“Makoto,” Ei says, fidgeting nervously. “I think… it’s time I took you to meet your namesake.”
Her precious twelve-year-old tilts their head and considers Ei seriously.
“Ei-mama… You told me Aunt Makoto was dead,” they point out carefully. “Do you mean her grave?”
“Not quite,” Ei says. “Do you remember that… we told you she turned into a tree?”
“…She what?” Makoto asks, staring at her blankly.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Ei mutters. She rubs her cheek. “Yes, well… Your Aunt Makoto did die, but… as a god, she managed to turn the last remnant of her power into a seed, which I planted. The result was the Sacred Sakura that protects Inazuma from disaster — it’s what remains of your aunt.”
“The Sacred Sakura? At the Grand Narukami Shrine?” Makoto asks. “Miko-mama never actually let me near it…”
“Yes, that one,” Ei agrees. “It’s… It’s our birthday, hers and mine. I visit every year on this day, and this year… I was hoping you might come with me.”
“Will Miko-mama or Kokomi-mama be coming with us?” Makoto asks.
“No,” Ei says, shaking her head. “Miko has… complicated feelings about my sister, and while I understand that she’s protective… I still love my sister, and don’t want to have to deal with Miko muttering plans to burn down the tree the whole time again.”
“And Kokomi-mama?” Makoto prompts.
“…Komi agrees wholeheartedly with Miko, and the one time I took her with me I ended up having to confiscate an entire barrel of weedkiller,” Ei sighs.
She loves her wives. She really does.
But they can be a little bit ridiculous sometimes.
“…Okay, so no Miko-mama or Kokomi-mama,” Makoto agrees. “But, um, Ei-mama… If Kokomi-mama is so mad at Aunt Makoto…”
“…I’ll explain everything when we’re there,” Ei promises, shoulders slumping. “It’s not a pretty story, but… whatever else our relationship might have been like, she loved me, and I love her.”
Makoto regards her solemnly, then nods.
“Okay,” they agree. “Let’s go.”
Makoto takes Ei’s hand and follows as Ei tears a hole in space, allowing them to reach the Grand Narukami Shrine in an instant.
Ei leads the way to the Sacred Sakura, her heart pounding in her chest. This is the first time that she’ll be telling Makoto anything remotely like the full story of their aunt, and while there are many details she’ll be leaving out due to their age…
She’s nervous. She hopes that Makoto can understand that while their aunt made mistakes, while her actions damaged Ei in ways that Ei is still trying to recover from…
It had never been out of malice. Ei’s older sister had always loved her dearly, even if she hadn’t understood Ei and her needs. Miko is very protective of Ei, very focused on the results rather than the reasons, and Kokomi has proven to be the same way. To both of them the mistakes Ei can admit Makoto made overpower everything else, but to Ei…
To Ei, whose own mistakes have caused enormous harm that her wives seem only too willing to excuse, the situation is far, far more complicated. If she wants people to forgive her for what she’s done, to look at her reasons and her attempts to atone and accept that she’s not a monster…
She needs to extend the same to others. Her sister is too dead to attempt atonement, so all Ei has to go on is what little she understands of the original Makoto’s reasoning… and Ei wants to forgive her.
That’s the most important part, probably, and not something Ei ever wants to give up.
“This is the Sacred Sakura,” Ei says quietly, gesturing at the tree. The shrine maidens who would normally be around the area have cleared out, as they always do on this day — they know it’s a private time for their god. “And… it’s also your Aunt Makoto.”
“Hello, Aunt Makoto,” Makoto greets, bowing shallowly to the tree. “I’m Makoto, child of Ei-mama, Miko-mama, and Kokomi-mama… which makes you my aunt. My pronouns are they/them, I’m twelve years old, my best friend is Kamisato Hanabi, my favorite food is fried tofu with syrup, and I enjoy painting.” They look up at Ei. “Um, is there anything else I should add?”
Ei smiles shakily and pulls Makoto against her side. “No, you did great,” she whispers, then looks back at the Sacred Sakura. “H-Hey Makoto, it’s Ei again. L-Like Makoto here said, they’re my child… I figured twelve was old enough for them to understand… so I brought them with me this year. I know I’ve already told you all about them… You would have loved them, Makoto, you really would, and Ren too. They’re the cutest… and they’re so sweet.”
