When she woke, it was daylight, and Maggie was missing, although in sleep Michelle had flung an arm across Nenene. She slid out, careful not to wake the girl; just retribution for Michelle's airy disposition of bedrooms could come later in the morning. She considered for a moment going up to her bedroom-cum-office to change, but somehow she flinched from the idea of intruding on Yomiko and Nancy. She was sure that they were obviously just sleeping, but she didn't want to go in there, somehow. Instead she went in search of Maggie, rubbing the aching small of her back as she went.
Maggie was in the kitchen, and had obviously decided the return of the wanderers justified Chinese breakfast. Congee was simmering on the stove, little rolls of leaf-wrapped rice were already in neatly arranged and Maggie, an apron tied over the crumpled remains of the suit she'd worn the night before, was overseeing the frying of a batch of yuo tiao by a small paper golem. Or, at least, she was standing buried in a book as the creation busily wielded a wooden spoon.
Nenene watched her for a while. Maggie was at her full height, the self-conscious slump of her shoulders missing when she was unaware of being observed and all her own attention on her book. And how, precisely, did Maggie manage that? She wasn't watching what the golem did at all, but surely she needed to see what it was doing? Why didn't it fall into the pan?
Shrugging her shoulders, Nenene came forward and rescued a yuo tiao from the wok with a knife, dipping it into the congee. She could have sworn the golem glared at her.
"Breakfast isn't served yet," Maggie said sternly, but she looked relaxed and happy. Nenene grinned at her, wondering how best to say good morning to a woman she had danced with all evening and then slept cuddled against all night. She bit into the bun instead, hot red bean paste and oil burning her mouth.
"Ouch!" She dropped it onto the counter. "It's hot!"
"I'm sorry," Maggie said contritely, for all the world as if it was her personal fault that Nenene was stupid enough to bite into something that had just come from a wok full of boiling fat. Nenene scowled at her.
"Why are they back? I mean, it's not as if I'm not happy to see Michelle, but I though they were hiding out in Saitan."
"Onee-san thought Junior should be with his mother, and go to school." The golem finished fishing out the last of the yuo tia, and with a mave of Maggie's fingers, returned to a pile of paper.
"And Michelle missed - us?" Nenene almost said "her family", but she had a flicker of insecurity about whether she would be included. She certainly thought of the Paper Sisters as family, but they were such a tight trio, maybe they didn't think of her the same way. She sighed and gathered up the dropped bun, dropping it in the bin, although the kitchen was, as usual, such a mess that it hardly mattered.
Maggie didn't reply, but she smiled softly in a way that reflected deep contentment, and Nenene felt a stab of resentment. Maggie and Anita had their sister back, Yomiko had Nancy - and Nenene's mind fliched in hot jealousy at the thought of in which way she might have her - and Nancy had Junior. As for Nenene - well, she supposed she contributed a million yen in rent. And was relegated to the store cupboard while Nancy got her bed, and Maggie abandoned Nenene and their "date" at the first sign of Michelle's return. Nenene's anger flared up again, and with it her malicious instincts.
"You know," she said, moving closer to Maggie, "you never did give me my goodnight kiss."
Maggie looked nervously at her, visibly trying to gauge whether Nenene was serious and if she was in trouble. Her expression had an unfortunate resemblance to Nancy's of the night before, and made Nenene's mood more dangerous. "I'm sorry, sensei."
Nenene advanced further, backing Maggie against a counter. "So you should be." She wound her arms around the taller girl's neck. "Well, no time like the present for a nice smooch."
"S-sensei." Maggie's cheeks were flaming so hard that Nenene fancied she could feel the heat on her own skin, and she turned her face away. She was visibly shaking. Nenene, who had mostly been teasing up to that moment, found a stubborn determination to win a kiss. For heaven's sake, she was pretty sure Maggie was not opposed in general principles to the idea, so what right had she to tremble like a cornered animal when it was only a game, anyway? It was ridiculously provoking. She loosened one arm from around Maggie's neck and laid her hand against the hot cheek, turning Maggie's face towards her and standing on tiptoes so that their lips were only millimetres apart. Maggie stood still, making no attempt to hold her or move closer, or even put down her book, but looking at Nenene with a tortured expression.
