Chapter 1: everyone dies
Hi, I fell rapidly back into an old fandom. Shipping everyone with everyone too. It's great, welcome to the show. If you see bolded words, refer to the definitions in the end note for clarification. Feedback/thoughts would be helpful and encouraging!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"She decides God is no good, but he must exist, he must exist so she can hold him accountable."
—Ada Limón, from "The Echo Sounder", Lucky Wreck
Before Mui and Nagi, there was Amadora and Sepira.
And after Amadora and Sepira, there was you.
And you deserve an apology, because "Dora" owes you, everyone, for the terrible things she couldn't prevent and all that the "Mui" after her will finish with an angel of suffering. After all, she is the reason you are here in the first place, waiting out your suffering in a backwater, underground laboratory; surrounded by the people you once called "family"; remembering the other six lives through which you barely lived and miserably died. You are a testimony of the Mafia's failures; you are her sins.
Put the apology somewhere close to your heart, so that no one can take it back. Keep it under your pillow, to warm you when nothing else can. Hold it to the light, just like that, and see the bulletproof dream through the sheen that only one widowed mafioso by the name of Giotto can recite, word for word, in Italian, English, Japanese, tears.
Dora wants to start from the top, all the way down to the fitting end, because someone needs to know that she didn't want to die before her cielo, the better part of her.
A curly green-haired monster visits Sicily in the dead of night, bringing with it arson. By human standards, Amadora Nero is 13 years-old when she burns her neighbor's mansion down.
It is her first time playing with fire, and she nearly dies from handling the gasoline; had it not been for her Lighting flames, which decided to manifest right there, her brown skin would've suffered more than just a couple of minor burns.
But, she thinks, every burn is worth watching all of his worldly possessions melt into oblivion.
That, and fire is kind of pretty—scratch that, really pretty. It deals with her problems instantaneously, and almost always matches her headwraps.
To be fair, Giallo Estraneo is a big-time snitch too; people should be lining up to thank her for running him out of town.
Her personal reason? Nobody feels her sister up and gets away with it—not even if they control most of the city's criminal syndicates.
Sometimes, she thanks God, and the Pope, and whoever else is out there, for her golden awakening, but then she remembers that there is no heaven for her kind.
Or at least, their associate Kawahira is convinced that nothing human can apply to them.
A few days after this incident, Sepira Nero comes storming into the room with poison on her tongue and a lecture on her backhand slap. After a massage or two though, she isn't angry for long, and even offers Dora a tight "you did good" hug. In truth, whether she approves of her little sister's pyromania or not, Sepira knows that the Nero twins always stick up for one another.
"Stop putting yourself in danger!" She cries over the wine and cheese. "You're so bad."
"I thought you like them bad!"
No matter how oblivious someone is, they can always tell who is who between the twins; they are identical in everything but palette; two different sides of a coin; black and white. Of course, occasionally, there will be someone who asks stupid questions, like do you have different fathers or how long did it take you to burn your skin this dark or can you still read each other's minds if she's black and you're white, but they take it in graceful stride.
Yet occasionally, just occasionally, Dora feels ashamed of her skin and hair.
People don't exactly help the 18 year-old's case, particularly the older ones and fellow students. Dinner parties can become rounds of comparison, academy a popularity contest. Even Kawahira, with his permanent neutrality, looks more to Sepira for guidance.
Thus, she equates her features with failure. The shame runs, and boy does it run deep, so much so that every shooting star, every birthday candle, every crystal keepsake is called upon, wished upon.
I want her pale skin. I want her dark blue locks. I want her intellect.
I want to be Sepira.
Burning down drug warehouses and weapons factories becomes therapy rather than work.
Maybe the arsonist is 24 when Sepira suddenly expects child, her rounding belly carefully hidden beneath her long white dress. Hours after the revelation that Dora is going to be a zia, and the potential baby daddy drops in through the window, flaming (ha) yellow-orange hair and all. The guy even has a cloak for the whole tall, dark, and handsome look.
But seriously? That's her door. Now Dora has to enter through the roof.
She gets punched in the nose by her twin for asking too many questions; the young man, and future king of the world, blushes from head to toe. How cute!
"Soooo that means he's not taken. Nice."
"So if he didn't do it, who did? Who is the real father Seppie? Tell me!"
She has to hand it to Giotto though: he can really get down to business, and has a mean knack for vigilante ass-kicking and inspiring speeches about justice. She almost wants to believe him herself, when he talks about a world without crime, about an ultimate dream, but she lets Sepira handle the talking. Sometimes, it's amusing to visualize her sister being unable to say no to a pretty face—not that she would deny him anything either. The man is definitely hot stuff, with or without the Sky flames at his temple.
He will make a fine line of successors; she doesn't need foresight to know this.
Giotto comes over too often for dinner, and it makes Dora uneasy that her twin buys his goody-goody act so much. Because why would such a widely-admired figure come to their house every day if he wasn't here for something? They do host his business receptions, but there must be something to it.
This guy can't be for real. Oh, please be for real—wait no, yes, nooo.
Plus, his smiles are borderline scary, their longevity so endless, she wonders how his face hasn't cracked from all that cheer. Nobody's that happy, and whenever she cracks a joke, he laughs like she's the most charming thing in the room; gross, it has to be fake. Sure, she can be flirtatious and downright alluring, but Dora would sooner shove dynamite up some aristocrat's ass than play a scale on the piano.
"Seppie, help me." She rolls around in bed, secretly listening in on Giotto's speech. He is trying to win the favor of some big cheeses in the speech hall. What? Don't give her that look. The man has a way with words. "I'm not even that funny. What does he want from me?"
"Your loyalty? Your friendship?" her sister supplies. She is the spitting image of patient frustration, but her younger twin thinks that she's keeping something from her too, hmm hmm. "Look, if he wanted something, he would've already made a move. Just admit that he's one of the good guys. You could really learn a thing or two."
Dora ceases her movement, propping a cheek on her hand and contemplating the perspective. She comes to the conclusion that her sister is going to be the toughest parent ever to bypass. "I absolutely hate it when you make sense. Okay, what do I do then?"
