The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate
~ Chapter 20: Rumors ~
Fumi had never been much of a morning person, which was why, she supposed, she disliked having to do the morning classroom chores so much. Especially on Monday mornings. Even more especially on the Monday mornings when Yukari would be standing outside the classroom waiting for her with the newest bit of weekend gossip. Not that she wasn’t glad to see Yukari. On the contrary, Fumi was always glad to see her friend. It was just that she would have preferred Yukari wait until lunchtime to give her the latest scoop, when she would be awake enough to enjoy it properly.
Across the room from Fumi, another of her friends, Shiko, paused in arranging the flowers on the window shelf and laughed at what Yukari was telling them. “Think about what you’re saying, Yukari. It’s ludicrous.”
Sitting on a desktop, Yukari shook her head. “I’m telling you, they were practically cuddling. Everyone saw it. Not only that, Mizuno was smiling. I’ve known her since junior high, and Mizuno never smiles.”
“That’s just as silly,” returned Shiko. “Of course she smiles. She’s just never smiled at you.”
Yukari smirked. “Guess she was saving them all for Kino.”
Both girls giggled at that as Fumi tried to form something coherent around the information she was being given. Leaning on the broom handle she was holding, Fumi rested her chin atop her hands and stared at Yukari as she thought. Finally, she said, “Okay, I might give you Mizuno, but only because I’ve never seen her with any boys or pay any attention to Sato every time he tries to flirt with her. But not Kino. Come on, Yukari, just look at her. There isn’t a thing about her that says ‘I like girls,’ and one heck of a thing that says she doesn’t.”
“Phft,” commented Yukari with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Yuu doesn’t count.”
“Yeah,” answered Fumi, her voice dripping sarcasm. “I’m sure Kino says that very same thing each and every day.”
Their teacher suddenly sliding open the door startled all three girls. Fumi and Shiko snapped back to their chores as Yukari skittered off the desk only to stand there looking lost for lack of anything to do in a classroom that wasn’t hers.
Yukiko came through the door, precariously balancing some of the equipment she would be using for first period’s lab. She let it fall from her arms to the desktop, luck being the only thing keeping it all from breaking. Then she turned to the girls in the room. “Good morning,” she said happily, one corner of her mouth turning up in a sly grin.
“Good morning, Kume-sensei,” said the girls all at once.
Yukiko turned to address Yukari. “I’m surprised to see you here so early, Itoh. Making yourself useful, are you?” she asked, her voice a bit teasing to keep the mood light. It was the least she could do, especially after the girls had provided her with such an amusing bit of conversation.
Yukari grinned self-consciously. “I’m more likely just slowing them down, Sensei.”
“We can’t have that, now can we?” replied Yukiko jovially. “Come on, Itoh. You can help me get the rest of the equipment in here. Think of it as a head start for when you help me this afternoon for your own class.”
Yukari suppressed a groan and tried very hard not to roll her eyes at her own stupidity. She noticed her friends trying to hide smiles at what she had walked into, and stuck her tongue out at them just before she followed her teacher out of the room.
* * *
Yukiko made her way into the teacher’s lounge and found Keiko sitting in their usual spot, her lunch already set out in front of her. The younger teacher took a bite out of an apple slice as Yukiko took the seat across from her.
“You’ll never guess what I heard this morning,” said Yukiko amusedly as she began to pull out her own lunch. “Itoh and two of my other girls were talking about who hooked up with who over the weekend. Valentine’s and all that. You know how these kids can get. Anyway, they finally landed on Kino, and don’t you know, they’ve somehow managed to pair her up with Mizuno.” The teacher laughed, her green eyes sparkling as she did. “I wish I’d seen what they did to come up with that one. I swear, Keiko, that’s one strange bit of gossip not even I would give any credit to.”
Keiko smiled knowingly. “It does seem a bit out of the blue, doesn’t it?” she said, humor in her soft voice.
Yukiko regarded the woman across from her through narrowed eyes, her chopsticks and first bite of lunch paused halfway to her mouth. After a second, she let her food fall back to its container and said flatly, “You know something.”
Keiko only grinned and took another bite of her apple.
“Oh, come on, Keiko. You can’t keep holding out on me like this. When you find out something, you must share.”
“Now, now, Yuki. I don’t really know as much as you think I do. Though what I found out might lend some credence to the rumors you heard.”
Yukiko’s eyes widened slightly at the nickname Keiko rarely used for her. “’Yuki’? Oh, this ought to be good.”