Ei needs to take a moment to compose herself, rubbing at her eyes with the hand that’s not holding on to little Makoto’s shoulder like a lifeline. She feels little Makoto stroking her hand comfortingly and takes a long, slow breath.
This never gets easier. No matter how many years go by, the original Makoto’s absence is like a gaping hole in her heart. When she’s with her family she feels whole, the love they fill her with a balm to the pain, but when she makes these visits…
“Sorry,” Ei whispers, not sure which Makoto she’s apologizing to right now. “I…”
“It’s okay to cry, Ei-mama,” little Makoto whispers back. “You don’t have to hold back.”
‘It’s okay to cry, Ei. You don’t have to hold back.’
The lines between the past and present blur, and Ei falls to her knees, tears streaming down her face. It’s the first time she’s really let herself cry over her sister — as the one who had failed to save her, Ei has never believed she had the right.
But Makoto said that it was okay.
Ei feels little Makoto hugging her tightly as she sobs, and she clings to her precious child.
“I miss you so much,” Ei bawls. “Why did you run off without me, Makoto?! Why didn’t you let me go in your place? You weren’t a warrior! The battlefield wasn’t where you belonged! I was the one who was soaked in blood, not you!”
Ei barely knows what she’s saying anymore, the feelings she’s never dared let out of her heart spilling forth from her lips as she breaks down in their child’s arms.
“I couldn’t protect you if you went so far away from me, Makoto…!” Ei sobs. “Why did you abandon me…?”
After this she can’t even speak, throat too clogged with grief.
Makoto squeezes their mother tightly, blinking back their own tears. They’ve never seen Ei-mama like this: normally she’s the one who smiles the most, who seems the happiest with her life.
This hurts to watch, but Makoto is glad that they’re there.
“Aunt Makoto,” Makoto says, turning to regard the Sacred Sakura while keeping Ei-mama wrapped in their arms. “I never got the chance to meet you. Ei-mama says you loved her, and I know I don’t know much of your story… but I know Miko-mama and Kokomi-mama don’t like you much.”
Makoto looks down at their crying mother and kisses her on the head, then back up at the tree.
“Ei-mama loves you, and I’m trying to remember that,” Makoto continues. “Because seeing how much you hurt her… I’m having trouble liking you, too. Why did you leave her? If you couldn’t fight… why did you leave Ei-mama behind to participate in a war…? That just… doesn’t make sense…”
No answer is forthcoming, of course, because Aunt Makoto is a tree. But right now, Makoto’s not entirely willing to take that as a good enough excuse. They find themself aligning very closely with Miko-mama and Kokomi-mama’s desire to remove this symbol of the past from Ei-mama’s life.
“I was… your Aunt Makoto’s kagemusha,” Ei-mama manages, her tears having slowed enough for her to speak through them again. “We were twins, and I was younger… and so much less talented. Your Aunt Makoto could do anything and was so smart, so good with people… but all I could do was fight and make tools of war. So we acted as one person: Makoto was the public face, the real Raiden Shogun, and she governed. I took her place when it came to leading the army. As far as the world was concerned, there was only one Shogun, Makoto. I had a few friends, through Makoto… but I lived in the shadows and only stepped out to fight.”
Makoto scowls angrily at the tree, wondering why their aunt would have agreed to — or worse, proposed — such an arrangement. It sounds… horrible.
Makoto tries to imagine what would have happened if they and Ren were twins and had been in such a situation. No matter what angle they consider it from, they can’t imagine ever being willing to take Ren’s identity away. The idea is horrifying.
Ren is a better fighter than Makoto, like Ei-mama had been with Aunt Makoto. Ren’s only recently begun Ei-mama’s combat training, at her own insistence, but she’s got an obvious talent for it that Makoto doesn’t. Makoto, though, is better at the arts, and had previously been proud that they’d been a faster learner when it came to things like language and reading.