Barely a moment later and she suddenly rises from the bed, clapping her hands together like she's finished devising her latest fireproof plan: pearly whites out and gunpowder loaded. "Nicknames! Friends give each other nicknames right?"
"I should've never proposed—"
"I got it!" she exclaims. "Giozo! Like bozo with Giotto! He's always such a chump, this is perfect."
"Dio santo, someone save him—"
The next time Dora sees him, she christens the poor mafioso with a full kiss on the lips and a bear hug; his face promptly erupts and his guardians laugh all the way home.
The Tri-ni-set is divided and an alliance comes into existence a year after baby Lucy is born; Dora designates herself babysitter and Sepira's #1 supporter.
Vongola, Simon, Estraneo, Bovino, Cavallone, Superbi. Multiple Famiglia sign a pact towards peace. Sepira also founds the Giglio Nero Famiglia; much to her chagrin, her younger sister designs the emblem. They both get it tattooed under their right eyes in the brightest orange ink possible.
Personally, Dora thinks they got the best set of rings too; only "Giozo" would name his clan after seafood. He laughs his sweet, airy chuckle when she starts sending him clam-themed gifts every holiday. In exchange, she receives hundreds of "Mare" sea drawings, to which she pleads "please no more water."
Sometimes, when he's not looking, she'll just sit there and admire how he looks in a suit and tie. The ballroom is big enough, Giotto surely won't notice her watching his pretty hands move as he passionately speaks, or the calm smile that graces his lips whenever someone agrees with him, or the way his hair catches the sunlight. Cozarto Simon declares somewhere over her right shoulder "ah, young love!" and Dora deliberately backs up into his foot with her heel.
When Giotto finally spots her, she is delighted when he waves his signature shy wave and makes a beeline towards her alone. The familiarity and acceptance makes Dora feel less like a second-class citizen and more like a star when she stands on the stage next to her golden twin.
"Thank you all for coming tonight. As you may have heard, the Sicilian ring has been—"
He gets his cloak all wet protecting her groceries one spring shower, and she decides that the "Wet Look" ranks in her top ten, next to "Sultry Gaze" and "Mafia Boss." Giotto mentions visiting Japan on the way home, with its cherry blossoms and summer fireworks; she mentions that the slightly opened yukatas and seafood must be shared with a partner in crime like him.
"I thought we were going to leave humanity to its own devices," Dora starts one day in the parlor room. Not unkindly, like her usual inability to forgive and forget, but with all the caution a Lightning guardian can offer its Primo; that, and she has a two-faced checkerboard of a Japanese demon breathing down her neck. "Kawahira is unhappy."
"Kawahira is always unhappy," Sepira retorts. "How much did he pay you to bother me this time?"
"Ehhh," she feigns. Seers are scary. "Okay fine, like three times my salary? I'm just saving up for Lucy. I want to buy her a German dollhouse, those things don't grow on trees."
"Neither does honesty, apparently." Sepira rolls her eyes. She sits by a window overlooking the training grounds, sighing in contentment as she sews their crest onto her white mushroom hat.
Every day, the same sunny seat, the same loving gaze upon her people. The newest recruits are loyal young men and women with hearts of gold, the passion for social change running through their veins; reeled in by the one of brightest Skies to walk the earth.
"Nothing either of you says will change my mind. I want to live with the humans, Dora. My own daughter is proof that it will work. We will find greater purpose than living in fear of extinction and war."
For a moment, Giotto's smiling face comes to mind, close enough to touch the sun, and even the cynical arsonist is fooled, seeing the rainbow, the dream, the colorful life the Mafia could perhaps manifest: coexistence. Peace. She takes one look into her sister's baby blue eyes, and there is no yesterday, no tomorrow; only the present by her side.
"I see my dearest Seppie has been taking lessons from Giozo. That charisma almost seared off my vagin—"
Sometimes, Dora likes to make life a little exciting (harder), so she climbs onto Giotto's back as he trains his stamina and climbs up a mountain with his bare hands. Needless to say, she had a great view and he prayed silently for his future.
She is probably 27 when she learns from Kawahira that she can't have children.
"Anovulation." He simply states, like this one medical term is supposed to tell her why her body decided to bail out on her plans of family and legacy and happiness. Maybe Dora burned down one too many houses? Was it the petty theft from five years back? Accidentally killed an innocent? Invisible injury to the uterus? Did one of her enemies become a witch doctor?
No, you're just an incomplete woman. You'll never be like Sepira. You'll never have a Lucy of your own.
Around this time, Giotto gives her possibly the worst and best pep talk of her life.
"Go away Giozo. I don't want to hear it, I'm not a charity case," she sniffs. Why did Kawahira have to go and tell everyone, especially him? The river water looks more appealing than usual around her bare feet. She never had an affinity for water, but who knows? Maybe if she just—
"I've always wondered, why arson?" He turns his sunset smile to her and puts a warm hand on her back, rubbing circles down a weary, hunched spine. His comfort is never unwelcome, and she hates how her body leans into his touch. "You don't get off on it, but you like to watch things burn. It's so fascinating."
"Honestly, what's it to you whether I 'get off on it' or not?" Dora isn't sure what to make of the mafioso right now, miffed by his intimacy; it's like he's had to deal with her all these years and got good at it. "Like you even understand the first thing about pyromaniacs, ya twat. Gonna take me to jail once I confess? Has that always been your plan?"
"You're not a criminal, Dora," he says.
She scoffs and throws her hands up. What is with him today? "Oh, so now you have the answers to all my problems? Then do tell, what am I?"
"You're fire, baby." He even makes the finger-gun and bang! sound.
That's new, she thinks before breaking a rib laughing. Or crying. Or both. She's so shocked; he's managed to trivialize all of her worries so positively, she almost can't remember what they are.
"Truthfully, you do our communities great service in taking down the crime rings. And no one handles a flamethrower like you do, so I stand by what I said."
"Absolutely terrible." She dabs at her eyes. "Where did you pick this stuff up from?"
"Only the best."
She will still cry every time she sees tiny socks and lacy strollers, but Giotto seems to always have a handkerchief lying around. While she blows her nose, she tells him about the time she burned down her neighbor's house, and the other time she used a grenade, and the other...
