Nenene kicked her shoes off, one flying most rakishly into the door, and giggled. She usually returned from what she usually referred to as the eighth circle of hell, but were known to her surviving agents as "an evening to celebrate our beloved authors", in a blisteringly foul mood, having drunk too much and managed to make her temper even worse. Somehow, tonight was different. She felt light-headed, but not from drink, and warm good-humour was spilling from her.
There had to be a reason for that, and it lay, she knew, not in the inanity of speeches or making small talk with her publisher's other slaves over dinner, but from her company. And, of course, the warm feeling that, in her choice of company, she had put her agent's noise thoroughly out of joint. Nenene steadied herself on Maggie's arm and gloated.
The presumption of her publishers! Dragging her back from her babysitting of Yomiko to Japan for an 'emergency' that turned out to be a glorified dinner-dance was bad enough. To insist on the invitation that she bring a companion, with the presumption that every single person would have some kind of romantic other, added insult to injury. Then, even worse, to assume that Nenene alone would not be capable of providing her own date was beyond bearing.
Nenene's new agent, Masako, a fluttery middle-aged woman of whom the best that could be said was that she was not a secret Dokusensha agent like the last one, had taken it on herself to timidly suggest that, if Nenene needed a companion, Masako had a brother, an aspiring author who would be glad to
"I can find my own date!" Nenene flared, cheeks glowing. "If I need an arranged marriage, I'll arrange it, and if I need a prosititute, I have my own credit card!"
She then spent the entire train trip home alternately fuming over the implied insult, and panicking over her lack of options. She hated to admit it to herself, but the closest thing she'd ever had to a boyfriend had been her last agent, and he was currently somewhat ineligible for a dinner dance. Even worse than the thought of turning up alone was the conviction that no matching suggestion had been vouched to Nishizono Haruhi, who would no doubt be relied on turn up with some spectacular Greek god of an admirer in tow. Turning up alone so that people could pity her for a cowardly spinster was not a tolerable thought It would serve them all right, in some unspecified way, if Nenene turned up with Yomiko on her arm, dishevelled hair, frumpy clothes, unequivocal feminity and all.
Nenene considered for a moment, then sighed. It iwas/i tempting; the problem was that Yomiko had slipped her leash and stayed in India with Nancy, promising to come back to Japan soon, and at the thought of that, Nenene's sense of ill-use had increased. Not that Yomiko would dare not return this time. Still...
Nenene flounced home and banged the door open, suddenly unbearably irritated by the piles of books Yomiko and the Paper Sisters had left everywhere. Books! If she wasn't slaving over writing them, or talking about them, or being nagged to write them, she was tripping over them. She was losing her own apartment to books, not to mention her life.
Her bad mood was alleviated a little at the sight of Maggie curled up like a puppy dog under the table, heaps of books and the remnants of her lunch around her, fast asleep. Nenene vaguely remembered that Maggie had announced an intention to clean the apartment that day when Nenene had set off, but it would be inhumane to blame her for picking up a book, honestly intending to find a place for it, and opening it instead.
The girl looked like she was happily dreaming, at least. It made Nenene feel a little better to see her smile in her sleep. She knew Maggie must have been missing Michelle terribly lately, although of course she didn't say much about it, or about anything at all. Maggie never did. She just moped, like an abandoned puppy.
"You and me both, kid," Nenene said under her breath.
She wandered upstairs and collected a blanket to bring back down. As she tucked it around Maggie, gently, so as not to disturb her, an impish solution occurred to her. After all, it couldn't be doubted that Maggie looked better in a shirt and tie, and was considerably taller, than most Japanese men. Nenene grinned a little at her own silliness, her bad mood dissipating, and went to her room to write.
The thought, once acknowledged, however, was hard to put aside. As she came down in search of tea to find Maggie awake and cooking in order to have snacks ready for Anita when she came home from school, the thought returned, along with a burst of nostalgia for another authors' night in which she had been accompanied by three starry-eyed girls. It had been just the four of them, then... and now it was three. And Nenene herself had only just returned, and temporarily.
Nenene perched on a counter and helped herself to an almond cookie, watching Maggie speculatively. The girl was wearing an apron over her baseball jacket, and looked happy to all intents and purposes, but there was none of the sparkle she had when meeting her favourite authors. Guiltily aware that Maggie had been doing more than her fair share of staying home and caring for the flat and Anita, Nenene felt, strongly and suddenly, that she wanted to see that starry look in Maggie s eyes again. It couldn't be fun for Maggie, so co-dependent on her sisters, to stay home alone every day. Of course, she had her books, but Nenene had spent five years alone with her writing, or lack thereof, and knew what it was like.
"Here!" She pulled the invitation out of her pocket where she had stowed it, a crumpled wedge.
Maggie managed to catch it without dropping her wooden spoon - she was good with paper. The wedge unfurled itself and the creases smoothed out in Maggie's hand. "An author's party? Oh..." She ran her eyes down the list of invitees with some excitement, naming her favourites, although she was tactful enough not to mention Haruhi. Nenene was grateful for that.
