This story originally appeared in the Robots vs. Fairies anthology
When she got to Yume’s room, the first thing Ruriko did was slip off her mask and remove her prosthetic jaw. There was an ache in her fake bottom teeth. It was going to rain, although one look at the sky could have told her that.
Across the room, Yume dimmed the lights and sat on the edge of the coverlet. The bed was obscenely red, round and mounted on a rotatable platform, as one could expect from a pay-by-the-hour love hotel. Yume’s pale, gauzy skirt rode up her thighs as she shifted positions, and Ruriko wished she would tug it back over her knees. “Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”
Ruriko checked each of her false teeth, pressing a thumb over them to see if any had come loose — it was time for a hardware checkup soon — before clicking the prosthesis back into place. None of the actual teeth, or even the joints, were acting up. Some kind of phantom pain, then, from the flesh-and-bone jaw she’d lost ten years ago. “No, I’m okay.”
“I could put on some music.” Ten years ago, Yume Ito had been one of the four founding members of IRIS, one of the country’s top teen idol groups. Her face, along with Miyu Nakamura’s, Kaori Aoki’s, and Rina Tanaka’s, had graced advertisements all over Tokyo, from fragrance ads to television commercials to printed limited-edition posters. But then the real Yume Ito had died, along with the real Miyo Nakamura, Kaori Aoki, and Rina Tanaka, and now all that was left was an algorithm of her mannerisms and vocal patterns, downloaded into an artificial skin and frame.
“No music, please,” said Ruriko. Her voice sounded strange and small, but too loud at the same time. “Just talking.”
Yume, dead ten years, rested her hands on Ruriko’s shoulders. Her fingers traced the cloth mask that hung from one ear like a wilted flag. She tucked it back over Ruriko’s reassembled mouth. “Whatever you want us to do.”
Taking her hands, Ruriko steered her back toward the bed. She sat, and Yume followed.
The soft green pulse of Yume’s power source reflected off her black hair, tinting her skin with strange light. One of the room’s walls was an extended panel of slightly angled mirrors, and that green glow flashed back in every one of them. Muffled pop music thumped at the walls, but the soundproofing in the room was good. No one could hear the sounds anyone made inside here. And Ruriko had paid for two full, uninterrupted hours.
“Are you comfortable now?” said Yume. There was nothing shy about her. She wore the same kind, gentle patience that had made her face so arresting to watch on film, all those years ago.
They were alone now, one mostly flesh girl and one dead one immortalized in silicone and aluminum. But Yume’s hand felt warm, soft, alive. It was familiar down to the thumbprint-shaped birthmark on her inner wrist and the fine, thin scar across her palm from the time she’d sliced herself while cooking dinner for the younger members of IRIS. For Ruriko.
Ruriko rested her head on Yume’s shoulder and laced fingers with her former girlfriend. “Yume, what do you remember about our last concert?”
No one in their right mind came to the Aidoru Hotel. But those who did always came for a very specific reason. Mostly, in Ruriko’s opinion, that meant a horde of superfans, otakus, and would-be stalkers who wanted a night to do whatever they pleased with the celebrity of their choice. The disreputable folks from Kabukicho who ran the Aidoru Hotel didn’t care, as long as their clients paid handsomely for the privilege. And Ruriko was paying, even with the family discount.
“I’m surprised you don’t come here more than once a month,” said Shunsuke. He waited for her by the lobby’s front counter, tall and handsome in his suit, briefcase in hand. He must have commuted straight from work. Their other friends had headed up to their rooms already to get hot and heavy. “I would, if I had connections.”
“Very brief, distant connections,” said Ruriko, shaking the rain from her jacket. Her hair was damp, despite her hood and ponytail. Water splattered the clear acrylic floor, and beneath it, the giant projected videos of pop idols’ top hits played in violent, frenetic colors.
Shunsuke slid his wallet back into his pocket. “They’re close where it counts.”
Ruriko joined him in the elevator, and together they ascended. She and Shunsuke had very different tastes and desires, but they both got what they wanted out of their visits to the Aidoru.
“You booked two hours as usual, right?” she said.
“Two and a half. It’s been a stressful month at work.” Shunsuke stretched. His empty left sleeve fluttered, pinned close to his chest in the absence of an arm. “Want to meet up later for ramen?”
