.

.

Snarl in the dusk everyday to carry on
Living in the past is not the way to live
But I wish you could hear me say
That I miss you

1.

Mio mourns over the many various forms of bullying.

The bully is shorter than her, but her spirit is strong and frightening. It's a spirit that could kill if it was to take over her shell.

This particular bully seems to like her hair.

"Can I touch it?"

Mio fears her to be contagious. So she stands and blindly looks for the exit.

She concentrates on her tears and lack of voice.

2.

Ritsu will usually play with the boys. But gradually, she leaves their football matches, card games and hunts for tiny critters. She gradually joins Mio's idea of fun.

It involves cart wheeling, some tag, and a whole lot of gossip.

By third year, Mio has given up in reading books during lunchtime. Ritsu's spirit must be contagious after all. Girls will often pull her out of the classroom and into the playground. Where cracked concrete and itchy grass stare at her.

Mio watches as Ritsu falls on her backside, huffing.

"C'mon Mio-chan," she says, "Join us."

"It looks tiring, Ricchan."

"That's the point."

Mio's mind tries to process said point. "It is?"

"Yeah! You're cold right?"

Mio can't deny that she isn't shivering. She nods.

"Well if you play with us, you'll feel warmer."

Mio likes warmth. So she smiles and gives in. "Okay."

Ritsu throws her a grin and a pat. Then she takes off. She leaves behind an announcement.

"You're it!"

Mio's smile disperses. Shaking her head, she follows the shorter girl. She must be exhausted by now, judging by how much she's breathing.

Just as Mio has caught up to Ritsu, Ritsu seems to instantly grow.

There's a disturbing, grating sound.

Mio opens her eyes, not realising she has closed them. She glances down. On each of her knees, there's a mixture of pale dust and watery red.

Mio twists her mouth, trying not to scream. Something wet gathers at her chin.

"Mio-chan?" Ritsu's voice. It's the softest she's ever heard from her.

There's a collection of murmurs. The other girls have arrived.

"Mio-chan! Are you okay?"

"She's crying, stupid. Of course she isn't."

"You shouldn't swear."

"I wasn't swearing."

Mio sits still, in pain, humiliation and fear.

A pair of hands grabs hers. And she's guided off the callous concrete.

After the murmurs have died, Mio looks up. She sniffs and asks, "Where are we going, Ricchan?"

Ritsu doesn't answer. The appearance of the water bubblers did.

"No!" Mio squeaks.

Ritsu turns around. She looks odd without a grin. "You need to, Mio-chan."

"It … it already hurts." Mio's voice is shivering. "It's going to hurt more."

"It won't sting, Mio-chan."

A fresh wave of sobs attack Mio. "It will!"

"I promise it won't sting." Mio looks up and watches Ritsu's face. It's determined and strange. "I promise, Mio-chan. I promise it won't sting."

So Mio trudges after Ritsu, trusting her.

And it stings. A lot.

Ritsu touches the bandaids onto Mio's knees.

There's a pause filled with several, silent sentences. It ends not with a dot but with a sniffle.

Mio watches the tears on Ritsu's cheeks.

"I'm sorry Mio-chan," the girl chokes out, giving a cloud of warmth.

Mio's too silenced to accept the apology.

She continues to watch the little girl who fell countless times and never cried. That is, until now. No blood is on her. Just a lot of guilt, and the honesty of a liar.

Ritsu roughly rubs her eyes. It looks painful so Mio moves closer to her. Carefully. She hopes the tears to stop soon. She feels bad just looking at them.

Ritsu seems to make everything contagious.

3.

Mio recites the first several pages of her favourite story. Without speaking.

The pattering on the windows and walls weave between dissonant mutters and murmurs. It's cold, and Mio pulls her legs in for warmth. She needs to stifle the loud shivering of her bones.

The door slams open. Mio jumps but doesn't look up. Her head hides in between her knees.

"Mio-chan?"

She finally looks up.

Ricchan, she thinks.

Ritsu flings the door shut and Mio ducks from the harsh sound. "You're not wet, huh?" Ritsu asks.

Mio shakes her head.

Ritsu mimics, splattering water everywhere. Mio squeaks and scoots away. "W-what are you doing? Ricchan!"

The soaked brunette gives a doglike grin. "Now you talk."

Mio pouts and faces away.

"Hey," Ritsu says, "don't do that."

"Ricchan's a bully."

"I'm not a bully!"

Mio's reply is interrupted by thunder. The little shed shakes and Mio crumbles into a small ball.

"Stop screaming!"

Mio raises her head. Ritsu's hands are on her ears and glaring at her.

