Ei relays everything that happened with the party and Yae to Makoto as they brush their teeth together in one of the bathrooms. The twins have their own separate washrooms, but they still choose to get ready for bed in one.
“…and Miko said that.” She paces in a line on the marble tiles while Makoto finishes gargling. “She’s amazing. I don’t know what to do.”
“You put a ring on her—that’s what you do.” Makoto rinses her mouth.
“But I’d never—isn’t it too soon?” Ei makes weird clenching motions with her hands. “I thought you would be the one to get married and have kids. I always thought that I would…”
Makoto raises a brow. “Remain single?”
“Die alone,” Ei finishes. “Not that I minded.” She wrings her hands. “How many diamonds should I get?”
“Relax, that was a joke.” Makoto pats her shoulder. “Whatever you two want to do is your own business…as long as it remains legal, ethical, and moral. Don’t get stuff traced back to the family.”
Ei laughs. “Yeah, that sounds like Dad. You got his impression dead-on.”
Makoto shrugs modestly. “I try.”
She sighs, leaning against the counter. “Seriously though, you look so happy. I’m glad for you. It makes me wish I had a partner like that too.”
“You want to date someone like Miko?”
“Kind of. I like certain aspects. She’s very funny and charming when she wants to be. She’s not afraid to be upfront with what she wants, and she’s unconventional and slightly eccentric. I think it would be fun to be with someone like that.”
“Oh, I do know—“ Ei stops herself. She still hasn’t talked to Sara about Saiguu like Yae told her to do. “I mean I’m sorry you’ll die single.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Makoto squints at her. “Something’s up. You’ve been acting weird whenever I bring up—“
“I just…I don’t know how I’d feel about you dating.”
“Why does that matter? Apparently, I’m going to die single.” Makoto rolls her eyes. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just prepare my coffin now. Guess I’ll be the first one in the family to die of celibacy.”
“...you’re pretty upset about this topic.”
“Well, maybe I want to be the one to go on a sex rampage with my hot girlfriend throughout campus too!”
“…I never want to hear those words from you again. Also, we are not—” Maybe Ei really needs Yae to dial it down if she already has this kind of reputation. “--I’m not intentionally trying to make you feel bad, Makoto. You know that.”
“Yeah, but—” Makoto sighs, running her hand through her hair, “--sorry, Ei. I just wished I had the freedom you had instead of feeling like everyone’s always watching me.”
Ei softens. She reaches over to give her sister a hug. “I’m sorry you always had to shoulder the burden for me. Maybe I can do something to take some pressure off of you.”
Makoto shakes her head. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just venting.” She gives Ei a gentle shoulder bump. “Thanks for listening.”
“Wait.” Ei’s brain finishes processing their conversation as they head out the door. “You think Miko is hot?”
The twins nearly bicker down the hallway, with Ei trying to pry Makoto’s opinion of Yae’s attractiveness out of her and Makoto deftly deflecting the topic. “…Yae was actually on good behaviour this time, and she jumped in quite well when you were having your meltdown.” She brushes off another of Ei’s attempts to ask about the previous topic. “She’s really matured so quickly, that playgirl of yours.” Makoto looks thoughtful as she makes her way towards her own bedroom doors. “I’m glad that you gave her a shot.”
So is Ei. In fact, she ponders over how much of her life has changed since Yae pushed her way in, and a warmth builds in her chest—a fragile-feeling flame that spreads a tender smile across her face.
Maybe she should show her appreciation for tonight in a way that Yae would like.
When she enters her room, she finds Yae sitting nearby at a desk, texting on her phone and looking pleased. “I know you didn’t have as good of an evening as you wanted, but I did get quite a few good contacts from there. Now, to figure out a timeline of when I need to reach out to these people once I start launching my bookstore…”
Ei doesn’t hear the rest. She strolls up, snatching the phone out of her hands, and pulling Yae’s head back in a sudden kiss. Yae makes a surprised sound then a moan as Ei runs a hand down her collarbone and into her nightgown. “What’s gotten into you? Not that I mind.”