Thinking about that now, though. Makoto feels a little sick to their stomach. It’s almost like the parallels between Aunt Makoto and Ei-mama playing out again, and listening to how Ei-mama talks about herself, to the way she so obviously thinks she’s not as good as Aunt Makoto had been…
And of course, it doesn’t help that Ren has recently decided that she wants to be called with female pronouns and Makoto has been thinking of her as their ‘little sister,’ like Ei-mama had been to Aunt Makoto.
Makoto resolves quietly to help Ren with anything she needs, to support her so that she never ends up feeling like she’s ‘less’ than Makoto.
“Why did you agree to that, Ei-mama?” Makoto whispers. If they can understand Ei-mama’s reasoning, if they can ensure that Ren never ends up feeling the way Ei-mama had when she threw her identity away…
“Why wouldn’t I?” Ei-mama asks, the honest confusion in her tone breaking Makoto’s heart. “Between the two of us, your aunt was the one suited to rule, not me. Having two gods would divide the people, and we were almost identical, so setting my identity aside and wearing hers made the most sense.”
Makoto doesn’t think that makes any sense at all, and wonders just what Ei-mama’s early life had been like to give her such low self-esteem. Had she been compared to Aunt Makoto a lot by others? Had it all been Ei-mama making comparisons herself and thinking she was lacking? Had Aunt Makoto done something?
They doubt Ei-mama could tell them, given how natural she seems to find her feelings, and they don’t think anyone else around is old enough to remember.
“She really did love me,” Ei-mama whispers, staring up at the tree. “She never treated me like a tool, even when I tried to turn myself into one. She introduced her closest friends to me so that I wouldn’t be all alone, and she spent almost all of her free time by my side. She was everything to me, Makoto, and when I lost her… I didn’t know what to do. Even Miko… even Miko wasn’t enough to make up for what I’d lost, not then. I loved her, we had been courting for years at that point… but what I felt for Makoto was different. It wasn’t anything romantic like I had with Miko, but it was like she was the other half of myself, my guiding star.”
“…Loving you doesn’t mean she didn’t hurt you,” Makoto mutters, unable to keep it in. “…Loving Ren doesn’t mean I won’t hurt her.”
“…Oh, Makoto,” Ei-mama sighs, wrapping her own arms around Makoto’s stomach. “You’re a wonderful sibling.”
“And would you say that about Aunt Makoto, too?” Makoto challenges.
Ei-mama’s silence speaks volumes, and Makoto nods.
“I thought so,” they say. “…Aunt Makoto, thank you. You’ve made me think about things that I probably wouldn’t have considered before. I’m going to learn from your example and avoid your mistakes, and be the best older sibling I can be. Ren, my little sister, she’s…”
Makoto struggles with how to describe how important Ren is to them, with the way that their little sister’s shy smile lights up their life, with how they want Ren to always be smiling and to be happy for her entire life.
“Ren is everything to me,” Makoto settles on. It’s not enough, but it will have to suffice. “She’s my little sister, and I love her so much. Maybe you felt the same way about Ei, maybe you loved her just as much as I do Ren… But I’ll never know that. I’ll never know how you actually felt, and…”
They pause to examine their feelings.
“And I hate that. I want to know that the woman I’m named after really did do her best to be a good sister, that she loved my Ei-mama as much as she deserved to be loved… That you just made mistakes. But I’ll never know what you were thinking or feeling, only what Ei-mama thinks you were, and she’s biased,” Makoto continues. “So… Aunt Makoto, I’m sorry, but… right now, I don’t think I like you very much. I’ll keep coming here with Ei-mama every year, I’ll listen to all of her stories about you, I’ll try to get to know you… But you hurt my mama a lot, and I can’t forget that. I love her lots, and the only time I’ve seen her cry is because of you.”
Makoto looks down at Ei-mama, who’s been silently staring up at them, tears still running down her cheeks. They kiss their mother’s forehead, wiping her tears away with their sleeves.
“I love you, Ei-mama,” they whisper. “Thank you for bringing me here. I think I needed this.”
They feel Ei-mama bury her face in their stomach, and stroke her hair.
