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Tsukinomono

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Okay, so maybe this was how she was going to die. The pinching cramps woke her from a deep sleep—the clock didn’t even read 6:30 yet. The pain throbbed and pulled and twisted, making her curl up around herself with a quiet moan.

That time of the month. Aunt Flo. The Red Sea. It had been hellish since her first period and hadn’t abated since.

She slipped out of bed quietly, teeth clenching with the effort. The pain was low and burning in her belly, and it felt like even her eyelashes were protesting getting up. Holding her abdomen, she limped to their bathroom. Barely any sunlight was coming in through the curtains, and she carefully closed the door and turned on the light.

The bathroom was, of course, pristine, all marble and chrome and glass. There were two sinks: One with Alana’s toothbrush, stained with red lipstick, and another with Margot’s medications stacked evenly against the mirror. Alana glanced up at her reflection: Her short hair was a tangle of curls, and without make-up on, she looked tired. The t-shirt she’d worn to bed (Georgetown University, est. 1789, it read) made her look more shapeless and worn than she already felt. She swallowed an ibuprofen dry, then winced as she felt a fresh wave of blood soak into her pad, and with it, a rolling cramp across her stomach. So she reached blindly in the cabinet under the sink and emerged with a tampon and a liner, and made her way to the toilet, which was ensconced in a corner next to the frankly ridiculously enormous tub. She sat down with a groan, thanking God for whatever imported Japanese technology kept the seat warm. She pulled down her pants, and looked down for a moment, scrutinizing. That dark, purple thing—was that a clot? She did have a history of high blood pressure in the family. Maybe she should start taking low doses of aspirin. There had definitely been a story on NPR about that the other day. Gingerly, she started to pull the pad off her underwear, not wanting Margot to hear.

With previous girlfriends or affairs, periods had been a joint intermission, a common point in every Venn diagram of her relationships. It just so would be that she would end up married to someone who’d had a forcible hysterectomy and a keen longing to bear children. The pregnancy had been two sides of a nightmare: While she delighted in bringing the child to life (even if it was Mason Verger’s child), Margot’s intermittent bitter weeping and anger and need for solitude had been a cruel reminder, as though the prominent scarring wasn’t enough. Alana was a doctor—she knew it could have been sewn up to barely show. Instead, Mason had ensured that the reminder would stand out against Margot’s pale skin.

So she was careful, frowning as the sound of the adhesive coming away from the cotton seemed to ring around the bathroom. She quickly rolled it up in some tissue paper, cleaned up, and ripped the tampon packet open.

It was at this exact moment, when Alana’s legs were spread wide open and she was busy with the plastic tampon insert, that her wife opened the door.

“Morning, darling,” Margot said with a yawn, pressing a kiss to Alana’s temple.

Alana just stared, open-mouthed, for a minute. Margot was brushing her long hair in front of the mirror, swathed in a black satin robe, her ankles looking thin and fragile in the light. “Uh. Good morning.”

She finished up with the tampon, hesitated over the liner for a moment. She could put that on at work, Margot didn’t need another reminder of…that. So she pulled her shorts up, and bolted out the door.

“Going to wash your hands?” Margot asked. Alana looked back, and she could see Margot’s half-smile in the mirror.

“Just. Just a minute.” She tossed the liner into her work bag, and hurried back to the bathroom. She distinctly did not look at Margot as she washed her hands with whatever fancy hand soap had been inflicted on her this month (ylang ylang? Sandalwood?). Margot had just finished with her hairbrush, setting it down carefully as she pinned her hair back to wash her face.

As much as Alana enjoyed—and had fallen for—Margot’s darkly lined eyes and plum-stained lips, it was here, fresh-faced and bare, that she truly appreciated her wife’s beauty. Her large eyes, delicate jawline, skin that glowed in a way Alana’s never would. The grace of her hands, moving to the rhythm of good breeding, like any ordinary object were a harp or a piano. Margot dried her face with a fluffy towel (hers monogrammed MVB, Alana’s AVB), and turned to look at Alana. “Is Skip awake yet?”

“No.”

“Some time to ourselves, then?”

Margot leaned in, against Alana’s protests—“I haven’t brushed my teeth!”—and kissed her, hard, thoroughly. Dental hygiene could wait. She placed her hands first on Margot’s collarbone, peeking out of her robe, then tangled it in Margot’s freshly-brushed hair. “You’re so—you’ll always be beautiful,” she gasped when they paused for breath.

