!

 

 

---

 

 

Yuzuko kept coming in, always wearing those bright gloves.

Ringi sat to the side, staring at her stretch. It had taken years for Yuzuko to escape the blatant strain. Between motions and preparations, she would sit up with a look of pure surprise - making Ringi's gut churn. It was a shock to all of them that she was still here. Even herself.

"Do you miss them?"

Yuzuko spun her legs through the air. If Ringi bothered to stand up to help, she could power through the rest of her warm-up. Rather than making the girl sit and wait another two hours for the first of the students otherwise to arrive.

Ringi raised her voice. "Your parents?!"

Upside down eyes met hers. Yuzuko arched her back, slamming feet into the ground, to hold herself up.

"It's okay," she said. "I'll see them again soon!" The grin wasn't any better like this. "It's really nice of them to let me stick around here like this!"

The Mawataris - they'd abandoned a child in another country. Ringi could tell. People could say it was because they loved their daughter, but she knew. Even if her father had taken in Yuzuko, it didn't count. That thing wasn't her sister.

"Do you ever miss your mom?"

Yuzuko's voice was always the same. Always blithe. Straight-forward. A skin-crawling honesty.

"What?" Ringi spat.

Turning and crab walking, Yuzuko closed in - Ringi dragged her legs up onto the chair, against her chest, hiding a glare behind her knees.

"I've never seen your mom around," Yuzuko said. She was still holding herself up. Talking so easily. A tiny monster under her bed, terrifyingly friendly. "Do you miss her?"

It wasn't something to think about.

She had her father. She had training. She had food and a home and a place to stay and talent and a million fools who thought they could do anything against her strength.

But Ringi said, "Shut up." She didn't get the flinch she wanted in return - so she slammed down her feet. "You don't care, so shut up."

"Of course I do!" Yuzuko - finally rolled over, staring up like she could be a puppy. "You're my friend."

"I'm not your friend," she muttered. "You freak."

That earned her a longer placid stare. "Oh." Moments, before it still transformed as Yuzuko's face ever did. "You're right! We're family, too!"

"Wh... no! No, we aren't," Ringi said, driving herself back further into the seat.

But Yuzuko was standing, vibrating with absurd excitement. "We don't have to worry about missing anyone, then!"

In a distant bag, that was always on her, Ringi could see the same flash of already torn red gloves. Sewn up. Washed carefully. Her father had shown Yuzuko how, when she'd refused. How to treat the leather. How to hold her hands, to avoid shattering bone.

Ringi folded her arms. "Whatever."

And Yuzuko shone.

 

 

---

 

 

Even long after she'd proven herself, grown men would come in and stare at Ringi as though she was her father's private joke. Regardless of how many people she could twist down to the mat, strike, break, there was always another who called it an accident.

"They're all pigs," she said one night, throwing shoes across the room.

Yuzuko stared down from her bunk. It had been her father's request, and 14 months, before Ringi had allowed it. She kept things clean. And clear. Sharing a room wasn't terrible. As long as it was her choice.

"The way they look at me," she muttered. Ringi mussed her sweat-drenched hair. "Like I can't do anything."

"Really?" Yuzuko tilted her head, ever like a confused animal. "That's so weird! Why would they do that?"

Ringi sniffed, worn and tired and annoyed. "Yuzuko. Don't be dumb."

"But you're the coolest! I know why they think they can beat me. I really suck!" The same face. The same grin. It wasn't as unsettling, anymore. Yuzuko's face had grown on her like a fungus. "No one could really beat you though. You might be one of the strongest people in the world!"

The effect was worse, now. Wriggling through worn holes in armor, carefully built pride, Ringi scoffed. "Duh." She crawled into her own bed, wrapping covers up around her head. Yuzuko was terrifying. "I don't know how you can keep coming back when they look at you like that. You don't have anything going for you."

Once, Yuzuko had complimented her on the mean things Ringi said.

"It's cool that you could be so honest with me," she'd said. "It always makes me feel like I can get even stronger!"

Here, Yuzuko leaned over the bed, staring with an upside down grin.

Monsters weren't supposed to hang up like that.

But Ringi figured it was alright for a weirdo like Yuzuko to be an exception.

"I don't mind," she said. "They're right, aren't they? I'm just a kid!" Confusion floated across her face. "But it's sorta silly to make assumptions like that, anyway. In a fight, aren't you supposed to be ready for anything? One day, I'll give them a real run for their money!"

It was so simple.

And foolish.

And Ringi wasn't sure why she hadn't thought of it like that before. A smile challenging the frustration on her lips. Grinding her teeth with a private grin.

"It'll be a while for you," Ringi said. "But don't worry." She gave an honest gift - a wink. "I'll fix 'em up till you can yourself."

Yuzuki held out a hand, and Ringi slammed her own into it.

"May the best one win!"

It couldn't be anyone else but her.

 

 

---

 

 

Her father sat down beside her, pulling away from the ring where Yuzuko circled.

"Aw, dad." Eyebrow raised, Ringi gave a coy smile. "Aren't you supposed to be up for Yuzuko? She could get into trouble."

"She will," he said. "But she can handle it."

Ringi laughed, and fixed the frames slipping down her nose. "I don't like these much. I think I'll take 'em back to the store, alright? When Yuzuko's done here, I'll drag her out with me."

"You've been training her," he said.

"You always talk about how dangerous the streets are." In the ring, Yuzuko had her opponent pinned. Eight seconds - she could see through the holes in her hold, and the opponent was unfortunately smart enough. That was better, though. It was better to see Yuzuko struggle with that sick smile of hers. Years, and it was fun. Years, and it was a delight to see people weak in the face of the monster she called family. "No better place for us, right?"

"She's not good at striking like you are," he said.

"Good," Ringi said.

He stared, quiet scars and lines through his face - but she never broke down, against him. It made her feel taller. Stronger. "Break her hold a few times." Her opponent was smart, but not quite enough. Another grip, and Yuzuko had brought him down. He was panicking - and Ringi never did. "If you have the time, remind her what it's like."

Ringi grinned. "I'd never let her forget."

And her father returned the same smile, colored however it may have been by the strange mania behind her strange sister. His two daughters - a bright pride that she didn't need at all.

A red glove stabbed, triumphant, into the air.

The best one in the ring always won.

 

 

---

 

 

"You're so lucky!" Ringi whined, hanging over her sister's shoulders. "I'll never get to fight Natsuo this way."

But she'd given her new gloves.

Something new, for such a fun fight. The two of them had run through boredom and ambivalence enough to appreciate the rarity.

"She might win!" Yuzuko bopped Ringi in the head, too strong for her own good. "Then I'll definitely convince her too."

Ringi huffed. "No, she won't. It's you."

Yuzuko's eyes wandered, eclectic twitch of her nose drawing Ringi's attention. "Then ... oh!" She spun around. "When I win, maybe she'll say she owes me one, and we'll trade out fights with friends! That'd be cool, right?" Eyes sparkling.

She was still a fool.

But nowadays, it made Ringi smile. Even if she couldn't see the terrifying hatred in Natsuo's eyes. Ringi wondered if it was familiar, for Yuzuko. After who she'd grown up with.

"You'd better!" She bopped Yuzuko's head in return. All the assurance the two of them had was today. Her sister would bring trouble like Ringi did, but in the moment, she always grinned. Monsters needed all the help they could get to survive. "May the best one win."