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The Foxtrot

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Kitsune Saiguu invites both Yae and Ei to visit her a couple of weeks into the summer vacation.

Considering the amount of coursework that they’re slammed with, Yae answers that they’ll come in the last month of the semester when they actually have a break. The heat rises on campus, and they’re walking around in shorts and tank tops, which often tempts Yae to derail their study sessions into something else when she sees Ei in such light clothing.

Ei doesn’t change at all from their first time together. She’s still considerate and very kind, absentmindedly playing with Yae’s fingers or hair as she’s thinking about something or surprising her with a gift Yae doesn’t expect. And she still looks baffled when she does something so ridiculously sweet that Yae decides to let her cranked-up libido respond. Many times.

So, Ei gets laid a lot. Yae can vouch for that.

Not that she gets the implications of it all.

Their break rolls around, and they finally have some breathing room before the next semester starts—a rare few weeks to do whatever they want before the frantic pace of classes starting up again takes up their time. Yae reminds Ei of the promise to visit her aunt. Ei thinks about it for a moment before she nods. Something tight in Yae’s chest loosens, and she lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.

They take a couple of days to lounge around the campus before packing up for a short stay at her aunt’s. Makoto promises Ei to explain the situation to their family, which Yae finds strange. Are the twins expected home right after their studies?

Ei merely shakes her head when pressed, changing the subject to ask what is appropriate to wear to Kitsune Saiguu’s house. Since they’re only staying for two nights, not much is needed, though Yae certainly would not say no to seeing Ei wear less.

Ei rolls her eyes at Yae’s suggestions and says she’ll get Makoto to help instead. So, what if Makoto would not advise the smallest bikini possible while bordering the line of decency? Yae has good ideas too!

Ruffling Yae’s hair, Ei kisses her forehead while a smile spreads itself helplessly across Yae’s face. “I will see you tomorrow. I want your aunt to see me as a proper lady.”

Yae doesn’t know what she means, but Ei appeases her with a series of kisses so Yae lets her go. The next morning, Yae drives Ei back to her hometown along a stretch of highway near the coast. Using Ei’s car, of course.

Ei is looking out the passenger-side window, marvelling at the glitter of the sun upon the water while her fingers are intertwined with Yae’s, who drives with one hand. A little dangerous, perhaps, but very few cars are on the road at this hour so Yae will take the risk for the chance to hold Ei’s hand.

They make their way into a quiet place not too far from Inazuma City where the streets are small, the atmosphere is peaceful, and the people ambling about on happy walks with their families. Ei smiles at all of this, which relieves some of the nervousness building in Yae. This is the first time she’s ever…

She’ll tell Ei soon enough.

They arrive at a home along a quiet stretch of residential buildings in the suburbs. Saiguu’s place looks the same as any other on the block—wooden porch in front packed with comfy couches, benches, and stands; white picket fence that needs a bit of a touch-up, two-storey house with a balcony on the top floor. It looks so extraordinarily ordinary that Yae can see Ei staring up in confusion before alternating between examining it and glancing at Yae.

“Expecting something else?” Yae asks lightly, hand on the front gate, about to let herself in.

“I thought it would be more eccentric. You are quite a character, Miko.”

Her???

Yae turns around, about to retort when her aunt’s voice calls to them across the lawn. “You bastards, my sign says no solicitors—“

A woman with short hair the colour of snow rushes out, fist upraised and ready to be shaken. Her scowl drops when she sees Ei standing at the gate. She stares for a moment before she drifts towards her, coy smile unfurling across her face. “Hi, are you here to ask if I have accepted the kingdom of Barbatos? Here’s my pen. I’ll totally sign up if you walk me through it.”

Yae feels a vein throb at her temple, and it’s only been less than five minutes since she came back. She bristles at how her relative slides up to Ei. “Dear Aunt Saiguu, remember me? Your lovely niece—“

Saiguu waves her away, eyes on Ei. “Begone, thot.”

“I’m the thot?” Yae’s about to snarl when she feels Ei squeeze her hand, concerned gaze on her, and she instantly calms down. She takes a breath before starting again. “Aunt Saiguu, we’re dating. This is the someone I told you about, remember?”

“Dating, are you?” Saiguu peers upwards at Ei. “Maybe you could do better. Do you like older women, sweetheart?”

Ei frowns while Yae chokes on her rage. “Yes? I do have female friends who are—”

“Mmm…that’s not quite what I mean.” Saiguu winks. “But I’d be happy to teach you.” She circles around Ei, examining her from all angles and seeming to appreciate what she sees.

Coming to a stop, Kitsune Saiguu lifts Ei’s chin with her index finger and examines her with a sly smile. “What a pretty one. Cutie, I could show you what a night with a real woman is like.”

Ei looks confused. “Why? Is Miko a robot?”

Saiguu pauses, squinting. “Hmm…I’m going to guess that she had quite a challenge with you.” She thinks for a moment before snapping her fingers. “I know. You should meet my friend Ying’er. She’d love you. Or rather I’d love to watch her try you.”

Yae grabs Ei’s wrist rather possessively, and she feels instant regret when Saiguu’s eyebrow quirks at the gesture. “Could we come in, dear aunt? We’ve driven a long way to see you,” she says through gritted teeth.

She practically forces her way into the house with Ei in tow until Saiguu gets a hold of herself and ushers them into the living room. A few minutes later, she brews some tea and grabs some biscuits.

Her aunt waves her hand. “Sorry about earlier. I have this thing where I get real stupid when I’m around a pretty lady at first. Runs in the family.”

Ei nods sagely. “I see.” She looks confused and pained when Yae kicks her leg under the table. “I mean, I haven’t noticed anything but your gracious welcome.” She rubs her calf while Yae sighs and resists slapping her own face with a hand in exasperation. “Thank you for hosting us for the weekend.”

“Okay, let’s try introductions again.” Yae gestures towards Ei. “This is my—“ She gives Saiguu a look, “— girlfriend. We’ve been dating since the spring.”

“A pleasure to meet you. I am Raiden Ei, but I prefer going by my first name.”

Saiguu nearly chokes on her drink. “Hold on, are you part of the Raiden clan?”

“Ah, yes.” Ei looks uncomfortable. “You know us.”

“Know you? Why, I’m something of a spiritual advisor to your head honchos—“

Yae snorts her tea. Coughing, she reaches for a napkin while covering her mouth. “You? Spiritual?”

“What? Like you’re any better? Last I heard, you said your major was in marketing, but with the way you were going, it seemed like you were determined to do a practicum in clinical sexology,” Saiguu huffs. “Anyway, back to what I was saying, Miss Raiden, it is a pleasure to formally meet you. I have been a long and loyal employee of your parents for years.”

Ei shakes her head. “Ei is just fine.”

Yae frowns. She glances at Ei. “Is your company really that big?”

Saiguu gives her a look. “Kid, you don’t even know what family your girl is from?”

Yae gives Ei a sidelong glance before shrugging. “It wasn’t relevant when we first met.” She turns away, not missing the slightly relieved and guilty look on Ei’s face. “Come now, dear aunt. Is that all you wanted to ask me?“

Saiguu begrudgingly asks about Yae’s academic performance before rushing in to find out more about whom she’s met and the mischief she’s caused in her club activities. Her aunt’s eyes glaze over when Ei relays all of the technical courses she’s taken as well as the specific details of how her battle bot activities work. At some point, Yae fakes a yawn and invites Ei to follow her into the kitchen to help make more tea so Saiguu could have a merciful reprieve. “I think talking about your other interests may be easier for my aunt to follow.”

“Maybe. Perhaps, I should ask about her instead.” Ei glances at the open doorway leading into the living room. “By the way, why does your aunt keep calling me ‘Cutie’?”

“Because she’s wildly inappropriate.” Yae grits her teeth.

“Oh. I guess it just runs in the family.”

Before Yae could comment, Saiguu pops her head into the kitchen. “Good, you two aren’t banging on the counters yet. I’m heading to the store. You kids need anything?”

Yae wonders how long of a grocery list she needs to give Saiguu in order to have enough time to fuck Ei’s brains out on her aunt’s precious kitchen counters. Ei smiles sweetly instead and asks for a bag of cookies while Yae begrudgingly asks for ingredients to make a tofu dish.

Saiguu leaves shortly after, and Ei is examining the kitchen with an almost child-like fascination. Her fingers run over the smooth otogi surface of the island counter, brushing over the various wooden utensils hanging from the racks on the wall.

Yae feels strangely exposed, nervousness roiling in her stomach. She hugs it behind a massive red mug she finds in the cabinet—a gift she had given to Saiguu when Yae was ten and one that Saiguu had used often, judging by the faded white letters on its front. “So…” Yae keeps her voice deliberately casual. “What do you think so far?”

“It’s a lovely place. You can tell your aunt purposely cultivated a natural look to her place with all the plants and wooden furniture about.” Ei glances over and blinks. “Oh, but that’s not what you’re asking.”

“No, that’s good to know as well.” Yae places her mug on the counter, drawing a deep breath to settle herself, and Ei takes her hand, which immediately calms her. “What do you think of my aunt?”

“She’s quite the character. I like her though.”

Yae’s shoulders relax. “Good. I’m glad to hear that. And the town?”

“I haven’t seen too much of it yet, but it looks quaint.” Ei gazes at her. “But why does my presence here make you so nervous?”

“It’s not you. It’s just—-” Yae sighs, “I grew up here. It’s strange to come back.”

“I didn’t know that.” Ei squeezes her fingers, and Yae can’t help the smile that spreads across her face. “Would you like to tell me about it?”

So, Yae shares some select stories—the time where their Liyuen neighbours were aghast at finding their flowers missing from their yards and Yae happened to find Saiguu bustling around the kitchen with fresh Silk Flowers in a blue vase. The time Saiguu volunteered to chaperon her junior prom and ended up getting banned from ever doing that again by the local PTA. The river running in the woods where Saiguu and her used to go fishing when Yae was five, and both of them would get eaten alive by mosquitoes. The bushes further back where they used to grab baskets of berries to make jam that would last the whole winter that they’d often gift to their neighbours on holidays.

Ei smiles throughout the whole thing. “That’s the most I’ve heard you speak about your past. You two are really fond of each other.” A slight furrow comes between her brows. “But you two don’t treat each other like other aunts and nieces I’ve seen.”

“Ah, that.” Yae glances down at her mug before looking back up. “I should tell you that Aunt Saiguu is technically—”

“I’m back!” Saiguu bursts into the kitchen, and Yae leaps away from Ei, glaring. “What? Did you forget that the grocery store is just around the corner?”

Evidently, she did. “Welcome back, dear aunt.”

Saiguu rolls her eyes. “Say, Cutie. I thought of a better idea. Wanna make those cookies fresh from scratch? I got the stuff right here.” She pulls out a recipe card from one of her many drawers. “And here’s the secret recipe here. Just follow this, and I’ll be right back. Gonna talk to my niece about something.”

She marches Yae out to the living room again, near the fireplace and out of Ei’s hearing. Seating them in the comfortable leather chairs, Saiguu studies Yae’s expression that she tries to keep neutral. “Spill. Who is this girl? How did you bag her? And why do you look like such a puppy dog whenever she’s around?”

“I do not—” Yae rubs her temples. “I told you that we were dating.”

Saiguu sits back, gesturing for Yae to go on. “Tell me the whole story. Your girl can handle the cooking.”

They find out shortly that Ei cannot.

The fire alarm goes off, and they burst into the kitchen with Saiguu swinging a fire extinguisher. “Dammit, I haven’t had a fire here since Yae’s 17th birthday!”

They stop at the sight of the oven door open, black smoke trailing out while Ei kneels close by with a tray full of what should have been edible.

Ei glances up, looking destroyed. Over cookies. “I’m so sorry. I—“

Yae bustles forth and grabs the tray with oven kits before dumping the smoking and blackened ruins into the trash. “We can start over. No point in crying over burnt treats.”

Ei nods before she sighs. “I just thought I could do better this time.”

“It’s all right to ask for help.” Yae checks the ingredients and sees that they have enough to make another round. “I’ll assist this time.”

Saiguu carefully watches the scene, and Yae ignores her as she guides Ei back to the counter to restart the batch. She swats Ei’s hand away when the latter tries to add salt instead of sugar and turns down the oven temperature when Ei sets it too high. “As much as I enjoy molten desserts as the next person, I don’t think that’s what you’re aiming for.”

“I’m not. Thank you.” Ei sighs, crossing her arms. “This isn’t too bad though. The last time I tried to make something myself, there ended up being an electrical outage and a rather large fire that was unexpected. I got banned by the cooks from the kitchen. So did Makoto just in case.”

Saiguu and Yae exchange glances with Saiguu starting to steer Ei out of the kitchen. “Don’t worry. Yae can handle the rest. Say, I got a swell clock in my garage that you can look at in the meanwhile…”

Yae salvages the cookies, and they taste all right. She knocks on the door leading to the garage, announcing the successful baking. Everyone returns to the kitchen where Ei happily snacks on the treats.

Her aunt is still glancing between them, looking as if she’s evaluating something unspoken. Yae swears that Saiguu waits until Yae is munching on a cookie to ask, “Say, Good-Looking. Did your family ever talk to you about sex?”

Yae chokes on her crumbs, downing a glass of milk while Ei nods. “Makoto once asked our parents about sexual relationships in high school, and she got treated to a two hour presentation with diagrams. I never did, and I think my parents were relieved.”

Yae would be too. Saiguu presses on. “So, you’d never…?”

“No, I looked it up and asked a few doctors when I had the chance. I understand it from a medical perspective.” Ei pauses. “And I suppose from a personal one now too.”

Yae cuts her off. “That’s too much info—“

“Tell me more. Is Yae doing a good job of satisfying you in bed? Or do you need the touch of someone more experienced?” Saiguu ducks the half-eaten cookie Yae hurls her way. “C’mon, Cutie. Spill.”

“Uh…I don’t know?” Ei’s brows scrunch up, and she looks adorably distressed. “Yes? Our friend Sara calls her—”

“Do not tell her that!” Yae pauses. “Also, Sara and I are not friends.”

Saiguu quirks an eyebrow, clearly storing the information to interrogate Yae later. “Hmmm…how about you, Ei? How does she describe you?”

“Oh! Like a battery.” When Saiguu looks surprised, Ei adds, “Because she says I keep going and going—“

“Okay, that’s enough.” Yae slams her glass on the table, nearly sloshing her drink onto it. “This is not an appropriate topic to discuss.”

Ei looks puzzled while Saiguu rolls her eyes. “Fine, uptight niece. We’ll change topics.” She leans in. “So, Cutie…” Saiguu sidelong glances at Yae. “What do you think about getting married and having kids?”

Yae scowls as Ei’s brows come together. “Don’t ask her about such outdated concepts. Nowadays, people don’t necessarily need to get married to show commitment to one another, and children can be such little snots—”

Ei answers, “I would like to get married and start a family.”

“—me too. I love kids.”

Saiguu snorts behind her cup of tea. “How come, Ei? Didn’t you hear Yae? Outdated concept.”

Yae shoots her a look so dirty that she hopes Saiguu feels filthy for years. Ei sits back and smiles. “The idea of marriage is relatively recent in the history of mankind, but people have always been wired for connection and community, which marriage fulfills on multiple levels. There is also a level of public accountability, which encourages the couple to take it more seriously when they know others have heard their commitment.

“My parents have always said that marriage is about unity, which I think should be the underlying foundation of any partnership—romantic or otherwise. In that sense, I think a unified couple could weather a better chance in accomplishing significant goals than those without.” She scratches her cheek in embarrassment when Yae and Saiguu stare. “My sister used to practice her debates a lot with me.”

“No shame in that.” Saiguu nods in approval. “When were you thinking about kids then?”

Ei furrows her brows. “I suppose the correct answer is when we are emotionally mature enough and prepared to have them.”

“You’ll never be prepared enough. That’s just how it is.” Saiguu shrugs.

“Oh. Then, within the optimal biological window for childbearing.”

“Better get to popping out them babies you love so much then, kid.” Her aunt winks, and Yae wants to hit her. “What kind of wedding you thinking, rich girl?”

And on and on as her aunt subtly interrogates Ei who doesn’t even notice. Yae is feeling from all the things she’s learning about Ei that she never thought to ask. Where she wanted to live after graduation, her plans, her long-term career aspirations…what kind of wedding she wanted.

Ei shrugs. “I don’t care about the extravagance. I would rather sign the marriage papers and be done with it.”

“Eloping with my baby niece? I can’t let you do that.” Saiguu leans in, winking. “Not when you could have me instead.”

Yae grabs her aunt and drags her into the living room. “Just a minute, Ei. Gotta chat about something quickly.”

When they’re out of earshot in the hallway, Yae whips around and hisses, “Can you stop flirting with her? She doesn’t pick up on it and seeing you continuing to try is giving me an ulcer.”

Saiguu studies her. “You’re really serious about this one. I’ve never seen you so upset over a girl.”

“Well, maybe you should stop trying to crawl into her pants then!”

“Nonsense! It’s a family tradition. You know that, Yae!” Saiguu tilts her head. “Plus, she is pretty hot. I can look. It’s not a crime.” At Yae’s expression, she relents, holding her hands up. “Fine. Sharing was never your thing anyway.”

“No, it wasn’t. And even if it was, it’s weird with you!”

Ei’s voice follows them down the hallway as she pokes her head out of the kitchen. “What are you guys talking about?”

“Nothing!” They both jump away.

Saiguu spots a closet nearby and lights up. “Oh, I have an idea!” She opens the door and digs inside, coming out with a cardboard box. “Ei, wanna see Miko’s teenage poetry?” She rattles the box in her hand that Yae immediately tried to snatch. “Or this fanfiction she wrote when she was 12? How about some baby pictures? I have one of her as a toddler in the bathtub.”

“Yes, I would like to see that.” Ei takes the picture as Saiguu blocks Yae from reaching it. “Oh my gosh, look at you. You’re so cute.” She gasps as Saiguu gives her another one, leaning just out of Yae’s grasp. “Oh, and your hair afterwards. It’s so fluffy!”

Yae twists around her aunt and yanks the pictures and the box into her arms. “That’s enough! You can look at these—“ Yae mutters quickly, “—never. Anyway, Ei, want to see my room?”

Saiguu calls out after them as they ascend the stairs, “Feel free to bury or burn those! I have back-ups!”

Yae feels a vein in her temple throb. She recalls why she applied for post-secondary residency the moment she could and never looked back. She chucks the box aside into a spare storage room, marking it for burning later before guiding them to a door at the far end of the upstairs hallway.

Yae takes a moment and swallows, opening the door to her room.

They step inside to a large bedroom with posters of various bands and movies on the wall, the large window beside the bed allowing a lot of natural light in. It looks clean and dustless, like Yae merely stepped back in time to the day she left for Inazuma City.

Ei peers around curiously, going immediately for the bookshelf by the desk. “That is a lot of reading material.”

Yae nods, reaching out to fondly skim her fingers across the spines like she’s greeting old friends. “I was a pretty voracious reader when I was younger—light novels, traditional ones, non-fiction…anything I could get my hands on.”

Ei furrows her brows as she reads some of the titles. “‘I Died and was Reborned as a Hamster for 245 Days’?”

“That one brings up so many questions.” Yae crosses her arms, contemplative. “Apparently, in that one, becoming a hamster is a punishment for the cardinal sin of being a fashion designer. There’s even a romance between the hamster and his new owner, a fashion designer from a rival company. The hamster then goes on to become a fashion sensation.”

Ei looks absolutely baffled, and Yae laughs at her adorable expression. “Not literally. It’s just a silly story.”

“But why write something so bizarre?”

“For fun. People are always telling stories to themselves or others, and our imaginations are forever wandering. Yet, if you look at the epics and poems written in times past, you can see patterns of kind of stories that stay around: timeless love stories, tales of war and struggle, legends about kings and queens rising to the call when their nations are in trouble.” Yae smiles. “It’s all so fascinating what it says about the human psyche in general. That what we fundamentally yearn for doesn’t change no matter how advanced we get.”

“I’ve never heard you speak so much on what you like.” When Yae opens her mouth to change the topic, Ei interrupts her. “I like it. I really do. I want to hear how you think, Miko. I find you fascinating.”

Yae feels her ears heat up, and she clears her throat, turning to the nearby desk. “In any case, I can show you the rest of my room.”

“Wait, is that a diary on your desk?”

“No.” Yae snatches up the book in question and tucks it under her arm. “Next section.” She leads Ei to her bed, a double-sized piece that felt so big when she was small and yet not enough now that she has Ei with her.

“This blanket feels nice.” Ei lies down on the bed, and the sight of her on Yae’s childhood duvet makes Yae feel oddly vulnerable. “Come here.”

Yae watches for a second before tucking her diary away in a drawer and curling up beside Ei. Immediately, Ei turns to her, pulling her close and running her fingers through Yae’s hair, and Yae melts right into her arms.

Humming, Ei presses kisses into Yae’s cheek that have her feeling like a flower turning toward the sun. Yae mutters, “Finally, some peace and quiet.”

“It’s not all bad. Your aunt’s pretty funny, and your room is pretty nice.” Ei frowns. “Though she clearly knows who I am, but you don’t. How come?”

Yae shifts, raising herself on one elbow. “Whoever your family is seems like a big topic for you. I wanted to wait for you to bring it up yourself instead of prying.” Not like she hasn’t stared at a search engine page on her laptop without great temptation though. “I respect your privacy, Ei. Sometimes, we just want to be ourselves without the family reputation hanging over us.”

Ei reaches for Yae, burying her face into Yae’s midsection. “You get it. I’m sorry I haven’t told you before…but I will soon.”

“Take your time.” Yae runs her fingers through Ei’s hair, heartbeat pounding. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Thank you.” Ei takes her hand and kisses it affectionately, making Yae’s heart feel like it might explode out of her chest. “You always seem to know how to read me.”

“...you’re not the hardest person to decipher.”

Ei scoffs, “Tell that to everyone else around me other than my friends and Makoto.” She sighs, rubbing her face. “Sorry, that just came out.”

“You’re allowed to be frustrated and upset.” Yae strokes her cheek in a gesture so tender that if Saiguu saw it, Yae would deny it to her dying breath and beyond. “I wish you wouldn’t hold in so much.”

Bringing her brows together, Ei frowns. “It’s hard to articulate what I feel sometimes. It’s kind of just a vague mess at times.”

Yae hums. “Sort it out at your own pace. I have patience.” For her anyway. For everyone else that comes with her—not so much. “Hey, let’s talk about something else. Anything.”

Ei begins sharing her new upgrade ideas for her battle bots. Yae stops her with a finger gently pressed against her lips. “Almost anything.”

They talk about all sorts of random things as the sun starts to dip below the horizon, the pair of them moving close together the darker it gets. Sara’s and Kokomi’s relationship, Makoto’s proposed dorm arrangements, how Yae’s hobby on campus is going—everything and anything they chat about seems to click together smoothly like well-oiled pieces. Yae has never been able to communicate with someone as easily as she does with her, and based on the way Ei’s expression lights up whenever she talks to Yae, the feeling is mutual.

Sunset starts to darken into dusk. Ei looks beautiful on her bed in the fading sunlight—eyes lit up and expression dangerously fond. Yae pauses above her, like a fox coming across something strange and alluring, paw reaching out tentatively towards it. Ei’s eyes grow half-lidded, and she runs her fingers along Yae’s hips, reminding her of that girl she saw at that club all those nights ago. “Would it be wrong of me to say that you have one of the best figures I have ever seen?”