Some months after her newfound vulnerability, and she does get a baby… kitten!
She finds him in a pile of dead tuna fish, feasting upon the rot and throwing up like a lightweight. Her clothes have ashes on them and her hair is greased back, but she still produces some kind of cleanliness from her back pocket. In a stolen doily, his body is carried into the house, held to the furnace and warmed back to life. The feeling of that tiny soul between her burned palms makes her think twice about ever setting fire to the world again… for like five seconds.
She names him Tonno because she's so creative (cynical). Giotto later apologizes to the cat for her.
In a year's time, they are the most dynamic duo on the block; a spiteful arsonist and her fat tabby against all odds. Before every job, when she gets down on one knee and kisses the Mare ring around her neck, her baby jumps into her backpack and makes room for himself among the wires and powders. On occasion, she would be a moment late in delivering the final blow, letting the cat out of the bag instead of the flamethrower. Many frustrated groans and furious scratches later, and another organized crime circle is up in flames, green sparks spreading across the ground.
Just a girl and her pussy. The men will never know what burned them.
Ultimately, it is Giotto's right-hand man, G., who presents Dora with a wedding ring. Sick of his boss's indecisiveness, he thrusts the ring into her chest and storms off to bother Lampo, mumbling something like "too old for this." She calls out to his retreating form that she doesn't like the color, but she pockets the jewelry anyway, the lie leaving a bitter taste in her mouth.
Soon after, Giotto comes barrelling into the area in embarrassment and immediately recognizes the resigned look on her face.
She takes his gloved hand and presses the ring back into his palm. "I have a sister complex," she blurts.
"She was our matchmaker."
"I have an obsessive headwrap collection."
"As long as you are comfortable."
"I burn things for a living."
"Keep doing it."
"I'm not human."
"I believe in aliens."
"I can't get pregnant."
"I don't want children."
He makes her look him in the eye, even as she tries to shove him aside and hide away. "You don't get it! I can't give you what you need. You have no future with me."
"And I might die tomorrow, but I still love you. You are all I need."
Sepira finds them that evening on a lone stone bench in the garden, somewhere between the dusk and stars, learning, listening, loving. To Dora's utmost delight, her fiancé thinks "anovulation" is a stupid word too, for loss.
It is in the most painful moments, when a bullet rips out her gut and her sister sings their broken Italian lullaby, that Dora appreciates her skin. For once, Sepira looks haggard and ghastly, and she selfishly adores how even at death's door, her own complexion retains its dark glow.
"I was supposed to die first," her older twin cries, as its other half bleeds out into the cobblestone.
"Please… feed Tonno when… you get home," Dora mumbles. "I left… the food in… the gray… cabinet…" The words break apart on her lips, flaking like the blood down her chin. Her head goes slack against an erratic heartbeat, the rhythm she protected from gunfire. Someone gave away the location of Giglio Nero's leader; of course they were set up, on her wedding day of all times. "Bury me… with my rings…"
"Shh shh, save your breath, my fulmine. Y-you will feed him with me. No one is b-being buried. It's okay. Everything will be okay. Giotto is coming."
Sepira is a liar; nothing is okay. She tries so hard to make this painless, her Sky flames burning into Dora's abdomen like the light of a strong kerosene lamp, but she is no healing touch, no Sun. It will all be over soon, and she knows that Giotto will not come in time.
"Do we… get a heaven… sorellona?" Dora hasn't called her that in years, or asked such a fruitless question.
One kiss, two kisses are pressed into a brown palm, the only clean skin. "It is a place on earth with you."
"Learned… that from… Giozo... always had a… way with… words…"
"No no no shh, be quiet sorellina. You must stay. Stay with me. I don't want to live in a world without you."
"Everyone… dies…" The arm falls limp against a red side. "At least…"
I died for you goes unsaid.
In a back alleyway, surrounded by the worst criminals in industrial Italian society, near a broken water pipe and some dozen rotting turnips, before the love of her life can say goodbye, Amadora Nero takes one last breath in her sister's arms.
Centuries later, in modern day Namimori, Japan, "Mui" is born the brown twin again. Just peachy.
Italian Vocabulary: cielo (sky), zia (aunt), Dio santo (for God's sake), Tonno (tuna), fulmine (lightning), sorellona (big sister), sorellina (little sister)
"Your heart is the size of a fist because you need it to fight."
When the trees have shed all of their leaves and the earth is wet with snow, Sato Takane screams and drops her first baby on its head.
There is this quiet, sickening crack as the body rolls over the tile and stops before a horrified nurse. The new mother's feet almost bury holes into the mattress as she hysterically cries and scrambles to protect the second child in her arms (from what, exactly). The baby begins to wail too, as though she can feel the fallen one's pain.
Mui should've died then and there, but with a spark of green and one nurse's quick thinking, she is brought home in the same day, albeit reluctantly. In the future, she will come to know her savior as one Sawada Nana, and this incident as the first time mother rejects her.
"How dare you fail to tell me that your grandfather is a kurombo! I would've never married—"
Curious amethyst eyes, pale skin, and a tight grip are the first things that welcome Mui into her new life.
She and Nagi are one going on two and quite enamored with each other, always reaching out to touch their counterpart's face or hair or bib. Their shrieks and giggles can even be heard from next door; the elderly neighbors, the Michibi couple, insist that Takane and her husband Saizo let "the dear little angels" come by and play. They drop off a tangerine a day and ask that the fruit be delivered as blessings, but under a jealous mother's wrath, they wind up in the communal garbage all the same.
Frankly, Takane is unnerved by these developments, from the fact that the twins occupy themselves with nothing but one another to their popularity in the neighborhood. She laments over the money spent on untouched blocks and dolls, the toys left discarded in the apartment corner along with the weekly toddler magazines Nana sends over. The retired nurse is too nosy for her own good; so what if she has a kid the same age? Takane needs paychecks, not advice and pity.
She swears, if it weren't for that lady meddling, she would've already separated the twins and put the brown menace in the back shed, away from her pure baby girl, her only baby girl. It takes every fiber in her being to not scoff when she has to feed and clothe the unwanted child.
