Momoka Oginome heaved a sigh, rubbing her temples as beads of sweat dribbled down her brow and drenched her bubblegum pink hair. The dank lamp light barely illuminated the document grasped between her shaking hands, forcing her to squint in order to make out the spidery, pixelated-
"Goddammit!" she swore, fumbling for a cigarette. Exhaling as the wisps of smoke curled from underneath her chin, she chewed morosely on it and tilted her head towards the ceiling, her arms hanging limp from her sides.
"What's that I smell?" A slender-fingered hand inched across the paneled wood of her office door.
"Blood and tears," Momoka said viciously, removing the cigarette from her mouth and blowing a petulant smoke ring.
"Well, someone's in a bad mood," the voice cooed as its owner elegantly swooped through the door, sporting a fluffy feather boa and at least five sets of fake eyelashes. "Good evening, Momoka-sama."
"Good god, Yuri." She rolled her eyes at her girlfriend, who glided over to her desk with a sly curl of her lips. Her jumbled brain, eager to latch on any topic not having to do with the pile of paperwork piled haphazardly on top of her cluttered desk, wondered how the woman could move so damn gracefully in those monstrosities of hers.
"Practice, my dear, practice makes perfect," Yuri drawled, as if reading her mind, climbing onto her desk and hiking up her pink skirt to expose to the creamy skin of her thighs. She kicked off her stilettos, which landed on the carpet with a thunk, and plopped her feet in Momoka's lap, wiggling her freshly pedicured toes around the black satin of her dress pants.
Blood. Blood red. Her eyes didn't leave the morbid coloring of her toenails.
"Oh, please," Yuri whined, cupping Momoka's face between her hands. "I prettied myself up for you and all you can look at are my toes? Seriously, though- they're nowhere near my finest assets. As a matter of fact-"
"Your toes are splendid," Momoka cut her off, peering around the woman's hips to snatch up another document. "If you'll excuse-"
"Hello?"Yuri demanded. "Geez, Momoka-sama. I thought you'd pay at least a little attention to me. All the guys say I have this amazing sex appeal, but I can't even seduce my girlfriend? And besides, if you keep up with that disgusting habit, the smoke alarm's bound to go off soon." She plucked the cigarette out of Momoka's hands, flicking it into the nearest wastebasket.
"Sorry, but would you mind turning it off for a bit?" Momoka said absentmindedly, opening a manila envelope and peering into its contents. "I'd give in, but seriously, I've got a crapload of work to do. Not to mention I promised my parents that I'd have dinner with them tonight."
"Ugh, you're always so busy," Yuri complained, sliding into her lap and wrapping her arms around Momoka's shoulders. "What is it now?"
"Kanba Takakura." The name slipped out of her mouth before she could stop it. Almost stopping herself, Momoka gave a minimal shrug of her shoulders. She'd signed a confidentiality agreement with her providers, but what the hell. Hadn't she broken enough rules already? "Only sixteen, and already being groomed to become the next leader of KIGA."
"He seems like a pimp," Yuri remarked, leaning over to tug a small photograph out of the envelope. It was square-shaped, the image grainy and blurry, just barely capturing the likeness of boy with scarlet hair slipping out of the back of a warehouse. "So, this is your evidence?
"Yeah. One of my contacts sat on a roof for an entire night just for this," Momoka sighed. "Anyways, he's dangerous, whether we like it or not. His parents blew up that train sixteen years ago, remember? They're nothing more than annoyingly clever barbarians, for all that self-righteous crap they spew. And that's not the end of it. Turns out he's the biological son of the Natsume clan, obediently forked over to KIGA as a consolation prize. Their own son, a pawn for their silly negotiations."
They sat in silence for a moment.
Momoka cleared her throat. "That's classified information, though. You wouldn't believe how deep Tabuki and I had to dig to get that bit of juicy gossip. They try to pass him off as the twin brother of Shoma Takakura. Funny enough, they have the same birthday: the day of that train crash. Strange coincidence, no?"
She sifted through the envelope, pulling out another file. A boy, slightly shorter than his "twin", stood in front of a train station, hands in his pockets. His eyes, wide and fearful, seemed to dart around the platform in a display of jittery motion, betraying the anxiety that lurked behind his rigid demeanor.
They were a pretty shade of sea foam green.
"I never would have guessed they weren't brothers," Yuri said softly.
"And, what about this kid?" She tapped the photo with a manicured nail. "He a world-class Kamikaze pilot too?"
"No, he hasn't done anything particularly suspicious- as of now, at least. Tabuki's posing as a science teacher to watch him. I arranged for his homeroom teacher to resign, allowing him to take his place. But as of our agent's latest report, he's still an ordinary high school student. Estranged from his traitor brother, it seems. But unusually close to his younger sister." Momoka swiped the picture of the boy away, revealing a girl, dainty and frail and clad in a simple white gown, standing on stage in front of a cheering crowd, hand-in-hand with two familiar girls.
Yuri squinted at the image. "Is that-"
"Yeah, Double H," Momoka finished. "The popular idol group. Apparently they were friends when they submitted their application to that agency, but she got sick right before they became stars. Himari Takakura. I spent about a dozen all-nighters trying to find out more about her, but it's like she appeared out of thin air. Nothing at all."
"Pretty fucked-up family, if you ask me," Yuri scoffed. "So, they're your targets? These three kids?"
"You could say that." Her face hardened. "Who can predict what they'll do next? They've left Shoma and Himari alone so far; for the moment, they only seem interested in corrupting Kanba as much as possible. Just in case someone tries to off them, I guess."
A silence, only ruptured by the muffled tap of Momoka's slippers against the floor, ensued.
"Well," Yuri stood up, smoothing down the front of her dress, "I've got a premiere to be at, with Tsubasa and the others. Enjoy dinner with your family, sweetheart."
"So you didn't just pretty yourself up for me?" Momoka teased, a crooked grin making its way onto her face.
"Oh, poo yourself." Yuri threw her a mocking pout, about to waltz out of the room when she stopped. "Hey, Momoka?"
"I'm thinking of...coming out soon."
It was as unsure as she'd ever seen the usually flamboyant, outgoing Yuri.
Momoka remained impassive. "Well...whenever you're ready."
Their eyes met. Yuri nodded, giving her a tight-lipped smile before flouncing out. "Thanks. See you later."
"Yeah. Have fun."
The door creaked close.
"Well, Momoka," she muttered to herself. "You might as well get going."
She'd started ordering herself around once the struggle between her organization and KIGA had escalated, like a remote control to a robot. Treading lightly as not to disturb the stony silence that now had no filled her flat, Momoka shuffled to the kitchen, filling up her thermos with coffee.
The fragrant steam warmed her frigid hands as she stuffed it into her purse, throwing on her brown overcoat, pale blue scarf, and rabbit earmuffs: the perfect nondescript disguise to get her where she needed to go, since she was smart enough to know that KIGA would resort to any twisted method to get a bullet in her head and her mangled body six feet under, where she could no longer scheme against them. Taking extra safety precautions was never a bad thing.
"Now you have to go outside, Momoka," she said, taking a deep breath and stepping outside into the chilly winter air. The streets were filled with the usual holiday hustle-and-bustle, golden tinsel, tiny white lights, and the pungent smell of pine crowding her senses as the traffic whistled by.
Momoka hailed a cab, peering around to ensure that no one had seen her before clambering inside; she could have sworn she'd seen a masked figure skulking around the corner. Exhaling shakily, she sunk into the worn leather, fastening the seatbelt over her chest.
"Something wrong, ma'am?" an vaguely accented voice spoke from behind the plastic cover.
"No, I'm fine." She gave him a lemony smile. "Just a little winded is all. To the Masaki Apartments, please."
He left the curb in a puff of smoke, coasting past the nighttime glow.
"Mister, I'd like your opinion on something," she spoke up, feeling unnaturally brazen. "What do you say makes the world go 'round?"
He glanced in the rearview mirror, his eyes hidden by a pair of cheap sunglasses. "It's not my place to answer such questions, ma'am."
"Oh, please," Momoka insisted. "It's not like I'll report you or anything. Small talk is allowed, correct?"
"I suppose," he agreed, albeit reluctantly. "What makes the world go 'round? Well, if I wanted to be practical, I'd say money."
"Huh." She pondered his clipped response. "Well, that's stuff a bit too complicated for me. I mean, everything's really twisted already. So, I guess if somewhere were to ask me that, I'd say...caffeine. Pure and simple."
"Caffeine?" His gruff voice took on a tone of incredulity. "Are you screwing with me, ma'am?"
"No, I'm saying it 'cause I believe it! There's something beautiful about it, though, wouldn't you agree?" she chirped. "I mean, most adults drink coffee, right? It's what gets us through the day. I'm sure it's the same for you, mister."
"Well, I guess."
Momoka couldn't help but feel that it was a pacifying remark. She'd had her fair share of those.
"I know, I know. Weird question, right? A weird question from a weird girl, I suppose."
They fell silent.
"Hey, ma'am...I dunno, but you look sort of familiar."
"Oh, do I?" she said convivially, plastering a smile onto her face. "Yeah, I get that a lot. Commoner face, I suppose."
"Nah," he said slowly, sounding suspiciously curious. "You an actress or something?"
Momoka reached in between the folds of her coat, fingering the small handgun that had been fastened to its interior. She despised the things, and had initially abstained from carrying one on her, but like Tabuki had reasoned, it just couldn't be helped. The dangerous were targeted, and KIGA was no exception, what with their reputation of wiping out the slightest threat in a blinding instant, no questions asked. It was a miracle that she had stayed alive so long.
She counted the seconds as the local cafe her sister frequented passed by, eyes on the rising fare on the car's control pad. Two minutes, just two minutes.
"No. The red carpet isn't for me," Momoka finally said, the metal cool against her clammy palm.
"Oh, really? It's probably nothing, then."
She breathed an inaudible sigh of relief. The idea of having to kill a man with whom she'd just shared a reasonably pleasant conversation made her queasy. "Yeah, I'm about as not blue-blooded as anyone could get."
Fortunately, it wasn't long before he was parking near her family's apartment, jutting his head towards the door. "Nice talking to you, ma'am."
"Likewise." She reached into her purse, pulling out a wad of money and slapping it into his outstretched palm. "Keep the change. Thanks for being such interesting company." Accepting his gratitude with a curt nod of her head, she marched primly out of the car, keeping a watchful eye on her surroundings as she strode to the door of a sleek apartmentment building. Her eyes on the warmly glowing lobby and its silver chandelier, she rang up. "Hey, Mom. It's Momoka."
"Momoka, dear!" her mother's voice greeted her, dull and static-y. "Come on up! Dinner's waiting!"
The door clicked open. She stepped inside, mouthing a quick "hello" to the bony receptionist and padding over to the elevator. Slipping into the antiseptic silver box, she prodded the "4" button, immensely grateful that no one had joined her. The doors soon slid shut with a chirpy ping, beginning the smooth trip upwards.
Momoka let out the breath she had been holding, slumping against the cold metal wall of the elevator. Caffeine makes the world go 'round, she hummed to herself, parodying that American bus song she'd listened to as a toddler. Unconsciously, she reached into her bag for the thermos, dribbling some of the bitter liquid into her mouth.
Before she knew it, the doors were opening, revealing her her teary-eyed mother.
"Oh, Momoka!" she cried, throwing her arms around her daughter's shoulders.
Stiffening, Momoka willed herself to relax into her mother's embrace, patting her on the back. Her hair smelled faintly sweet and spicy, a fragrance that had permeated her graying auburn hair and teddy bear apron.
Her mother wiped her eyes, stepping aside to peer inside the apartment. "Ringo! Momoka's home!"
Her sister, heavy-lidded marmoset eyes cast towards the ground and hands fidgeting behind her back, shuffled outside. Her close-cropped hair was tamed with a green headband that matched her pastel school uniform, oddly doll-like in contrast with her gawky teenage body. "Hello, onee-chan."
"Hey Ringo!" Momoka greeted, tousling her hair affectionately. "Long time no see. How's school going for you?"
"Fine," she mumbled.
"Congrats on getting in, by the way. Ohka's is a great school. A couple friends of mine went there for high school. Good things, only good things."
"Ringo!" their mother chided, placing a hand on her shoulder. She smiled apologetically at Momoka. "You'll have to forgive Ringo, my dear. She's going through your teenager phase, as you can see. She'll be smuggling boys inside the house before we know it!"
"Why don't we go inside?" Momoka suggested hurriedly, glimpsing the darkened look on her sister's face. "What's that smell?"
"Oh, yes!" she warbled, eager for a change in subject, waving them into the apartment. Taking Momoka's coat from her and hanging it in a nearby closet, she gestured to the living room's cream-colored couches. "I'm not sure if I told you this, but Ringo's quite the cook, you know! Curry's her speciality. I told her to make some tonight!"
"For me?" Momoka smiled at Ringo as they sat down, deliberately about a half-meter away from one another. "I'm honored. And of course, totally pumped to try it."
Her mother washed her hands at the sink, stirring the simmering pot on the stove. "Something to drink, dear?"
"That can wait. Is Dad coming home for dinner?"
She frowned, and Momoka knew immediately that she'd made a mistake. "I told your father that he should at least come home for dinner; your visits are special occasions, of course. But no, he said he was busy with work and was ordering from his office." She clucked her tongue. "Honestly, that man. No sense of sentimentality."
"No, no, it's fine," she assured him, forcing a laugh. "Give him my best, will you? I wouldn't want to interfere with his work."
"That's the thing." Her mother began to set the table, smiling fondly as she placed a third set of cutlery at what had been Momoka's usual seat while growing up. "If you're too lenient with him, he'll forget about what's most important."
Momoka stared at her clasped hands, feeling that familiar pang of guilt for the umpteenth time.
Her mother slipped on a pair of hot-pink oven mitts, carry the still-bubbling pot of curry to the table. "Apple curry, coming right up!"
"Ringos for Ringo, huh?" Momoka smiled, offering her hand to her sister as she stood up. "That's cute."
Ringo pointedly looked away, clambering to her feet and walking to the table by herself.
Momoka frowned, trying to quash the disappointment welling inside of her. They took their seats, murmuring a quick "itadakimasu" before digging in. Wetting her lips in anticipation, she dolloped rice into her bowl, drizzling a substantial amount of smoky-sweet curry onto the steaming grain.
She nibbled at a tiny spoonful, her eyes widening in surprise at the mingle of flavors dancing across her tongue. "Ringo, this is amazing!"