“Why would it—” Ei’s thumbs trail down the crests of her hip bones, and Yae loses her train of thought. “—uh…what are you doing?”

“Appreciating you.” Ei grins, eye teeth showing and eyes half-lidded. “You do like being…appreciated, don’t you, Miko?”

Wow. Where is this Ei coming from? “I think you’re stealing some of my lines.”

“Well…” Ei’s nose brushes against hers. “I like to learn from those more successful than me at their subjects.” Then, she breaks the mood by genuinely smiling. “I think I’m getting the hang of this flirting thing.”

“You dork,” Yae says affectionately and sits up from her bed, brushing invisible specks off of her skirt, voice calm as if she didn’t just consider making mad love to Ei on the spot moments earlier. “We should head down before my aunt thinks we’re defiling her precious house. She’d never let us live it down if she does.”

She takes Ei by the hand to lead her downstairs. Saiguu is out in the backyard, trying to light up a barbecue that looks like it hasn’t been used in ages.

“Hey, the useful one of you guys, give me a hand?” Saiguu grumbles, pointing at Ei when she stands on the porch looking confused. “Yes, you, Gorgeous. Get over here, and help me figure out how to get this thing going.”

Ei glances at Yae before heading down the stairs to stare at Saiguu’s set-up.

Yae folds her arms and watches Ei furrow her brows and interact with her aunt as they work. She wouldn’t mind if Ei were to come back again and stay longer. Maybe forever.

Shaking her head, Yae pushes aside the wistful thinking and heads down to help her most favourite people in the world. Not that she’ll tell them that.

Later that evening, after they finally get the barbecue working and have eaten their fill, they sit in the backyard, staring up at the stars while Saiguu points out the various constellations and the stories behind them. Ei sneaks a hand under the table to hold Yae’s, and warmth blossoms in Yae’s chest as she studies how Ei asks Saiguu questions with such earnestness, the pretty profile that has her heartbeat rise every time Yae looks upon it.

Saiguu seems to have noticed because at some point, she sighs and announces that she has prepared the guest bedroom for Ei to stay in, much to Yae’s protests. “Listen, If I wanted to see two idiots try to fuck each other under my roof, I would have hired two different contractors to work on my basement.”

She stands, shooing them both inside. “My house, my rules. You know that, Yae.”

And Yae knows how to perfectly break those rules.

If only Ei will play along.

“Really?” Yae follows Ei as she brings her luggage to the guest room. “You’re not letting me sneak in?”

“It would be disrespectful to your aunt’s hospitality to blatantly disobey her requests.” How noble and utterly frustrating. “That, and I want to leave a good impression.” Ei’s eyes flicker. “I hope I have so far.”

“You’re doing fine.” More than that if the way Saiguu eyes her is any indication. Yae is going to have another talk with her. “See you in the morning?”

Ei looks at her with such fondness that Yae never wants to leave. “Yes, I’ll see you soon.”

The goodnight kiss alone is almost worth the separation.

Almost.

Chapter Text

Yae notices Saiguu watching them more closely. Not obviously. Just a glance out of the corner of her eye every now and then, but enough to let Yae know that her aunt is in evaluation mode and that she’ll definitely let Yae know her opinion by the end of it.

The next morning, Saiguu takes them to the beach, and Yae nearly fumbles her phone when Ei walks out of the changing shacks in a tasteful one-piece that reveals her entire back, including the maratama tattoo she has between her shoulder blades. Yae did not expect Ei to have a tattoo and there of all places. When asked about it, Ei just shrugged and said that Makoto has a matching one. Great, so now she can imagine both sisters having tattoos in places that make them seem hot...ter.

Meanwhile, Ei blushes hard at Yae’s white and red bikini, just as she intended. “You look…good.”

“I’d better. Wouldn’t want your eyes to go wandering now, do we?”

“How would my eyes go…?”

Right. Innuendos and idioms escape Ei. “Never mind.” Yae pats the spot beside her underneath the parasol. “Come sit.”

Ei brushes up against Yae’s arm as she finds a spot on the towel, stirring up desire underneath Yae’s skin. “Miko, you’re staring.”

Uh-huh. And?

“Miko, you’re touching!”

AND?

“Not on the beach.” Ei brushes her hands away. “Honestly, I don’t know how you get worked up so quickly sometimes.”

Yae stiffens. “Really? You don’t see?” She stands, exhaling as she brushes sand off of her thighs. “I’ll grab us something from the concession stand.”

Ei catches her wrist as she steps away. “I hope I didn’t say anything to offend you. I’m sorry if I did.”

Yae softens. “It’s nothing. See you soon.”

She makes her way over to the white shack near the changing rooms. The ice cream worker at the stand straightens up when Yae approaches. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” she purrs. “I thought you’d call me when you got into town for fun, just like old times.”

Yae squints. The girl is pretty with long dark hair but no name comes to mind. Yae doesn’t recognize her, though she realizes that she might have a type. “I’m off the market now.”

The girl pouts before sighing. “That’s a shame. You were fun while it lasted. So, who’s the lucky woman?”

Yae points out Ei lounging on a blanket with a book on modern robotics—really, Ei?

“Wow.” The girl eyes Ei. “Is she looking for a second girlfriend?”

“No,” Yae answers sharply. She slaps her money down on the counter. “Two scoops of the sea salt vanilla please.”

She hands Yae the requested cups, and Yae makes her way back to Ei whose eyes light up. Handing her one of them, Yae seats herself next to her, wrapping an arm around Ei’s waist to make it clear to EVERYONE AROUND that Ei is taken.

Ei merely pats Yae’s cheek, commenting on how affectionate she is. Then, she actually tried to take Yae swimming.

“C’mon, Miko. You’re barely in the water.” Ei points out the tide swirling around Yae’s thighs. “You’ll feel so much better when you’re over where I am.”

No, she won’t. “I’m fine, Ei. If you want to go for a swim yourself, you’re free to do so.”

Ei looks over at Saiguu lounging nearby on the sand. “Miss Saiguu—“

“Nope. You’re on your own kid. You never know when a shark or something is going to eat you.” She shudders.

“…sharks that can eat you aren’t in shallow waters.”

A group of girls their age calls out beside them, “You can come swim with us!” They wink at Ei. “We’ll keep you company.”

Ei perks, going towards them when she’s yanked back by Yae. “Oh! You’re swimming!”

“You’re staying here with me and me only,” Yae hisses. “Don’t you even dare look at another woman.”

“…even your aunt?”

“Especially her. Wait.” Yae takes a breath or five before she speaks again, calmer now. “Ei, these women are flirting with you in the hopes of a sexual encounter sometime today. I would appreciate it if you do not encourage them in this behaviour by responding in such a way that suggests you reciprocate the intention.”

“Oh.” Ei’s eyes go wide. “Sorry, Miko. I didn’t realize that I was doing that.”

No shit. “Come here.”

Yae drags Ei back into shallower waters where they end up seeing if they can dig for clams under the white sand.

Ei examines a manila clam she’s accidentally uncovered. “This one is still tiny. We can put it back for it to grow up.” She buries it close to their feet. “I didn’t realize that you could gather shellfish here.”

“On several of the beaches around, yes. You need a license and to be wary of shellfish poisoning, but Aunt Saiguu and I have collected buckets of oysters and clams during the summers when I was growing up.” Yae looks up into the sky, growing wistful. “We would grill them in the backyard and invite our neighbours over. It was always a fun time.”

“You two have such fond memories together.” Ei smiles. “Your aunt is pretty nice.”

Yae scowls. “Yeah, when she’s not watching her Liyuen dramas.” She pitches her voice high. “‘No, Yun Jin! Don’t go back to him! He’s a man-skank!’” Scoffing, she adds, “She doesn’t even call the characters by their actual names.”

Ei laughs, “She’s as quirky as you are.”

As she is? “What do you mean?”

Ei starts listing off of her fingers. “You work so hard to be seductive and yet you read light novels about people turning into hamsters; you’re one track-minded when it comes to…certain things, but you’re also happy when it comes to simple hugs and touches of affection; you say you have a reputation of being known as a playgirl, but I have known you to be very sweet and loyal. You’re full of contradictions, Miko.”

Yae doesn’t have an answer to that. She chooses to respond by splashing Ei in the face.

Bad answer.

Ten minutes later, Yae is soaked and sitting beside her aunt when Ei goes off for one last swim. Saiguu raises an eyebrow as Yae towels her hair off. “You got wet—and not the fun kind—for Ei. You hate that.”

“I’m well aware of that.” Yae grits her teeth. “I didn’t think she would turn it into a water fight.” And be so relentless like a general approaching a trapped army.

“Well, you can tell she had siblings growing up.” Saiguu laughs and covers her mouth with one hand, covering her grin. “This girl is something else for you, huh?”

Yae squints. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing.” Saiguu looks at the changing shack. “You should head over before there’s a line.”

Yae begrudgingly admits that her aunt has a point. Scooping up her bag with her toiletries and change of clothes, Yae trudges her way over to the women’s side of the white building where a row of shower stalls line one side. She picks the farthest booth, sighing in relief under the spray of hot water and rinsing out the sea water in her hair.

She feels much better after showering and getting changed, walking with more of a pep in her step. Grabbing her stuff, she begins to exit when she hears the titters of girls clearly trying to flirt with someone and Ei’s voice responding.

What.

“I’m not sure how to respond to your interest, but I have a girlfriend and I am quite satisfied with her.”

“She doesn’t need to know,” one girl laughs, and Yae spins around, locking onto a couple of wannabe ho-bags hanging outside a stall. “A beautiful woman like you can’t be satisfied with just one.”

Yae clears her throat. “This one is enough.”

The girls freeze, shoulders going tense. They look over slowly, expressions terrified as if expecting to die on the spot.

How right they are.

“Oh, Miko! Can you come in and help me with this zipper?”

Yae steps past the girls, glancing at them and baring her teeth with a look in her eyes that has the ho-bags scattering out the door in a spread of skanks. Once they’re out of sight, Yae pushes aside the curtain and spots Ei legitimately having trouble with the zipper on the back of her dress.

Inhaling, Yae walks over and tugs it upwards, hearing Ei’s sigh of relief in turn. “Thank you for the help and for the rescue. I’ve never had so many aggressive advances.”

That’s because Ei hasn’t noticed before. “You are quite easy on the eyes, Ei.”

Yae hugs her from behind, noting the scent of sakura petals drifting from Ei’s hair. A sudden and intense desire to claim her and let everyone know that Ei is hers arises as Yae’s hands wander south.

Ei pulls away. “Miko!”

“Please, Ei. It’s been days. Last time I waited this long, I almost died.”

“No, you didn’t.” Ei pauses. “Unless the speed of your oegasm actually had a shortening effect on your lifespan.”

Can they please stop mentioning that?

Ei squeezes one of her hands. “If you behave, I’ll treat you.”

Yae perks. Now, they’re talking. “With?”

“Fried tofu.”

That’s…not what Yae is thinking, but she’ll accept it. Ei ushers her out of the stall to finish up, and Yae reluctantly waits outside the building where her aunt is texting someone. “So, the plan is to go eat. After that, we’ll hit up the newest nightclub in town with a friend of mine.”

“Who is it?” Yae pauses. “When did this place get a nightclub?”

“Just recently, courtesy of yours truly.” Saiguu gestures at herself. “Another brilliant investment if I say so myself.” She actually pats herself on the back. “Anyway, the friend is a surprise. Grab that cutie of yours, and let’s go already!”

She takes Ei and Yae to Yae’s favourite restaurant afterwards—a small place that specializes in fried tofu and all things tofu-related. Surprise, surprise.

“Huh.” Ei studies the menu. “There are hardly any spicy or pickled options on here.”

“Kid can’t stand them.” Saiguu jabs her thumb towards Yae. “And I’m not a fan either.”

Ei nods. “I’ll make sure not to order them in the future.”

“Are you all ready?” The young waitress arrives with a notepad, eyes on Ei. She scribbles down Yae’s and Saiguu’s requests while waiting for Ei to pick her meal.

“Our most popular dish is this one.” The waitress leans forward and points to something on the menu, trailing her fingers along Ei’s shoulder. Ei does not notice.

Yae does though.

She slides over and bats the woman’s hand off, pulling a surprised Ei into a deep kiss. Conveniently forgetting that her aunt is there.

“So, while these two are sucking face, I would like to order number 16.”

Ei breaks the kiss. “Oh, number 41 for me!”

Yae closes her eyes, a headache growing at her temples. “The number 8, please.”

The waitress nods and scribbles down their order, deliberately not making any eye contact with Yae, which she’s more than fine with. Their server scurries away while Yae watches her sharply before noticing Saiguu observing her. When she meets her aunt’s gaze, Saiguu shrugs and turns to Ei. “We’re heading to a nightclub later. What kind of drinks do you like?”

“Oh, I don’t really drink…”

They chat for a bit before the food arrives, and they dig in. The conversational flow is quick and sharp, just the way Yae likes it.

“Miko told me you two used to go fishing when she was little.”

“Yeah, up by Nutsack Lake—“

“Aunt Saiguu, it’s called Nootsack Lake—“

“I know what I said!”

And so forth.

They finish everything with satisfied sighs at which point, Yae gets up to the washroom, and Ei joins her. Saiguu looks over with a sly smile, probably about to say something lewd so Yae drags Ei out of earshot before she could.

Yae goes first, considering there’s a single room for the ladies, and she brushes by Ei when she passes her on the way out. Ei smiles in return, and Yae strides away, pretending her ears aren’t burning and her heart rate isn’t rising from the brief encounter.

She comes back to see her aunt flirting with the waitress who smiles politely and gathers their dirty dishes. Once the waitress has left and Yae has sat back down, Saiguu instantly adopts a frown. “Hmm…for some reason, the ladies aren’t responding to me as they used to.”

Yae snorts, “Yeah, it’s called old age.”

“It’s called Shut-Your-Face.” Saiguu pulls out her credit card to pay for the bill. “Maybe if I was a dark-haired bombshell like your girl, I’d attract a lot of looks too.”

Yae gives her a warning look before her shoulders droop. “She’s…she is getting a lot of attention.”

Saiguu nods. “Tell you what: maybe this nightclub will take your mind off of things.”

After the bill gets paid, Saiguu takes them to a lounge and bar to meet her friend—a place that Yae’s aunt helped name called Electrograna.

It’s a two-storey building close to what could be considered downtown, nestled on the edge of a popular beach. There’s apparently an event tonight in the bar side of the venue, and Saiguu gets them through to the front of the line, going first to grab them a nice table in the lounge.

The ticket seller looks at Ei and blushes, fumbling with the roll as he hands them over. “S-sorry, miss! You’re just so beautiful. I was wondering if…”

Ha, wrong tree. “She’s with me.” Yae curls one arm around Ei. “Nice try though.”

The dude looks embarrassed as heck and merely waves them through. The moment they walk in, Yae could see heads turning, and not all of their eyes are on her.

Ei shifts beside her. “Is it normal for people to stare so much here?”

“Just don’t pay attention to them. Oh, wait a second.” Yae turns Ei’s head with a finger on her chin, pressing a hungry and possessive kiss to her mouth. “Now, you can ignore them.”

Ei looks stunned when Yae pulls back. Everyone else who was staring earlier now averts their gaze when Yae looks at them. Good. Now, they know the extent of Yae’s claims.

Saiguu waves to them from the upstairs balcony, and they ascend a wrought-iron staircase with the panels light up beneath their feet. On the first floor is an open bar with huge sectional couches and low dark drink tables facing on another with plenty of room to dance between them. On the second floor are leather booths for dining with brightly lit pillars surrounding them. It gives everything a modern and new look.

Her aunt finds them a table near a massive window that stretches from floor to top, farther away from the music in a secluded corner of the club. They seat themselves across from her with Ei’s gaze going out the window to the beach below, the tide receding away from the sand. A couple of drinks are already on the table with a jug of water for Ei.

Yae eyes her aunt suspiciously, reaching for one of the brightly coloured cocktails. “This place is actually nice.”

“Gotta stay hip and trendy in my line of work.” Saiguu shrugs. “Recognize the music? It’s that young artist Beidou’s hit song: I Just Died in Your Thighs Tonight.

Yae spits out her drink while Ei frowns. “How do you do that?”

Saiguu leans forward. “Well, if you wanted to find out—ow!” She rubs her shin where Yae kicked her hard under the table. “Sorry, force of habit. Never mind, Ei. It’s just a song title.”

She perks, spotting someone approaching and waving them over. “Hey, Ying’er! Over here!”

Yae freezes before groaning at the name as the woman in question sits down across from her. “Oh, Saiguu, who are these two lovely ladies in front of us?”

“Hey, this is my niece, remember? She finally grew up and bagged herself a respectable lady.” Saiguu straightens up, grinning. “I knew she could do it.”

Ying’er eyes Yae, hand on her chin. “Well, you certainly grew up well.”

Yae shifts uncomfortably. “Hello, Miss Ying’er.”

Ei glances between them. “How do you all know each other?”

“Oh, we had a fling.” Saiguu gestures to her and Ying’er.

“…she was my high school chemistry teacher.”

Ying’er smiles at Saiguu. “That was a very…productive PTA meeting we had when we first met. Very stimulating…discussion we had on my desk.”

“You mean at,” Ei says.

“I know what I said.” Ying’er winks.

Yae flags down a waitress to get a bottle of sake. She’s not drunk enough for this conversation. “Can we talk about anything else?”

Fifteen minutes later, Ei and Ying’er somehow get into a conversation about chemistry. And not the fun kind.

“…so, perfumes have a three-part structure, containing the head, heart, and base notes of a fragrance, and perfume-making requires the scientific approach of organic chemistry and the creativity to layer different fragrances. Fascinating!”

Ying’er claps her hands together. “My, I haven’t had such an attentive student in such a long while. There’s lots of things I could teach you if you’d like a more…private lesson.”

Yae raises her cup of sake as she watches. Poor, desperate, thirsty fool. Like Yae hasn’t tried that method five thousand times already.

Ei’s eyes light up. “Oh! So, can you show me how to make a homemade lavender scent? I think my sister would like that one.”

Ying’er squints. “That wasn’t quite what I meant.”

Saiguu snorts, downing her own sake cup. “Welcome to the club.” She reaches over to Ying’er to pull her back. “MIght as well give up. This one’s taken, and you’re better off polishing your own doorknob tonight.”

Ei looks so baffled. “Why would anyone want to do that if they are not paid for it?”

“Well, darling,” Ying’er starts, “sometimes the best gifts in life are free.” She leans forward before stopping herself and shaking her head. “Sorry, habit.”

Saiguu gets up, wobbling slightly. “I think I drank too much,” she grunts. “Hey, Ei, can you help me grab some air?”

Ei jumps up to help, slinging Saiguu’s arm over her shoulder while Saiguu is muttering about spinning colours and her stomach not being quite what it used to be.

Saiguu turns back just before they hit the door for the outside patio. “Ying’er, keep my niece company for a bit. I’ll be right back.”

Ei escorts her through the door, and Yae can see through the dark glass that they sit down at a nearby wooden table.

Ying’er hums, bringing her drink to her lips. “I don’t know why she insists on calling you her niece when she’s—“

“I know. It’s just our little quirk.”

Her former teacher looks at her, softening slightly. “And how are your studies going?”

Yae shrugs. “I’m doing well in my courses.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Which one are you enjoying the most?”

“Creativity in Business, actually.” Yae rubs her nape. It’s nice to be able to actually talk about her studies with someone knowledgeable unlike Saiguu who just checks to make sure Yae hasn’t failed anything. “The professor says I’m quite a natural with my innovative and quick-thinking approach to different situations.”

“I can certainly believe that. How about your club activities?”

“I’m involved, more or less.”

“Love?”

Yae glances out the glass door at Ei before she could stop herself. “…it’s fine.”

Ying’er sighs and spins her empty martini glass. “It’s so bizarre sometimes when I see my students grow up. In my head, I still see you all as the children you used to be. Now, here you are—venturing into puppy love. It’s enough to make a woman feel old.”

“…I’m too mature for puppy love.”

“Oh?” Ying’er’s eyes twinkle. “So, it’s just love, you would say?”

“I didn’t say that!”

“You didn’t need to.” Ying’er takes one of the untouched drinks on the table and raises it. “You picked a good woman, and you were an incredibly bright student in my class. You’re going to have an interesting future, Miko. I know it.”

Yae’s ears burn, and she nods. “…thanks, Miss Ying’er. You knew your stuff.” Which is more than Yae can say for some of the other teachers.

“You two reminiscing without us?” Saiguu’s voice sounds out as she and Ei venture back to the table.

Ei helps Saiguu into the booth, and their server stops by, asking if Ei wanted anything more while slipping a hand onto Ei’s hip. Yae snaps. She bolts to her feet and snatches Ei away, dragging her to a fire exit while Saiguu and Ying’er give her incredulous looks. “Just need a moment alone.”

Yae barges out the back door with Ei in tow to a quiet porch with a staircase that comes out into the beach. Mercifully, there is no one around.

Ei looks around and smiles. “What are we doing here?” It drops when Yae looks at her, suddenly rapt and possessive, and Yae grabs her head, hauling her into a ferocious kiss. Ei does the same back, fingers wrapped in Yae’s hair.

Soon, Yae is pressing Ei up against the door, pawing at her like an animal as Ei responds just as fiercely, breaths short and rapid in the warm summer sun. There’s no one around, and Yae’s tugging off Ei’s long-sleeved shirt, trying to undo the clasp of her bra with one hand while answering Ei’s kisses when Ei suddenly pulls back.

“Wait…public,” Ei pants as Yae latches onto a pulse point. “Go back…to house…to—“ she moans when Yae gets impatient and sticks her hand under one of the cups. “—Miko…”

Someone thumps on the door they’re leaning on, “Why the hell is the fire exit blocked? This shit’s a safety hazard.” Their grumbles could be heard fading away, but the spell is broken.

Ei’s eyes go wide, and she snatches her shirt back from Yae, yanking it back over her head. “I don’t—not usually—“ Ei stammers, nearly smacking herself with the door when she tries to go back inside. “—let’s head back.”

The door slams in her face, and, for a moment, Yae feels like an unwanted child all over again. She sighs, shaking away the feeling. She just wanted a moment of privacy to herself with Ei though trying to bang in public is probably not the best idea.

The door opens again, and this time her aunt steps out, eyebrow raised. “Hey, so your girl came running back in, looking distressed. Figured you just tried something stupid and could use a talk. Don’t worry about her though. Ying’er is distracting her with a lecture on the different evaporation rates of ‘scent compounds’.“ Saiguu rolls her eyes before jerking her head towards some nearby wooden seats.

Yae sighs and follows, plopping down beside Saiguu with her head in her hands. “I don’t know why I’m acting this way.”

“Raging jealousy and possessiveness?”

“...thanks. I couldn’t have figured that out myself.”

“No need to thank me. That’s what I do.” Saiguu takes a gulp from the beer bottle in her hand. “Seriously though, you’re starting to get a little crazy, and you know it.”

Yae throws up her hands. “Why is she attractive? How could anyone be so attractive that everyone within a fifty-mile radius hits on them?”

“I know. It’s pretty…electrifying how magnetizing your girl can be.” Saiguu has the gall to look proud of her puns. “But, seriously, why did she return with her shirt inside out?”

Yae relays the short, sordid tale. All five minutes of it.

Saiguu crosses her arms and sighs, “You spooked your girl by trying to bang in public. Good job. Guess who’s not getting laid tonight.”

