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writing by hand makes one shy

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Riko was eight the first time she received a message from her soulmate.

 

She hadn't realised it was from her soulmate at the time. She’d been doodling on her hand in class, the sparkly, pale pink of the gel pen gliding seamlessly against her skin. She was sure she’d get a stern lecture from her mother when she returned home, and she'd pretend to listen and dutifully nod whenever her input was needed as she usually did, but Riko thought it was worth it. She enjoyed drawing. That pleasure only seemed to increase tenfold whenever she was in school. She didn't completely understand it herself, but it was - no offense intended - far more interesting than almost all of her otherwise drab lessons. (except for music. riko always sat up straighter whenever the school piano was wheeled into class.)

 

Riko had entertained the idea of her soulmate suddenly waltzing into her life and swooping her off her feet (of course she had; what sort of girl hadn't?), but she was young and she knew it. Unless they had already initiated a premature connection, soulmate bonds didn't tend to manifest until both parties (or in some cases, all three parties) were at least at the age of ten. Which was why when Riko felt something small and tingly scratch against her left wrist, she'd simply swatted it, expecting it to be a fly.

So when her hand came away splotched lightly with silver ink, she’d been very confused.

 

The teacher seemed to notice her bemusement. She paused, squinting at Riko from beneath her glasses. “Is something wrong, Sakurauchi-chan?”

 

Riko squeaked and stuffed her arm under the table. “Nothing! It’s nothing!” she stammered, her face heating up.

 

The teacher’s brow furrowed. She stepped forward and pried the younger girl’s left arm away from her with deliberately gentle fingers. Riko reluctantly let her. She tried not to notice that the whole class was staring at her.

 

“Ink?” she asked. “Did your pen leak again?” Riko shook her head, a little miffed - surely even an adult could understand that nobody wrote in white!

 

The teacher’s face lit up, and before Riko could even flinch in surprise, her other arm was being gripped.

 

“Oh, Sakurauchi-chan,” the teacher said, her voice so delighted that it was practically bouncing, “you lucky, lucky girl.”

 

It was like she’d pulled the trigger of a shotgun: the whole classroom erupted into chaos as everyone clambered out of their seats and rushed to Riko’s side, crowding around her like she was an animal in a zoo. Riko shrank back, her eyes widening in fear at the sudden attention.

 

“A soulmate!” she heard her classmates whisper amongst each other. “Sakurauchi-san has a soulmate!”

 

Riko looked down at her arm and almost fainted at the sight of a shimmering, small, silver bat engraved on her left wrist.

 


 

Riko only got to properly look at the mark her soulmate (her soulmate, she repeated with glee) had given her once she was out of school. The rest of the class had spent the day ooh-ing and aah-ing over the prospect of her discovering them, and while she was just as excited as they were, she wanted a moment to herself so she could properly intake this new information.

 

She smiled. Maybe she could even write a thing or two to her soulmate; perhaps draw some more flowers for them. She'd think they would like that.

 

The drawing her soulmate had left her was, in hindsight, probably not a bat. It looked a little like a demon too. Well, Riko hoped it wasn’t a demon anyway, but she liked the ambiguity of the mark. It was cool, interesting, and mysterious -- all the things Riko had dreamed of her soulmate being.

 

She ducked her head, blushing slightly.

 

When she arrived home, she hastily kicked off her shoes and shoved them into the rack before rocketing off into the kitchen. Her mother almost immediately emerged from the kitchen with a soup ladle in her hand, her eyes wide in worry. She opened her mouth to speak, but Riko wrapped her arms around her waist, effectively interrupting her. She bounced up and down giddily, and her mother’s gaze softened. Her free hand fell to gently smooth out the crown of Riko’s head.

 

“Did something happen?” she asked.

 

“I got my soulmate!” Riko replied with an eager grin.

 

Her mother’s hand stopped stroking. “Oh,” she said.

 

Riko stood still for a moment, her head tilted slightly. Getting your first sign from a soulmate was a big deal, right? Why did she sound so disappointed? Maybe her mother was just worried -- after all, getting a signal from your soulmate at eight was certainly a rare occurrence. Riko shook her head. That had to be it. Her mother was an adult, and all adults were worrywarts as far as she was concerned. So she plowed on and rolled up her sleeve, putting it on display for her mother.

