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Before Our Curtain Falls

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The door swung open with a prolonged creak. Even as a full-fledged high-school student – almost an adult! – Satoko gripped the doorknob with one hand and reached around the doorframe with her other hand, feeling around blindly for the light switch.

“Oh, is Satoko still afraid of the dark? It’s not going to bite you, mii.

“Sh-shush, Rika!” Satoko found the light switch and flipped it on with a flourish. She pushed the door open all the way, revealing the entranceway of the Houjou residence.

It had been several years since she had been here, but it looked just as she remembered. They were removing their shoes when it hit that, right, it had been several years since anyone had last been here.

“Ugh, let’s get some windows open!” Satoko held her nose as she slid open the door to the tatami room.

“I’ll turn on the fan,” Rika said, reaching up for the ceiling fan.

“Wait, Rika—”

A shared coughing fit later, the ceiling fan was turned off as Satoko and Rika rubbed the dust from their eyes.

“Well, this is disgusting.”

“I guess we’ll have to stay at Mii-chan’s place after all,” Rika said, brushing the dust off her skirt. With their former residence behind the shrine unlivable, there wasn’t anywhere else in town of their own to stay in.

“Nonsense!” Satoko untucked her sweater to remove in one go. As she tied it around her waist, she smirked at a flushed Rika.

“Don’t tell me that the high-class women’s academy has cleared out all of your housekeeping skills? Or is darling Rika-sama above a little elbow grease?”

“Why Houjou-san, actually considering doing something lady-like? Perish the thought.”

“Don’t be rich. You know our classmates have never done a hard day’s work in their own life. Why do whatever you can put your paid servants up to?”

Rika frowned. “You know, there’s actually quite a few students who come from backgrounds like ours. Not everyone at St. Lucia’s comes from money. They had to study all throughout junior high just for a chance to get in, just like we did.”

Satoko shrugged, rolling up her sleeves. “Well, I’m sorry they worked so hard to get into that school. Now, are you going to help me clean this place up or not?”

“Right, right.”

This was a time for families to watch TV together, relaxing in their precious shared time at the end of the day. Satoko and Rika spent it scrubbing down the tatami room of the former Houjou residence to a livable standard.

Despite this, Satoko couldn’t help grinning to herself as she wiped sweat from our brow. Her heart swelled when she peeked over at Rika on her hands and knees, sweaty and grunting as she scrubbed at a stubborn collection of dust in the corner, and saw a matching grin on her face.

Nostalgia gathered in a tight ball in her chest as she thought of late nights poring over books by a single lamplight. Theirs wasn’t a pleasant task, but working side-by-side with your fellow club members—with Rika—made even skirting death fun.

It was past St. Lucia’s curfew by the time they’d cleaned out the tatami room to an acceptable degree. They’d quickly given up on trying to clean any other room. That would be a several day project that neither of them had.

Tonight was the last night they would spend together. After tomorrow, they would go their separate ways. As Satoko wrung a rag over a bucket and flicked droplets in Rika’s direction, and as Rika aimed her rag to land right atop Satoko’s back as she was kneeling over, they both understood. They couldn't tuck in for the night in a foreign, filthy place. Their last place they would spend together had to be a home, even if just for one night.

Satoko laid on her back, staring up at the ceiling as the light switch cord for the lamp swung idly side to side. Sweat and dust made her shirt stick to her back. Her sweater had been long abandoned, and more and more of her shirt buttons had become unbuttoned over the course of their cleaning session. She flapped the bottom of her shirt to let air in as she heard Rika smack the dust out of futons they’d found tucked away in a hallway closet. Goodness, at this hour. Their neighbors must have so many questions, but it wouldn’t matter after tomorrow. Sheesh, she needed a bath.

“Satoko, come help me bring in the futo—eep!”

Satoko looked over at Rika, who was facing the doorway again. The tips of her ears were red.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were in the middle of changing.”

“What?” Satoko sat up. “No, I was just hot.”

Rika mumbled something that Satoko couldn’t catch, before raising her voice. “You’re going to have to get dressed before we bring in the futons.”

Satoko shrugged, buttoning up her shirt. “You saw more earlier tonight when we were at Angel Mort.” Mion-san’s uncle had seen Satoko in the outfit and offered her a part-time job immediately, in fact. It was something to consider for her next life without having to resort to the horse races.

“You expect to see that sort of thing at Angel Mort. But, um, in the privacy of our own home…”

“We used to take baths together!” Satoko exclaimed. Honestly, she grew up around Rika’s strange mood swings, but really. Rika used to be entirely comfortable with anything around Satoko—and now that school turned her into someone scandalized at a little bit of skin. “Rika, you’re being ridiculous.”

Rika’s blush was accompanied by a pout as she turned to face Satoko. Ahh, it was hard to stay annoyed at her when she acted so childish. If she’d put on that cold, distant look that Satoko had grown accustomed to at that school, it would have been as easy as breathing to fester a grudge. 

