“Ei-mama, here!” Makoto declares, thrusting a bouquet of pale purple flowers at Ei.
“Thank you, Makoto,” Ei says, smiling gently as she accepts them. “This is a very nice surprise… the kind of thing that makes Eternity worthwhile.”
Makoto cocks their head and frowns, puzzled. “Ei-mama, what’s Eternity?” they ask.
Ei sighs and takes a seat on the ground, resting the bouquet gently next to her. She pats her lap, and Makoto is quick to hop on and snuggle up.
“‘What’s Eternity?’” Ei muses quietly. “That’s a question I wish I had really asked myself five hundred years ago. If you had asked me back then, though, I would have believed I knew the answer. I would have told you that ‘Eternity’ meant a world that never changed, that stayed exactly the way I wanted it to be. But… I was wrong.”
Makoto rolls their eyes and heaves a theatrical sigh. “Ei-mama, I asked you what Eternity is,” they complain. “Not what it’s not!”
Ei laughs and ruffles her child’s hair, drawing an adorable pout from her five-year-old.
“I know, I know,” Ei soothes. “I’m getting there. Eternity is… complicated.”
She sinks into thought, absently toying with Makoto’s cheeks as she tries to think of how to explain her new understanding of the concept to a small child.
How can Ei explain that Eternity is Miko and Makoto, that every moment she shares with the ones she loves is a part of Eternity? How can she help a five-year-old understand that Eternity was not the stupid, childish pursuit of an impossibility that she’d once believed it to be, but rather an ongoing way of embracing life?
“Eternity,” Ei says slowly, thinking aloud. “Is a poem written to an absent lover. It’s tears of sorrow at parting and tears of joy when you reunite. It’s the fear that you’ve changed so much that your loved ones will no longer recognize you and the overwhelming relief when they take you into their arms as if nothing has changed at all. It’s treasuring every moment that passes, making it a part of who you are, and knowing that even the fallen leaves that rot away throughout the fall will never be forgotten.”
“…Ei-mama,” Makoto grumbles. “You’re just saying words. Do you even really know what Eternity is?”
“You’ll have to excuse Ei-mama,” Miko’s teasing voice cuts in. “She’s always been a terrible teacher.”
Ei scowls at Miko as her wife settles down next to her and rests her head on Ei’s shoulder.
“I’d like to see you do better,” Ei says. “Eternity’s hard to describe.”
“Eternity is now,” Miko says simply, poking Makoto’s nose and eliciting a giggle from their precious child. “It’s the feeling you’ve got in your heart when you’re with us, Makoto, and that we have when we’re with you. You never want to forget us, right?”
Makoto’s eyes widen and they shake their head violently.
“So you want us to be Eternal,” Miko continues, smiling softly. “You want our memories to live on in your heart for as long as you exist. As long as those memories are alive, so are we.”
“Eternity is… memories?” Makoto asks, scrunching up their nose. “Ei-mama, why didn’t you just say that?”
Ei huffs and glares at Miko. “Because it’s not that simple!” she protests.
It’s not like Miko’s explanation is wrong, but it’s not a complete answer either. It doesn’t encompass the way that a succession of memories creates Eternity, doesn’t detail how they need to be recorded in a way that will last forever, whether it be in the head of a god who has reached true immortality or by passing on stories for future generations. It fails to impart how those enduring memories will be used to construct the world again and again.
“It’s a way of living with those memories and using them to—” Ei tries to continue.
“Why do you have to make everything so complicated, Ei-mama?” Makoto asks, cutting her off.
Ei falls silent.
Makoto isn’t wrong. Ei’s always overcomplicating things, putting perfectly simple tasks far out of her reach. The way she had reacted to the death of Makoto’s namesake, her stupid belief that the static Eternity she had sought would provide an answer to her fear of loss…
“Ei,” Miko calls softly, drawing the god’s attention. “Have you done it? Have you become able to embrace the world, have you reached Eternity?”
Ei smiles at her beloved wife, blinking back tears. “I have,” she whispers. “I have.”