 

“Look what they drew!” she said proudly. “It’s a bat, I think. It’s pretty!”

 

Her mother sighed and removed her hand from Riko’s head. “You probably shouldn’t talk to your soulmate, Riko-chan.”

 

Riko’s face fell abruptly. She stopped bouncing. “Why?” she prodded with a hurt voice. “You don’t have to be worried!”

 

Her mother pinched her nose. “Look, it’s--” she stopped and turned to the soup ladle in my hand, eyeing it with annoyance. “Let’s talk about this in the kitchen.”

 

She stepped back into the adjoining room, and Riko trodded after her, dragging her backpack on the floor.

 

Her mother looked back at her and frowned. “Don’t drag your backpack on the floor.”

 

Riko obediently picked up her bag, and her mother nodded her approval. She set down her soup ladle in the sink where a pile of cutlery was already sitting and turned the tap on. Riko hovered around her awkwardly, fiddling with the cuff of her sleeve.

 

Her mother cleared her throat over the racket of the gushing water. “Riko-chan, do you know how many people there are on Earth?”

 

“Um…” Riko squinted her eyes, puzzled at the sudden question. “Seven million?” she guessed.

 

“Seven billion,” her mother corrected. “And your soulmate is one of them.”

 

Riko blinked, even more bemused than before. “Yeah.”

 

“One in seven billion,” she said slowly. “That’s one person in seven billion others. Your chances of meeting them - face to face - are next to none.”

 

It finally dawned on her what her mother was getting at. She wrinkled her face up in protest. “You should probably give up on it,” her mother continued.

 

“But that’s what--” Riko held up her left wrist-- “that’s what this is for, right? So I can talk to them?”

 

Her mother sighed. “Do you know how many languages there are on this planet, Riko-chan?” Riko opened her mouth to speak, but her mother cut her off. “Over seven thousand. Japanese is only one of them.”

 

Riko closed her mouth, her face falling. The implications of what she was saying were crystal clear: there was no point getting attached to someone you’ll never meet, let alone be able to talk to. “O-oh.” She paused contemplatively. “So I can't…?” She trailed off.

 

Her mother turned the tap off and picked up the cloth, turning around to face her daughter. She looked uncharacteristically sympathetic. “I’m sorry for dropping this on you all of a sudden, but it would be best if you didn't talk to your soulmate. It’d make things easier. For both of you,” she added.

 

Riko clenched her fists, but she nodded mutely. Her mother’s face finally broke into a small smile, seemingly satisfied. “If they talk to you, just wash it off.”

 

Riko’s jaw dropped at her words. “Just wash it off?” she repeated weakly. "Just ignore it and wash it off? Isn't that kind of--" she twisted her fingers together anxiously-- "mean?" 

 

“The sooner they learn that things aren’t going to work out, the better.” Her mother’s eyes softened at her dumbstruck expression. “I’m just looking out for you,” she explained, a little too matter-of-factly for Riko’s liking.

 

“So you are worried!” She scowled, her voice beginning to rise. “What about-- what about all those people in movies, and the people on TV who--”

 

“Riko-chan,” her mother interrupted, an edge to her tone that wasn’t there before. Riko flinched and looked down at her feet meekly. Her mother sighed again (her mother was sighing an awful lot that day, and Riko couldn’t help but feel as if it was her fault), and raked a hand through her hair.

 

“This is what’s best for you,” she explained more gently. Riko’s vision blurred over. She blinked back the tears budding behind her eyes, and gritted her teeth.

 

“Okay,” she choked out. "Okay. I'll do it, but I-- I don't want to." She grabbed her backpack and stumbled out of the kitchen, not even caring that the stupid strap was dragging along the floor.

 

Once she was safely upstairs, she ran into the toilet and began scrubbing away the ink on her left wrist until her skin was left red and raw. It hurt to look at more than it actually felt.