To these sentiments, Saizo has no words. In fact, he seems to say less and less as the days go by, like something inevitable has gripped his heart and driven away all hope.
In this state, as his inner novelist dictates, Saizo leaves his thoughts jotted down on multiple crumpled papers until he reaches the desired conclusion. He seals it in two envelopes, just in case, and hands one over to the neighbors and the other to Nana when she comes by again. She shoots him a concerned look when he heaves a harsh cough, but he waves off the concern with a mischievous finger raised; the twins are napping, tiny hands inseparable. "The instructions are on the back," he says, pocketing a bloody handkerchief.
When Nana can no longer drop by, as her clumsy son seems to need a very full-time mother, the Sato household falls into a deeper state of unhappiness. Takane is fixated on her televised debut, and the sicker Saizo grows, the more determined he is on finishing his final book. To prevent his wife from taking apart the most precious thing in his life, the man sits by his children every night, typing away at an old laptop and watching Nagi curl into Mui instead of the sheets.
Sometimes, and he knows that no one is looking or else he'd die from embarrassment, he'll just cry for them; for all of the hardships that he won't be there to ease, for their first steps and words and friends and loves, for their lives without him. The novel For Them by Sato Saizo never finds its way to the ones who need it the most, sealed away in a shabby gray coffin.
A month after this episode, when the twins are about to turn three, the freshly widowed Takane hits it big and remarries stupidity personified: Tachibana Yusuke. He moves them to the edge of Namimori, in a mansion big enough to house the city's homeless, and introduces Nagi as the angel and Mui as the gaijin to his associates.
Today is a good day, Nagi decides, primarily because mother makes it a habit to leave her children unfed and unattended.
The woman is at a dinner party with some of the richest people in Japan, dragging her husband along as an accessory to flaunt. This comes as a surprise to neither twin, the servants having also conveniently disappeared, but their absence does nothing to deter the celebration; after all, there is little reason to believe that anyone other than Mui is a parental figure.
Into their sixth year of life, and Nagi respects no one nearly as much as she does her older sister. When no one is around to buy Nagi clothes, Mui learns how to sew in a day. When there is a bug in the house, Mui is the first to disinfect. When the fridge is empty, Mui cooks up magic from scraps. She never seems to need anything besides encouragement, of which Nagi is certainly more than happy to give.
"Mui-nee, can you make lus… lusuagunia?"
"Lasagna? Only if you help cut the onions."
She never seems to think twice about her sister's cooking expertise or bilingualism. In fact, Nagi encourages her and takes every chance to hear the—what is it called again, Itawen?—pretty other language. Pretty, like the way her sister's dark skin looks against the egg-shell white of the kitchen as she peppers the ragu. Her complexion is healthy and wholesome, glowing in a way that makes Nagi wish her pale palette could retain the same amount of light; all she does is burn in the sun. And has she even gotten started on her sister's purple curls—
"N… Na… Nagi, you're projecting again." Mui brings her back to reality with a laugh. The six year-old blinks once, twice, and flushes deeply.
"S-sorry. I just wish my hair was shiny and fluffy like yours," Nagi mumbles.
"Only you, imouto. Only you." Her mixed twin responds with this sad smile, the kind that children shouldn't know how to make. Nagi doesn't quite grasp the implications, but she preens at the idea of being her sister's sole admirer, and hugs her from the back, pressing her ear to a familiar heartbeat. This effectively dumps more cheese into the baked dish, which prompts Mui to slam her forehead into the counter and Nagi to fist-pump at her success.
Who doesn't love some extra cheese?
After dinner, the two girls lie side by side on the lawn and talk about food and books and dreams. Particularly, Nagi learns about the outside world through Mui's eyes: an expensive boat ride down the coral coast, accompanied by a picnic and roses; cobblestone steps under two figures running from the rain, each carrying a bag of vegetables; the warmth of a ballroom somewhere in paradise, filled with champagne kisses and chocolate laughter.
Though Nagi doesn't really know what any of that entails, she nonetheless feels the need to make the little she does comprehend come to life, pulling her sister into a silly dance and laughing the night away.
A lifelong regret: she wishes the next morning had never come, if only to preserve their perfect world and prevent the pain.
Mother comes home smelling the residue of a foreign meal and throws a glare in Mui's direction; even without hard proof, she always finds fault in the child. Before anyone can stop her, she has the brown girl by the curls, dragging her into the recently cleared out basement and throwing away the key. She ignores Nagi's "It was me! I told her to do it!" and Mui's screams. Ultimately, it is this punishment alone that creates the latter's intense fear of the dark.
Hours later, when the house has gone completely still and Nagi finds the key at the bottom of the compost, the twins reunite, both pairs of amethyst eyes red and weary. The youngest sets a plate of poorly wrapped onigiri on the table, wringing her hands together.
"I-I tried to make them like you do," she confesses, like she has failed before even trying. "You gotta eat, or you have no energy."
Mui takes the biggest ball and tears into it, munching carefully around the harder bits of rice. The seaweed is wet, and it only grows damper as she cries into the second and third bites and her sister panics.
"Ahhh, don't cry! Is it bad? I knew it."
"No, they're delicious. You w-worked so hard to make them, I'm just so h-happy."
Nagi looks anywhere between flattered and tearful. "I'll make them for you again, I promise!" Small arms wrap around shaking shoulders. "Does it hurt anywhere?"
"Everything hurts less when I'm with you," Mui whispers into fair skin. Her hands come up to reciprocate the embrace. "I love you, Nagi."
"I love you, Mui-nee."
A lifelong lesson: her sister is still human, even if she can speak Itawen or cook lusuagunia or seem like nothing ever shakes her to the core.
Today is a bad day, Mui decides, primarily because it is the first day of elementary school and their parents are not going to show up.
As much as their truancy relieves her, she loathes seeing Nagi even fractionally unhappy. Takane and Yusuke were not made to raise children, of this Mui is certain, but that doesn't mean they are any less responsible for being here.
But this six year-old isn't about to let them ruin the day, and so she does as Robinhood would: steal from the rich (Takane), give to the poor (Nagi).
