The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate

by Crawlspace

 

~ Chapter 19 ~

~ Ami and Mako-chan’s Moving Day, Part 2 ~

 

 

            Looking up from the box she was rummaging through, Ami took a moment to look around her new home and noticed her mother was still talking quietly to Haruka.  Her curiosity rose at what they could be discussing so intently, but, knowing she wasn’t likely to get an answer any time soon, Ami put the question aside.  

 

            Everyone was upstairs now, the last of the furniture inside and near its final location.  The boxes scattered around were more chaos than she was used to, but at least it was an organized chaos.  Her labeling system had seen to that.  Though some things were still being moved about, balanced, and looked through as ideas for where things should go were thrown around.

 

            Her mother and Haruka finally parted, Haruka heading into the kitchen where Michiru and Makoto had disappeared to not that long ago.  Finished with the box, Ami followed after the blonde.

 

            Carefully stepping around Hotaru and Chibi-usa, who were huddled together on the floor watching something on Hotaru’s video camera, Ami entered the kitchen.  But instead of finding Makoto, she saw only Michiru and Haruka.  “Do you know where Mako-chan went?”

 

            “She said she wanted to check things over downstairs one last time,” answered Michiru.  Sitting on the counter beside the sink with Haruka standing if front of her, Michiru finished tying the plant hanger around the hook Haruka had put beside the window earlier.  “There.  Just the way she wanted it.”

 

            “Thank you,” answered Ami on her way out.

 

            “No problem,” said Haruka as her hands settled on Michiru’s waist and gently tugged her down off the counter.

 

            This time having to step over Minako as well as the two little girls, Ami made her way to the front door.  She paused to tell Rei where she was going, then left her friend to Minako’s call of, “Come see this.  Hotaru’s going to rewind this part for you.”

 

            Downstairs, Ami opened the door and quietly stepped into the apartment.  Makoto stood in the center of the empty livingroom, hands in pockets and back to the door.  Walking up behind her, Ami slid her arms around Makoto and rested her cheek against the girl’s back.  They stood there in silence for a moment, until Ami felt Makoto take a deep breath and then release it in a slow sigh.

 

            Ami’s arms loosened as Makoto turned so she was facing the smaller girl.  “I always leave something behind,” said Makoto.  “No matter how many times I go through the cabinets and drawers, when I get to where I’m going, I’ve lost something.”

 

            “What about this time?”

 

            Makoto smiled and draped her arms over Ami’s shoulders.  “I’ve got everything this time.”  She bent her head to Ami’s, their lips coming together in a slow kiss.  Pulling back slightly, she rested her forehead against Ami’s for a moment, then said, “I’m going to miss this place, though.  I know it’s silly.  We’re going to be right upstairs, in a place that’s almost a carbon copy of this one.  But there are a lot of memories here.  Study sessions, sleepovers, the first time Usagi burned something during a cooking lesson, the first time you told me you loved me.”  She grinned and her voice got lower as she continued, “Our first kiss.  The first time we made love.”

 

            Her cheeks quickly going from pink to bright red, Ami hid her face against Makoto’s chest and said softly, “We can make new memories, Mako-chan.  They’ll be just as good as the old ones.”

 

            Makoto nodded as she held Ami to her.  “Yeah.  We should invite Usagi over next weekend for a cooking lesson.”

 

            Ami looked up, startled by that response.  She had been quite certain they were talking about something else.

 

            “What?” asked Makoto.  “It isn’t home until Usagi sets off the smoke alarm.”  Then the straight face Makoto was wearing cracked, and she started to laugh.  “You should see the look on your face.”

 

            Ami’s eyes ducked down even as a light giggle escaped her.  “Let’s go back upstairs, Mako-chan.  They’ll all start decorating for us if we leave them alone for too long, and I’d like to see what amused Minako so much on Hotaru’s video.”