Ei leans into Miko as her kitsune wraps her arms around herself and their child, her heart content. This is all she’s ever wanted, a happiness that she would once have denied herself in her self-inflicted seclusion.
“I love you, Ei,” Miko murmurs. “I love you, Makoto. The two of you make me whole, remind me who I am even in the face of my past. You’re my Eternity, and I never want to hurt you — every day of your lives, I want to treasure you and return as much of the joy you give me as I can.”
“You do, Miko,” Ei whispers. “You make us happier than you can imagine.”
“Yeah!” Makoto agrees. “Miko-mama, you’re the best!”
A part of Ei wants to be offended at the implications for her that Makoto’s statement carries, but…
“She is,” Ei agrees, gazing into Miko’s eyes and pressing a gentle kiss to her wife’s lips.
A mischievous smile on Miko’s face is all the warning Ei gets before she finds herself being tickled relentlessly, and she tips over in her attempt to scramble away. Unfortunately for her, Makoto seems to think that Miko has the right idea and joins in immediately.
“S-Stop!” Ei protests weakly, unable to push them away for fear that she might use too much force in her current distracted state.
All that she gets in response is giggling that sounds so similar that if she weren’t so familiar with their voices she might not be able to tell them apart.
“We’re gonna eat you, Ei-mama,” Makoto giggles. “Grr!”
If Ei needed to breathe, she would have difficulty speaking — but happily for her, she doesn’t. “Two-on-one is unfair!” she complains.
“Oh, please,” Miko scoffs. “As if you didn’t stand alone against armies. You expect me to believe two people can overpower you?”
“You’re not people,” Ei sniffles, forcing herself into a sitting position. “You’re monsters! Adorable little beasts!”
Makoto makes an adorable attempt at a roar and tries to tackle Ei back to the ground. She lets them, a dramatic moan of despair escaping her lips.
Ei revels in these silly times, in the ability to let herself go and just enjoy playing around with her wife and child. The Ei of five hundred years ago would never have been able to imagine a scene like this, blind as she had been to anything but her devotion to her sister and obsession with Miko. That Ei couldn’t have ever dreamed of being so happy or of freely showing her emotions.
She feels free, and she feels like herself.
Ei flinches as Miko lightly raps her on the head.
“No getting lost in thought,” her wife scolds. “What bad manners.”
“Yeah! What bad manners!” Makoto echoes.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Ei apologizes. “I was just thinking about how much I love both of you.”
Miko and Makoto share a look.
“What do you think, Makoto?” Miko asks. “Is that a good enough excuse for us to forgive her?”
Makoto nods immediately. “Yes!” they say. “I love Ei-mama, too!”
Ei feels herself tearing up.
She may never get used to hearing those words from her child — and honestly, she doesn’t want to. If her heart ever stops fluttering, if her mind ever stops going blank at the reminder that she’s responsible for this precious little life…
Ei thinks she’ll have lost something that’s important beyond words.
She wants her Eternity to contain endless memories of being surprised and humbled by the love her child professes to her.
“Am I interrupting something?” Kokomi’s gentle voice calls, and Ei tilts her head back to smile at her.
“Not at all,” Ei assures the Divine Priestess. “You arrived earlier than I expected, but we were just playing.”
Makoto’s cry of “Auntie Kokomi!” and mad dash to hug the small woman is entirely predictable, as is Kokomi’s enthusiastic response.
Giving Kokomi a key the other week so that she can enter Ei and Miko’s private rooms whenever she pleases had been a surprisingly easy decision. Miko had suggested it, and Ei had found herself agreeing almost by instinct. Even in hindsight she can’t second-guess herself, can’t imagine how she could have made any other choice.
It’s a sign of how much things have changed, of how Ei has learned to trust others and allow people into her heart. They light up her Eternity, pushing away the loneliness that Ei had come to believe would never leave her.