Before the rooster crows, she sneaks out of the house to pawn off a silver ring and buy her twin the brightest red randoseru this side of Japan; for herself, a deep orange. The small business owner, a white-haired man named Kawahira, looks oddly knowing, as if he's seen this exact same game plan enacted before. He sets down his newspaper to stare Mui straight in the eye, until she considers crying pervert, and then proceeds to hand her Chococat and Keroppi keychains on the house, along with a… lighter?
"Congrats, brat. You made it." He taps her forehead twice and she bats his hand away, an unwelcomed wave of nostalgia rolling over her. When she exits the shop and heads back to an excited Nagi, she considers that he wasn't actually praising her for entering the first grade, but for something she can't seem to place her finger on; something all too distant and close in the same breath. Nonetheless, the lighter is safely concealed in her left sock.
Despite the hand-me-down condition, the uniforms look absolutely darling on Mui and Nagi, not that the former expected any less, especially of her imouto. Under the kind Namimori sunshine, their matching hats gleam like beacons of hope as they skip down the street hand-in-hand and through the gates...
... right into trouble. From what Mui can gather in one glance, a group of older boys has ruined a smaller one's bag, throwing sand into all of its pockets and stomping on its straps for shits and giggles.
Internally, Mui fumes with the heat of a thousand forest fires, seeing herself reflected in the victim, but externally, she breathes through her nose and tries to steer clear of the situation. Nope, not going to ruin this day, nope nope nope, not even to help a brother out.
Of course, she doesn't get very far when Nagi cries "Injustice!" and makes a mad dash for the bullies, foregoing all of her sister's warnings. Fast forward twenty paces, and the eldest finds herself between a rock and a hard place, or more specifically, between three fourth-graders and a mouthful of sediment. Mui peers over her shoulder at Nagi, who shoots her a mischievous smile and helps their pitiful peer stand.
Why me, she thinks despairingly and holds her hands up in pacification. "Um, could you maybe not hurt the backpack? What did it ever do to you?"
"What's it to you, ugly?" the first butt asks.
"We're just having some fun with Dame-Tsuna," the next one adds.
"Yeah, be a good girl and run along," says last, the leader, as far as size.
"Dame-Tsuna?" She furrows her eyebrows. As if on cue, a modest eep sounds from behind her, putting a face to the title. "If I had to call anyone no-good, it would be a bunch of ten year-olds who think that hurting someone half their size makes them look tough."
A beat of silence and three blushing faces. "L-like a gaijin is so tough!" the leader stutters. "I bet your p-parents don't even want you—"
Now it's personal. "Let me be clear about one thing." He gets kneed in the gut for the first comment (she abhors that word), and his collar pulled forward for the parental accuracy. "You think a black girl like me can't make you feel just as unwanted?"
The boy whimpers when she pulls out the lighter and traces his chubby jawline. "Well, I've got news for you big guy: try me again, and I'm gonna burn your house."
The fire sparks, and Nagi laughs after the bullies take off with looks of absolute horror carved into their cheeks. "Is that your new catchphrase? I like it."
Truth be told, she doesn't know where it came from, or how to explain her newly discovered affinity for the lighter. "Don't get used to it," Mui sighs finally, dusting her skirt. A voice in the back of her head tells her that the threat is here to stay.
A bell rings overhead as all the students make their way into the building for class. "Mui, we're gonna be late!" Nagi gasps, clapping her hands to her mouth. "I'll save you a seat."
Too late, the Nagi has flown the coop, leaving her twin behind with a wide-eyed, tearful child. He is a trembling creature with brown, gravity-defying hair and dusty hands clenched into tiny fists, staring at the ground like it's done him a great injustice. Mui blinks away an unknown recognition; has she met this boy before? No, impossible; the twins have never properly left the house until now. But she swears he once jumped through a fourth story window, on an island by the sea.
In the present, she takes one peek at his unrecognizable bag, collapsed against a sand animal, and decides that backpacks are overrated anyway, shrugging hers off and passing it over.
"W-what is this?" he squeaks.
"A reward for not letting them see your tears," Mui replies, removing her hat as well. She fixes it onto his poofy hair with a fond smile. "You can go ahead and cry now. I packed tissues."
Almost instantaneously, his shoulders sag and the rain falls, drop by drop, from his honest caramel eyes. He must've been very scared, sniffling multiple times before asking for her name.
"Sato Mui, but you can just call me Mui, um…?"
"Sawada Tsunayoshi! I'm S-Sawada Tsunayoshi."
"Okay okay, Sawada-kun Sawada-kun," she teases. "The girl who ran in is my sister Nagi. I'll see you in class."
She doesn't quite hear him say "just Tsuna" or "thank you" when she leaves, and almost misses her teacher's inquiry while daydreaming in her window seat. A spiral notebook makes contact with her forehead.
"Welcome back, Sato-chan. Now tell me, where is your hat and backpack?" Susume-sensei crosses her arms expectantly.
Mui blanches, and that's when Nagi decides to actually come to the rescue. "Sensei, we're sharing. It's a twin thing."
Everyone in the class laughs at their expense, but the girls both sigh in relief. The topic isn't brought up again in favor of a name activity, but one little boy across the room seems to replay it over and over, as though in disbelief that someone would give up a new backpack and premium edition Keroppi keychain for him.
"So how was your first day of school?" his mother asks him as soon as he comes through the door.
"Kaa-san, I think I made some friends!"
"Oh, that's lovely! You should invite them over. What are their names?"
"Sato Mui and Nagi. They are twins! Mui-chan scared these boys away, and and gave me her backpack, and—"
Sawada Nana drops the dish in her hands with a resounding crack, memories of a baby, a novelist, and a letter coming to mind as her son rattles off about purple eyes and brown skin.
Vocabulary: kurombo (N-word), gaijin (foreigner/outsider), randoseru (small gift backpack given to elementary students in Japan)
Chapter 3: On Evaluating Hope, Part One
Enjoy! Cat scene was inspired by the Japanese film If Cats Disappeared From The World, one of my favorites.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice."