"Like I said, she's quite the chef." Her mother beamed, dabbing her lips with a napkin.
They ate ravenously, the silence only interrupted by satisfied murmurings and quiet slurps.
"How's your job going, Momoka?" she asked, finally breaking the ice. "What have you been up lately?"
Momoka winced. Keeping the details of her job away was the hardest thing about...well, whatever what she did was. She swallowed a bite of curry to stall for time, letting out a brittle laugh. "Oh, the usual. Business is going well."
"Business? What sort of business?" Ringo asked, surprising both her sister and mother.
Momoka frowned, noticing the slight tremble in the girl's fingers.
"My business?" She searched her mind for a sufficiently vague explanation, finally settling for, "Oh, it's just an investigative agency working for the government. New clients daily. It's really been taking off."
Her spoon hit the table with an echoey clang. "Oh, give me a break!" Ringo shouted, leaping to her feet, her shaking fingers gripping the edge of the flowered tablecloth. She glowered at her, the dark rings under her eyes more prominent than ever.
And that, in itself, was one of the only things left in the world that could break her.
Momoka had spent all of her long twenty-five years fighting for something.
Peace for her baby sister, bundled in pink. Peace for Tabuki, so he wouldn't have to hide his scars. Peace for Yuri, so she could smile at the flashing cameras without wondering if she-if she-
And now her enemy had returned, perhaps she was now fighting for the world itself.
When had the truth begun to blur?
Momoka felt numb, watching her sister cry tears of frustration.
"You're such a bad liar." Ringo's voice shook, her lips upturning in a mocking smile. "'Ringos for Ringo? That's cute. Oh, my new business is taking off. Investigative agency.' Well, sister? Wanna fess up now and tell us how ugly you really are?"
Her mother's eyes flitted from one daughter to the other. She seemed at a loss for what to say. "Ringo, surely you don't mean-" she faltered, at a loss.
"Ringo." Momoka blinked away her tears. "I just- I won't deny that I've lied. Lied a lot, then lied some more. To you and the rest of the world, but I...just know, my job- it's something I have to do."
"And why can't anyone else do it?"
She seemed as vulnerable, as tiny and raw as ever, the little wrinkled baby she had always been.
"Well, it's a pretty tough job. No one else really wants it."
Before Ringo could say another word, her phone began to vibrate intensely in her pocket, a jangling melody blaring from the speakers. Momoka muttered an "excuse me", before whipping it out, eyes widening at the caller ID.
"Tabuki!" she exclaimed, forgetting her company for a moment. In a jerky motion, she stood up, her chair scraping against the tiled floor. Bowl of fast-cooling curry forgotten, she tossed a thin-lipped smile in her mother's direction, shoving her phone back into her pocket and leaning forward to press a kiss to her cheek. "I'm sorry, Mom! Something just came up. From work, you see."
Her mother leapt to her feet, peering worriedly at her daughter. "Is something wrong? You mentioned Tabuki- is he alright?"
Momoka stumbled to the couch, hefting her purse onto her shoulder. "No, no, it's fine. I just have to take care of something," she assured them, slipping into her coat and tightening her scarf. "Take care!"
"Come back as soon as you can!" her mother called after her, reluctantly taking her seat. "We have dessert waiting!"
Fully knowing she wouldn't be back anytime soon, Momoka forced a lemony smile and was soon out the door, shutting it behind her. Taking quick, shallow breaths, she did her best to banish the look of betrayal on her sister's face, peeking back at her cell, a voicemail already in her inbox. Cursing under her breath, she called him back, taking the stairwell.
He answered on the first ring, foregoing any pretense of courtesy and launching immediately into his message. "Momoka, thank God I got to you. There's something-"
"You shouldn't have called this number. It was compromised a week ago, remember? I sent you the new number three days ago," she chastised, her footsteps echoing in the musty corridor.
"Sorry, sorry," he mumbled, sounding not at all apologetic. "I forgot. It's really urgent, and I apologize for interrupting your dinner, but- it can't wait."
"Understood." She reached for her pocketbook, flipping through it and pulling out a map of the local area. Years of broken engagements had trained her well, quashing those traitorous feelings of resentment and sending her catapulting into action without so much as batting an eyelash. "Meet me at checkpoint 3-A in fifteen minutes. It's within your area, right? Even so, it's best for me. Think you can manage it?"
"Well, do I have a choice?" She could hear the sliver of a smile in his voice.
"It's against protocol to answer a question with another question."
"It's been a while since I've heard a joke from you," came his fond reply.
"Roger that. I'll be there."
There was a pause.
"You there, Tabuki?"
"It's like when we were kids, huh?"
"See you, chief."
Momoka let out a sigh, exiting the stairwell.
It was going to be a long night.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Shoma Takakura glanced at his watch. 7:46. Just under a half an hour before the first bell rung and yet another long, arduous day at his local high school began. Could he make it?
To hell with it, he declared, chaining his bike to the nearest lamppost and running to the hospital entrance, instinctively leaping backwards as the automatic doors opened. Breath minty and cold, he jogged to the front desk, lifting the hand-knitted scarf off his mouth. "Hi-"
"-mari Takakura," the bubblegum-chewing receptionist finished, eyes never leaving the golden glow of her laptop screen. "She's ready to see you."
Barely pausing to gasp a thank you, he dodged a supply-laden cart to dash down the hallway, nearly crashing into a wheelchair-bound boy in his eagerness to see her, stumbling in front of a quiet little door labeled "Takakura." His heart thumping in anticipation, he raised a hand to knock against the wood.
"Come in!" came the soft-spoken reply.
Flinging open the door, all of his worries melted away at the sight of Himari, angelic and blue-clothed and bathed in morning sunlight.
"Good morning, Sho!" she chirped, scooting over to allow him to sit on the edge of her hospital bed. Her frail hand moving in jerky motions, she traced a finger across the neat blue stitches of his scarf, positively beaming. "You're wearing it."
"Of course. Why wouldn't I?" He curled his fingers over her frigid ones. "It's very warm. Thank you."
Himari frowned at him, glancing at the wall clock. "Are you sure you won't be late for school? I don't want to get you in trouble."
"Don't worry, Himari," he assured her, lying through his teeth. He only had twenty minutes left to get to his first period class, but that hardly mattered now. "School doesn't start for another hour."
"Okay, then." She leaned back in bed, closing her eyes.
They sat in blissful silence.
"Sho," Himari blurted, hesitating. "Have you...seen Kan?"
His stomach twisting, he swallowed back a gulp and forced a smile. "Well...no. He's living with Dad's friends now, so I haven't talked to him much lately. Don't worry, though, he'll come around eventually. He always does."
No. He's gone. Kan is gone, he wanted to scream. He's gone, and he's not coming back.
But Himari, sweet, without-a-mean-bone-in-her-body Himari, nodded, accepting his clipped response. "Okay. When he comes back, tell him to stop by here. I'm knitting a scarf for him, too, but don't spoil it for him, okay? It's supposed to be a surprise."
He fought back tears, clutching her hands tighter. "He'll love it. I'm positive."
She smiled serenely by way of response. "Okay."
Himari proceeded to interrogate him about his grades, friends, and what he'd had for breakfast this day, smacking her lips in anticipation at his vivid descriptions of his miso soup, egg rolls, and tsukemono pickles.
"I'll bring you some next time," he promised, making a mental note to check the hospital policies for foodstuffs. "I'm trying a lot of new things now, so you'll get a real feast!"
She murmured in contentment. Face caught in mid-smile, she suddenly froze and slumped against her headboard, tangles of auburn hair hanging in her face. Her hand turned an ashy white, cold as ice.
"Himari!" he cried out, clambering to his feet and shaking her shoulders. "What's gotten into you? Wake up! Himari!"
The door creaked open, and a wave of cold descended across the room. The echoing footsteps of two leather shoes sent shivers running up Shoma's spine, belonging to a man with streaked pink hair tied into a messy ponytail, his lips upturned in a small smile.
He could only gaze in wonder as the mysterious man practically glided across the tiled floor, movements far too lithe and willowy to possibly be real, lab coat billowing behind him. He sat on the swivel chair perched besides her bed, crossing one slender leg over another and leaning his chin on his palm, batting long, snowflake-ghosted eyelashes. A briefcase rested in his lap.
Mesmerized by the man's strange beauty, it took Shoma quite some time to snap back to his senses. "Doctor," he pleaded, "please, it's my sister, Himari, she-"
His laugh was like the hiss of a viper, the whisper of a wind chime. "Don't worry. Your precious sister is only sleeping, peaceful and dreaming. Under my spell, you could even say." His smile broadened at the sight of the boy's awe. "Forgive me for my brusqueness. I'm usually not this impolite, but...special times call for special circumstances, no? The name is Sanetoshi Watase. Doctor, perhaps, if you're the type to bother with the formalities, Shoma Takakura."
He gaped at him, struggling to choke out the words hitched at the back of his throat. "You- what did you do to Himari? How do you know my name?"
"Now, now, let's not be hasty. I'd be a fool not to have at least heard of someone like you," Sanetoshi chuckled, leaning forward to run his spindly fingers through her hair. The girl mumbled something under her breath, exhaling shakily. "What reason would I have for hurting such a lovely specimen? After all, she is destined to be my bride."
He might as well have told him he was an alien.
Although, it wouldn't have surprised him much at this point.
"Bride? What do you mean by that?" Shoma demanded, hand desperately scuttling across the wall for the hospital phone.
"Why, you're slow on the uptake, aren't you?" He narrowed his eyes at the boy, lifting a bony hand to gently place the phone out of reach. The plastic dissipated in his grasp. "I meant precisely what I said. This girl- your sister- and I are sewn together by fate. It is something entirely out of your control. You wouldn't steal your sister from the man she loves, would you?
"You see, Shoma," he continued, lilting and nonchalant. Reaching for a tiny penguin plushie sitting on her bedside table, he began to toss it up and down in slow, lazy movements. "There was once a girl I loved, perhaps even more than Himari-san: Momoka, Momoka Oginome. You had never seen such a beauty; even the stars aligned in her eyes. But she simply wouldn't have me."
His voice took on an edge contempt. "She rejected my advances, cursed me with those biting words of hers. Instead of taking my hand, she fled, choosing to fight against me. And the witch now? Shielded only by her pride and arrogance and vanity. Would you wish that on your sister, Shoma?"
The roof of his mouth was parched with speechlessness. Himari didn't deserve this. He didn't deserve this, to be abandoned by Kanba, to be beguiled and hoodwinked and cheated of the only thing he had left by this madman.
His eyes darted towards the door. Surely someone must have heard the commotion. Stuck inside of a freezer, all he could do was wait.
"But, alas. The woman, the one I love so dearly, is dying. Her breath is fading every second, I can sense it. But your love, your passion- it's stronger than anything I've ever seen. You'd do everything for her, wouldn't you, boy? Die for her, perhaps?" he teased, setting the penguin back down. "Watch me closely, my dear fellow."
He clicked open his briefcase, sifting through a painstakingly organized collection of tiny bottles, each filled with a teaspoon of simmering liquid and labeled with a blue marker. Running his fingers against the cool glass, he plucked one out, holding it so it glinted in the morning light.
"Himari Takakura is terminal, and nothing but that. You're only fooling yourself, Shoma, believing she'll miraculously make a full recovery. You think you can save her? Chivalry won't do much for you now. Even that brother of yours, Kanba, has given up on her salvation. Why do you think he hasn't visited her at all? Is it pity that keeps you coming, Shoma?"
No, no, no! he desperately wanted to scream, falling prey to the enchantment of its hypnotic glow.
Could it be...?
Seemingly reading his mind, Sanetosh's malicious glee slipped through the cracks of his nonchalant facade. "But this- this is your answer. The antidote your doctors had given up finding weeks ago. I have it, just in my hands. You can save your sister, Shoma, with just a single drop of this antidote."
His gaze flickered between his unconscious sister and the glittering liquid. A drop, just a drop, and it would all be over. They'd forget about Kanba and live together in their hodgepodge of a house, like vagabonds with every sliver of happiness in the world.
"What do you want me to do?" he choked out.
A smirk eased its way onto his face, dimpling his cheeks. Sanetoshi held his hand out to him.
Shoma gazed at the pale, slithering thing in disgust, but took it nevertheless, its iciness nipping into his palm. He held back a shudder, eyes locked on Himari as the man whispered in his ear, the eerie smile etched permanently on his lips.
A bespectacled man stood on the corner of the hospital, binoculars pressed against the cracked lenses of his glasses. He squinted, but was still barely able to make out the outline of a rather familiar boy (his sea foam eyes were unmistakable) and a certain pink-haired menace grasping hands. They exchanged a series of quick words before the boy nodded curtly, edging out of the room.
Within a couple of minutes, Shoma Takakura was slipping out of the entrance, mouth buried in his scarf.
Keiju Tabuki stuck his binoculars into a fanny pack tied at the waist, watching in faint amusement as the boy morphed into the crowd of black and white, hurrying along to where the public high school was.
Glancing at his watch, Tabuki smirked at the blinking numbers.
For the fifth day in a row, it seemed he'd be late for work.
Eyes darting around, Momoka entered the nearly-empty coffee shop two minutes ahead of schedule. Under the patronizing gaze of a greasy-haired woman in an apron, she took the seat the farthest away from the glass window, her heel tapping against the tiled floor as she idly perused the floppy menu.
Vanilla cake with coconut shavings, caramel macchiato cheesecake, chocolate mousse, she rattled off in her head. Pomegranate crisp, lemon meringue pie-
Something scraped against the floor, shaking her out of her reverie. She glanced up.
Tabuki, visible bags under his eyes, took the seat across from her, draping his jacket over his chair. "Hey," he greeted, looking as if he was ready to slump to the ground.
"Well, you're looking a little beaten-down," Momoka remarked. The greasy-haired woman approached them, her arms laden with a large tray, abd set cups of coffee down in front of them. Nodding stiffly in thanks, she lifted the cup to her lips, inhaling the warm fragrance, a step up from the watered down instant coffee in her thermos.
Tabuki gulped down half of his coffee, sighing in contentment. "Yeah, you could say that again. I swear, I must have spent half of yesterday watching the new surveillance tapes. That, and grading biology quizzes."
"Science was always your most proficient subject," she offered up.
"Yeah- that doesn't mean I wanted to teach it." Tabuki eyed the menu hungrily. "What are you going for? I could use some sugar."