“I was thinking…” Ei leans in, whispering in Yae’s ear. “…that I could reward you with some affection tonight.”
Yae pulls back, looking suddenly displeased. “Look, I didn’t do that to be rewarded with sex…though that is a nice compensation. I did it because—“
Ei exhales, voice low. “Miko, let me make love to you with everything I have.”
That seems to hush any more protests from Yae who stares, wide-eyed, before nodding stiffly and heading over to the bed. Ei almost wants to laugh with how oddly Yae seems to be moving—like she’s trying hard to restrain herself from being overly excited.
“Well?” Yae seats herself, crossing her arms. “What did you have in mind? Do note that I have seen quite a large range of—“
Ei sweeps up to her, trapping Yae between her arms. “But you haven’t seen me like this.” She leans in. “I’m going to take you any way I want.”
Yae’s pupils blow out into dark discs. Her voice is raspier, almost a growl. “You’re mistaken.” She pulls Ei down into her. “You could have had that any time.”
Yae is burning under her touch, already panting and pulling off her clothes between increasingly heated kisses as Ei trails her fingers through Yae’s hair, around her collarbone, and down her back. She marvels at how eagerly Yae pushes against her, mouthing at her jaw and neck, and making noises that almost sound like whimpers. It’s strange how Yae could make her feel so desired by being the one desperately wanting.
Her musing gets interrupted by an unwanted thought that wonders if this is how Yae was before with all of her ladies of the night—seductive and thrilling with a voice that sends tingles down women’s spines. She’s confused by where that comes from, but now the idea starts to grow. By the way Yae writhes and wriggles under her, hips rocking, Ei could believe that Yae craves her only.
But Ei knows she’s inexperienced. And not quite normal. She could see it in the way her classmates used to look at her when she was younger—a mix of scorn, disbelief, and fear. Something isn’t right about her, she was often told by her peers, and, sometimes, she thought they might be correct. Why else would these social interactions that came so naturally to others be so hard for her? Why else would a single party be so overwhelming for her? She must be broken somewhere. Deficient somewhere.
Ei freezes in bed, caught by her thoughts. She wonders if she’s good enough as she is.
Yae’s hand touches her face. “Look at me.” She peers closely. “Where are you? I’m right here.”
“I—” Ei blinks, feeling oddly suspended as if she was in her body and out of it at the same time. Her heartbeat accelerates, an instinct telling her to escape as quickly as she can. “I’m…” She doesn’t know how to answer.
Yae holds her face, touching their foreheads together. “Breathe with me. You’re right here. You’re safe.”
Ei stiffens before she closes her eyes, trying to match Yae’s breathing patterns. Slowly, her body unclenches, and the beating of her heart slows. She begins to tremble, breathing catching and tears coming to her eyes. She doesn’t know why she’s crying.
Yae cradles her close. “It looks like tonight brought up some bad memories.” She peppers kisses along Ei’s face, examining her like something fragile about to break. “Let’s not do this right now.”
“No, but I should show you…” Ei struggles to detangle herself, feeling suddenly weak like her muscles disintegrated. “...that I’m grateful that you could love someone as broken as me.”
Yae whispers, “You’re not, Ei. You’re fine the way you are.” She nuzzles against Ei’s throat. “I’ll kill whoever told you otherwise.”
Ei smiles, lips quirking. “Not necessary, but I…”
Yae lays her down, pulls the blanket up over them, and curls closely into her. “Let’s put a pause on this. I’m feeling quite tired all of a sudden.” She presses a kiss against Ei’s nape. “Would that be all right with you?”
Ei nods, conflicted, feeling like she should continue and relieved at the same time. “I…would be okay with that.”
“All right.” Yae cuddles closer. “Just to be clear, you still owe me a prospective amazing lay. I’m just suspending it for the moment.”
Ei laughs, “Okay.” She grows quiet, struggling to put her thoughts into words. “Miko, I…don’t know what’s going on.”
“That’s fine. I’ll still be here when you figure it out.” Yae yawns against her back, and Ei strangely feels safe.
