It’s a modestly-sized apartment. Mary has traversed it lengthwise before Ririka has had the chance to remove her shoes and the beige puffball hat from off her head.
Mary’s socks kick-up dust from the smooth wood flooring when she skids a bit by the end. Ririka giggles at the sight, of how Mary almost slips, but manages to steady herself by taking hold of the curtains lining the balcony in both her hands.
When Mary draws open the shuttered blinds, dust dances in the stale air, a prism of iridescent colors in the refracted, orange-yellow light of the setting sun.
Ririka watches from the entryway, her eyes widening at the play of lights. It almost feels like there’s magic in the air.
Ririka blinks, the spell breaking only when Mary coughs and fans the air with an open palm. Still holding one end of the curtain, Mary turns back to glance gingerly at Ririka.
“I know it is not much,” Mary says, voice uncharacteristically hesitant as her grip on the curtain tightens. “But—“
“It’s perfect,” Ririka interrupts her, smiling gently. She can’t keep the awe from her voice as she takes her first tentative steps into what will be their new home. All she sees of this empty space is a blank canvas and a fresh start.
A home, Ririka thinks, giddy at the thought. Their home. And it is, pretty much. Though they have yet to co-sign the lease, and the landlord hasn’t yet arranged to turn on the electricity for the apartment—the rest of it is plain formality.
“Perfect?” Mary’s gruff voice lilts endearingly in surprise. Mildly embarrassed, she scratches the side of her cheek. “Geez.”
“You’ve gotta learn to have higher standards,” Mary complains, though Ririka can see how she stands just a little taller after saying this. We all have our tells, Ririka thinks, smiling at the thought of Mary’s little idiosyncrasies.
Ever the woman of action—and prideful enough not to let Ririka see her most-certainly blushing face—Mary stalls for time by reaching for the latch of the balcony door and sliding it open.
The vacuum of silence between them shatters when the winter wind forces its way indoors, howling all the while. The sun is still shining, though—peeking through the clouds. Besides, even if that wasn’t the case, the stormiest of weather wouldn’t be able to stop Ririka.
Her determination gathers strength with each step forward she takes, deeper and deeper into the empty apartment, closer and closer still, to Mary.
“You’re here with me,” Ririka says when she nears Mary enough to speak directly into the shell of her ear.
“It’s ours,” Ririka openly declares. She cements the notion in her mind by winding her arms snugly around Mary’s waist. “It’s perfect.”
When Ririka finishes talking, she tucks her chin against Mary’s shoulder and drapes her body across her girlfriend’s back. They sag against each other, contented and cozy, their warm bodies interlocking like pieces of a jigsaw.
“You big sap,” Mary mumbles, though try as she might, she can’t keep the fondness from seeping through to her voice. “You’ll kill me one day, I swear, of some sugar overdose.”
In answer, Ririka chuckles. Amused by Mary’s grousing, she turns her head to press a chaste kiss against Mary’s warm cheek.
In the aftermath, Mary lays her palm against the spot and noisily clears her throat. Ririka deepens their hug, quietly giggling all the while.
“Where was I?” Mary continues speaking after a beat. “So I scoped out a few apartments, and I think this is our best bet given our budget and needs. I know it’s a little small, but the location is great. There’s a bus that’ll take us straight to campus. We can even cycle there if we want.”
“Yeah. It’s only 10 minutes away on a bike, though the route is a little uphill. What’s up? Don’t know how to ride a bicycle?”
In response, Ririka makes a squirmy, non-committal noise. Embarrassed, she tilts her face to hide in Mary’s scarf.
When Mary prods her gently, Ririka answers by burrowing deeper into Mary’s scarf to hide her face from view. Sometimes it feels like weakness is a trait she’ll never get used to showing the world.
Sensing her unease, Mary fumbles behind her for a bit before she clasps Ririka’s hand in her own.
“Don’t worry. I’ll teach you how one of these days,” Mary reassures her, and with the same air of easy confidence she always exudes, kisses Ririka’s knuckles.
At the press of her lips, Ririka sighs in soft relief.
Sometimes it feels like Mary knows all the ways around the maze of her heart. Like it was never there to begin with, Ririka’s earlier uncertainty sublimates into the air, soon to be replaced by deep-seated affection.
“I love you.” The words slip from Ririka’s mouth out into the brisk winter air, as natural as breathing.
Caught totally off-guard, Mary laughs then, a full-bodied, gregarious sound.
“Wow,” she says, pleasantly surprised. “Okay. Where did that come from? No way in hell I’m complaining, but hey… you might sing a different tune one of these days.”
Ririka frowns. “What do you mean?”
Mary clears her throat. “Well, living on your own is a world’s apart from life at the Momobami estate, you know? It’ll be just the two of us. No servants to cook your meals, or do your laundry, or do whatever-the-heck else servants do.”
“I see,” Ririka says.
Her blue eyes glass over. In her mind, the ghosts of her past dance macabrely like shadows on the wall—the arc of a blade, the splatter of blood… Ririka must blink a few times to recompose herself.
She thinks of all the lessons taught by her grandmother as her eyes fix steadily upon the distant horizon, at the dying embers of a sun sinking beneath a canopy of snow-laden trees.
“I don’t think I will,” Ririka says now.
“Hm?” Mary quirks an eyebrow as she tilts her head to look at her.
“I don’t think I’ll ever change my mind,” Ririka reaffirms, her expression earnestly determined as she meets Mary’s gaze.
“Oh? Confident, are we?” Mary goads. “How can you be so sure you won’t regret it?”
Ever the pragmatic contrarian, Mary is trying to call out a bluff that doesn’t exist. When Mary smiles, she’s all teeth, cocky as ever. The sight makes Ririka want to smile. She has issued her challenge, and now it’s Ririka’s turn.
Ririka tilts her head to the side, carefully considering her next move. It’s hard sometimes, to shape thought into words.
She thinks of love and she thinks of Mary. She thinks of Mary and her heart feels so full, like there is a weight in her chest she never wants to put down, but Mary’s never been one for saccharine platitudes.
And so Ririka speaks her next words with her entirely in mind.
“Because you’re here with me,” Ririka says. “I’d bet my life on you, Mary Saotome.”
She has before; she will again. That’s the naked, boldfaced truth here and now, and each day moving forward. It’s the song in Ririka’s heart. She would sing it from the rooftops if Mary so asks, but she never does. Mary never asks for more than what Ririka is willing to give.
It’s one of the many reasons Ririka loves her—how it’s never been a hard contract between them. Just a promise and a leap of faith: again, and again, and again.
Mary is grumbling again about dying of sappiness. It comes tacked at the end of Mary’s grousing—her hurried confession of love.
Ririka can hear it though, loud and clear.
Ririka’s breath catches. From the corner of her eyes, she can see Mary’s face bloom, red as a carnation. Sometimes, Mary’s words and her actions don’t quite line-up. Sometimes, the two are entirely in sync, and Ririka swears it is the most endearing thing in the whole wide world to behold.
Sweetly and entirely without reservation, Ririka smiles. She nuzzles closer until they are pressed, cheek to blushing cheek.
After a moment, they pull back in unison to look at each other. Mary searches her blue eyes for any hint of hesitation or uncertainty.
What do you want? Mary had asked her, years ago.
“Are you sure about this?” Mary asks her now.
“Yes”, Ririka says, heart brimming with love. “I am. I have never been more sure of anything in my life.”
Ririka groans feebly. Thin in the distance, she can hear Mary’s voice straining to reach her. She’s probably still at the top of the hill, Ririka thinks, mind in a daze. Her heart is racing, wild as the wind was against her body just seconds ago. Blinking a few times, Ririka takes large gulps of air to temper the adrenaline coursing through her veins.
How fast was I going? Ririka thinks, staring blankly up at the cloud-speckled blue sky. Bit-by-bit, the ringing in her ears abates, and the world sharpens into some manner of coherence. In the air is a strange, rickety sound. One of the wheels of the bike must still be spinning, stuck up in the air.