Long ago she had envied Makoto her many friends, had been so broken that when Miko entered her life she’d jealously guarded what they had and been deeply, unfairly suspicious of any time her fox spent with others. That Ei would never have been able to accept how much her child loves any of their ‘aunts,’ let alone Kokomi, for whom Makoto’s love seems to rival that which they feel for their mothers.
But the Ei of today can watch Kokomi and Makoto play with a smile on her face, the only emotions in her heart a deep love and a genuine gratitude that the Divine Priestess can make her child so happy.
“What are you thinking about, love?” Miko asks, brushing a kiss on Ei’s cheek.
“How much I’ve changed,” Ei says.
Miko is silent for a moment.
“Do you regret it?” her kitsune asks quietly. “Changing.”
“Not at all,” Ei denies immediately. “If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have Makoto. We wouldn’t be able to spend time together like this. We wouldn’t have the friends that we do or the bright future that’s waiting for us.”
“‘The bright future,’ is it…?” Miko murmurs. “There was a time when you would have said that anyone who looks away from the ‘now’ is a fool.”
“There was a time when I wanted ‘now’ to last forever,” Ei agrees, sighing. “But ‘now’ I just want to treasure every moment as it comes.”
“‘Eternity is memories,’” Miko says, quoting their child’s summary from earlier. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, fine,” Ei laughs, lightly shoving her wife’s shoulder. “You win, Miko. Are you happy?”
“Very,” Miko agrees, grinning. “I always enjoy winning, thank you. Especially against you.”
“Of course, of course,” Ei sighs, rolling her eyes. “Silly Miko.”
Miko kisses her nose. “You wouldn’t have me any other way,” she challenges.
“I wouldn’t,” Ei confirms softly, nuzzling her face into Miko’s neck. “You’re perfect just as you are, just as you’ve become… but I’ll love you just as much no matter how you change in the future. I adore you, Miko, in all of your forms.”
Ei hears Miko laugh as her wife wraps her arms around her in a tight hug.
“And I adore you, Ei,” Miko whispers back to her. “I adore your foolishly stubborn past self; your adorably thoughtful, silly current self; whatever beautiful and unexpected selves you may show me in the future. I love everything that makes up ‘Raiden Ei,’ my god and my wife.”
“Why are you always so much better with words than I?” Ei laments, kissing Miko’s neck.
It’s really not fair. She wants to be able to make Miko’s heart beat as quickly as Miko does hers, wants her words to set her kitsune’s cheeks aflame with happiness and embarrassment at how sappy and poetic she is… yet as eloquent as Ei can be, she always seems to fall short of her goal when it comes to Miko, while her wife shows no such difficulty.
“I am a priestess, you know,” Miko reminds her teasingly. “I’m well-trained in poetry and have spent many years writing it… unlike a certain blockhead of a soldier I happen to love so dearly.”
Ei huffs against Miko’s skin, unwilling to so easily concede the point even if she knows that Miko is right. It’s not as if the original Makoto never attempted to teach Ei how to write poetry, and she’s not bad at it at all if she dares say so herself, but it was nothing like the rigorous instruction that the Kitsune Saiguu no doubt put Miko through. The Saiguu, for all that she could be extremely laid-back and fun-loving, had always taken her duty as Guuji incredibly seriously and had taught many talented shrine maidens.
Speaking of which…
“How are things at the shrine?” Ei asks pulling away from Miko’s shoulder only so that she can flop down with her head on her wife’s lap. “Are there any promising shrine maidens?”
Miko clicks her tongue. “It’s certainly a far cry from the shrine of the past,” she sighs. “I miss the days when it overflowed with kitsune. There are barely any of us now… But I suppose the human girls we’ve got aren’t so bad. If they keep at it, they may be able to go far…”
Ei sighs at the reminder of what has been lost in Inazuma’s ceaseless march to the future: for all that she’s come to embrace change, sometimes it’s hard not to mourn what was. The diminished state of the youkai in modern Inazuma is something Ei regrets dearly, something she wishes she could have prevented… But time and war have been cruel, and the horrible events of five hundred years ago had been beyond even Ei’s ability to resolve quickly.
