Chapter 36

July 19th, U.C. 0051, 2:00 PM

Ki wo tsukete, Tsukasa,” Jin cautioned, reaching over to guide Tsukasa’s hand as she fed the fabric into the sewing machine. “That’s it.”

Arigatou,” Tsukasa smiled, keeping her focus on the task at hand. She was almost finished, and although she had taken longer than Jin, she would still be on time for the festival.

Dekita,” Jin sighed in relief, holding up the finished yukata. It was light blue with white and pink roses printed on it, and the obi was made from the same material.

“Just in time,” Jin complimented, as they heard footsteps coming down the hallway from two directions.

Gokigenyou, Kazue-chan,” they heard Aina greet the senior gynoid.

“Gokigenyou, Kazue-sama,” Sena echoed.

Ara, Sena-chan,” Kazue replied, without any surprise in her voice, “that looks great on you.”

“It would look better on you, Kazue-sama,” insisted Sena.

“Nonsense,” Kazue assured her, “our outer appearances are identical. It would look great on either of us.”

Iie, iie,” Aina cut in. “It’s much better on Sena-chan. Kazue-chan gives off an aura of confidence that doesn’t really mesh with the darkness of the material.”

“You may be right,” Kazue allowed. “That’s a very unusual pattern,” she said, changing the subject.

“The merchant who sold it gave Aina-chan a good price,” Sena explained. Having no money of her own, Sena had been unable to buy the material for her own Yukata, so she had sewn Aina’s yukata to repay her. “Since it is such an unusual pattern, I believe he had a hard time selling it.”

Demo, he was right,” Aina chimed in, “It’s a great pattern for a gynoid.”

“Gokigenyou, senpai, gynoid-tachi,” Jin greeted them, opening the door and stepping out into the hall. She was wearing her own yukata, which was white with blue cranes printed on it. Tsukasa followed shortly after, wearing her recently-completed yukata as well.

“Tsukasa-chan,” gasped Aina, “that’s an onna’s yukata!”

“Of course it is,” Tsukasa bristled. “I am an onna.”

“Hai, of-of course you are,” Aina stuttered, clearly taken aback. “Demo, you always wear otoko’s clothing when you’re off the clock. You hate dresses, and…”

“Senpai,” Tsukasa interrupted her, smirking, “that was just the tantrum of a little kodomo. I’m all grown up now, and I’m allowed to reclaim my femininity if I want to.”

Maji? Maji?” Aina asked. “Nani brought this on?”

“Most likely an otoko,” conjectured Sena. “She is at that age, after all.”

Damare you baka robot!” Tsukasa huffed. “I can still kick your ass.”

Sakanya!” A shout from down the hallway interrupted their embarrassing conversation. All five turned their heads to see a young catgirl bounding down the hallway towards them on all fours.

Ottototo!” exclaimed Aina, bending down to scoop up the catgirl. She held her tightly, even as she continued to reach out for Sena’s yukata, which was black with bright green koi printed on it. “They’re not real sakana, Fuku.”

“Sakanya!” Fuku repeated. “Ainya-obasan, sakanya! Kirei.”

Un, kirei,” Aina agreed, patting Fuku on the head. Fuku took most of her looks from Mimi, but she had Diaho’s green eyes. That meant that she looked exactly how Aina imagined Momo looked when she was younger. Although Aina had agreed to help Mimi raise her children, interacting with Fuku was always bittersweet, and not just because Fuku reminded her of Momo, but because she knew that Fuku would be sent away as soon as she could survive without her mother. It was how things were for nekomimi. “Don’t touch them, OK?”

“Mama! Mama!” came another voice from down the hallway. This time, it was Fuku’s younger brother Jiji, who, unsteadily standing upright, was pointing towards them. Mimi rounded the corner a few seconds later to pick him up and walked towards the group.

“Gokigenyou, Mimi, Jiji,” Aina greeted them. Jiji hid his face from her in response. He was a shy and timid child, even around Aina and Diaho.

“Gokigenyou,” Mimi returned. “Don’t run off like that, Fuku,” she admonished. “Mama can’t run very fast right now.” It wasn’t just because she had to carry Jiji, she was also visibly pregnant.

Both of her previous pregnancies had been single pregnancies, which, although nekomimi gave birth to twins and triplets more often than humans, were still the norm for nekomimi. However, Mimi felt a self-imposed pressure to make up for Momo’s lack of output, and she was hoping for at least twins this time. “Gomen,” she apologized to Aina. “She got excited when I told her we were going to the matsuri.”