Again and again, Mary calls out her name, her voice growing steadily in both volume and concern. Ririka groans as she tries to sit up. She opens her mouth to shout that she’s alright, and winds up spitting out a leaf instead with a softly uttered ‘bleh’.
She makes to cradle the back of her head and winds up picking a twig from out of her long, tousled hair.
Half-pinned under the weight of Mary’s bicycle, and cushioned, yet pin-cushioned by clumps of leaves and the thorny stems of the hapless bush she had crashed into, Ririka smiles sheepishly up at Mary when her worried face enters Ririka’s frame of sight.
“Shit,” Mary seethes as she gingerly eases the bicycle off Ririka. The action takes her but a moment. Then she’s back at Ririka’s side, gently easing her into sitting upright on the pavement with an arm curved around Ririka’s back.
“Are you okay?”
Knees scuffing the pavement, she hovers over Ririka, worriedly fussing as she takes stock of her injuries. All things considered, it is not that bad. All she has suffered this time is a scrapped knee. It throbs in dull pain under the fabric of her jeans, but she has been through far worse.
“I’m fine,” Ririka reassures Mary. Still though, she flinches when Mary cups the side of Ririka’s jaw for a closer examination of the small scratch on her cheek.
Ririka can see the fury in her scowl and the fear in her eyes.
“Sorry, I…” Ririka falters. “I didn’t mean to damage your bicycle.”
“Who cares about that damn thing?” Mary shouts. “What matters is that you’re still in one piece!”
Ririka doesn’t expect Mary to envelop her in a crushing bear hug. “You nearly gave me a freaking heart attack.”
“I’m… I’m sorry,” Ririka says. For a second, with the wind knocked out of her, Ririka is too stunned to return her hug. She shivers a bit when Mary breathes out, breath harsh and ragged against her neck. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“I know you didn’t.” Mary deepens their hug. “But, ugh! I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you…”
Already hoarse from her earlier shouting, Mary’s voice cracks a little come her final words.
Ririka’s hands tremble when she gently tugs on the back of Mary’s blouse. After a moment, Mary pulls back, and it’s all Ririka can do, to face the blunt truth with open eyes.
It’s the first time she has ever seen Mary look so afraid. Her lower lip is quivering, and though she’s trying her hardest to look strong, the corner of her amber eyes are already beading with unshed tears.
In the aftermath, Ririka bites her lip and keens in quiet despair. She had thought that they left the noise of those dark days from Hyakkaou behind them, but ghosts yet remain.
It sticks out of them still, jagged edges protruding like spokes in a mangled wheel—the violence of their life before, and the scars left behind by each inflicted wound, of abandonment and betrayal, of distrust and guilt.
Gentle as a prayer, Ririka cups the sides of Mary’s face with both her hands. Ririka gazes into Mary’s eyes now as her fingertips delicately trace the soft cartilage of Mary’s ears. I’m sorry, Ririka thinks, when her lips taste salt against the soft skin of Mary’s cheek.
We are more than the sum of our hurt, Ririka thinks, and leans forward to kiss her forehead. You are the one who taught me that.
Lovingly, she wipes away the remainder of Mary’s tears with her thumb. When next Ririka speaks, their noses brush, and her breath ghosts against Mary’s lips. “I love you,” Ririka says. “I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful next time.”
“You better.” Mary harrumphs. Suppressing a sniffle, she levels Ririka with the most scathing of glares. “Or else I’ll raise you from the dead just to kick your ass one last time.”
“I’ll be okay,” Ririka reassures her. Mary means well, Ririka knows. Her anger is a thing of fleeting beauty, like embers from a bonfire flaring up into the night sky.
“I’m not going anywhere. “Ririka’s cheeks dimple in a smile as she raises her pinky finger up towards Mary to pinky-swear. “I promise you this.”
And there it is again, another promise between them, another leap of faith.
Emotions flit vividly across Mary’s face at the sight. Soon, Mary’s scowl eases into an exasperated smile.
“You Momobami and your damn promises,” Mary chides. By now, her eyes are dry. She interlocks their pinky fingers with a roll of her eyes.
“Alright, how many fingers am I holding up?” Mary asks her soon after.
Going cross-eyed from staring, Ririka frowns at the digit Mary holds up in front of her face.
“...Just one,” Ririka answers mildly.
Sighing in relief, Mary tucks her hand into the back pocket of her jeans. “It was a trick question. Alright, I don’t think you’re concussed, at least.”
“I’m okay, Mary,” Ririka insists, her expression growing determined. “Really, I am.”
“That’s what they all say. I needed to check at least, to make sure!”
“…Worrywart,” Ririka teases.
“Concerned girlfriend,” Mary corrects her, hands on her knees as she makes to stand up.
Ririka’s eyes widen in soft surprise.
“Concerned girlfriend,” Ririka repeats, heart swelling with fondness at how it sounds spilling from both their lips. Ririka can’t help but smile up at her as she takes Mary’s outstretched hand.
She scraped a knee and cut her cheek during the fall. Though just minor injuries, Mary had insisted that she sit on a park bench and dutifully wait while she goes to fetch medical supplies from a nearby convenience store.
Mary fusses over her now, her concerned girlfriend, Ririka thinks with a pleased smile. The antiseptic stings, both on her cheek, and upon her knee. And though Mary grumbles all throughout, she is so earnestly attentive in her ministrations that it is impossible for Ririka not to smile all throughout.
When Mary is done, she glances quickly, left-to-right, then leans down to kiss her bandaged knee.
She hastily rolls the fabric of Ririka’s pant leg back down afterwards, and when she peeks up at Ririka, her cheeks flush the most vibrant shade of red. Ririka blinks in surprise and an answering blush fast rises to her own cheeks.
How rare it is, Ririka thinks, to see Mary shy for once. At the sight, Ririka’s cheeks dimple in a shy, rosy smile. Hit by a spike of playfulness, she holds Mary’s gaze with great intent, then taps her bandaged cheek with her index finger.
Realization dawns on Mary, quick as a flash. “G-geez!” Mary grouses at Ririka’s wordless request. Blush darkening, she dutifully acquiesces with a quick peck.
Before Mary can pull back entirely, Ririka lays her hands on Mary’s face and yanks on the collar of her button-up blouse. Where words fail, Ririka hopes her actions do enough talking for the both of them.
Her first kiss is sweet and chaste, almost like she’s asking for permission.
Let me show you, Ririka thinks now as her thumb traces the corner of Mary’s mouth. Let me show you how much you mean to me.
Never one to back down, Mary rises up to meet Ririka with fervor. So much has happened just today, Ririka thinks. So much has happened, and every moment of their life together feels like a new adventure.
When Ririka finally breaks their kiss, Mary is breathless and grinning crookedly at her. Ririka’s heart swells with pride at the sight of her lip-gloss smeared against the side of Mary’s mouth.
It’s entirely instinctual, how she reaches out to gently wipe the side of Mary’s mouth. Her hand lingers on Mary’s cheek when she is done. Reverently, she traces the shape of her lips with her thumb, then cups the side of Mary’s jaw, so as to admire that awestruck look upon her face.
“That was a cheap shot, Momobami,” Mary teases her, then cranes her head to playfully bite Ririka’s index finger, just the tip. Ririka inhales sharply at the sight, as a spark of want shoots up, straight to her core. Mary’s long blond hair is wild and windswept. In Ririka’s eyes, she looks like the most beautiful woman in the world.
She’ll have to pay Mary back later for that, Ririka thinks, body already thrumming at the though. Tenfold. But that will have to wait for now.
“Oh?” Ririka smiles coyly at her. Her tone the picture of innocence, she retracts her hand to rest it upon her chest, seemingly affronted at the accusation.
“Yeah! You know what? Two can play that game.” Mary says, and it’s all the warning Mary gives before she surges forward to pick Ririka up, bridal-style.
Ririka squeals, delighted and surprised in equal measure.
Let the ghosts stand in our way, she thinks, giggling in Mary’s hold. We have the rest of our lives to figure it out.
Their apartment starts out stark, with just the bare essentials for living and cooking. Spartan. Unbidden, the word springs to Ririka’s mind before she briskly ushers it out the door.