 


 

When Riko woke up, she was greeted by what she deemed a silver mess on the whole of her left arm. She stared at it blearily, wondering ‘why is there an elephant on my arm?’ until the events of the previous day sank in. She shot up in bed as if a hot poker had been pressed against her back, and stared in horror at her skin.

 

Her soulmate seemed to be quite the artist, because there was nothing resembling characters or writing on her arm. Instead, it was like a zoo had been given birth to overnight; crudely drawn owls, jellyfish, sheep, and her soulmate’s trademark bats were decorated along the width of her arm.

 

‘This is kind of cool, ’ was Riko’s first thought. Her second was, ‘Oh god, Mum is going to kill me.’

 

The ink came off fairly easy, and thankfully - or not so thankfully - her soulmate didn’t attempt to communicate with her until she was back in class. It was easy to tell when her soulmate was writing; that small, telling itch was unmistakeable. Riko was surprised she’d managed to sleep through her soulmate drawing on her, because the scratch was very hard to ignore.

 

The message she received was simple. ‘Hi,’ it read in the same, silver letters.

 

Riko stared at the writing. She’d bitterly avoided drawing on her hand for the entirety of class in acknowledgment of what her mother had advised her, but she was half tempted to grab a pen and write, ‘You can speak Japanese?’ in reply. But she ignored her urges and instead rubbed her hand until the words were smudged off.

 

It was about ten minutes later when she got another message. ‘I know you’re there, you know. You drew me flowers yesterday.’ It was in larger letters, as if demanding Riko’s attention.

 

Riko turned red and quickly rubbed the message off again, but her soulmate wasn’t deterred.

 

‘Well, I’m gonna doodle on you until you reply,’ was the next message. It was accompanied by their signature bat. Riko was beginning to think it wasn’t a bat at all.

 

‘Please don’t,’ she begged internally, fingers itching to reach for a pen just so her soulmate wouldn’t.

 

Apparently soulmates were incapable of mental communication, because Riko spent the next half hour distracted and in almost-agony from the unrelenting feeling of pins and needles in her arm. She thanked her lucky stars that she’d chosen to wear long sleeves that day. She was sure her arm would be silver all over with the way her soulmate was drawing on her, and there was no telling to how much her classmates would touch her once they realised that.

 

It was a huge relief when the itching stopped. She looked down at her hand. ‘Zuramaru’s going to play with me,’ she read, ‘so I’ll talk to you later!’ Again, it was signed off by a bat, but this time accompanied by a -- Riko squinted -- stick? Was that a stick?

 

Riko sighed, pulling her sleeves up. She cupped her face in her hands and rested her elbows on the desk. ‘Mum,’ she grieved, ‘I think my soulmate’s insane.’

 


 

As it turned out, her soulmate wasn’t insane -- just very, very strange. They drew strange things, they said strange things, and they were, well,  just strange.

 

For the first few weeks, this gnawed on Riko’s nerves constantly. Having to wear long sleeves to school in the middle of summer was a must, because her soulmate wouldn’t get the hint to stop drawing strange things on her arm in the middle of class when everyone can see them, and she always had to ignore the itching feeling on her skin when she was with her mother out of fear of getting scolded. Over time, however, the symbols and drawings crossed the line of being simply weird, and they became something to marvel at. Riko even began to look forward to seeing the strange bats engraved on her skin when she woke up. They gave her a sense of belonging.

 

‘Listening’ to her soulmate talk was growing to become entertaining too. They liked to write about their day a lot, or muse on about some nonsensical thing that Riko could barely follow. Still, it was a pleasant change from her otherwise mundane days, and Riko enjoyed being a confidant to them.

 

She quickly found out that her soulmate’s name was Yoshiko Tsushima - although she seemed to be nicknamed Yohane by some - and that she was a year younger than Riko. Yoshiko’s best friend was called Zuramaru, and they enjoyed playing together at the park. Zuramaru seemed just as strange as Yoshiko; so strange that Yoshiko herself deemed her as ‘weird’. Riko had to agree. (A small part of her wondered if she would be able to play with these strange girls too, but she quickly chased the idea out of her mind.)