“Sure. I don’t know how you’re hungry afterward, but why not.” They’d made it something of a tradition over the past several
months. As the elevator climbed, Ruriko thought of fresh tonkotsu ramen, the crush of bodies, and the warm reassurance of anonymity. She chose not to think about where Shunsuke was headed, or the contents of his briefcase, or any of his numerous distasteful habits.
The elevator halted, and Shunsuke got out. He cut a sharp silhouette against the neon colors vying for dominance on the hallway’s digitally projected wallpaper. “See you at ten,” he said, and the doors slid shut behind him.
Miyu Nakamura tilted her head. Her hair fell across her shoulders in long, dyed brown curls, and she wore a pink pleated dress with a fluffy white petticoat. A different room, a different night, a different member of IRIS. “My last concert. The one in Shibuya?”
Ruriko remembered Shibuya. IRIS’s costumes had been white and pastel blue, with geometric wire overlays. She hadn’t been able to keep her eyes off Yume, whose long hair had danced about her waist with every precise, choreographed step. “No, the one at the Harajuku Astro Hall,” said Ruriko. “October fourteenth, 2014.”
“Oh, Harajuku! That’s not happening until next week,” said Miyu. The bed in this room was bright pink and covered in an alarming number of stuffed animals. There was barely room on it for either of them, even perched as they were on opposite sides. “We’ve been working on our routines since July, but Yume’s pushing us real hard. My legs are still sore from practice this afternoon.” She stuck them out, draping a coy ankle over Ruriko’s lap. Ruriko ignored it. “Wanna massage them?”
“Nice try,” said Ruriko. “If you’re a dancer, isn’t that something you should know how to do yourself?”
Miyu stuck her tongue out, but she started to knead her own calves anyway. “What kind of fan are you?”
“Just one who likes to talk,” said Ruriko. She reached over and took Miyu’s other leg, massaging it briskly. She’d done this for the real Miyu and the others, too, once upon a time. “Although I’m pretty fond of Yume.”
“Everyone is fond of Yume,” said Miyu. “She’s so pretty and confident. Mature.” Her voice wobbled a little at the end. “I don’t know what she sees in Rina. She’s basically the opposite of everything good about Yume.”
She had a point, Ruriko thought. Once upon a time, Rina Tanaka had been brash, even abrasive. Her integration had been a rough patch in IRIS’s history, and the real Miyu had made no secret of the fact that she didn’t approve of any newcomer, especially not some cocky hotshot from a bad part of town.
“Rina thinks she’s all that because she’s a good dancer, but she’s lazy. She comes to practice late, and she slacks off all the time. Worse, Yume lets her.” Miyu sighed and flopped back on the bed. A shower of plush creatures tumbled off the mattress around her. “I told her she shouldn’t play favorites because she’s our leader, but she told me to practice harder so I wouldn’t be jealous.”
Yume had never told Ruriko about that. But this was why Ruriko visited Miyu every time she wanted to feel better about herself.
“And I have been working hard on this new choreo for Harajuku. Do you want to see?” Miyu hopped off the bed and struck a pose, one hand on her hip, elbows angled out.
She had worked hard. Ruriko remembered that; dancing had always been Miyu’s weak spot, but the ferocity of her dedication had earned her Ruriko’s respect. Not that it mattered a few weeks later. But after one practice session, two years into Rina Tanaka’s career as the newest member of IRIS, Miyu had been tired of choreography–although everyone was tired of it except for Yume, who practiced religiously and with fierce dedication—and she had grabbed Ruriko’s hand. “Let’s go shopping,” she’d said, and Ruriko had been surprised, because Miyu openly disliked her.
But maybe something had changed between them. They’d worn cloth masks just like the one Ruriko wore now, and hoodies, and pretended to be sick all the way there so that no one would look at their faces. And no one had. The push and pull of the crowd, the crush of humanity, after spending so long in their studio hammering immaculate choreography into their bodies, had been thrilling. Ruriko had bought an ugly bear, too, and smuggled it into the studio to leave at Yume’s station. But she remembered Miyu’s smile—the first genuine one she’d ever seen on her face—as they snapped a selfie with their matching stuffed animals. She’d thought, Maybe I can do this. Maybe we can be friends.
Ruriko wondered how Aidoru had gotten its hands on this plush bear. Maybe there were closets full of duplicate bears, duplicates of all the rabbits and mascots and soft round things heaped up on the bed, just in case something happened to the original.