The next morning, Ei is up first, sitting at her writing desk and watching sunlight move across the floor to the bed through the windows. She wonders if what she’s done was appropriate, was right—fretting about if Yae thought she was strange and fragmented like most other people in her life. What would she do if Yae starts looking at her the same way others have in the past?
Her concerns are dashed the moment Yae wakes up, blinking herself awake before an expression of awe and adoration comes onto her face at the sight of Ei. Was that always there in her gaze?
Ei says, “Good morning,” as she watches Yae fumble out of bed, caught by the thick duvet cover and still half-sleeping. She catches Yae nearly falling off the edge of the bed as the latter plants quick kisses over her face—her chin, her cheeks, her forehead. “I take it you had a good rest.”
“More than good.” Yae pulls back, looking at her face. “Are you okay?”
“I’m better than last night.” Ei takes a breath. “I’m sorry—”
Yae places a finger on Ei’s lips. “Don’t apologize. I love you however you are, no matter where you are up here.” She prods Ei’s head. “Is that clear?”
“Yes.” Ei’s face flushes at the words, and heat quickly shoots through her body. She coughs, “We probably should get ready for breakfast.”
They shower and dress for the day, and, still, Yae wears that puzzling expression of subtle adoration, touching Ei from time to time as if making sure she’s still there.
It stays on her face all throughout breakfast with Yae turning once in a while to give her an expression between smirking and something softer.
Makoto elbows her once they start walking to the tea room after breakfast. “What did you do to her? This is the first time I’ve ever seen her so quiet.”
Ei shifts uncomfortably. “I had a breakdown.”
Makoto pauses, stopping Ei with a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?”
“Later.” Ei shakes her head, noting Yae pausing to look back at them. “Once we’re alone.”
Makoto nods. “Whenever you feel ready, sis.” She squeezes Ei’s hand. “I’ll be here.”
Ei squeezes back.
They enter the tea room, a minimal place with massive windows reaching from floor to ceiling. A stern-looking man is already there, preparing steaming green tea in an elaborate display in the middle of the room.
Ei’s mother waves them over to the table. “Thank you for joining me, girls. My husband finally has some time to drop by and asks us to wait here.”
Yae glances at the man beside them. “What is up with him then?”
“Yasu likes a properly brewed cup of tea.” Mei sighs. “The man can be so picky.”
Yae studies her. “Even about the people in your daughters’ lives?”
Mei nods rapidly. “Oh, yes. He was particularly very careful about who the twins would have around when they were growing up. He wanted them to continue to be pulled forward to achieve by the company they keep.” She pauses, recalling something. “Plus, he didn’t want the twins to become too sassy.”
“Too late for Makoto then.” Yae shrugs while the twin in question shoots her a look. “Anyway, tell me more about your husband. What is he like?”
As Mei rattles on, Ei watches Yae soak up the information like a sponge, nodding along at appropriate intervals. Once in a while, she catches Ei’s eye and shoots her a quick smile—one that’s so relaxed and genuine that Makoto raises her brows at how unguarded Yae looks.
Makoto leans over, whispering, “Seriously, what did you do?”
Before Ei could answer, a neatly dressed man with combed back hair appears at the door, the flecks of white and grey in his strands making him look distinguished.
Ei chokes on her tea in surprise. “Father.”
Yasu is still in a steel-grey business suit. He crosses the carpet to plant a kiss on his wife’s face, ruffling Makoto’s hair with one hand and Ei’s with the other. His steps are light, his poise deliberate, and his gaze sharp as he neatly seats himself on the couch. “My apologies for running a little late. The meeting with Lord Kusanali went on longer than I had predicted.”
Yae straightens up at the sight of him. Both of their eyes narrow, like foxes recognizing one another at the border of their territories. “Hello, Mr. Raiden. It’s a pleasure to meet you at last.”
“Likewise.” Yasu casually extends his hand, briefly shaking Yae’s before returning it to his side. “I have heard a lot about you from my wife.”
“All good things, I hope?”
Yasu smiles slightly. “Perhaps.” He leans back, crossing one leg over the other and looking relaxed. “Tell me more about how you’re enjoying your trip here so far.”