"You don't need to look like I'm about to hit you," Nenene said, infuriated and amused. The woman towered above her, but was so easily terrified. It was - well, it was cute, really. She was more than ever determined to have Maggie kiss her. "Come on, just one little kiss..."
Maggie stared at her for one more moment, then her lids fluttered a little, and Nenene smiled, ignoring the sudden flutter in her own stomach. She tilted her mouth up, ready.
"Sensei!" A joyous whirlwind entered the kitchen, and somehow Nenene was disentangled from Maggie, still kissless, and found herself a good foot or so away, being enthusiastically hugged by Michelle. She wasn't quite clear in her head what had just happened, but the likelihood seemed to be that Michelle had walked in on the scene, and intervened somehow. She did, after all, boast remarkable aim. And perhaps Yomiko should be grateful to be interrupted before someone else - Anita, or worse still, Yomiko - walked in.
Embarassment stoked the flames of her temper."Michelle! What did you mean by exiling me from my own room?"
Michelle's lovely eyes widened, and in a moment both sisters were kneeling before Nenene, bowing in contrition. "We're sorry, sensei!" Michelle wailed imploringly. "Please forgive us! I just thought you were so kind, so generous -"
Nenene sighed and told her to get up, only not without first bapping her on the head with a handy spoon. "Forget it. Only ask me, next time."
"I will, I promise!" Michelle bounced back to her feet, her usually bright mood snapping on like a sunbed light. Nenene glared suspiciously at her. "Maggie dear, don't you think you should get changed for breakfast? Sensei and I will serve up."
"I should get changed too," said Nenene, pulling at her crumpled outfit.
"No, sensei, I can't do it without your help," Michelle said firmly. "Now - go on, dear!"
Maggie drifted out, sending a somewhat confused glance over her shoulder, but Nenene thought she detected a hint of relief there, too. She was left scowling suspiciously at Michelle. She didn't for a moment believe the girl was volunteering to do housework, unless she'd be replaced by some kind of clone. And - exactly how did Nenene get separated from Maggie like that? She knew Michelle generally carried paper, and there had been a tug at her wrist...
"Well?" she demanded.
"Nothing, sensei. I just missed you." Michelle opened innocent eyes wide. "Didn't you miss me?"
"I'm not answering that. Why the sudden urge to play housewife?"
Michelle just smiled at her. "You might not have noticed, but Maggie has always had a cute little crush on you," she said lightly.
"I know that!" Nenene felt suddenly a bit ashamed of herself, but defiant, too. She poked a fragment of bun with her toe.
"Maggie is also a very serious girl. She's a very nice girl," she added brightly, "but she takes things very seriously. And she's my dear sister, and I'd die rather than let her be hurt. Now, let's get breakfast served!"
"I wouldn't hurt her, either," Nenene said, a bit crankily and guility.
"Really?" Nenene looked sharply at her, but Michelle's sweet, serene smile didn't falter. "I'm so happy. So you'll remember? Flirting when you're not serious," she added setentiously, "is very naughty."
Nenene spluttered. "You - look who's talking! You're the one who pulls the sexy Chinese housewife routine every time you want something out of me." Besides, she found herself wanting to add, who says I'm not serious? She couldn't quite bring it into words - because she wasn't sure that was anything but stubborness on her part, anyway. Mostly she had just wanted to bring colour to Maggie's cheeks, and the fact that Maggie was a complete sweetheart and looked adorable in a tuxedo was mostly beside the point. Probably.
Michelle's smile widened, and some of Maggie's discarded paper swooped up to her hand, forming itself into a fan, which Michelle fluttered coquettishly, tittering. "But you can handle it. Anyway, you *love* it when I flirt with you, sensei."
"Don't kid yourself!"