“Well?” Miyu sounded impatient, and Ruriko looked up. Sure enough, Miyu was glowering at her, a tiny storm rising on that perfect, adorable little face. Ruriko had never liked Miyu’s face.
“No. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise,” Ruriko added hastily, seeing how crestfallen Miyu looked. “I’m going to watch the broadcast live. It’s more fun that way.”
Mollified, Miyu flopped down next to her. One of her pigtails trailed across Ruriko’s legs, and Ruriko picked it up. “I guess that makes sense. Too bad! I love sneak peeks.”
She always had. That night at the Astro Hall, she’d burst into the dressing room, full of glee. There’s a giant light display above the stage! Four giant screens, corner to corner, so everyone can see us dance! Ruriko had come in later than usual that day, and she hadn’t gotten a good look at the setup during their abbreviated tech rehearsal. None of them had realized, at the time, how heavy those screens and the rigging that came with them were.
“Hey,” said Miyu, and her voice was soft, almost gentle. This Miyu, thought Ruriko, still wore the original one’s insecurity. "Would you
brush my hair? I feel a little unsettled today. I’m not sure why."
So did Ruriko. She glanced up at the clock mounted on the wall. Forty-five minutes left. And then this Miyu would go back to being alone, waiting in this empty hotel room, with no memory of their conversation. “I can do that,” she said quietly. “Hand me the brush?” The back of Miyu’s plastic hairbrush was covered in fake rubber icing, piped into a heart shape and decorated with fake rubber minipastries. Rhinestones dripped down the handle and dug into Ruriko’s palm.
Miyu’s hair felt like the real thing. When IRIS was younger, she used to make the others help her fix it. If you don’t, I’ll fuck up the back, she’d said every time, and every time, she was right. Ruriko remembered, every night before a performance in a strange new city, helping Miyu roll her hair up into curlers and fix them in place with strawberry-shaped Velcro patches.
This fake Miyu probably had fake hair. Maybe, Ruriko thought, it was real human hair—not the real Miyu’s, but some other girl’s, shorn and dyed to suit a dead idol’s image. She wondered where those girls were now, how old their hair was. She wondered how hard it was to wash blood and other fluids out of synthetic wigs, and if someone had given up and sought a more human source to solve their human problem.
A finger tapped her hand. When Ruriko met Miyu’s eyes, the smile on Miyu’s pink-glossed lips was a little wicked. “Hey. You should really come to Harajuku next week and see us live. It’s gonna be big, and you won’t want to miss it. Especially not if you’re a fan of Yume’s.”
“Maybe I’ll come see you, too,” said Ruriko, brushing the hair with steady, even strokes. The painful hope in Miyu’s eyes dug at her own guilty conscience, and she found herself brushing harder, faster, even when the strands of beautiful chestnut brown hair began to come out.
“Look at that,” said Shunsuke as Ruriko exited the elevator doors and blew into the lobby. He was watching the music videos playing beneath the acrylic floorboards. “Look at me! I’m so young.”
There were little pale pink pills of synthetic fur stuck to Ruriko’s sleeve, tangled among stray bits of hair. She picked them off furiously, tossing them into the air, where they wafted aimlessly away. “Who?”
“Me. Rina, look at this.” He grabbed her arm, and she seized his wrist with her other hand so hard that he looked at her with alarm. “Shit, what’s your problem?”
“Don’t call me Rina. It’s Ruriko.”
Shunsuke let go. “Right. Now it is. I forgot.” He pulled back and scratched his neck; beneath his well-shined shoes, his teenage self writhed in high definition. “I’m guessing it was a bad night for you.”
Seeing Miyu always left a complicated taste in her mouth. “Buy me ramen tonight,” she said. “Tonkotsu, extra pork.”
Shunsuke, to his credit, made good. He didn’t complain when she took the seat closest to the stall’s far wall, either, even though that was his favorite place to sit. “You know, in all the months we’ve been coming here, I’ve never seen you order anything different,” he said. “Always tonkotsu, maybe extra pork if you can afford it after blowing all your money at Aidoru.”
Don’t get your hopes up, Ruriko had told Shunsuke after their first post-Aidoru dinner, nine years and two months after the Harajuku Astro Hall catastrophe. The hotel had been open for just a year under her family’s management, and she’d already been feeling raw over one intrusion into her past. And then there was Shun in the lobby, so slick and confident that looking at him made her teeth hurt. I’m not planning on fucking you.
