Jan. 2, U.C. 0058, 6:00 AM
“I’ll be just fine,” Aina insisted. “I know how to work all the stations. You stay and get some more sleep.”
Fumiko, in the third trimester of her pregnancy, hadn’t slept well the previous night, but hatsumode was the busiest time of the year for the shrine, so she couldn’t afford to take the day off.
“I’m not worried about that,” Fumiko insisted. “Hito are talking about you.”
“That’s nothing new.”
“They’re starting to wonder why you were helping out here all day yesterday. If you’re here all day today too…”
“Shinpai shinaide,” Aina said. “I have a keikaku for that.”
“It’s so weird not knowing what you’re thinking,” Fumiko said. Once they had become aware of Fumiko’s pregnancy, they had both agreed to cease joining their consciousnesses together, worried about the effect it might have on the development of the unborn child.
“It’s weird for me too,” Aina said, placing a gentle kiss on Fumiko’s forehead. “I’m going to get going. Do you want me to bring you anything?”
“Check back with me in an hour or ni, OK?”
After quietly sliding the door to Fumiko’s room closed, Aina made her way to the kitchen to prepare a quick breakfast before the temple opened for business. Along the way, she ran into Hayato, Fumiko’s husband.
“How is she?” Hayato asked, a strained smile on his face. Although he had agreed to marry Fumiko knowing that there would be no love between them, he had never been fully comfortable with the situation, or with Aina. Every time they spoke, he always managed to make it awkward.
“She’s sleeping,” Aina informed him. Over the last few days, he had been trying to appeal to Fumiko, in the hopes that she might agree to have his second child. This idea had been suggested by Fumiko’s father, ever eager to guarantee an heir to keep the temple within the family, but Hayato didn’t need much convincing. Aina knew of their plan, but she also knew Fumiko never wanted to share a bed with Hayato again, so Aina was trying to minimize Hayato’s time with Fumiko. It would be better in the long run if he didn’t get his hopes up.
“Please line up here” Aina shouted, waving a sign high above her head. Given the size of the crowd, keeping the line orderly was an impossible task, but Aina’s job was also to keep an eye out for pickpockets, molesters, and anyone else who would take advantage of the large crowd. It was a boring job, but it beat selling omikuji.
“Ainya-san?” a white-haired nekomimi woman called out as she joined the line. “Ainya-san deshou? Sugoi! I never thought I’d get to meet the honmono no Ainya-san. Can I take a selfie?”
In her excitement, the nekomimi locked arms with Aina, squeezing Aina’s left arm tightly. Aina let out a loud yelp and pushed the Nekomimi away. She hit the ground hard enough to bounce and skid backwards, but managed to come to a standing position.
“Don’t you dare touch my left arm again,” Aina snarled.
“Ny—ny—nyani?” the nekomimi blurted out, visibly in shock from having been thrown so hard.
“Don’t play dumb,” Aina spat. “Minna knows that I was injured in my fight with Ryoko-san.”
“That was years ago!” the nekomimi protested. “It should be healed by now.”
“A wound like this can’t be healed so easily,” Aina said, softening her tone. “Even with regular purifications, my arm will take years to return to normal.”
“Is that why you’re helping out here?” the nekomimi asked.
“Touzen,” Aina said. “I’m indebted to this shrine for their assistance.” She fetched a wipe from a pocket and began cleaning the dirt off the nekomimi, who dared not protest.
The crowd around them began conversing in hushed whispers. Soon, Aina knew, the rumor of her left arm would spread throughout the city, and no one would question her presence at the temple. Unfortunately, it meant the next person to take a shot at her would target her left arm, knowing it to be injured. Nothing she could say would change that. She would just have to make a very public example of them.
“Aina-san,” a junior priest shouted, running over to her. Word of the disturbance had reached him, and he had come to defuse the situation. He leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Our next VIP is due to arrive in a few minutes. Please go to the side gate to receive them.”
The car pulled up to the side gate a full eleven minutes after its scheduled arrival. This was fairly typical for goshujin clients. Even though the time they spent conferring with Omoikane was even more valuable than the exorbitant sums they spent for the privilege, they would purposely waste it as a show of power. In contrast, the few non-goshujin businesspeople who could afford it always arrived punctually and used their time to the fullest.
To Aina’s amusement, she recognized the car as it rolled up to the gate. Once it had parked, she quickly approached and opened the back door, causing Plastic Love, which was playing on the car’s stereo, to leak out into the surrounding world.
“Youkoso, Nanami-sama,” Aina greeted her goshujin. Nanami was sitting in the middle seat, a woman to her right, and a man to her left, with her arms around their shoulders. Aina recognized the woman as one of Nanami’s mistresses, and although she was unacquainted with the man, she easily guessed that he was Nanami’s latest acquisition.