“Now, you know that’s not true,” Margot replied with a smile. “So enjoy it while it lasts.”

Alana wanted to object, tell her that it wasn’t her face she was talking about, but Margot tugged at her waist and enveloped her in another kiss. So they retreated to bed, slamming ‘snooze’ on the clock when it rang, and Alana threw the black robe to the floor to reveal Margot’s creamy arms and legs, the suggestive shadow of cleavage in the silk negligee underneath.

(“You know I’m not leaving,” she’d said, a few weeks before their wedding. “You don’t have to dress up for bed.”

“But what if I want to?” Margot had answered, and that had been that).

It was an intricate work of lace and silk, and Alana pulled it up until she could press her lips against the scar on Margot’s lower abdomen. It was a low curve, and it had become a ritual, that Alana would acknowledge it every time. I want all of you, it said. Give me all of you. And Margot graciously had, closing her eyes with a contented sigh as Alana sucked a light bruise onto her hipbone, pushing Margot up to meet her mouth.

“Yes,” Margot hissed as Alana pushed aside her lace panties, lapping up residual fluids. So much stronger in feel and taste and smell than the dampness in her gusset could have ever suggested.

She grabbed the headboard as Alana continued to lap and suck and devour, slowly inserting a finger as best she could. She came with Alana’s left hand over her mouth, stifling her cry of “Yes—Alana!” so as to avoid any trauma for Skip, and then she sagged down, slowly collapsing to the bed.

“Oh,” she said, still breathing heavily. “That was great, darling.”

(Alana had never been one for pet names, until—well, until now, more or less).

Alana was panting, the residual taste of Margot still hanging about her nose and mouth. She licked her lips instinctively, staring at the ceiling, high, arcing, decorated with an unlit chandelier. “Good,” she said.

Margot took a moment to catch her breath. Alana could always tell when it had truly been excellent (the first time, that time at the charity gala, other days and nights after that) when her Margot, her horseback-riding, full-time mommy, tough-as-nails Margot, had to pause to breathe, and didn’t immediately pounce. Because that was Margot’s nature—to give, give, give.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before Margot’s lips found her neck, nipping at her earlobe, hands stroking her thighs. “Your turn,” she whispered.

“Oh, uh—”

This was the worst.

“You don’t want to—you know—”

Margot cut her off with a kiss, then returned to Alana’s neck.

“That’s going to bruise. I have to—work—and you know I’m, you know, on my, and it’ll be messy, so it’s better if we don’t—”

“I don’t care,” Margot breathed, hot and close, into her ear. “You’re mine, and I love you.”

Alana's breath still caught whenever she said that.

In a whirl of hair and silk, Margot straddled Alana, negotiating her way around the Alana’s hip, and slid her right hand into Alana’s shorts to press through her underwear. With her left, she pushed up the Georgetown shirt, and toyed with Alana’s breasts. Setting a steady rhythm, she rocked her hips back and forth to help rub against Alana, and leaned back down to envelope them in a curtain of her hair and to plant a dirty kiss slightly off-center, intoxicated on the woman below her.

The misgivings fired themselves a mile a minute, but after all these years, Margot knew exactly how to stir Alana into a frenzy, and her doubts found themselves hushed. She arched her back in offering—“Yes, please”—and felt Margot smile, sharp teeth against her lips.

“That’s right, you’re so good—”

“Yes, you’re—oh, fuck—”

A streak of pain flew through her hip as she bowed her back, exposing her throat, stomach clenching as she came, but it didn’t matter; it was fleeting. Her hands grasped at Margot’s arms, then her hips, settling on the pillowcase as she bit her lip, hard, to avoid making too loud a noise. A muffled groan escaped her throat as her body eased itself back onto the bed. Margot slipped back onto the bed and Alana rolled over.

“Jesus.”

Margot laughed, a clear, bright thing. “Just me. Now get up! I’m making breakfast, you have to leave for work soon.”

Alana groaned into the pillow. “Or maybe I could stay here and never move.”

“Honey, come on.” An insistent hand on her shoulder. “They need you. Can you imagine Chilton—”

At this, Alana’s head snapped up. “I’m up.”

Margot laughed again. “Good girl,” she coaxed. “You feeling okay?”

“Um. Yes.”

“Good. I read somewhere that orgasms are supposed to alleviate cramps.” With that, Margot pulled her robe back on and exited the room.