It’s home here regardless, Ririka thinks as she settles against Mary’s side with a pleased hum. They sit beside each other on the floor, knees jostling under the checkered quilt of the kotatsu. On cold days, the humble heating element feels like a godsend. Their little television set, perched atop an old, rickety table-top, watches them do their coursework together.
Before long, Mary lets out a full-bodied yawn then stretches her arms overhead, limber as a cat.
It’s all the warning she gives Ririka before plopping unceremoniously sideways, into Ririka’s lap. So startled is Ririka that she yelps out in surprise, and accidentally tosses the pen she had been holding over her shoulder.
“How long have you been studying?” Mary asks wryly as she stares up and into Ririka’s eyes. There’s a playfulness to her this evening—Ririka can sense it in curl of her grin. “You know what? I think it’s high time for a break.”
A break will do them some good, Ririka thinks with a smile.
Besides, dinner will be ready soon. They are having curry tonight, and wafting over from the kitchen stove, Ririka can smell the pleasant aroma of a litany of different flavors.
Ririka stares adoringly down at the girl in her lap. “They always said you were a bad influence,” Ririka teases as her fingers lovingly tuck stray strands of blonde hair behind Mary’s ear.
“They?” Mary harrumphs and crosses her arms. “Who is this ‘they’?”
Action and reaction have always been hallmarks of their relationship. It’s a calculated move on both their parts. When Ririka deliberately turns away from Mary’s probing stare, Mary bares her teeth up at her in a snarl.
“Ririka…!” Mary scowls, and it sounds equal parts a whine as it is a warning. And it sounds like the most adorable thing in the world—so much so that Ririka can’t help but giggle in sweet amusement.
At Ririka’s lack of a proper response, Mary decides to take matters into her own hands (quite literally). Mary’s hands are warm as they creep under the hem of Ririka’s shirt. Soon, her fingertips brush, feather-light against the sensitive patch of soft skin below Ririka’s ribs.
“Wait!” Ririka yelps out. Laughter spills out as she flails about. Her body wriggles this way and that, squirming like a worm. “Mary!”
“You brought this on yourself, Momobami!” Mary says, blasé to Ririka’s plight. Voice brimming with cheekiness, she redoubles her efforts at tickling.
It’s effective. So much so that Ririka finds herself tipping backwards in her haste to get away.
Not one to let an opening go to waste, Mary takes advantage of the situation by clambering on top of Ririka and redoubling her assault.
Turnabout is fair play, Ririka thinks through her laughter and tears. Not one to take such an affront lying down, Ririka locks her legs around Mary’s waist then pivots her body for some revenge of her own! Soon, it’s Mary’s turn to shriek out in surprise and trash about.
Laughter peals into the air, sweet as morning dew as they lie, tangled on the floor and in each other’s arms.
“Do you miss it?” Mary asks her later that night, in bed.
Elbow propped on her pillow, she looks down at Ririka. It’s a complicated expression Mary is wearing. She asks one question, but Ririka can see the world turn in the vivid irises of her gold eyes, cast aglow in the wan light of their night lamp. Already on the verge of sleep, Ririka closes her eyes in consideration of her question. Humming, she thinks.
Etched indelibly in her mind like ink carved into skin is a memory of twin sets of samurai armor and katana in proud, symmetric display. In one of the Momobami estate’s many rooms, she and Kirari sit side-by-side in seiza upon the tatami-mat flooring.
In unison, they gaze intently, expressions impassive as their grandmother reaches for a blade on display. A dangerous grace underpins her every action.
Framing her back, and illuminated by dim candlelight is the black and gold painting of a great, burning tree. Bitter in the air, a promise hangs as she unsheathes a steel katana from its scabbard.
A thousand lessons, they have been taught in this very room—about hierarchy and power and discipline; about the ways of the world, and what one must do, to stand atop it.
Today, they are not alone.
A man lies prostrate before the towering woman. “Mercy,” he pleads with her, his forehead pressed to the tatami-mat floor. “Oyabun, I beg you.”
In answer, she says not a word.
There is no need for words, not when the sheer might of her intent saturates the entire room they are in. What is power? She had asked her granddaughters once. Respect, Ririka had said, at the same time Kirari had said control.
All their grandmother had done then, was smile without mirth. Close, but not quite, she had said. True power comes from total subjugation: heart, mind and soul.
Towards their education, she is nothing short of fastidious, but there is no tenderness behind it. They are vessels for her legacy; a means to an end. Does the rest matter? Ririka is a child, and what she understands of them, of the Momobami family is exactly that.
Here and now, their matriarch throws dice at the man’s feet so that he may decide his own fate. Hands, feet, ears. They line up to each corresponding face of the dice.He does as he is instructed, all through his tears.
In Ririka’s lap, her fingers clasp tight. There is perhaps nothing at all remarkable about this man, Ririka thinks. Except for the amount of sweat he is able to produce. Despite this, it takes all of Ririka’s willpower not to cry at the sight.
Quick as it is brutal, his punishment is meted out. The blade arcs through the air with a morbid grace, swift as a guillotine. And then there’s blood. And then there’s screaming before two men remove him from the room, dragging him by his armpits.
Behind him the shoji doors slide shut, but the delicate barrier of wood and paper makes a poor bulwark against his hysterical screaming. Distance helps though. And soon, his voice grows faint until it vanishes entirely. Out of sight and out of mind, he returns to being just another faceless body.
“Discipline,” their grandmother says without malice as she turns to face them both.
She wipes the blood away with a cloth before sheathing the blade back in its scabbard. And once more, the katana is returned to its place of honor and prominence.
She makes no mention of the blood on the floor.
How many layers of flooring will it seep through, Ririka thinks in despair, before someone comes to mop it up?
She snaps her fingers, and a lieutenant comes forward dutifully bearing her kiseru, already loaded with tobacco on a black, lacquered tray. She lights one end of the thin smoking pipe with an elegant silver lighter stashed in a sash of her kimono, then takes a languid puff. She blows a smoke ring out: one ring, then two.
The third passes through the first two—an old parlor trick, to lighten the mood. The sight used to make Ririka giggle. Ah, but she’s too old now for such childish displays.
She gives her granddaughters a wry smile as her eyes flit between them, before dismissing them both with a wave of her hand.
Ririka bows to respectfully signal her departure, and only then does she dare to look away.
It can be hard to run while wearing a kimono. It can be hard to breathe in one, too. Ririka tucks two fingers into the collar of the silk fabric and yanks the cloth back, away from the clammy skin of her neck. There her hand rests, clenched into a fist in a futile attempt to still her pounding heart.
It is only when out of earshot and eyeshot—when she is in an entirely different wing of the Momobami estate, when she has stepped out of the maddening labyrinth of corridors and walls—does Ririka allow herself to show weakness.
It is only when Ririka retreats to the koi pond does she let the sound of running water swallow her tears. The fish pay her anguish no mind. In a frenzied horde, they swarm her reflection thinking she will feed them. To their great disappointment, salt is all that falls into the water.
She does not notice that Kirari has followed her until she spies her twin’s warbled reflection in the water. Her blue eyes are sparkling, but this time, not with mirth. For once, she finds Kirari’s expression, right down to her smile, entirely unreadable.
Kirari does not say that if the man is lucky enough to make it to the hospital in time, perhaps his limb can be reattached. Kirari does not speak at all, not in support of their grandmother, or in condemnation of her.
She stays with Ririka though, until the tears stop and her breathing returns to normal. And then Kirari hands her a silk handkerchief to wipe away the blood spattered across her face.
The grounds of the old Momobami estate are forever steeped in the blood of tradition. A thousand lessons, she has been taught—all of which Ririka would much rather forget.
When Ririka opens her eyes once more to their apartment, her heart aches in a way that makes her shudder terribly. She does not notice how bad she is trembling until she is coaxed into Mary’s arms.
Cocooned in Mary’s embrace, and surrounded by the familiarity of her scent, the ghosts of Ririka’s past slink back into the shadows.