Good, he’d said, offering her his lighter. It’s mutual. He’d kept his word, and so had she, and after a career spent under public scrutiny, that pressureless friendship had been a relief. If they had tried this ten years ago, Ruriko knew it would never have worked.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a favorite,” said Ruriko, chasing one of her last bamboo shoots around her bowl. “You’re nothing if not consistent yourself.”
“I order something different all the time.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Ruriko nodded at Shunsuke’s briefcase. He grimaced and kicked it farther under the bartop. The metal buckle caught a stray pocket of light and flashed back into Ruriko’s eyes. She caught sight of a tuft of short, bleached blond hair snagged on the briefcase’s lock before it disappeared behind Shunsuke’s legs. “But the same kind of ramen! That’s so boring. Don’t you ever want to try something new?”
“No.” It was true; sticking to a very regimented schedule was something Ruriko hadn’t been able to shake, even a decade after her dancing days were over. All she needed for her graphic design work was her computer, her tablet, her notebooks, and the comfortable nest of books and pillows she’d built for herself. She exercised alone in her apartment, and groceries were delivered to her door. Ruriko kept mostly to herself these days, and she had little desire to leave the small, ordered world she’d so carefully constructed. Shunsuke and the other Aidoru regulars might well be psychopaths, but they were also the only other humans she saw on a regular basis.
Shunsuke, Ruriko amended as she watched him drain the dregs of his spicy miso ramen, was definitely a psychopath. But he was self-contained. There was only one person he ever hurt, and visiting Aidoru helped him deal with that.
Shunsuke set down his empty bowl. His wristwatch slid forward, baring a tangled mass of flattened scar tissue before his sleeve slipped down to cover it. “Let’s get drunk,” he said, and Ruriko had no objection to that.
Three and a half beers later, Ruriko was back on the Aidoru Hotel’s booking website, scrolling over Yume’s face. There was a menu on Yume’s main page (Group IRIS, 154 cm tall, 49 kg, black hair, B cup, brown eyes, active 2011–2014), and when Ruriko tapped on it (as she always did; how many times had she been here before?), a dropdown list of dates and times unfolded beneath her fingers. A list of all of the original Yume’s data scans and uploads, from the first time she’d let the talent management agency scan her memories and impressions (as they all did; how many times had they been told it was a contractual necessity?) to the last time, and every week in between. She scrolled all the way to the end of the list, to the last available entry.
October 8, 2014.
She slammed her phone down. “God fucking dammit!”
Shunsuke peered over at her. “Careful. That’s how you get cracks in the screen.”
“I don’t know why I keep coming back,” Ruriko said into her hands. “I know it’s fake. I just—God. I keep hoping that someone will find and upload another entry. Just a couple more days’ worth of data. A couple more memories. Just a little more time.” Bitching with Kaori about their talent agency, loitering in the park with Miyu. Yume’s voice in her ear as they stood together on the subway platform, waiting for the last train of the night.
Shunsuke rested his palm on her shoulder. His touch was unexpectedly gentle. He didn’t tell her what they both already knew. “Let’s get you home,” he said instead.
“I wish they’d get their shit together,” said Kaori Aoki. “When they fight, it affects us all. Yume works us harder; Rina skips out on responsibilities. But something must have happened, because Rina stormed in late today and Yume’s not talking to anyone unless she’s barking orders.” She sighed, scratching her short-cropped hair.
Two days ago, someone had offered a bootleg copy of what they claimed were Kaori Aoki’s last memories, recovered from some ancient talent agency database, to the Aidoru. Ruriko had swallowed her disappointment—why Kaori? She didn’t care about Kaori, not the way she cared about Yume—but demanded that her family purchase the upload anyway. It probably wasn’t legit, but . . . just in case. But the longer she spent in the room with Kaori, the more the memories seemed to check out, and the more terrible hope rose in Ruriko’s chest. If it could happen for Kaori, then maybe it wasn’t impossible to think it could happen for Yume, too.
“We’re running out of time before Harajuku, and their bickering is so petty,” said Kaori. To this version of her, the fight between Yume and Rina had occurred just that afternoon.