Keiko nodded, thinking for a moment about how much she would say. “It’s amusing that you heard this from who you did, because I was just speaking with her father in the guidance office this morning. Itoh-san and I are trying to work out some things regarding Kino-san’s schedule for next term. It just so happens that one of our problems was solved for us. Or it might be, if both girls agree. You see, Kino-san now has a live-in tutor. She and Mizuno-san are sharing an address.”
“You’re kidding!” gasped Yukiko. “They’re living together? Alone-together as in just them or is Mizuno’s mother with them?”
“It looks like it’s just the two of them, but we aren’t certain,” answered Keiko. “Itoh-san was going to speak with them about it this afternoon.”
Leaning back in her chair, Yukiko crossed her arms over her chest and slowly shook her head. “I never would have believed it,” she said quietly. Then she remembered, “But there was that one time I caught them hugging on each other in the gym. Kino looked pretty upset at the time, so I just shooed them out so I could start practice. I wonder… Lover’s quarrel? Making up after a lover’s quarrel?”
“Kume-sensei,” warned Keiko lightly, the more formal tone she used most often back in place.
“Don’t worry, Keiko,” replied Yukiko. “I know where to draw the line in open speculation about my students. Although,” drew out Yukiko as she scanned the room, a devilish grin on her face. “Have you seen Kato yet?”
“I’m afraid to ask why you want to know that.”
“Don’t look so concerned,” answered Yukiko as she got up to pursue the history teacher. “I just want to play with him for a bit. I bet I can get that vein on the side of his neck to pop out.”
Keiko sighed as her coworker hurried off. She looked down at the little kitten mascot hanging from the side of her bag. And people say I haven’t grown up yet. She grinned once at the tiny, stuffed kitten, patted its head, then went back to her lunch.
* * *
Satoshi followed his friends down the hall and outside with a frown on his face. He’d seen the looks a few of his classmates had thrown his way earlier, and now that he knew why, he wasn’t happy about it. By the time he and his three friends had met up at the end of the day to go home, the rumors about Kino and Mizuno were going full force, even in his own little group.
“And all it took was one night with Satoshi,” said Masao, shaking his head in mock disappointment.
“How’s that?” asked Korin. The skinny boy pushed his glasses up on his nose, a playful smile on his face as he fed Masao the line he wanted.
“Well, not only did he totally ruin her for the rest of us,” went on Masao, obviously amused with the whole thing, “but after only one night, he managed to turn her off guys completely.”
Their laughter was cut off as Satoshi pushed Korin aside to get to Masao. Grabbing the front of the shorter boy’s shirt in his fists, Satoshi forced him up against the side of the building and held him there.
His face red from a mix of anger and embarrassment, Satoshi hissed out, “Whatever that bitch does has nothing to do with me. Whatever happened to her has nothing to do with me. And if I have to tell you that one more time, I’ll knock in your teeth when I do.”
“Let him go, Satoshi,” said Taro as he stepped up and tried to pry Satoshi’s hands off Masao.
Satoshi’s grip loosened enough for Taro to pull the boys apart. He situated himself between them and stared down Satoshi as Masao scooted away from the wall.
Rubbing at his chest, Masao glared at Satoshi as Korin stood off on the side looking more nervous than anything else. “Christ, Satoshi, it was only a joke,” complained Masao.
Taro grabbed Satoshi’s shoulder and held him in place so he wouldn’t go after the other boy again. To Masao he said, “You and Korin go on ahead. We’ll see you guys later.”
Masao picked up the bag he’d dropped and, with one more contemptuous look thrown over his shoulder at Satoshi, left with Korin.
Satoshi pulled away from his friend and kicked angrily at the ground. “Stupid people. Stupid people who are supposed to be my friends. And damn Kino for thinking she could play me like this.”
“It’s your own fault,” said Taro evenly. “Not hers.”
Satoshi stared at his friend in disbelief. Taro was the one who always stood up for him and behind him. That he would suddenly turn on him and take someone else’s side was unexpected and unwelcome.
“You should have been more careful,” went on Taro. “If you had been, no one would even remember that you’d slept with her at this point.”
“I told you it isn’t mine!” shouted Satoshi, his fists gripping tight. “She told me herself I wasn’t the first, and…”
“And she was doing the same to a bunch of other guys, because we all know that’s what her type is really like,” cut in Taro, his tone making it clear he didn’t believe that. “Listen Satoshi, if you want to keep saying that, I’ll go along with it. If you want to keep pretending that baby isn’t yours, I’ll pretend right along with you. But no one has stepped up to say they were with her except you. That was the whole point in you going after her to begin with – because she was untouched and untouchable. It just so happens you were wrong. Now you’re going to have to deal with it.”