 

            Outside, Ami’s mom was standing and waiting for them.  Her coat was pulled tightly around her and there was color in her cheeks that made the resemblance Ami couldn’t see stand out even more.  “We’re going to get ready and leave,” said Kaya to the girls when they came out.  She stepped up to Makoto and took the girl’s hands in hers.  “I know everyone has already wished you so much luck you’ll probably find a pot of gold on your doorstep in the morning, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Good luck, Makoto.  I expect you to take good care of yourself as well as my daughter.”

 

            “Yes, ma’am,” answered Makoto.  “I will.  And thank you for helping us.  Saatchi-san as well.”

 

            “You’re welcome.”  Kaya then turned to Ami.  “Walk me down to the car and say goodbye.”

 

            Ami walked silently beside her mother to the parking lot where Ken had the car running and warming up.  They stood for a minute, staring out across the cars inside the lot.

 

            “You know,” said Kaya, her voice breaking the silence, “I swore I wasn’t going to cry when I left you here.”  She looked down at Ami, her eyes getting misty.

 

            Ami moved a step closer to her mother and wrapped her arms around Kaya’s waist.  “I love you, Mom.”

 

            Kaya returned her daughter’s hug and pulled back her tears with a chuckle.  “Now don’t go getting all sentimental on me or I will start to cry.”  A bit more quietly, she added, “I wouldn’t have survived the first year of your life without my mother.  I don’t know how much help I can really be to you – you always seem to figure things out all on your own – but remember that I’m here.  And remember to come and visit your poor, old mom every once in a while.”

 

            Ami smiled and nodded.  “I promise.”

 

            “You take care of her, too,” said Kaya, indicating the girl who stood on the second floor landing watching them.  “Everyone needs to be taken care of sometimes, even the ones who think they don’t.  That reminds me.  Call your grandmother.  Tell her you’ve moved, if nothing else.  Maybe write a letter to Gram, as well.  Mother will have to read it to her with her eyes the way they are these days, but it will make her happy to know her favorite is thinking of her.”

 

            Ami nodded once again, and Kaya found herself imitating the gesture.  Then Kaya took a slow breath, gave Ami’s hands one last squeeze, and let go, taking a step back as she did.

 

            “I don’t want to keep Saatchi-san waiting for too long,” said Kaya.  “I’m on days this week if you need to get me.”

 

            “I remember,” answered Ami.  “I’ll call.”

 

            With nothing left to help her stall, Kaya walked over to the car and got in the passenger side.  She waved once more to Ami and watched as her child went back up the stairs to the young woman who was waiting for her.  A few minutes later, staring out the side window as the car sat at the entrance to the parking lot, Kaya felt something laid on top of the hands she had folded in her lap.  She looked down and grinned, then picked up the handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.  Looking over to the man next to her, she smiled at him in thanks, then reached a hand up to briefly touch his cheek.

 

            Ken smiled back in understanding, holding her eyes with his for several seconds before starting them on their way home.

 

            Back upstairs, Makoto and Ami found all of their friends settling in around the television.  Haruka and Rei were on the floor connecting the wires between the TV and VCR, with Hotaru sitting beside them holding the ready converter tape.

 

            “The screen on the video camera was too small,” explained Minako.  “We couldn’t all fit, so we decided to hook up the VCR.   Hope you don’t mind.”

 

            Makoto shook her head while claiming the last remaining seat.  “Nah, this should be fun.”

 

            When everything was connected and working, Hotaru pushed the tape in, then hurried over to sit between Michiru and Setsuna on the couch.  Haruka squeezed in beside Michiru on the opposite side, and Rei sat on the floor with the others.

 

            The tape started to play, and Hotaru’s desk was the first thing they saw.  When the little girl appeared on the screen and started to speak, the Hotaru on the couch grabbed Michiru’s arm and hid her eyes against it.  A happy grin on her face, Hotaru shyly peeked out from behind her mama’s arm to watch.