Chapter 3: On Evaluating Hope, Part One
Namimori has an interesting relationship with cats, the point being that either everyone knows a street cat or has adopted one. There are civilians who feed them leftover seafood, others who put out milk, and some go as far as to give them designated nicknames and handmade houses, if they haven't already fostered one. Pet stores have seen a rise in toy and catnip sales in the past few years, local shelters both enthused and nervous by the sheer amount of donors coming in and out weekly.
To this town, cats are a way of life, which is why an eight year-old Nagi finds it amusing that her twin attempted to keep the one behind their house a secret. It is a black kitten with gold-green eyes and the smallest meow in the world; she giggles when Mui scrambles to cover it up in a makeshift basket.
"Hm hm, so this is where you go after school!"
"I-I was trying to surprise you," she relents. "You wanted to draw animals, right? I think tracking his growth everyday would be good practice."
The younger sister is beside herself with happiness, feeling her eyes water as she crouches next to the woven container. "You… how did you know?"
Mui blinks in surprise, and then leans in with a secret. "I can actually read minds, but that's between you and me." She gets a light push for that one. "Silly, we're twins! Of course I know."
"And how do you know it's a 'he?'"
"Maybe we could even get him to be the classroom pet. Susume-sensei took our bunny away."
"That's a great idea! We should tell her next time."
"Y'know, he reminds me of you," Nagi observes, lifting the kitten into her lap. "For obvious reasons, yes, but I can tell he's a small fighter too." Imperceptibly, Mui stills at the comment, wracking her brain for a reason why owning a cat is so second nature to her, and why the idea of a fighter cat sounds like it once happened, until her sister asks, "what should we name him?"
"Oh that's too easy: Retasu!"
"... Mui-nee, why are you like this?"
"I found him in a box of lettuce, what's the problem?"
It appears that no matter where one is, excelling in school proves to be unwanted attention all the same, and if you look nothing like other people, it is a downward spiral from there.
By the middle of third grade, Mui has forgotten what it is like to sit in a room and feel like a part of something larger, something warm and accepting and purposeful: community. In the diffused light of rainy June, she is an umber anomaly in a sea of pale hands and rosy cheeks, stranded on a wooden island with only the familiar squeeze of a hand.
As Susume-sensei calls out the term grades and she walks back to her seat by the window, Mui casts a strained smile to her twin. The other girl looks ready to take her home and bundle her up in blankets, away from the ever-staring world that is Namimori Elementary. The eyes don't have to be in her direct line of sight; they are everywhere else, from the track coach to the kids on the playground to the parents after school.
The final dotoku lecture cements Mui further into the role of a non-believer tuning in on a sermon. She notes that this particular subject breaks her full-mark streak with a glaring score of 41, followed by a satisfactory mark in computer usage, and sighs deeply into her hands as essays are passed down the rows. I guess Nagi can handle the computer stuff.
And so what if she fails to associate moral dilemma with losing a pencil or being a slow runner, or whatever small things her classmates cry over? Can she help feeling that there is something greater at stake?
Indeed, it is difficult to feel that communal sympathy when even the girl in front of her skips her paper, deliberately getting out of her chair to give the stack to the next student. Two brown hands fall back to their sides in defeat. It is a universal, unspoken law to avoid those who are different, even if that different girl herself cannot comprehend why she remembers logarithms without ever having opened an advanced math book, or how a black great-grandfather can pass down complete pigmentation within three generations.
At least no one tries to call her gaijin anymore.
"You!" Nagi hisses, moving from her desk to rip the rude classmate a new one, but her elder sister puts out an arm and shakes her head. She doesn't want that essay back anyway.
As the bell sounds and the twins make to exit, across the room Tsuna shuffles around to find his water bottle and instead comes across the discarded paper, crumpled under his chair. While reading it, he gets tripped on his way out, maybe pushed into a wall, but for a while, he can't hear any mean remarks over his shoulder as he loses himself in someone else's story, titled "I want to be better than yesterday."
In the future, he will frame it next to his own essay about becoming a giant robot.
The next morning, he musters up his courage and asks the author if he can eat lunch with her.
Since the day she gave him her backpack, it's taken him a year and a half to rekindle their connection, but there's no better time than the present. The girl opens and closes her mouth, as if no one has ever asked to be in her company before, so her imouto answers in her stead.
"Take a seat, Sawada-kun!" Nagi eagerly motions at the chair in front of Mui; between the sisters is a single tray consisting of an egg sandwich and vegetables, a brownie, and a cup of apple juice. Something tells Tsuna that this isn't the usual sharing, but rather another unfortunate, mysterious circumstance of the Sato twins.
Maybe that same acute intuition is the reason why he passes his brownie to Nagi and an untouched juice over to Mui with a hesitant smile. The latter stares at him from beneath hooded lashes, gauging an ulterior motive. "Ah, I-I already had a snack earlier," goes his white lie.
"Thank you," is the soft response. The wordless suspicion from a moment ago disappears, replaced by tangible gratitude in her amethyst eyes. I did good, the boy decides as he digs into his lunch.
"Me and Mui-nee were just talking about our grades. Did you know that she almost got full marks?"
Tsuna momentarily chokes on the sandwich. "Whoa!" Cough. "I've n-never gotten a 100 before..." Cough cough. "...On an-anything. You're amazing, Mui-chan."
"Here, let me see your grades." Mui holds a tawny hand out. "You have them, don't you? In your back pocket."
"Eh?" She knows, he internally screams. "Hiiee! Why d-do you want them?"
"Why did you crumple them?"
Nagi is looking back and forth between the children, nudging her sister and writing with an index finger on her forearm. You might make him cry.
I just want to help.
"I…" Tsuna trails off and brings his hands together. "B-because…" Upon closer inspection, his prayer-like gesture is an apprehensive plea, trembling shoulders alerting the twins that they are walking on eggshells with someone who desperately wants to escape; afraid of judgment, like he can hear an invisible chorus of useless and weak in his head, clinging to the ruins of his self-esteem.
"You don't have to," Nagi placates. "Sometimes Mui-nee is just too forward."
When the boy finally peers up, meeting Mui's apologetic gaze, she startles, and for a second, Tsuna has the distinct feeling of being walked out on, as though she fails to see him in the present moment. The strange reaction is forgotten though as she pulls out a half-sheet and scribbles something down, sliding it to his side.