How long was I gone? Ririka thinks as she takes large gulps of air. She is a different person now compared to who she was before, but like a riptide, sometimes the pain still bears her away.
When one feels lost, even a short moment can feel like an eternity spent drowning. Mary holds her close until Ririka is fully grounded once more in the reality of their present. Slowly, the past ebbs away, replaced instead with the fiercely protective sense of Mary’s love.
“Hey, you good?” Mary speaks softly, her lips grazing Ririka’s temple.
“I… I am now.” Ririka gathers strength slowly as she curls gingerly into the warmth of Mary’s body.
Do you miss it? Mary had asked. There is no doubt in Ririka’s mind that Mary was thinking of something else entirely when she first posed the question: fineries aplenty and servants at their beck and call.
And to that end, Ririka wants to tell her this: that paradise was only ever a shimmering mirage.
To be a Momobami is to live with the Sword of Damocles hanging precariously overhead. Right from the moment they were born, they were despised and feared for their power, more than they were ever loved.
Ririka bites her tongue to quell the urge to speak. There are still so many things she wants to tell Mary, but some wounds still feel too fresh to expose to the world. For now, Ririka shelves the hard, brittle truth and reaches instead for the soft comfort of Mary’s hand.
In the dim light of their bedroom, Ririka traces the lines of Mary’s palm like a blind man divining a braille tome. Gentle and slow, the years between them come trickling back. Quietly, Ririka marvels at the serendipity of how they had stumbled like blind fools into each other’s arms, and once there, chose to remain.
Ririka thinks of life now together with Mary in their humble apartment, and how it feels as much a sanctuary as a home, and she means it with all her heart when she says, “I don’t miss it. Not one bit.”
Ririka can feel Mary’s breath catch and her heartbeat stutter. Worried for a split-second, Ririka extricates herself from Mary’s hold. When she gazes up at Mary though, all her worries fall away. Mary is smiling at her, jaunty and beautiful.
Ririka can’t help the answering smile that fast rises to her own face. In the gold flecks of Mary’s irises, she sees reflected all the colors of the world. It’s that lovestruck look that carves another groove into Ririka’s heart, and stays.
Ririka thinks of Mary’s firecracker smile and a tongue so sharp, sometimes it feels like Ririka will cut herself when they kiss. And by now, the ache in Ririka’s chest feels like an altogether different pain from before. An end and a beginning, Ririka thinks. An overture tipping over into an interlude, a promise and a leap of faith, with no end in sight.
I chose love, Ririka thinks. Heart brimming with fierce devotion, she laces their hands together. I chose you. I’ve never once regretted it. I don’t think I ever will.
Mary is standing next to her, and nowhere else has felt so much like home. Her gaze feels as bright as Polaris lighting up the night skies above them as she gently draws Ririka close, into her arms.
Who is Ririka without her mask? Who is she when stripped bare of fineries, and the pedigree of her birth? It’s a question she still grapples with even now, but Mary likes her all the same, regardless of it, in spite of it, because of it.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
For a moment in time, we sojourn in memory.
In a dimly-lit street lined with red paper lanterns, the wind rises. The lanterns sway in turn, and leaves rustle, and the petal of a cherry blossom trembles so much from the strain that it finally succumbs to its own gravity.
Standing in front of a vending machine, Ririka traces its gentle descent with hawkish eyes until it lands with a soft ripple to join its fallen brethren. On the puddle’s surface, the petals look akin to rickety, makeshift boats.
It grips Ririka then, a yearning, to fish the petal out and press a bruising fingerprint onto its side. If she were to disappear right now, it would be the only proof she was ever here. With an abrupt splash, her intense staring ends when a passerby crushes the petals entirely under his heel. Shipwrecked and drowning, Ririka thinks, humming mournfully behind her mask.
The puddle’s distorted reflection wobbles as it rights itself, only for the process to repeat, as more people stream into the ordinarily quiet, ordinarily ill-lit street. Drawn and captivated like moths to a flame, students, couples and young families alike tail the trail of lanterns lining the side of the street to the rambunctious sound of festivities ahead.
They should count themselves lucky, Ririka thinks. It had thundered for most of the day. If the rain had persisted, tonight’s festivities would have been cancelled.
Ririka thinks ‘they’ and not ‘we’, because it feels right (or at least less wrong) and readjusts the red-painted kitsune mask over her face with an urgency teetering on fear. Clad in her dark kimono, with her hair up in an artful ponytail, Ririka watches the procession of people, some dressed in vibrant traditional garb. She watches, tense with fear that if her mask slips, they’ll see that she doesn’t quite belong, and regard her instead as an inhuman thing, strange and monstrous.
Where is she? Ririka thinks, mouth creasing in a frown. By her side, her hands clench tight and tremble lightly. Ririka is not normally prone to impatience, but she had been so looking forward to this day, and alone now in such an unfamiliar situation, she feels cast adrift.
Caught up in her thoughts, Ririka tenses when someone taps her shoulder.
“Got the jump on you for once, huh?” Mary sniggers, eyes gold in the warm light of the paper lanterns. “Good.”
Taking advantage of her flabbergasted state, Mary pulls her mask aside, and grins teasingly as their lips meet. The kiss that they share is its own language—both greeting and apology, I-love-you, and I’ve-missed-you.
“Consider it payback,” Mary explains with a cheeky smirk against Ririka’s pleasantly-tingling lips when they pull apart. “For that time you scared the shit out of me back in Hyakkaou.”
Ririka’s cheeks are pink, her heart full to the brim.
Affection overflows in the way Ririka’s body gravitates towards her, and how her fingers dawdle at the black sash tied snug around Mary’s waist. Tonight, Mary wears a bright blue happi. Her loose-fitting, tube-sleeved cotton coat comes complete with a black headband worn over her forehead. It looks good on her, though truth be told, Ririka thinks Mary would look dashing simply clad in a burlap sack.
Ririka’s eyes rove, and all the while, her hold on Mary is gentle, and filled with a yearning she can’t find the words to convey. How many months has it been since last they met? How many days, and hours since she last felt the familiar warmth of her body?
She’s torn between acute embarrassment at how dull her senses have grown over time, and how delighted she is that Mary is actually here, in the flesh, before her eyes. She chews on her bottom lip, and it’s just a little thing, simple and sublime, the taste she gets of Mary’s strawberry-flavored lip-gloss.
The latter wins out in the end. Cheeks still pink, Ririka can’t help but huff, and smile and roll her eyes at Mary’s earlier snark before her kimono-clad arms wind around Mary’s neck to pull her into an enthusiastic kiss.
Laughter spills out of Mary before their lips meet.
Ririka's traditional wooden geta click-clack against the pavement as they step together in unison. Who is it that deepens their kiss? It matters not, what does is that when one reaches out, the other reaches back. Pressed firmly against her, Mary feels just as warm, and soft, and piquantly sharp as Ririka remembers.
Ririka sighs, soft and blissfully into Mary’s mouth at the way Mary’s palms cradle the swell of her hips like it’s there they belong.
It’s sublime, Mary’s playful nips, and the scent of her shampoo, and the way stray strands of her long hair fall forward and tickle the side of Ririka’s neck. Hip pressed against hip, Mary’s fingertips trace the arch of Ririka’s spine, steady and attentive—a wayfarer charting constellations in the night sky, trying to find a way home.
It’s sublime, Ririka thinks again, of the shape of them, and how every sensation adds another layer to the crescendo of their bodies. She’s missed her; missed this. She had never thought she would long for their Hyakkaou Academy days.
They pull apart only when the vending machine at Ririka’s back beeps, and an overly-cheerful, much-too-mechanical voice reminds them to insert money into the coin slot. It is only then that they realize that in the midst of making out, they have accidentally failed to order a can of iced coffee.
Ririka giggles as Mary bangs a clenched fist against the side of the vending machine. “Seriously? Rude much.” Mary tsks.
Clumsy and violent, Ririka thinks, lips curving in sweet amusement. Prone to rage and the source of my strength.