"I … I think I'm deaf," Ritsu says, grimacing.

"You're not," Mio murmurs. In afterthought, she adds, "I'm sorry."

Ritsu doesn't seem to hear the apology. "How do you know?"

"I can still understand you. Perfectly. It's hard to talk when you're deaf."

"Oh." She then sits next to Mio. "Brrr … it's cold here."

Mio tries to move away. She doesn't get far, fearing she'll offend the drenched girl.

Ritsu flaps the hem of her shirt, sending water flying.

Mio cringes. "You should squeeze it out, not shake it off."

"Huh?" Ritsu stops and faces her. "Oh. Oh, yeah. Thanks Mio-chan." She proceeds to peel off the shirt. Finding it difficult to do such a thing whilst sitting down, she stands up.

The shed shakes again. Mio goes back to hiding her head amongst her knees. This time, her mouth is firmly closed. She shudders at the sheer force of it.

"When is it gonna stop raining?" Ritsu grumbles.

"I don't know…."

"If we're gonna stay here for hours I'll freeze!"

Mio lifts her head again. "How are you going—" Ritsu is naked besides her underwear. "—where are your clothes? !"

Ritsu points at the floor, where a wrinkled shirt and shorts lay. "They feel kinda itchy," she explains.

"You're going to freeze, Ricchan."

"I just said that." She sits next to Mio again and pulls her legs in. Mio doesn't move away. "Hey Mio-chan, give me your hands. You can warm me up."

"Um…." Mio frees her arms and dangles them in the air between them. "How?"

Ritsu moves closer. She grabs the arms and wraps them around her.

After the next thunder, Ritsu says, "Mio-chan, I'm still cold."

Mio's arms are growing numb. But she still giggles. "I'm not a blanket, Ricchan."

"I wanna sleep now."

Mio panics. "Don't!"

"Huh?"

"You can't sleep when there's a storm."

"Why?"

"The Thunder Beast might hide in your belly button."

"…You actually believe that?"

Mio flushes. "My dad told me it's true! He sleeps on his stomach whenever there's a storm!"

Ritsu laughs. "Okay okay, don't get mad at me." She rests a hand on her navel. "There. I can sleep now, right?"

Mio looks at the hand. She makes sure she can't see any hints of a small circle. "Yup."

Ritsu nods off.

Mio moves her hands around for vital positioning. She then closes her eyes.

Her fear naps.

4.

Mio's hair is being tangled by Ritsu's fingers.

There's another shot of pain. Mio bats off Ritsu's hands and faces her. "Do you know how to braid?"

"Teach me then."

Mio's forehead wrinkles. But there's a smile. She gathers a thick lock of hair with one hand. She guides Ritsu with the other. "First," she says patiently, "split them into three parts."

Ritsu follows, and Mio continues. The work is clumsy but it leaves a somewhat successful result: A chunky braid that looks as if it could splinter you.

Ritsu laughs and strokes the hair back into its original state. Softly and painlessly. She tries again.

"Oh, is Ricchan learning how to braid?"

Mio looks up. "Oh, hi Taro-kun. And yeah."

She looks back at Ritsu. She's concentrating so hard that she doesn't hear her name. Another braid is spun. Ritsu leaves it alone and separates another cluster of hair. She then looks up.

"Oh, hey! What are you doing here?"

Taro squats down, for he is the only one not in a chair. "Just want to talk with you two. You can go back to your braiding."

Ritsu gladly does so.

Mio reads the boy. "Were you teased…?"

Taro gives an evasive look. "How did you know?" He answers his own rhetoric with another. "My eyes are red, aren't they?"

Mio smiles, feeling embarrassed for him. She glances at Ritsu. She's up to the third braid. And Mio's getting a bit sleepy from the hair playing.

"You two sure are close," Taro softly remarks.

Mio's eyelids droop. She tunes out from the conversation. Suddenly, the soothing strokes stop. And Ritsu's yelling.

"We're not like that!"

Mio looks back at reality. A shadow's on her. Taro's stepping back and waving his hands in desperate correction. "I'm not saying that—"

"Yes you did," Ritsu cuts off. Her voice is impulsive.

"Ritsu," Mio starts. "What's going on?"

Ritsu ignores her. She's focusing on Taro. She delivers her final attack.

"I'm not like you!"

The boy avoids the sharp words. "I … I'd better go." A pause. He then says this to the door, "See you Mio-chan."

Mio watches Taro's erstwhile spot. She turns to Ritsu. "What did he say?" She's starting to get a vague idea. But she needs clarification.

Ritsu gives her a strange look. She doesn't answer.

There's a reason why Taro gets bullied.

5.