 

            A newly wakened Haruka appeared on the screen, and, amid snickers and giggles from the girls around them, Michiru leaned in close to her lover’s ear.  “Haruka,” said Michiru quietly.  “This isn’t, by chance, the same tape you were playing with this morning, is it?”

 

            Haruka smiled back with just a hint of worry.  Heh, well…”  Then she looked at Minako.  “Maybe we should skip this part.”

 

            “Are you kidding,” laughed Minako.  “This part is priceless.”

 

            The tape kept on rolling, and Haruka ran out of time to stop it.  She leaned back against the couch in defeat, suffered through one, quick ‘I’ll get you for this later’ look from Michiru, then chuckled along with everyone else as Hotaru tried to wake up the sleeping beauty.  Michiru, elegant and graceful thing that she was, took it all in good humor.  It helped that said humor was being doled out to everyone in equal amounts.

 

            Ack!” exclaimed Makoto when she saw herself for the first time on the tape.  “Why didn’t anyone tell me I’d gotten that wide?  And you wanted me to go swimming,” she accused Ami, as if that was some terrible crime.

 

            The smaller girl only smiled up at her from her place by Makoto’s feet as Minako replied, “Don’t worry, Mako-chan.  The camera always adds ten pounds.”

 

            “Only ten?” grumbled Makoto in response.

 

            A few more grumbles and laughs were heard as the tape continued onward.  An excited squeal led to a tease.  Minako and Rei were announced as being married, and, as the camera was capturing the faces of everyone who stood around the two congratulating them, the picture wavered just slightly.

 

            “My battery started dying,” explained Hotaru as the picture dimmed out.  “I had to go get a fresh one from the car.”

 

            The darkness on screen faded back into light, and the focus zoomed in slowly to the occupant of a parked car.  A man with dark hair held a camera to his eye.  He adjusted the lens, snapped a few more pictures, then lowered the camera so he could reach inside the car for something.  The something turned out to be a cigarette.  The man turned back to look in the direction his camera had been pointed and lifted a lighter.  It took several clicks to get a flame, and just as he was lighting up, Hotaru’s filming of him stopped.

 

            The happy and humorous sounds in the room had ceased during that short scene.  Haruka reached down and took the remote from Minako.  She hit the stop button, and the TV screen went blue.

 

            “Hotaru, who was that?” asked Haruka, her voice harsher than she realized.

 

            Hotaru shifted uncomfortably, easily able to feel the change in mood and believing it was because of something she had done.  She felt like everyone was staring at her, but not like before.  It had become the bad kind of attention she didn’t like.  Holding Michiru’s arm even tighter in front of her, the girl tried to disappear behind her mama.  “I don’t know,” she said quietly.  “I just saw him taking our picture, so I took his, too.  I’m sorry.”

 

            “There’s nothing to be sorry about,” said Michiru gently.  “You didn’t do anything wrong.  It just surprised us to see him.  That’s all.”  She looked around to Haruka, nodded after a moment’s silence, then turned to Setsuna.

 

            Setsuna understood the looks on her friends’ faces.  Reaching out, she took Hotaru and pulled the little girl onto her lap so Michiru could get up.

 

            When Michiru and Haruka stood and started towards the door, Makoto called after them, “Where are you going?”

 

            “To see if he’s still out there,” answered Haruka.  “Don’t do anything until we get back.”

 

            Everyone sat in uncomfortable silence as they waited for Haruka and Michiru.  Luna jumped up in the window to see if she could spot the girls from the apartment.  Artemis was pacing slowly beneath her, his tail twitching anxiously.  Chibi-usa, noticing her friend’s sudden nervousness, climbed up on the couch beside Setsuna and took Hotaru’s hand in hers.  She smiled at the girl, and got a weak one in return, before Hotaru turned her eyes back to Setsuna.