Alana sat up. The pain was gone.

The light coming through the curtains was stronger now; she could hear the clatter of the pots and pans in the kitchen. So she rolled out of bed, stretching as she went back to the bathroom. She washed her face and put a liner in her underwear, shoving some clean toilet paper over the trash can so the detritus of her period was hidden. Maybe she should just get one of those flexible cups—they didn’t make any noise, they were invisible. But—the idea of emptying it out and rinsing it and reinserting it at work—no. When she saw Hannibal, he knew he could smell it. Disposables it was, for now.

She walked into their closet. There were straight rows of suits and blouses and shirts strictly aligned, all straight lines and bold colors, on her side, and Margot’s side—well. Alana tripped on a pair of heels as she flicked through her suits. (Magenta satin kitten heels. When had Margot even worn those?)

Today was not a good day. She sighed, rotating her leg in its socket in an old habit from physical therapy. Although her cramps were gone, the morning’s activities had put a twinge in her hip. Her fragmented bones had come together as best they could, just as her mind had only come together to the best of its ability.

She glanced at the back of her closet where brightly patterned dresses rested in their plastic dry cleaning bags. She hadn’t touched them in years—first because of her hip, then because of the memories, and then because she no longer desired them. She no longer needed to project anything but power, so it was power she wore. So she put on a crisp white blouse and a navy, pinstriped suit, sturdy black heels. Then she went back to the bathroom and brushed her hair. After draping a towel over her front like a bib, she carefully dabbed concealer on those incorrigible dark circles, the redness around her nose. Eyeliner, mascara, and then the bold red lip she had come to wearing recently. It was a ritual, armor: First, the lip liner, carefully drawing the shape of her lips against the whiteness of her skin. Then a matte, velvet cream, staining her lips…like blood. She grimaced.

The Alana looking back at her now was iron, was stern, the corners of her mouth seemed deeper and more impatient.

She went downstairs and kissed her wife and son goodbye, and then she went to the hospital.

NPR kept her company the whole drive home, the even-keeled voices of the radio a steady buzz as the roads got emptier and bumpier until the mansion appeared in the distance. Their mansion.

She parked next to the stables, at her entrance. It wasn’t practical by any means—a longer walk and an extra flight of stairs before she’d reach the main floor, but it was a splinter of habit.

She walked into the kitchen exhausted. The last ibuprofen she’d taken was wearing off, and a glower of pain was spreading through her lower belly again. She’d had to endure an hour of Hannibal’s sneering about how she smelled different, as though his mouth hadn’t been coated in enough blood already. Then she’d suffered through a series of conspicuously inquisitive looks from Chilton, who, of course, didn’t have a clue. She almost pitied him. That’s what you got growing up with machismo, she supposed.

“Margot?” she called. Her keys slipped into the dish by the door. Their kitchen was empty. Margot had completely remodeled the parts of the house that they used, made stuffy classical rooms sleek and modern, an elegant series of lines that fitted their mistress. She had refused any help maintaining the house at first, tried to throw out all the vestiges of her own childhood out the proverbial window, but had eventually relented when she fainted in Skip’s nursery. “Anemia,” a doctor had grimly confirmed, and Alana had pursed her lips and called a service. So a nanny had come, and then a maid, and then Margot put her foot down. Their house telegraphed the history of their decisions.

“In here.” Her wife’s voice drifted in past the dark kitchen, into the sitting room. She followed it, the low twilight coming in from the large bay windows turning everything a hazy gray-green. And there she was. Margot was sitting on the couch in front of the TV with a large glass of red wine.

“Skip?” Alana asked.

“Carla has him,” Margot answered, equally softly.

Alana nodded at the glass in her hand. “Rough day?”

“Can't a girl just indulge herself?”

Alana snorted. “Of course, dear.” She settled onto the couch with a quiet groan. The bliss of taking the pressure off her hip and sinking into the buttery leather seat was divine, but she grimaced as she felt her pad squish up against her in her underwear. Even after the drive, she was due for a change. Her first three days were the heaviest, and she looked at Margot as another cramp sunk into her. The beginnings of a headache were flaring at her temples. If she got up now, Margot would know why.