Nanami snapped her fingers and the meido driver turned off the music. “Aina, ohisashiburi,” Nanami replied, a wry smile on her face. She turned to the woman and locked lips with her, then turned to the man and did the same. She then moved her hand down to the man’s buttocks and gave it a firm squeeze and a push, prompting him to exit the vehicle so she could get out. The driver exited the car and handed Nanami a small briefcase.
“Doko’s my kiss?” Aina asked in jest.
“Don’t be cruel,” Nanami said quietly, the smile vanishing from her face.
She was still awkward around Aina, but for the past two years, she had made a conscious effort to look Aina in the face when speaking to her. As goshujin, she felt she had to reassert her dominance in their relationship, but every time she looked at Aina, she felt a violent mix of emotions. She hated Aina for her role in killing her mother, but she was also grateful to Aina for helping her to gain power and for protecting her afterwards, and more than anything, she was still attracted to Aina. Since becoming an adult, she had fulfilled all her sexual desires, except those involving Aina.
“Of course. What I meant to ask is, doko’s Eiji-san?” Aina asked, referring to Nanami’s husband.
“Doko else? At the bottom of a bottle, as usual,” Nanami remarked. “Now show me in. I don’t have all day.”
“I thought you didn’t put any stock in religion,” Aina probed as she opened the gate for Nanami.
“Of course I don’t,” Nanami scoffed. “Demo, it’s undeniable that Omoikane gives good advice, and…”
“And?” Aina pressed.
“Never mind. Stay out here,” Nanami ordered.
“Heee?” Aina grinned. “You don’t want me to know what you’re going to ask Omoikane-sama? That’s pointless. I’ll find out later.”
“Just do as I say for once,” Nanami shouted.
“Careful, goshujin-sama,” Aina cautioned. “You wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that you can’t control me. Fine, I’ll stay here, but I’ll have to insist you leave your pistol with me.”
“Do what you want,” Nanami hissed, “but don’t you dare ever touch this gun again.” She flung open the door and entered the temple, leaving it open for Aina to follow her.
“Nanami-sama, youkoso,” Ryuunosuke greeted her with all the pleasantness he could muster. “How good of you—”
“That’s enough,” Nanami interrupted him, shoving the suitcase into his hands. “I came to talk to Omoikane, not you.”
“Sou ka?” Ryuunosuke said, shaking the briefcase. “Demo, I’m afraid this won’t be enough for a meeting with Omoikane-sama.”
Nanami momentarily froze. Her plan had been to hand over the money, get her advice, and then get out before Ryuunosuke realized she had shortchanged him. She hadn’t counted on him being able to estimate the amount of money by the weight alone. Before she even realized what she was doing, she plunged her arm into her purse, only to be grabbed by Aina.
“Let it go, or I will touch it,” Aina threatened.
“I—I—” Nanami stammered, letting the pistol slide back into her purse.
She was saved by Omoikane’s voice from the next room over. “Let her in, Ryuunosuke-san. Can’t you see how desperate she is?”
Ryuunosuke wanted to protest that Omoikane had agreed to leave financial matters to him. After all, running this service wasn’t cheap. He often had to spend large sums to make Omoikane’s predictions come true. But before he could open his mouth, he processed the hidden meaning behind Omoikane’s words. Payment could always come later. The desperate had no choice but to pay.
Pulling her arm free from Aina’s grasp, Nanami marched into the room. Inside, Omoikane was waiting behind a thin curtain.
“Arigatou,” she said quietly as Aina and Ryuunosuke stepped into the room behind her.
“What can I help you with today?” Omoikane asked.
Nanami took one last look at Aina, wishing she weren’t present to hear this, before answering. “I’m pregnant.”
Despite his first instinct, Ryuunosuke did not congratulate Nanami. She wasn’t the first to come to Omoikane for this reason. For some, it was not a joyous occasion.
“Sou ka” Omoikane said, before falling silent. He knew what Nanami was likely to ask, but she would be easier to convince if she felt in control.
“Should I keep it?” Nanami asked.
“That’s a very personal question,” Omoikane remarked. “If you need my help, it’s because you foresee benefits from both choices. Tell me, which reasons do you have not to keep it?”
Nanami’s voice cracked as she started to answer. Slowly, she reached back into her purse, but Aina made no attempt to stop her. Gently caressing the pistol with her fingers, Nanami was able to regain her composure. “It might try to depose me when it grows up,” she finally answered.
“Like you did,” Omoikane said. “A reasonable concern. Now, which reasons do you have to keep it?”
“It’s my responsibility to produce an heir,” Nanami said plainly.
“You still have an oji-san,” Omoikane pointed out, “and his kodomo.”