“I’m trying to talk about my sex life, not yours.”

Saiguu snorts. “I wasn’t the one who spent months trying to get her promised land, according to Ei.”

“She told you what? Ei has no sense of boundaries!”

Her aunt just gives her a look.

“Honestly, I don’t understand why you live in a place with such a high population of desperate, horny singles.”

“You took a hot girl to the gayest, thirstiest spot outside of The Alcor and The Jade Chamber.” Saiguu shrugs. “Dunno what you were expecting.”

“You recommended this place!”

“Did I?” Saiguu sips her beer. “Must have slipped my mind. Old age and all that.”

Yae could strangle her aunt with her bare hands if she wasn’t her only source of important life advice. “Why did you even take us here if you knew it would be worse?”

Saiguu squints at her. “To see how serious you and Ei were. That, and to get you back for the old age comment.”

Fair.

Yae looks away. “When she slammed the door on me, I felt…”

“Reminds you of the past, huh?” Saiguu exhales, looking out into the ocean. “Think you’re gonna have to tell her, kid.”

“I know.” Yae buries her face in her hands. “Do you think it’ll be okay?”

Saiguu hugs her from the side. “Yeah, you guys will be fine.” She turns and presses a rare kiss onto Yae’s forehead. “Why would she say no to a girl like you?”

Chapter Text

That night, Saiguu allows Ei to sleep in Yae’s room, grumbling that she’s going to need to wear earplugs to sleep.

Yae can see that Ei doesn’t get it, which is expected.

They head back from the club early, just before midnight when even Ei seems to be flagging from carrying Saiguu’s and Ying’er’s drunk asses everywhere. Ei drops Ying’er off at her house after Yae scrolls through the teacher’s phone to find her address. Saiguu is singing old sea shanties for some reason by the time they haul her up the stairs and throw her in her bed.

Saiguu snorts in her sheets, rolling over. “Oh, hey, Ei. You can sleep with the kid if you want. You guys have some things you need to—“ She dozes off, already starting to snore.

Ei glances at her, perplexed, while Yae shakes her head and takes her hand, leading her next door. She hopes Ei won’t feel the sweat on her palm. “Wanna spend the night with me?”

“Sure, let me just get ready.”

Ei returns some time afterwards, dressed in her sleepwear just like Yae who waits on her bed, heartbeat pounding. “Wait, before we go to sleep, can we talk?”

“What about?” Ei sits beside her, taking her hand as if sensing Yae might need some comfort for the discussion. “Was it something I did?”

“No. Well, yes. I mean, how come you didn’t stop all those women from hanging on you?” At Ei’s confused expression, Yae sighs, “Women were flirting with you all day.”

“They were?” And that is the answer to Yae’s question. “Sorry, Miko. I’ll stop it next time if you point it out.” Ei studies her face. “It seems like this really bothered you.” She pauses. “And probably explains the making-out-at-the-club thing.”

Yae ignores the last part. She grits her teeth. “It’s like I’m the only one who gets jealous. I haven’t seen you do that at all.”

Ei blinks. “Why would I be? I’ve only seen you look at me.”

My, must be nice to be secure like her. “What if I want to flirt with other women?”

Ei’s eyebrows furrow together. “I don’t think I’d like that very much.” She gently takes her wrist, stroking her palm gently with her fingers, and Yae’s anger dissipates like the wind. “What’s going on, Miko? Why are you asking me this?”

Yae looks down. “Aunt Saiguu and I…did you have any questions about us?”

“…I don’t understand the logical sequence of this conversation, but, yes, I did.” Ei glances at her. “Why does Saiguu have baby pictures of you if she’s your aunt?”

Yae inhales. “Well, aunt is a relative term. She’s a distant kin of some sort who took me in when my parents gave me away, and she is technically my legal guardian. She’s…she’s been the only family I’ve known, more or less.”

Ei nearly loses her grip. She looks shocked. “Your parents didn’t want you?”

Yae shrugs, the familiar sting now a dull ache. “Too many kids, and they couldn’t support them all. I don’t blame them. Not any more.” She pulls away, clasping her hands together. “Aunt Saiguu used to come to visit her relatives around the island, and she even babysat me a couple of times. She took a real liking to me as you can clearly see.”

Ei still looks horrified. “How old were you?”

“Four or five. I don’t remember much, other than Aunt Saiguu coming to pick me up and promising me that we’ll be having fun at her place from now on.” Yae looks out the window. “I saw them a couple of times more when I got older. They came mostly just to ask Aunt Saiguu for money, and she would always send them away in a rage. They barely even looked at me the last time when I was twelve.” Yae closes her eyes. She had always wished they would though.

“How terrible.” Ei firms her jaw. She takes Yae’s hand, squeezing gently.

When she is silent for a long moment, Yae feels her stomach drop, Ei’s pending judgment more condemning than an executioner’s blade. She wonders when Ei also will let go of her, like her parents, and Yae is alone once more. “You don’t have to—“

Ei speaks slowly. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being adopted. Your aunt made the right choice in choosing you. You’re sweet. You’re kind. You’re funny, and you’re clever. You’re worth wanting around, and anyone with sense can see that. A person as great as you deserves a family who will appreciate her, and I think you do have one. If your parents didn’t want you, then I do.” Ei kisses her hand. “And I always will.”

“You can’t promise that,” Yae whispers. Her parents presumably wanted her at some point too.

Ei squeezes her hand, straightening up. She looks resolute, regal in the moonlight coming from outside. “I can, because I always keep my word.” She presses Yae’s hand to her mouth. “I want you in my life, Miko—as a lover, as a friend, as just you. I want you as a person, and I think you’re worth wanting.”

The words strike something deep inside Yae, and Yae feels something bright in her chest that’s warm and overflowing. Something cracked and broken that is starting to heal and mend, like fractures in a vase filling with gold.

She turns and places a long, slow kiss on a surprised Ei’s mouth, pressing a hand onto her chest. When Yae pulls away at last, she rubs her cheek against Ei’s, sighing. “I love you, you know that?”

“Actually, I didn’t.” Ei furrows her brows. “I think that was the first time you—“

Yae kisses her again, pushing her into the bed, suddenly needing to feel her, every part of her. Ei makes a surprised noise before returning it. “Wait, Miko. Your aunt is right there—“

Yae cuts her off with another kiss, wanting more. Demanding more. Her fingers trail down Ei’s belly and down the apex between her legs, making Ei jump hard enough to nearly hit the headboard. “Seriously! Your aunt!”

Yae whines. “Please, Ei. It’s my dream to bring my lover back to my childhood bed and make new memories in it with her.”

“No, your dream is to find an all-you-can-eat fried tofu bar and gorge yourself until you keel over.” Ei squints. “You told me this last week.”

“And?” Yae kisses her neck, feeling Ei’s breath hitch as she does so. “Why can’t I have more than one?”

When Ei hesitates, Yae adds, “Please. I…want you to have me. I need you to have me right now.” Yae feels exposed and raw even as she says that, more vulnerable than she’s ever been. She presses her hands to her face, hiding her expression. “I can’t describe why, but I want to give myself to you. If you don’t accept me, I might…”

Ei tilts her head, lips slightly parted, and Yae feels like her soul is practically being raked under her gaze. She’s never begged in bed before, but an unfamiliar neediness opens up in her like a chasm. A desire for Ei to want her and only her.

“Okay.” Ei sits up, bathed a beautiful silver in the moonlight, as she pulls off her top, revealing that she is wearing nothing underneath. She gathers her hair over her shoulder and leans in, mouthing along Yae’s jaw.

Yae’s eyes pop open, surprised at Ei’s boldness, but before she can comment, Ei’s already kissing her, stealing her tongue while her hands slide to grasp the bottom of Yae’s shirt.

Yae returns each kiss with a growing hunger and a relief so strong, it rattles her bones. She bites back a “thank you” since it would sound strange and confuse Ei.

Strands fall into her eyes as both she and Ei bring up a hand to sweep back their hair. She pulls back briefly for Ei to yank off the rest of her own clothing before diving back in, the urge to take and devour Ei to her heart’s content firing through her nerves.

Both of them are breathing raggedly. Yae’s starting to fumble with fine motor control, and her thoughts feel like they’re clouded with a dense fog. She looks at Ei whose pupils have blown to dark discs in her eyes. Yae’s entire body seems to throb with her heartbeat just by being near her.

“Ei, I—”

Ei looks Yae in the eyes and decisively slips her hand past the waistband of Yae’s shorts and between her legs, mimicking Yae just a few minutes ago.

Holy shit.

Ei cuts her off with a kiss before nipping at Yae’s ear, and Yae nearly jumps. “So sensitive.” Ei’s pace builds quickly as Yae feels her thighs tense. “But you like that, don’t you?”

Yae feels her eyes nearly roll back into her skull from pure pleasure. Don’t come right away again, don’t come, don’t come, don’t come—

Ei tilts her head, expression glowing beautifully in the moonlight as she slips her fingers into Yae, who manages to barely fight off the edge of a climax with a groan and a shudder. “Don’t you want me to claim you, Miko?”

Yae feels her hips jerk at the words. She opens her mouth to tell Ei to stop talking because she needs to concentrate on not coming, but all that comes out is a moan, which only prompts Ei to go harder. Faster. Relentlessly. Yae grabs the headboard, knuckles blanching on the rattling wood, and hoping to the gods that it’s been longer than ten seconds because she doesn’t think she’ll last much more.

Ei kisses down her throat, her collarbone, her chest. A kiss along her jaw before Ei licks down the shell of Yae’s ear. She bites down firmly on a sensitive spot.

Yae cracks. She gasps—a broken and stuttered sound—arching her back before collapsing bonelessly on top of Ei who stares in alarm, releasing her. Yae curls into her while Ei holds her like a fragile vase, and Yae nearly wants to laugh at how panicked she looks.

“Did I break you?” Ei checks her over, and Yae nestles her head in the crook of Ei’s neck. “Can that even happen?”

“I’m fine. I just feel like I died in your arms tonight.” She nuzzles against Ei’s throat. “Thank you…for—“

They hear a thump on the wall above the bed.

“Shut up! You kids fuck like rabbits! Some of us are trying to get some sleep here!”

Yae immediately jumps up and bangs back. “We had a mood going! Besides, do you know how many times I heard you—“

Ei pulls Yae’s fist down, looking flustered and red. “It’s okay. It’s her house. Let’s be good guests.” When Yae is still bristling, Ei whispers into her ear, “I have a couple of ideas of how we could still do what you want and keep quiet. Want to hear them?”

And Yae, ever so curious, nods slightly.

She wakes up the next morning alone in bed, very sore and very happy.

Gathering the sheets into her arms, she curls up into them, scenting Ei on the fabric and feeling her heartbeat raise in response. Hers, all hers. And she’s all Ei’s. Even wrapped in sheets that smell like her lover, Yae feels a little more whole than she did the night before, a little less fragile.

She buries her face in them for a few seconds before sighing and letting go. She really needs to shower and change the bedsheets and then figure out where her lovable idiot has gone.

By the time she makes it downstairs and into the kitchen, it’s already mid-morning. Saiguu salutes her with a raise of her coffee mug while reading at the kitchen island. “Well, kid, your girl couldn’t make eye contact this morning when we were eating breakfast.”

Knowing her aunt, Saiguu probably stared down Ei who was desperately just trying to eat her oatmeal. “Something, something, banged my own niece under my own roof and woke the crows and the dog next door. You should have seen how red she got.”

“Where is Ei?” Yae’s eyes dart around the empty kitchen as she grabs a yogourt from the fridge. “What hell did you send her to?“

“The one where she’s being useful.” Saiguu rolls her eyes. “She’s next door, with said dog, helping that Thoma kid fix his car to get to work. Poor thing rang the doorbell earlier, looking flustered and apologetic.” She passes Yae a bowl of berries from her side of the table. “Sweet kids, both of them. Especially Ei, even if she is fucking my niece.”

“You encouraged me to work it out!”

“Yeah. With WORDS.”

Yae rolls her eyes. “You really aren’t going to let this go.”

“Nope.” Saiguu looks up and smiles. “But I’m proud of you, kid. You seem so much better.”

Yae shifts, feeling slightly exposed. “How so?”

“You just seem more grounded. It’s a good look on you.” Saiguu’s expression turns serious. “But you haven’t done that before.”

“Oh, dear aunt, you clearly haven’t seen me on campus.”

“Not ho-bagging around. I mean, you’ve never brought a girl home to show around the neighborhood and bring to me. I mean, you look so damn happy when you’re with her. I don’t even think you’ve even realized it.” Saiguu squints at her. “So, you two—“

The front door opens, and Ei wanders in, wiping her hands with a dirty cloth rag. “We got it functional again, though I advised taking it to a mechanic the moment he had a chance.” She goes to wash her hands in the kitchen sink. “Looks like he needs to get the battery replaced.”

Once she finishes, Ei slips in beside Yae, and Yae can’t help but adore her profile, the way she furrows her brows in thought, how she gently bumps her shoulder against Yae as a manner of greeting. Saiguu must have noticed it too if the raised eyebrow she launches in Yae’s direction is any indication.

Saiguu glances between Ei and Yae before turning to the robotics student. “Say, Ei, I left a pile of photo albums that I thought you might be interested in on the living room floor. You could look at those while Miko and I finish our breakfast chat.”

“Sure.” Ei lights up. She turns, pressing a kiss against Yae’s cheeks as she leaves. Yae gazes after her as Ei leaves the room, and it’s only when Saiguu clears her throat that she remembers that there’s another person there.

“So…” Saiguu hums, ignoring what just happened. “By how your girl described what she did to you, I’m surprised you’re still walking.”

Yae did take a while to get feeling back in her legs once she woke up. “Why are you commenting?”

“Well…when I asked Cutie this morning what you guys were up to, she mentioned using a technique from one of my books—“

EI is still reading that? They are going to have a talk. Again.

“—and I ain’t sure how I feel hearing about one of my own used on you. Proud, I guess.” Saiguu sips her coffee. “And kind of disgusted.” She sighs, plunking down her cup and gesturing for Yae to follow her out to the backyard porch. “Gotta admit that she’s one of the most surprising things you brought home, including that round of pubic crabs you got from your first year trysts. But that did teach you a lesson about safe sex and getting regularly tested.”

“…can you please not mention that in front of Ei?”

Saiguu snorts. “She’s got you whipped and around her finger, and she barely had to do anything. You willingly give in to her. She could have you eating out of the palm of her hand. You have it bad, kid. Not that I would blame you.” She ruffles her hair, looking into the sky. “She adores you too. The real you, not the one you put up to keep people at a distance. Coming across someone like that is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

Yae crosses her arms. This conversation is getting too real for her comfort. “So, has she won your approval yet?

Saiguu takes out her pipe and casually polishes it. “Like I said, this girl is the best thing you brought home, and you know it. Don’t fuck that up.” She claps her niece on the shoulder. “That’s my sagely advice to you.”

“I knew that before.”

“And I knew from the look on your face the moment you walked in with her that this one is serious.” Saiguu sighs, “You’re already growing up so fast. It feels like yesterday that you were a child sleeping in my arms, and here you are now, about to start a life with the girl of your dreams.”

“…we’ve only met this year—“

“And you’re going to pretend that it doesn’t mean something? Ignore the fact that this is the only girl you’ve ever brought home?” Saiguu takes a deep inhale of her pipe. “Where does the time go?”

“Getting into the habit of reminiscing now, are we?”

“Shut up, you little shit. I’m trying to be serious.” Saiguu lets out a mouthful of smoke. “I’m growing to be an old maid. I’ve travelled the world, written a lot of books, made a ton of friends, banged countless hot people—“

“—I didn’t need to know that last part.”

Saiguu ignores her. “—and have been in many advisory positions of note. But none of that matters compared to raising a great kid like you.” She looks at her pipe longingly before knocking the ashes out. “So, live a great life, Miko. That can be my legacy to you.”

Yae feels something in her chest squeeze, recalling how many times her tiny hand searched out for Saiguu’s as a child. And how many times Saiguu had reached back. “I never called you so, but I always thought of you as my—”

“I know. I wouldn’t let you call me that cause what the hell do I know as an idiot 20-something-year old adopting a kid? But I couldn’t just leave you there when you looked so sad.” Saiguu tucks the pipe back into her pocket. “So, yeah, I understand. Don’t get too soft on me though. You still gotta keep up your rep with your girl, right?”

Yae straightens up. “You just don’t want to admit you’re tearing up.”

“You shut your face.” Saiguu wipes at her eyes with her sleeve. “Go back inside, and go bother that sweetheart of yours.”

Yae sniffs, brushing at her own eyes discreetly as she heads back to the living room where Ei is engrossed in the tower of photo albums stacked on the floor.

“This is amazing. Most people keep digital albums nowadays. It’s interesting to see photographs kept like this.” She turns a page, fascinated by a picture of an adolescent Yae curled up on a couch with a book, smiling shyly at the camera. “You were so cute, Miko.”

Ei pauses as Yae collapses into the couch. Closing the book in her hands, Ei makes her way over to sit next to her, pulling her into a hug as Yae sighs against her chest. “I don’t know why you seem upset, but I’ll stay here with you until you feel better.”

“I’m not. I just…need some time.”

“Take as much as you want. I’m not going anywhere.” Ei continues to stroke Yae’s hair, palm her cheeks gently, and press kisses against her forehead. Yae doesn’t know how she could love this girl more than she does right now. She feels like she could offer her heart in her hands to Ei, who would treasure it for all eternity.

…Saiguu’s right. This one is serious. What is Yae going to do once they graduate?

Well, that’s a problem for future Yae.

After some time, she collects herself and sits up, hearing her aunt bustle about in the kitchen and banging her kettle harder than usual. Ei points out the different photographs in the album that she really enjoyed—Yae sitting on the hood of Saiguu’s old truck when she was seven, grinning with missing front teeth; a birthday party at age 12 in the backyard with Saiguu accidentally starting a small fire in the background; Yae’s highschool graduation with her in a dark gown and cap.

Ei glances up. “You and your aunt look like a happy family.”

Yae smiles. “Yeah, she raised me well.”

They go through more photos before Saiguu loudly announces that lunch is ready, and they head to the kitchen for bowls of kitsune udon and tea. Through the sliding glass doors in the kitchen, they can see rain showering down on the porch and backyard, a sudden storm sweeping over the town. The sky is overcast, and rain comes down in sheets. Yet, Yae feels strangely relaxed, the thunder comforting.

After lunch, they stay inside, playing dusty board games from Saiguu’s collection—an activity that swirls a sense of nostalgia inside Yae’s chest as she looks down on the well-used pieces. Her fingers ghost over them, recalling countless times she had played these games with her aunt and their friends in her childhood. How Yae was so mad when she found out in high school that Uncle Urakusai let her win every single time. How Aunt Saiguu was—and still is—a very poor loser.

There are good memories in this house. As Yae looks upon Ei and Saiguu setting up the board for a round, she feels herself soften, knowing there are many more to create.

Yae and her aunt nearly strangle each other during Monopoly while Ei is perplexed at how they both accumulated so much property. Somehow, she missed the underhanded negotiations. Trivia goes the same way with Ei revealing she has an encyclopedic memory for all things mechanical and academic. The Game of Life ends up with Yae having so many kids, she couldn’t fit them on her car piece and Saiguu becoming president. Worst game ever.

Ei ends up laughing so hard, she snorts tea up her nose, and both Yae and Saiguu scramble to grab towels to wipe up the mess. Mid-afternoon arrives, and the rain stops. The girls have to return back to campus to prepare for the fall semester.

Saiguu and Ei pack away the games, chatting casually, with Saiguu bumping Ei’s shoulder affectionately, and Ei, of course, having no clue what it means.

Yae finishes making up her room and her bed while Ei hauls their luggage down the stairs. Closing the door, she pulls out her diary from her bedside drawer. She writes a short paragraph, unable to stop the smile growing across her face. Afterwards, she places the diary back and heads downstairs and out the front door.

Yae spots her aunt handing Ei a signed copy of her latest bestseller that Yae immediately tries to snatch away. “Read chapter eight first to get a better understanding of the book’s overall theory. Don’t skip ahead, because chapter twelve is all about advanced techniques in the bedroom, though the positions are going to require good core work—“

“We are leaving now,” Yae loudly announces, taking Ei by the hand and starting to lead her away. “Thank you for your hospitality, Aunt Saiguu.”

“No, wait. I actually have something meaningful to say.” Saiguu clears her throat. “Ei, I’m handing over my favourite niece to you. She’s very stubborn, proud, and stupid at times, but she’s got a very tender heart underneath it all. Treat her well, and love her always, even when she’s being unlovable. If you do, she’ll be loyal to you to the end of your days.”

Saiguu shakes her head. “I can tell you’re one of a kind, and Yae is lucky to have you. It’s a shame there isn’t more of you.” She thinks for a moment before she perks. “Unless you have a sister.”

“Actually—“

“We’ll be going now.” Yae hauls Ei out of Saiguu’s front yard. “Do not mention Makoto,” she hisses to Ei, who keeps glancing back like she wants to answer. “Not unless you want to find my aunt in your sister’s bed.”

“Why would—“

“I’ll explain in the car.”

Yae does not.

“I’m really curious about why your aunt wants to know if I have a sister.“

“Ask…Sara.”

“…okay.” Ei frowns, glancing out the window. After some thought, she carefully intertwines their fingers, rubbing circles on Yae’s palm with her thumb in that way that Yae loves. “Hey, have I told you that I love you back yet?”

Yae’s heartbeat stops for a second.

“No,” she squeezes back, “but feel free to start doing so.”

Chapter Text

Makoto looks incredulous when Ei returns and relays what happened at Kitsune Saiguu’s house. “This girl took you to her house and introduced you to her mother figure, and the implications escaped you.”

“It was a good vacation, and it was nice that Miko opened up.” Ei squints. “Why? Is it supposed to mean something?”

Makoto shakes her head. “Never change. Otherwise, Yae wouldn’t get her comeuppance.” She pauses. “Why does ‘Kitsune Saiguu’ sound familiar?”

“She’s the author of that book you gave me.”

“Oh! That thing was so quirky.” Makoto’s eyes light up. “What is the writer like in person?”

Ei opens her mouth before recalling Yae’s warning. She thinks about whether it applies to not letting Makoto know about Saiguu too.

…better ask Sara.

“Oh, you know. Very gracious in hosting us, outspoken.” Ei shrugs. “Middle-aged.”

“O…kay.” Makoto gives her an odd look before she sighs and continues packing a small suitcase in their dorm. “Anyway, you’re lucky I managed to convince Mom and Dad to let you off from visiting. You can just stay on campus where your girlfriend will ravage you like she’s trying to knock you up.”

“Trying to…?”

Makoto makes thrusting motions that Ei never wants to see from her sister again.

“…please stop.” Ei rubs her forehead. “All right, Miko does have quite an appetite for physical intimacy.”

She recalls a time where they were supposed to go for dinner shortly before visiting Yae’s aunt. Ei had finished her last class for the semester and was going to the cafe to meet Yae who was studying there. She arrived to see Yae looking annoyed as a skinny boy their age tried to ask her out.

The guy kept leaning over Yae, pestering her. “C’mon, just come with me for a second.”

Yae looked about ready to snap, so Ei decided to take care of it. She slammed the table between them, glaring at the startled man. “She said no.”

He glowered at her; Ei stared evenly back, calculating the amount of force she needed to break his ribs or a knee if necessary. The man must have sensed this wouldn’t go well for him because he ended up cursing at her and skulking away.