 

If there was one thing Riko really liked about Yoshiko though, it had to be the fact that she seemed completely fine with just rambling about her day with no input from Riko’s side. While she did make occasional references to Riko’s silence, she didn’t show any signs of cutting off their communication. Riko liked that; that feeling of mattering to someone. It was almost as if she was getting--

 

--attached.

 

Riko stilled, her mouth dropping as she realised just what exactly she was getting herself into.

 

She consulted her mother about it over dinner. “Mum,” she began. Riko was the first one to break the silence, and she looked down at her in surprise. Usually it was the other way around.

 

Her mother stared at her for a good five seconds before speaking. “Yes?”

 

“My soulmate can speak Japanese,” she said, voice cracking on the last syllable. Her mother merely squinted at her, and Riko took this as permission to carry on. “They, um, talk to me -- a lot.”

 

Her mother’s expression didn’t change. “I see,” she said calmly. Riko’s brow furrowed. Out of all the reactions she’d predicted, this wasn’t one of them.

 

“Is it okay if I talk to them?” Riko asked tentatively.

 

Her mother set down her spoon. “Riko-chan," she asked, "what do you look for in your soulmate?”

 

Riko looked down at the table, her cheeks flushing. “Love.” How could you not love your soulmate; someone who was created exactly for you? Someone who fit against you perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle?

 

Her mother evidently disagreed, because she exhaled, pinching her nose. “Love is a complex thing.”

 

“I know that,” Riko replied, trying to bite back the harshness in her voice. She hesitated before asking, “Don’t you want me to find my soulmate?” This time, her words were definitely harder than before.

 

Her mother sighed again. “This is what’s best for you,” she said. She offered no other explanation, and neither of them spoke for the remainder of the meal.

 


 

Riko gave up on trying not to draw on herself in class. She told herself that it wasn’t direct communication with her soulmate; it was just a matter of something she liked to do overlapping with her soulmate.

 

Yoshiko welcomed Riko’s drawings with wide arms and lots of bats. ‘You’re a seriously good artist,’ she wrote. ‘You should teach me some day! My flowers look like slugs going through a solar eclipse.’ Next to it was a silver circle vaguely resembling a flower.

 

Riko wondered how Yoshiko could remain so optimistic about the possibility of them meeting (and what ‘slugs going through a solar eclipse’ even meant), but she smiled and carried on drawing.

 

Sometimes they even drew together. It was always Yoshiko taking the lead, etching swooping, grandiose lines over their skin while Riko trailed behind, dutifully neatening things up to look slightly more presentable. It was chaotic at best: Yoshiko’s wobbly penmanship didn’t mesh well with Riko’s more sophisticated strokes, and seeing floral patterns partnered together with bats and ominous looking symbols was admittedly quite strange, but Riko liked it. She felt like it summed up their differences quite well, and whenever they managed to finish a drawing, Yoshiko would top it off with one of her bat symbols. Riko would smile at that, and she was always half tempted to draw a small piano or flower next to it. But she decided that was crossing the line of ‘no communication’ a little too much, so she’d also always refrain.

 


 

The first time Riko saw Yoshiko sad - properly sad - was near the end of her first year in middle school.

 

‘Zuramaru’s going to a different middle school to me,’ the words read that night. They were suspiciously subdued and devoid of bats. Riko bit her lip. ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.’

 

Riko wished she could offer the girl a hug and reassure her that yes, they’d definitely meet again, because she knew best just how much Zuramaru meant to Yoshiko. She even picked her pen up. She thought of the way her mother’s face hardened whenever she brought up the topic of soulmates, and quickly set her pen down.

 

Instead, she doodled all through class. She had a test coming up and Yoshiko didn’t even reply, but she hoped she had managed to make her happy, if even just a little bit.

 


 

Middle school only seemed to make Yoshiko stranger. Riko was worried about her maturing and deciding to detach herself from Riko completely, but she needn’t have worried at all. Yoshiko kept all her strange bats and strange habits and strange doodles during her transition to middle school, and Riko was thankful for that. In fact, the only thing that seemed to drastically change about Yoshiko was the vocabulary she used.