“They’re completely unqualified,” Nanami countered. “Worse than that, they’re tyrants. I’ve seen how they run their households. I don’t just have a responsibility to my lineage and to my government, I have a responsibility to my house staff. They have served me well. I can’t abandon them to a petty dictator.”
“That’s a wonderful sentiment,” Omoikane complimented her, “but your own child may prove just as bad.”
“If that happens, I will disinherit them,” Nanami said.
“If you do that, they will be more likely to try to take your title by force,” Omoikane observed.
“Jya, nani should I do?” Nanami asked.
“Since leaving things to your oji-san and cousins is unacceptable, I would recommend having many kids, and setting them against each other to vie for your favor. They’ll be less likely to try harming you knowing that their siblings could claim vengeance, and they’ll all be trying to thwart each other’s efforts regardless.”
“That’s a common sakusen,” Nanami said. “Anyone could have told me that.”
“Perhaps,” Omoikane admitted, “but it’s still your best option.”
“Can’t you tell me how to make the child loyal? Make it love me or whatever?”
“There are ways,” Omoikane mused, “but I wouldn’t waste your jikan on things you’re not capable of.”
“Sou ka,” Nanami said through gritted teeth. She spun on her heels intending to stomp out of the room, only to find herself face to face with Aina. Her anger at the situation was compounded by her embarrassment. Of all people, she didn’t want Aina to see her at her worst moments. “I’m going to slap you,” she informed Aina.
“As you wish,” Aina said. “You don’t have to warn me. I’m your meido. You may strike me whenever you please.”
“I’m telling you so that you’re not taken by surprise,” Nanami shot back. “I want you to act like it hurts.”
“Nani’s the point?” Aina asked. “We’ll both know the truth.”
Unable to contain her emotions any longer, Nanami slapped Aina across the cheek. She had never struck anything so hard in her life, and her hand stung from the impact.
“Itai!” Aina yelped. “Nanami-sama, that really hurt.”
Although Aina’s acting was convincing, Nanami doubted that she had actually managed to harm Aina. Frustrated, she pushed Aina aside and stormed out. When she reached her car, she yanked the door open and shouted, “Get out!” Once her two escorts and the driver had exited the vehicle, she climbed into the back seat and slammed the door behind her.
“Nani is she doing?” the male escort asked, once they were a safe distance away.
“Talking to her gun again,” Nanami’s mistress answered. From the outside of the car, she couldn’t see the gun, but she could make out a distraught expression on Nanami’s face, the same expression that was present whenever she started talking to the pistol.
“It’s not the gun she’s talking to,” Aina said, joining the group of onlookers.
“Nani happened in there?” the mistress asked. “Nani did you do to her this time?”
“It’s private,” Aina said.
“Bullshit,” the woman countered. “She’s going to be crying on my shoulder for days. I have a right to know why.”
“Iie, you don’t.” Aina said. “If you can’t handle it, you can always leave her.”
“Please,” the woman replied, “you know how well she takes rejection.”
“Demo, she does take it,” Aina said. “You wouldn’t be the first to leave.”
“You don’t care about her at all,” the woman accused.
“Hey, don’t you know who that is?” the man tried to warn the woman.
“She knows,” Aina interjected, “and of course I care about Nanami-sama. She’s my goshujin.”
“She thinks about you more than anyone,” the woman said, suppressing tears. “She obsesses over you, and you do nothing but hurt her. You don’t deserve her affection, not like I do.”
Their exchange was interrupted by Nanami, who, having finished venting, had opened the car door. “Oi, get in! Let’s go.”
The woman scowled at Aina before turning away and walking quickly back to the car.
As the car pulled away, Aina took a moment to reflect on the situation. The woman seemed to legitimately care for Nanami. At least, Aina hoped she did. Aina was getting revenge on Nanami and the Wright family, and that woman was caught in the crossfire of cruelty. If Aina started believing the woman didn’t deserve it, she wasn’t sure she could continue.
June 7th, U.C. 0061, 6:20 PM
Four or five evenings a week, Aina would leave the mansion to spend the night with Fumiko. Although their initial plan was to meet a few times a year, they had quickly found that it wasn’t enough for them.
Normally, Aina would travel as quickly as possible, but on occasion, she would run errands on the way. On this particular evening, she was in Ginza to “negotiate” a refinancing of Nanami’s debts to a few fashion shops. Aina wouldn’t say she enjoyed these kinds of jobs, but they sure beat killing, and she could spend some time window-shopping afterwards.
It was while window shopping that Aina came across a sight she hadn’t ever expected to see again. Amongst the crowd, the drilltails shone and dazzled, as if calling out to Aina. Without thinking, Aina ran towards them, eliciting screams of fear from those around her at her sudden movement.
“Mari-san,” Aina called out, as long-forgotten emotions resurfaced. Pity, hatred, desire, forgiveness, and bloodlust swirled around within Aina, only to evaporate when the girl turned towards her. Her face was similar, but not identical, to Mari’s. “Mami-san,” Aina gasped.