Leaning forward, she soothes Mary’s agitation with a kiss to the curve of her jaw, and gently takes Mary’s hand. Their fingers intertwine in a gesture of comfort that feels as natural as breathing. And just like that, Mary’s anger tapers off and she’s smiling again, lopsided and bashful.
Each casual step she takes alongside Mary reorients Ririka’s view of the world. It’s the rich and unfamiliar aroma of street food, it’s the warm lights and the bustle of activity: the sizzle of meat and the clang of spatulas against griddles and the throng of people all about them.
Ririka samples each new delicacy Mary gets them with profound gusto. She lets each unique flavor unfurl over her tongue, from salty-sweet-savory sticks of yakitori, to the saccharine taste of neon-pink cotton candy that dissolves on her tongue like a dissipating cloud.
When she notices Mary staring attentively at her with a sly and cat-like grin, Ririka blushes and looks pointedly away. Embarrassed though she is, Ririka can’t help her awestruck expression, can’t help but be enamored by how different everything feels compared to dining at the Momobami estate from a curated menu prepared by their chefs.
Mary eases Ririka’s self-consciousness with an easy laugh and a reassuring squeeze of her hand before they fall once more into pace with each other.
Ririka can’t get enough of this novelty. The boisterous atmosphere of noise and lights, and having to jostle with other people just for a place to stand and eat…! It’s like we’ve stepped into another dimension, Ririka thinks excitedly as she nibbles on the head of a fish-shaped Taiyaki. Its soft, waffle shell gives way to generous custard filling that spills, warm and sweet into her mouth.
Nearby, Mary takes revenge on a poor sod by jabbing him in the side with a pair of wooden chopsticks. He had made the dire mistake of jostling Ririka earlier. My protector, Ririka thinks, heart swelling with pride, even as she gracefully hurries over to gently rein in her protective girlfriend.
Come the night’s end, Ririka has amassed not just a sated belly and a treasure-trove of new memories, but also an oversized panda plush that Mary had earlier won for her at a ring-toss stall.
They stroll leisurely now alongside the riverbank, each holding a paw in hand. It’s almost as if they have a child between them.
It feels like there’s a secret rhythm to the swing of their arms, and the pace at which they walk. It syncs up quite well, Ririka thinks, with the beat of her heart, and how it glows with warmth. At the thought of a future together, much like this, Ririka’s lips quirk at the edges in a small, demure smile.
(The idyllic scene lasts for ten minutes before Mary gets fed-up with the distance between them, and opts instead to heft the soft toy upon her shoulders.)
It takes awhile for reality to come crashing down about them, but it does. It starts and it ends, as things oft do between them, with hard questions.
“So, how’re things?” Mary breaks the silence as she shoots Ririka a sidelong glance.
“…Good,” she settles on eventually admitting. I miss you though, she thinks. It’s been much too long since last they met. Ririka’s university is in another prefecture, and it’ll be months yet before Mary graduates from Hyakkaou.
“Good, huh?” Mary says, in a tone of voice that screams of how she isn’t convinced at all of the fact. Perched atop Mary’s head, the panda plush slumps forward, its floppy arms disheveling Mary’s hair.
As good as it can be without you, Ririka thinks as she looks pleadingly into Mary’s eyes. In the years since their first encounter, Mary has learned enough of mercy to let the topic drop, and Ririka has learned enough of ghosts to know that all the things left unsaid between them will return one day to haunt.
For a few moments, there’s only oppressive silence, with the rush of the river for company. They’ve been grappling with separate demons of late. Mary, with the stress that accompanies college entrance exams. Ririka, with the aching void of Mary’s absence she hadn’t anticipated would hurt so much.
Haltingly, their hands brush. It’s enough to make Ririka’s fingers twitch, but it’s Mary who slides her palm down the back of Ririka’s hand before grasping it in her own.
It’s Mary’s casual show of comfort now that gives Ririka enough courage to ask her this: “Earlier on… How did you know it was me behind the mask?”
“Geez.” Mary sighs, and for an instant, Ririka worries she has said something wrong.
“You really think I can’t pick my girlfriend out from a crowd?” Mary grins teasingly before giving Ririka’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “C’mon, it’s not like I have a habit of kissing random, pretty girls on the street.”
Ririka’s breath catches. There’s the familiar, sublime squeeze of her heart at Mary’s words. There’s the unfamiliar pin-prick of jealousy at the prospect of Mary’s affections being directed elsewhere.
With her Kitsune mask still jauntily strapped to the side of her head, where Mary last left it, Ririka pivots on her heel to stare, sharp and steely into Mary’s eyes, commanding her full attention.
“You better not,” Ririka warns, voice firm, as she tugs curtly on Mary’s hand. Her action jostles their momentum to the point where they both stop dead in their tracks to stare at each other.
Mary blinks once, twice, before she quirks an eyebrow in a taunt.
“Oh?” Mary asks. “Why Ms. Momobami, are you jealous?”
There’s the static-electricity of playful excitement in the air between them. There’s the flash of teeth as Mary sneers. Of its own accord, Ririka feels her heart speed up in answer.
“I am,” Ririka readily admits, much too quickly, and hates her cheeks’ telltale crimson flush.
“Wow,” Mary teases by giving her a rakish once-over. “I can’t believe I’d ever see the day. The Ririka Momobami. Jealous.”
Ririka flounders for a response. She didn’t think it was possible for her cheeks to grow any redder, but they do. Overcome with embarrassment, Ririka hastily tugs the mask back over her face. It helps a bit as a bulwark against Mary’s cheeky scrutiny, but it does little to conceal her pink-tinted ears from view of the world.
Next to her, Mary chortles in wry amusement. Wonderful, Ririka thinks as her blush grows in intensity. At this point, even her neck feels hot. She can’t even backtrack now and say she’s not jealous, not when lying has never been her forte.
“It’s okay, you know,” Mary murmurs after her laughter has petered off. “It’s cute. I get jealous too, sometimes. To answer your earlier question,” Mary clears her throat before continuing. “There’s this thing. You have a way of standing like someone is watching, even when you’re alone.”
At her words, Ririka tenses up. She’s hit a nerve, there. Mary has a penchant for unsettling her in more ways than she ever thought possible, but how could Mary ever understand that was precisely what it meant to be a Momobami? Even now, in the shadows just beyond their notice, a security detail is watching their every move.
How could Ririka bring herself to say any of those things, when right now, the one thing she’s most afraid of is Mary letting go of her hand? It feeds into her next words, and how her voice trembles even when all Ririka can muster up the courage to say, is this: “A lot of the time, someone is.”
It’s barely even a secret, but in the aftermath of her confession, Ririka tilts her head to the floor, as behind her mask, her eyes prick with tears. The surge of the river smothers the sound of her sniffles. The past bleeds into the present like calligraphy ink staining the pages of her life. Echoes upon echoes of hurt. Patterns in time she can see, but can’t break.
She’s come so far since they first met, but it’s hard sometimes. The years spent under her grandmother’s tutelage has picked at her heart like carrion, riddled it with holes and scar-tissue. For the longest time she was a doll in someone else’s hands, the realization of which filled her with heartache enough to make one mad with grief.
To return once more to that blank slate and hide behind another façade… Sometimes, it feels like the easiest, most dangerous thing in the world.
Beneath the elegant silk of Ririka’s dark blue kimono, her heart feels like it will explode if she breathes too loud. Instinct bids Ririka to tense like an animal anticipating a blow, though all Mary bestows upon her is gentleness in the way she reaches out to brush a cherry blossom petal from out of Ririka’s hair.
“Hmm…” Mary murmurs, voice pitched low and husky as her hand lingers at the nape of Ririka’s neck. “Look, I don’t know about any of that. But it’s just me here tonight, you know?”
“As long as you’re with me, you don’t have to be anyone other than yourself.” Mary’s voice is soft as her gaze is warm. A faint blush dusts her cheeks, and in her eyes, there’s a fire burning, honey-gold under the faint light of the stars above.
Ririka can’t help but lean into her touch. Giving comfort doesn’t come easily to Mary, Ririka knows. She muddles her way through the unfamiliar the same way she gambles. But there is beauty in this, too. Her girl, a diamond in the rough, clumsy and unrefined, and oh-so-sincere in all the ways she tries to soothe.