"Go crazy." She emptied two packets of low-calorie sweetener in her coffee, taking a measured ship. "I hear the macaroons are to die for."
"Really?" He arched an eyebrow at her, as if he was trying to decipher some sort of secret message. "Well, that settles it then." He raised his hand like an impatient schoolboy, calling the disgruntled waitress over.
"A plate of macaroons, please," Momoka ordered. The woman scribbled something down on her pad, before turning on her heels and clacking away.
"Something you want to tell me, Tabuki?" she prodded.
"Right." He cleared his throat, grabbing the nearest napkin and scribbling on it with the pen he always had tucked behind his ear.
As soon as he had finished, Momoka snatched it from him, reading it under the tablecloth.
Shoma's finally eloped with him. They were together at the hospital this morning.
Her hand closed on top of the napkin, nails digging into her palm. Him.
"You sure?" she whispered.
He nodded curtly. "I followed him all day," he murmured. "I couldn't be sure when I first saw them together, but now, I'm not sure what else it could be. The boy looked fucking terrified. From what I've seen, though, yes, his involvement is entirely against his will. This kid is nothing like his bastard of a brother."
The waitress appeared, balancing a plate of the cookies on one arm. As she gingerly lowered the platter to the table, she bowed to them, Tabuki watching her departure rather warily.
"Now laugh, like I've just said something funny," he demanded.
It was only with great effort that they managed to give somewhat convincing laughs, earning themselves a suspicious glance from the nearest customer.
Unable to resist the urge any longer, Momoka grabbed a pink cookie, nibbling it. Thin strands of pale coconut wound their way around her teeth, and she moaned at the rich, sugary taste. "God, where have I been all my life?"
Tabuki grinned, raising his coffee cup in mock respect. "A toast for old time's sake?"
The odd pair clinked glasses, chewing in silence.
Once cookie crumbs had littered the tablecloth and the plate sat blissfully empty in front of them, Momoka sighed, patting her stomach in contentment. "Well, that was the squarest meal I've had in ages."
"I presume I'm paying?" he said wearily, watching her wipe her sticky fingers on a napkin.
"Do you even have to ask?" she quipped, reaching into her purse to pull out a generous tip. "See you, Tabuki."
"I'll send you the pictures tomorrow," he said, before bidding her farewell.
Momoka was uncomfortably aware of his prying eyes as she left the establishment and stepped into the cool night air. He never did stop trying to figure her out; she suspected that it was his reason for teaming up with her in the first place.
She glanced at her watch. 9:15.
Might as well leave some time to mull it over.
Momoka hailed another cab, climbing in and quietly giving her address to the driver, who merely nodded and sped off.
Her hand instinctively reached into her bag, searching for the pristine, laminated pages when-
She gasped. The driver glanced at her through his rearview mirror. "Something wrong, miss?"
"N-Nothing." She laughed it off, harriedly prying open her bag. Overturning piles of paper clips, lifesavers, four cell-phones, keys, and pocketbooks, and her lipstick-smudged makeup kits (for impromptu disguises, if the need ever rose), she panicked. The tiny pink book, previously hidden between her map and white cardigan, had vanished.
She ordered herself to calm down.
In and out. In and out.
You've misplaced it. That's all.
That's all? a part of her said indignantly. The book that's gonna save the world. That's all?
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to think it through.
She had her flat with it, she was certain of that. For the love of God, every time she went anywhere, she checked that the precious pages were still safely tucked inside her purse, unless she was ever too preoccupied to-
Only then did it dawn upon her.
She had been so thrown off with Tabuki's sudden call and Ringo's outburst that it had completely slipped her mind to reach for her diary.
Momoka cursed herself for her carelessness. After that jarring conversation with Yuri, she most definitely wasn't herself. She had been absent-minded, foolish even; hell, they could have been standing outside the coffee shop with semi-automatic rifles and she probably would have been too wrapped-up in her own petty problems to notice.
Calm down. You're delusional.
Okay, the diary was missing; she had come to terms with that. Praying her observational skills hadn't failed her, she squeezed her eyes shut, picturing the scene of her mother's cream-hued apartment. Couches, the chrome refrigerator and dishwasher, the pot of simmering curry-
The couches! Of course!
Momoka resisted the urge to slap herself. She had foolishly left her purse unattended on the arm of her mother's couch. Having been drugged by the intoxicating aroma of curry, she probably hadn't noticed that it had been angled in such a way that the contents were exposed.
And Ringo, angry-eyed Ringo-
Interrupting her train of thought, the impatiently cab driver whipped around. "Ma'am!"
Her looming apartment building was just outside the frosted glass, the picture of shining opulence against a backdrop of snow.
She snapped back to her senses, shaking her bubblegum locks and giving him a thin-lipped smile. "Pardon me. I'm rather discombobulated tonight."
The man grunted, indifferent to her bumbling excuse. "That'll be eight hundred yen."
Sifting through her wallet and pulling out a handful of coins, she apologized profusely to the man, who, promptly after depositing her dazed self on the curb, cruised away into the night. Clacking to the front of her building, she inserted a silver key into the lock, twisting it open. Slipping inside, she nodded hurriedly to the half-asleep doorman, before turning left into the carpeted hallway and rounding to apartment 116.
Yes. It was so obvious now.
Ringo had to be the culprit.
The door clicked open, and Momoka stepped inside, kicking off her excruciatingly-painful heels and flexing her sore, cramped toes.
That was the only possible explanation. Her own baby sister, wracked with loneliness and jealousy and neglect, had seized the little pink book on a whim when she hadn't been paying attention, slipped it under her skirt, and confronted her about it under the guise of the whiny schoolgirl.
It seemed that Ringo was more fickle than she had ever imagined.
A part of Momoka was relieved. Better her than Sanetoshi or one of his henchmen, yet not. A personal connection could destroy her, Tabuki had warned her of it. At least she could send guns and machetes and flamethrowers at the enemy, but her own sister?
Well, she'd have to be a lot sneakier.
Accidentally letting it slip that her most powerful weapon (the one thing that could scare him) was out of her grasp would certainly be crippling. They'd storm headquarters, take her closest lieutenants into custody (her stomach knotted at the thought of Tabuki, her oldest friend, bruised and broken), and she wouldn't be able to do anything about it, not without her diary.
So, how to do it? They were always watching her. If she tried to be direct with Ringo, and they might overhear, maybe even hold her hostage if they were cold-blooded enough to man-handle a sixteen-year-old girl.
(That wasn't even a valid question. They were willing to taint a boy no different from her sister, so why not Ringo, someone who didn't even have a personal connection with the organization?)
Momoka stormed to the kitchen, her mind bubbling and boiling. Giving the tap a vigorous twist, she filled a tall glass up with ice-cold water, gripping the frosty surface and chugging it down.
What did Ringo want? Companionship? A rekindled sisterly bond that hadn't even existed to begin with?
Well, it looked like she'd have to find out. After spending a hearty amount of time shoe-shopping or manicuring or chocolate-sampling, she'd wheedle out an explanation as well as tears of joy and sisterly pats on the back, before convincing her to reluctantly part ways with the diary, and all would be calm again.
Momoka let out a groan, placing the glass in the sink and making her way to her bedroom, collapsing onto the four-poster bed. Fingers playing with the lavender canopy, she curled on top of the haphazardly-strewn coverlet (Yuri wasn't one for consistency, especially when it came to menial tasks), still in her winter get-up, and fell into a long, dreamless sleep.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Masako Natsume squirmed, doing her best to remain calm and composed as a beady-eyed nurse jabbed pin after pin in her unruly rust-red curls. The woman barely grumbled an apology upon piercing her scalp, earning a rare wince from the stoic girl.
"Your hair is so thick," she explained, in broken Japanese. "It takes a long time."
She nodded curtly, pinching her arm to stop her traitorous eyes from getting watery.
Get ahold of yourself! she ordered. You have to look your best. After all, you're meeting him again today.
Giving a minimal cough, she straightened her abysmal posture, imagining that her grandfather was standing behind her and swatting her pink-tinged ears with a wooden meter stick.
Masako! he'd reprimand, narrowing his eyes sternly at her. Is that any way to act? Your guests will think that you were raised in a barn, and you'll bring shame to the Natsume name. Is that what you want?
Masako exhaled shakily. Pretending the deceased leader of the clan was peering over her shoulder was a longtime trick to exercise self-control.
It almost always worked.
The nurse stepped back, beckoning her to stand up. She complied immediately, the stiff fabric of her navy skirt tickling at her bare ankles. Her tangled mass of hair had been meticulously tamed into a hair-sprayed bun that brushed against the nape of her neck. Not an easy feat, as each of her former attendants could testify.
"You look lovely, Natsume-sama," her nurse drawled, her jaw clenched under her baggy, pallid skin.
"Thank you, Sarah-san," Masako said quietly, smoothing down the lapels of her button-down blouse. Turning away from her floor-length mirror and about to place a black-heeled foot outside of her bedroom, she hesitated, glancing back. "Is he-"
"Mario-san is fine," she finished, clasped hands tightening over her pristinely white apron. "He's sleeping. The doctor would like to try a new medicine.
Masako nodded, half-relieved. Sleeping was better than being awake, he had confided in her. Anything is better than being awake. "Send the prescription my way. I'll sign it and send it to him within a week."
The nurse, humoring her, bowed to her. "Yes, ma'am." She glanced at her austere silver pocket watch. "Watase-san is eagerly awaiting your arrival in the parlor, ma'am. It will not do you good to keep your honored guest waiting."
"I suppose so," she conceded, trying desperately to conceal her dread. Anything was better than attempting to hold a decently pleasant conversation with that man, the one with the eyes of a snake and the cold, cold laugh. She would much rather stay by Mario's bedside, even if he couldn't hear her hushed whispers, her vows to save him.
There, at least, she could hold his hand until he woke up, bathed in orange sunlight and smiling his little, knowing smile.
Her throat constricted. No.
She had to do it, if only for Mario's sake.
Masako clacked through the empty, looming hallways. Alone except for a few straggler servants, she was uncomfortably aware of the echoes that bounced off the regularly-polished oil portraits of her ancestors in their gilded frames, their piercing eyes glued to her every move.
Watching. Always watching.
She swallowed. Chin up, head held high. Crossing your legs is a no-no.
A butler bowed to her when she approached the oak-paneled doors of the parlor. "Watase-san is right inside."
Her hands fisted over the rigid satin of her skirt, she waited with bated breath as he creaked open the doors, revealing the cream-colored room.
"Good afternoon, Natsume-san," came the convivially poisonous greeting.
Her gaze flitted to him, and she nodded in brusque acknowledgement. "Good afternoon, Watase-san."
Sanetoshi was sprawled unceremoniously across a wine-colored love seat, arms slung over its wooden backside. His ludicrously poor posture gave him an air of space, more than his scrawny, rather feminine figure should have.
He's trying to intimidate me.
Her hands curled into fists, sharp nails digging into her palms.
Ignore him. You can't let him get to you.
Taking measured steps, she took the seat opposite to him. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind an ear, suppressing the urge to tap her feet against the lush carpeting.
Control yourself. Mario, think Mario.
"What matter would you like to address today?" Masako asked stiffly, thanking the butler as he placed a tea-tray on the wooden coffee table. Desperate to give her trembling hands something to do, she poured a thin stream of copper liquid into a cup, adding a teaspoon of sugar and a dash of milk. She swirled the creamy liquid with a tiny spoon, sipping the scalding-hot tea without so much as a grimace.
He raised an eyebrow at her, faintly amused. "You don't mess around, do you, Natsume-san? Well, you certainly do live up to your reputation."
She felt a prick of annoyance. "I'd like to ask you to ignore those petty rumors. They won't do anyone good- especially you. If you're only here to mock my family and make a fool out of me in my own house, I'll have to ask you to leave."
Masako tensed, mentally slapping herself. What was she thinking?
To her surprise, he began to laugh, a rumbling laugh. "You're as feisty as they say. You don't trust me, no? I figured as much. So, as a peace treaty, to finalize our alliance and willingness to offer each other our utmost support-" He snapped his fingers, ushering in a pair of two burly men who both struggled, despite their shared bulk and stocky body builds, to heft a large briefcase.
She looked contemptuously at the smirking man. What on earth was he thinking?
The servants hurried to wheel over another table. His henchmen grunted their thanks, setting down the briefcase with a loud thud.
As they approached, her mind began to wander. What could possibly be in there?
Drugs? Bombs? Blackmail material? she worried, unconsciously delving into her childish imagination.
Sanetoshi turned to her once more, a mischievous glint in his eye. "Care to open it?"
What if it was an explosive? What if it imploded here and now, vaporizing the mansion and sending radioactive waves for dozens of miles and-
Stop it. You can't say no, can't risk offending him.
But what about what I said before?
Well, yeah, you had a reason for that. Refusing such a generous gift could be seen as impertinent.
For Mario. For the Natsume clan.
Just for a second, the image of her grandfather, faceless behind a mask of calm, toasted his wineglass to her. Go on, Masako.
She slowly stood up and, fingers shaking, reached for the silver clasp. Undoing it with caution, she braced herself for flying shrapnel, for a boom, for anything he could possibly-
His so-called "gift" was a pile of macaroons. A mini-mountain of them, really.
He has to be joking.
Concealing her moment of indecision with a little hiccup and a terse giggle, she smiled coyly at him. "Thank you very much for your generous donation. My brother shall enjoy them immensely." She gestured to the case, calling her butler over. "Take these to kitchens, please."
Sanetoshi stopped him with a wave of his hand. "Why so formal? We can have a couple right now, if you'd like. I hear that these particular specimens are to die for." Leaning forward, he plucked a misshapen one out of the case, plopping it into his mouth and chewing it eagerly. He was quite clearly making a display of it, a shower of crumbs littering his chin.
Masako wrinkled her nose in thinly-veiled disgust, but reluctantly reached for one as well. He still hadn't been cleared from the suspicion that he may have poisoned the things; she had seen enough political assassinations (and even fantasized carrying out elaborate plots of her own) to know better.
Recalling the blowfish incident with gusto, she just barely managed to suppress a smile.
However, there were more pressing matters to deal with.
Turning her attention back to the cursed object in her hand, she tentatively nibbled at it.
Two seconds, five seconds, ten seconds.
No numbing over her tongue, no nausea?
Waiting another thirty seconds or so, she finally dismissed her suspicion. Even the great Sanetoshi Watase didn't have the audacity to outright murder her in her own home.