 

‘These little demons in Tartarus are wary of me,’ she wrote one night, ‘but oh well, at least I have you. As expected of the soulmate of the great Yohane!’

 

Riko had vaguely manage to translate this to something along the lines of, ‘I have no friends in middle school except for you.’ She pursed her lips, wondering how someone who refused to talk to her soulmate could be considered a friend, but she gently coloured in a small, pink flower to show she was there.  

Yoshiko responded with an glittering bat, and Riko allowed herself to smile.

 


 

The piano competition was a disaster. Riko cried the whole way home. Her mother watched her through the rear view mirror, her gaze an almost amusing mixture of concern and uncertainty. She didn't say anything, and Riko was grateful.

 

Once she was safely in her room and curled up under her duvet, there was nothing more Riko wanted to do than talk to Yoshiko. To spill her heart out like Yoshiko had done so many times before with her.

 

She thought of the way her mother’s lips tightened when they eyes met in the car mirror on the way home, and decided against it.

 

When she woke up, silver was etched on her arm as per usual. That was the first time since she was eight that Riko didn’t smile when she saw it.

 


 

Numazu was a breath of fresh air, literally. The city had never been Riko’s forte; everything was far too cramped and busy for her taste. She smiled, inhaling the smell of sea salt floating across the air. ‘Yoshiko would like this,’ she thought.

 

Chika - and the rest of Aqours, as small as it was  - reminded Riko of Yoshiko in some ways. She was full of energy and seemed to find joy in dragging Riko around to do the most ridiculous of things, but first and foremost, she was strange. While Riko once would have shied away from the concept of ‘strange’, her bond with Yoshiko, who was perhaps the strangest person on the planet, had made her relish the lack of normalcy. It's not as if she actively sought strange things out - Riko doubted she'd ever have the confidence to do that - but she began to enjoy being in the presence of them.

 

“Chika-chan,” she asked on the bus one day, “do you talk to your soulmate?” Typically, one wouldn’t press others about their soulmate, but Riko hoped that her and Chika were close enough to venture onto the subject by then.

 

Chika brightened, straightening up in her seat. “Yeah, every day.” She furrowed her eyebrows and looked at her sleeves dismally. “Though I’ll need to stop when we swap to the summer uniforms... it's against the school rules."

 

“You talk to each other in class?” Riko asked, aghast. "We have midterms coming up soon, you know!"

 

Chika stuck her tongue out. “Hypocrite! Don’t think I didn’t see you drawing all over your arm in maths yesterday!”

 

Riko reddened. “That-- that’s different!” she protested.

 

“How?” Chika demanded.

 

Riko sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “It just is.” Chika opened her mouth to retaliate, but Riko cut her off. “Do you think you’ll meet them one day?” Chika simply blinked at her. Riko blinked back. Why was she…?

 

Oh.

 

Riko flinched back from her friend, immediately backpedalling. “Sorry, was that too personal?” she blabbered. “That was my fault, I--” Chika touched her arm, gently interrupting her. Riko stared at her. 

 

“Doesn’t everyone think they’ll meet their soulmate one day?” she asked, tilting her head.

 

Riko smiled at that. It was more of a sad smile, and from the way Chika’s brow furrowed, she seemed to notice. “Not my mum.”

 

Chika tilted her head. “Do you , Riko-chan?”

 

“I--” Riko swallowed-- “I don’t know,” she said on an exhale.

 

“Do you want to meet them?”

 

“Obviously,” Riko said. “I mean, they’re my soulmate. I can’t-- I can’t not…” She trailed off.

 

Chika smiled at her and sat back in her seat. “Then that’s good enough, isn’t it?”

 

Riko gave her a dubious look. “Just hoping for something that might not even happen?”

 

“What’s wrong with that?” Chika challenged. Riko bit her lip, turning those words over in her head. Was it okay? Was it really okay to want the impossible?

 

“I’ve never talked to my soulmate,” she suddenly blurted out in a rush. “My-- my mum told me not to, that things aren’t going to work out, that there’s no point …” Riko swallowed the lump in her throat. “She told me to give up on it.” Chika regarded her with wide eyes, and Riko took that as permission to carry on. “My soulmate’s talked to me every day and I’ve never replied, not even once. ” She scrunched the hem of her skirt tightly. “I’m a horrible person,” she finished in a hoarse voice.