"I thought maybe you'd like to go with me," she said casually.
She was completely satisfied with her reward of Maggie's cheeks flushing and eyes lighting up.
She had a few moments of regretting her impulse on the night itself. The first qualm came when Haruhi, utterly adorable in a confection of pink lace and bows that made her look about sixteen, came towards them with outstretched hands, a boy who looked suspiciously like a famous baseball star trailing in her wake.
"Sumiregawa-sensei!" Haruhi fluted, her pretty face glowing with pleasure. "I am so excited to see you here! And is this your gorgeous boyfriend or husband? A secret runaway marriage, so dramatic, and so like you, sensei!" Haruhi looked up and up at Maggie again, taking in the spiked hair, the immaculate suit, the face innocent of makeup and then finally the curves under the jacket. "Oh!" Haruhi covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes wide. "I'm sorry! So stupid of me. You must think me so rude. We've met before, of course -?"
"Mui. Maggie Mui," Maggie said, quite a long speech for her in a social situation.
Haruhi smiled radiantly at her. "I'm so glad to meet you again, Miss Mui And I'm so very glad that Sensei felt able to bring you."
"I thought Maggie would like to meet some of the guests," Nenene said pointedly, her face burning. "She's an avid bibliophile."
"Of, of course," Haruhi said, very sweetly. "I understand completely. Here, Miss Mui " Haruhi beckoned a slender hand, and a girl rushed forward with a ready pile of books, "have an autographed copy of 'Tears, have you stopped?', with my best wishes."
Maggie flushed, apparently with pleasure. "Thank you."
"You're so very welcome! I hope the two of you have just the loveliest night." Haruhi caught and tenderly pressed Nenene's hand. "So brave and unconventional always, my Sumiregawa-sensei. Always an inspiration. Tchuss!" She floated off in a cloud of pink, male companion and female assistants in her wake.
"Soon to be followed by the sequel 'Brain, have you found it?'" Nenene muttered under her breath, but it was ungracious, and she knew it, just as it would be undiginifed to chase after Haruhi and try to explain anything. Haruhi was - Nenene mentally backspaced over several terms, and settled on - a nice girl. Really.
She glared at Maggie instead. "I suppose you've already read that thing?"
"Um..." Maggie hesistated, obviously uncertain of whether to answer, but natural truthfulness won out. "Yes. Anita brought it home first," she added in an attempt at exoneration.
Nenene glared at her and kicked at nothing in particular on the floor. "Ungrateful little brat."
"Uh..." Maggie looked pained, and was obviously about to launch into a defence of her little sister, which Nenene didn't feel like hearing. She grabbed Maggie's hand instead.
"Come on. There's some people you should meet."
And then... the night miraculously improved. Nenene shepherded her companion from famous name to obscure author, and Maggie knew them all, and was familiar with all their output. She became well, not loquacious, still stumbling and stuttering, but her eyes shone and her sincere admiration of all the tedious people who hung around Nenene's publishers seemed to transform them somehow, unbending them and making them charming. Nenene began to find it delightful, watching the sunshine in Maggie's face, and despite herself, she began to enjoy herself immensely.
It was fun, she thought, to make her family happy. It was an odd, rag-tag family of foundlings, but it was her family, and seeing Maggie so blissfully happy made Nenene want to smile herself.
The climax of the evening came when she ran into Masako and, grinning gleefully, introduced Maggie as her date.
"But " Masako, who was a bit quicker on the uptake than Haruhi, looked from one to the other, dawning realisation on her face.
All thoughts of explaining that she'd just brought her adopted 'sister' out for a treat vanished from Nenene's mind. Instead, she smiled at Masako with a demure sweetness usually foreign to her, and bullied Maggie out onto the dancefloor instead.
It was fun, too, she found, to dance with a gentle giantess in a tuxedo, and wonder what rumours she was starting. Masako's look of battered horror was like wine. It was astonishing, really, how naturally her body curved into that of another woman. Maggie really was a surprisingly good dancer, the slumped awkwardness of a shy woman melting into the athletic grace of the paper master.
She even let Nenene lead.
It was, all things told, a wonderful night.
* * *
On the doorframe of her apartment, Nenene felt fragile and glittery with happiness, giggling as her shoe struck the door. "Oops!" She turned towards Maggie with a mischievous leer. "Where are your manners, Miss Mui? Are you bringing a lady home without even kissing her goodbye at the door?"
She didn't know quite what she hoped for - an embarrassed flinch, the delicious pleasure of having teased Maggie into blushing again. She knew quite well that her flirtatiousness towards Maggie tended to throw the younger woman into confusion, and enjoyed it. But she hadn't expected quite this response. Maggie's cheeks were pink, true enough, but her eyes were shining and her rare smile was on her face, and for a moment Nenene felt a lurch inside. She opened her mouth, panicking, to say that she hadn't meant it seriously, she didn't need to be kissed, but Maggie was already speaking.
"Elder sister is back!"
Without having shown any sign of having heard what Nenene had just said, Maggie flung open the door to the apartment and rushed inside.