“Aina-san?” Mami asked. “Is it really you? Ohisashiburi!” She threw her arms around Aina.
“You look just like her,” was all Aina could manage in response.
“Arigatou,” Mami smiled. She turned back towards her friends, intending to introduce them, only to find they had fled in terror. “Do you have some free time?” Mami asked, realizing for the first time the reactions of those around them. “I’d love to catch up.”
“Here,” Aina said, holding the crêpe out to Mami before sitting down beside her. They were in a little-used corner of the park where they wouldn’t be an inconvenience to anyone.
“How much was it?” Mami asked, reaching into her purse with her free hand.
“It’s on me,” Aina said.
“That makes it seem like a date,” Mami commented.
“It’s an apology,” Aina clarified, “for scaring your tomodachi off.”
“Ah, umai!” Mami exclaimed after taking a bite. “Here, try some.”
Aina looked at the crêpe, then back up at Mami, before leaning down and taking a small bite. It wasn’t something she’d normally do, especially after Mami had brought up the subject of dating, but she found the offer oddly compelling. Is this what a date with Mari would have been like?
As if reading Aina’s mind, Mami asked, “Is this what it was like between you and onee-chan?”
“Hardly,” Aina scoffed, almost choking on the crêpe. “We weren’t that close.”
“Close enough that you saved her life,” Mami pressed.
“I saved your life too,” Aina pointed out, “and we haven’t spoken in how long?”
“Demo, you came to her funeral,” said Mami.
“I was the last known hito to see her alive,” Aina said quietly. “Minna thought I killed her. If I had refused the invitation, it would have been akin to admitting my guilt.”
“Sou ka,” Mami sighed. “Is that why you haven’t visited her grave since then?”
“Like I said, we weren’t that close,” Aina replied. “Besides, I’m not welcome there.”
“That’s not true,” Mami said. “I heard you helped Élisabeth-san reconcile with the Church. Just between you and watashi, she’s become quite a power broker in the community. If you asked her, she’d make sure no one bothered you while you were there.”
“Look,” Aina said, “you obviously have a lot of fondness for Mari-san, and I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but when I say we weren’t close, what I really mean is that I… hated her might be too strong of a word… I avoided her as much as I could.”
“Oh?” Mami said without missing a beat. “Is that why you kissed her?”
Aina froze in terror, believing Mami was referring to the kiss they shared as Mari died. If she somehow knew about that kiss, she would also know Aina had killed Mari. Had she poisoned the crêpe without Aina noticing? But a moment later, Aina remembered that wasn’t their only kiss.
“She kissed me,” Aina stated. “It wasn’t mutual. Soshite, nani was she thinking telling that to an impressionable young onna?”
“I don’t believe you,” Mami said.
“You’re free to think what you want,” Aina said, standing up, “but I’m not going to visit her grave.”
“You said you avoided her,” Mami said, reaching after Aina. “Was it because you disliked her, or because you were fighting an attraction to her?”
“Nani are you saying?” Aina asked, mortified that the younger girl had seen through her so clearly.
Looking around to see if anyone was listening, Mami motioned for Aina to come closer, and Aina leaned down so Mami could whisper in her year.
“Earlier, when you mistook me for onee-chan, you were making the same expression your clone makes when she looks at me.”
“Dare?” Aina asked, doing her best to appear confused.
“Aina-san, I’m not baka,” Mami smiled. “She looks exactly like you. There’s no way she’s just your imouto.”
“Is she similar enough that ichi of my teki might mistake her for me?” Aina asked.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Mami said, the smile fading from her face. “She’s fallen in with the goths. Her hair’s much longer, and she dyes it kuro.”
“Dare else knows?” Aina risked.
“I’m pretty sure she knows,” Mami answered. “She’s not baka either. Other than that, I think only okaa-san suspects it.”
“A goth, ka?” Aina chuckled. If her life had continued as it was, if she had continued to be socially ostracized, she could see herself becoming a goth in high school.
“She’s just running from herself,” Mami sighed. “I can tell she likes me—as in, she likes me—but she’s trying to hide it. I think she feels if she distances herself from me, she’ll get over it, but nothing will change until she confesses.”
“You want her to confess to you?” Aina probed.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” Mami said. “She’s going to be hurt when I reject her, and we’ll never be able to go back to how it was, but it’ll be for the best.”
“That’s very mature of you,” Aina complimented, “but things may not go that smoothly. Mari-san never gave up on me.”
“Perhaps you just gave her mixed signals,” Mami defended her sister.
“Perhaps,” Aina allowed, “but I’m afraid I don’t have all evening to reminisce. It was good seeing you again Mami. Sayonara… and ganbatte.”