Michelle pouted. "I think you do." She gazed up under long lashes for a second, and then pounced, catching Nenene unawares against the kitchen cupboard, one leg wrapped around Nenene's thigh to hold her in place, the fan reforming itself to wind around Nenene's wrists and pull her arms around Michelle's neck. "See? Admit it!" Michelle pressed her rather impressive breasts against Nenene's and undulated, and Nenene, despite herself her mixture of shock, outrage and rather helpless enjoyment of having a voluptous woman rubbing against her, fought the urge to laugh back at her. There was something irresistable about Michelle's playful outrageousness.
She looked up into Michelle's face, which was giggling at her from very close quarters - kissing distance, in face. "Okay, I give in, now would you -" she started to say.
There was a hiss of breath from the door, and Nenene looked over Michelle's shoulder, and up - quite a long way up - into Maggie's blank face.
"Maggie - oh, hell," Nenene said, as the middle sister spun silently on her heel and left the room.
"Oh!" The paper restraints melted away, and Michelle stepped away from Nenene, looking agitated. Nenene remembered the girl saying she'd rather die than hurt her sister, and somehow didn't have the energy to scold Michelle for her reckless games. "My Maggie! Sensei, please take care of breakfast, I need to go to my sister. Maggie, dearest -"
She fled from the room in pursuit of her sister, and Nenene sighed, looking around the kitchen. She supposed she should serve up anyway, but somehow, rememering Maggie's eyes dark in a pale face, she didn't have much of an appetite.
* * *
Maggie and Michelle were the last to come down to breakfast. Maggie seemed very subdued, but Nenene noted that the sisters walked close together, hand in hand, and was relieved. She should have trusted Michelle to sort things out - that girl could melt the icecaps when she really tried.
The table was far too crowded, but that was fun, somehow. Yomiko sat far too close, for Nenene's tastes, to Nancy, who was at least dressed slightly less like something out of a specialised catalogue, even if she displayed far too much cleavage for Nenene's comfort. Somehow, Nenene didn't care as much as she thought she would. Junior was squished up against Nancy's other side, surreptitiously watching Michelle and Anita to make sure he was eating correctly.
"Ah," came Yomiko's soft voice, once they had more or less finished devouring Maggie's feast. "I know there are far too many of us here now, sensei, and I wanted to thank you for your generosity."
Nenene smiled at her, her heart flooding with warmth. "I'm surviving."
"It won't be for much longer. We've found a place - Nancy, Junior and myself."
"It's time I tried being a real mother," Nancy said. "I want to be a good one." Junior smiled shyly at Nancy from around her obviously maternal bosom.
"But - you promised you wouldn't leave again," Nenene blurted.
"Yomiko blushed, fluttering her hands. "I'm not leaving, sensei! There's a flat across the road - the sisters used to live there. We'll be right under your nose, I promise. I just need some time to move all my books over."
"Huh. And how are you going to pay for it? You can't really draw a salary as the Paper, anymore."
Yomiko sighed, with tragic resignation. "I suppose I will have to go back to substitute teaching."
Nenene snorted. "I'll lend you money, while you get settled. And you can eat here."
Yomiko and Nancy exclaimed with pleasure, and Nenene brushed it grumpily away. She felt a momentary stab at her heart, but then relaxed. The old adolescent crush on Yomiko had never been real, never something that could have led to an actual relationship, while their bond of friendship had been real and solid; Yomiko was staying close and would never abandon her again, and at least Nenene was confident now that the older woman cared for her. And the flat really was impossibly overcrowded, with five women and two teenagers. It would be nice to have her room back.
"That reminds me. Most of the book stores in Jinbocho are slowly re-establishing themselves, but some are gone beyond repair, and others are amalgamating to save themselves. There's lots of empty shops." Michelle looked down for a moment at her hands, that were twiddling together. "I was talking to some people when Junior and I were in Saitan, and we've had the offer of premises, very cheap, because of what we did for them. I think it's time to re establish the Paper Sister Detective Company."
"All right!" yelled Anita, jumping to her feet. "No more school!"
"What do you mean, no more school?" Nenene was feeling like the rug had been pulled from under her; of course, she couldn't expect the girls to continue as her full-time unpaid bodyguards forever, but she was only too aware that no one had raised the subject with her. She took her irritation out on Anita, rising to her own feet to glare down at her. "You're finishing junior high, so shut up."