Mio gets more and more frightened with each passing day.

She's always been a bit prideful in having self-control. She makes sure she consumes only a slice of cake each fortnight. She makes sure she doesn't explode whenever Ritsu teases her. She makes sure she thinks before she speaks. And there's a lot more.

Her human eyes are not in the list.

She finds herself staring at the most inappropriate times. You don't stare at your friend when they're changing. Or when they're wearing nothing.

When her 14th summer arrives, Mio finds her eyes are not alone.

"Aaagh," Ritsu moans, "I can't wait for summer break."

Mio focuses her eyes. At her book.

"Hey Mio, are you going anywhere?"

"I think so."

Mio doesn't actually have any plans. But that answer should serve. It could even serve as the foundations for a lie.

Mio's book is snatched away. And her eyes return to Ritsu. She's wearing a grin, a stolen book and an unbuttoned shirt.

"Give me my book back," Mio says to her feet.

"There aren't any books on the floor, Mio."

"I'm serious Ritsu. Give it back."

"Then look at me when you say it."

Mio repeats her plea. She only makes it half-way.

"You don't need to be shy with me, you know." Ritsu's pulling the false hurt tactic again.

This time, Mio falls for it.

She lifts her head. With her eyes closed. She makes sure she can visualise Ritsu's face, and only Ritsu's face, behind her eyelids. She then opens them. She does all of this quickly and without mistakes.

"See?" Ritsu says, still grinning. "Now what did you want?"

This is where Mio makes her first mistake.

She searches for the book and she ends up staring.

Her second mistake: her hand soon reaches out.

Then she thinks and her fist is wedged in Ritsu's shoulder.

"Hey! What was that for? !"

What was that for? Mio thinks.

The book exchanges hands.

The brunette gives an apology and a whine at the same time. "Didn't know you had that much power," she mutters in addition.

"I did tell you to give it back," Mio mumbles.

"Hey Mio."

Mio grudgingly looks up.

"Why don't you kiss it to make it better?"

Mio smacks her again.

It becomes a habit.

6.

Mio writes a letter. It's a letter that will never find its recipient. Nor can it be returned to its sender. It only contains words. Important words Mio would like to remain unuttered. Because she can afford the paper to be burnt if found.

She hears hasty, rhythmic feet on the wooden stairs. So she creases the letter, and she shoves it inside a book. It's a book that is hung on her shelf, for Ritsu likes to leave dead things alone.

As soon as she steps away from the paper graveyard, the door slams open. Mio doesn't flinch. Her mouth does when she's offered a grin.

Ritsu then fills Mio's day with frustration and laughter.

Perfectly normal.

What isn't normal is that Ritsu is extremely touchy today. Mio often has to shrink away. She fears the drumming in her chest will be heard, for Ritsu is quick with jealously.

Then the final act of balance, they delve into the future after some school gossip. Ritsu pulls Mio close, not letting her escape.

"We've promised we'll go to the same university. Us four." She then says with utter seriousness, "I want you in my life, okay, Mio?"

Mio holds her breath.

She waits.

"Because you're my best friend."

There's another squeeze on her arm before it's gone. The wooden footsteps return.

Contrary to popular belief, those words could easily kill a girl.

7.

There's an offer to Tokyo University. Mio accepts it. Distance is something she needs.

Ritsu's reaction is not what she expected. She almost prefers the screaming option. Because it's Mio that has broken something this time, not Ritsu.

All the pent up tension ebbs away. They're not needed anymore and it leaves Mio exhausted.

She weakly apologises.

Ritsu claims they're lucky. But Mio disagrees. Ritsu doesn't understand. So Mio falls forward, half-needing to explain and half-wanting just to sit there and stare at Ritsu's mouth.

"You're my best friend."

She breaks into a hug.

A hug should suffice. A hug shouldn't be suspicious. Even a long one.

Let her be greedy for once.

"Mio." There's a pause and Mio waits. "I'm going to miss you."

Mio doesn't need that. She doesn't want that at all.

She breathes out and wishes.

"You shouldn't."

8.

Mio pulls out a thin, battered book. She thumbs through its pages. The book splits open, revealing the creased letter.

She takes the letter and pushes the book back to its dusty home. She procures a pair of scissors and cuts the paper into pieces. Later, her father's ashtray will contain black scraps.

There's a visit to the hairdresser.

"You have such pretty hair!"

She cuts it.

Her footsteps sound lighter.

Unrecognisable.

9.

Mio stands across from the café. She's frightened.

Her hands are clammy and her heart is being traitorously fast.