Now that that had been taken care of, she directed her attention to indulging in the sticky confectionary. Even as someone with a particularly refined culinary palate, the rich flavor surprised her. The thick taste of coconut dominated the light flavor of the butterscotch cookie to assault her taste buds, the mingling of flavors dancing a jig across her tongue.
"Amazing, right?" he asked her, polishing off his second. "Momoka Oginome frequents the joint they originate from. She's a woman of impeccable taste, after all."
The name seemed oddly familiar, rolling like a glass marble on the tip of her tongue.
"-ka Oginome." He idly licked the crumbs off of his fingers. "The ringleader of the Princess of Crystal."
"Well, if she's foolish enough to go to a place where we can track her easily, she must not be a particularly formidable opponent," Masako said scornfully, swallowing another gulp of tea. "I wouldn't take the risk, even for the macaroons."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that." He grinned at her, showing a mouthful of cookie paste. "They're pretty scrumptious, if I say so for myself."
Suddenly, the short-lived pleasantry of the macaroons dissipated.
"We've skirted around the topic enough," Masako said sternly, brushing the remnants of her snack off her skirts and accepting a moist towelette from her butler. "Now, tell me why you're really here. You wouldn't have brought the macaroons if you didn't want to bring up this Momoka, now would you?"
"Your intuition is uncanny," he conceded, following a brief pause.
They sat in tense silence.
"I was in love with her once."
The girl nearly choked on her tea. "You-what?!"
"But, alas, she turned on me, even formed her own organization bent on my demise." He shook his head ruefully. "What a pity. She was such a beautiful girl. I fell in love the instant I laid eyes on her."
She was quickly growing impatient. Being unpredictable and uncouth and bad-mannered was one thing, but a lovesick fool? That was crossing the line.
Calm, calm, calm-
"You said you'd help Mario, didn't you?!" she snarled, standing up and knocking her cup of tea to the ground. The porcelain landed with a thump, the dark liquid pooling out and sinking into the carpet. "Well, get on with it already! I'm sick of screwing around!"
He pondered this, seemingly unfazed. "You're quite a bit more...demanding than I expected you to be." A dark smirk crossed his face. "Especially since the fact whether your brother lives or dies is entirely dependent upon my will."
A madman, she thought, aghast and shaking. An absolute madman.
Masako, regaining her former composure, grudgingly sat back down. A servant hurried forward to clean the mess she had made, purposefully avoiding her piercing gaze as she wiped down the carpet, scrubbing the fibers rigorously. "We had an agreement, Watase-san. Tell me how to save my brother, or I'll-"
"You're in denial, Natsume-san," he said cheerfully, oblivious (or simply different) to the thickened tension. "Signing all of those prescriptions, naively believing that your brother will miraculously get better. But you're no fool. You don't really believe those will get you anywhere, do you? The doctors are swindling you out of your every penny; you'll go broke if you keep living like this."
She was positively furious. What right did this man have to be prying into her personal affairs? Mario was, he was-
"Dying, my dear," he drawled, impatiently gesturing for one of his cronies to pass him another briefcase. Before she could protest, he lifted out a valve of fluorescent blood-red liquid. "This, right in my very hand, is the antidote. The key to solving all of your problems, Natsume-san. A single drop of this, and your brother will be as healthy as can be. You can run away from your life of turmoil, rent a house in the countryside, live your happy, happy lives together. That's what you've always wanted, isn't it, Natsume-san? Freedom, a place where you could live with your brothers- both of them- in peace."
"Kanba," she breathed, in spite herself.
"That's right," he egged her on, voice soft and coaxing. "Kanba Takakura, stolen from you by your father. How does it feel, Natsume-san, to be torn away from the person you loved the most and forced to live the way you do? Nothing more than a plaything, groomed to reign and go to parties and be a pawn for their petty negotiations."
"Stop changing the subject!" she shouted, snapping back to her senses.
She was furious with herself, for letting him rile her up. From personal experience, she knew it took a real nutjob to get herself, the reputable Masako Natsume, as emotionally vulnerable as she was now.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked, gritting her teeth.
"You understand business very well, my dear," he chuckled. "A small payment indeed, for such a great reward. All you have to do to save your darling brother, Natsume-san, is to find me Momoka Oginome's diary."
"A diary?" she repeated, stunned. "You want me to find a diary?"
A diary for her brother's life? A diary?
"Not just any diary, of course," he assured her. "The diary of all diaries. The diary that controls my fate. Your fate. The world's fate. The diary that keeps me from crushing Momoka Oginome once and for all. The only thing that stops you and me both from achieving our dreams."
A diary. A little book. That was all?
There must be a catch.
"Although, there's something my darling little Momoka has neglected to tell me, the naughty little girl,"' he continued teasingly, tone light and inquisitive and somehow venomous. "Somehow, she has lost it- the very thing that happens to be important than her existence itself, the foundation of which she is nothing more than a rag doll. She was careless, overconfident, drunk off of her own power, and now...she is a mere shell."
"Where can I find it?" she demanded, forsaking all pretenses of pray.
She had had enough of his silly games.
A wide smile spread across his face. Slipping a hand into his coat pocket, he pulled out a crumpled sheet of shiny paper. Masako took it tentatively, squinting at a blurry image of a mousy teenage girl around her age with short-cropped chocolate brown looks.
"Ringo Oginome," Sanetoshi supplied, by way of explanation. "Her younger sister. They look quite a bit alike, don't they?"
She couldn't care less. It was right within her fingertips: the tiny bottle that could piece back together the life she was living now, make things right.
Would he come back?
"So all I have to-"
"Find it and bring it back here. That'll all you have to do." Gingerly, he placed the bottle back into its place, shutting the briefcase.
It took every ounce of her willpower to look him straight in the eye. "I'll take your deal. But...just know, if you have any intention of trying to cheat me, our so-called alliance can turn into nuclear warfare before you can even plead for mercy."
He smiled drily, a gleam in his eye. "I wouldn't dare dream of it."
They grasped hands.
Momoka woke in a cold sweat, head throbbing with a dull ache. Groaning, she reluctantly sat up, wiping a dribble of drool off her chin and trying to swallow the parched feeling on her tongue. Sliding out of bed, she shed her coat and threw it on the nearest chair, surprised when a crumpled piece of stationary fell out of it. She frowned, bending down to pick it up, unfurling it and smoothing out the crinkles.
Morning, gorgeous, it read teasingly. Have a good night?
A misshapen smiley face followed.
Momoka rolled her eyes, padding to the living room. Typical Yuri.
Yuri, golden hair glinting in the morning sun, sat on the coffee-colored couch, still wrapped-up in her fluffy pink bathrobe. She stirred a mug of coffee with her spoon, glancing up upon hearing girlfriend's cushioned footsteps. "You know me too well."
The absence of three sets of fake eyelashes, powdery blue eyeshadow, and several layers of pale concealer made her seem softer, older, the sensitive little girl peeking through her peachy, lined skin.
Looks like we're not so young anymore, hm?
"Did you expect otherwise?" Momoka gave her a thin-lipped smile, sitting down. "How was the premiere?"
Yuri heaved a sigh, twirling a lock of thick blonde hair between her manicured-fingers. "Sucky. I messed up a few of the high notes, and once it was finally over, I tried to get my chauffeur to pick me up as soon as possible, but he ran into a spot of traffic, and I found myself bombarded by the paps. So yeah, overall not a great night.
"But enough about me!" she said abruptly, flashing her pearly whites. "How was dinner with that cutie pie sister of yours?"
"Not so well." Momoka shook her head mournfully. "I got a call from Tabuki about halfway through and had to leave. Ringo blew up at me before that, though, so maybe it wasn't a good thing. I guess Mom's gushing finally got to her."
Yeah, and the most important thing I own got stolen, she thought. Just thought you'd like to know.
But she held her tongue. Now wasn't the time to be snooty.
Yuri threw her a simpering glance. "Poor Ringo-chan. Puberty is an absolute horror. Having such an evasive older sister must be hard on her."
"You must be joking," Momoka laughed, quipping, "Having such an evasive girlfriend is hard on me!"
Suddenly Yuri grew solemn, the girlish pout leaving her lips. "I'm thinking of taking a leave soon. From my career, I mean."
She immediately felt guilty. "No, no, Yuri, that's not what I-"
"I know, I know!" her girlfriend snapped, but managed to calm herself down, heaving a sigh and massaging her temples. "Sorry, I'm just...really exhausted. It's not you at all, I swear. I know I should be grateful that my dream is finally coming true, but...it's not as great as I thought it would be. You know that feeling, right? When you've spent your life working desperately for something, and when it turns out horrible and you don't know what the hell you're supposed to do next."
All too well, Momoka thought.
But, in the end, consoling others was not her strong point.
"Well," she said halfheartedly, "it's up to you. I'm not gonna pressure you to do anything."
"Yeah, I knew you'd say that. But sometimes, I guess, as it turns out, I just need someone to spell it out for me." She laughed bitterly, burying her face in her hands. "For Chrissake, listen to me. I can be such a little kid sometimes.
"I'll be here for you," Momoka forced out, laying a tentative hand on the sharp curve of her back. "Just tell me when you need to talk.
The smile Yuri gave her was heartbreaking- radiant, even. Distractingly radiant. The smell of roses, dried perfume, the smear of lipstick on pearly white teeth-
And, as her mouth descended upon Momoka's, slender fingers tugging at disheveled hair, any other thought was banished from her mind.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Shoma, hoodie effectively hiding his face, sat on a park bench outside of Ohka's Garden School. Tapping his foot impatiently on the dewy grass (it had rained that morning), he glanced at his watch. 3:43.
If his research was any indication, school would be out in less than two minutes. In the wake of his complete boredom, he felt a twinge of guilt. In order to arrive as promptly as he did, he had cut the majority of his afternoon classes despite Himari's wishes. Feeling horrible about it, he forced a chuckle at the image of his little sister throwing a tantrum, but banished the thought- nothing could stop him.
The bell rang, and Shoma snapped to attention, securing his hastily thrown-together disguise as the gates were opened, hordes of uniform-clad girls rushing out. Pressing his back against the cool brick wall, he barely managed to hold his tongue and smile awkwardly as several girls craned their necks to get a better look at him. The word "pervert" reached his ear a record total of seventeen times. The corner of his mouth twitching (I will not be lumped in with "Playboy Kanba", although he later felt guilty for this indignant passing thought), he almost didn't notice the doe-eyed brunette clinging to perfume cloud of giggling girls.
Snapping back to his senses, he leapt to his feet and grabbed his black duffel bag, covertly staggering his steps so he wasn't suspiciously close to the girls, but entirely within earshot.
"-got a B on my history essay. I mean, what was she thinking?"
"You think you have it bad? My parents threatened to kick me off the badminton team if my math grades didn't go up."
Both girls looked at Ringo expectantly. She blinked owlishly at them, before laughing softly. "I'm doing alright, I guess."
"Man, Ringo," the curvaceous blonde whined as she reapplied a thick layer of strawberry lipgloss, "you're just so good at everything. Oh, and your sister- holy shit, she's gorgeous."
Shoma noted the short pause.
"Yeah, I guess so."
He continued to follow them as they rounded the corner, turning onto a street bustling with mid-afternoon traffic. Ducking behind a hot dog stand (the owner shot him a disapproving look that he ignored), he watched as they came to a stop in front of the subway station.
"Hey, Ringo...wanna go to the mall? Apparently there's a sale at Delia's."
She shook her head, smiling apologetically. "Sorry, guys. There's something I have to take care of now- maybe some other time."
"Ooh," the petite brunette said enviously, "does this something involve…" She exchanged a meaningful glance with the other girl, before they squealed in unison, "A boy?"
The frozen, doll-like smile never wavered. "Yeah, in a sense."
The blonde smacked her lips in thinly-veiled envy. "If I don't get the juicy deets after you're done, I'll never forgive you. We'll let it slide this time, though. But just know…"
Her friends blew affectionate kisses to her, before swapping their subway passes and pushing past the turnstiles, laughing and chattering like nothing had changed. Ringo waved back, foot tapping against the pavement. Her formerly-dreamy brown eyes suddenly turned glinting and sharp, and without looking back, she continued.
Apologizing profusely to the hot dog vendor, Shoma reluctantly followed.
Moving briskly, she turned so quickly from street-to-street, her short-cropped brown hair bobbing behind her, he had trouble keeping up. After she turned the next corner, he cocked his head to the side. Where the hell was she going? He had found her address in the yellow pages, and he was positive they had passed her apartment already. Finally, the girl came to a halting stop.
She sifted through her skirt pocket, pulling out what looked like a crumpled sheet of paper. Scanning it intently, she nodded to herself, turning left into a building labeled "Hamasaki Storage Facility".
To follow her or not?
No, he couldn't push it any further. Play-it-safe Shoma, he thought without any hint of humor.
It was a miracle she hadn't noticed him yet. What could she be so preoccupied with?
And what about the diary?
Back pressed to the wall of the building, he tried to look as casual as possible to the occasional passerby, nonchalantly flipping through the pages of a tiny notebook he had taken to calling the "Ringo Files".
Goes to Ohka's Garden School. Gets out at 3:45. Location-
Ringo left the building, hefting a large cardboard box. A facility workman stepped out to thank her, but she only smiled back and continued walking, albeit at a much slower pace.
He moaned. Great, that only raised more questions. What could possibly be in such a large box?
But wait. This was his chance.
Breaking into a run, he quickly caught up with her. Now that he was less than a meter behind, he couldn't chicken out now. Summoning the remnants of his wounded courage, he tapped her shoulder.
Whirling around, she looked like she was ready to decapitate him. "What the hell do you want?"
First stage of the plan: failure. Smiling amiably, he chuckled. "Um, hey...I was wondering if you needed help with that? It looks heavy, and I saw you struggling, so…"
"Well, if you want to so badly," she said haughtily, as if she was the one doing him a favor. He felt a surge of annoyance that was rudely interrupted as she shoved the box into his arms. Knees buckling, he yelped in pain, just managing to wrap his arms around the cardboard.
She stared at him in faint disdain. "Wimp." Bitch, he so dearly wanted to retort back. "...well, are you coming or not?"
"Yes!" he insisted, teetering with the sheer weight of the box (how did she carry it so easily?). After several minutes of tense silence, he laughed awkwardly. "Um, so…what's your name? I'm Shoma. Shoma Takakura." It was pointless, but stumbling a meter behind her, he'd do anything to wipe that disgusted look off of her face. Who's the one carrying the suspiciously-heavy box here?