Ei watched as he disappeared around a building before turning to Yae. “Are you—“

Yae yanked her into a heated kiss. “That was so fucking hot,” she whispered as they pulled apart, Ei’s ears feeling like they’re on fire. “Let’s go back to your room.”

“But Makoto—“

“I’m kicking her out.”

They didn’t go to dinner that night.

At this point, Ei is convinced that Yae is so sexually responsive that Ei could sneeze from across the campus, and Yae would be turned on. Ei has never dated anyone before so she’s not sure if that level of desire is usual or not. Frankly, sometimes, it was a little exhausting to keep up.

“It would be nice if Miko’s libido slowed down just a little,” Ei mentions, coming out of her memories. “Just a bit.”

Makoto shrugs. “I don’t know what you were expecting. You are dating the former resident playgirl, now domesticated pet fox.”

Ei frowns. “Foxes can’t ever really be domesticated. They still have wild instincts.”

“Oh, good.” Makoto pushes a skirt into her full luggage. “I’m sure Yae’s ego will feel better after hearing that.” She stretches after she succeeds. “Y’know, I never thought Yae would be your type. Heck, I didn’t think you’d have one.”

Neither did Ei.

Dating Yae came as something of a shock to Ei who never expected to be with anyone. She came out of nowhere like a small fox who bit Ei on the heart. Still, Ei is unsure of what to do. She always figured that Makoto would be the one to settle down and have a family to continue their line while Ei was thinking of practically becoming a hermit. Yae threw a wrench into all of those plans.

What would her parents say?

Makoto sighs as she manages to zip the suitcase close. “You sure you’ll be fine without me?”

Ei waves off her concern, shaking her head. “You’ll only be gone a few days. What could happen?”

Itto approaches her the next day about writing a foreword for his new book.

“No.” Followed by, “How do you keep finding me?”

“Wait, wait, wait! You haven’t even read the blurb yet for the summary! Gorou and I spent ages trying to figure it out.”

Ei cranks up the speed on the treadmill and, for some reason, Itto follows suit. “I’m not interested in writing anything.” Or having her name attached to this project.

“But you’re, like, the smartest person I know!” Not that there’s much competition. “And smart people write good words, right?”

Ei glances over at Itto’s running time, wondering when he’s going to gas out.

“Please? C’mon, they call you the Fox Whisperer all over campus.”

Ei turns off her treadmill and comes to a stop. “They call me what?”

“Ha, knew that would catch your attention!” Itto leaps off his machine, pressing the manuscript into her hands. “Just give it a read and let me know your thoughts? Pretty please with cherries on top?” He snaps his fingers. “I know! I’ll wash your car for you. I’ll do it right now!”

“You leave it alone.” Ei once watched him accidentally snap off the side mirror of someone’s car because he leaned too hard on it. “Look, I’ll skim it. Then, you’ll leave me be.”

“Yes!” Itto does a fist-pump. “That works with me! Thanks, best buddy! You rock!”

He shoves a reasonably-sized stack of paper into Ei’s arms, the title written in Gorou’s penmanship because there is no way Itto could write so neatly. “I’ll hit you up in a couple of days to see what you think!” He nearly bounds out the gym doors. “Bye, bestie!”

Ei stares after him, baffled, before she shakes her head and goes to finish her workout. She heads back to her dorm to shower, leaving the draft to sit on her desk until the next day when she’s almost out the door. Grabbing it so she can be done as soon as possible, she heads to the nearby cafe to read through it while waiting for a friend to arrive.

She sits herself at one of the outside tables and starts skimming through the pages. The ideas are clearly Itto’s, though the sincere writing style seems to belong to Gorou. That probably explains the five different apologies she’s already counted in the first three pages.

Some of the tips are so bad that Ei genuinely wonders if they work. She reads aloud, “In an emergency, a woman may be distracted with a piece of cheese.” She wrinkles her nose. “Seriously?”

It goes on to talk about other things like putting a picture of your crush under your pillow to experience amazing things in three days, hanging her shoe over your bed to make her love you, and goading your loved ones’ mother and father to make her come to your power.

If Ei doesn’t know any better, she’d say that the book almost sounds like some kind of ritual. But how could Itto could up with that?

She’s flipping through the draft and making notes with a red pen when she hears someone calling to her. Glancing up, she spots Kokomi waving as she approaches.

“Ei! Do you want to go to the picnic together?” She stops an arm’s length away. When pressed why, Kokomi hesitates. “Yae said not to get within three feet of you.”

“But what if I was choking?”

“Then, I would be very sad from three feet away.” Kokomi smiles. “I’m kidding. Of course, I would save you.” The smile slowly fades. “Even if it costs me my life.”

…Ei’s going to have to ask Yae to leave Kokomi alone.

“Oh, I just need to grab some cookies for the picnic. Can you wait out here for a moment?” Kokomi ducks into the cafe, getting into the line as Ei tucks the manuscript back into her bag.

A girl comes up to Ei as she finishes. “Fox Whisperer, you need to help me.” Before Ei can ask about the nickname, she barrels on. “I’ve been single for years, and it’s unbearable. I don’t know how to talk to people.”

The young student takes out a picture of Yae and stares at it. “Now that you’re dating her, everyone thinks you’re cool—“ Ei wasn’t before? “—so how did you bag someone like her?”

Ei did very little if she recalls correctly, but, apparently, dating Yae is some sort of status symbol? “…I missed the cues that we were dating for two months.”

The girl pulls out a notepad and starts writing. “Go on.”

Kokomi breaks into the conversation, having just exited the cafe. “Sorry, but we’re running late.” She grabs Ei’s wrist and pulls her along. “Good luck with your dating life!”

She drags Ei along until they reach a grassy knoll where Ei can spot Sara laying down a picnic blanket while bickering with Yae. Kokomi drops Ei’s wrist immediately upon arrival, looking contrite. “Sorry. Please don’t tell Yae.”

…Ei is starting to think that her girlfriend might be a little possessive.

“Anyway, we should hurry along,” Kokomi gestures for her to follow. “The others are just up ahead.”

They make their way to the top of the knoll just as Sara looks ready to concuss Yae with the picnic basket. “Good. You’re here.” Sara inhales through gritted teeth. “Yae and I just finished setting up.”

Yae crosses her arms. “Really, whose idea was it to have Sara and I work with each other?”

…Ei thought it was a good one. “Both of you did well in getting everything ready.”

Kokomi takes Sara’s arm, and the pair of them settle on the red-and-white checkered cloth with only a few grumbles from Sara. Ei turns, only to lean back as Yae presses right into her with a kiss.

“Hi,” Yae exhales, voice already a little rough.

“Archons, I’m trying to eat here.” Sara puts down her cucumber sandwich in disgust.

Ei clears her throat, cheeks heating up. “We should…we should join them.”

They seat themselves beside the other pair, and Kokomi glances around before clapping her hands together. “Thank you for humouring me. I thought it would be nice to have a picnic together before the semester starts.”

Yae and Sara are busy baring their teeth at each other, so Ei tries to continue the conversation. “What are you taking, Kokomi?”

“Mostly history courses, but I’m excited to learn about the military history course I managed to get a seat in.” Kokomi sidelong glances at the other two, changing tactics when it seems like the topic isn’t getting their attention. “The Abyss Mages are touring here next week with their new hit single ‘Gang Gang Woo.’ Do any of you want to go?”

“No,” Yae answers immediately. “We hate them, right, Ei?”

“Actually, the EDM song structure is quite standard, but the melodic motifs they weaved in for the build up lends to their famous drop and catchphrase. That catapulted them to the top of the—“

“Right, so we hate them,” Yae continues on.

“Makoto is a big fan, and I, myself—“ Ei glances at Yae’s expression. “—I mean, I…uh…am not a fan either.” Quietly, she mutters to Kokomi that Makoto might go while the other girl nods rapidly.

Sara changes topics by asking when people plan to go buy their textbooks, the conversation goes on relatively smoothly from there. Ei catches Yae looking off to the side with a dreamy look, and she smiles at the sight. Yae must be reliving a fond memory.

“What are you thinking about?” Ei asks when Kokomi and Sara shift away to peer at the tree close to them.

Yae turns, lips brushing against Ei’s ear. “Taking you in a way that has you making the most filthy moans, loud enough to wake Sara across campus—“

Yeah, Yae could do with a reduction in her libido.

Ei leans back, cheeks red. “Not now, Miko.”

Yae just winks as Sara and Kokomi return, announcing they were going to head off and go for a walk together. They take Sara’s picnic blanket and basket, waving as they leave while Ei and Yae tidy up the remaining food plates.

Yae wrinkles her nose. “This cheese is disgustingly strong. Sara must have picked it. Based on her clothing, she has no sense of taste, so I imagine she has no sense of smell either.”

“Leave her alone.” Ei swats Yae on the shoulder. “What did she ever do to you anyway?”

Yae takes in a large breath to explain, and Ei glances down at the food plate in her hand, getting a sudden burst of inspiration.

She quickly places a piece of cheese on Yae’s palm and watches her stare at it, looking baffled.

“What—“

“Sorry, gotta go!” Ei takes off. Once she’s some distance away with Yae’s shouting having faded, she notes in Itto’s manuscript that this tip does work.

“Successful distraction,” she mutters as she finishes writing her thoughts. She wonders if any of his other suggestions do. Her reputation as an upcoming researcher depends on finding out the truth.

She texts Yae, apologizing for her behaviour and saying that she simply had…bathroom emergencies. Yae quickly drops the subject after that. Still, Yae gives her a weird look when they meet up again and isn’t so handsy this time, so maybe there is something in Itto’s book that will help Ei with her own problem.

She follows the next suggestion.

The next day, Yae frowns as she looks over the rack below her coats in her dorm. “Have you seen my shoe?”

Yes. It’s hanging from one of the coat hooks over Ei’s bed. “Not at all.”

Yae’s brows furrow, and she glances sidelong at her. “I see…must have misplaced it then.” Sighing, she rises, scrubbing at her face. “Such a bother to go find it.”

Yae leaves her alone as she overturns the room looking for the shoe, and Ei wonders what would happen if she increases the intensity of the suggestion. So she does.

“I bet it’s my RA,” Yae snarls the next day, glaring down at her collection of shoes, which are all missing the left pair. “I’ll kill her.”

As Yae storms off, Ei excuses herself out, making notes on Itto’s drafts as she goes down to the next item. She’s lucky that her bag apparently is so spacious and that she managed to pay someone to get a copy of Yae’s key though the dishonesty of the whole thing is starting to wear on her.

She consoles herself by saying it’s for science and moves on.

The next step requires goading the woman’s mother or father. Ei’s not sure how annoying a parental figure would help, but she is curious as to what would happen. Ei decides to do it by phone. But not her own.

She asks Kokomi to borrow her cell when she bumps into her at the Student Union Building. “Could I please borrow your phone? I need to call Makoto, and I left mine in my room.”

“Sure.” Kokomi hands over her phone, eyes glued onto the pages of a book on agricultural science. “Just give it back when you’re done?”

Ei nods, thanking her. She hurries away to a secluded corner where Kokomi can’t overhear before dialing the number Saiguu gave her, sweat beading down her back at what she is about to do. “Hello?” She pitches her voice low, rough. “Is there an Oliver there? Last name Klozoff?”

“Who the hell are you, and how did you get this number?”

“Just someone looking for their friends. So, you don’t have Oliver Klozoff over there?”

“Nope.”

“How about Hugh Jass?”

“Why would I know a Hugh Jass?”

“How about Amanda Huginkiss?”

“Where the heck would I find Amanda Huginkiss? Wait.” Saiguu pauses, reflecting on what she said aloud. “Oh my gods, listen here, you little shit. I am too old for this—“

Ei hangs up. She hands Kokomi’s phone over, turning it off. “Your battery was running low.”

She darts away quickly, hoping Kokomi doesn’t notice as she moves onto the next step.

Another tip to get a woman’s attention is to mix salt, flour, and cheese, and leave the mixture in her room. That way, she will not have rest until she finds you.

Ei isn’t sure how that would work, but she puts the salted and floured cheese balls on a plate when Yae leaves Ei in her dorm as the former is going to the washroom.

She writes a note and slips out, documenting the steps she has taken so far and what results she hopes to observe. She does a double-take at the page after examining it more thoroughly, the clues clicking together. “Wait, this is either a spell or an incantation.”

When Ei confronts Itto about it at the gym, he shrugs. “I dunno. I copied it out of an old library tome. Thought it would give it more weight, y’know. Ooh, did you get to the section about reading your fortune in cheese yet?”

She feels a vein throb in her temple. “That’s plagiarism!”

“Of a terrible book, yes. Now, the cheese section—okay, okay! I’ll cite it as a reference. Better?”

Itto grumbles as he agrees to revise the manuscript's ideas and suggestions. It helps that Ei used a joint lock on him until he cries mercy.

…and then he eagerly asks her to teach him how to do it himself.

After she leaves, Ei notices she has several missed calls from Yae and a series of texts that seem to get increasingly angrier. Deciding to let Yae cool down, Ei texts Sara, asking if she can stay in her own dorm for a while.

Yae does not calm down.

Ei watches from inside Sara’s room as Yae prowls around her dorm across the street, fists clenched at her sides. “What is the likelihood that if I try to talk to her now, it will end badly?”

“100% chance of you getting murdered by the looks of it.”

Ah.

Ei will come down later then.

Sara rubs her forehead, eyes closed. “I am almost afraid to ask, but what did you do?”

Ei gives her Itto’s draft. Sara reads it for about five minutes before putting the stack down. “For gods’ sakes, why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you follow this catastrophe of text?”

“I…was curious to see if any of this would work, and if it did—” Ei ducks her head. “--then maybe there is something I can do to slow Miko down. Just a bit.”

“Ei, I know it’s hard for you because your brain isn’t wired that way, but if you want to stay in a relationship with…that thing, you need to start seeing situations from her point of view. How do you think she feels being experimented on?”

Murderous, by the expression on her face. “I didn’t—” Ei sighs, “You’re right. I didn’t think of it from her point of view. I wouldn’t like that either.” She pauses. “But seriously, how would you get Miko to decrease her sexual appetite?”

“Urgh, you talk to her. Do not mention that woman’s name and the word ‘sex’ in the same sentence again.”

Sara kicks her out shortly afterwards, and Yae finds her. It’s hard to escape when she waits in front of Ei’s dorm.

“So, coming back home, are we?” Yae bares her teeth and not in a smile like Ei is used to.

“...do you want to come up so we can discuss the stupid thing I did?”

“With pleasure.”

Ei feels a malevolent energy at her back as Yae follows her, and she wonders if it’s a bit much to jump out her window to escape the confrontation. When they get into her dorm, Yae crosses the threshold and takes Makoto’s chair, tilting her head with a smile that almost looks plastered on. “Now…” Her voice is carefully light. “...will you tell me why you took my shoes and left a plate of horrifically-smelling cheese balls in my room?”

“How did you know?”

“Please, Ei. I wasn’t born stupid. Also, Kokomi came to me, asking why my aunt was threatening to kick her ass over the phone. Once she explained what happened, I simply put two-and-two together." She thinks for a moment. "And give me that key you made.”

Ei sighs and hands it over. She shows her Itto’s draft, elaborating on the contents and why she chose to follow them.

Yae inhales through her nose and rubs at her temples. “Why did I pick this twin?”

…Ei doesn’t know either. “I’m sorry.”

Yae scowls, standing up. “Why do you NEVER talk to me about the terrible books you read?”

Ei feels ‘Because I keep forgetting’ is an answer that may result in her waking up in a ditch somewhere later, so she says, “You’re right. I’m sorry. It just didn’t occur to me to do so.” She scratches her head, looking at her feet. “I’m so used to being alone that I forget that other people who aren’t Makoto want to be a part of my life. I'm not used to communicating what I need to them.” She pauses, voice slightly timid. "I need your patience as I'm learning to do so. Please."

Yae softens. Just a bit. She still looks like she’d hurl Ei into the ocean if she could. “You owe me big time to make up for this.”

“...okay.”

“And stop reading that manuscript.”

Ei nods. “I have enough material to write the requested foreword.”

“Good.” Yae examines her face, suddenly looking more tentative. “Also…is there something wrong with my expression of attraction towards you?”

“Ah, it’s just a bit much. I’m not used to…” Ei mimics Makoto’s thrusting earlier, and Yae stares. “Yeah, that was my reaction too.” Clearing her throat, she continues, “I’m not so physically driven towards sex as some of my peers. I know that it’s unusual, and people may find it strange—”

“Stop.” Yae places a finger on Ei’s lips. “You are fine the way you are. It’s perfectly normal for people to have differing levels of desires. Libidos are rarely created equal.” She leans on her back foot, crossing her arms in thought. “It just means we’re going to have to do some experimentation, collaboration, and working together to figure out a balance that works with us.”

“...you’re taking this really well.”

“Please, like I haven’t been talking about sex and sex education, however reluctantly, with my aunt since I was thirteen.” Yae shudders, recalling a memory before she shakes it out. “Anyway, again, Ei. It’s not a big deal. You know you can come to me when you want to talk, especially about us, right?”

Ei might be starting to get the hang of it. “Yes.” She glances at Makoto’s bed before she looks back at Yae. “Actually, I should tell you something. My parents—”

The door flies open. Makoto barrels in, dragging her luggage behind her. “What a trip.” At Yae’s and Ei’s looks, she pauses. “What? What did I miss?”

“Ah, I was just about to talk about Mom and Dad—”

Makoto snaps her fingers. “Oh, right. I mentioned Yae, and they wanted to meet her. They’ll pick us all up tomorrow.” At Ei’s panicked expression, she shrugs guiltily. “You know I can’t lie to Mom.”

Ei clears her throat as she turns towards Yae. “Oh, so you’ll get to meet them soon.”

Yae studies her before stepping in to squeeze Ei’s hand. “Relax. I’m sure it won’t be that bad.”

Ei isn’t sure about that.

Later that night when Makoto settles in and Yae returns to her own dorm, Ei texts Itto her thoughts on his manuscript: “I cannot condone this piece of work as advisable, wise, or even sensible. Following this advice will bring disaster upon everyone you know and love. It is stupid, senseless, and has a strange obsession with cheese. However, I can attest that it has brought me closer together with my loved one, and its fortune-telling properties with dairy are oddly accurate.”

Itto instantly messages her back. “Thanks, best buddy! I’ll take it!” Another text. “But, dang, where am I gonna find an editor?”

Ei thinks for a moment before sending over a certain number.

Maybe Saiguu might have more feedback for his book.

Chapter Text

The car arrives the next day in front of the twins’ dorm—a dark, nondescript mini-SUV filled with their mother’s gadgets.

Yae stares at the front wheel turning by itself as the car carries them away. “Is this thing self-driving?”

Ei quickly types a message to her mother on the glass screen separating them from the front seat. “Yeah, Mom found that it makes significantly less errors than human drivers so all of our cars have the program. You can also manually drive it too if you want.”

Yae shakes her head. “As long as it doesn’t crash into anything, I’m fine.” She leans back, taking Ei’s hand. “Now, tell me about your parents.”

Ei goes over the biggest accomplishments she can recall while Makoto fills in the rest. Yae nods along, seeming to take in the fact that she’s about to meet the heads of a major company rather well. “…working on collaborative and consumer robots as well as designing intelligent humanoid robots that are mostly used for education. They hit it big with their line of ‘Katherines’ that are used at travel kiosks mostly but have occasionally been upgraded for reception purposes.”

“Oh? Is that why that woman at student services isn’t remotely helpful?”

“No, that’s the person Katherine is replacing.” Ei pauses for a moment before adding, “When we get there, try not to give my mother any DNA.”

Yae squints. “I wasn’t planning to, but thanks.” She pauses. “I’m almost hesitant to ask why you said that.”

Ei hesitates so Makoto answers instead. “Mom’s a little eccentric. But she means well.” She changes the subject afterwards. “So, Yae. How was the visit to your aunt’s place?”

Yae and Ei spend the rest of the time deflecting as best as they can with Makoto giving them both a strange look the entire time. About twenty minutes later, the car pulls into Ei’s driveway and begins the trek down. Yae is scanning through all of the trees and lights along their path. “I didn’t realize your house was in a park.”

Ei scratches her neck. “Uh, no. This is our lawn.”

Yae opens and closes her mouth. She settles for gaping out the windows.

Makoto gives Ei a look and tilts her head in a questioning way. Ei shakes her own, and Makoto sighs, gesturing to hurry up and tell Yae whatever she needs to tell her.

Yae cuts in. “No twin telepathy over there.” She settles back into the cushions with a sigh. “If I had known you two were obscenely rich, I would have packed better clothing to meet your parents.”

Ei tilts her head, confused. “We aren’t that rich. The house is hardly more than 35,000 square feet. Our trampoline room is probably very small compared to other people’s.”

“Ei, you were at my house. Did you see one?”

“…I’d figured that maybe your aunt didn’t build one because you two had a traumatizing trampoline incident like Makoto did.”

“No. We’re just poor.”

Makoto shushes both of them. “We’re about to reach the front gates.”

The car stops before a pair of iron gates. Makoto taps her pin on the car screen, and the gates swing open. “All the cars are linked to an online system that registers guests, employees, and occupants of the estate. It’s to make sure we know, at all times, who is on the property.”

Yae glances sidelong. “A little paranoid, wouldn’t you say?”

Makoto looks out the windows. “Maybe not enough if you see the circles that Mom and Dad occasionally run in.”

They drive down the heated driveway and get out of the car, which drives away after they pull out their luggage. Ei feels a little self conscious at the way Yae gapes at the marble pillars standing guard at the entrance of the house, the black railings that look like they come from an earlier Mondstadtan era, the width of the house, and how it could contain five villas.

…the dark plume of smoke coming from somewhere at the back of the manor.

Makoto squints. “Yup, Mom’s been working today.” She gestures for them to follow up a series of marble steps towards a huge pair of oak doors. “C’mon.”

Before they get there, a white, robotized cart drives up to them, and the twins deposit their luggage onto it while Yae stares. Ei grabs her girlfriend’s valise and places it on the gleaming surface. “The robots will know where to take them.”

The doors swing open when Ei punches in her pin on the screen on the wall. A motherly-looking maid greets the twins, tugging them both and depositing kisses on their foreheads. “Your mother has one of the sitting rooms set up to welcome you all.” She spots Yae and rushes over to greet her too. “I’m Katherine. I’ve been working here since the girls were born and have helped raise them all these years.”

“Wait, like the android?” Yae studies her. “You seem a little…older.”

Katherine laughs, “Well, they based it off my younger days, but I am the original human version.” She turns and motions for them to come with her. “I’ll escort you to the room.”

They trail after her, Yae’s gaze drifting up over the holographic paintings and searching for the hidden speakers that have music following them from room to room.

Makoto explains, hopping into the role of tour guide easily, “The original house had a colourful history and was known to house scientific minds of its time before it turned into a casino…and then a brothel.” She glances at Yae. “You’ll fit right in.”

She dodges Yae’s rather vicious swat and continues on. “Mom and Dad updated it with some pretty cool tech when they bought it years ago, but some elements of the older architecture are still around.”

Yae looks around the vaulting halls, the massive oak spiraling staircase that twists into the upper floors. “…aside from being gigantic, this place looks surprisingly normal. I thought you guys would have more robots around.”

“Ah.” Makoto looks back. “That’s because Dad told Mom to keep her experiments in her lab after that rampage she accidentally created when we were in the eighth grade.”