"I want to try something. Can you read this aloud for me, and then pass it to Nagi?"
He leans over to read the characters, furrowing his eyebrows in intense concentration, like he can't make out enough characters to coherently speak. A bead of sweat rolls down his jaw. "I think it says, 'You came to school fast.'"
Nagi receives the paper. "'You came to school early.'"
A look of recognition dawns on her face as she faces her older sister, who intently stares at the paper, wheels turning in her head. The thoughtful expression soon disappears with a smile, and Tsuna can feel his quivering heartbeat in the shifting ambience.
"Sawada-kun, do you know what a homophone is?" Mui asks. He shakes his head slowly, a blush running its way along his cheeks; feeling that he should know, lest he lose respect. "It is a word that sounds like another word, but means something different. Sometimes, it can be spelled differently too."
She tugs one of his peachy hands into hers, and he can't find it in himself to protest, even as the heat in his face intensifies.
"Pay attention here. You too, Nagi. This set of characters is hayai, but as time. This other one," she presses more strokes into his skin, "is hayai, but for speed. See how they sound the same, almost look the same, but mean two different things?"
"So I saw another meaning?" The confusion seems to instantaneously lift, replaced by a nervous hope.
"Yeah, and though Nagi's reading of the sentence was correct, you tried your best."
Again, a fixation occurs between the two children; the one with a nervous disposition stares into the eyes of the calm guidance with an intensity of a lost person who has finally found an answer.
"You really think so?" he asks quietly, as if something will break if he raises his voice. "I-I'm not just stupid?"
"I know so," Mui affirms. "I had my theories, but I am now sure that you are probably dyslexic, which means you need more help when you read and write. Sometimes you can't keep up in literature, right? Like the words just disappear or blur out? And maybe in math too, when we have new equations?"
"Yeah! How did you know?"
"Hehe, Mui-nee is such a worrywart," Nagi chimes in, drawing little sketches of Retasu on the discarded half-sheet. "She read a whole book about learning problems to help you, and she also found our classroom kitten just because I like to draw!"
"Ahhh I'm so embarrassed, don't just tell him that! What is Sawada-kun going to think of me at this rate?"
"Well a mother hen..."
"You are kind," Tsuna says, without missing a beat. "Please call m-me Tsuna. Sawada is very formal, and I want to be your friend."
"Silly, you already are," she laughs before writing another character into his skin. "You know, you are luckier than you believe. The 'na' in your name means seven, but it is also one of the characters in kōun'na. So, you are a lucky boy."
"Lucky boy," he repeats happily.
"Cheesy children," Nagi chimes in. "You're gonna do great, Tsuna-kun."
At their encouragement, Tsuna feels a surge of confidence and pulls out his crumbled grade sheet then and hands it to Mui, determination set in his soft features. "Kaa-san said it's not enough to be just lucky, so could you both help me be better tomorrow?"
She looks to her little sister, who gives her a thumbs-up, and nods her head.
"Let's be better together, Tsuna."
The twins find that breaks are best spent dawdling around in Kawahira Goods than at home.
How either of them come to this conclusion? The final straw happens in July of the same year, when the summer grows increasingly unforgiving and the rainy season sets in like a bad bruise. Nagi is hit upside the face for talking back to Yusuke, and Mui gets locked in the basement again for almost setting fire to the man's blue blazer in her sister's defense.
Like always, the last thing she hears before tumbling down the small flight of stairs is her twin promising to get her out.
"Let me out! P-please, I'm so scared… it's so dark and c-cold…"
But this time, the hollowed hole beneath the mansion is different. In this frequent, inescapable darkness, after crying her little heart out and screaming her throat open, the mixed girl remembers someone also seeking revenge. She can't quite make out a face, or a voice for that matter, but their skin is as dark as hers, if not more so, and their green hair pulls up with the aid of an intricate scarf, like a streak of green lightning in the midst of a blotchy, purple storm. The person is a force to be reckoned with, leaving a goliath of fire unscathed, body sizzling with electricity.
One step closer to the truth, something sings in her mind, but the fog is thick and perpetual.
With her trembling back pressed to the door, she pulls out the cracked lighter Kawahira gave her when they first (really?) met, flicking it on to end the nameless memory. The flame weakly pulses in the void, its heat stealing oxygen and drawing her face closer like an ill-fated moth's dance.
And like that doomed creature and its death tango, she wonders if she can set herself on fire, and if the house would go down with her. Nagi is a smart girl, she would be able to get out in time. As for Mui? She would finally be free; anything but the darkness.
And without a second thought, she closes a hand over the blaze.
What happens next is that of one arc ending and another beginning, the curtain lifting from its dusty stage; it is the stuff of myths, of the triumphs of gods, of the action-packed bedtime stories in Nagi's book collection; the discovery that perhaps the current world is merely a shadow of a higher reality, of a greater truth, of a better purpose.
The brown girl lifts her sacrificed appendage, expecting to have fried some nerve ends, but the pain never comes. Instead, a green glow passes over her palm, sparks running spirals down her wrist, just like the person's from her memory. Her skin is taut and pinched, hardened by the surge of energy.
My skin feels like stone, Mui thinks. How is that possible?
In disbelief, and something akin to fright, Mui drops the lighter and scrambles on the steps, her breathing a gasp away from hyperventilation. When the radiance does not cease, and instead snakes its way under her skin and illuminates her veins, she passes out.
In her dreamscape, the land is gone, no subconscious visions of people or animals plodding along. She is alone and cannot speak, a vessel of desolation floating in an abyss of languid waves and pressure.
And then, there is a long hallway forged by black iron and white brick. Mui is certain that she has been here before, her feet carrying the body forward like they've always known the way. An acidic, putrid smell digs a migraine into her skull, muffled voices pounding against her ears; her clammy hands are no comfort.
At the final destination, a boy with a blue crown of hair comes into view. He can't be much older than her, his small white shirt and tan pants clashing horribly in the dank setting. He stands motionless in the middle of the muted medical room, broken machinery and corpses lined at his feet, the head of a glistening trident in his pallid grasp and face tilted away from the light. The pipes and fixtures whine and buzz overhead, wires swinging upon the soiled walls, next to the bloody handprints between the cracks.