She glanced at him, turning up her nose. "Ringo Oginome," she said. "Although I don't see why I'm obligated to tell you anything."
There she goes again. Resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose, he tried a different approach. His smile had already begun to fray. "So, Oginome-san...heavy box you got there."
"Thanks, Captain Obvious."
His temper desperately wanted to flare, but no- he had to keep up the nice guy act or he'd never get anywhere with her. If he was able to stomach at least a halfway-amiable relationship with this girl, he'd be satisfied.
But how to mention the diary?
"So...what's in it?"
The diary? Please say 'diary'.
"I don't see how that's any of your business," she said primly, firmly refusing to look at him. "Your job is to carry it, that's all- not pry into my personal affairs. And, if you're so eager to do so, kindly move faster."
He harriedly quickened his pace. "Um, sorry...but can I least know where we're going?"
She heaved a sigh, flicking a loose strand of hair from her eyes. "A...friend's house."
Okay, that was a decent, albeit vague, start. Could the box be a present for someone? Or something more sinister?
He waited patiently for her to continue, but she remained silent.Clearing his throat, he continued. "So...you must be a pretty good friend, huh? You know, since you're getting your friend something so big?"
The corners of her lips upturned in a smug smile. "You could say that."
Momoka rushed to her mother's apartment after harriedly finishing her afternoon paperwork. It was currently 3:58, and by her calculations, her sister should have at least been heading home at that very moment, providing that she didn't have plans that afternoon. From what she'd been able to ascertain from her mother's complaints, Ringo typically went home directly after she had finished her school chores.
It looked as if she was going to be riding on that hope today- something that always terrified her when formulating strategic missions.
Stepping out of her third cab that very week, she apologized once more to her petulant driver who, needless to say, had been less than pleased when she absentmindedly handed him her IKEA membership card in lieu of an one thousand yen bill. She waved, disheartened, as he sped away, leaving soupy smoke fumes trailing behind him.
Momoka pressed her mother's apartment number on the keypad. "Mom?"
"Momoka, is that you?" her crackly voice gushed. "Come on up!" Waving to the receptionist (a different one, this time), she pressed the elevator button in a daze, stepping inside and feeling the same wave of nausea. Trying desperately to distract herself from the jarring feeling, she anxiously reviewed her game plan.
Present the yakiniku certificate, offer to take her darling sister on a Friday night of manicures, gossip, and possibly the R-rated movie their mother most certainly wouldn't have taken her to when she was Ringo's age. She could see it now; her profusely-weeping younger sister, enveloped in the fabric of her gray turtleneck, the immaculate diary passing from a dainty hand to a calloused one.
The elevator pinged open. Stepping out, she rung her mother's doorbell.
Within seconds, the door was flung open, her makeup-smudged mother popping up to embrace her tightly, giving her a cherry-lipstick peck on the cheek.
"You should have told me you were coming, dear! I would have whipped something up in a flash."
"No need," Momoka laughed, gingerly extricating herself from her mother's iron grip. "I was actually here to see Ringo- you know, I felt bad about missing out on dinner that day, so I thought we could go out tonight, if she isn't too busy."
She frowned. "I'm sorry, Momoka, but...Ringo's going out with her friends today. I thought it was strange, since she isn't the most...outgoing of girls, but- oh, you should have told us about your visit! I could have made her stay."
Ringo? Out with friends?
Clearing her throat, she gave her mother a lemony smile. "No, no, it's fine- I don't want to interfere with her social life. Teenagers are like that, you know, you have to give them space every once in a while."
Her mother pursed her lips, obviously concerned. "Are you sure? I can call her now, if you'd like."
"No, don't," Momoka insisted. "It's her life, Mom."
"Well, alright, then," she conceded wearily. "But make sure to call us next time! We can set up a girls-night-out, whenever you're free." Her mother hesitated. "Are you sure you don't want to have dinner? I was just about to-"
"Thanks, but...well, I still have some things to do." She felt a twinge of guilt at the disappointed look on her face. "But I'll stop by whenever I can- tell Ringo I said 'hi'."
"No problem, dear. Get home safely!" "I will." She kissed her mother's cheek in an unspoken apology. "Thanks for everything."
Keeping the thin-lipped smile on her face until the elevators closed, she broke. In a bout of short-fused exasperation, she punched the chrome walls, leaving her knuckles bruised and swollen.
Well, Ringo? Two can play this game.
They left the outskirts of downtown, entering a quiet suburban neighborhood. Ringo stopped in front of a quaint little house with beige paneling, light-green shutters, and a brick-tiled roof. "This is it," she murmured, pushing open the gate and walking down a cobblestone path flanked with rose bushes.
He glanced to his right. From the gaping space in the house's driveway, it was pretty clear that they were about a half-dozen federal laws. Not only was this a girl sarcastic, prideful, and frankly the least pleasant person he had ever met, she had to be a juvenile criminal too?
She paid him no heed, walking up the house's porch in a trance-like state before beckoning him impatiently. He shook his head, stumbling onto the steps with her and setting the box onto the ground. "Excellent," she muttered to herself, ripping the tape off of the box pulling a black kit out of it. As she was carefully unzipping it open, Shoma busied himself by fumbling with his tie, furtively glancing at its contents.
Lockpicks. Dozens upon dozens of lockpicks.
Okay, he was really scared now.
Humming a jaunty tune, she expertly plucked one out of its confines, twisting it into the lock. A bead of sweat trickled down her forehead, tongue poking out of her mouth.
Rather uncomfortable with watching a crime unfold before his very eyes, he was desperate to focus on something else. Eyes darting around, his eyes locked on a small plaque adjacent to the doorbell.
It took all of his willpower not to shout something obscene in disbelief.
Tabuki? As in his elusive homeroom teacher? Gee, this day is getting better and better. Shoma ordered himself to calm down. Tabuki was a common surname, right? It could be anyone- he was being too jittery, the sheer enormity of it all too much pressure for his fractured mindset to handle.
But if it was his Tabuki...well, what move would he have to make next? How would Ringo process this revelation, if she was so eager to break into his house for...well, who knew what the hell she was up to?
Breathe, Shoma. Breathe.
The lock clicked. She let out an "aha" of triumph, returning the pick to its case. Noticing Shoma again, she narrowed her eyes at him. Hand resting on the doorknob, she hissed, "I'm only keeping you around 'cause I can use your help. But if you're stupid enough to tell anybody…" She trailed off ominously, flinging open the door and storming inside.
He didn't doubt her one bit.
Letting out a low whistle and wearily hefting the box once more, he followed her into the house. The house was oddly-scatterbrained, figurines and pictures crowding the mantle-place and papers strewn on the couch and coffee table. Gingerly pushing a manila envelope to the side, he set the box on the table's glass surface, approaching the dusty frames leaning against the wall.
He cautiously brushed his fingers against the glossy image- a girl with shockingly bubblegum pink and a jack-o-lantern smile and a heart-shaped face wearing a green and red plaid smock, arm slung around a petite blonde who frowned tentatively at the camera.
Momoka and Yuri, someone had written in sprawling letters.
Momoka. Momoka Oginome, Sanetoshi had told him. His eyes darted to the next image. A bespectacled boy smiling cheekily, a fringe of light purple sweeping over his eyes.
"Takakura?" She poked her head out from the a small white bedroom, frowning at him. "Um, yes!"
He retracted his hand as if he had just burned himself, grabbing the box and rushing after her. Reluctantly stepping inside, he gazed in half-horror, half-awe at his teacher's austere bedroom; from his navy blue drapery to the quilt-like blanket thrown haphazardly over his bedsheets.
Ringo poked through the contents of the box, pulling out a large metal briefcase and setting it on the plush cream rug. Shoma could only watch as she bent down and unclasped it. The briefcase, lined with red velvet, held...
Two dozen cylindrical metal contraptions?
You have to be shitting me.
She ignored the discomfited look on his face, pulling out a chair from his nicely-kept desk- a contrast to the careless abandon the rest of his house seemed to revel in. Dragging it so its back was against the closet, she looked expectantly at him.
"What?" The word left his mouth before he could stop it.
Clucking her tongue, she shoved one of her suspicious metal objects into his hands. "It's a camera. Put it near the top hinge where no one can see it."
A camera? Why would she want to install a camera in his teacher's bedroom?
That was the final straw.
"Not until you tell me what you're doing."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you in any place to challenge me? If you're gonna be so goddamn nosy, well, I don't need you here. Just leave if you're gonna be such a whiny brat."
That shut him up. "Why are you here anyways? What do you want from me?" she demanded. "I'm not sure how slick you think you are, but girls tend to get suspicious when a rat-faced guy offers to help for no reason whatsoever. Well, Takakura? Spit it out, already."
"You're dodging the question."
"Answer me, goddammit!"
Her lips were pursed tightly, face downright murderous as she crossed her arms and waited for his response.
He panicked, quickly breaking under her beady-eyed scrutiny. Winging it wasn't exactly his forte.
Trump-card time? But how would she take it?
"I, um- Keiju Tabuki's my homeroom teacher!" he blurted out. "He hasn't been showing up lately, and, uh, I've seen pictures of him with this girl- Momoka Oginome, I think her name was, and I've been trying to find her for a while, you know, so I can talk to her and ask about what's been going on, but since I've never been able to track her down, I thought I'd find her sister - you, I mean - so I waited for you outside of your school, and-"
"He's your homeroom teacher?" Ringo cut him off, a strange gleam in her eye.
"Um, yes, but-" "Has he been acting strangely lately?"
"Well, I really don't-"
"Can you take me to him? If you're so eager to find out what happened, we can figure it out together."
"Erm...okay?" Feeling mildly satisfied with his quick thinking, he watched uneasily as Ringo triumphantly gestured to the chair once more. "Well, Takakura? Get to work." All for the sake of love, he thought in despair, reluctantly hopping onto the seat cushion.
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Masako massaged her temples, more focused on the steaming mug of coffee in front of her than the candy-coated drawl of her private investigator. Being fabulously wealthy had its perks, such as being able to hire an esteemed investigator such as Fujimura-san without batting an eye, but god, did they have to make it seem so dull?
She snapped back to attention, sending the mug teetering nervously at the edge of her desk. "Sorry," she apologized briskly. "Just tired."
"Aren't well all?" Fujimura, being one of the few people with the audacity to sass the great Masako Natsume, heaved a sigh, examining her chipped French manicure. "As I was saying, the target appears to be fraternizing with a blue-haired twat. Shoma Takakura, if my-"
Masako's sat up straighter in her seat. "D-Did you say Takakura?"
The woman didn't even bat an eyelash. "Yes, I most certainly did."
"You want to ask what this means?" Fujimura leaned back in her plush chair, resting her talons against her cheek. "Well, it could be two things: a) the Shoma boy's been recruited by the great Oginome herself to retrieve the diary or b) you and him are exactly the same." Reaching into her brown leather briefcase, she pulled out a manila envelope, tossing its contents onto her desk.
Flabbergasted, Masako fumbled to pick it up, rummaging through its contents. A laminated photo fell onto her lap. Upon closer inspection, it was a picture of a petite, auburn-haired girl smiling genially at the camera.
She glanced back to the papers.
THE MEDICAL RECORDS OF HIMARI TAKAKURA.
After several moments of silence, Fujimura groaned. "God, Natsume, do I have to spell it out for you? Himari sweetheart here's got the same thing as your precious baby brother," she cooed the word, making a kissy face, "and you, darling, have more in common with this Shoma guy than you'd probably like."
"In common…surely you don't-"
Masako trailed off, the picture girl crushed between her clenched fists, her smile now lopsided.
She wondered if Sanetoshi was laughing at her right now.
Exasperated, she slapped the desk, sending the mug skittering across its wooden surface. "I think we're done here. Send me all the info you have on Shoma Takakura and continue to look in on the girl. Dismissed." She flicked her wrist towards the door.
Fujimura rolled her eyes, but uncrossed her legs, standing up and slinging her briefcase over her shoulder. "Whatever. See you some other time, Natsume-sama." Blowing a mocking kiss, she strutted out of the room.
"Please," she told the many servants scattered about her office, dusting chairs or not-so-covertly eavesdropping, before commanding, "leave. I need to be alone."
Exchanging a series of worried looks, they bowed to her, murmuring "yes, Natsume-sama" in unison before exiting the room in solemn single file.
Once they had all disappeared, Masako, feeling extraordinarily childish, spun around several times in her swivel chair, watching as her viewpoint shifted from her wide expanse of window to the paper-strewn desk, and back again.
The world had never felt so small.
Cheating her. Always cheating.
But no matter how much she tried, she couldn't be furious at Sanetoshi.
Every ounce of her scalding-hot anger was directed towards Shoma Takakura, for ruining the tiny sliver of a chance she had save her Mario, for loving someone, too, for simply being there.
Just for the hell of it, she cackled. Like a witch, high and nasty, the ugly sound ricocheted off the ceilings and windows and reverberated through the empty room.
She sneered to herself. Or was it to the shadow of the boy with eyes like the foamy blue sea?
It was showtime.
And so, everyday after school, he would sprint to Ohka's Garden School just in time to see Ringo exiting campus with her friends. After impatiently waiting for her to politely ditch them, they would meet up at the subway station, walking wordlessly to her apartment or Tabuki's house or wherever else she commanded him to go. He would heft boxes or scale up ladders as per her barked commands, ending up with sore arms and legs once the whole nightmare was over.
But during those two weeks, he never once plucked up the courage to bring up the diary. After all, she never uttered a word regarding herself, therefore squashing all plans he had to subtly bring it up. From the very little time they had spent together, he concluded huffily that all she did was cluck her tongue at him, pace around Tabuki's empty house, or stay glued to her computer screen, doing check-ups on her cameras.
"Why doesn't he ever do anything?" she confided him, a rare happening considering their brusque relationship. He strained to hear every word. "It's time to get cracking, Shoma. If he doesn't make the first move, I will."
Ringo began packing up her tech gear, slinging her coat over her shoulders. "Pick me up at the usual spot tomorrow and take me to your school. I expect to make lots of progress tomorrow; we'll know the scoop about your dear homeroom teacher before long."
Ah, the royal "we." They were in this together, after all.
Barely a moment of indulging in this thought passed before he mentally smacked himself. He was here to extract information (and a pink diary) out of her, not the falsehood of her companionship. Befriending her hadn't worked to begin with, so there was no use in pretending like there was anything between them.