They contain multitudes, the two of them, and this is one side of Mary few will ever be privy to.
Overcome with emotion, Ririka’s gaze grows bleary. There are times when she feels like a shadow of a human being. The masks she had taken to wearing acted as substitutes for all she once lacked—a sense of purpose, a will, a voice of her own. All those things one needs to forge meaningful relationships with people and feel connected to the world. In their absence, her own identity was entirely eclipsed by her function to the clan.
But Ririka has come a long way since then. The voice in her head now, the will guiding her hand is her own—not Kirari’s, not even Mary’s. It is Ririka’s will now, that speaks. And though her hands tremble, her mask falls away of her own volition. It hangs now around Ririka’s neck by an elastic string. Here, it will hang for the rest of the night.
Against the bare skin of Ririka’s tear-stained cheeks, the night air feels brisk and biting. She looks up at Mary, gaze watery, and it’s been so long since she has felt so vulnerable. They’ve already been through so much together. But still, it’s a little frightening even now, the prospect of Mary seeing something in her—an emptiness, a darkness unfathomable—and choosing to walk away.
Ririka braces herself with a deep breath, and by her next shaky exhale, Mary is still there by her side. She bites the inside of her cheek, and she has yet to wake up. Mary is standing next to her, and nowhere else has felt so much like home. Her gaze feels as bright as Polaris lighting up the night skies above them as she gently draws Ririka close, into her arms.
Who is Ririka without her mask? Who is she when stripped bare of fineries, and the pedigree of her birth? It’s a question she still grapples with even now, but Mary likes her all the same, regardless of it, in spite of, because of it. The reasons blur one into the next, and soon the dream wobbles, unsteady on its legs.
How much was memory, and how much was her brain filling in the gaps eaten by time? Ririka thinks not of such. Instead, her subconscious drifts ahead, to a night sky alive with sparks of color as fireworks burst, fleeting and beautiful. There is gunpowder in the air, and Mary’s arm around her waist is snug and warm. Ririka leans against her, sighing contentedly.
She reaches for Mary, and Mary reaches back.
Slowly, the rest of the world falls away. Darkness closes in like dense fog until all that lingers on in her mind is the sensation, the act, the action—love.
It’s the same warmth that stays with Ririka when next she wakes.
Ririka dreams often in the initial days after their move. She had read once that good dreams are a symptom of a peaceful life.
There must be some truth to that, Ririka thinks when she stirs one morning with Mary draped over her body with the warmth of a heated blanket, and the finicky cuddliness of a temperamental house-pet.
Still snug in their bed, Ririka chances a glance out the window and admires how dawn tints the brackish sky in orange-pink hues. It’s still the wee hours of the morning, and most of the world is still embroiled in slumber.
Ririka hums contentedly as she basks in the splendor of morning. The break of dawn is quite possibly Ririka’s favorite time of the day, and she’s not sure why. Maybe it’s the element of serenity that accompanies the silence, of feeling totally at peace with the world. Maybe it’s that transition as darkness turns to light. It feels so much like standing on the cusp of change…
With the volume of the world turned down low, she can properly admire Mary’s soft snoring, and the rise and fall of her chest with each breath she takes. When Mary mutters something unintelligible about kicking someone’s ass, her limbs lightly flailing about, Ririka nuzzles against her soft, sleep-mussed hair and hugs Mary tight with a smile on her face.
Sanctuary—the word bobs up from the sea of her sleep-addled mind.
In a moment, Ririka will have to rise. In a moment, there will be chores to do, and a whole world of problems to contend with. For now, Ririka luxuriates in feeling safe, and content, and entirely at ease while nesting in their bed, with Mary in her arms.
Sanctuary, their world alone—it lasts one blissful week.
Mary is by the stove one Saturday evening with her hair in a loose ponytail when there’s a knocking at their door. The delicate rhythm is shortly eclipsed by the heavy sound of someone pounding on the wood with a fist.
Ririka opens the door gingerly.
“Took you long enough!” Midari complains, rowdy as a herd of oxen as she barges in, her arms laden with booze and plastic bags full of god knows what else.
“My apologies for her uncouth behavior,” Yuriko says, trailing in after her. She bows apologetically to Ririka before passing her a wrapped present and a bouquet of fresh flowers.
Ririka has only just managed to set the items down on the kotatsu when Mary comes charging over. She beans Yuriko on the head with her balled-up apron and shrieks while brandishing a ladle at Midari. “Get the hell out of our apartment!”
“Oh, calm your tits, Saotome!” Midari cackles as she sticks out her pierced tongue. “It’s just a housewarming party.”
Mary’s blow bounces off the thick glass of the sake bottle Midari holds up in front of her. This, Ririka realizes with a cold dread, marks just the beginning of tonight’s ordeal.
Soon, more people come streaming into their small apartment—ex-student council members and their lackeys who Ririka never really considered friends, and Yomotsuki, who she always inexplicably has, and Mary’s own classmates and friends. Some come bearing gifts, others come bearing food. One petite, squirrely girl somehow manages to heft an entire cast iron hotpot onto their dining table without breaking her back.
In their little apartment, their guests squeeze in like sardines. At first, Mary gripes about beating up any idiot who dares to sit on their bed, but eventually, after tripping enough times over the feet of different people, even she relents.
They’re being much too dramatic about all this, Ririka thinks as she scurries about, playing the role of last minute host. Why even throw a housewarming party now? It’s not like they were moving into their matrimonial home.
And how do they even know where we live? Ririka thinks in helpless dismay. When Sayaka walks in after all the others with a bulky package in hand and a steadfastly determined expression on her face, Ririka understands all at once whose hands are at work here.
Eventually (miraculously) their surprise housewarming party finds a comfortable rhythm. Around the warm brew of a hotpot filled with cuts of meat, vegetables and mushrooms, they reminisce about their Hyakkaou Academy days, and all the ways they almost lost their lives by chance or by design. To laugh about it all now… the alcohol definitely helps lighten the mood. Midari has even managed to goad Sayaka into drinking.
Those among them still too young to drink, sit out instead. They nurse mugs of chilled green tea and judgingly watch as their seniors make spectacles out of themselves: singing karaoke loud and off-key, losing round after round of strip poker, making good on a dare and shouting embarrassing proclamations from their balcony.
(Come next morning, their neighbors will be sure to complain about the noise.)
When they run low on food and alcohol, Yomotsuki volunteers her to head out on a supply run. Sandwiched at the dinner table between Yumeko and a mousy-haired boy, Mary frowns worriedly up at her.
“I’ll be fine,” Ririka mouths at Mary as she dons her heavy winter coat.
With a smile and a wave, Ririka departs. Their apartment has never been so alive with activity, but a break from the hubbub brings her no small amount of relief.
The sun has long set, but the night is still young. On the way back from the shopping district, Ririka exhales tersely when she spots a sleek, black limousine parked on the other side of the road, illuminated by street lights. By this point, the sight comes as no surprise.
She has a choice here, Ririka knows, to walk away. Really though, it’s not much of a choice at all when standing at the bend in Morton’s Fork. Spurred by the strange ache in her heart, she crosses the street. And when she draws near, she finds Kirari keenly observing the gnarled skeleton of a winter-stripped tree.
Cradling her elbow, Kirari wears an enigmatic smile as they lock gazes.
Around them, it starts to snow. It’s been weeks since they have seen each other, and more than a month since last they spoke. Ririka had expected the air to feel thick with tension, but all that Ririka finds when she looks now at Kirari’s face is mirth.
“Does it not remind you of that painting we once had, of the burning tree?” Kirari asks.
Ririka tilts her head down slightly in an affirmative nod. Trust Kirari to entirely forego the common courtesy of mild pleasantries. Then again, what need have they for such, when they once believed they were of the same ilk, right down to the marrow?
Kirari delicately brushes flakes of snow off her dark winter coat before turning to regard her. “Shall we take a walk?” she asks.