As Yae and Ei’s father continue on with their small talk, Makoto leans over and whispers in Ei’s ear, “Huh, so that’s why Yae seems so familiar.”
Ei blinks. “What do you mean?”
Makoto shakes her head. “If you didn’t notice it, it’s not my place to say.”
Ei doesn’t get it. She leans in to ask more about it when she catches Yae mentioning once again that she wants to open a bookstore.
Yasu stares at Yae over his fingers. “Why books?”
Yae smiles. “It’s not about them. It’s about the stories. We’re wired to learn and crave the ideas and experiences of others. We’re drawn more and more to find out what happens as we turn every page, as we hang onto every word. We change and transform with every life we consume on the page, on the screen, in our dreams.”
Yae grins, eye teeth visible. “When we are hooked into a story, aren’t we all driven by the desire to know how it ends?”
“Only if the story is any good.” Yasu leans back, face impassive though his eyes flit over her. “What do you hope to gain out of it? Your personal goals?”
“Wealth, of course. Renown. All the usual pretty stuff. It would also be good to see how far I can go with this particular idea.” Yae continues, “In addition to that, it would be wonderful to move to a new stage of life—professional and real despite—“
Makoto coughs, laughing. She pounds on her chest while hastily putting down her tea cup. “You care about professionalism?”
“Yes, I do. Shut up, Makoto.” Yae glances at Yasu before coughing. “My apologies. Your daughters and I are quite informal at school, and habits can be hard to break. Anyway, my goals are to find more people who share more literary interests and connect them in a meaningful way—through their shared love of stories.”
Yasu cocks his head, remarkably reminding Ei of Yae. “Interesting.” He turns his teacup. “Where are you planning to open your store?”
“There is a district in Inazuma Ciry where the rent is fairly affordable for a new business and yet has lots of foot traffic.” Yae pauses. “I’ve spoken to a lot of real estate agents and already have a potential landlord in mind to sign a six month lease. A perfect amount of time to test the waters of demand.”
“Why not online?” Yasu almost looks bored if not for the narrowing of his eyes. “With the property and construction costs nearly tripling in the last year due to inflation, it would make more sense to have a website and a storage place to house the books for inventory.”
“Because an online store won’t be a meeting space where readers can come together, discover new ideas or books, and celebrate their local community. Recommending a good book is more than listening to a suggestion; it can be a resonating experience since literature can emotionally connect with us in ways other mediums can’t.” She claps her hands together, glancing briefly at Ei. “Besides, I have bigger aspirations than to just sell books.”
Yasu glances at Ei as well. “I may have to hear about those later. Tell me more about your plans.”
As the pair continue their discussion, Ei looks over at Yae in amazement, watching her shake and tease out business ideas with Ei’s father. Makoto watches too, slightly gaping. She leans over, whispering, “Did you know that Yae had such a sharp business mind?”
“No. I thought all she daydreamed about was sex.”
They’re interrupted by their father clearing his throat. “You would need seed money for your future company, correct? Rent in Inazuma City does not come cheap.”
Yae falters slightly. “Yes, that would be the only point where I have not fully figured out a solution. However, gaining a loan would be the most logical course of action.”
“The interest rates might bury you alone if you go straight to the bank. A reasonable private investor might be better.” His father taps his fingers along the armrest. “Would half a million do?”
Yae stiffens, and her eyes go wide. At that response, Yasu raises an eyebrow. “Not enough? Two million? Five?”
Licking her lips, Yae glances sidelong at Ei, wavering. “That is more than needed.”
Yasu also looks at Ei before glancing back at Yae. “And you would take it in a heartbeat?” He drums his fingers on the armrest. “Most people would, but that’s why most go bankrupt shortly afterwards—financially and relationally.” He tilts his head. “So, what will you choose?”
Yae closes her eyes and takes a long breath. When she exhales, she meets his gaze, sitting up straighter. “Your offer is extremely generous, but I would do better in the future with the invaluable guidance of your mentoring and coaching.”