She was right. It had been petty, most of the time. But this latest fight hadn’t been. Ruriko had kissed Yume in the studio, when the two of them were alone, and Yume had freaked out. Not because she didn’t want to be kissed. Because Ruriko had done it in their workplace. What if someone saw? Yume had demanded. The wild, panicked, accusing look on her face had stabbed Ruriko straight in the heart. You could ruin both of our careers!
“She doesn’t like the costume,” Rina muttered. “I didn’t like it either.”
Kaori raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “No one likes the costumes. They’re always terrible, this time especially. But we wear them anyway, and they’re never as bad as they look at first.” She headed for the dresser and began digging through drawers. Stockings, lingerie, and compression tights fluttered to the carpet. “What they need to do, in my opinion, is kiss and make up. Or make out. Whichever one helps the most.”
Ruriko’s head jerked up. “You think they’re together?”
Kaori laughed. “Everyone knows. They’re so obvious. Even Miyu knows, and she’s in denial because she’s half in love with Yume herself.”
Ruriko’s stomach turned and she sat down, hard, right there on the floor. They’d fought because Ruriko had wanted to tell the rest of IRIS about them and Yume hadn’t. The media would have eviscerated them. Ruriko hadn’t cared.
The last thing she’d heard, before she’d turned on her heel and stormed away, was Yume shouting, How could you be so selfish?
Yume had forbidden her to tell anyone anything. So Rina hadn’t. Rina stopped talking to her groupmates altogether, and the frosty silence had carried over on the train to Harajuku, days later.
Kaori gave up on the dresser and threw open the door to her walk-in closet. The racks were a riot of color, stretching back like a long, awful throat made of bold metallic dresses and gauzy floral prints. Every costume she’d worn onstage, arranged by year instead of color. A fan’s paradise. “It’s gotta be in here. Hang on.”
“Please don’t,” said Ruriko. Her voice came out strangled. The closet stank of bad memories; just looking at the costumes made sweat gather in her palms, at the small of her back, her heartbeat galloping into her throat. But Kaori was already rifling through them, humming one of their songs under her breath. Ruriko could only remember half of the notes; the melody in her head was distorted, like trying to listen to music underwater.
Kaori emerged, flourishing a silver dress with a stiff, flared skirt. “Look, I found it! Isn’t this terrible?”
“It’s really bad,” mumbled Ruriko. The second-to-last time she’d seen that costume, she’d thrown it in Yume’s face.
Kaori pressed it against Ruriko’s chest. “Here, try it on. It is so uncomfortable, you will not believe it.”
Ruriko should have said no. But all she could think of was how she had screamed at Yume, sending the dress flying in her face like a giant bat. If she could have taken it back—if she could take any of it back—
Something must have been wrong with her head, because then she was stepping out of her jeans, and Kaori was zipping the dress up behind her, all the way to the nape of her neck. It didn’t fit properly; their bodies weren’t the same shape, and where Ruriko was small and soft, Kaori was tall and toned. This version of her, seventeen years old and programmed with a new set of memories—October twelfth, two days from IRIS’s amputated future—was full of tomboyish energy and excitement.
“See, I told you. But you actually look pretty good in this,” said Kaori, turning her toward the mirror. They stood side by side, Ruriko pinched into a dress that was too tight in the waist and too loose in the bust, Kaori comfortable in shorts and a light blouse. The dress gaped open like a loose flap of skin over Ruriko’s breasts. None of it fit, and it was hard to even look at her own body.
And then Kaori tapped a panel on the wall, and music blared into the tiny room. Synth vocals over a pulsing beat, four voices in one.
The Aidoru Hotel vanished. Ruriko was back there, standing on that slowly rising stage, her eyes wide in the dark, the ceiling of the Astro Hall soaring high above her in perfect geometry, her high heels already pinching her feet with two and a half hours left to dance, empty palm aching to hold Yume’s hand, mouth still angry, both at Yume and at herself for not being able to get over it, waiting beneath that teetering lighting grid, waiting for the tech cue to start the third song, waiting—
“I can’t do this.” Ruriko’s hands scratched wildly at the dress, hunting for the zipper. She couldn’t reach it, and she thought, wildly, What if I am stuck in this forever? “I can’t, I can’t—”
The music cut off and her ears rang with silence. Hands found her and unzipped her quickly, and Ruriko sagged with relief. “Are you okay?” asked Kaori. Looking at her, Ruriko saw, instead of her wide, earnest face, a mess of dark hair spilling out from beneath two tons of metal, and sharp, shocked shapes of blood splattered across the stage.