Heeeee?” Aina asked. “Is Jiji coming too?”

“Iie, he’s going to spend the evening with Diaho-sama. He needs to get over this shyness of his, at least around his own father.”

“Sakanya!” Fuku shouted, squirming in her mother’s arms as they walked past the stalls.

“Hai, Sakanya,” Mimi replied. Aina and Sena were walking just ahead of them. Aina was now wearing her yukata, which was deep purple with pale lilies printed on it, contrasting nicely with her blonde hair. “You’re not allowed to touch them, remember?”

“Iie!” Fuku yelled, balling her hands up into a fist and punching her mother in the shoulder as hard as she could. “Honmono no sakanya!” She pointed at a goldfish scooping stall.

“You can’t touch those fish either,” Mimi told her. “Demo, if you want, you can play a game to try to catch them.” Fuku nodded her head vigorously. “Ainya, would you show her how to play?”

“Sure,” replied Aina, as Mimi set Fuku down. “Sena-chan, do you want to try?”

“I do not desire goldfish,” Sena informed her.

“You don’t have to keep them,” Aina pointed out. “Don’t you want to see if you can do it? I mean, it’s not like you’ve done much else tonight.”

“Watching the parade was worthwhile,” countered Sena. “Next year, I would like to be one of the dancers. As for the rest of the matsuri, most of the stalls we have passed have been selling food items, and I do not have a digestive system.”

Soshite,” Aina continued, “this stall is not selling food items. It’s selling a game of skill. Come on, try it with us.”

Gomen,” Sena apologized. “I had assumed this was a food stall for nekomimi.” It was impossible for those around her to tell if she was joking or not.

Irasshai!” the gruff-looking stall owner greeted them as they approached. “You ladies want to give it a try? Just hyaku yen apiece.” Aina began to fish some coins from her purse, when she was interrupted by the man. “Chotto matte, you one of them gynoids? First time I’ve seen one in person.”

“I am,” Sena confirmed. “This is my first time seeing a goldfish scooping stall operator in person as well.”

“You’ve got a sense of humor!” the man laughed. “Didn’t expect that.”

“I like this hito,” observed Sena. “He laughed at my joke.”

“You’re not some kinda goldfish scooping machine, are you?” the stall operator asked as Aina plunked down three coins. “I’d rather not get cleaned out by the first gynoid I ever met.”

“We don’t know,” Aina admitted, handing one pon to Sena. “Demo, she doesn’t actually want to keep anything she catches, so please let her try.”

“Fair enough,” the man grunted. “What about you? You some kind of ojou-sama? I’ve seen my fair share of nekomimi at this stall, but never together with a ningen and a gynoid.”

“Iie,” Aina waved her hand. “We’re just tomodachi.”

“Sakanya! Sakanya!” Fuku insisted. Aina handed her one of the pon.

“Now Fuku,” instructed Aina, “the net will break easily, so you have to go slow and gentle. Just try to guide—”

“TORINYAAA!” Fuku roared, plunging her pon into the tank. The paper broke almost immediately, and all the fish quickly swam away from the pon. “Sonnya,” she mewed quietly. The stall owner erupted in laughter.

Hora, like this,” Aina showed her, moving her pon slowly towards a goldfish, herding it towards the edge of the tank. She reinforced the paper with her spiritual energy and gently scooped the fish into her bowl. Fuku clapped excitedly, and Aina relinquished her pon to the young catgirl, who, not having absorbed the lesson behind Aina’s demonstration, plunged it into the tank as hard as she could, repeating her previous failure.

Meanwhile, Sena was frozen in place, holding her pon just slightly above the tank.

“Their reactions appear to be random,” she observed. “I am not sure which to go after.”

“They are random,” Aina told her, “so it doesn’t matter. Just pick one and give it a shot.”

“Demo, if its reactions are random, I will not be able to adapt quickly enough. This is impossible for me.”

“It’s not impossible,” Aina assured her. “Don’t try to adapt. Decide how you’re going to move ahead of time. Go slowly so as not to break the pon, and execute your plan. If you miss, you can always try again, and eventually a fish will randomly move the way you need it to. It may take a few tries, but I’m sure you can do it. If you succeed, you’ll have overcome one of your limitations.”