Satoko rolled onto her feet. “Alright, let’s bring the futons in!” She walked past Rika, airing out her stomach once Rika was out of sight. Geez, let a girl untuck her shirt when she’s at home.

Satoko hauled the first futon onto her shoulders, nearly dropping it in the process. She aimed an imploring glance at the doorway, but Rika wasn’t rushing in to catch the other end of the mattress. How thoughtless of Satoko’s best friend. Apparently when Rika said she wanted Satoko to help, she really meant for Satoko to bring the futons in herself. Rika always used the word we. Once, she’d always meant it; nowadays, most of the time what she really meant was I or you.  

Rika was kneeling next to a bundle of sheets and pillows, patting her cheeks, while Satoko hauled the futon in. Satoko let the futon drop next to Rika with a loud thud, and grinned when Rika visibly startled.

“This is my spot!” Satoko declared, flopping on her stomach and sprawling over the futon.

“You’re already done?”  

“Well, you left me on my lonesome to bring it in. It’s heavy; it’s not like it’s easy, even for me.” Satoko turned her face away from Rika, stomach roiling. Her fingers tingled with a sense of unreality, and she fought the urge to snap them. “So, it’s mine now. Get your own.”

Satoko started counting the seconds, then stopped the longer the moment stretched and the darker her mood became.

An indeterminable length of time later, Rika sighed. “I don’t know what you want me to say. It’s a futon.”

Yeah, it was a stupid futon. Yeah, it was a stupid school. It’s just studying, Satoko.

Satoko ran through the possibilities in her mind. There was a Rika who would apologize to her. There was a Rika who would promise not to let it happen again. There was a Rika who would tell Satoko to use her words, like she was a child, instead of acting so unreasonable. All of those Rikas would deserve what they got coming to them.

There was a tug on the futon. “If you don’t move, we can’t put the cover on.”

Satoko was sorely tempted to cling to the futon like an octopus for that and stick her tongue out. But a tug at the futon later, and Satoko rolled off onto the tatami. Rika unzipped the cover, dragging the futon into it. Satoko affixed her eyes to the ceiling, just like she was sure Rika’s gaze was glued to the futon zipper. Only the sound of the zipper running over the size of the mattress broke the silence. Satoko felt Rika shift and lie down on her back atop the futon.

Were they both staring at the ceiling of this place, a stark reminder of how closed-off their Human world really was? There were possibilities that existed only beyond those walls. All of those Rikas and Satokos, that were happy, or sad, or lonely, or together. Part of Satoko tugged toward those other Rika and Satokos - It was easier to think of them then it was to think of us.

A part of Satoko wanted to exaggeratedly clap her hands and congratulate Rika for being thoughtful with a high-strung voice. That Satoko would brush off the casualty of this world and take her chances with other worlds. The other part of her, the one she felt Mion, Keiichi, and Rena cheering on, turned away from the outside world and toward the futon, where her best friend lay.

Rika was already looking at Satoko. Right, Rika had always been looking at Satoko; she’d never stopped. Her Rika just didn’t reach out first. It fell to Satoko to take the lead. A short while ago, that idea had pissed Satoko off, made her indignant—why did she have to do something when she was the one hurting? But that was simply who her Rika was. The person Satoko would chase across endless worlds for, who’d always be waiting for Satoko to find her.

Satoko stretched her fingers out. Rika turned her hand palm up. They inched closer, until the tips of their fingers wrapped around each other. It was like a thread that threatened to break if Satoko uncurled her fingers.

Rika’s eyes held endless Fragments like Satoko’s did, but right here, right now, the kaleidoscope of colors and possibilities paled in the face of their existence, together, right here, right now.

Rika’s hand slipped into hers as they stepped into the school’s entrance hall. Students shied away from them. Even Rika’s allure couldn’t overpower the pariah of the school, and Rika’s hand in hers signaled to them what she thought of this social slight.

Maybe, Rika and Satoko’s worlds didn’t have to be so separate. In Hinamizawa, Rika was Satoko’s lifeline to the rest of the village. Maybe in another timeline, she could have bridged the gap between Satoko and the rest of the girls in the higher class at St. Lucia. That’d probably be Rika’s happiest ending, but Satoko wouldn’t allow her that, just like Rika wouldn’t allow Satoko her happiest ending. That was something they both had to accept. They did that by standing underneath the chandelier in the entrance hall, baring themselves to the world.

Goodbye, this world. Goodbye, St. Lucia. Whatever world they found themselves in, Satoko would always have the freedom to take Rika’s hand, just as Rika was always allowed to watch over Satoko. There didn’t have to exist a world where she had to say goodbye to Rika.

Satoko grinned when she turned toward Rika. Rika smiled back at her as Satoko pulled her into an embrace.

“See you in the next world, Rika,” she whispered into Rika’s ear.

Rika’s hands wrapped around Satoko’s back and clung on.

“I’ll see you on the other side, Satoko.”