“I don’t think so,” Ruriko whispered. She couldn’t be okay, not if she was paying to destroy herself, over and over every month.
Kaori pulled her into her arms and held her tight. They stayed like that until Ruriko’s two hours were up.
Ruriko was still shaking as she boarded her train home. Her phone rattled in her grip. But by the time the subway reached its next stop, she had booked and paid for her next appointment at the Aidoru.
“This is going to sound rich, coming from me,” said Shunsuke, “but you need to learn to let things go.”
They stood on the balcony of Shunsuke’s apartment, smoking together and watching the rain pour down in great sheets. The brilliant multicolored lights from all the signs and ads and cars zinging by became patchy and blurred, doubled and strange, in this weather. “Sure I do. Speaking of, how’s that new dry cleaner working out for you?” said Ruriko.
“He’s great. He never asks any questions.” He cut his eyes at her. “I’m serious. Those girls can’t remember anything. They don’t even know who you are.”
“They can’t remember,” Ruriko mumbled, stabbing out her cigarette. “But I can’t forget. I don’t want to forget.”
“You know what always helps me,” said Shun, and Ruriko hated him for what he was about to say. “Cutting right to the heart of the problem. And you’re the heart, Rina-ko. Not them.”
She flicked the cigarette off the edge of the balcony. Its dying ember flickered in the air, fluttering downward before disappearing into the night.
“You can finish this. You’ll never have to gao back again.”
She whirled on him, anger flaring bright in her. Shunsuke always acted like he had everything figured out, with his sly voice and dry cleaning and neat little suitcase. “Does it feel good to lie to me?” she snapped. “Is that why you keep coming back to Aidoru, Shun? Because you’ve excised the heart of the problem?”
He stared hard at her and turned away. Ruriko bit her lip to keep any more of the venom bubbling up in her mouth from spilling out. Looking at the tall, lanky shape he cut against the sky, she realized how different he was from when she’d seen him the first time, over ten years ago, surrounded by the other members of his group. He’d been small back then, with bleached blond hair, and in the decade following his own accident, he’d grown into himself and left his gangliness behind. He was sharper now, harder. And there was only ever one room that Shunsuke visited at the Aidoru, only ever one person.
“Do you ever talk to him?” she said at last. “When you go to see him?”
Shunsuke passed her another cigarette. There was still synthetic blood on his sleeve, a dark, thin stain running toward his wrist. “What would we have to talk about?” he said.
Cutting right to the heart of the problem, Shunsuke had said. As if it were that easy. But he’d opened his suitcase and pressed a bright switchblade into her hand before she left, folding her fingers over its polished wooden handle. Trust me. It’ll feel better afterward.
People came to the Aidoru Hotel for answers. Therapy, excess, an outlet for stress. To sate obsessions. If the Aidoru could help someone as fucked up as Shunsuke, Ruriko reasoned, then surely it could help someone like her.
The overwhelming roar of pop music threatened to crush her down into the plush, ugly black-and-white hallway carpet. Upstairs and downstairs, people were already fucking TV personalities and musicians long dead, and somewhere else in the hotel, Shunsuke was about to take his bright knife to his younger self’s skin. But Ruriko stood alone outside a room she’d paid for, Shunsuke’s borrowed switchblade in her pocket, too afraid to touch the door.
You already spent your money, said a voice in her head. It sounded like hers, but off, the way recordings of her own voice always sounded.
A room here is expensive. Don’t waste it.
It’ll make you feel better, said Shunsuke’s voice. Trust me.
The only person you think about is yourself, whispered Yume. Fix that, and then we’ll talk.
No one in their right mind came to the Aidoru Hotel, thought Ruriko, and she gripped her key card tight and reached for the lock. The door slid open on its own, and Ruriko’s hand leaped back.
A dark-haired girl peered at her from inside the room, one hand up to shield her eyes from the bright cacophony of pop music. She was the same height, the same build as Ruriko, if ten years slimmer and younger.
“Are you going to come in?” said Rina Tanaka. “Or are you going to stand in the hall all night?”