It was time for Plan B.
Momoka Oginome, armed and ready for battle, charged out of apartment twenty minutes before the end of Ohka's school day. Raising her arm in a battle salute, she hailed her noble steed (aka: a mud-splashed yellow taxi) and hopped jovially inside.
Feeling more confident than ever, she pressed her face to the frosty glass, inhaling the general rank of sugary perfume and cigarette smoke and take-out falafel that usually permeated the worn leather of all cabs. She began to hum quietly under her breath, earning an odd look from her driver. Noticing this, she smiled graciously, unperturbed. "It's a wonderful day, isn't it? Sun shining, birds chirping, you know?"
"The only birds I see out there are those pests," the cab driver deadpanned, staring contemptuously at a cloud of speckled pigeons squawking and defecating in unison on the passerby below.
"Oh, don't be such a downer," she trilled, waving cordially at the birds. "Everything's beautiful in its own way."
The driver glanced at her in the rearview window. "How many cups of coffee did you have this mornin'? You sound like a pinball machine on helium."
Momoka giggled. "Heh, you're pretty funny."
He rolled his eyes, stopping at a red light and taking a hefty puff on his cigarette. "Well, you'd be the first to say so."
They spent the rest of the ten-minute drive in near silence, the quiet only ruptured by pings from Momoka's phone and the news report playing from her backseat television scream.
"Ma'am? We're here."
She stirred herself from her lull, primly sitting up and rummaging through her purse. "How much will that be?" After taking into account the amount, she meticulously plucked out the change, dumping a handful of shiny coins into his outstretched hand. "Thank you, mister."
"No problem, miss."
Briefly glancing at her phone for updates from Tabuki (he had attended school consistently for the past three days, reporting that Takakura had been in an usual rush for the past couple of weeks), she exited the vehicle. High heels thumping in a steady rhythm against the sidewalk, she made her way to the front gates to lean casually against the brick, tipping her hat to hide her eyes.
It was 3:40.
At 3:42, a boy wearing a crumpled blue uniform strode up to the school, reclining against the opposite side of the gates.
Momoka zeroed in on him. The building had cast a morose shadow on him, preventing her from getting a good look.
Everything clicked into place just as girls began pouring out of the building, her sister, glowing happy, leading the pack. Bangs bobbing around her heart-shaped face, she quickened her pace at the sight of him, jogging to his side.
"Hey." Ringo beamed. "My friends had detention today, so it was pretty easy to ditch them. Ready?"
The boy nodded wordlessly. Standing hip to hip, they stepped into the light.
She narrowed her eyes at them.
Just as she had suspected, his sister's accomplice was Shoma Takakura.
She recalled her late-night snack with Tabuki. The new development was that he was working for KIGA, right? And, now Ringo had stolen her diary and was presently standing besides the brother of her second worst enemy, she didn't know what to think.
Were her motives not as petty as she anticipated?
Without thinking, Momoka strode forward in front of the odd couple, tipping her hat up so her face was visible. Before they could yelp in surprise, she snatched the boy by the collar, yanking him forward so their faces were barely centimeters apart. "What are you doing with my sister?"
Ringo was shocked. "Onee-" She shook her head, scowling at Momoka. "What the hell are you doing here? You're busy with your job, aren't you? Now let go of him."
"Not until I get answers," Momoka snarled, attention back on Shoma, whose face was frozen in an almost comical expression of terror.
A crowd had already gathered around them.
"Someone get a teacher!" a girl cried out, only to be shushed frantically.
Nevertheless, she doubted her hypothesis. Would Ringo really conspire with her worst enemy, even if she wanted vengeance that badly? Would she, her own flesh and blood, sink that low?
At that moment, Momoka considered another possibility.
Shoma struggled to force an answer out, eyes darting between the sisters. "She's my-she's my-"
"Girlfriend!" Ringo shrieked, breaking her grip on him and throwing herself in front of Shoma, arms spread out in a protective stance. "Please don't hurt him. I'm sorry I lied to Mom, it's just-"
"Are you honestly gonna buy that?" Momoka asked, incredulous. She gestured to him wildly. "This boy- can't you understand, Ringo? He's a Takakura. All he wants to do is hurt you. You know what he wants, don't you?"
Whether or not she got the drift, Momoka couldn't tell.
Ringo trembled with anger, eyes welling with tears. "You- just shut up! I'm sick of you always telling me what to do! But, you know what? I'm done living in your shadow!" Grabbing Shoma's hand, she burst through the crowd of spectators, disappearing through a sea of green cloth amid screams of surprise.
Momoka watched in disbelief. However, before she could take care another course of action, someone clutched at her arm. Whipping around, she found herself nose-to-nose with a strapping young security guard.
"Let go of me," she commanded, but he was unfazed.
"I can't do that, ma'am. Violence, especially with a third party involved, isn't tolerated here. Identification, please."
A teacher standing next to him, somehow managing to loom over her despite her five inches of added height, ordered the buzzing students to clear out.
Momoka reluctantly tugged herself out of his iron grip and pulling her driver's license out of the purse, watching as the tiny figure that was Ringo vanished in the distance.
Ringo sprinted across intersections, crossing the street before the traffic light flashed the white walking symbol. A cruising taxi screeched to a stop just in front of her and honked shrilly in protest, the driver yelling obscenely at her.
Ignoring the driver, she ran on, past boutiques and hoards of bustling students and everything else screaming to just grow up-
Momoka the Strong, Momoka the Beautiful. Momoka with the fearless facade and plump lips that spat lies after lies without batting a mascara-coated eye. A mask so fragile yet uncrackable, one that only Ringo herself could tear off and expose the ugly person she truly was.
They had ended up on a near-deserted street, the skyscrapers casting cold shadows.
An empty street lay before them, skid marks mocking, mocking, mocking.
And then there was Shoma, gently tugging out of her grip until all she wanted to do is to snatch him back and wrap her arms around his waist and listen to the thump-thump of his heart and love him like the little girl she never was.
A paper doll, she thought.
They stand in the eerie, murky quiet, barely any distance between them, back towards him so she couldn't see his face.
"Ringo," he said, voice vaguely panicky. Her stomach panged at the way he had said her name, lilting and genuine and full of trust, so unlike the sugar-coated doting of her friends and family. "Please, just...just listen to me."
But she couldn't, because all that came from trusting people was that false lull of complacent security. Oh, how she wanted it, desperately wanted him to murmur that it was alright, to place her faith in him because he was the only one who had ever cared.
Momoka was a liar; she was a fake; she couldn't possibly-
"Tell me, Shoma," she spat his name out like a pesky watermelon seed. Enough of him. "Tell me that she was wrong. That she's lying. That you-"
"Ringo," he said suddenly, and before she knew it, she had turned around to see the hurt in his eyes. "I don't know what's going on, but your obsession with Tabuki- it has something to do with her, doesn't it?"
"My sister's dying, Ringo," he pleads, wielding her cursed name like a glinting knife. "You understand, don't you? The pain of being abandoned. Helpless. But it's not just me that I have to protect- she's all I have left. For my entire life, I've shielded us both, and now…"
It hits her. Something between a laugh and a sob escaped her mouth as she reached in between the folds of her briefcase to pull out the laminated pink book. Diary, the cover boasted in loopy cursive.
His eyes widened, fingers reaching for it, before snapping back.
She wanted to feel the stabbing of heartbreak, anger, just something.
But she couldn't.
After all, she'd always known.
Ringo sneered at him. "She was right, wasn't she? I have no idea who you are and what you're working for, Takakura, but...I was a fool to believe you. You, you...you're all just a load of dirty rotten stinking fucking liars!" she screeched with years of pent-up venom, shoving his chest and forcing him to stumble backwards. Whipping around, she ran with anger slamming against her ears with the force of a raging ocean, willing it all to just go away-
In the searing pain of the moment, all she could register was the revving of an engine and the flash of a headlight speeding towards her all so fast, and before she knew it, a pair of hands around her waist were pushing her away, a sickening crunch ringing through her ears.
The impact of the crash sent her flying backwards, scraping her hands against the concrete bloodying her palms with pale white scratches. The back of her head slammed onto the road, dizzying waves lapping at the corner of her mind.
But worst of all, she watched horrified as the battered boy coughed up congealed, brownish blood, before slumping to a laying-down position barely a meter away, the crumpled diary laying next to his limp hands.
Hair dusted with soot. Eyes twitching and trembling. Body curled into a fetal position.
The motorcycle that had struck him whisked by, before screeching to a stop and whirring past them again. The rider's curves were visible beneath a tight black body suit, a dark visor and helmet unable to conceal her fiery tangles of rust-red locks.
Looking contemptuously at the broken boy, the woman scoffed, muttering just audibly enough, "Looks like you've lost, Takakura." Pulling off her helmet with a groan, she patted down her frizzy hair, smirking as she slid off the motorcycle.
Ringo was still thunderstruck, just barely managing to scoot to the boy's side, shaking his shoulder gingerly. "Shoma," she sobbed, forgiving, forgetting. "Shoma, Shoma, wake up!"
The rider, her cornflower blue eyes lidded in hatred, bent down to pluck the diary from its place on the ground, idly flipping through its soiled pages. "I've done neater work," she said, overly casual, "but I suppose it'll do."
The lazy look on the woman's face sent Ringo's blood boiling.
Turning back to the girl, she smiled venomously as she refastened her helmet with a click. "Thanks for the help- you made my job much easier than expected."
The rider proceeded to hop back onto the motorcycle, about to press the gas when a hand reached up to snag the corner of the diary, which had been dangling carelessly in her grip.
Ringo, her knees pressed to the knobbly concrete and teeth gritted, had snapped back to reality, tugging at the diary.
Her eyes widening in shock, the rider cursed herself for her lack of caution, face contorted in concentration. While trying to rip the diary out of the girl's strangely-persistent grasp (even though it hadn't been direct impact, where on earth did she find that strength?), she slammed on the gas, crookedly roaring away.
The diary, with an unnaturally loud, aggressively awful shriek, ripped cleanly in two. One half of it, now a jumbled-mess of charred pages, was fisted in Ringo's hands. The girl, only now realizing her overwhelming exhaustion, collapsed to the ground. Head lolling around the asphalt, she struggled to stay awake.
Shoma, Shoma, Shoma, oh God, Sho-
Just before she passed out, a girl with blonde pigtails, eyes wide and curious, peered over her, a lollipop protruding from her puffy lips.
"Shoma," she just managed to say, "ambulance," before tumbling down the rabbit-hole, into a world of dreamless sleep.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
Momoka paced fervently around her apartment, massaging her temples and mumbling under her breath.
Her wrists were sore from being dragged to the interrogation room, where the police stubbornly pelted her with question after question for what seemed like an eternity. Fortunately for her, as the secretary had been kind enough to inform her, the only evidence of the hours she had whiled away at the police station was a shorthand note shoved into a gargantuan file cabinet.
Although this was small potatoes in comparison to other incidents she had found herself in over the years, she didn't particularly want to imagine the laughing fit Sanetoshi would have if he caught wind of it.
She let out a derisive snort. As if she cared what that imbecile thought of her.
Momoka had just popped a piece of chewing gum into her mouth when her cellphone rang. Keiju Tabuki, the screen read.
Him again? she thought grouchily, but answered nonetheless, silencing the peppy ringtone. "Momoka Oginome speaking. And what did I tell you about calling my personal cell?"
"TV. Channel 7. Now."
"Well, you're being awfully cryptic. Mind telling me what's going on?"
"Just do it!"
A click, and the line was dead.
She stared at the blank screen, puzzled, but did as he said. The urgency in his tone worried her; there wasn't much that could faze Tabuki.
Fingers trembling, she pointed her remote at the flat-screen television, watching it stir to life. Flipping to Channel 7, as per Tabuki's instructions, she squinted as a woman wearing liberal amounts of eye shadow appeared on screen, plum-colored lips pursed in nothing but utter solemnity. "-so here we have it, viewers. Footage taken from an interview with Yuri Tokikago, earlier this evening."
The hairs at the nape of her back rose at the sound of her girlfriend's name.
Yuri, stumbling over her stilettos, was flat-out drunk; her cheeks were tinged with pink, blonde curls cascading messily over her shoulders.
"Oh shit," Momoka cursed. Yuri had assured her and proved time and time again that she was capable of taking care of herself, so...what on earth had happened?"
"So, Tokikago-san," a reporter said eagerly, shoving a mic into her face, "tell us: is there a special guy out there you want to give a shout-out to?"
She blinked at him owlishly. "Um, well-" A high-pitched giggle, followed by a hiccup, rose from her throat. "Not a guy, you know, since they suck, but...my girlfriend."
The shrieking press fell to a hush.
"Her name is Momoka Oginome, and we've known each other since were kids, and she's great, even though sometimes she's super overbearing and sometimes a workaholic and sucks at cooking." Seemingly oblivious to the quiet ruckus she was causing, she downed her shot, lifting the empty glass up to the camera, before blowing a lopsided kiss. "Momoka-chan, if you're watching this, I love you!"
The clip ended abruptly, the anchor turning back to the camera and nodded glumly. "Here it is, viewers. The great Tokikago-san, once the object of many a theater fan's worship, is revealed to be openly gay. Just how will her fans react to this sudden, inexplicable revelation? Stay tuned for-"
She turned it off, unable to take it for another moment. Slumping to the couch, she buried her face in her hands.
Yuri had been acting strangely lately, but this?
She immediately felt guilty. Being ashamed of her sexuality was the last thing she wanted for Yuri. Besides, Momoka had assured her just a little while ago that it was perfectly okay to come out when she was ready, but-
Bad timing, Yuri. Extremely bad timing, she thought with a wince.
But could she afford to be selfish right now? Yuri was wounded and drunk, and the feral press would surely milk the story for all it was worth. What if she was seriously hurt, or worse yet, taken advantage of?
Forgoing her coat, Momoka stepped into her boots and flung open the door, going flying down the stairs. Once she had finally reached the lobby, she began panting as the toll of sprinting down all of those stairs caught up with her, a stitch in her sides.
She had to find Yuri.
Shit, shit, shit.
Head still reeling, she barely registered the irritated clucking of the receptionist.
"I assume they're here for you?"
She followed the woman's finger to the door, a flash nearly blinding her as she did so.
Paparazzi. Hoards and hoards and hoards of cameramen and obnoxiously chattering news reporters and oh God, were they pointing at her and screaming and-
Momoka pressed on, shoving through the glass door.