“You speak as if I can refuse you.”
“My, what impertinence.” Kirari laughs airily, not the least bit bothered. “Saotome has certainly had an effect on you.”
Ririka says not a word in response, though the familiarity of Kirari’s laughter, and that twinkle in her blue eyes eases the furrow at her brows. After all is said and done, Ririka loves her. They are kin, borne of the same womb, and baptized in the same fire of their childhood.
Together, they set off on their walk, with Kirari leading the way. In a tailored designer coat draped over a form-fitting turtleneck, she looks regal and solemn, and entirely befitting of their clan and name. It makes sense. Since the passing of their grandmother, she has become the living embodiment of all the trappings Ririka has sought to escape.
Illuminated by the wax and wane of street lamps, Kirari even looks a little ethereal. She’s always possessed a kind of gravitas, unnerving and imposing and larger-than-life.
It makes Ririka a little uneasy now, how easy it feels to be pulled into that orbit. It’s a conscious decision on Ririka’s part, to walk just a little out of sync with Kirari, to walk beside, and not behind her. The last thing she wants now is to dissolve back into her shadow.
Ririka looks at her sister now and thinks of tarot cards, and all the different meanings they can portend. Is Kirari’s arrival an ill omen, or an auspicious one? Whatever Kirari’s game is here, it’s still too soon to tell.
“In our last conversation, you mentioned a desire for independence. And yet here I find you playing house with Mary Saotome,” Kirari muses as her blue painted lips quirk in a wry smile. “This feels quite like when we were kids. Running away again, are you?”
"I'm..." Ririka draws a breath, terse and jittery as her head tilts down to stare at her winter boots. At her sides, her hands ball tight into fists. It's a childhood habit she hasn't quite managed to wean, unlike so many others.
When they were young, there was a time they had no need for words. The line between them was nigh indistinguishable, and they could intuit each other’s thoughts and actions without even a passing glance.
A world entirely onto themselves—for the longest time, they shared that wretched, lonely space together. But all things must end. Each new experience made another crack form in the slab of their union. And from the fractures, a chasm grew and grew until eventually, they split in two.
How far their paths have diverged since then.
That’s right, Ririka thinks, drawing a deep breath to steady herself. We’re two different people now.
Kirari was ever fond of fish, from the beautiful, iridescent scales of Arowana, to the ornamental beauty of koi, and the feeding frenzy schools of them would erupt in. In contrast, what garnered the most sympathy from Ririka were the bottom feeders, un-lauded and overlooked, without which entire ecosystems would collapse.
Her mind wanders now to one such creature: a starfish, and how in rare cases, a severed limb of one could grow into a starfish anew. Is that what I am? Ririka ponders now. A star fragment that became whole?
She draws a breath to regain her bearings. In times of doubt, she thinks of Mary and draws strength from her words.
Tell me what you want, Mary had asked her once. Show me who you are. Text and subtext. Questions that cut Ririka down to the quick, and exposed the rotting viscera of her old, pitiable existence.
Even now, years later, it echoes in her still, a rallying call she holds close to her heart. Every action Ririka has undertaken, every major decision she has made since then has been in answer to that.
She is Ririka Momobami. There exists no other name for what she is. Parallels in nature can only bring her so far when the cruelty she was subjected to in her childhood was an entirely manmade tragedy.
They were innocent parties to that end, both her and Kirari. And Ririka refuses to be a victim of circumstance any longer. She is Ririka Momobami, and the life she chooses to lead now is entirely her own.
"I'm not running away from anything, Kirari,” Ririka says. Voice brimming with quiet confidence, she meets Kirari’s questioning gaze head-on. “I’m not playing, either. This isn’t a game. It’s where I belong. For the first time in my life, I know who I am, and where I am supposed to be."
Kirari’s eyes widen. Her high-heeled winter boots scuff the pavement when she stops dead in her tracks. For a moment, Kirari is completely stunned, but then she tilts her head up, just a tad, and from her lips come laughter, gregarious and unrestrained.
The experience is a little dizzying. It’s been so long since Ririka has heard that laugh. Around them, snow drifts down from the skies in lazy flurries.
“My, such conviction!” Kirari says with a beatific grin as she resumes walking. “And here I thought I was dealing with another runaway!”
“Very well.” Playfully, she turns around to face Ririka. Her hands interlace at her back. “If this is your gambit, far be it for me to stand in your way.”
Ririka frowns as she catches up to her. It feels a bit like déjà vu, how the past bounces off their present.
“Are you still jealous?” Ririka looks searchingly into Kirari’s eyes. “Like you were, back then.”
“What a thing to ask! Certainly, I had high hopes for you both, but for the chance to experience such a thing myself…” Kirari giggles. “I’d be lying if I said otherwise.”
"What has Mary Saotome done to you? Or rather, what have you done to each other?” Kirari brings a manicured hand up to cover her mouth before smiling conspiratorially. Her eyes hold the same maddening gleam of old. She smiles like how one imagines a shark would, with too many teeth on display. “It's one of the few things from Hyakkaou that continue to fascinate me...”
The wind howls, then. It rustles their coats, and jostles Ririka’s hair. The ribbons in Kirari’s braids flutter wildly, like the wings of a black bird.
In the winter air, Ririka shivers. There was a time when Kirari’s aquarium felt vast as an ocean, and Ririka felt constantly on the verge of drowning. But that was a long time ago. Ririka draws a sobering breath now to steady herself, and the ocean engulfing her mind recedes back into a small pond.
Ririka’s eyebrows pinch together in consternation. Were we just an experiment to you? Ririka thinks of her partnership with Mary, conceived and spearheaded, entirely at Kirari’s behest.
The question dies in her mouth. Ririka bites her tongue, choosing to swallow blood rather than spit venom. Still, Ririka feels her hackles raise, just a bit. The bite in her—Mary’s influence, probably.
They share a look, and Kirari giggles.
“My, such anger I see in those eyes… Calm yourself. You are, as you will remain, my beloved older sister. Is today not a joyous occasion? I come bearing gifts, not a declaration of war.”
Ririka frowns. "We both know that things are never that simple when it comes to you."
Kirari laughs again before touching a hand to her chest, affronted. A manicured fingernail idly clacks against the pendant hanging by a thin, silver chain around her neck. A gift perhaps, from Sayaka.
In the gesture, Ririka sees a shadow of herself. There are times when she feels like they are mirror images: reversed, inversed, like a tarot card, or opposite sides of the same coin.
“Perhaps. Regardless, I’ve left you a gift.” Kirari smiles. “You’ll find it upon your return. You might not think it such, but it is what it is. She would have wanted you to have it. I most certainly do.”
“You call it a gift…” It feels more like a curse—the words go unspoken. Instead, Ririka bites her lip, body tensing as an animal does when unsure whether to attack or flee. “Is it the same blade?”
“It would not feel right otherwise. Take it, Ririka. And rest easy. I will not beg for your return, nor compel it. But know that our door is always open to you.” Kirari smiles then, wide and guileless, and in the same breath, she makes to turn away. “To be more accurate, you could not close it even if you tried.”
What are they to each other? There was a point in Ririka’s life when supporting Kirari, being Kirari was her whole world. Duty ate at her until it was all that was left, before Mary came along. She should be happy, shouldn’t she? That Kirari is walking away, out of her life. But things are never that simple between them. They share a singular bond, one nobody else in the world can possibly understand.
“Wait!” Ririka calls out after her, and even Ririka is surprised by the urgency of her tone. “Kirari…!”
“I know what the others think, but I never intended for my departure to be a betrayal.”
Kirari’s face lights up in both surprise and delight. “Dear sister, you needn’t worry. There was never any doubt in my mind.”
To both their surprise, Ririka is the one who initiates the hug.
“I… I still care for you. I want you to know that,” Ririka mumbles softly as she deepens their hug.
“As I, you.” Kirari chuckles.
“Why don’t you come join the others?”
“Another time, perhaps,” Kirari says as she pulls away. “I have other matters to attend to.”
“Ah,” Ririka says. She can’t help the disappointed frown tugging at her lips. “I see.”