 

            On Setsuna’s lap, Hotaru motioned for her to lean down so she could whisper in her ear.  “Setsuna-mama,” whispered the little girl, hoping no one would pay any more attention to her.  “He was only taking our picture.  Why is everyone so upset?”

 

            Setsuna smiled reassuringly at the child and answered quietly, “Everyone’s just a bit concerned because they don’t know why he was doing it.  It makes them a bit nervous.”

 

            “But…” started Hotaru, only to be interrupted by her parents returning.

 

            “Whoever he was, he’s gone now,” said Haruka.

 

            “What do you think he was doing out there?” asked Minako.

 

            Haruka only shrugged.

 

            “At the risk of sounding egotistical,” said Michiru, “it is possible someone noticed either Haruka or myself and thought they could get some good press from it.  It’s happened before, especially when people realize we have Hotaru with us.”

 

            “But that early on a Sunday morning?” asked Makoto.  “I know my neighbors can be really nosey, but around here the only people who show signs of life before noon on a Sunday are the kids.”

 

            “It’s also not likely anyone would have had enough time,” added Ami.  “According to the date stamp on the video, we had only been out there for about 45 minutes when Hotaru saw him.  For someone to see you, get in touch with the press, then for a photographer to get himself together and arrive here, would likely take more time than he was given.”

 

            Several heads nodded in agreement.

 

            “So he was just some strange guy watching us?” asked Usagi.  She gave a little shudder.  “Creepy.  You know, my dad’s always warning me about men like that.  I’ve never really seen one, though.”

 

            “When was the last time you transformed?” asked Haruka suddenly.

 

            “Last week.  Luna and Artemis ran us through drills,” answered Rei.  Catching on to what Haruka was thinking, she asked, “You don’t think that has anything to do with why he was watching us, do you?”

 

            “It’s a possibility,” replied Haruka.

 

            “It’s a worse case scenario,” added Luna.  “It’s much more likely he’s just a run of the mill pervert with a thing for young girls.  Not that something like that should be taken lightly.”

 

            “Should we call the police?” asked Makoto.

 

            “And tell them what?” answered Haruka.  “We don’t even know for certain it was us he was photographing.  Though I don’t know what else it could have been.  Besides, if we assume a ‘worse case scenario,’ we might get into more trouble than we can handle by bringing in anyone else.”

 

            “So now what?” asked Rei.  “We can’t just pretend we didn’t see that.”

 

            “We take precautions,” said Setsuna.  “I think it would be wise if, for the time being, no one went anywhere alone.  Especially after dark.  I also think it would be best if Chibi-usa and Hotaru didn’t go anywhere without one of us accompanying them.  Transformations should be kept to emergencies, as well.”

 

            “I agree,” replied Luna.  “None of them will be hurt by a few missed practices.”

 

            “You’re being a little paranoid, don’t you think?” asked Minako.  “I mean, if it is just some creep, it’s not like we can’t take care of him on our own.  One Crescent Beam, and he’ll be singing soprano and walking with a permanent limp.”

 

            “But you would have to transform first,” answered Michiru.  “If something were to happen before you had the chance, then no matter how powerful your attacks may be, they wouldn’t do you any good.”

 

            “Ah.  I get it, now.”

 

            “Okay, we’re agreed,” said Haruka.  “No transforming except in emergencies.  No going anywhere alone.  That includes school.  I take Hotaru in the morning and one of us always picks her up.  It’s easy enough for me to swing by and get Chibi-usa.”

 

            “The rest of us all walk together,” jumped in Rei before Haruka could start handing out driving assignments.  “None of us goes very far alone, and there are always other people around before we meet up.  If I leave a little earlier than usual, I can meet Minako halfway to Usagi’s, and we can get her from there before meeting up with Ami and Makoto.  But you better be on time, Odango, or you’ll be going to school in your nightgown.”