Not that Margot didn’t know, of course, but the heaviness of all her tears rested heavily on Alana’s mind even now. The ragged scar across her abdomen a vivid line across her eyes. Anything she could do to spare Margot the reminder—it was one of those small, tender, soft things that remained untouchable in their marriage, no matter how they fought or what foreign objects tore at them, it was a sacred thing, like the pins in Alana’s hip or their hands grappling to keep Mason below the water.

“There’s lasagna in the oven,” Margot said.

“Okay.”

“And the wine I opened is on the counter.”

“Okay.”

The TV hummed in the silence.

“Could you go get it, please?”

Alana looked over and Margot was all big eyes and a lush pout, so with a sigh, she kissed her gently and got up, taking her bag with her. At least she could take a moment to use the bathroom.

So she got up and came back with a plate of lasagna, two forks, an extra glass, and the bottle (a syrah, 2003), and shed her jacket. She was suddenly ravenous. “What’re you watching?” she said through a thick mouthful of cheese and pasta.

“Nothing,” Margot said. “I was just waiting.”

“Do you have a migraine again? You know you don’t have to wait up, you could just go—”

“I know.”

“We hired Carla—”

“—for a reason. I know.” Margot took a sip of her wine, then set her glass down with a quiet clink. “Shh, now, darling. Perhaps I know what I’m doing, every once in a while.”

Alana sighed and closed her eyes, opening them only when Margot pressed a full glass into her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?” Margot asked, then tilted her head. “Come here. Tell me about your day.” She guided Alana’s head into her lap, and Alana collapsed reluctantly, letting Margot’s fingers comb through her hair and press warm imprints against her shoulders, her back.

“We took in a new patient today,” she said, and raised her head to drink her wine. “Disgusting. Rapist.”

“Hmm,” Margot said.

“And I had a session with Hannibal today, and it was as terrible as ever. He seems to think—think we can still be friendly, even though he…” Alana paused. A nature documentary was playing, and a lioness was tearing down a gazelle. Sinew. Bone. Blood. “Even though he’s a murderer.” It came out almost a whisper. Margot’s hands, comforting and steady on her back, her belly. “Even after what he did to Will.”

Margot’s hands stilled, but only for a second.

“And he’s always so—smug, so terrible, and he just talked about how he could smell—” Alana stopped again. Sometimes the horror of their lives settled over her like a blanket of thorns, and she wanted to scream—“I can’t even complain about my fucking period because of your fucking brother and fucking Hannibal Lecter”—but she didn’t. Instead she took another bite of lasagna, God, it was filling and salty and perfect, and let Margot pet her back into quietude.

“What did he smell?” Margot asked.

“Blood,” Alana said, because she couldn’t help it. “He said he could smell my—blood.”

“He could just be counting the days, you know. Guessing.” Alana’s head jerked up, and she twisted to look at Margot, who shrugged. “The average is twenty-eight days. You were in a relationship with him, and he knows you were pregnant. He’s probably just guessing.”

“Oh.” Alana’s mouth twisted involuntarily. “Sorry. I…I’m trying not to—”

“Shh,” Margot said again. “Eat. Drink.”

So Alana sat back up and ate lasagna and drank good wine, and got a second helping.

“I ate already,” Margot said, when Alana gestured, mouth full, at her plate with her fork.

“But there was a whole dish—”

“I had a salad. I made that for you.”

Alana was silent, words stolen from her. It was rude to talk with your mouth full, anyway.

“I know your second day is the worst,” Margot continued, eyes downcast, plucking at her bracelets as though this were not the first time they’d ever even broached the subject, as though this were easy. “It’s not hard to miss.” There was a wry twist to her mouth, something like a smile. Maybe a little too raw. “My second day was never as bad as the first.” Alana hated the past tense. “The first time I got my period I thought I was going to die.” She took a sharp sip of wine. “But that’s not really how it turned out, is it?”

“Oh, Margot.” Alana closed her eyes. “I’m—I’m sorry, thank you—”

There weren’t very many words, so she used the ones she could find. The magnitude of this moment should have hit her harder, she thought, should take her down at the knees. Instead, there was a shattered feeling in her stomach, like the echo of a glass breaking.

“But this isn’t—this isn’t about me,” Margot said after a moment, unshed tears coarsening her whisper. “I know it’s still—I can still remember, so I’ll make you food, I’ll rub your feet, because it means we—it means we can still…”

“I’d do the same for you, you know that,” Alana said, but it wasn’t really an answer.

Margot smiled at her, but it was rich and full this time.

“I know, darling. I know.”