“Invite me in next time. Invite me in, and I’ll join you and Saotome, for some tea.”
They share another look, and when Ririka sees her reflection in Kirari's eyes, she understands all at once, how far they have come. It's in the slant of their eyes when they smile. It's in the tilt of their head as they regard the world.
Years ago, it would have bothered Ririka. All the small ways their mannerisms went out of sync would have felt like a failing on Ririka's part to embody her role.
Tonight, asymmetry has never felt so gloriously liberating. They share a mismatched smile and hook their pinky fingers together to make another promise worth its weight in gold.
She stays with Kirari until her ride comes to pick her up. Huddled close, they face the dark and the cold. They speak of many things, none of which pertaining to the corrosive past of their old life.
“Yumeko!” Midari bemoans, tears running down her face at being not just rejected for the umpteenth time, but also left behind. She had downed more alcohol that night than thought humanly possible, and though she had won that drinking match against Yumeko, Midari hadn’t stayed awake long enough to reap her spoils.
“It’s pushing midnight and everyone else already left! Settle that crap in the cab!” Mary shouts as she roughly shoves Midari the rest of the way out the front door, then dead-bolts it.
Ririka watches amusedly from the kitchen with her rubber gloves covered in soap suds and Mary’s apron tied about her waist. Ririka diligently peers out a window onto the street until she spies Midari getting into the cab proper. It’s only then that she returns to washing the dishes.
It is almost one in the morning by the time they finish cleaning up. Ririka knows she should feel exhausted, but more than anything, she’s wired and riding high on the buzz of a job well done as she surveys the strange potpourri of housewarming gifts with Mary. No doubt they could host an underground gambling den with all their gifts, from poker decks, to an ivory mahjong set, and the like. Here, a ceremonial tea set and an elaborately-carved, wooden netsuke of an octopus one-man-band. There, an assortment of exotic sweets and a gaming console.
No one comments on the risqué cabaret bunny suit found in a non-descript package, though Ririka takes a strange sort of satisfaction from holding it against her chest and seeing Mary stumble away in search of a tissue to stem her nosebleed.
(That one is probably a gag gift.)
They are down to the last present now. It sticks out from all the others like a sore thumb.
“What the hell is it?” Mary sneers dismissively at it. She sounds hilariously nasal. It’s because she’s pinching her nose with a tissue.
“It’s a plant,” Ririka says, smiling demurely at the oddly-shaped houseplant.
“I know that! But what kind of plant is it?” Mary crosses her arms. “And who the heck gives a plant as a housewarming gift?”
“…Some kind soul?” Ririka hazards.
“Some kind—” Mary makes a gagging sound. It sounds hilariously like she's choking on her tissue. “It’s probably Suzui, or that onesie-wearing weirdo with the weird voice.”
“Hoodie,” Ririka gently corrects her, with a smile. Tucking her chin over Mary’s shoulder, she hugs her from behind.
“Eh, sure,” Mary says before relaxing into Ririka’s hold.
They choose which gifts to keep, and which to part with. They would keep them all if they could, but they only have so much space, and as Mary had put it: What the hell are we supposed to do with a roulette wheel? Bunch of gambling idiots…!
And so ends their night.
In bed some time later, Ririka speaks of her encounter with Kirari, and her plans for their little plant, and her schedule next week so they can sync up when to meet for lunch. She makes no mention of Kirari’s gift, or how Sayaka managed to discretely hide it under their bed without anyone’s notice.
Selective presentation, like sleight of hand, is an art in itself. It unnerves Ririka a bit though… the thought of deception, no matter how well-meaning. As if sensing her unease, Mary’s hand finds hers, even in the dark of their bedroom.
She curls against Ririka’s back in a gesture of comfort and distracts her by speaking of the hijinks that went on while Ririka was away. Soon, Ririka finds herself drifting off to the rich sound of her voice, and the way it rumbles against Ririka’s back as she speaks.
That night, she does not dream.
Ririka is almost always the first to sleep, and the first to rise. Today, she wakes before the crack of dawn, to a dark-blue world, cold and cruel as the sea.
Gently extricating herself from Mary’s hold, she slides out of bed.
She wants to draw their blanket protectively about her like a cloak, but cannot bear the thought of depriving Mary of the comfort. For her sake, Ririka bears with the cold air nipping at her heels.
Quiet as a mouse, Ririka slips into their bathroom carrying the package Sayaka had left. The fluorescent light feels harsh and disorienting. Her reflection in the mirror, with its unkempt hair, and wild eyes, makes her weary.
Holding her breath, Ririka sets the package down on the countertop. With trembling hands, she unravels the red sash wound around the sword bag.
The blade itself is a work of art, one of the few Momobami family heirlooms to withstand the test of time and fate. She stares at the graceful, black and gold ornamentation of the handle before her eyes stray down the length of the crimson-red scabbard.
Ancient is their line. They were samurai before they fell from grace and were reborn. After masticating their bushido code, they became thieves and swindlers, gamblers, merchants, and eventually, yakuza. With each new era, they donned a new face, but their maxim was always to devour and to survive, no matter the cost. And survive they have. Thrived even, outlasting even the lineage of former masters and emperors.
The past echoes off the present. Facing the mirror, Ririka unsheathes the blade with purposeful grace as if preparing to confront an opponent. All the while, her heart roars in her ears. It’s muscle memory that guides her every lithe motion, years upon years of training about how to act until it became an ingrained reflex.
She stares hard at her disconcerting reflection in the mirror, at the way the blade catches the fluroescent light and glints. They have the same eyes: her, Kirari, and their grandmother. In Ririka’s mind, specters loom oppressively: her grandmother’s wizened laughter, and lesson upon lesson about how to subjugate and devour.
Drawing a deep breath, Ririka grounds herself once more in the present. Her muscles slacken as she eases her stance. Their grandmother is dead. Alone in the bathroom of her and Mary’s apartment, the past cannot hurt her here.
She sets the scabbard down on the bathroom countertop, before properly scrutinizing the blade. Engraved into the steel is the name of their clan. A name and a maxim. A promise and a purpose.
They’ve discarded so much over the centuries. Duty and honor, loyalty and obedience to any cause other than themselves, but still, they kept this. One half of twin blades. A legacy passed down through generations, the same way twins have always run in their family line.
She can’t hold the blade without feeling ill. Ririka thinks of tossing it into a river and letting the currents carry it out to a vast ocean. What a fitting end a sea burial would make. May it rest among lichen and fish while the salt eats away at it.
But Kirari’s words burn in her mind. A gift, she had said with a guileless smile. A gift, not a curse.
Well, Ririka thinks as her grip on its hilt tightens. She supposes that will be for her to decide. Thinking such, she runs her fingers over the cold steel, and lets the metal leech her skin of warmth.
She knows it is in poor form. The oils in her skin will corrode the steel. If she pricks her finger on the sharp edge of the blade, so will her blood.
Drilled into her mind are lessons on how to think, and act. And what she has been taught is this: that weapons are an extension of the body, that they make part of who she is.
The thought of it now makes her blood boil. I am not your weapon, Ririka thinks fervently. I want no part of your legacy.
Let my skin eat away at you, she thinks as she sheathes the blade. Let me be the last owner of such a gift. May my ancestors roll in their ashes.
She feels a dangerous calm descend upon her like the still waters of the ocean before a storm hits. Dead men tell no tales, but if the afterlife is real, she wants her wretched ancestors to know this: We Momobami bite back, too.
Thank you for being so supportive and inspirational, Cat!✨Expect a chapter 3 because you deserve the world and Ririka and Mary deserve a soft, happy ending :>
So chapter 83, am I right? Who else is crying over Ririka! 😭I can't believe girlboss grandma-bami dice-trauma is REAL. Whatcha think of ch2? It ain't gonna be canon, but we're gonna up the ante moving forward...!
I'm trying to be more chill, less shy and make more friends! If you wanna nerd out over Mary/Ririka, yuri or video games, I’m noiholic on Tumblr & nitefite#8819 on Discord! :> Feel free to holler at me!