She checks the time. She's supposed to be inside the café thirty thousand heart beats ago. So she enters the building, and her eyes, her heart's co-conspirators, find Ritsu quickly. Her feet move on without her consent.

Ritsu's picking at her fingers on the table. Mio's feet keep moving. Ritsu's head snaps up.

They exchange greetings.

Ritsu then grins. "You look well."

Mio's heart calms. She smiles. "You look well too."

"Uh, so why don't you sit?"

Mio does.

"You really did cut it," Ritsu says suddenly.

"Hm?" Mio's heart stays calm. Her mind races.

Did she notice? Mio wonders.

Did Ritsu notice the cut ties?

Ritsu reaches for her. Mio's hair moves and caresses her shoulders.

Oh. "I did say I did."

"It really suits you."

Mio dismisses the familiar words. She glances away from the strange look Ritsu is giving her. "How long did you wait?"

"Not long."

So she's right about Ritsu's unpunctuality. "That's good."

"Yeah."

Ritsu is looking a bit pale, so she asks, "Have you eaten breakfast yet?"

"No."

"Huh? That's not like you. Please don't tell me you're dieting."

"Like you're one to talk."

"I stopped, thank you very much."

"Good. You look great like that."

Mio blinks. "Ah, thank you. I should go order something." She stands up and takes a break.

She needs coffee right now, and something to beat the whiteness off Ritsu's image.

For a while, everything goes by normally. Until Mio reveals Ritsu's having a chocolate cake.

Ritsu's declaration of love for food.

Mio stares at it.

Ritsu makes those words so simple to say. So unlike her lover who speaks them with such honesty and care. And although Mio herself has gotten better with audible words of love, she envies Ritsu. Because she's simple and harmless. Because she hasn't changed.

"What do you want to do next?" Mio asks.

"We can shop around."

They shop. They try on clothes, not facades. Assumingly.

From time to time, Mio wonders if the coffee is actually working. All of a sudden, she's seeing Tokyo, not Kyoto.

"Mio."

She spins around and unexpectedly sees Ritsu.

She isn't in Tokyo.

"Oh," Mio says, trying to focus on the immediate present, "what is it?"

"What's next? There's some time before our train comes."

Mio scans the non-Tokyo shops. She spots a purikura. Pointing at it, she makes the suggestion.

Ritsu quickly slots in the change.

They pose, and the little box creates more memories. Mio is surprised that she doesn't mind. She even laughs.

But there are arms around her. On her shoulder. On her waist. And those arms are dangerously warm.

"Should we decorate them?" Mio asks, distracting herself.

There's a familiar hum. The arms tighten around her, almost possessively.

Mio's heart goes back to being traitorous.

"It's better if we don't. I want them like that."

"Same," Mio agrees hastily, reaching for the screen. Her hand lands on Ritsu. It stays in shock.

"Mio?"

"Sorry."

"You don't need to say sorry, you know."

Mio looks over her shoulder. Ritsu's eyes are soft and serious. And for a short, frightening moment, Mio thinks she's not over her after all.

She turns away from the past. The machine comes alive and the warmth dies. Mio searches for the culprit. "There aren't any scissors here."

"You can cut them up after."

"True," she replies. But she doesn't cut them.

She can't.

You can't cut the same strings twice.

10.

"Is something wrong?"

Mio blinks in the darkness. When she sees through it, she smiles. "Nothing's wrong. Why?"

There's a struggle of words. "Ever since … you came back we've been—you know." A short pause. "Not that I'm complaining of course. I'm just wondering…."

Mio doesn't break the eye contact. But she still can't stop the embarrassment. She makes a self-conscious whisper. "I missed you, is all."

Her lover smiles and gives her a light kiss. "I missed you too."

Mio leans closer to the warmth.

The warmth doesn't disappear. Nor does she expect it to.

11.

Mio brushes away eight memories.

They cling like spider webs.

ooooo

End

A/N: Uh, I'll be working on Arpeggio now. Where the two engage in spirited sex instead of angst. Hah, angst, ahaha … ha—sorry, the German side of my brain is kicking in. I'm also working on a new, happier fic where Mitsu will definitely happen (I can't write angst all week and I really want to watch that OVA!).

I'd like to thank RtDK for beta-ing and suffering through two chapters of Mio and Ritsu not being together. Please don't overdose on those anti-depressants, mate.

Notes (?):
— The Japanese adore leaving out subjects/objects from their sentences. Although Ritsu's saying 'I love you' in the café, Mio hears it as 'I love it' or some other object that doesn't involve her. Because she's Mio.
— Taro is just a random name I thought up. Any other persons you know with the name—treat it as a coincidence. No really, I'm serious. This is why politics is not my forte.