“…rampage?” Makoto glances at Ei, who shrugs guiltily.

“Don’t look at her. She helped start that.”

“I only asked Mother how far the robots could go from her lab.”

Katherine leads them to a sitting room with lush couches and wide windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. She hugs the girls again before leaving.

Ei spots Yae immediately sinking into a particularly comfortable leather coach if her slight groan is anything to go by. “We can wait for Mom here.” She leans forward, tapping a few buttons on the screen in the table in front of them. “Do you need less light?”

A quiet whir comes from the windows as the blinds begin lowering themselves. Yae startles before shaking her head. “I’m not sure why I’m surprised that everything is automated here. Maybe I should be more amazed that this room we’re sitting in is so moderately-sized.”

Makoto jumps in. “Actually, this is just one third of the original size. This room has mobile walls and separate entrances so you can easily split it up.”

Yae shudders. “Archons, the wealth.”

Makoto shoves her shoulder. “Hey, it’s not like we played out here. We mostly kept to the back where the bedrooms are.”

Ei says, “I can show you mine since you showed me yours, Miko.”

Makoto scratches her neck. “Mom might want to put her in a guest room.”

“No, she can sleep with me.” Ei’s tone is firm. “Plus, those rooms are on the other side of the house. She’ll get lost.”

“I’m right here, you two.” Yae glances between the two before settling on Ei. “I would love to sleep with you.”

“Shocker,” Makoto coughs.

The doors slide open, and the twin’s mother hurries in, dark hair tied back in a messy bun and safety goggles still on her face. There’s still faint tendrils of smoke wafting from her clothes, but she shrugs off the lab coat and hangs it up before turning to them.

The twins stand to greet their mother who waves for them to sit back down as she peels her goggles off. “Good to see you girls. Makoto, thank you for bringing your sister back home. Ei, I’m so glad and curious to see you after what Makoto told us.”

She turns her gaze onto Yae, expression excited. “And this must be your girlfriend.” She holds out her hand, and Yae automatically takes it. “Hello, I’m Raiden Mei. Ei’s and Makoto’s mother and the head scientist at Shogun Inc. My husband is still on a trip, but he should be home in time to meet you.”

Yae stares before blinking and shaking her head. “Sorry for staring, Mrs. Raiden. It’s just…you look nearly identical to your daughters.”

“Thank you. I nearly considered cloning myself to get children, but as you can see, it all worked out. By the way, you can just call me Mei.” Ei’s mom waves it off. “I wanted to give the twins matching names with mine, but Yasu put his foot down for Makoto,” she sighs.

“Thanks, Dad,” Makoto mutters. She clears her throat. “Should we sit down for lunch?”

Shortly afterwards, the servants bring platters of different cold cuts and sandwich breads to them. Ei watches Yae testing out the five different types of mustard while her mother chatters away at their guest, rapidly firing off questions in her intense inquisitive interest. “How old are you? What are you studying? What do you do in your spare time? What are your intentions with my daughter? Do you know what your genetic lineage is?”

Makoto cut in. “Mom, calm down. She needs to think about the questions first to answer some of them.”

“Good point. I’ll give her a few minutes then.” Ei’s mother turns to her and smiles. “How are your battle bots doing?”

Ei hastily puts down her sandwich, chewing rapidly and swallowing. “Good! Well, actually, I’m running into the same error where my flywheel weapon keeps breaking down despite multiple reworks. I’ve swapped it out, replaced the motor with the power equivalent of a small motorcycle, and redone everything to make the weapon more reliable. However, I still seem to lose to stronger opponents.”

“Maybe more power is not the answer.” Ei’s mother taps her finger on her chin in thought before smiling. “Not all problems can be solved linearly. You need to start thinking laterally when you’re stuck.”

Ei doesn’t get it. She opens her mouth to ask when Yae leans forward to speak. “I heard from Ei and Makoto that you’re a genius at what you do and that your company has its hands in many industries.”

Ei’s mother waves off the praise. “We specialize mostly in robotics and AI technology, but we have dipped our hands in dozens of other businesses that have potential for scientific advancement.

“Our partners in Mondstadt a decade ago had a breakthrough in recombinant DNA advancement. They designed their first lab-based baby, and the technology got patented then. The baby herself got adopted by two mothers and, other than an odd penchant for explosions, seems to be a perfectly healthy child. However, the biggest win is that the technology and its surrounding infrastructure have developed enough that it can be afforded by most people who are unable to have a child naturally together.

“Over in Fontaine, our investment in faster planes and jets have—“

Makoto interrupts, “Mom, wait, go back. What about the baby?”

“Oh, the bomb baby. I think they call her Klee.” Ei’s mother calls out to a servant to tell them to send the pair of researchers some flowers and nitroglycerin for the anniversary of their creation. “They had based the DNA sample from what was left behind of my mentor, Miss Alice.” Raiden Mei frowns. “She disappeared a few years ago. Presumed to be killed at the hands of her own experiments in a hidden laboratory somewhere.”

She shrugs as if to say it happens. “But enough about work. Tell me more about yourself, Miko.” Ei’s mom smiles. “Which noble family did you descend from? Ei mentioned your surname, but there were so many that we couldn’t narrow it down.”

“Noble…family?”

Ei’s mother elaborates, “For example, we are part of the Raiden Clan that has been around since the Shogun era and have preserved its proud reputation of contributing to the country. We were wondering which one you were from to better understand.”

“Ah, the proud…Yae clan. There are dozens of us last time I checked.”

Mei nods along. “Which part of the Shogunate’s claim did your family contribute to?”

“Uh…population growth. We’re known to be rather fertile.”

“Yes, I can believe that. I did note that you had rather good child-bearing hips.”

Makoto slaps her face with her hand. She tugs Ei’s sleeve, whispering, “Go rescue her.”

Ei stands, clearing her throat. “Mother, we’re both weary from our journey and would like to rest. We are going to retire to our rooms.”

“Ei, you’re so stiff. Why can’t you be like your sister who’s so hip and fly?” Her mother pauses. “That’s the slang they’re using nowadays, right?”

“Mother, please,” Ei groans.

“Oh! How about MILF? That seems to have something to do with mothers from all the Twitchat I’ve been following.”

Yae eyes her. “Well, it’s not exactly wrong.”

“Miko!”

Makoto stands. “I’m getting a drink.”

“Wait, let me ask one more question. Miko, what is your current aspiration?”

Ei hopes that Yae doesn’t answer “doing your daughter daily.” She surprises all of them by saying, “I want to open a publishing house. My aunt is a writer, and she’s often held meetings with other writers trying to get their novels launched.”

“Why a publishing house though?” Mei inquiries, leaning in. “Why not a bookstore?”

“Because—“ Yae pauses, seeming to struggle for words for the first time Ei has seen her. “A good publishing house doesn’t just get the books out into people’s hands. The editors there will work hand-in-hand to help reach author reach the vision they have in their stories and their hearts. Writing is daunting enough, but having someone experienced enough to guide and help you hone your craft has transformed so many talented authors with mediocre ideas into literary powerhouses who later pay it forward to new fledging authors who need guidance too.”

Ei’s mother nods, crossing one leg over the other. “It’s a sustainable system, and the idea is grounded in noble intentions. It still doesn’t tell me anything about you though. Why is this particular goal so important?”

Ei decides that it’s enough grilling for the day. She stands. “Sorry, Mom. We’re a bit tired from the trip, and we would like to settle in now. Plus, you probably have a ton of work to do.”

Her mother checks her watch and sighs before rising herself. “Regrettably, that’s true. I don’t often have dinner with the family due to the demands of my ongoing projects, but I managed to carve out some free time for the next couple of days. I hope to speak with you more, Miss Yae, and that you will enjoy the events I have prepared for you.”

She gives an absent-minded hug to each of her daughters before rushing off, alarms going off on her wristwatch. Once she’s out of earshot, Makoto excuses herself to go to her own room while Ei offers to lead Yae over to hers.

“Sorry about that. Mom can be intense.” Ei rubs her nape as they walk down a long hall. “She can be a bit eccentric.”

Yae snorts, “I can see where you get it from.” She squeezes Ei’s hand. “It’s fine. Nothing that I can’t handle.”

Ei hopes she means it.

A few minutes later, they arrive in front of Ei’s door—a plain, white hatch that looks like it would fit as an entryway in a sci-fi movie.

Ei walks in. “There are automatic sensors all over the house that instantly change the temperature and light according to the specific requirements set up in the users’ profiles. That’s why my room is usually darker than Makoto’s.”

Yae looks around. “But how does it know that it’s you and not your sister?”

Ei points to the ground. “Pressure sensors that can detect a person’s weight and gait. Each person has their own unique walk, so the floor can figure out who it is.”

She approaches a painting of a Sakura Tree that switches into an upward view of the mountains and trees somewhere. “Holographic projections of pictures are usually used to wow guests.” She turns it off. “If you want to shower, there’s a full bathroom over there that usually has fresh towels in the cabinet. Makoto really enjoys the jacuzzi function of the bathtub, though if you would prefer a rainforest shower effect—“

“Ei, stop. You’re not a concierge.” Yae looks around at the sprawling king-sized bed, sheets so clean that they look like they were never used. “Although this does look more like a hotel room than a personalized bedroom.” She touches the bare walls and scans the empty dressers and drawers. “It’s like you don’t even exist in this room.”

“I’m not here much anymore.” Ei shrugs. “Most of my stuff is scattered in my dorm or scattered in my lab.”

“…you have your own lab?”

“…you don’t?”

“Now that you mentioned it, yes, I do have a lab tucked under my childhood dreams—no, of course I don’t have one!”

“All right, all right. I’ll show you it after dinner.” Ei gestures out the door. “Do you want a tour until then?”

They walk throughout the manor, viewing the pool with underwater speakers, the gardens with an automatic watering system, the lake in the back filled with all sorts of edible fish. By the time they make it back, dinner is ready, and they’re guided by a maid to the nearest dining room.

Yae squints at the line of dishes of sweets from around the world. “Ei, I can’t eat this. I’ll get fat.”

“More of you to love then.”

Yae swats her, and Ei calls over a servant to ask the chef for something more palatable for Yae. Once she gets a bowl of edamame and crab soup, she happily chows down, leaving Ei in admiration of how pretty Yae looks, even when she’s eating.

After dinner, Ei leads her to the other side of the house where her lab is. “Mom’s lab is underground and requires special permission to access, but you’re free to see mine.” They reach a large hatchway, which opens as Ei approaches. “It’s not on as large of a scale as my mother’s, but I hope you don’t mind.”

They step through to a sizeable area that looks like a much bigger version of her university lab room. Yae glances around at the pictures of Ei and her mother working together plastered on the walls, the awards and certificates lining the back wall, the bean bag chairs near an overflowing bookcase. “This was more of what I was expecting from your bedroom.” She opens the fridge in the kitchen at the back. “…desserts. I don’t know what I was expecting.”

Ei glances over and reaches past Yae to grab an egg tart. “Oh, Katherine stocked my favourites. I’ll thank her later.”

Yae smacks her hand, making her drop it. “You just ate.” She wraps herself around Ei’s arm and leads her to the benches on the far side. “Now, come here and show me the geeky things you used to work on.”

Ei points out the different tools she used to work on her robots, detailing how her mother would often build things together with her whenever she had spare time. She shows Yae a strange, flopping black device that she built as a young teen and isn’t sure why now that she thinks about it. A simple program she coded where the AI would always kick her butt at Go.

Yae listens with cocked head, smiling gently, and Ei stops a couple of times to impulsively press a kiss to her lips, which Yae really doesn’t seem to mind.

At some point, she decides to teach Yae some of the hands-on techniques she used and positions Yae to be in the best spot to learn.

Ei leans over Yae’s shoulder, chest pressing against her back, and she hears Yae’s breaths quicken. “Now, with this laser, you can carve out the individual sections—Miko, are you turned on?”

“…no.”

“Oh, c’mon!” Ei steps away, and Yae turns around, breathing a little heavily with her pupils dilated. “I just touched you for five seconds.”

“I think you don’t realize how attracted I am to you.” Yae glances over to the bean bag chairs in the corner. “Could we—“

“No!”

“Please, just a short—“

“Later!”

Yae doesn’t wait very long after they leave the lab and get ready for bed.

Ei is drifting off to sleep when she feels Yae moving at her side and her shirt being pushed up. “…really?”

Yae kisses down Ei’s belly. “Please, it’s always been my desire to—“

“You already used that line!”

“Don’t shit on my dreams, Ei.” Yae nips at her skin. “Besides, no one is going to hear us anyway.”

“My parents could!”

“What? From across the house?” she scoffs.

“Well, maybe Makoto.”

Makoto’s voice comes from the door. “She’s right. I just went to get some water, but I can hear you guys from here.”

Yae rolls her eyes, grabbing one of the many pillows on Ei’s bed and throwing it against the door. “Get out of here.” They hear Makoto shuffle away, and Yae smiles. “Now, if you’re so scared of making a sound, I’d suggest you bite down on something.”

Ei sighs as Yae’s fingers slowly bring down the hem of her pyjamas, pressing heated kisses onto Ei’s hips. “All right, but just one time.”

Ei doesn’t sleep that night.

The next morning, she groggily sits at the breakfast table as Makoto butters her toast on one side and Yae digs through scrambled eggs with a very satisfied smile.

Makoto pauses, butter knife in hand. “What are you so happy about, Yae?”

“Oh, you know.” Yae glances at Ei and smirks. “The pleasure of a good meal.”

“Ew, I didn’t need to know that. Ei, can you pass the jam, or are you too busy eating it out?”

Before Ei can retort, her mother bustles into the room. “Now, girls. Since you’re still on break from your studies, I’ve prepared several days’ worth of activities that young ones like yourselves might be interested in.”

Ei’s not sure how common horseback riding is as a typical university student’s hobby, but she and Makoto race around the pasture not far from their manor and compete in jumping over the obstacles. Yae, on the other hand, has trouble getting on her horse and staying on.

She yelps and rolls off as her mare runs under a low-hanging branch. “I swear this thing hates me.”

Ei rides over. “I’m sure it doesn’t—“ She quickly yanks Yae away as the horse attempts to eat a hunk of her hair. “Okay, maybe a different one would be good.”

Yae refuses to ride the sole mount they have. Ei doesn’t see why. She thinks Yae would look adorable on a pony. “Clover already loves you, Miko. Give her a chance.”

“I have dignity, Ei.” Yae crosses her arms as the pony snuffles into Yae’s ear. “I’ll just read something on my phone here while you and Makoto finish.”

Nodding reluctantly, Ei turns her mare around, guiding her to the field where Makoto meets her gaze, eyes narrowing in a silent challenge once more

Ei wins the last round, of course. Able to calm and focus her mount to leap over obstacles and fences as high as Ei herself while Makoto’s mount knocks more than a few poles over in her attempt. They race back to where Yae waits, and Makoto wins that one, her horse having exerted less energy while jumping than Ei’s.

As Ei rides up, she spots Yae coming up from behind her sister and running a hand down a white-clad thigh. Something hot and furious claws against her chest and stomach, and she urges her mare to canter faster. She manages to overhear some of the conversation as she nears.

“…was pretty hot how you beat Makoto like that.”

“…I am Makoto.”

Yae squints, withdrawing her hand. “Why are you guys dressed identically?”

“Mom thought it was cute.”

“But why do you two smell the same now?”

“She also only likes one type of shampoo and soap. She buys it for everyone.”

Ei clears her throat as she nears. “Miko, why don’t you go for a ride with me?”

Makoto mutters as Yae perks and climbs up, “Thought she already did that last night.”

Ei ignores her as she takes Yae to a trail near the back of the pasture. As they trot along under the trees, Ei feels Yae resting her cheek against her back. “I’d figure you’d do something extravagant like archery on horseback.”

“That would take years of training to develop the skills needed, and I did not want to prioritize it among all the other things I was learning.” The horse continues at a steady trot around the pasture. “You would need a great sense of balance, since you would need to retain your form even as your mount is going at a gallop—”

Yae hums against Ei’s shoulder. “I love your mini-lectures. They’re very soothing to fall asleep to.”

“…I didn’t intend—”

“I’m kidding, Ei. I’m listening.” Yae leans forward, nipping at an earlobe, and Ei feels heat spread across her face. “So, is this the life of rich girls? I could get used to this.”

Ei stiffens. “I don’t know what you mean by that, but Mother might be going a bit overboard on planning our stay. The horses are a little much.”

“Oh? So, you don’t take all of the girls you show your mother horseback riding?”

Ei answers, watching the path, “There’s only ever been you.”

Yae squeezes reflexively. Ei isn’t sure what that means so she continues on. “I don’t often take people out to meet my parents.”

“Why is that?”

Ei shrugs half-heartedly. “Some friends in the past would turn strange when they found out Makoto and I came from a wealthy family,” she says lightly. Deliberately. “They would either start trying to manipulate me to pay them something or start accusing me of flaunting my money and judging them when I wasn’t.”

“Classic case of projection. Insecurity is a very unattractive trait in anyone,” Yae quips. “I wouldn’t worry about it, Ei. Based on what I know of you, it sounds like they had issues, not you.”

Ei hunches her shoulders. “It was more than one. I started to wonder if…I was no good at keeping friends.”

Yae responds, tone just as deliberately light as Ei’s earlier one. “I think whatever happened in the past should stay there. For your former acquaintances, that was absolutely stupid of them. If I had a lovely friend who just happens to be loaded like you, I would be ecstatic.” She burrows closer into Ei’s back, her warmth a comfort. “Don’t let it get to you, Ei. Some people will let their insecurities tank whole relationships while others would work on themselves. It’s not you. It’s them.”

Ei is silent for a while, wondering if Yae would act the same around her if Ei didn’t have money. She hesitates. “How do you feel about my family’s wealth?“

“It’s certainly a nice bonus, but my prize was always you.” Yae gently raps Ei’s head. “Don’t overthink. I liked you before I found out you were wealthy.” She sighs, “My concern is that your family will see me as some gold-digging skank.”

Ei pauses. “But why would you need to mine anything?”

“Heh, I hope you always stay the same.” Yae kisses her cheek, and Ei is still confused. “No, I mean I hope that your family is willing to get to know me rather than assume I’m using you for your money.”

Ei halts the horse, frowning. “That would be unfair. You almost never ask me for anything monetary.” Except that time Yae presented her with a list of mental and emotional grievances Ei had caused with the suggested compensation amount. Ei is almost certain that was a joke. “Why would they?”

Yae shrugs one shoulder. “They’re just worried for you, and they don’t know me. It’s human nature to assume the worst.”

“I didn’t.”

Smiling wide, Yae leans in and kisses her. “And that’s why you got me.”

She makes a sound almost like a purr as she brushes her cheek against Ei’s. “I look forward to what adventures comes next with you.”

Chapter Text

Ei starts to wonder if her mother does look at Yae differently because of her financial status.

She’s unsettled by the furtive glances Mei shoots Yae when the latter isn’t looking, by how her mother bites her lower lip like she’s trying to hold back her words. There’s no time to ask her mother about the looks though when she is herding everyone onto the next stages of her plan.

They take a car over to the Tenshukaku Hot Springs with Mei having booked the entire facility for the day for them.

Yae groans as her masseuse does a salt scrub on her back before wiping off the salt with a heated towel. “I could get used to this.”

Ei makes a noncommittal noise as her own is working out a knot above her right shoulder blade. “The remineralizing baths feel particularly good.” She makes a note to take Yae to them another time. “We like to go for three days at a time normally, but Mom says she’s got quite a tight schedule right now.”

Yae makes a sound of assent, nodding dreamily.

After that, they go to a private natural hot spring where Yae settles in the heated water with a satisfied smile. “Normally, I can’t stand the water, but I’ll make an exception for hot springs.”

Mei nods. “If it’s not to your liking, you could go to the amusement park around here instead or even wander to the candy store like Ei usually does when we go here.”

Yae shoots Ei a glance. “Why am I not surprised?”

Ei coughs, “Anyway, how are you enjoying this place?”

Afterwards, they head out to an exclusive sushi restaurant that serves whatever the award-studded chef feels like making that day, and, in the evening, Yae happily sinks into the soft blankets of Ei’s bed, having been pampered all day. “Seriously, if this is your life outside of school, I’ll marry you on the spot.”

“I’m expected to do a lot, you know.”

“Yes, I can be a lot to do.” Yae rolls over, muttering sleepily. She yawns. “I wonder what’s next.”

In the morning, Ei’s mother takes them to a track to drive race cars. She waits at the stands, wringing her hands as the girls get changed into their outfits and meet their respective drivers. “Oh dear, I’m a little out of touch. College girls these days are into race car driving, right?”

“Yes, Mom, don’t worry.” Makoto rubs her mother’s shoulder soothingly. “All the girls I know drive over 300 km an hour regularly.”

Ei’s mom nods, though she still seems concerned. “Well, have fun then. I’ll just be over on the bleachers here, reading an article on quantum physics.”

Makoto just shrugs when Yae stares after their mother. “You know moms. Always trying to see if they can unravel the threads of reality.”

“Wait, what?” Yae looks back as Ei tugs her towards their race cars. “What about reality?“

“Makoto is kidding,” Ei mutters. “Mom likes to research quantum mechanics in her spare time. I remember when Makoto and I were five, she got excited and was teaching us that what we perceive as gravity is actually the fabric of space-time responding to energy and mass. Quite fascinating when you think about it.”

Yae stares. “I’m glad you got into robots. I can understand those.”

Their drivers wave for them to come over, and both of them are strapped into the respective cars beside their instructors. Ei quickly grasps the different speeds and controls but watches Yae squabble with her driver.

After mastering the basics of turning at a high speed and braking, she gains her instructor’s permission to have Yae to ride with her for a lap.

Yae seats herself behind Ei, coming in close enough that Ei can feel her breath on the back of her neck. “You could have asked if you just wanted to take me for a ride.”

Ei stiffens and chooses to respond by hitting the gas.

Yae yelps as Ei shoots forward, going into a turn so tight, the G-forces press both of them into their seats. She holds on, managing to straighten out and fly past the finish line before safely decelerating.

Once the car stops, she pops the hood open, and Yae is already climbing out, quickly unbuckling herself, before clambering back into Ei’s lap. “That was so hot.”

Yae starts making out with Ei as the latter is trying to get her seatbelt off. Ei fumbles, half-heartedly trying to push Yae off so she can get out.

Pulling up beside them, Makoto yells, “There are children here!”

Yae pulls away from Ei with a sound like a plug being yanked out of a sink. “No, there isn’t.”

“Well, I’m someone’s child.” Makoto sniffs, and Yae gives her the finger.

“Miko!” Ei yanks Yae’s hand down. “My mother might see.”

Yae scoffs, glancing over to the benches where Mei is nose-deep in a literature review. “I doubt it.”

Ei frowns as she gets out of the car. “In any case, it’s rude. Just…try not to do that in front of me.”

Yae sighs, “If you wish. I—“

They’re interrupted by a honk as Makoto drives around, giving Yae the finger back.

“Makoto!” Ei glances between her sister and her girlfriend. “Okay, let’s just…let’s just move on.”

The next day, they’re all led to the backyard where a short army-style obstacle course awaits them.

Ei’s mother hands Yae a change of clothes, explaining, “Ei always found these sorts of things relaxing.”

After getting an arguing Yae into some track clothing, the twins warm up, waiting behind a start line that Yae eyes warily. Soon, the whistle blows, and Ei and Makoto take off. Yae doesn’t make it past the twenty-foot ladder climb and jump.