“I will try,” Sena stated, steadily moving the pon into the tank. Her first attempt failed, but she managed to keep the pon intact. She tried again, and this time the fish swam in the correct direction, but, unluckily, the pon tore as it picked up the fish, and it fell back into the tank.

“See, it’s possible,” Aina said encouragingly. “You can use the part of the pon that’s still intact.”

Sena tried two more times, but the pon dissolved completely during the second attempt. Aina plunked another coin down on the counter.

“Iie, I can’t take any more of your money,” Sena insisted.

“It’s ii,” Aina replied. “You’re so close, I want to see you do something you thought was impossible.”

Sena reluctantly picked up the pon. Her next attempt was a total failure, with the fish swimming in the opposite direction. However, on the attempt after that, the fish once again swam in the direction Sena moved her pon, and she scooped it out of the tank. Like before, the pon ripped as she lifted it, but this time, she caught it with the plastic ring and managed to get it into the bowl.

“Did you see that?” Aina asked excitedly. “You adapted to the situation. Sugoi Sena-chan!”

“I had plenty of time between attempts to derive that strategy,” Sena brushed off the compliment. She dipped her bowl back into the tank and set the fish free. “Arigatou for laughing at my joke,” she thanked the stall operator.

“Any time,” he replied amicably, handing Aina a plastic bag with her goldfish in it.

“Sakanya! Sakanya!” Fuku exclaimed, reaching for the bag. But Mimi grabbed her and pulled her up.

“You can have it if you’ll take care of it,” Aina offered. “You can’t eat it, OK?”

Fuku looked at her mother, who nodded.

“Momo and I had goldfish when we were her age,” Mimi explained wistfully. “It taught us responsibility… and self control.”

Just then, Aina felt a familiar presence behind her, and she turned her head to find Fumiko beaming at her. She was wearing a red yukata with a white floral pattern. Aina’s face lit up upon seeing her friend.

“Fumiko-chan!” Aina waved her over. “Konbanwa.”

“Konbanwa, anata,” Fumiko returned the greeting, blushing slightly. She still hadn’t gotten used to calling Aina by such an intimate term, and by the way Aina blushed, she could tell Aina wasn’t used to it either.

“Would you like to join us?” offered Aina. “We’re just browsing the stalls at the moment.”

“Actually,” Mimi interrupted. “We’re going to head home before Fuku gets tired and cranky. We’ll see you back at the mansion.” Aina could tell from the look on Mimi’s face that she wanted to say something more, but was holding back.

“And I think I shall escort them,” Sena said, taking the goldfish bag from Aina. “There does not seem to be much else this matsuri can provide a gynoid.”

“Demo, the fireworks will start soon,” protested Aina.

“Perhaps next time,” Sena said evenly. “You ni go have fun.”

And with that, Aina understood the pained look on Mimi’s face. Although tempered by four years and two children, Mimi was still angry at Aina for rejecting Momo, but she was still going out of her way to allow Aina to spend some time alone with Fumiko.

If I had returned Momo’s feelings, perhaps I would be spending this time with her instead. Demo, it’s not like that with Fumiko-chan…

“We’ll be able to get a great view from over here,” Fumiko claimed, leading Aina by the hand away from the festival stalls towards a knoll on the other side of the shrine. It got darker as they got further from the main festivities, But Aina hardly noticed, since Fumiko appeared to shine bright before her. As they arrived on the hill, Fumiko removed a small picnic blanket from her purse and, unfolding it, lay it down on the grass. The two friends sat down next to each other, allowing their fingers to intertwine, and spent the next few minutes engaged in idle conversation, talking about new developments in their lives since last they had met. Eventually, their conversation was interrupted by the starting of the fireworks.

“Kirei,” Aina murmured in response to the display.

“Un,” Fumiko agreed. “Demo, not as kirei as you.”

Aina looked at her friend, confused, but that confusion ended when Fumiko leaned over towards Aina, and, closing her eyes, locked their lips together.

At that moment, Aina understood the exact feeling shoujo manga authors were trying to convey when they drew flowers blooming in the background of a panel. For with that kiss, new sensations and emotions burst forth from Aina’s heart, like flowers bursting into bloom. After futilely trying for years to intellectually understand love, Fumiko’s kiss had imparted a missing piece of the puzzle.

With fireworks bursting in the background, lust stirred in Aina’s body for the first time.