"But I'll be needed at the detective company," Anita said confidently. "I never went to school in Hong Kong – Mi-nee and Ma-nee would be helpless without me."
"You can barely even write in Japanese," Nenene snapped. "And I didn't pay your fees so you could just drop out!"
"I can write in Chinese and English just fine," Anita said stubbornly. "And I'm getting really good at reading. And what do you mean, you paid my fees? Who asked you to?"
"Someone had to! I wasn't going to have you sitting around turning into an ignorant little brat."
"Mi-nee can teach me just fine!"
"Anita-chan, hush. Of course you're going to keep going to school. We'll still need you in our investigations, just not in school time. But you can't go to that school anymore – it's far too far to commute every day from Jinbocho at your age. You'll need to go to another school."
Anita and Nenene stopped glaring at each other. Their gazes swivelled around to Michelle, who looked calmly back at them, her big eyes limpid. Beside her, Maggie kept her eyes down, the line of her mouth unhappy.
"You - you're moving out?" Nenene said, blankly.
"Of course. There are rooms above the shop; they'll be perfect. And we can't keep imposing on you forever, sensei."
"Oh." Nenene didn't know what else to say. She'd have her flat to herself again; somehow, that felt like the worst thing that could possibly happen. All the pain and depression of the four years after Yomiko had vanished flooded back, the memory of living alone with her writer's block, becoming more lethargic and distanced year by year – until the sisters had moved in. It wouldn't be the same this time, she told herself, Yomiko would be just acorss the street, and she'd be able to call them anytime, but she still felt sick with betrayal and something like fear. Hadn't they been happy here? And weren't they family, now?
"Another school? No way! What about Hisa-chan, and Natsume, and the others?" Anita's voice seemed to be coming from a long way away, as Nenene looked at the two women. "And I thought I was supposed to help Junior fit in! He'll never make friends without me!" Junior nodded mutely, looking scared.
Michelle flapped her hands deprecatingly. "Anita-chan! I thought you wanted to quit school altogether a moment ago!"
"That was different!" Anita wailed in anguish.
"Anita could stay here and go to school," Nenene heard herself saying, desperate to salvage some part of her family. "She could go h – I could take her to Jinbocho on the weekends."
Michelle shook her head. "That's very kind of you, sensei, but we sisters stay together. Three sisters vote! Who votes we move to Jinbocho?" She raised her hand, and after a moment, glancing at Maggie from under her lashes for support, Maggie slowly raised her own hand.
"That's not fair! It's tyranny!" stormed Anita, and abruptly flung herself from the room, racing up the stairs. Junior half-stood to go after her, but Nancy placed a restraining hand on his arm, and he subsided back into his seat.
Nenene, feeling betrayed and shaky, couldn't tear her eyes from the two older sisters. Michelle's expression was sweet and open and gave absolutely nothing away; Maggie looked utterly miserable, and after that long glance at Michelle, wasn't meeting anyone's eyes. They'd decided, Nenene realised, in that short time alone together that morning, and she wasn't included in the decision and had nothing to say. The three sisters were a closed group, after all, and she had only ever been on the outside. And any daydream about a special bond with Maggie was just that – in the end, Maggie would always side with her sister. She had been wiling to betray Nenene once for Anita, and she would always choose Michelle over her.
Nenene's sick feeling redoubled, twisting her stomach. Was that it? Had she had the wrong end of things all along? Michelle and Maggie weren't actually sisters, after all; they had neither a blood relationship nor the kind of relationship that developed when children grew up in a shared family. 'Sister' was just a name they used for each other. And they adored each other – on their first meeting, Michelle had made a point of saying how close they were. Perhaps what Nenene had taken to be older-sister protectiveness had actually been a possessive warning off to a potential rival. Nenene remembered the anguish in both girls' faces when Maggie had seen her tangled up with Michelle, and realised, with acidic clarity, just why Michelle might want to remove Maggie from her. Surely, Michelle had been too upset over a little misunderstanding – and Nenene might have been dead wrong about why Maggie had been so devastated. Michelle - oh, Michelle was all sweetness and light, all of the time, but she was terribly good at getting her own way, and Nenene knew that under the smiles and giggles and lovingness, there were unspoken depths.