 

            “Some friend you are,” replied Usagi, crossing her arms and sticking out her tongue.  If Rei was going to be like that about it, then Usagi wasn’t about to say ‘thank you’ or admit how much better it made her feel to not have to walk even a short distance alone when some creepy guy could be out there watching them.

 

            Haruka ignored the usual give and take between Usagi and Rei as she thought this over.  Finally, she nodded in agreement.  Then her eyes settled on Makoto.

 

            “Oh, no,” said Makoto before Haruka had a chance to say anything.  “I know that look.  Just because I can’t transform, doesn’t mean I need to be treated like some little kid who needs her hand held whenever she crosses the street.  I can take care of myself.  Besides, I have Ami.  Don’t let that innocent, girl-next-door look fool you.  She’s a killer.”

 

            The image of an enraged Ami appeared unbidden in Usagi’s mind -- red eyes, flaring nostrils, steaming ears, and all.  Her hands came up quickly and covered her mouth to try and stop the burst of laughter she felt forming.  The gesture was largely unsuccessful, the sound helping break the tension that had formed in the room.

 

            Haruka chuckled along with Usagi.  Relenting, she said, “Okay, Mako-chan.  But I was going to suggest me coming by to pick up you and Ami, anyway.  I thought maybe the walk might be getting too long for you.”

 

            “Thanks, but it’s not that far,” answered Makoto.  “I can still handle it.”

 

            “Well, the offer’s there whenever you want it,” answered Haruka.

 

            Makoto offered thanks once more before letting the subject drop.

 

            As they talked, Ami’s attention drifted to Hotaru.  The child had pulled back from everyone as Setsuna held her.  Once before, as they watched Hotaru timidly interact with the children in her swim class, Michiru had mentioned how it surprised her that even though Saturn could face down the worst of evil without batting an eye, Hotaru seemed so intimidated by children her own age.  Ami understood that feeling, though she hadn’t said it at the time.  She thought perhaps she understood what was happening now, as well, and she felt sorry for the child.

 

            Getting up from her spot on the floor and going over to her so she could speak more quietly, Ami asked, “Hotaru, I don’t think you ever got to take the picture of everyone that you wanted.  Would you like to do that now, before everyone starts to leave?”

 

            Hotaru thought about this for a moment, but before answering, turned to Haruka.  “May I, Haruka-papa?”  When Haruka nodded to her, a small smile began to form.  “I’d like to if everyone says it’s okay,” she said to Ami.

 

            Cheerful nods and agreements were offered quickly, everyone glad for the change in subject.  Hotaru got her camera ready as the group crowded together on and around the couch.

 

            “Someone’s sitting on me.”

 

            “My foot!”

 

            “Ouch, you didn’t have to poke that hard!”

 

            “Scoot over.  I can’t breathe.”

 

            “You have to get closer.  I still can’t see everyone.”

 

            “Come on, settle down.  Kami, I’m surrounded by three-year-olds.”

 

            A little more rustling around and rearrangements, and everyone was squished into the camera frame.  “Everyone ready?” questioned Hotaru before starting the timer.

 

            Given a consensus of ‘yes,’ Hotaru hit the timer button and hurried over to her spot in the group.  Fifteen seconds ticked by, and the moment was captured in a flash of light, smiles, and bunny ears.

 

            They sat together for awhile longer, until Usagi’s father came to get her and Chibi-usa.  He offered to take Minako and Rei home as well.  Haruka and the others left just after that.

 

            Makoto closed the door after saying goodbye to the last of her friends.  She turned the lock, then looked over to Ami with a tired smile.  She had accepted that nothing in their lives would ever be simple, and she was beginning to realize that it was likely very little would ever go as planned.  But at least they had their friends and, most importantly, each other.  Like this, they could get through anything. 

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Hotaru sat patiently on her bed curling and uncurling her toes while Michiru sat behind her and worked at the last of the knots in her damp hair.  When the last small tangle was released, Hotaru heard her mama make a quiet sound of triumphant for beating what the conditioner hadn’t.  Michiru ran the brush through Hotaru’s hair a few more times, then set it on the nightstand.