Yae crosses her arms. “I’m not wrecking my knees for this.”

Ei’s mother waves it off. “It’s okay, dear. You can come discuss this article about Laplace’s demon with me instead. Isn’t it fascinating how if you could see where every particle is, you could predict where they go? With such perfect information from a clockwork universe, you could perfectly predict the past and the future! In addition to that—“

Yae begrudgingly starts climbing.

Meanwhile, Ei is flipping over uneven beams and running across stumps spread wide across a pit of sand. She notes that the one-man carry across gravel is new as is the quick bike ride across grass.

She runs the entire way while Makoto crosses the finish line a bit after, panting heavily. Yae lags far behind, and she falls into the sand pit once she flops over the last wall. Two of the servants run out with a gurney, making ambulance noises as they load her on and carry her off-field. Yae looks over at Ei incredulously.

Ei scratches her cheek. “Mom used to have people do that when I was younger when I got tired at the end. It cheered me up. Guess she still does it.”

Yae shouts something, but Ei can’t hear her. She steps forward, only to be stopped by her mother’s hand falling on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. They’ll just carry her off to get checked. In the meanwhile—“ She spins Ei around and directs her towards some chairs sitting closeby. “—we should catch up more.”

She seats both of her children around an outdoor table, having caught Makoto trying to sneak off. Makoto and Ei exchange glances while Mei hums and pulls up a list on her phone. “How are your courses going? Your extracurriculars? Your friends? Your plans for post-graduation coming up?” She squints at the screen. “What—any potential industries of note to invest in? Honestly, Yasu, why would the girls notice those?”

Makoto clears her throat. “I can start.”

She launches into her answers for all of the above while Ei drifts off, glancing at the wide glass doors and watching for when Yae would return. It’s only when Makoto elbows Ei that she realizes it is her turn.

Ei answers absent-mindedly, still watching the doors. It’s only when her mother begins talking that she realizes she zoned out.

“…your plans for after you graduate this year as well as any relationships you want to continue that might…cause complications. Misunderstandings. Hard feelings.” Her mother exhales and sits up. “Phew, well, good discussion. Glad we talked about things.”

“What do you mean?” Ei squints at the back door of the manor where Yae was carried through. “Where is Miko? She should have been back by now.”

Mei claps her hands together. “Oh, I just had her carted off so we can grab her measurements for tonight.”

The twins pause. “What’s tonight?” they chorus together.

“We’re going out for the evening to talk to a fancy, rich lady in her house for a business party. A quick drop-in and greeting. We can take the jet.” Ei’s mother waves it off casually. “You girls better get ready too.”

Ei presses. “Wait, Mom. What complications?”

“I’m…just concerned that if you continue this relationship with your young lady, there could be trouble in the future, considering your situation.”

Ei stiffens, jaw tensing. “She’s not going anywhere.”

Mei‘s eyes flicker before she stands and walks over to the house to get dressed. “That might be the issue.”

Ei doesn’t get any more out of her mother as the twins are ushered through the usual sequence of on-call tailors, hairdressers, and make-up artists. Luckily, their last party dresses are still on hand, so they slip into those before the maids lead them to the balcony in the back where Yae and their mother are waiting.

The twins head through the doorway with Ei spotting Yae immediately.

Yae’s hair is twisted up into an elegant updo, her eyes sparkling when she spots Ei’s backless dress. “You look good.”

She steps away onto the balcony overlooking the pool, grape vines wrapping artfully around the marble ledge. The colour of her dress reminds Ei of a sunset dipping down into the ocean—the gorgeous blend of orange pink that seems impossible for her to replicate. Her dress billows out from the waist in a dreamy train, her top made from silver lacing in the shape of intricate vines and leaves stitched onto a nude cloth. And still, there is still so much to see of Yae—her arms are bare, her back as well. The cut at the front is low enough that Ei could see her breastbone just above where the pieces join. But none of that compares to the slightly shy smile she has when she sees Ei approaching, head dipped a tad.

Yae would probably fuss over some accessories to complete her outfit, but Ei thinks she looks like the most beautiful woman in the world, with or without the dress.

Katherine nods to Ei’s mother and the twins when they walk onto the balcony. She turns to Ei. “I helped her pick out her outfit. What do you think?”

Ei swivels her gaze to the woman waiting for her a few feet away. Yae looks like an adventure waiting to happen—a girl looking off into the distance, surrounded by the sunlit rooftops of a romantic and ancient city. When she looks back, Ei gets the urge to chase after her, no matter where she goes.

Makoto passes by, rolling her eyes. “You can put your tongue back in your mouth, Ei.”

She walks over and places a hand on Yae’s shoulder, clearly complimenting her on her choice of outfit if the latter’s pleased smile is any indication.

Ei’s mother tilts her head at Yae. “That’s…huh.”

“What?” Ei prods.

“That’s the item Yasu got from Sumeru, handmade by an exclusive designer. He had hoped to stack some closets with clothes for when you and Makoto got…”

She clears her throat. “Anyway, Miko picked a modified version of a wedding dress, and…well…I hope she didn’t do that on purpose because that would make things a little awkward.”

Judging by how Yae is carefully watching for Ei’s reaction, Ei would bet that her choice was very deliberate. “Why would that make things awkward?”

Ei’s mother pauses, raising her eyebrows. “You mean it wouldn’t? You’re far more open than I thought you would be in regards to romantic partnerships.”

Okay, Ei has no idea what her mother is going on about. “What—“

“Ei, come here.” Yae seems to have waited long enough and reaches out to impatiently grab Ei by the hand. When they have some space from the others, she turns to Ei, eyes roaming over the latter’s face as if searching for something. “Well? What do you think?”

“You look amazing.”

“Well, yes, I always do.” Yae crosses her arms, fingers dancing agitatedly on her biceps. “I mean…what do you think of the dress?”

Glancing her over, Ei frowns. “It’s missing something.”

She looks over to a stand where Katherine had laid out accessories. Ei picks out a particular necklace from the tray of glittering jewelry—a pendant carved from amethyst in the shape of a magatama, its colour matching Yae’s eyes. Yae lifts a gold choker as well as several long necklaces to layer on. “Would you mind helping me put these on?”

The longer pieces are easy enough. The choker requires Yae to hold her hair to the side while Ei delicately works with the clasp, inhaling her scent that reminds Ei of walking through cherry blossoms in the spring. When Ei finishes, Yae turns around with a look in her eyes that Ei can’t quite place—something pleading and vulnerable underneath her usually confident veneer.

Makoto glances over, eyes lingering on the choker. “You look like a kept woman.”

“Maybe that’s the point.” Yae meets Ei’s gaze, and there’s unexpected heat in them that makes Ei’s breath catch in her lungs. Her fingers trail down Ei’s arm. “I—”

Mei butts in. “You look wonderful. But also, we should really get going. It may take a couple of hours to fly over to Liyue.”

Yae does a double-take. “Did you say Liyue?”

“Yes, our associate is throwing her annual get-together there, and we normally drop in for a couple of hours to rub shoulders with some prospective partners,” Mei sighs. “Normally, my husband would do that, but he’s preoccupied with other matters. Anyway,” she jerks her thumb over her shoulder, “to the jet.”

They’re driven over to a small private airfield where a slender plane waits on the runway, easily reaching over 60 feet in length. The pilot is already in the cockpit, readying for takeoff as they’re ushered onboard.

Yae goggles over the snacks, the bottles of water, the immense amount of legroom for the eight seats inside.

Ei’s mother glances over. “Oh, sorry, Miko. Did you want to take a nap on the bed at the back of the plane?”

Yae shakes her head. “No, I’m just…I have never been in a private jet before.”

Mei waves her hand. “You get used to it. This one is a bit on the older side, so it only goes 900 km per hour at top speed. Anyway, Ei, Makoto, can you two show her the snack bar?”

The plane takes off shortly afterwards, Ei already tightening her fingers into the fabric of her dress. Makoto glances over, spotting Ei’s hands clenched. She raises an eyebrow, and Ei shakes her head in response, exhaling. She will be fine. It’s just another party.

Meanwhile, Yae is asking their mother, “What should I be expecting over there?”

“We’re just meeting some old friends and acquaintances from Liyue—some of our families tend to work together and even marry into their lines.” Mei glances at her daughters before going on. “If you are serious about establishing your publishing house, then developing a relationship with some of these well-established merchants would be beneficial.”

Yae leans forward. “Do tell.”

“Well, artists and architects like Mountain Shaper and Cloud Retainer sometimes pop by once in a while. The Qixing are always there, since usually one of them is hosting, and there’s an heir or so from one of the commerce guild hanging about. And then, you have the rest filled with all sorts of people like divas and anyone who has links to the higher ups.”

Mei sighs, rubbing her head. “Truthfully, the only people I would like to converse with are the scientific minds that occasionally like to pop by. My husband is far better at spotting potential partnerships than I am.”

Yae glances at Ei. “Maybe a talent we have in common.”

Makoto mulls over the thought. “And maybe a complementary strength to Ei’s.”

Yae smiles at Makoto. “On that, we can agree.”

Soon, the view below turns to a single sheet of water that spans into the horizon, small islands dotting its surface here and there. Yae checks out the plane’s movie section while Makoto catches up with Mei about the family business and their various companies. Ei plugs in her earphones and tunes everything out for a couple of hours, cold dread already uncoiling itself in her stomach.

Their plane touches down on an airfield surrounded by massive mountains. When they exit, servants dressed in outfits of gold and red silk lead them to the carriages that would take them to Ningguang’s golden house.

A towering mansion greets them once they’re driven up the paved road, the doormen greeting the guests slowly flowing into a massive open doorway, laughing and tittering amongst themselves. Ei’s grip tightens on Yae’s arm who shoots her an inquisitive look.

The guards around the perimeter flit their gazes from face to face, though they carefully escort the party up to the doors.

The inside looks like every ballroom Ei has seen—giant crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling; waiters and waitresses swirling among the crowd, trays of drinks and hors d’œuvres in hand; alabaster and gold pillars lining the floors like sentries while a massive staircase rests at the far side where the host greets her guests.

Yae glances around, seeming to soak everything in like a sponge. “There’s a lot of people trying to curry favours around here.”

Makoto sighs, “You’ll find a lot of them here. And people trying to get you to marry them for some reason.” She glances over at her sister. “Are you okay?”

Ei nods, jaw tensing as a headache already starts to pound at her temple from all of the chatter around them. “I’ll be fine.” When Yae peers at her curiously, she adds, “Not a fan of crowds, remember?”

“Wait, I see someone I know.” Ei’s mother reaches into the crowd, seeming to pull a young nervous woman out of thin air. “Ganyu! Good to see you! Give your mother my regards for her work on my Fibonacci staircase.”

“Oh, I will, Mrs. Raiden!” Ganyu tries to turn around to leave when Mei whirls her around again. “…is there something you need?”

Ei’s mother examines her. “I didn’t take you as much of a party person, actually. Did you start becoming more outgoing?”

“Oh, no. I’m here to assist Lady Ningguang with the party.” Ganyu tugs at one sleeve. She glances at Ei and smiles tentatively. “I…I’m also keeping an eye on my half-sister. She’s prone to starting fights sometimes.”

Ei raises an eyebrow, perking. “What kind?”

Mei turns around sharply. “No fighting!” She swivels back to Ganyu. “In any case, thank your mother for me and let her know that she can come visit when her schedule is free. It is rare to get a hold of such an architectural genius.”

Ganyu nods, starting to bow and edge away, and Ei doesn’t blame her. Makoto gently takes their mother’s elbow, steering her toward the massive staircase at the back of the ballroom while Yae peers curiously after the retreating Ganyu.

Yae looks at Ei as they line up at the base of the marble and gold staircase to greet the host. “She seems interesting. How do you know each other?”

“Childhood acquaintances,” Ei mutters. “Our parents occasionally run in the same circles.” And Ganyu was the only other kid who looked as miserable as Ei did at the gatherings. “I haven’t met the half-sister she mentioned though.”

Yae hums. “Maybe a recent discovery for herself?”

Mei hushes them and hurries them along as the line clears.

An extremely tall woman waits at the top of the stairs, rubbing the bridge of her nose after the latest merchant kowtows at her feet, fan dangling from one hand. When she sees the party approaching, she perks. “Raiden Mei. It is good to see you here. You always prove to be more interesting than the people I usually meet.”

Her mother greets the host with a wide smile. “Lady Ningguang, thank you for inviting us.”

“The pleasure is mine. You and your company have contributed a lot to the rise of ours. It’s a shame that our CEO couldn’t make it here due to an excursion he promised to be on. He should be back in a couple of days.” Ningguang glances over the twins. Her eyes glitter. “Oh, and you two look familiar. Which one of you is Raiden Ei?”

Confused, Ei raises her hand while Ningguang examines her curiously like Ei is an exquisite porcelain case about to be purchased. “How do you know my name?”

“Who doesn’t?” Ningguang smiles at Makoto. “The Raiden twins—some of the most eligible bachelorettes in our circle.” Upon seeing Yae stiffen, Ningguang adds, “Provided that they’re not already taken.”

She reaches her hand forward in a handshake while Yae steps up to introduce herself. “You’re Saiguu’s girl, aren’t you? Quite a pretty one you turned out to be. It’s a shame Zhongli couldn’t be here. His newest partner decided to take him out on a trek to Wuwang Hill for some kind of cleansing of sorts.”

Ei asks, “Who is Zhongli?”

Everyone turns to stare at her. Her mother looks confused at Ei’s question while Ningguang answers, “You might know him better by his title of Rex Lapis or Morax. He’s the head of my company even though I oversee pretty much everything,” she sighs. “I’m sure if he’d known you would be here, he would have been interested in swinging by.”

“Why do you say that?” Ei frowns.

“Ningguang.” A woman with long twin tails the colour of lilacs comes up. “Sorry for the interruption, but we saw La Signora skulking around on the grounds.”

She spots the party and bows briefly. “Mrs. Raiden, good to see you here. My parents wondered if you wanted to proceed with the land purchase near Lisha.”

Mei smiles. “Please tell them that we will and to get in touch with our purchasing department. Thank you for following up, Keqing, but honestly, go enjoy yourself. We’re at a party, for gods’ sake.”

Keqing scribbles down the suggestion. “I’ll put it on my to-do list. Lady Ningguang, your command?”

Ningguang tsks. “Let Beidou handle it. That’s what I keep her around for.”

Keqing mutters, “Among other things.” She nods and heads off, pausing halfway down the stairs. “La Signora also snuck in some paparazzi.”

Ningguang groans. “I bet she plans to make a scene.” She clicks her fan close. “You would think a so-called top-tier fashion designer and artist would know how to handle a turn down better. Perhaps, she should have stuck to modelling if she was going to throw such a fit.”

She nods to Ei, Makoto, and Mei. “My apologies, ladies. I need to take out some trash.”

As Ningguang heads down the stairs, Makoto leans over to Ei, whispering, “I don’t think La Signora can take any more burns at this rate.”

Ei replies, “That’s too bad. I enjoyed her brief stint in pop music.”

Their mother clears her throat, guiding them back to the ballroom floor. “Now, girls, we’re only going to be here a short amount of time to—“

A group of wandering researchers seem to come out of nowhere to surround Mei, who glances around confusedly as they fire question after question about her work. They carry her off in a split second while the trio watches them.

Makoto turns around, shrugging. “Mom will be back. C’mon, Ei. Let’s get you someplace quiet and—“

A stream of beautiful women and handsome men rustle up next to Makoto, surrounding her. They lead her off, chattering her ear off even as she glances back at her sister, alarmed. Ei steps forward to follow, but the crowd steps between, causing her to lose sight of Makoto in a second.

Ei stops, taking several deep breaths and trying to calm the anxiety wrapping itself tightly around her nerves. “She’ll be back too. Makoto always returns.”

Yae crosses her arms, tapping her chin in thought. “Well, looks like that rich lady wasn’t kidding. Makoto is certainly the most eligible bachelorette in this party.” She glances at Ei. “And you are too.”

Ei reaches out to squeeze her shoulder. “I’m already taken.”

Yae’s eyes glitter. “That’s what I like to hear.”

Spotting a glimpse of blue out of the corner of her eye, Ei turns, catching sight of a famous son of a merchant house. “Look, there is Xingqiu from the Feiyun Commerce Guild. In the past, he’s expressed interest in writing and publishing his written works. Perhaps, he can be a good contact for you in the future.”

Yae straightens up, starting to walk over. She pauses, glancing back at Ei. “Will you be all right by yourself?”

Ei forces a smile on. “I’ll be okay. Go on. I’ll still be here.”

Yae looks unsure, but she nods and makes her way over to the young businessman and writer, introducing herself easily as she slips past the people surrounding him.

Ei exhales, glancing around and hoping no one recognizes her. A few do, and they greet her. Ei smiles tightly, answers automatically when they ask her how she’s doing, though she never understood why they’d bothered asking if they didn’t genuinely care. She laughs at the appropriate times, like how Makoto coached her to do so, and excuses herself after politely nodding along to superficial topics, the speakers sometimes lost in the sound of their own voice. The repetition of this ritual grinds on her each time someone stops her to chatter on.

She glances over, watching Yae melt into the crowd like water, like she’s in her element. Her confidence poise and smirk conveys that to Ei far better than any words could. Ei only wishes she had that amount of social grace.

She makes her way to the nearest wall to hide there, but she’s caught by someone on the way.

A sharp-featured woman cuts in front of her, dragging her quickly by the arm. “Miss Raiden, what a pleasure to see you. You must try the champagne here. It’s absolutely divine.”

Ei barely recognizes her, though she recalls she is a heiress of a rival company. “I don’t drink—“

The woman ignores her as she snatches a flute off of a passing waiter’s tray, nearly shoving the whole thing into Ei’s hand. “You won’t even indulge the host in appreciating the fine drinks they paid for? Your parents didn’t teach you to be so ungracious, did they?”

Ei smiles tightly, feeling her hand clench around the stem of her wine glass. She takes a sip, the liquid bubbling and bitter on her tongue as the woman watches her with an almost greedy stare.

The heiress leans in, voice low. “Your mother’s patents—“

Yae’s voice cuts in. “Ei, is this where you’ve been? Why so secluded? The party’s over there.”

A tug on Ei’s arm, and Ei nearly jolts when Yae wraps herself around it. She greets the heiress with a charming smile, though there’s a sharp look in her eyes. “Oh my? Isn’t this quite a concerning scenario? I wonder what the host would say if they found you cornering the daughter of their friends and trying to pry drunken secrets out of her?” Yae turns to the ballroom. “Let’s call them and ask.”

The heiress stiffens. “No need. I was just concerned about the amount she was drinking.” She clucks her tongue, looking disappointed but moving on.

Yae keeps her smile until the woman disappears into the crowd before dropping it. She hisses, “Some of these people are vipers.” Sighing, she says, “But it’s not that different from some of my business classes, truth be told.”

A voice from behind them adds, “Or law school.”

They turn to see a short red-haired girl holding a canapé. She holds out her hand. “Yanfei. Legal prodigy. I specialize in corporate and intellectual property law with an interest in international businesses.”

Yae perks. She returns the gesture. “Then, I may have a need for your services in the future.”

Yanfei grins. “Figured as much. I have a knack for finding clients who benefit from my work.”

As Yae and Yanfei chat further about what exactly the latter does, Ei finds herself drifting to the quietest corner of the room, the tinkle of glasses and loud chatter sounding like cacophony cranked up to the maximum volume in her ears. The voices are too loud, the words overlapping like waves crashing into one another. Her dress suddenly feels too tight, too hot under the overly bright lights. There’s not enough space. Ei feels tightness constrict her throat down to her stomach, and panic grasps at her heart in a cold clench.

She needs to get out. Somewhere. Anywhere.

A screech splits the air. Everyone turns to a woman with platinum-blonde hair dressed in white and red who somehow manages to flip over a table before being tackled by a tall brunette with an eyepatch. A fistfight breaks out, and someone who looks a bit like Ganyu drifts into it as Ganyu rushes in to pull her off.

La Signora manages to somehow throw the eyepatched woman onto another table, the woman groaning as she tries to get up from broken wood. Keqing steps up, whipping out what looks like a taser as La Signora starts screaming.

Instantly, everyone whips their phone out to record La Signora fighting off the guards and Keqing’s taser. Ei slips away onto a secluded balcony, to a far corner outside the reach of the lights inside.

Her nerves are still screaming under her skin, tremors and shakes wracking her body as she closes her eyes to shut out everything.

Her heartbeat races out of her ears, her throat. There’s too much all at once. She feels like she’s drowning, like someone is holding her underwater while she’s thrashing for air.

Yae’s voice calls out, cutting through the noise. “Ei?”

Her silhouette is highlighted in a golden glow as she approaches Ei huddled in the shadows. “Are you okay? Makoto said she saw you having something called a meltdown in there.”

Ei squats. She rocks back and forth, tucking her head into her arms. “I’m fine.”

“Anyone with eyes can clearly see that you’re not.”

Yae softens. She lowers herself and reaches out to touch the small of Ei’s back, and Ei twists away, snapping. “Not now. I don’t need you to try to…get a fuck from me.”

“You think that’s all you are?” Yae’s voice is quiet, hurt. It’s the first time Ei has ever heard that tone from her. She stops, turning around as Yae continues, “You’re so much more than that.”

“Then, what do you call all the—“ Ei makes a gesture like she’s trying to physically grasp words. “—all of this?”

“I don’t fuck you. Unlike the others, I feel it here.” Yae taps her chest. “In my heart. In my soul.” She shakes her head. “I make love to you with everything I have.”

“Well, that’s—“ Ei grits her teeth, ripping a hand through her hair. She wraps her arms around her knees as if to block out the outside world. “—I’m sorry, Miko. I just—give me a moment, please.”

Ei closes her eyes, feeling crushed by the shame welling up inside her chest, brushing up against her lungs until she can’t breathe. “I just can’t—it’s too much.”

Yae rubs soothing circles in Ei’s back even as the latter stiffens. “Are you feeling overwhelmed? What do you need me to do?”

Ei shakes her head, voice gone. But Yae seems to understand.

They stay like that in a corner of the balcony for a few minutes. Maybe more. Ei starts to shake. “You shouldn’t have seen me like that, Miko. I—“

Yae cuts in. “Am human and have moments when you fall apart too.” She watches Ei’s expression carefully. “You don’t need to be perfect. I accept you just as you are.”

Maybe she shouldn’t.

Ei clutches her arms. “You should date someone better. Maybe Makoto—“

Yae scoffs, “If I wanted to date her, I would have.”

Makoto’s voice floats over to them from the doorway, “You would have tried.”

Ei looks up as Makoto makes her way over, squatting down to meet her gaze. “Are you okay?”

Ei shakes her head, and Makoto continues on, tone gentle. “What do you need? Space? Silence? Us to just be here?”

Nodding, Ei keeps her face tucked away, and Makoto lightly rubs her shoulder. “Hey, you’re okay. I got you.”

Yae’s voice drifts in from her other side. “I do too. Take your time.”

Silently, Makoto gets up and closes the glass double doors to the balcony, cutting them off from the party. “Go ahead, Ei.”

Ei launches herself towards the ledge, tightly gripping onto the marble and bellowing out into the night over the mountainside. All the stress from the noise and overstimulation blast out of her system in a cross between a scream and a cry, and the partygoers probably think an eagle is being strangled somewhere.