Makoto doesn’t know whether the woman they’re named after was a good person or not. They don’t know whether Aunt Makoto had tried to be a good sister, whether she had been a good Shogun.
But they do know, now, who and what they want to be.
The sound of nearby thunder echoes through the room, close enough that Makoto feels like their bones are shaking.
“Makoto, I’m scared,” Ren whimpers, snuggling up to their sibling’s side.
“It’s okay, Ren,” Makoto whispers, wrapping their little sister in a hug. “It’s okay.”
It’s unusual for there to be thunderstorms in Inazuma that aren’t under Ei-mama’s direct control, Makoto thinks, but on the rare occasions when the Shogun leaves the country for diplomatic purposes the opportunity arises… and this is the first time that their mothers have gone on such a trip without taking Ren, now that Makoto is old enough to help look after her.
This is, Makoto thinks, the first time Ren has ever actually heard thunder. It’s an odd realization, that the daughter of the God of Thunder has never actually encountered it — but Ei usually keeps storms away from Inazuma City.
This is the first time since Ren’s birth that a thunderstorm has blanketed the city, and now Makoto has their little sister sobbing in their arms.
“What is it?” Ren asks.
“It’s called thunder,” Makoto tells her, stroking her hair.
“Thunder?” Ren asks, peering up at Makoto’s face as her tears slow. “Like… Like Ei-mama?”
“Exactly like Ei-mama,” Makoto says. They kiss Ren’s forehead and smile at her. “Ei-mama is the God of Thunder. You can think of it like her voice — maybe if you listen closely enough to it, you can hear what she’s saying.”
“Can you understand her?” Ren asks, eyes wide.
“I can,” Makoto says. “Do you want me to tell you what she was saying with that last one?”
Ren nods eagerly, the fear in her eyes not gone, but lessened.
“‘I love you, Ren,’” Makoto says. “‘I love you, Makoto. I miss you, and I’ll be home as soon as I can.’”
Ren buries her face in Makoto’s neck, and Makoto can feel tears against their skin.
“I miss Ei-mama, too,” Ren mumbles. “And Miko-mama, and Kokomi-mama. They’ve been gone for a week, Makoto…”
“They’ll be home soon,” Makoto promises, stroking their sister’s back. “Their trip is only supposed to last ten days. And they’re thinking about us and wishing they were here, you know?”
“Uh-huh,” Ren agrees, nodding against Makoto. “You said Ei-mama just said that…”
“She did,” Makoto confirms.
It’s… not true, exactly, and Makoto feels a little bad about making things up… but thunder is Ei-mama’s, and they know that the feelings they’re ascribing to their mother are real. Ei-mama loves them, and no doubt misses them terribly.
So it’s true enough.
Makoto misses their mothers too, but having Ren around is like a reminder of them. Ren has Ei-mama’s purple hair but with Kokomi-mama-pink edges, just like Kokomi-mama’s hair… though she likes keeping it extremely short, unlike any of their mothers. She’s got Kokomi-mama’s eyes, and while her face has some of Ei-mama’s sharpness it’s got a softness that could only have come from Kokomi-mama. She’s quiet in a way that Makoto has learned resembles a younger Ei-mama and spends most of her time reading or practicing with a sword or naginata, so in hobbies she’s most like Ei-mama… but she also displays Kokomi-mama’s wisdom much more frequently than Ei-mama’s silliness.
All Makoto has to do to remember Ei-mama or Kokomi-mama is look at Ren, and all they have to do to remember Miko-mama is look in a mirror.
And when they’re really lonely, like they have been this week…
Makoto loves the sound of thunder. They haven’t heard it in years, not since Miko-mama took them on a trip to Seirai Island to let them hear it and explain what it is and how Ei-mama rules it. Ren, Makoto thinks, never had a trip like that.
“Don’t be afraid of the thunder,” Makoto whispers, nuzzling Ren. “Ei-mama would never let the lightning hurt us. I promise.”
“Thank you, Makoto,” Ren mumbles. “I love you…”
Makoto smiles down at their little sister as she drifts off to sleep.
“I love you too, Ren,” they whisper. “So much. Sweet dreams.”