The sheer enormity of masses and masses of hot, sweaty bodies overwhelmed her, the stench of fried food and the acrid taste of something burning slamming into her over and over again. Everyone began rushing forward at the sight of her, prodding their microphones in her direction, black boxes dangling from overhead and the city lights twinkling above her.
"Momoka? Momoka Oginome-san?"
"-plans to have children? Settling down anytime soon?"
"Fuck you, bitch, fucking-"
A masked man stood several cigar-chewing men to the left, hand stuck in between the folds of his trench coat. Time seemed to freeze in a blur of intrusive inquiries and racial slurs, until she heard a sound she could have recognized from a mile away.
The cock of a gun.
Too soon, too late, a shot rang out into the night air.
So loud, was her first numbing thought when the crowd gasped in unison, before stumbling backwards and falling into chaos. Someone wailed, a reporter cursed, shouting for an ambulance. Since when had their eyes seemed so bright? So glowing, and yellow, and blurry, and timid, and-
The pain came only moments after the woozy confusion. A searing warmth blossomed on her left abdomen. Pressing a hand to the spot, she came up with her fingers coated in hot, dripping blood. She glanced down, horrified. Crimson flowers had begun to bloom through her button-down shirt, spreading and spreading until everywhere was blood, blood, blood.
Dizzy with panic, she stumbled backwards and reached a shaky hand out to the departing man, who seemed to vanish with a sweep of his coat.
Momoka's knees buckled, a pair of hands steadying her just before she crumpled to the ground.
Her vision blurred. People rushed by, buzzing like flies and frantically pressing buttons on their cellphones, neighbors peeking out to get a glimpse of the stem of the hubbub. They were all crowding around her, like flickering images before a shaky camera, somehow there yet not, lithe shapes that twisted and twinkled across the gray backdrop.
She smiled weakly at the hands, the hands that ran all over her body, tearing off strips of cloth and wrapping them around her wound (god, what a strange word) and pressing her chest frantically and listening to her pulse.
A boy, no older than eighteen, asked tearfully if she could hear him.
But she was faint and only conscious of the blood, the blood rushing in her veins, the blood flowing in her brain, the blood oozing and pooling out of her body and just everywhere, everywhere.
The last thing she heard was the wail of a siren.
Ringo woke with a start, sitting up in her strangely-sterile bedroom.
Her head throbbed, throat scratchy and dry and tasting of metallic blood.
"Good morning, Ringo."
She whipped her head to the side. Her mother, visible bags and scarlet splotches ringing her eyes, smiled pleasantly at her, already dressed to the nines. The radiant sun shone against her gray-streaked auburn hair, setting her pearl necklace alight.
"You-" Ringo paused at the sight of her proffered glass of water, snatching it away and downing it. Wiping away the excess dribbles, she stammere, "Oh God, I- he's, he's- have to-"
"Relax, dear." Her mother rested a gentle hand on hers, eyes welling with tears. "We brought you to the hospital once you had passed out, but they sent you home after a quick check-up and...oh, Ringo, you had me so worried!"
By then, she had begun full-out sobbing, fat tears tumbling down her cheeks. Letting out a sharp sniff, she threw her arms around her daughter, burying her face into her night-gown.
"Mom," Ringo breathed, stunned. "Mom. It's okay. I'm here."
Her mother eventually let go, stepping back and dabbing at her eyes with the corner of a dirty tissue. "I'm sorry, dear, it's just...last night, while we were at the hospital, Momoka-"
She leaned forward, hanging onto every word. "Momoka what? Tell me, Mom!"
The phrase itself sent her mother into another fit of hysterical wails.
"Momoka?" she asked, incredulous. "She was...she was-"
Her mother nodded tearfully. "Yesterday night. Cameramen were outside her apartment after her...her girlfriend," she spat the word out with venom, "told the press that they were dating, and someone no one saw fired a gun before anyone could notice and left the crime scene right after."
"Her girlfriend?" Ringo repeated. "You don't mean that Momoka is-"
Her mother reached for her hand once more, but she batted it away. "You know what, Mom...I'm so sick of your shit."
"W-what did you say to me?" She was incredulous, her mouth in a lipstick-smothered (fake) and bitter (fake) "o."
"Your daughter was fucking shot, and all you can do is whine about how she's gay?" Ringo snapped. "Holy shit, you sure are something, aren't you? And now that you're perfect Momoka is dying and of all things, a lesbian, only now do you pretend that I'm worth something?"
"Ringo," her mother gasped, "you know that isn't-"
"Oh, I know it is," she said scathingly. "Do you honestly think I'm stupid enough to accept your lies? There's only been one person in the world who has ever genuinely cared about me, and that's-"
Sea foam eyes. The sickening crack and blue bruises and-
"Oh God, I have to go to him." Ringo felt like throwing up, but lurched to her feet anyways, footing unsure and steps wobbly. The remnants of her diary sat in a sealed plastic bag laying on her nightstand. Fingers trembling, she grabbed it, stuffing it into her nightgown.
Her mother snatched her wrist. "You're not going anywhere until you apologize."
"You know what, Mom?" She tugged out of her grip. "I'm sick of being nothing but a puppet to you, I'm sick of pretending that everyone's rainbows and sunshine when your husband, my father, is fucking another woman, and I'm sick of your stupid, lying shit!"
Face hot with tears, she ran out of the room, heart thundering. She was furious, furious that her own foolishness had gotten Shoma, of all people, hurt, furious that she had hid her entire life, furious that Momoka was-
Outside in her nightgown, bedhead, and a thin cardigan, a breeze tousled her hair.
The city never slept, but in the early hours of a Saturday morning, it was as peaceful as she had ever seen it.
An elderly woman with squinting eyes creaked over to her, pushing a rusty wheelbarrow filled with flower bouquets. Lips puckered, she gestured to the sign.
Tentatively wrapping her chilled fingers around a plastic-wrapped bundle of yellow carnations, Ringo nodded her thanks to the woman.
The wind whipped around her ankles as she shuffled forward, the pavement scratching against her pink slippers.
"His condition is fragile," a nurse said shrilly, clutching to her clipboard as if it were a lifeline. "He may not wake up anytime soon, and we can't let you stay for that long, so...please make it quick."
Barely registering her words, Ringo knelt by his bedside, hesitantly brushing a hand against his cheek. Had he always looked this small, splayed-out on a bed, eyes sealed shut and head wrapped in bandages?
Tears welled in her eyes. "I'm sorry. So, so, sorry."
A blue scarf twinkled at her from his nightstand. Curiosity piqued, she traced her fingertips over the soft, bunched-up yarn. The words "love from Himari Takakura" were embroidered at both ends, in lopsided golden penmanship.
It had all been for his sister, hadn't it? Approaching her that day and putting up with her bossiness and always smiling amiably because goddamn, he deserved so much better than her.
His sister, who knitted scarfs and embroidered her name and nothing but love on them.
She slipped a hand in between the folds of her nightgown, pulling out the charred remains of the diary. Gazing at it for a moment, she reluctantly put it back.
"I'm sorry, but...there's something I have to do first."
Momoka was still groggy from the pain medications, though after downing one too many glasses of water and a couple of aspirins, her condition had improved significantly. Unfortunately, from what she had been able to ascertain from her jittery nurses, she would have to remain bed-ridden for the next couple of weeks.
But, as the doctors had assured her, the security system was excellent.
However, this did nothing to allay her fear. She was positive that Sanetoshi's henchmen had been after her all along, waiting to strike at the opportune moment. What was a mere metal detector to their machine guns and hand grenades?
Damn that man and his dramatic flair and his uncanny ability to read her perfectly.
Someone rapped sharply on her door.
Turning her head, she saw one of her nurses inclining her head to her. "You have a visitor, Oginome-san, if you're feeling up to it."
"Never been better," she said genially. "Send them in."
The nurse stepped to the side, allowing none other than Ringo Oginome to stand in the doorway, a wilting bouquet in hand.
"Good morning," Momoka said graciously, concealing her surprise. "Aren't you looking dapper on this fine day?"
Ringo scowled, toying with a lock of frizzy brown hair. "Just to make it clear, I'm not here to see you."
"I surmised as much." She beckoned her sister forward. "Why don't you come on in?"
Ringo did so, albeit reluctantly, taking a seat besides the hospital bed. Leaning forward, she gingerly placed the flowers on the nightstand.
"So you're not here to see me, but you brought me flowers anyways?" Momoka teased, running her fingers over the crumpled petals. "Thank you. They're absolutely lovely."
Her sister's facial expression didn't falter. On the contrary, she looked even more displeased.
She seemed at odds with herself, but managed to choke out, "It's just...you were shot, and all you can do is make wisecracks and treat me like I'm a kid? Come on, Momoka-nee. There's something you want to say, isn't there?"
Momoka sighed, gazing out towards the window. "You saw through me just like that. You're right, though. I guess it's unfair of me to pretend you don't know."
A crumpled piece of paper was shoved into her hands. She glanced briefly at Ringo, who merely nodded solemnly, and flattened it out. "Sanetoshi Wata-" Momoka narrowed her eyes at Ringo, folding the paper back. "Where on earth did you find this?"
"I'm not proud of this...but I kind of went through Shoma's stuff," Ringo admitted. "It's just- well, I felt bad for what happened to him. After all, it was my fault. I needed to understand what was going on."
"I take it you want to hear the whole story?" Momoka pinched the bridge of her nose. "And that's the reason why you consulted me, your dear sister? Well, if that's what you're here for...it's quite the long tale."
"We have time," Ringo assured her. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere until I get the truth."
"As tenacious as ever, I see," Momoka quipped, before launching into the story, from the moment the diary had appeared in her room and Sanetoshi had spun her around his endless labyrinth of books to the gunshot and the crimson flowers.
Her sister was in disbelief. "So Shoma...he was working for this guy all along?"
Momoka nodded solemnly. "Sanetoshi's infamous for making promises he can't keep, but I really can't blame Shoma for giving in, especially if he promised him an antidote. I'll ask you this again: are sure he doesn't harbor any malicious intent?"
"Well, that's that. I'm sure you believe in fair trade as well, so, if you wouldn't mind telling me, where on earth is my diary?" Momoka locked eyes with her sister.
Ringo wrung her hands out, gaze flitting away. "Shoma was…hit by this girl in a motorcycle yesterday, after, um, pushing me out of the way. She said something about us making her job easier and tried to steal the diary away from me, but it ended up splitting in two when I tried to get it back. She drove away, and I passed out, so...now I'm here."
"You mentioned a girl, yes?" Momoka asked sharply, her curiosity piqued. "What did she look like? Curly red hair? Blue eyes?"
She cocked her head to the side. "I guess?"
"I knew it," she mumbled.
Of course the Natsumes would get involved. After all, only the great Sanetoshi Watase could pinpoint the iron-clad Masako's weakness with such accuracy and exploit it for all it was worth. The girl had been willing to kill the Takakura boy just to retrieve the diary, so that had to mean-
They had the exact same objective.
Mario's life in exchange for a diary. Himari's as well.
But to Sanetoshi, it didn't matter either way.
"Momoka-nee...what you did- keeping this all away from us, I mean...that was just to protect us, right?" Ringo asked, almost meekly.
"If you want to give me that much credit, then sure." Momoka beamed, even though she knew her sister couldn't see it. "Although, you shouldn't change the subject so readily. If it's with you now, I'd like to take back what's rightfully mine."
In a swift, jerky motion (too abrupt), Ringo pulled a plastic bag out of her nightgown pocket. A collection of what appeared to be charred paper shavings sat inside, a sludgy pink mess replacing its once pristine cover.
Hands steady, she placed it in Momoka's outstretched arms.
She nodded curtly. "I'll see you later then."
Diary pressed to her chest, she watched as the girl exited the room, footsteps loud and echoing in the corridors.
Only twenty-four hours later did she realize the true contents of the plastic bag.
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
Himari, her lips taut and skin pale like porcelain, slept on, chest barely heaving underneath her paper-thin hospital gown as she breathed deep, even breaths. A wavering line maneuvered across an inky monitor.
So much depends, Ringo thought, on the machine that draws your very last breath,
She knelt down beside the bed, tentatively reaching out to grasp Himari's hand. Frozen, the slope of her fingers and milky beds of her nails merely carvings in an ice sculpture. Her gaze drifted to the tangle of crimson threads resting on the nightstand, strung by a pair of plastic knitting needles- a scarf, its once neat stitches in a disarray.
The gentle curve of her neck, cascade of silky auburn tresses, broad forehead...everything sang of Shoma in the most profound way. How alive she must have once been. Breathing, living, loving.
A girl she had not, and would never, meet.
And so, the words finally came.
"Your brother almost died saving a useless girl like me," Ringo announced, met by only the gentle whoosh of the ventilation system, "so it only makes sense for me to repay my debt, right?"
Upon leaving the eerily-quiet room, she found herself gravitating towards Shoma's room. Past groggy nurses wheeling carts laden with vials and wheelchair-bound patients, she trudged in a zombie-like daze until she found herself standing before him.
She nodded curtly to the nurse, who only nodded, slipping out of the room.
"I promised, didn't I?" Ringo told him. "It'll be over soon. I promise."
Taking out the tape-molded diary out of her bathrobe pockets, she brushed its loose pages against his outstretched palms. "I thought you should be able to touch it, just this once." She hesitated. "Even if you were only out to get this...the kindness you showed me is immeasurable. All this time...all I've done is push you around, take out all of my frustration by telling you to do this, do that. And...you totally didn't deserve any of that. Nada. Because you are, and always will be, the better person.
"I never meant any of it. Honestly. All along, I was afraid you'd leave me. Give up on whatever twisted turn of fate got you to chase after me and disappear from my life like everything meant nothing." She faltered. "So thank you. For giving someone like me a chance, and you know, being there until the end."
Ringo leaned down, giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek.
She had burdened him enough as it was.
Ringo entered the warehouse later that afternoon. It was a dismal place, the black linoleum flooring smothered in dust and rotting wooden rafters enthroned in gossamer cobwebs. Rows upon rows of conveyer belts were laden with cartoon penguin-emblazoned boxes halted in their upward motion. KIGA, they boasted.
Never had the sea seemed so boundless. Each step into the warehouse was mountainous and echoing, every sensation coursing through her veins throbbing and pulsing and simply demanding to be felt.
"I'm here now."
Everything weighed on those three little words. Every laborious breath and quivering feeling.