After a moment, Ruriko tucked her key card back in her jacket pocket and followed her inside. Rina’s room was all dusty violet, the color of her childhood room. The lights were dim, and Rina slid the switches up, making the room brighter. The wallpaper glinted with silver interlocked triangles, and they winked viciously at her as she passed.
“I was wondering when you’d stop by. I’ve been waiting for you.” Ruriko studied her, hiding her nervousness behind her mask.
Rina looked about seventeen and had the same angled haircut that Ruriko remembered getting in September, right before the show in Shibuya with the powder-blue uniforms. “How did you know I was coming?”
“Your friend told me. He’s been visiting me for a while. Paid for memory retention services and everything.” This was Rina minus her stage persona, rougher than the other girls in IRIS, always a little too honest. In her voice, Ruriko heard the hints of Kabukicho that she’d spent her life trying to erase. “He said a woman with a red face mask would come by because she wanted to talk to me about something, but he didn’t tell me what it was. And you’re the only woman with a red face mask I’ve seen so far.”
Shunsuke had set this up for her. Ruriko’s hands shook; she kept them tucked in her pockets. The knife burned in her pocket. He’d probably meant it as a gift.
“Hey, you’re from Kabukicho too, aren’t you?” said Rina. She smiled. Ruriko had had that smile once too. “So who are you? What did you want to tell me?”
“You’re going to let her die,” said Ruriko, the words tumbling out past her clenched teeth. “At the Astro Hall.” She had Rina’s full attention now. And in that face, Ruriko read what she’d known was there—the anger, the fear, that she remembered having before they set out for Harajuku. “The lighting grid is faulty, it fell, and it crushed everyone. Yume—”
“Stop it,” Rina said tightly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But her eyes were overbright, her voice too high.
Ruriko grabbed her by the shoulders. “She died. You killed her, because you were a selfish little shit, you showed up late because you were sulking and wanted to make them miss you, there wasn’t enough time to run a tech rehearsal, they would have caught it—”
“I know!” Rina pushed at Ruriko, but Ruriko held on. Tears brimmed in Rina’s eyes. “Fuck! I know! I remember. Did you think I’d forget?”
Ruriko’s grip was so tight that her fingers were starting to hurt. “What?”
“I was an idiot. I thought—I was so mad. I was so upset at her. I thought she’d dump me for sure after that.” Rina’s tears splattered onto Ruriko’s arms. She wasn’t pushing her away anymore; she gripped Ruriko’s shirt. “I wanted to make her hate me. I wanted to make her pay.”
She had wanted that. And Yume had paid. But Ruriko’s head was reeling, and she shook Rina. “What day is it?” she demanded. “What’s the last day you remember?”
“October twenty-fifth,” whispered Rina. “I woke up in the hospital. The people from the talent agency were there. They said they’d scanned me while I was out. They told me I’d never dance again. Everyone else in IRIS was dead, and if I knew what was good for me, I’d pretend I was too.”
She’d forgotten. Ruriko let go of Rina. She’d forgotten about that last scan; those days were a blur of grief, horror, regret, and it hadn’t seemed important in the wake of her loss. Yume was gone.
“I could have saved her,” said Ruriko. She felt numb. She’d been so stupid. “She was right. How could I have been so selfish?”
“You?” A look of terrible revelation crossed Rina’s face. “What’s under this mask? Who are you?” She reached out toward Ruriko’s mask.
Ruriko shoved her away as hard as she could. Rina stumbled back into the small wooden vanity parked against the wall. “Don’t touch me,” Ruriko said hoarsely. All their collective secrets were spilling into open air.
“Please,” said Rina, but Ruriko backed away. Her awful synthetic body with its awful synthetic skin and awful synthetic youth, its face twisted with regret but still whole, made Ruriko sick.
She turned and fled the room. She was in the elevator and through the lobby and out into the street, fifteen minutes into her two-hour time slot. She didn’t ask for a refund.
It took a long time for Ruriko to come back to the Aidoru. But when she did, there was only one door she gravitated to.
“Does my face scare you?” said Ruriko.
Yume glanced over at her. They lay together on the red circular bed in her room, side by side, their hands just brushing each other. One of them had accidentally hit a switch to make the bed rotate, and they hadn’t been able to figure out how to turn it off, so they turned slowly together, their feet dangling to brush the floor.
“No, of course not. You had reconstructive surgery, right? It looks really natural.”