Once she runs out of air, she feels the tremors start in her arms and legs, and she slouches over the railing. After what feels like an eternity, Ei exhales and gets up, nerves still feeling raw and frayed, but panic no longer squeezes at her throat, her chest. A few seconds later, horror hits her as she begins to calm down: Yae saw everything. She probably thinks Ei is a freak.

Ei turns. “Miko, I—I’m sorry you had to see that.” She stares at the ground, unable to look at Yae’s face. “I just couldn’t cope, and I had to let it out. I don’t usually do this. I’m more normal. I don’t—“

Yae presses a finger against her lips. “Ei, stop. I told you that I accept you for who you are and who you are not. Nothing I saw tonight is going to change that.” She shrugs. “Plus, Makoto already prepared me for this during the ride over while you were sleeping.”

Ei shakes her head. “But I should be better. I should be able to handle this—”

Makoto cuts in, “Stop apologizing. You did nothing wrong.” She reaches down to squeeze Ei’s hand. “Let’s head back to the plane and wait for Mom there. I’m kind of sick of people preening themselves in front of me as if I’ll accept an engagement on the spot.”

She glances over at Yae. “And good thing you’re already tamed. Otherwise, you might have gone to town in there, given your history.”

“What are you insinuating?” Yae places a hand on her chest. “I’m simply grateful for the many opportunities to sample a whole variety of women to figure out what I liked before I picked your sister. Wouldn’t you consider it merely clever discernment?”

“I would if you weren’t trying to make excuses for your ho-bag days.” Makoto scoffs, “You’re a schemer at heart, Yae. But not a bad one.”

Yae raises an eyebrow. “That’s quite a claim. Why, I’m such a naturally supportive person that if I were a song, it’d be—“

Makoto interrupts, “What? ‘By 2 am, I hope I’m naked with her’?”

Yae shoves her away. “Anyway, Ei, we should get you back to the plane.”

Makoto and Yae bicker the entire way back, but Ei finds their exchange soothing in a way, lacking in any real venom. Makoto tells one of the servants to let their mother know that they would be exiting the party as they walk through the doorway. They nod goodbye to Ningguang who waves distractedly at them while watching her guards haul a tied up and gagged Signora into a police van.

The plane is quiet, safe. Yae and Makoto raid the chips section of the snack bar while Ei goes through a few bags of candy, a relieving sense of calmness coming back the more she stays in their presence. Mei doesn’t take too long to return, looking a bit frazzled herself, and groaning loudly when she sinks into a leather seat while Ei offering her some caramel corn in empathy. The pilot takes off shortly afterwards, and Ei drifts off, waking up only when they touch back down in Inazuma.

Makoto and Yae haul her into the car to return home and help her out when they arrive. Makoto wraps an arm around her shoulders while Yae grabs the other side. Her sister kisses her cheek. “You’ll be okay.”

Ei sighs as they look up at the sight of her house, Mei having already wandered with a hand pressed to her temple, complaining of a similar headache to Ei’s. “Yes, it’s good to be here.”

Yae tilts her head. “Back at the house?”

Ei turns to Makoto first, pulling her sister in briefly and returning the kiss before whirling around to Yae and nuzzling her.

She exhales, relieved. “No, home.”

Chapter Text

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?”

“ANYWAY…”

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 publishing house.

Yasu stares at Yae over his fingers. “Why? What is about selling books?”

Yae smiles. “It’s not about that. 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 her 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.”

Her…her what?

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—”

Fair enough.

“--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.”

Chapter Text

After the chat with Ei’s parents, Yae returns to their shared room and smashes the number they gave her so hard into her cell phone that she probably sprained her thumbs on the glass. It doesn’t help that Ei’s parents swear they would have gotten her engaged to some woman nicknamed the Tsaritsa instead had they known Ei swung that way instead.

She snarls as the dial tone kicks in, and a polite, albeit familiar, female voice picks up. “Enduring Rock Inc. How may I help you?”

“Yes, you can tell your CEO where to shove his—“

Ei rips the phone away from her. “Sorry about that. This is Raiden Ei.” She puts it on speakerphone so Yae can hear. “Can we speak to your boss?” She frowns. “Are you Ganyu?”

“Oh, Ei! Yes, it’s me. I’m the assistant to all of the major leaders here. It’s a surprise to hear from you so soon.” A pause. “And who was just on the phone now?”

“Uh…that’s what we’d like to speak to Zhongli about.” Ei glances sidelong at her, and Yae exhales, unclenching her hands, the imprints of her nails still visible on her skin. “Is he available?”

“I’m sorry, but he’s still on a trip to Wuwang Hill. However, he did give me permission to interrupt him if something important came up.” A clicking sound that sounds like Ganyu is typing. “I can slot you for dinner tonight if you’d like?”

“Actually, could you leave a message for me?”

“My apologies, but he left me specific instructions to not accept anything before he spoke with you face-to-face first.”

“Oh, I see. I guess dinner would be good then. Just text me the time and place.” Ei proceeds to give Ganyu her contact info while Yae tenses her jaw so tightly, her teeth hurt. She hangs up, looking over with a concerned expression. “Miko—“

“You’re going to marry someone else,” Yae snaps.

“Yes.” Ei pauses. “You seem upset.”

“Really? Whatever gave you that idea?” She scowls as she throws herself into a seat. “Can’t believe you were engaged this entire time.”

“I didn’t know!”

Yae points at her. “You played me!”

“I DIDN’T KNOW.”

“WOMANIZER.”

A knock sounds at the door, and Makoto strides in a moment later, white folders under her arms. She pauses. “Is this a bad time?”

Yae stands, stiffening. “No. What’s that you’ve got?”

Makoto glances at her sister. “The dossiers on our fiancés. Just got these from Mom and Dad’s legal team along with copies of our arranged marriage contracts.”

She hands Ei what is presumably her folder, and Ei opens it to reveal a headshot of a man in his mid-twenties, handsome and serious-looking with what looks like amber eyeliner.

“He looks like the frontman for a K-Pop band,” Yae hisses. “Pretty boy.”

Makoto whistles. “He’s good-looking. Mine looks like a 14-year-old.”

She flips open her folder to show a picture of a young-looking man with bright green eyes and a jaunty hat. “Apparently, he skips out of his duties by disappearing for months at a time. Last time his company found him, he was busking in Fontaine with a ukulele and a harmonica.” Makoto looks at Ei. “Can we trad—“

“No.”

Yae yanks the dossier from Ei. “Gimme that.” She scans through the files inside to get a quick understanding of who they’re dealing with. “Heir to a construction and real estate company. Parents died young. Forced to take leadership at 16. Boosted revenue by 430% over the past ten years by revamping outdated systems and products. Voted one of the most successful CEOs under 30 by Qingce Business Review magazine. Voted most eligible bachelor in Liyue for three years running. Donates over a million dollars annually to charities that support orphans, puppies, and kittens. Spends his free time investing in potentially successful restaurants, tea shops, and storytellers.”

She snaps the folder close. “Sounds boring. Don’t know why you’d possibly want him.”

Ei frowns. “Perhaps, we can reason with him to void the contract.”

“Good luck.” Makoto pulls out a sheaf of papers from underneath her folder. “By the way, here’s yours.”

“Thanks.” Ei takes it. “We can read it on the plane ride there.” She adds when Makoto looks curious. “We’re meeting him tonight.”

“Oh, let me know how it goes!” Makoto leans in, voice low. “And if you ever change your mind about trading—“

“No!”

Yae feels something twitch in her brow. “She’s not saying yes to him.” She grabs Ei by the arm, dragging her out of the room. “And we’re going to have a talk to let him know.”

They take the private jet, and the silence for the next three hours is rather awkward. Yae is furiously flipping through the contract to make sure she understands everything while Ei nervously taps her fingers on her armrest.

At some point, Ei looks at her. “What do you think he’s like?”

Yae waves off the question. “Probably some spoiled airhead who throws a fit if his tea isn’t prepared properly.”

Ei’s brows furrow. “But his bio—“

“Doesn’t matter. He’ll drop the contract the moment he’s inconvenienced.” Yae decides to change tactics and see what she can dig up about the man they’re meeting. “Meanwhile, I’m going to research the kind of reputation this guy has.”

She finds dozens of articles that range from praising him as a business god to those criticizing his ruthless decision to erase his former partner’s name from their joint company to scandals written about a particular affair with a Snezhnayan servant.

Yae smiles. “I think I got the gist of the man we’re meeting.” She pats Ei’s hand. “We don’t have anything to worry about.”

They touch down in an airport outside Liyue shortly afterwards and grab a taxi to head into the city.

The first thing that catches their attention is the massive port that stretches for miles across—a spread of brilliant green water with cargo ships, barges, and yachts passing each other in their designated paths. Some of the roads are paved with stones, and all manner of vendors hawk their wares from the side, the smell of smoke and barbecued meats wafting into the air.

Their driver takes them down a side road that looks like it belongs in the richest district of the city with clean, new buildings, wrapped with decorations of silk, red-painted bamboo, and gold.

They meet Zhongli at one of his favourite restaurants at the top of a spiral of stairs, the dining area closed off into a private section with a painted screen. When they mention to the host whom they are meeting, the woman slams down her menu on her stand and immediately ushers them in.

The man in question is flipping through some reports while drinking from a porcelain cup of tea, finely groomed and serious. His dark hair is fashionably pulled back, his suit a respectable muted colour and immaculately clean. There’s a look of concentration on his face that doesn’t give any emotion other than complete focus. His expression changes when they approach, and he stands to greet them, nodding their way.

Zhongli’s eyes glances between the pair, crinkling at the sight of Ei. “It’s good to meet you at last.” He sits, gesturing for them to join him. “Have you eaten yet?”

Ei clears her throat as she sits down. “No, but we wanted to speak about the contract—“

Zhongli cuts in. “Pardon me for the interruption, but in Liyue, it is considered polite to make small talk when attending a business meeting. After all, we all do business with those we like, respect, and trust, and small talk helps to build such relationships.”

He pauses, softening his tone. “I don’t say this to reprimand you but to help you adjust here. Once we get married, there will be lots of adjustments in terms of social customs and culture.” He covers Ei’s hand with his. “And I look forward to learning more about yours.”

Ei looks surprised. “Oh, that’s very thoughtful of you—“

Yae swats Zhongli’s hand off. “No, we haven’t eaten yet.” She smiles sweetly. “What would you recommend?”

“I have a few ideas.” He nods to a passing waiter. “I hope you enjoy yourselves.”

A few minutes later, steaming platters are brought out in front of them—lotus seed and bird egg soup, slices of matsutake meat rolls, almond tofu. A dish of deep-fried fish with a sweet and savoury red sauce makes Yae’s mouth water as she watches Zhongli smile when a dish filled with ham and bamboo shoots is set down in front of him.

Picking up his utensils, Zhongli fills Ei’s bowl with all kinds of food while Yae nearly snaps her chopsticks, watching. He glances at Ei’s expression and frowns. “What’s wrong?”

Ei bites her lip, glancing to the side. “I was just getting used to the idea of a girlfriend, and now I have a fiancé—“

“Please, if it puts you at ease, you may also call me your future husband.”

Yae grits her teeth. “Actually, that is what we would like to talk to you about after dinner.”

“Of course.”

Zhongli behaves perfectly during the meal, expertly recommending all sorts of wines and drinks to pair with the food with the polished air of an connoisseur. He is well-dressed, well-groomed, and professional-looking. Very pretty too. Yae mutters viciously about his amber eyeshadow, wondering why he even needs it.

“Did you know that Liyue started as a small fishing village and now has become one of the biggest hubs of trade in Tevyat? Let me walk you through the history.”

And on and on with his voice that sounds like an old man.

Once they are satisfied, Zhongli waves for the waiters to take away the remaining dishes. “I believe that is enough conversation to get to know one another. Tell me about the specific inquiries you have.”

Yae slaps one hand down, ready to pounce. “Your decision to sell a critical portion of your mines to the Fatui brokers—“

“A crucial necessity in order to procure their cooperation to patrol the areas around them with their security. Snezhnayan guards are highly trained and professional, so it is of the utmost interest to my company to get proper protection of our assets.” Zhongli tilts his head. “A normal business trade-off, wouldn’t you agree?”

Yae decides to prod him with something more personal then. “And the rumours of your relationship with your pool boy—“

“Former pool boy.” Zhongli opens his hands, shrugging. “And what a beautiful few summers that was. Unfortunately, he had to return to Snezhnaya at the end of his contract, but we still share the memories of those times.”

Ei looks curious. “Oh? You didn’t consider renewing it to get him to stay?”

Zhongli peers at her through dark eyelashes. “I had a future wife to consider, and my understanding is that most women do not like sharing their partners.”

Damn right. Yae’s on the verge of strangling this pretty boy. “How about we change subjects. There was quite a stir in the news when you dropped your former business partner from your company credentials. Why was that?”

Zhongli goes quiet. “Guizhong didn’t want me to constantly be reminded of her departure as I moved forward to accomplish our dreams.” At Ei’s confusion, he adds, “Taken by cancer a few back when we were working on our projects together. She didn’t want her dying paraded around in the media so she kept it quiet.” He exhales. “She was like a sister to me.”

Oh.

Yae feels lower than a stain at the bottom of a shoe. That was a bad idea.

Ei blinks before a consolating expression fills her face. She presses a hand onto Zhongli’s arm. “I’m so sorry to hear that. I don’t know how I would handle it if my sister died, though I imagine it would probably be very poorly.”

“Thank you.” He stares at his gloved hands for a long time before he turns to her and smiles. “One more thing to be grateful for in this upcoming marriage: a chance to get to know more people who will be family.”

“Okay, moving on.” Yae still feels like scum. “Sorry for bringing up that topic.”

He waves it off. “It is something that would have come up sooner or later.” He lifts up his tea cup to take a sip. “That being said, I heard from my assistant that she had met you two at Ningguang’s party the other night and that she got the sense you two were a couple. I have no wish to come between you, so I thought long and hard about a compromise that would satisfy us all. I believe I have it.”

He opens his hands. “I would consider an open marriage if that would keep my future wife happy. You could continue your relationship, and I could fulfill the contract required of me.”

Ei thinks about it. “It does seem quite logical.”

“No, it does not!” Yae slams her hand on the table. “This girl is all mine.”

“Therein lies the problem.” Zhongli shrugs. “She’s not. At least, legally.”

Yae snarls, “Well, then break the contract!”

Zhongli blinks slowly. “I cannot void an unbreakable marriage contract.” He pauses. “Not least because it was one of the last wishes of my dead parents.”

Yae can’t believe he’s pulling the “dead parents” card. “I also have parents that I cannot speak to. Though mine are still alive, they are not interested in maintaining a connection with me.”

Zhongli nods, solemn. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. It’s their loss.” Yae brushes it off. “My point being is that you can have your own path aside from your parents’ wishes, especially if they would be happier if you chose otherwise.”

“A fine sentiment.” He picks up his cup of tea. “The issue is that I am not doing solely to please them. I am doing this because I am a man of my word. The Raiden Clan has entrusted me with the care of their daughter.” He meets Yae’s gaze. “And given her daily needs, I am the best suited to provide financially for her. Far more than most people could ever hope to replicate, which is a necessity with the expectation put on us both. Unless—“ He raises an eyebrow when Yae opens her mouth to protest. “—you feel that you could meet all of her needs economically, socially, and politically, like I could? Would you be able to provide for her so that she can reach her potential, or would you have to ask her to downgrade her dreams because you can’t afford to support them?”

Yae stays quiet.

Ei glances between the two before insisting, “Miko is great, and I can take care of myself.”

“Perhaps.” Zhongli elegantly shrugs. “But as long as the contract remains intact, I will follow through on its intention.” He pauses, solemn. “Whatever that may entail.”

Ei asks, curious, “Even if that means your unhappiness?”

Zhongli crosses his arms, tilting his head and looking deep in remembrance. “You have grown up in similar circles, Ei. You know the expectations our families and our companies put on our shoulders. There is no option for casual dalliances, no quarter for the mercy of emotion. If I had the ability to change the past, would I do so? Perhaps.” He opens his eyes. “But you of all people understand that we are commanded to put our duties above our own happiness.”

They leave the restaurant with hanging heads after that last exchange with Zhongli reassuring them that he’ll have the bill put on his tab so Ningguang can take care of it.

Based on the total on the receipt, Yae would bet Ningguang would more likely kill him instead. She would help.

Coming to a quiet street just before the main road, they stop to think about the dinner. Yae paces to and fro, tension radiating from every limb as she broods over how much better off Zhongli is than her. She whips towards Ei. “You think I’m prettier than him, don’t you?”

“Y-yes?”

“Why is that a question?”

“Uh…because he is objectively quite pretty, but I get the sense that you don’t want to hear that?”

“Then, why did you—“ Yae huffs, pulling out a business card from her pocket and examining it under a streetlight. “Never mind. We’re close to an acquaintance’s place that might be able to help.”

They find a small corner office with the lights still on behind panes of frosted glass, despite the lateness of the night. Yae bangs on the doors, and a moment later, Yanfei appears, scowling. “My office hours are from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday—“

Yae barges past. “We have an emergency. Ei will pay you double your usual rate.” She fishes out the contract from her bag and slams it on Yanfei’s desk nearby. “This involves Morax.”

Yanfei instantly perks. “Well, now, I’m curious enough to take a look.”

She ushers them to a sitting room where pale yellow tea is poured into bright white and red cups with an image of a ghost on them. Yanfei looks embarrassed at the sight of them. “My friend Hu Tao got me this set. Said they match me.” She shrugs. “Regardless of how inappropriate they are, they are my only clean items.”

Ei shakes her head. “It’s not a concern. We would just like to hear your expertise on this matter, as this was signed between my parents and his. We would like to find a way to escape it.”

“My pleasure. Let me just get straight to work.” Yanfei scans through the contract for a long while, muttering once in a while. “Oh, this might be a problem. The writing here is quite watertight. An amazing piece of work, actually.”

“We’re not here to listen to you praise the clauses,” Yae snarls. “Is there anything that can help?”

Yanfei taps on a certain line. “Here. It says that Zhongli has agreed to marry a Raiden twin, but it doesn’t specify whom. Maybe your sister can marry him instead.”

Ei sinks into her seat. “She’s already got a fiancé of her own.”

“Oh.” Yanfei shrugs. “Maybe she can marry two people?”

Ei seems to be considering the idea before shaking her head. “I think polygamy is illegal here.”

“As it is in most of Tevyat, except for certain small regions.” Yanfei sits back, looking stumped and awed. “This contract is pretty foolproof. Not much leeway to wriggle around in it. It even has your approximate wedding date on it.”

Stiffening, Ei asks, “When?”

“Right after you graduate. Luckily, you still have a few more years to figure out something, right?” Yanfei glances at Ei’s expression. “…right?”

Yae grits her teeth. “We’re both done next year.”

“Ah, well. Mazel tov then.”

They leave Yanfei’s office in noticeably lower spirits, Ei glancing over frequently at Yae who tenses her jaw so tightly, she feels like her teeth might shatter.

“Miko, are you—“

“Not now, Ei.”

They walk on in silence, arriving in the middle of a brightly lit pavilion. Stopping by an open bar, a drunk man turns around on his bar stool, grinning and running his gaze up and down Yae. “Hey there, pretty mama. I’m Reckless Pallad, visiting from Mondstadt, and I think you’re so foxy that I wouldn’t mind creeping into your den—“

Yae grabs him by the collar and throws him into the nearest fountain.

The bystanders gasp while the man flounders, and Ei leaps forward to fish him out, apologizing all the while.

He coughs as Ei hauls his upper half onto the ledge, “That’s quite all right. Lots of ladies are overwhelmed by my good looks at first.” He smirks at Yae. “So, about visiting your fox den—“

Ei shoves him back in. “Work on your situational awareness.”

Several Milileth officers run in upon seeing Pallad sputter in the fountain, and Yae takes that moment to usher them quietly out of the pavilion. Ei hails a taxi, which takes them to the airport in an awkward silence that doesn’t get better once they get on the private jet.

The moment they’re in the air, Yae whirls around. “Why aren’t you more upset?”

Ei looks startled. “About what?”

Yae grits her teeth. “Your impending marriage to someone else.”

“I’m still thinking about our meeting.”

Yae’s fingers curl into the armrests. “What’s there to think about?”

Ei furrows her brows. “He isn’t what I was expecting, but I admit that my parents made a fortunate choice if I were to marry him.”

Yae knows Ei means well, but she heard the opposite. “So, you’re thinking of it.”

“No! I just met him.” Ei anxiously searches Yae’s face, but Yae keeps her expression carefully closed off. “I have you, Miko. I don’t want anything else. Regardless of what he said about providing for me financially, it doesn’t matter because—“

Ei’s phone lights up, surprising both of them. Ei checks it. “Oh, Zhongli just sent me a text wishing me a safe flight home and mentioning that he got my number from Ganyu.” She squints at the screen. “He also sent me a $500 gift card to my favourite dango place as a parting gift.”

He’s perfect. Yae hates him.

Yae’s nails dig into her skin. “You’re happy about that, aren’t you?”

“N-no.”

Yae broods in silence for the rest of the flight.

When they finally touch down and arrive at the manor, Yae is sick of the fretful glances Ei sends her way, the hesitant raising of her hand before dropping it to her side. When they make it into Ei’s room, Yae had already stripped down and changed for bed when Ei finally manages to muster her voice.

“Miko, are you…mad?”

“Why would I be?” Yae‘s throat is tight. “Just because you’re about to be married off to a man as pretty as me.”

Ei frowns. “That sounds like you are.”

Yae doesn’t know whether to throw a fit or cry. “Just give me some space, Ei. So much happened tonight, and I might lose—“ She bites her tongue. “He’s stuffy, old-fashioned, boring, droning on about this grass here or this stone here, but he’s right. He has the money to fund your dreams, and I know you have big ones, Ei. I’m not there yet, and I won’t be by the time we graduate.”

Her voice cracks on the last sentence, and it feels like her words hang in the air between them for a lifetime.

Ei gently gathers her hands between her own. “I don’t need his money.”

“I don’t know if your parents see it that way. How can I think of a future with you when I know you’ll be with him by next year?” Yae laments bitterly. She sighs and slumps against the chair. “At least it can’t get worse.”

Ei goes quiet for a long moment. “Do you…want to take some time away from one another to think about this?”

Yae stares before her heart constricts. “You want to take a break?”

Opening her mouth to respond, Ei pauses when she looks at Yae’s expression. “Miko, are you crying? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

Someone knocks at the door. Makoto calls out a second later, “Hey you guys, is this a bad time to tell you that the dorm transfer request got approved, and you two will be rooming together this year?”

Makoto has the worst timing ever.

Yae turns away from Ei, wiping at her eyes. “Take me home. Now.”

She tells Ei to take her to Saiguu’s since she doesn’t want to return to the dorms just now. They take the family helicopter, and Ei glances over the entire ride, looking worried as Yae tucks her hands under her arms, keeping them to herself. Whenever Ei tries to initiate conversation, Yae just turns away and tells her that she’s tired and they’ll talk later.

Ei merely looks at her feet as they ride silently to Saiguu’s. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Miko. I thought some space would help.”

Yae keeps her face to the window. “I know you did.”

She doesn’t say anything further.

The helicopter is noisier than Yae would like as they try to land in her aunt’s backyard at 1 in the morning.

Saiguu stumbles out the back porch, clumsily tying her night robe together as she squints upward. A visible “What the fuck” could be seen leaving her mouth as she shades her eyes to look skyward.