 

Chika gazed at her thoughtfully. “Do you think they’ll forgive you, Riko-chan?”

 

Riko laughed humourlessly. “They shouldn’t, but they probably would. I don’t think they even hold it against me as it is.”

 

“Talk to them,” Chika urged.

 

“And say what?” Riko asked. “‘Oh hi, sorry I’ve been ignoring you for eight years’?”

 

“Yeah,” Chika said without skipping a beat.

 

Riko laughed. It was sniffly and kind of croaky, but this time it was genuine. Chika grinned too. “Okay.”

 

Chika fell forward in her seat, boring her eyes into Riko. “Does that mean you’ll talk to them?” Chika asked eagerly. Riko nodded with a wan smile and Chika punched the air. “Heck yeah!”

 

“Thank you, Chika-chan,” Riko said after the bus had dived back down into silence, “from the bottom of my heart.”

 

Chika smiled at her, her eyes crinkling kindly around the corners. “Anything for you, Riko-chan.”

 


 

‘Hi,’ Riko wrote on her arm once she was back home. She felt like she was going to throw up. She was more nervous than she'd been before the piano recital.

 

The reply was instantaneous. ‘!!!!’ followed by an excited, ‘Holy shit!’ and then an, ‘Oh my god! You can talk?!’ Riko didn’t know whether that was a good ‘oh my god’ or a bad one, but, Riko being Riko, she assumed it was the latter.

 

‘Um,’ Riko wrote next, and instantly cringed. Her hands were shaking. This was going even worse than she had imagined. ‘I’m so, so sorry for not talking to you for so long.’

 

The next reply took a little longer to come. Riko tapped her pen anxiously against the table as she waited, scenario after scenario of what could possibly go wrong playing in her head. She jumped when she felt Yoshiko begin to write, and narrowly missed banging her knee against the table. ‘What was all of that about?’

 

Riko scrutinised the writing. She couldn’t tell what Yoshiko was feeling, but she hoped it wasn’t anything similar to hatred. ‘It’s a long story, but my mother didn’t really want me talking to you.’

 

‘Oh,’ was the reply, ‘that sucks.’ A few moments later, she received another message. ‘Does she not like me or something?’

 

Riko chewed her lip anxiously. She didn’t seem that angry, at least, but it didn't help satiate the nauseous feeling building up in her stomach. ‘No, she just doesn’t like soulmates in general. It’s her way of trying to look out for me,’ she added.

 

‘Oh.’ There was a small pause after this, and then the itching feeling on Riko’s arm started up again. ‘I don’t really know what to say now.’

 

‘Don’t worry too much about it. You can just talk about your day like usual,’ Riko wrote. She immediately received an onslaught of exclamation marks on her wrist.

 

‘No!’ Yoshiko wrote. ‘My soulmate just wrote to me for the first time, and you want me to talk about my day?! I want to know about YOU.’ The word ‘you’ was underlined several times. Riko rubbed it off for space, fingers quivering, before writing another reply.

 

‘My name’s Riko Sakurauchi,' she wroteShe didn’t know what else to say.

 

‘Cool,’ was the reply, followed by something that vaguely resembled a thumbs up. ‘That’s it?’

 

‘Yes,’ Riko replied. She paused, then wrote, ‘Aren’t you angry at me?’

 

‘No,’ was the immediate answer.

 

Riko regarded the message doubtfully. ‘Why not? You have every reason to be angry at me.’

 

‘You always read everything I wrote,’ Yoshiko said. A brief pause, then, ‘Wait, you did, right?’

 

‘I did,’ Riko promised immediately. ‘And I will continue to.’

 

‘Knew it!’ Yoshiko gloated. Another pause. ‘Thanks for that, really. It’s nice to feel listened to.’

 

Riko swallowed, the nausea in her stomach ebbing a little. ‘Seriously? That’s why you’re not angry?’