 

            “There,” said Michiru as she removed the towel from Hotaru’s shoulders.  “All done.  Your hair should be completely dry by the time we finish reading.”

 

            Hotaru reached for her pajama top and pulled it over her head.  As she negotiated her arms into the sleeves, she asked, “Can we go to the mall tomorrow?  I used all my film.”

 

            “How many do you have this time?”

 

            “Only three.  Half of it’s from my field trip and when I went to the park with Setsuna-mama and Chibi-usa.”  Hotaru took the towel Michiru was holding and walked it over to her laundry basket.  Before going back to the bed, she stopped at her desk to take the spent rolls of film from a drawer.  Hotaru lined up the three canisters carefully along the edge of the desk and stared at them for several seconds.

 

            Still looking at the film canisters, Hotaru said quietly, “I take a lot of pictures, don’t I?  When I see things I like or that make me happy, I want other people to be able to see them, too, like Setsuna-mama said when she gave me my camera.  And people make the best pictures sometimes.”  She looked over to Michiru, worry clear on her small face.  “Do you think anyone was ever afraid of me because I didn’t tell them what I was doing?  I don’t want people to be afraid of me.”

 

            Michiru shook her head and motioned for Hotaru to come over to her.  When she did, Michiru took the child in her arms.  “No one could ever be afraid of you just for taking a picture.  You’re too kind and gentle a person for anyone to be afraid of you at all, I would imagine.”

 

            Hotaru’s head rested against Michiru’s chest, and her fingers played absently with the end of a lock of Michiru’s hair.  “Everyone got upset earlier, though, because someone did that without asking.  Haruka-papa got angry and thought he wanted to do something bad to us.  It was only a picture.”

 

            Michiru hesitated for a moment, unsure of how best to explain.  “It wasn’t just because of the pictures,” she said slowly.  “It was because he was hiding.  When people try to hide what they’re doing, it’s often because what they’re doing is something they shouldn’t be.  That’s what worried everyone.  Your Haruka-papa got angry because of how much she cares for our friends and how much she loves you.  She doesn’t want anything to happen to you.”  Michiru shifted so Hotaru was looking up at her and smiled at the girl.  “And you, Hotaru, have no need to worry about how others see you, because you never hide.  When people see you, they see a pretty little girl who has found something in them that’s good and special.  Something, perhaps, they didn’t realize was there before.  That’s why they always smile back.”

 

            Hotaru returned the smile Michiru was giving her.  Tightening her hold around her mama, she said, “I love you, Michiru-mama.”

 

            “I love you, too,” answered Michiru softly.  She held her child for several moments more, then released her to reach over and pick up the book that was lying on the nightstand.  “Ready?”

 

            Hotaru nodded.  “We’re on chapter four.  It’s bookmarked.”

 

            Together, the two of them settled against the pillows at the head of the bed.  Hotaru rested against Michiru’s side as one of Michiru’s arms went around her.  Comfortable with the blankets over her, Hotaru held the book as Michiru started to read.

           

           

*            *            *

 

            Makoto finished brushing her hair and placed her brush in the dresser drawer.  Turning, she paused in front of the mirror that hung on the closet door.  For a moment, she stared, turning her body to view it at different angles.  When she stopped, she stood in profile, her hands moving over her stomach and pulling her nightshirt tight around her form.

 

            With a shake of her head and a huge sigh, Makoto said to her reflection, “Pregnant or not, I know how to handle myself in a fight.  But it’s probably a good thing that I can’t transform.  I’d look worse in a fuku than I do in a bathing suit.”

 

            “I think you’d look cute in a bathing suit,” said Ami as she leaned against the doorframe and watched her partner with a grin on her face.