She had been jealous of Nancy's closeness to Yomiko, certainly, but that had been a niggling little prickle compared with the burning jealousy and loss that washed over her now. So she had never had Maggie to lose; somehow that didn't matter, all that mattered was the overwhelming sense of loss. And she was losing Michelle and Anita with her, and she had never, not really, been part of their family.
She pushed blindly away from the table, ignoring Yomiko softly calling out her name, and stumbled up the stairs. Without thinking her steps took her to the room shared by Michelle and Anita, even if Junior had been using it. She was still pretty sure Anita would use it as a refuge. She pushed open the door.
"Go away, Mi-nee – oh, Nene-nee." Anita looked up from where she'd been huddled on her side of the bed, hugging a giant toy frog that Nenene was dimly touched to recognise as one she'd bought her on impulse.
Nenene managed to make room for herself by the expedient of throwing some books and stuffed frogs onto the floor, and took a seat by Anita, wrapping an arm around her.
"I'm not crying," Anita said, in defiance of her damp, scarlet face.
"Neither am I." Nenene hugged her close. "I wouldn't waste tears on a little brat like you."
"Good." Anita paused. "I'd've thought you were trying to get rid of us, only you said I could stay if I liked. Will you miss us, Nene-nee?"
"Of course," said Nenene, glad Anita wasn't looking at her, so that it was easier to say. The truth was that she felt like she'd just been hit with divorce papers, and on top of that told she was losing custody of the children. That was ridiculous, of course - Maggie had never been hers to start with. She felt a pang. Michelle would make an awfully adult child, too. "It's all my fault," she said.
Anita looked up her, suspiciously. "How come?"
Nenene realised she couldn't actually say Well, I tried to make one of your big sisters kiss me, then she caught me in a compromising situation with the other, so she just grunted. "I guess I tease people too much."
Anita considered this. "Yeah, Maggie can be very sensitive, and Michelle can get really scary when Maggie cries. But all you need to do is say sorry, honest. Maggie is real forgiving."
The jealousy was tight in Nenene's stomach. "I don't think that's enough this time."
"Huh." They sat quietly together for a little while. Eventually Anita said,"There's this book - 'Anne of Green Gables'. Hisa-chan made me read it, because there's these two girls in it, Anne and Diana, who swear to be bosom friends and soulmates forever, and she wanted to be friends like that. Do you know it?"
"Yeah. I've read it."
"The thing is - there's more books. Anne gets married and moves away, and then she meets this other girl, Lesley, and *she* becomes Anne's soulmate best friend, and it's like she forgets all about Diana. And I think it sucks."
Nenene thought about Yomiko, and Nancy, and said slowly, "I guess it happens. You move away, you get older, you meet a new friend, and you forget about the friend at home. But you're right, it sucks. You don't have to replace Hisa-chan."
"I won't. And I'm not going to replace you, Nene-nee. Because I'm not going anywhere. My sisters are crazy, how do they think they can live Jinbocho? With all those bookshops around, they'll never even be able to buy food. And I bet Michelle doesn't really have an agreement with any shop-holder, she just wants to think they'll give her one, so she'll waltz in and try to make it come true. I know her." Anita straightened her shoulders. "We can't take this lying down. We have to stop them moving out."
"My sisters are hopeless, they can't look after themselves. We have to fix things for them," Anita said firmly. "Any ideas?"
Nenene closed her eyes and thought. So - maybe she'd got it wrong, maybe the sisters were together in a romantic sense. And maybe they hadn't, and maybe, in that case - well, it had suddenly become clear to her that what she really wanted was Maggie. But even if she couldn't have her in that way, what she really, *really* wanted was her family, and the sisters living with her, on whatever terms. She was sure she could put away her own longings, if the price of not doing so was to lose everything and everyone.
"I think... I think an idea is coming," Nenene said slowly. "Shake hands on it?"
Anita seized her hand. "So, partner, what's your idea?"
Nenene grinned, like a shark.
"Well, I have this friend called Haruhi who writes books..."