"Oh," Nenene said to the empty space in which Maggie had been. "Great. I really missed her." It was true, but she felt disconcerted and, somehow, flat - as if she'd been kicked in the stomach and deflated. Did Maggie really have to rush off like that? But then, of course she wanted to see Michelle, alone. Nenene was only sort-of family, not really one of the Paper Sisters.
She picked up her discarded shoe and lined it up more neatly, noting that not only Michelle's dainty little slippers, Maggie's polished brogues and what Nenenr guessed were Junior's shoes had joined Anita's school shoes. Yomiko's rather tattered court shoes, and a pair of stylish stiletto boots that by elimination could only belong to Nancy, although they didn't really go with the demure playsuits she usually wore, were lined up. It looked like Yomiko was genuinely contrite about abandoning Nenene and would keep her promises now. She was glad, she supposed. She thought, after six years of pining, that she would have been gladder. Somehow, the sparkle seemed to have abandoned the evening along with Maggie's departure.
She went slowly into the house, not really wanting, for some reason, to stumble on the sisterly reunion, and drifted aimlessly to the kitchen. She had a confused impression of a woman in there, and then she was seized in a welcoming embrace.
For a warm moment Nene thought Yomiko had seized her, but the woman stepped back and was revealed to be a stunning woman dressed in what seemed like some completely inadequate scraps of lace.
"Nancy! Um, welcome," Nene said a bit weakly, trying to find a non-embarassing part of Nancy to look at and fixing on her nose. It, of course, was as undressed as most of the rest of her, but didn't seem such an alarming thing to have in Nenene's kitchen.
"Thank you for letting me stay here with Junior and Yomiko," Nancy said earnestly. "You barely know me, yet you are so kind."
"That's quite all right," Nene said, repressing some comments about how much space there was in her apartment, and about no one having actually consulted her about Nancy and Junior turning up. If it wasn't bad enough having three free-loading bodyguards... "After all, everyone else does. Ah, where are you all sleeping?"
Nancy's shyness seemed to have returned. "Junior is sleeping in Michelle and Anita's room. They said they wouldn't mind sleeping in the living room, and Junior should have a room to himself, because he's a growing boy. Well, Michelle said he could sleep with Anita, but she said she'd sleep in the living room too instead. And Yomiko-chan and I are sleeping in your room. Michelle said you wouldn't mind." She looked appealingly at Nenene.
"You're sleeping in my bed? With Yomiko? Wearing that?" Nene risked a look down, and saw that the lace was held together with some leather. Oh. Good. That helped control the rage a little.
Nancy looked down at her outfit, or rather at her own vast expanse of cleavage. "It just seemed to me, somehow, like something my old self would have worn. Is it wrong?" She bit her lip.
"No, I think you were entirely right. I - oh, it doesn't matter." Yelling at Nancy, Nenene thought, would be rather like yelling at a kitten. Somehow she just couldn't shriek at Nancy for being a vile seductress, even though she desperately wanted to. And maybe Yomiko wouldn't even notice. She was so childlike and naive, and she herself dressed like, well, a librarian. Only presumably, whatever Nancy wore counted as dressing like a librarian, too... Nene looked down at the outfit she had thought perfectly adequate for a dinner dance, a nice brown skirt with a neat jacket, and cursed herself under her breath.
"Where the hell am I supposed to sleep? Did Michelle happen to mention that?"
Nancy was obviously sure, now, that she'd done something wrong. She picked up the glass of hot milk on the counter and stood holding it, awkwardly. "She said, well, if Maggie slept in the living room too, then you could sleep in Maggie's cupboard..." Her voice trailed off.
Nenene, with an effort, didn't scream. "That will be fine," she said, through clenched teeth. "Goodnight, Nancy. I'm glad you're safely back." She turned and stomped towards the living room, planning to wake up Michelle and tell her what she thought of her tricks.
She snapped on the light, and then her movement were arrested by the pile on the floor in front of her, among the other piles of books.
The girls on the floor didn't wake, although Anita turned her head and muttered a little. She was sprawled half across Michelle's legs, her arms reaching out and fastened all the way across both her older sisters' waists, as if determined not to let either of them escape again. Michelle was snuggled, for her part, on Maggie's shoulder, nestled close to the taller girl.
Nenene looked down at them for a long moment. The cupboard seemed very cramped and lonely and, after all, once before she had spent the night with these girls, heaped in a pile like kittens... They were ridiculous. It wasn't as if she didn't have any sofas; Maggie was under strict instructions never to throw away any furniture ever again, not even to make surfaces for books. And surely there was enough paper in the apartment to make some kind of bed out of?
"Idiots," Nene muttered, and switched off the light. Once her eyes had become accustomed to the gloom, she cleared away enough books to make a space for herself, and settled carefully against Maggie's free side. The girl sighed in her sleep, half waking, and Nenene felt a moment of panic, and then a sleepy arm was wrapped around her and settled her close. Smiling to herself, Nenene closed her eyes and waited for sleep.
It had been, after all, a nice evening.