“I don’t have to take it from them,” answered Satoshi petulantly. “Those idiots are supposed to be my friends.”
“You have to take it from them just like you’re going to have to take it from everyone else.” Taro moved closer to his friend and gripped the boy’s shoulder, then leaned in as if he were telling him a secret. “But look at it this way. Most of the talk has been about Kino and Mizuno being together, nothing else. And after this, even if Kino does try and pin you as her kid’s father, true or not, no one’s going to believe her. You’re off the hook, my friend.”
Slowly, Satoshi began to nod. Some of the tension in his body leaked away, and the contempt with which he’d been regarding his friend left his eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re right. They won’t believe her.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Do you know how dead I would be if my parents found out about any of this?”
Taro clapped a hand against Satoshi’s back. “I told you before not to worry about that. There’s no way they can find out unless you tell them. And in a few weeks, this will all be gone. Everyone’s going to get bored with it, they’ll start talking about something else, and no one will even remember you and Kino ever met.”
* * *
Thursday night already, and after the excitement of last weekend, the week had drug by rather uneventfully. Minako lamented this fact as she lay on Rei’s bed flipping through a magazine. They hadn’t seen any signs of the camera creep again, which she supposed was a good thing. Makoto and Ami were still the most talked about couple at school, which was also a good thing. Though Kanno and Souichi were catching up to them in terms of popularity. By Minako’s tally, the latter would overtake the former by this weekend, and if she wasn’t totally certain that was what her friends wanted, she would have found some way to keep them on top. After all, they were a unique thing and deserved some attention, especially when it had been predominately good.
The problem with Makoto and Ami, Minako continued to muse as she flipped through her magazine without really seeing it, was in keeping the attention they’d already gotten. They just weren’t doing anything. Their getting together, early courtship, and moving in together had all been done away from the eyes of the school. Now they were basically… well, for lack of a better word, settled. And settled equaled boring equaled nothing for anyone to talk about in order for them to keep their status as number one couple.
Minako bent one leg to lift it out of Artemis’ way as he stretched out at the end of the bed. She looked back over her shoulder and watched the white cat stretch to his full length, his toes flaring as he did. Then he rolled over onto his back, twitched his tail a few times, and went fully back to sleep. She then looked over to where Rei sat on the floor, the end of a pencil in her mouth as one hand tapped out notes on her keyboard. A warm smile formed on Minako’s face. Okay, so maybe there were worse things than being just a little bit settled.
A knock on the door made Rei look up from her project. “It’s open.”
The door slid open to reveal a nervous looking Yuichiro. He inclined his head to acknowledge Minako, then turned to Rei. “Hey, Rei. Your grandfather asked me to come get you. You have a phone call.”
“Okay. Thanks,” she answered as she got up. “Back in a minute, Mina.”
Minako smiled and nodded at Rei, then went back to her magazine. She turned back a few pages to the beginning of the article she’d skimmed through. Fifteen minutes later, she was back to the midway point when Rei returned.
Looking more than a little dazed, the brunette walked over to her seat on the floor. She sat chewing on her lip for several seconds, then raised her eyes to Minako’s concerned gaze. “That was my father. He said he’s got some fundraiser thing he has to go to on the eighth, and he has some free time that Sunday. He’s going to come see me. Take me out for an early birthday dinner.”
Minako closed her magazine and sat up as Rei turned back to her keyboard. Picking up her pencil, Rei moved as though she were about to write something, but wound up flipping the pencil and tapping the eraser against her notepad.
“You know,” she said crossly, “he probably won’t even come. At the last minute, he’ll make up some excuse about work or other people who are more important. I don’t know why he even bothered calling. And all that nonsense about a birthday dinner. It’s more than a month before my birthday, but it’s not like he’d even remember that without his assistant telling him.”
Minako got up and moved across the room to Rei. She sat on the edge of the table and rested a hand gently against Rei’s arm.
Rei stilled her pencil and looked up at Minako. “I was in elementary school the last time he took me out for a birthday dinner. He likes to go to really fancy places where he’s sure someone will recognize him and offer him a bottle of their best wine on the house.” Rei smiled a little then. “He showed me that trick for the first time then. He even let me have a sip of the wine. I was all dressed up, and he called me his date. It feels like it was such a long time ago. And it’s been such a long time since we actually saw each other.” A strange look crossed Rei’s face, and she got up suddenly and went over to her closet. “I bet I don’t even have anything to wear to the kind of place Dad will want to go.”