The red cloth mask was wadded up in Ruriko’s other palm. How many times had this Yume seen her face? How many times had she asked her the same questions, aching to hear Yume’s affirmation, over and over again? How much did it hurt, knowing that Yume couldn’t blame her for what would happen, what did happen in Harajuku, because she would never know who Ruriko was?
Impulsively, Ruriko sat up halfway, propping herself up on her elbows. “You know, some people have said I look like Rina Tanaka. What do you think?”
Yume took a moment before she replied; perhaps her internal algorithm was searching for a tactful answer. “Maybe a little,” she said at last. “Your eyebrows. Very Rina Tanaka.”
Ruriko laughed. She’d thought she’d be injured by that response, and she was surprised and pleased to find that she wasn’t. “That’s more than I thought I’d get. I’m surprised you saw any resemblance; you spend so much time together, I bet you know her better than most people.”
“I’m seeing her later tonight,” Yume said, looking slyly at Ruriko. “We’re going to hang out after evening practice. She promised.”
A luminous feeling spread through Ruriko’s chest. She settled her head back on her pillow and stared up at the mirrored ceiling, thinking. What had they done the night of October eighth? It hurt that she couldn’t recall all the details; they’d blurred at the edges over the years. But she remembered that it was cold already, unseasonably cold, and she had dragged Yume to the park to get ice cream anyway. Yume had been worried about getting sick in that weather. And then Ruriko had grabbed her by the scarf and kissed her to stop her scolding.
“For ice cream?” she said.
Yume turned to look at her, her hair falling around her like a curtain. “That’s a good idea. I was thinking about getting ice cream.” She reached out to touch Ruriko’s face, and this time Ruriko didn’t pull away. “It’s strange,” she murmured. “You do remind me a bit of her. It’s your expressions, your mannerisms, the way you talk. You’re different, but maybe you could be her cousin.”
She grinned and leaned in to Yume’s touch. Her fingers felt warm, real. “I guess I’m lucky.”
“You are,” said Yume, tracing the line of Ruriko’s face, all the way down her jaw. Her touch was tender instead of sensual. “But don’t tell her I said that. I don’t want her to get a swelled head.” She shifted on the bed, and her skirt whispered around her. “You know, it’s complicated. I want her to think I’m responsible. I’m her senior, and I’m supposed to look out for her. But at the same time, I want to spoil her. There’s just something special about her; it makes me determined to show her that all her hard work is worthwhile.”
“She loves you,” Ruriko said. She still did. “That’s why she works so hard.”
Yume glanced at her, surprised. Ruriko expected her to deny it. But instead, gentle pink spread across her cheeks. “Is it so obvious?” she asked.
Ruriko smiled up at her. “Only to the people who matter,” she said. “She has a lot of growing up to do. But she’s a good dancer. She’s full of fire. She’s . . . beautiful.”
“Maybe you should tell her that more often.”
“I’m only telling you this because you’re Rina’s cousin.”
“Oh, so it’s decided now?” She swatted Yume with a pillow, and Yume yanked it away from her and tossed it across the room. “If you could,” Ruriko said, much more quietly. “If you could be with anyone, would you still want to be with her?”
Yume hesitated and looked away. “Could we talk about something else?”
Uncomfortable, familiar disappointment settled in Ruriko’s chest. But still, she thought, this was the closest Yume had ever come to admitting to Ruriko that she’d loved Rina. She’d said as much in private, many times. But maybe telling “Rina’s cousin” was the closest she’d come to speaking it aloud in public. “Anything you want,” she said.
She smiled and patted Ruriko’s hair. It was an impulsive gesture, but to Ruriko, it was familiar, safe. “If you want to see Rina in her element, you should come to see us perform in Harajuku next week. I’ve been drilling the girls, and our choreography is excellent. She’s never been better.”
The memory of crashing lights came back to Ruriko, the way it had in Kaori’s room. But this time, she closed her eyes tight and held on, focusing on the living warmth of the body beside her. The memory slipped away. Ruriko opened her eyes to the mirrored ceiling, blinked once, twice. Her reflection blinked back. “Yeah,” she said, her voice steady. “I’ll be there.” Again, and again, and again.
Yume took her hand and squeezed it, the way she used to all those years ago. “Good,” she said. Her face was so lovely that it hurt to look at her. “I promise you won’t be disappointed.”