“Don’t make such a sad face,” Miko murmurs, stroking Ei’s head. “I’ve had years to come to terms with it, and you will as well. We should remember them and celebrate them, not lose ourselves in the past.”
“As long as our celebrations don’t blot out the moon and cause panic across the island, I see no problem with that,” Ei says.
Five years later Ei still can’t get over the fact that Miko had had the audacity to do that without even so much as warning her. She loves her wife dearly, but her lack of concern for how her actions affect the island can create quite a bit of cleanup work for Ei from time to time. The end result of that incident had certainly been a positive one, and it’s not like Ei would have told her not to do it if she’d known…
But a little warning about the amount of work that was about to get dropped into her lap would have been nice, and…
Ei would have liked to attend. Would have liked to be a part of the final Hyakki Yakou as she had so many others over the centuries after she had been accepted as an honorary youkai, the shadow of lightning being seen in those days as less of a divine spirit and more of a creature of the night like them. Being left out then, at the very end…
For all that Ei had been able to witness it from her office, had recognized it for what it was and raised her own voice to join in the chorus of screams and laughter that her godly hearing had been able to pick up…
The lack of invitation had been a lonely thing indeed.
“You let a cloud of spirits hide the moon one time and you never hear the end of it!” Miko exclaims, throwing her hands up, but her eyes contain an apology, an understanding of what Ei is feeling.
Ei smiles at her, hoping to convey that she understands, that she knows how overwhelmed Miko had been, that she knows it hadn’t been an intentional slight and had been an error born out of the same loneliness Ei feels when she thinks of their lost friends.
“Ei-mama! Miko-mama!” Makoto calls, and Ei looks over to find their precious child perched on the shoulders of a beaming Kokomi. “Look! I’m taller than you!”
Ei smiles and hops to her feet, her height allowing her to loom over Makoto.
“Are you really?” Ei teases. “Because that’s not how it looks to me…”
Kokomi winks towards the floor as Makoto pouts, and Ei finds her legs being tackled out from under her by her wife.
“Miko!” she protests. “That’s not fair!”
“All’s fair in love,” Miko counters, sitting on Ei’s stomach. “And I’m sorry, Ei, but I’m on our child’s team. You’re cute, but their little pout…”
Ei directs her own pout at Miko, but her kitsune just laughs. She turns it on Kokomi instead, and the Divine Priestess covers her face with her hands.
“Noooo!” Kokomi laughs. “Not the Pouting Shogun! Protect me, Makoto, your Ei-mama’s cuteness is going to overwhelm me!”
Makoto promptly adds their own hands on top of Kokomi’s and shoots Ei a disgruntled look.
“Ei-mama, don’t break Kokomi-ma… Auntie Kokomi,” Makoto scolds.
Ei’s keen eyes see the way that Kokomi’s shoulders jerk at Makoto’s near-mistake and the god finds her heart melting once more.
“Oh, fine,” she agrees. “You win, Makoto. You’re the tallest one around.”
As she listens to her child cheer, Ei gives Miko a serious look. Her kitsune returns it, eyes serious but mouth set into a gentle smile.
They’ve got an important conversation to hold, one that Ei never would have guessed would happen… and Ei thinks she knows what the outcome will be. It’s a somewhat frightening prospect, a change larger than any she’d have ever felt prepared for — larger, in some ways, even than welcoming Makoto into the world — but it also feels right, not just because of Makoto’s obvious feelings but because of those that Ei and Miko have come to hold over the years.
As a triumphant Makoto is lowered to the ground and they and Kokomi join Ei in resting their heads against Miko, Ei feels like the love in her heart may overflow and drown them all.
She intertwines one hand with Miko’s, lacing their fingers tightly together, and stretches out the other to wrap around Makoto and Kokomi. Wrapped up in her three favorite people in the world, Ei whispers what she’s come to believe from the bottom of her heart:
“A moment spent by your side is Eternity enough for me.”