 

            Makoto smirked.  “You look cute in a bathing suit.  I can barely fit into my own shoes anymore.  Tell me,” said Makoto, her fingers tapping against the side of her belly.  “How is it if I’m only carrying around three pounds of baby, I’ve managed to gain almost twenty?”

 

            Coming completely into the room, Ami situated herself between Makoto and the mirror.  She placed her hands over Makoto’s and said, “I could give you the very long and very boring scientific reason for why all of these things are going on inside of you.  Or, we could just go to bed, and I can give you the much more enjoyable explanation for why you still look cute in a bathing suit.”

 

            Makoto smiled.  Her hand moved out from under Ami’s and up to play with a lock of blue hair.  After letting the strands sift through her fingers for several seconds, she carefully tucked them behind Ami’s ear, then leaned forward to lay a kiss on Ami’s forehead.  “I love you,” she said.  “For everything.  Even the stuff I complain about.”  Then, giving the girl’s hand a tug, added, “Come on.  You had the right idea when you said bed.  Too much happened today, and I’ll be glad when this day is officially over and done with.”

 

            Ami followed Makoto over to the bed, and, after a bit of pillow punching and rearrangement, both were comfortably settled.  Ami curled against Makoto’s side as the other girl closed her eyes.  Her hand began to play over the front of Makoto’s nightshirt, slowly pulling it up so she could slip a hand underneath.  Finding her target, Ami’s fingers began to draw random shapes and squiggles over the spot she’d seen Makoto favoring.  She was rewarded a few minutes later when she felt a few tiny kicks.

 

            One arm around Ami and the other behind her head, Makoto relaxed and let Ami play.  This was the thing that had surprised her the most as she got to know Ami on a more intimate level.  The girl liked to touch.  Not a clingy sort of touching like the way Usagi so often did with Mamoru, but a small, almost gentle sort of thing she would only do when no one else was around.

 

            When they would lie together at night, just like they were now, Ami would start to run her fingers over Makoto’s arms and shoulders.  Sometimes, she would trace them over lips or around eyes, but inevitably those fingers would travel down to rest on Makoto’s belly.  There, Ami’s hand would rest warm against Makoto’s skin as her fingers stroked slowly.  Or those same fingers would start to draw shapes or tap out simple patterns as she waited for a response from the little boy within.  Most times, those playful touches would lead to more serious and intimate ones.  Other times, the gentleness behind them would lull Makoto to sleep.  And always when she woke, Ami would be there beside her, some part of her making physical contact.

 

            “What do you think my mom calls him?” asked Ami out of nowhere.

 

            Ami’s palm was flat against Makoto’s stomach, and all of her concentration seemed to be focused on the area, so Makoto naturally assumed that was what Ami was asking about.  A crooked grin forming on her face, Makoto quipped, “That annoying little thing that ruined my daughter’s life?”

 

            Makoto heard a small giggle, then Ami replied, “No, I don’t mean the baby.  And you know she doesn’t think that.  I mean Saatchi-san.  Whenever she’s mentioned him to me, she always calls him ‘Saatchi-san.’  What do you suppose she calls him when they’re alone?”

 

            Biting back the first smart replies of possible endearments that popped into her head, Makoto said instead, “I don’t know.  I guess it depends on how close they are.”

 

            Mmmm,” murmured Ami, her index finger beginning to move slowly back and forth as she thought.  “Mom obviously respects him professionally,” she mused, “or she wouldn’t have recommended him to you.  And they must know each other fairly well personally.  I don’t think he would have helped us the way he did otherwise.  Perhaps they are… close.”

 

            “Are you okay with that?”

 

            “Yes.  It’s a bit odd to think about.  I’ve never really thought of my mother as anything but my mother and the doctor everyone else sees her as.  It’s hard trying to picture her as something else, especially as someone’s date.  She shouldn’t have to be alone just because of that, though.”  Ami smiled.  “My mom is one of those people who think they can do it all alone, and she has for a long time.  I think it would be nice if she didn’t always have to.”