Despite wanting to make herself as small as possible, Mui walks through the doorway, holding the frame to steady her knocking knees. The boy turns upon hearing her footfalls, angular nose scrunched up and an apprehensive pull to his chapped lips. She jumps at his mismatched eyes.
"Dora?" he calls, wiping a red cheek. Once he spots her at the dim entrance, a smile splits his sunken cheeks. "It really is you, kufufu. Where have you been all this time?"
"Who's Dora?" Her fingers curl around a crowbar by her calf, ready to fight or flee at any given notice. "W-what happened here? What have you done to these people?"
He levels her with a strange look, but the smile remains. "Dora, you know what they have done to me better than anyone else. Did you perhaps hit your head somewhere? Let me see—"
"Stay back!" Mui holds up her weapon, wide amethyst eyes watching his every move. It's like he sees something she can't quite grasp. "Look, I don't know who you are or what you're doing in my head, but this must be a terrible dream. A minute ago, I w-was trapped in the basement and I couldn't breathe, a-and then I saw this person walk out of a fire and this green light was coming out of my hand…"
"You…" The boy is in front of her now, cradling her jaw between two cold hands; her breath hitches as she stills in his hold, tasting the iron wafting from his trident. "You're not Dora... yet. What is the meaning of this?"
"H-how did you—I don't know, please, I just fainted and found myself here. I-I need to go back to my sister, Nagi must be worried—"
"Nagi?" he whispers, and something seems to click hard. "Not Seppie then… and you don't remember me or that."
"What am I missing?" The girl wants to get away from him and his riddles, but the tangible grief and alarm radiating off his being keeps her in place; he's convinced that he knows her better than she knows herself, and she's morbidly curious.
Who is Seppie?
Confused, Mui feels a weight drop in her chest, rippling apart her arteries and organs. This is not the answer she expected.
"No… that doesn't make sense, I'm alive and well." But then, and it drives her to believe that she must have really hit her head, has she actually been reborn? Reincarnation would explain those times she loses grip on reality, falling into a trance of misplaced images, sensations, and people. No, this is ridiculous; surely no one can come back from the dead. How did she die in the first place?
The ground beneath their feet begins to quake, the backdrop fizzling out like television static; bodies melt into the gravel, the computers and syringes and beds crumbling apart.
He shakes his head, taking her by the shoulders and guiding her back to the doorway in a hurry. "I don't have enough time to explain, but somehow, you came back Dora… no, what is your name now?"
"Mui," the boy repeats. "Mui, you just need to know they can't—mustn't—hurt you again."
"Mafia? I live in Japan, what would Mafia want with me?"
His cruel smile sends a chill down her spine. "Everything. Do not let them find this skin." He gestures to the green glow on her forearm, the painless burn having returned full-force. "You have never been good at hiding, but survival is different. You know survival like you know how to burn a house."
"None of this makes sense, I've never burned anything," she cries. "Who are you?!"
"Mukuro. See you again, Mui."
Without warning, he pushes her back into the void. She free-falls, having half a mind to throttle this Mukuro and the other to scream, but then she hears a door open and her head hits tile. Momentarily, even the gentle moonlight blinds her, muscles straining against the nausea; her eyes eventually adjust to the sad face of her twin.
"I've got you, I've got you," Nagi soothes like a mantra, slim fingers kneading comfort into her skull. She relaxes into the warmth. "Kaa-sama threw the key over the fence this time, so I had to go through the hole."
"Oh no," Mui whispers. "Did you get hurt?"
"I just have a bruise on my knee. Besides, it hurts less when I'm with you."
The older sister smiles at her reused words. "I must've been in there for a long time."
"Too long." Nagi pulls her up into an embrace; the floor is a cold glaze beneath their legs. "It was hard, wasn't it? You don't have to pretend Mui-nee. Let's go to Kawahira-san tomorrow, I'll make onigiri."
On cue, Mui begins to cry, clutching at the fabric of her twin's shirt. She fails to say anything about her "dream", or the green light, or the fact that she thinks she might be someone else. "I dropped m-my lighter and b-broke it."
"Shh, he'll have more. You need some ice cream too."
Fourth grade comes in like a wrecking ball, and there are new students in town.
It is a clear April day in Namimori, fully refreshing considering the three consecutive months of snowfall beforehand. With strawberry blonde hair, heart-shaped face, golden eyes, and milky complexion, one Sasagawa Kyoko introduces herself as a transfer from Kyoto and wins every heart in the room upon smiling. From next door, everyone can hear her older brother Ryohei yell "I am extremely happy to be here!" in the fifth grade classroom.
At the back of her mind, Mui stores away her disappointment and the hope that just once, the new students would look like her. To comfort herself, she thinks that perhaps Kyoko's brother, with his tanner physique, would be worth befriending, the closest she has ever been to someone dark-skinned.
After a couple of days, as the rest of Namimori Elementary has become, Nagi and Tsuna are infatuated. The younger twin has her chin between her hands, slouching against the desk with a dreamy look on her face, while the boy is staring pointedly in awe as Kyoko laughs at someone's joke. Mui can't help but throw in some words of encouragement while reading.
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you two have a crush."
So many things happen after this observation, all of which include: 1. Two pairs of eyes blinking rapidly, 2. Tsuna falling out of his chair, 3. Nagi turning multiple shades of red, and 4. Simultaneous denial and accusation.
"I-it's not like that—"
"Mui-chan, you can be really nosey—"
"Yeah, mother hen—"
"Sasagawa-chan is just…"
"... so pretty."
Cue romantic and exasperated sighs. "Maybe we're actually triplets," Mui shuts her history book. "Finishing each other's sentences, liking the same people, go figure."
"You like her too?!" The friends ask at the same time, before shooting each other surprised but competitive looks. At this point, all Mui can hope is that this year won't do them all in.
Vocabulary: Retasu (lettuce), dotoku (ethics/morals; learned in 1st to 2nd grade), hayai (early/fast), kōun'na (lucky)