The pilot manages to find a good angle to land as Saiguu runs back and forth underneath them in a panic before deciding to cower in a corner of her porch. The helicopter hovers above Saiguu’s daffodils as Yae hurls her suitcase before leaping out herself.

Ei leans out the open doorway, shouting something Yae can’t hear but looking sad all the same. Yae signals that she’ll talk to her later and treks to the house. She doesn’t look back as the helicopter takes off, only glancing up at it when it’s such a distant speck in the sky that Yae knows Ei can’t see her watching.

Approaching, Saiguu squints at her. “This is one hell of a dramatic break-up.”

Yae inhales sharply. “We’re not breaking up. I just need some space.”

“Uh-huh. And that’s why you’re jumping down from a helicopter in the middle of the night.” Saiguu sighs, tightening her robe. “C’mon, bring your shit inside.”

After Yae deposits her slightly battered luggage in her old room, she joins her aunt downstairs in the kitchen. Saiguu prattles on about this and that while she prepares tea, glancing over occasionally as Yae breathes deeply to calm her nerves. “…got a position as an assistant lecturer at your school. How about that?”

“You? Of what?”

“Modern literature with an emphasis on metaphors, language, and thought—hey, you little shit, stop laughing!”

Yae wipes at an eye. “Oh, I needed that after today.” She sighs, “Aunt Saiguu, why is keeping a good woman so hard?”

Saiguu shrugs. “The fuck should I know?” She plops down two cups of chamomile. “Now, tell me why you literally dropped into my backyard at 1 am.”

Yae quickly relays the visit to Ei’s parents, the reveal of the engagement, and meeting the fiancé in person. “…he’s perfect. I hate him so much.”

Saiguu yawns over her tea. “Why don’t you just accept the open marriage? You could still date her on the side.”

Yae slams the island counter. “I don’t want to be Ei’s mistress!”

“Fine, fine.” Saiguu rolls her eyes. “Kids these days, no longer wanting to put in the work to be a mistress.”

Yae ignores her, running her hand through her hair. “I don’t know how to solve this.”

“There’s only one solution.” Saiguu rubs her hands together. “We murder him.”

“He‘s not a bad guy.” Yae shakes her head. “If only Makoto could take him, but she’s engaged to the heir of the Mondstadt wine and tourism industry.”

“Then, we murder that guy!”

“You suggest that for every problem,” Yae sighs irritably. “Aunt Saiguu, I’m serious. I gave this girl my heart, and I’m about to lose her.”

Saiguu rubs her back. “Kid, sometimes, life knocks you flat on your back. Now, you can continue lying on the ground as life walks all over you, or you can get up and punch life back in the face.”

“….I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You gotta match the fiancé, duh.” Saiguu rolls her eyes. “I mean Ei’s parents only engaged her to him because he’s reportedly hot and rich. You just have to catch up, and maybe they might change their minds and latch her to you instead.”

“What part of UNBREAKABLE CONTRACT did you miss, dear aunt?”

Saiguu shrugs. “It’s your choice whether you want to stay down or get up and fight. But—“ She holds Yae’s hands, and Yae instantly recalls how Saiguu used to gently hold them the same way when she was young and scared. “—I promise you that I’ll do everything in my power to help you out. You just do what you can, and I’ll do the rest.”

Yae holds her breath, looking up, feeling like a five year old all over again. “Promise?”

“Promise.” Saiguu smiles, teeth wicked. “Trust me. I already have a plan.”

Chapter Text

The first thing Makoto does when Ei tells her about what happened with Yae is thump her head on the nearest wall. The second thing she does is tell her sister that she’s an idiot. “What were you thinking?”

“That it was a lot to process, and both Miko and I had to carefully consider our options moving forward.” Ei rubs her forehead. “At least, that was my intention.”

Makoto sighs, leaning against the desk in Ei’s bedroom, moonlight still streaming through the windows in the late night hour. “The key to good communication is to make sure that the recipient understands not only your message but also your heart behind it. It doesn’t sound like Yae did.”

“She said she needed space, and when I suggested it, she became upset.” Ei takes a breath. “How am I supposed to understand what she needs if she doesn’t mean what she says?”

Makoto studies her while Ei’s heartbeat rabbits in her chest, a feeling like she’s barely holding everything in choking her. “Yae can wait. How are you feeling?”

Ei furrows her brows. “I feel as if there should be a solution to all of this if we approach it logically and calmly—“

“No, Ei. What are you feeling? What emotions are you experiencing?”

Ei isn’t sure. There is a sort of fuzzy numbness in her chest and jaw, but nothing that she can label definitively as anger or sadness. The descriptions for the emotions seem to escape her. Whereas others would state that they would feel sad, Ei would be left with a loss of words instead, the physical sensations coming on as a tightness in the throat or the pricking of tears in her eyes. Right now, all she can sense is a vast emptiness inside where her heart should be. “I don’t know.”

Makoto examines her for a while before getting up and gesturing for a confused Ei to follow. “C’mon, let’s go for a walk. It’ll help clear your mind.”

It does not since they run into Mei near the gardens. “Oh, are you girls having a 3 am stroll too?” She tilts her head. “And did one of you borrow the helicopter without asking?”

Makoto maneuvers them to a seat by the pool, still lit-up from underneath despite the dark of the night. Ei explains briefly what had happened, sticking to the facts, which she knows better than the implications and nuances.

Mei claps her hands together. “Oh, your first fight with your girlfriend. My baby’s growing up.”

“Mother, I’m serious. I don’t know what to do,” Ei laments.

“Oh, honey. Sometimes, things feel like it’s the worst thing to have happened to you, because, sometimes, it is. But you can survive each time, and if you also choose to learn from it, you might even get wiser.”

Ei rubs her head. “Can you tell me what to do?”

“Have you tried apologizing? It didn’t work? How about sending her a robot version of you? It’ll probably do something.”

Makoto rubs the bridge of her nose. “Mom, that’s a terrible idea.”

“Hmmm…what if I send a robot version of Ei to her fiancé instead? Oh, it’ll take a few years to prototype and perfect, but it should arrive by the second child or so.”

“I don’t want children with him. I want—“ Ei pauses, recalling how Yae didn’t look back when the helicopter pulled away. She swallows. “I hope I have the chance to have them with someone else.”

Mei places a hand on Ei’s arm. “Sweetie, this whole thing isn’t your fault—“

Makoto interjects. “Yeah, because it’s yours and Dad’s.”

Waving it off, Mei says, “Mistakes were made into the pursuit of well-intentioned parenting. In any case, this is a fascinating study into human behaviour in complex situations.” She stops when Makoto and Ei glare at her. “I mean, I’m sorry, girls. Your father and I jumped the gun on this, and it seems to have caused you both some inconvenience, to say the least.”

Ei sighs, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “This whole contract is nonsense, but Miko seems to be really upset about it.”

Makoto glances at her. “Why do you think that is?”

Ei frowns. “Because she’s very possessive.”

“…while not wrong, I don’t think that’s at the heart of the matter.”

“But I told her that I’m not going anywhere, and I won’t. Why did she forget that?” Ei rubs her forehead, exhaling. “I don’t get it.”

“This might be more emotional than logical for her.” Makoto studies Ei. “First of all, what are you feeling about all of this? What emotions and thoughts are coming up?”

That this misunderstanding could be easily solved if they spoke clearly to one another about what they want. That Ei wishes that she could have understood what Yae was feeling before she said the wrong thing.

Ei feels that familiar fear of getting something wrong socially—the friendliness of her classmates’ faces suddenly turning cold before they ignored her while never explaining why. Which is why Ei prefers to be by herself than with people who never communicate clearly and expect her to read their minds. Why would she want to be with others who don’t take any responsibility for their end of the relationship?

“I just wish…I could have read her better.”

Mei says gently, “You know that’s not possible, dear.”

In her childhood training with a specialist, Ei realized the extent of the differences between her and her twin when they were shown a handful of pictures of different expressions, and Makoto could correctly identify 100% of the emotions displayed while Ei got 60% of them wrong. Even with one-on-one social training, Ei had only as much chance at figuring out the right emotion as haphazard guessing, so she stopped trying to improve at something that ate up a lot of time and energy with little return. However, she fears that perhaps she should have kept going if losing Yae might be the result.

Ei hangs her head. “So, what do I do? I’m not going to get better at picking up social cues anytime soon.”

Wandering into the world unprepared feels like she’s in a land where everyone speaks a language that Ei doesn’t understand, a culture that seems strange and foreign and hostile to anyone who doesn’t immediately fit in. Besides her family, Yae was the one of the first to show that she didn’t care.

Or maybe Ei is wrong about her, and she is fed up with all of Ei’s social missteps, her spiralling anxiety, her inability to read the mood and perpetually say the wrong things. Maybe Yae is just done with her, that she’ll say Ei is too much, and Ei will nod along, smile and accept another rejection like she has so many times before.

Perhaps, even Yae’s eyes will grow dull at the sight of her. Eventually, she’ll look away like everyone else, and Ei is invisible once again.

Mei murmurs quietly. “Perhaps, you just need to resolve the contract, and things will get better with you and your girlfriend?”

Ei sighs, feeling frustration coursing through her like a heated river running from throat to belly. Her mind starts running back through the meeting with Zhongli and the distraught silence with Yae, wondering how things could escalate so badly with her feeling like a child trying to stop an avalanche with her bare hands.

And Ei still can’t find the words to describe what she’s experiencing. “I’m not doing so great.”

“Let’s change tactics.” Makoto tilts her head. “If you were in Yae’s shoes, how would you feel?”

“I—“ Ei takes a moment. “—I would not be happy. I would want my partner to be mine and only mine.”

Makoto nods. “What do you think she fears?”

“I guess not being able to marry me.” Ei rubs her temples. “I didn’t know Miko wanted to get married.”

“…I don’t think any of us were expecting that.” Makoto continues on, “Okay, and what do you fear will happen if the worst possible outcome occurs?”

Ei’s throat tightens. “That she’ll just be like everyone else and leave me.”

Makoto squeezes her arm. She gently asks, “Is Yae aware that you feel this way?”

Ei shakes her head. “It didn’t occur to me to share.”

“You still have a long way to go, sis.”

Mei sits back, reflecting on the discussion. “Saying so might be a start. You’re right about one thing. Some emotions are too big to feel all at once. You feel them in bits and pieces over time, hitting you hardest when you least expect it and when you’re most vulnerable. Yae might not understand when you try to explain them to her, but…if you never try, you won’t know if she’s someone who can try to accept you as you are.”

Ei is almost afraid to ask. “And if she can’t?”

Makoto glances at her sister before reaching out to squeeze Ei’s hand. “Then, she’s not the one. I’m sorry.”

It feels like something reaches into her body and chokes her heart. Ei doesn’t know how to put the pressure in her chest into words. “I don’t want that.”

Mei shrugs. “Like I said before, if you can’t think of a solution in a linear way, you’ll have to try thinking laterally.”

Ei chews her lip. “How do I change things so an ideal outcome will come about?”

Makoto peers at her. “What do you think?”

“I would first need to either annul the contract or get it removed. However…“ Ei sits, fretting over the document as she goes over it in her mind, fingers clenching on her thighs. “I don’t see a way out of it with the information I have.”

Makoto studies her before saying gently, “Like I said, Ei. We could trade. Perhaps, this Venti guy is more liable to cancel the contract than Zhongli, and you could carry on with Yae.”

Ei searches Makoto’s face. She finds nothing there but kindness. “But what if you fall in love?”

Makoto shrugs. “Hasn’t been the case so far. We’ll see if that changes.”

Ei is still worried, feeling uneasy about Makoto sacrificing her opportunity at an independent relationship, but it’s the best solution they’ve come up with so far. If only they could find a way to find the Mondstadt heir who seems to have gone on a traipse throughout Tevyat again. She spends the remainder of her days before the start of the semester calling and emailing everyone in Venti’s company who might know where he might be with the end results being a lot of dead ends, shrugs, apologies, and one lady’s consolatory book for the “upset cutie.”

She also sends Yae messages and calls, but Yae doesn’t pick up and only answers her texts with a terse reply. Ei doesn’t know what that exactly means, but she gets that she’s in quite a bit of trouble with Yae. Whenever she asks Makoto what to do, Makoto merely shakes her head and tells her to give Yae time.

“You said something deeply hurtful to her, and she needs time to sort her feelings about it. Plus, she can be pretty prideful. She’ll come around.” Makoto pats her shoulder. “Hopefully, before you both die of old age.”

The start of the semester arrives, and Ei can’t delay coming back to the dorms.

Ei waits anxiously in front of the dorm she shared with Yae, hand hovering above the door surface. Taking a breath, she knocks. When she hears nothing, her stomach sinks to her shoes, and she lets herself in.

Makoto arrived a day earlier to move her stuff and coordinate with Yae to switch their rooms around, but when Ei enters, she sees Yae’s side of the room almost completely bare, save for the stuffed fox that she won Yae what feels like ages ago sitting dumbly on the bed.

It looks like Yae doesn’t live here at all.

Ei stands, staring into the room before swallowing down the tightness in her throat and bringing her bags in.

After unpacking everything, she gets a message from Yae asking to meet at her favourite coffee shop. Ei bursts out from the room, texting her one-handedly as she runs over right away.

She arrives to find Yae already sitting at one of the outside tables, checking her phone while sipping her drink absent-mindedly. Yae looks up as she arrives, smiling politely. “Ei, thanks for coming so quickly. Take a seat.”

When Ei steps in to hug her, Yae turns away, shoving her coffee cup between them. “Sorry, can’t do that right now. Wouldn’t want to accidentally stain my clothes, would we?”

She gestures for Ei to sit down, and after a moment of staring, Ei obeys, choosing a chair about an arm’s length away. “How…how are you doing?” Ei ventures tentatively.

Yae shrugs with one shoulder. “Up and down with the start of the semester. They really don’t let up in our final year at all.”

“Did you…already move all of your stuff in? With me?” Ei keeps her voice carefully controlled.

“Ah.” Yae glances up, and there’s a glimpse of something in her eyes that Ei can’t quite pinpoint. “I decided that living somewhere else might be prudent for now. Don’t worry. Makoto is nicely situated in my old dorm, and you have your…space.”

She sits up, changing topics. “Anyway, I have a favour to ask of you.” She points to a well-dressed man stepping into the long line that’s already growing out the door of the coffee shop. “See him? That’s Kamisato Ayato—my arch nemesis.”

Yae glares at him, and he notices. He smiles politely and waves. Yae plasters on a smile and returns the gesture. “Smug, self-serving bastard.”

Ei is confused. “Why do you dislike him so much?”

Yae glances sidelong. “I don’t know, Ei. Do you think I have a reason to hate perfect men?”

She continues on without her answer. “Anyway, this semester, he and I will be competing for the prime internships among the best companies. I need you to distract him so I can grab the top spot.”

Ei frowns. “Isn’t that cheating?”

“Says the woman who’s dating me with a fiancé on the side.”

Guess Yae is still mad about that. “Speaking of—“

“Will you do it or not?” Yae glances at her phone. “I can always get another—“

“I’ll do it.” The words pass through her lips before Ei can think about it. She just wants Yae to look at her.

“Good. I appreciate it.” Yae smiles and gets up. “I’ll send you some leads to do so.”

“Wait.” Ei grabs Yae’s wrist. “Can we talk about what I said that night at my house?”

Yae gently peels off Ei’s touch. She doesn’t make eye contact. “What more needs to be said?”

She slips away into the crowd before Ei could respond, leaving her alone at the coffee shop where she first met Yae.

An hour later, Yae sends Ei a text detailing how she plans to derail Ayato’s attention from the internships. Ayato, for his part, is an excellent student, president of several student clubs, and particularly well-known for his skills in the Iaido Club. His only known weakness is his doting and worry over his younger sister Ayaka.

Ei finds the girl in question where Yae said she would be, outside the student hub and staring longingly at the worker in the food truck shaped like a boba tea drink.

Kamisato Ayaka nearly jumps when Ei approaches her. “I wasn’t—“ She coughs. “My apologies, you startled me.”

Ei glances at the pretty blonde girl chatting away with a customer as she punches in a drink order. “Ah, you have romantic or potentially sexual interest in the worker over there.”

She wonders if she said the wrong thing when Ayaka goes bright pink. “Don’t jump to conclusions. I just think Lumine is perfectly friendly, gorgeous, with a beautiful smile and such a wonderful spirit…with hair like spun gold and eyes like the ocean at midday…”

She trails off with a sigh, and Ei waits as Ayaka shakes herself out of it. Ei leans forward. “So, you are romantically interested.”

Ayaka coughs and straightens up. “How can I help you?”

Ei opens her mouth then pauses. She glances over at Lumine while thinking over Yae’s request to distract Ayato. An idea clicks. “What if…” she says slowly, “…I can help you?”

Ayaka looks puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Maybe I can talk to her for you. Ask her on a date on your behalf?”

“I—“ Ayaka flushes before something else comes over her expression. “Ah.” She studies Ei quietly. “So, you are the fabled Fox Whisperer.”

“I…suppose.”

“I’ve heard of your prowess in taming Yae Miko.” Ayaka muses. “Maybe you can assist me here.”

Ei feels like Yae would highly object to Ayaka’s words, but she also remembers that she needs to get Ayaka to distract Ayato so she keeps quiet. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Ten minutes later, Ei stands at the head of the drink line as Lumine gives her a weird look and punches in her order of a taro slush with six extra scoops of sugar. Ei decides to take her chance. “Lumine, is it? My name is Raiden Ei, and I have heard a lot about you. I would like to talk outside of your work hours. Maybe over some coffee?”

Lumine eyes her. “Listen, you’re pretty cute, but rumour has it that Yae Miko would claw the eyes out of anyone who—“

“It’s not about a date.” Ei clears her throat. “For me anyway. I have a preposition that may benefit you and me.” When Lumine still looks hesitant, Ei adds, “I’ll treat you to dinner.”

Pausing, Lumine appears to think over the offer before sighing. “Okay, I’ll bite. Not like I have anything better to do than sort receipts with my manager.”

She gives Ei her contact info who walks away, pleased with how easy it is to get women’s numbers.

Ayaka’s eyes go wide when Ei tells her what happened. “Is it really that simple?”

Ei shrugs. “You can go ask her yourself.”

“No, I need to prepare my ornamental hairpins first and—“ Ayaka flushes before looking hopeful. “I can’t thank you enough for your help. What did you say your name was?”

Ah, right. That introducing oneself thing. “Raiden Ei.”

Ayaka does a double-take. “As in one of the daughters of my family’s employer?”

“Oh.” Ei rubs her nape. “I hadn’t realized…”

Getting up, Ayaka bows. “I’m deeply honoured to be in your debt.”

“Okay, okay.” Ei tries to get her to straighten up as people pass by and give them weird looks. “No debt necessary. Consider it my pleasure to help a future employee of my household.”

Getting a ping from her phone, Ei checks it to see a reminder to head over to the nearby park for Kokomi’s second attempt at a friendly picnic. “In any case, I need to go.”

“Keep me in the loop?”

Ei promises to do so after walking away with a headache. She’ll seriously need a rest day after speaking like Makoto for so long.

Twenty minutes later, she’s sitting in an awkward gathering with her friends.

Kokomi looks around the picnic table. Yae is ignoring Ei. Ei glances helplessly between her and Makoto. Makoto sighs and exchanges glances with Sara, who just looks confused.

Kokomi claps her hands together. “So, second time is the charm. I hope everyone enjoys themselves.”

She unveils a delicately arranged platter of meat, fruits, and cheese with Yae shuddering at the latter. Sara glances over everything before smiling at Kokomi. “You did an amazing job. I’m lucky to have you.”

“As I am to have you too.” Kokomi blushes as Yae reaches for a piece of ham while mimicking a gagging motion.

They chat casually for a while with Ei trying to catch Yae’s eye, and Yae miraculously missing her each time. At some point, Yae looks up at someone waving in the distance, and she sighs irritably, “Really, Aunt Saiguu?”

Ei frowns. “Why is she—“

“Hey, kids.” Saiguu slides in beside Kokomi who jumps. “How are you guys do—are those apple slices?”

Kokomi sighs and pushes the platter over as Saiguu greedily reaches for some. “I assume you’re related to Yae.”

“Distantly.” Yae decides to answer before Saiguu attempts to do so with her mouth full. “She’s my aunt…and an assistant lecturer here.”

Saiguu swallows, nodding. She opens her mouth to elaborate when she spots Makoto looking at her curiously. Her jaw drops, and Ei wonders if she should push it back up when Saiguu slides over to Makoto at the picnic table. “Well, hello there, beautiful. I met your sister before, but you are clearly the prettier twin.”

Makoto rolls her eyes with a smile while Sara mutters that she sees where Yae gets it from. “You are definitely related to Yae.”

“That I am.” Saiguu holds out her hand. “Ei told me that you gave her my book.”

“Oh!” Makoto’s eyes pop open as she shakes it. “You’re Kitsune Saiguu. I saw that your book had great ratings online.”

“Indeed it does.” Saiguu smiles, showing off her teeth. “You ever give any of the exercises inside a try? I’d be happy to give some hands-on assistance in comprehension.”

Ei cuts in, not liking where the conversation is going for some reason. “Miss Saiguu has been a gracious host when I visited.”

“Not only gracious but well-connected.” Saiguu flashes a pair of dark tickets. “Guess who just got backstage passes to the Abyss Mages?”

Kokomi claps her hands together. “Oh, I love them—“

“Sorry, only have a spare pass for one!” Saiguu whirls towards Makoto. “So, whaddya say, beautiful?”

Makoto’s eyes slide from Saiguu to land on Kokomi’s crestfallen expression. “I think,” she starts slowly, “that you should give it to someone who would appreciate it most.”

Shrugging, she picks up her book bag and walks off to her next class.

Saiguu stares after her before slapping the table. “Damn, what a woman. I do like a girl who plays hard to get!”

Yae scowls. “You mean who has good moral values?”

“Whatever.” Saiguu waves it off. “I just know that I want in those pants.”

Ei briefly wonders if it would make things worse between Miko and her if she strangles Miko’s mother figure. Before she can finish contemplating, Saiguu stands. “All right, I gotta go teach my first class. Here, Fish Girl, take two tickets for you and your bird friend to enjoy.”

She slaps down two backstage passes and heads off with a jaunty whistle while Kokomi stares down at the yellow and black sheets before awkwardly shuffling them into her hands. “Yae, your aunt is quite unique, but please tell her thank you for the tickets.”

Yae sighs, “I’ll pass it along.” She gets up to leave, slinging her bag over one shoulder when Ei rises too. “Yes?”

Ei’s voice is low. “Can we talk?”

“If you want.” Yae waves goodbye to the group, and Ei follows, anxiously watching Yae’s blank expression. “So, what is it? Did you finish my request?”

“No, I…I’m sorry about what I said about giving us space. It was an inappropriate comment when you needed to hear the opposite.”

“Oh, water under the bridge.” Yae pauses as she checks her phone and quickly responds to a text. “I’m over that, Ei. Really.”

Then, why won’t Yae look at her?

“Miko—“

“I have to go and take this call.” Yae glances up briefly. “Is there anything you want to say quickly?”

Ei sighs, “Not quickly, but—“

“Another time then.” Yae is already heading off, bringing the phone to her ear and greeting whoever it is on the line. She already seems to have forgotten about her.

Ei stands there, watching her disappear into the crowd with a twisting feeling in her stomach and a clenching sensation in her jaw. She turns and goes off to her own class, feeling the distance between them grow.