 

‘Well,’ Yoshiko wrote, ‘obviously I wish you would’ve written to me before, but I’m not really angry. More relieved, honestly.’

 

Again, Riko didn’t know what to say. ‘I’m sorry,’ she repeated.

 

‘It’s okay,’ Yoshiko wrote, and Riko sighed in relief at the words. ‘But you’ll write again, won’t you?’

 

‘Of course!’ Riko exclaimed, digging the pen so hard into her hand that it began to hurt. She added a smiley face next to it, something she didn’t do even over texts. Yoshiko drew one of her bats beside it, and Riko smiled, just the tiniest bit. She felt like the world had been lifted off her shoulders.

 


 

“You smile a lot, Riko-chan,” Ruby told her one day. They were changing after a strenuous hour of practice - Hanamaru had just joined Aqours, and they were experimenting with ways to add her into the choreography - and Riko was struggling to hold in her fatigue.

 

Case in point, Riko hadn’t even noticed Ruby talking to her until she saw that the first year was staring at her. Holding back a yawn, she said, “Sorry, what was that?”

 

Ruby smiled as she buttoned up her shirt. “You smile a lot, Riko-chan,” she repeated.

 

Riko blinked at her. “I do?”

 

Ruby nodded shyly. “Yeah, you look… happier these days. It’s nice.”

 

Riko gazed at her for a brief second, before her face broke into a fond smile. Ruby was a lot more perspective than she seemed. “Thank you, Ruby-chan.”

 

Ruby ducked her head, blushing. It was a little hard to tell through her thick locks of hair, but Riko thought she was smiling back.

 


 

‘Hey,’ Riko wrote one day, ‘what are those little things you draw called?’ She drew one of the bats in example.

 

‘Little demons!’ Yoshiko drew five ‘little demons’ surrounding it.

 

‘...I always thought they were bats.’

 

‘What the fuck,’ was the reply, and Riko laughed.

 


 

‘Would it hurt if your leg got chopped off?’

 

‘Yes,’ Riko replied as patronizingly as she could manage, ‘that would hurt, Yoshiko.’

 

‘Where, though?!’

 

‘The place where your leg was chopped off, Yoshiko.’

 

‘But your leg’s gone.’

 

‘Bodies have nerve endings, Yoshiko.’

 

A brief pause, then, ‘...I want to swap soulmates with someone.’

 

Riko stifled a laugh. ‘Don’t get angry at me just because you forgot bodies had nerves for a second there, Yoshiko.’

 

‘Shut up!’ Yoshiko wrote. She ended up scribbling all over Riko's hand, but she didn't mind.

 


 

It was in the middle of maths when Riko suddenly found silver ink stains exploded all over her fingers.

 

“Are you serious,” she groaned under her breath, dropping her spoiled pen and staring at her hands in dismay.

 

A low, tittering rumble ran through the room as all eyes turned to Riko. Chika was unabashedly chuckling along with the class, and You was doing an awful job at pretending she wasn’t.

 

“You may go to the toilet,” the teacher said, her mouth twitching into a faint smile.

 

Riko stumbled out of the room with her face on fire, cursing Yoshiko and her clumsiness as she went. She ran down the stairs, turned the corner, and came face to face with another student.

 

Riko squeaked in surprise and jerked her hands backwards, not wanting to ruin the girl’s uniform. The girl stared at her with a strange look on her face, and Riko averted her eyes. "Sorry,” she apologized, and made to move past her.

 

“Wait!” The girl moved her hand out to touch her, then hesitated and pulled it back. Riko paused in surprise and turned back to the girl.

 

“What’s the…” She trailed off. Her breath hitched, and she could physically feel the colour draining from her face.

 

The girl was only slightly shorter than her, and if not for the ribbon around her neck, Riko wouldn’t have identified her as a first year. Her hair was done up in an odd style, one bun sitting lopsided on the top of her head, but that wasn’t what caught Riko’s attention the most.

 

The reason why she hadn’t touched her was because she had large, unmistakeable ink stains splattered over her hands.

 

“Um,” Yoshiko Tsushima began haltingly, “are you Riko Sakurauchi?”