When Ei’s father looks surprised, she continues on, “You might be concerned that I am taking advantage of your daughter’s financial status, rightfully so since you do not know where I came from.” She lifts a hand to silence Ei who opens her mouth to protest. “I don’t blame you. I can only ask that you grant me time for my actions to prove where I stand in my affections for Ei.
“You daughter means the world to me. I would choose her over money any day. At the same time, it would be foolish of me to think we can survive on love alone. I need wealth to take care of her at the level you do, to afford her the care she deserves, to fund the dreams in ber heart. Money and proven wisdom would lead to a prosperous life. And I would be grateful beyond measure to be blessed with your guidance in the pursuit of it.”
Yasu blinks. He straightens up, looking at Yae like he’s seeing her for the first time. Yae doesn’t look away.
Ei’s father stares for such a long moment that Ei could feel everyone holding in their breath before he nods slightly. Yae’s shoulders relax, and she looks relieved. She nods back. Then, Ei’s mother copies the motion, and Makoto joins in. And Ei still has no idea what they’re all nodding about.
Yasu sits up, picking up his cup of coffee. “What a cunning young woman you have found for yourself, Ei. Far wiser than her years would suggest.”
He glances at his wife. “Well?”
Mei taps something on her wrist watch. “Her genetic report shows exceptional health, which is good news.”
Yae’s mouth falls open. “My genetic—when did you—“
Ei’s mother waves off the question. “You were quite careless with your DNA—not washing the glasses you drank from and leaving bits of skin and hair cells everywhere. In any case, I got your DNA analyzed and found that you have exceptionally healthy and robust genes, particularly for fertility. Why, we could combine your DNA’s with Ei’s in one of our labs if you choose to have kids. You could carry it easily!”
“…there are too many things to address in that speech. And maybe a lawsuit or two.” Yae clears her throat. “But…I think I hear approval in it.” She smiles when Ei takes her hand. “But even if you didn’t, that wouldn’t phase me. Nothing would rock us.”
Ei reaches over to squeeze Yae’s hand. “Even if you did not approve, she isn’t going anywhere.”
Her mother and father glance at each other. Ei hears her heartbeat in her ears and the faint sensation of Yae squeezing back. “She’s not interested in me just because of money.”
Her father’s brows furrow. “What are you talking about?”
“Your concern about her. Isn’t it because…you’re afraid that she’s exploiting my affections?”
Ei’s mother looks surprised. “No, she seems quite genuine about her attachment to you. That was no issue with us. Our main worry is that we don’t know how your fiancé is going to take this.”
Ei frowns. “I have one?” Yae is crushing her hand, and she’s sure that that isn’t a good sign. “Since when?”
“Since you and Makoto were a few years old. We wanted to ensure you two would be taken care of when you got married, so we reached out to a couple of our contacts with children.” Ei’s mother claps her hand together. “As you two got older, we realized that, perhaps, you two deserve a chance to find love on your own, but the contracts were already signed. We were worried, especially for you. We…uh…we thought you’d die alone—”
“--so we arranged an engagement with a successful young man from a good family background.” Her mother squints. “I even told you when you went off to post-secondary.”
Ei searches her memory. Ah, it must have been that day she was frantically packing the rest of her clothing into her suitcase before rushing out the door as her mother was saying something. Whoops.
Makoto pats her shoulder. “That’s rough, sis.”
Their mother clucks her tongue. “You’re engaged too, Makoto. Honestly—“ she continues over Makoto’s loud ‘WHAT’, “—were either of you girls listening? I just said that both of you have one each.”
Ei leans forward. “We can cancel the engagement, right?”
“Theoretically, you should be, but the gentleman takes his contracts rather seriously. He’s quite an eccentric character. Seems to have the Mora touch with every industry he gets into from consulting to mining to real estate. Recently, he formed an unusual partnership with Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, but who am I to judge his business acumen?” Ei’s mother rubs her chin in thought. “Now, where was I? Oh, right. You might not be able to convince him to break the engagement.”
Ei opens her mouth to respond when Yae does instead, snarling. “Give us his contact info. We’ll certainly make him think about it.”