 

            Makoto pulled Ami a little tighter against her side and kissed the top of her head.  “That’s very thoughtful and mature of you.  I just hope I can follow your example.”

 

            Ami tilted her head up and asked, “What do you mean?”

 

            “Well,” answered Makoto, her voice teasing, “I’m in an awkward position here.  I mean, my mother-in-law is sleeping with my doctor.  Almost makes me wonder what their pillow talk is like.”

 

            For an instant, Ami’s eyes went wide right before she buried her face against Makoto.  “Mako-chan!” came her muffled complaint.  “You were the one who said they were most likely just friends!”

 

            “I thought you said you were okay with this,” replied Makoto as she gave Ami’s side a poke.

 

            Ami jumped from the tickle Makoto’s finger caused, curling up a bit more as a result.  Then she turned her head so one eye could peek up at Makoto.  “I am, more or less.  But there are some things I’d rather not have to think about, especially in relation to my mother.  Ever.  No matter how okay I may be with it.”

 

            “Fair enough,” answered Makoto.  She turned slowly onto her side so she was facing Ami, the other girl’s head resting against her arm.  Makoto used her free hand to tilt Ami’s head so she could see her eyes, then gently stroked the backs of her fingers against Ami’s cheek.  “You have pretty eyes,” she said softly, and smiled at how that could still make Ami blush.  Then she leaned in and pressed her lips to one warm cheek.

 

            Ami snuggled closer and turned so her lips met Makoto’s.  Together this way, both girls let what was left of the day slip away without them.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            The timer beside the bed dinged, signaling to Seki that the last stage of the film developing was done.  He snuffed out his cigarette and went back into the makeshift darkroom he’d set up in the bathroom of the hotel.

 

            A little more work, and the film he’d taken this afternoon was hanging up in front of him.  Seki stared at the images, shaking his head.  This wasn’t good, especially with the year’s biggest fundraiser only three weeks away, and it was going to put a rush on their plans.

 

            Vibration in his pocket pulled Seki’s attention away from the photos.  He pulled out his cellular and held it to his ear.  “Hirano.”

 

            “It’s Kimiko,” said a female voice.  “I got your message.  What’s going on?”

 

            “It’s about time you got back to me,” said Seki crossly.  “I called you five hours ago.”

 

            “Don’t start with me, Seki,” came an equally cross response.  “Just tell me what the problem is.”

 

            “They’re married.”

 

            “What!?” asked Kimiko so loudly Seki had to hold the phone away from his ear.  “How is that even possible?  Forget that they’re both underage.  They’re both girls.  It’s not legal.”

 

            “Legalities aside, it’s what they’re saying,” answered Seki as he went back over to his bed to light another cigarette.  “That blonde with the hair stood in the middle of an apartment complex and announced it loud enough for everyone who lived there to hear.  Christ, I was half a block away, and I heard her.  I pity her boyfriend.”

 

            Kimiko heaved a sigh into the receiver.  “Am I supposed to tell him this?”

 

            “No,” replied Seki.  “You’re supposed to tell him he needs to make a decision about how we proceed.  Rei’s discretionary level has reached zero.  It’s only a matter of time before someone finds out and we lose whatever advantage we have over the situation.”  He took a drag off his cigarette, imaging the unhappy expression on his coworker’s face at what he was about to say.  “Our best bet now is to move forward with our original plan.”

 

            “It’s a bad idea,” answered Kimiko without missing a beat, just the way Seki knew she would.  “I said it before, and I’ll say it again.  This will backfire on us worse than anything else.”

 

            “Whatever,” said Seki.  “You’re the only one who feels that way, and you’ve been outvoted.  Just do your job and tell him what I’ve told you.  I’ll be back in the morning with the prints from this trip.”  He hung up the phone without waiting for a response.  Reclining back on the bed, Seki wondered if he had enough time left tonight to find something to do in this town that didn’t involve politics or teenage girls.