A lanky man with his streaked pink hair up in a ponytail stepped out of the shadows, his lean form enveloped in a seemingly-infinite lab coat. An angelic devil, swathed in white. His oddly feline features seemed to leer at her.
"Ringo Oginome." He acknowledged her with a nod. "I've been expecting you."
Sanetoshi Watase held up a handheld device, the e-mail she had written under the guise of midnight pulled onto its screen.
She flashed back to the shivery night spent tucked away in that empty office space. How long had it been since she had returned home? A day and a half? No good-bye to her mother, it seemed. And most certainly no good-bye to her father, loving another woman when he thought no one was watching.
The man's words drew her out of her thoughts. "If you'll excuse me for a moment.
"Kanba-kun!" he called out, lips gnarling in a twisted smile. "Now, where are your manners? Come out and greet our guest. Such esteemed company is a rarity, you know."
A gaunt boy with a shock of scarlet hair and turquoise eyes (like sea foam) shuffled into view, hands crammed into his spacious trench coat pockets.
Shoma's adoptive brother. A Natsume by birth, Momoka had explained.
"Good afternoon," he said gruffly.
"Hi," she vaguely heard herself squeak.
Sanetoshi pursed his lips at him, before turning back to Ringo. "You'll have to forgive him. We received news of his parents' untimely passings just this morning. Well, as I say, cheerio! Keeping a positive attitude is so not his forte."
Ringo could only stare. She didn't believe she had ever met someone so callous in her sixteen years of existence.
But his focus had switched back to Kanba. "Really, her resemblance to Momoka-chan is simply striking." He waved his hand in her general direction. "Except without that...hm, how to put this lightly? Without her definitive flair." Adamant in his conviction, he bobbed his head up and down. "Yes, that's it. You are utterly lacking in any sort of visible charm."
Normally, comments such as these stung, pricked and hurt until blood rained from her fingertips.
But now, Ringo was unshatterable.
She held her head high. "If all you're planning to do is insult me, I might as well get on with it." Without waiting for a response, she pulled the diary half out of her pocket, dangling it in from of him.
There was a good ten meters between them, she noted.
Yes. That was enough.
He kept up the airs of one who was unimpressed, scoffing, "A half? Is this what you're bargaining with?" The corner of his lips tugged up in an off-handed smirk. "But, nevertheless, I'm curious as to what you have to say."
"Very well then," she said brusquely, concealing her relief at his interest. "I'm entirely willing to make a trade with you, but not before I make something clear." Ringo inhaled deeply, before letting loose a torrent of bottled-up words. "My sister. I've wasted so much time hating her with every fiber of my being. And for what? For her not being there? Well, you know why that is? It's because you've been dancing in circles around her for sixteen years. She's so paranoid that she can't even sit down with her family for a half-hour to eat a bowl of goddamn curry.
"And Shoma. God, don't even get me started on him. You lured him in with false promises and nearly got him killed chasing after someone like me."
He smiled mysteriously, peculiarly ghoulish. "All is fair in love and nuclear warfare. Fools are susceptible to fooling, Ringo-chan. Fools like your precious Shoma-kun. That Natsume girl, too. So recklessly chasing after an impossibility. It's a simple fact of life, my dear."
Her hands curled into fists. "It may be so. But do you see, Sanetoshi-san? There's a reason why the power to change fate fell into my sister's hands, and not yours."
The man sneered. "Such a reason does not exist. It's nothing but gambler's luck."
"Oh?" Ringo challenged. "As cliché as it sounds...it's love. Pure, unadulterated love. The sort of love that gives you the strength to protect and change and sacrifice for the world. The sort of love that makes you swoon and cry and beat your fists on the ground."
Sanetoshi appeared unperturbed. Mocking, even. "The sort of love you have for a comatose boy who will never, ever love you back? Such silliness isn't even worth my pity. You see, my darling, nothing as juvenile as love can possibly can change the world. Destruction is what shapes us. Destruction that tears the world down and leaves only ashes to repair it with, brick-by-brick."
Kanba could only nod, eyes still glued to the floor. He, like her, remained a respectable distance away from him.
She shook her head. "You just don't understand, do you?"
"What is there to understand?" he snarled, before regaining his composure a heartbeat later. "Alright. We're being silly. This is not a battle of ideology, after all. A diary half is a sufficient bargaining chip, I suppose, if you're still willing to negotiate. Well, if you are...I wasn't lying completely when I promised Masako and Shoma the antidote. Really, I have quite the apothecary. My point is: I can save Shoma, and you can go on the way you always have been."
But Ringo was done with remaining oblivious. A bystander, carried along by the motions of fate, while Momoka-
"No, Sanetoshi," she said evenly. "This ends now."
The diary pages flipped open, and words began spilling from her lips. Her mouth uttered chants and prayers, fingers twisting into quicksilver shapes as she bit her good-byes, to the sleeping Momoka being peppered by Yuri's kisses in the hospital, to Shoma, with his floppy mop of blue hair and eyes with flecks of green that caught the morning light, and to Himari, the angel she would never know.
Sanetoshi's calm facade shattered. "Stop her!" he ordered Kanba, his wax caricature face molding into an ugly scowl. The boy reached for his gun, trembling fingers hovering over the trigger. Brow furrowing in concentration, he hesitated.
Time was suspended in syrup. Don't stop, don't stop. Even the most miniscule mistake could destroy now. But there was no need to fear; the words flowed naturally, the nearly incoherent sounds rising up from a bubbling well buried deep inside.
White-hot tongues of flame began to snake up her shins, charring the corner of her bathrobe and biting at the spongy fabric. All she could do was watch it in morbid fascination, watch as it dug deeper and higher. Catching, catching, catching. A pleasant tickle, then the sting.
This was the true end. To say this did not terrify her in the least was an outright lie.
Sanetoshi threw his hands up in exasperation, storming over to Kanba.
Just a little longer.
The chant trailed off there.
Sanetoshi wrapped his hands around the gun, over the boy's shaking ones, and fired.
Death by a speeding bullet. Death by the fire scorching her skin and singing her bones.
Was this really such a horrible way to go?
A blue blur flew in front of her, crumpling as the bullet struck. It rolled to a stop, letting out a throaty groan as it doubled over. Only then did she notice the flash of bubblegum. The blood seeping into a tightly-wrapped linen bandage.
Sanetoshi let out an animalistic howl. Casting one last look of defeat at Ringo, he materialized into a shower of glimmering triangles. The pieces, like delicate sheets of glass, struck the ground, vanishing in a sprinkling of translucent dust.
Ringo fell to her feet, suddenly very, very tired. But the flames only rose higher and higher.
Momoka smiled at her, panting heavily as she grasped her shoulder wound and propped herself up on her elbows.
Ringo, inhaling shakily, grasped her hand. In a jerky motion, she was yanked forward, finding herself pressed into Momoka's blood-stained gown. She gasped as the flames abandoned her, clinging onto her sister's fingers in a series of searing orange sparks.
The world disappeared and Kanba Takakura, gun clattering to the floor, could only watch.
"You lied," Momoka murmured thickly, breathing growing increasingly labored.
Ringo tearfully pawed at the woman's chest, her hands coated in warm, sticky blood. She tried to shove her sister off, but to no avail. "So did you."
"Yeah. We're even then."
"I'm sorry, Ringo. For everything."
"Me too." She exhaled slowly, breathing in the fragrance of vanilla.
Too fast. Too slow.
She grabbed Momoka's hand, gulping back a sob. "I'm here."
"Tell Yuri to pray for me."
And so, Momoka Oginome disappeared, leaving only a curtain of stardust behind.
Ringo snatched at air, at a mere absence, before collapsing.
The ceiling began to crumble, bricks cascading down in a downpour of dust. Metal pipes lurched and the vents croaked, conveyer belts wheezing forward to tip their contents onto the floor, one booming thud after another. Trembling, trembling, trembling, like a great power stirring beneath the parched earth.
Everything fell, thumping all around her until she no longer had the energy to stand. So numb.
A wave of serenity swamped her. Death had been inevitable from the very beginning.
She was so tired. So very, very tired.
Ringo had almost succumbed completely to fatigue when a pair of hands grabbed at her.
Her eyes flashed open.
Sea foam eyes.
Shoma awoke gradually, head resting against something that felt very soft and cushiony. A pillow, perhaps? He had been lying crumpled on the asphalt before, so where was he now? At home?
He thought eagerly of their vividly-painted hodgepodge of an abode, and opened his eyes.
Himari, hair streaming down her shoulders and looking absolutely radiant in the sun. Himari, smiling so serenely at him and stroking his hair. Himari, skin glowing fiercely and eyes welling up with tears.
"Sho," she gasped, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
"Himari," he murmured, a wave of euphoria pooling over him. "Himari."
"Sho," she repeated, burying her face into his hair.
"It was a dream, wasn't it?" he asked her groggily. "You were sick, and Kanba was away, and...God, it was the strangest thing."
"You can tell me about it." Himari squeezed his cold fingers between hers.
Only then did it dawn on him. "I...don't remember."
The missing link. Threads of fate torn at the seams.
"I forget my dreams, too," she admitted. There was an abrupt creak at the door. She glanced over. All of a sudden, her little body went rigid, eyes widening and lips puckering.
Upon following her gaze, he understood.
Kanba stood in the door.
Kanba, with his hair in an untamable scarlet mess and bags ringing his eyes and trench coat disheveled, with a girl draped in his arms. Specifically, a girl with chin-length chocolate-brown hair, lush eyelashes tickling her cheeks.
He rushed forward, everything forgotten.
The family, pieced back together again, embraced, the sleeping girl clasped between them.
Mario dashed around the living room with his homemade paper airplane, giggling as Masako watched. "Zoom," he declared, before depositing it into her lap. The boy nuzzled his cheek against the soft fabric of her sweatpants.
She smiled fondly at him, brushing her hand against the cool skin of his forehead.
Navy pantsuits and pounds upon pounds of concealer for plain canvas shoes and t-shirts. A grand mansion sprawling with servants attending to her every whim for a quaint seaside home.
A conglomerate falling to her high-heeled feet for a brother.
It seemed like a reasonable trade.
The odd couple sat at the cafe from what seemed like forever ago, fumbling with loose coins and cheap mints and messy words. A particularly grumpy waitress cleared her throat, folding her arms across her chest as she impatiently waited for them to order.
Had he been here before? The familiar persona of the waitress called to mind a midnight escapade, a curt exchange of words. But with whom?
Needless to say, the fleeting thought did not remain.
A missing link. A gaping chasm.
Yuri seemed bashful, for once. In a fit of nerves, she slipped a hand into her snakeskin purse and traced her fingers over a purple wallet, the program of her theater premiere tucked where a photo of the bubblegum girl once resided. Kisses, Yuri Tokikago, she had scribbled in sparkly gel pen, practicing her autograph in loopy letters.
Tabuki pretended to peruse a floppy menu, sipping at his watery coffee. He set it delicately down on the table, eyeing the woman sitting across from him warily.
Friends, then not. What on earth had possessed her to invite him today, out of all of her celebrity acquaintances?"
"So...any ideas on what we should order?" she wondered out loud, gaze flitting away from her.
The chasm closed, threads tying together for the briefest instant.
"I hear the macaroons are to die for."
Sanetoshi Watase found himself in a train station, the final gray-faced train chugging out of the dismal cavern and into a sea of oblivion. Crumpled-up papers and empty beer cans and cigarette butts tumbled across the still platform.
Not exactly peculiar, to be honest. He was a rather busy man.
Then, he noticed the girl, sitting less than a meter apart on the iron-wrought park bench.
She lowered her newspaper, turning her owlish gaze towards him.
Momoka, ten-years-old once more, sat besides him in a plaid jumper and shoes that barely grazed the floor.
"What have you been up to?" he asked, feigning nonchalance.
"Watching the outside world," she replied coolly.
"You know that it's futile," Sanetoshi said, matter-of-factly. "There's no going back."
"I'm fully aware of that," she said mildly, nonplussed. "They'll do just fine without me."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Really? I had no idea you were capable of being so unnarcissistic."
Momoka snorted- unladylike, especially for her. "I had no idea you thought so low of me."
They lapsed into silence.
"I like you better this way," Sanetoshi mused. "You've regained some of your charm." He paused. "Perhaps I've always known this, but...the Takakura girl would be a poor substitute for you."
Surprisingly, she did not come up with a snarky response to this.
"Now that we're here," he gestured to the empty train station, "why don't we have just one cordial conversation? You're not exactly uninteresting company."
Her lips quirked into a little smile. "I thought you'd never ask."
Sanetoshi spread his arms out in welcome, his fingertips brushing against the arch of her left shoulder. "Fire away."
"Why?" he echoed, faintly bemused. "Really, Momoka-chan- I thought you were more articulate than that."
"It's a perfectly reasonable question, Sanetoshi," she persisted. "Why?"
Only then did he understand.
Sanetoshi shrugged. "I suppose the world needed to be set on fire."
Momoka nodded thoughtfully, letting the words roll like marbles on her tongue. "The world needed to be set on fire," she repeated, deliciously slowly. "Yes. I think I understand."
"Do you now?" he said, smirking ever-so-slightly. "And you? I've been wondering the same thing."
"To salvage humanity, sins and all." The words were spoken without the slightest indication of hesitation.
"Interesting," he said, entirely truthful, before adding wistfully, "Perhaps we've been misunderstanding one another all of this time."
"You may be right." Momoka averted her eyes, appearing vaguely disconcerted. "But no matter. My ride leaves promptly, so I must be leaving soon."
He let out a brittle laugh. "What ride? You're staying here for all of eternity, remember?"
Momoka clambered to her feet, primly smoothing down her checkered skirt. "I had no intention of doing so. I simply stopped by here to say farewell."
"To the world?"
Life never ceased to surprise him.
He stifled a chuckle. "Age has not waned your sense of humor, Momoka-chan."
She squarely fixed her steely gaze on him to the point where it was unnerving- a word almost nonexistent in Sanetoshi's vocabulary. "It was no joke. I'm only here to ask for your forgiveness."
He nodded solemnly, lips tugging upward in a melancholic smile. "If that's what you want...well, I'm happy to indulge you. Yes, Momoka-chan. Thou art forgiven."
She nodded- a non-verbal sort of good-bye. "May you set the world on fire, my friend."
Diary dangling from her fingertips, Momoka Oginome wandered across the empty platform, away from him, and away from all of those who had lived and loved.