As Rei started going through the clothes in her closet, pulling things out and holding them in front of her or pushing them out of the way in favor of something else, Minako watched and smiled. “We could go shopping this weekend if you want,” she offered.
Rei nodded. “Good idea.” She paused, her hand on a hanger. “He’ll come, won’t he? He’ll keep his promise this time.”
Minako walked over to Rei and stood beside her. When Rei looked at her, Minako could see all the little girl want in her eyes, and the need to reassure the one she loved overwhelmed her. Ignoring her lack of certainty in the matter, Minako promised, “He’ll be here, Rei. I’m sure he will this time.”
A small smile formed on Rei’s lips. “We’re going to have to go shopping for you, too. I want you to meet him. We don’t have to tell him about us, but I want him to know you exist.”
Minako agreed, then reached forward and pulled Rei into a hug. He better show up this time, she thought, or the good senator would be finding himself on the wrong side of the Senshi of Love.
* * *
The scent of baking chocolate filled the kitchen. Makoto watched as Usagi stood in front of the oven, her blue eyes going back and forth between the timer and the cake behind the glass. Usagi had done a surprisingly good job this time, and Makoto hoped it would end as well as it had started.
Over at the table, Ami’s voice was calm and patient as she walked Chibi-usa through a math problem. Rei had tried to help the child earlier when Chibi-usa had tagged along to the study meeting. However, her explanation had only confused the girl more, and now it was up to Ami to try and undo Rei’s somewhat twisted mathematical logic.
Mixed in with Ami’s and Chibi-usa’s voices was the sound of the papers Luna was pawing through. The black cat sat on top of the table reading over the paperwork Itoh-san had given Makoto during a meeting that morning. Makoto reminded herself to pull out the ones Saatchi-san needed to sign and get that taken care of this weekend so she could give them back Monday morning.
His countenance and voice had been as stern and gruff as ever when Itoh-san had called her into his office for the second time in a week. His demeanor, however, was offset by Hideo-sensei’s perpetually happy one, and it was the teacher who explained most of their plans for handling Makoto’s leave from school next term. So it came as a surprise when, at the end of the meeting, he’d done something Makoto believed was meant as a kindness.
His voice low and his face expressionless, Itoh-san had said, “I think things will turn out well for you, Kino-san. As long as you’re one of my students, I’ll see that you graduate. Even if it kills both of us.”
He’d left it at that, and if Hideo-sensei hadn’t grinned just a little wider, Makoto doubted she would have even realized the man was attempting humor. Or maybe even that he was trying to tell her she wasn’t alone and not everyone was out to get her.
Luna pushed another page aside, then looked up at Makoto. “They’re giving you a full 14 weeks?”
Makoto nodded. “Yep. My last day is April 30th. It’ll run in to summer break, and they think it will be less disruptive if I come back to school at the same time as everyone else.”
“They’ve never had to deal with something like this before,” added Ami, relaying some of what Makoto had told her. “No one could agree on how long she should be out, so they decided to give her a standard maternity leave. Though they’re calling it ‘emergency medical leave.’”
“What’s this?” asked Luna as she pulled a paper out from the pile.
“Oh, hey, my history test,” said Makoto as Luna held up the page with a red and circled 91 in the top corner. “I was wondering what I did with that.”
Usagi’s interest was pulled away from the oven when she saw the grade on Makoto’s paper. “You were complaining about that, Mako-chan, but a 91 is good. I only got a 67. But it’s not my fault,” she added quickly when Luna gave her a disapproving look. “All those names and dates to remember. It all just starts blending together. And Watashi-sensei is the most boringest teacher on the planet. He just talks and talks and talks all in one voice, and after awhile, it starts to put you to sleep.”
Makoto laughed at that, which earned her curious looks from Usagi, Chibi-usa, and Luna. Ami, though, smiled, and Makoto said to her, “See? I told you I wasn’t the only one who falls asleep in his class.”
Ami’s grin got just a fraction wider before she turned back to Chibi-usa’s math problems. Her eyes focused down on the homework, she teased, “Yet you’re still the only one who’s gotten caught.”
Makoto chuffed. “Just my bad luck, I guess. Besides, Usagi, it’s not the grade I was complaining about. It’s Watashi-sensei. Since the school year started, he’s had it in for me, and I don’t have a clue why. He never misses a chance to point out how wrong or not good enough what I do is. But now, all of a sudden, it’s like I don’t exist. All week, he’s totally ignored me. He refuses to make eye contact at all, and if he has to glance in my direction, he looks right over or around me. I even raised my hand today just to see what he would do, and nothing. He completely passed up an opportunity to tell me how stupid I am.”
Luna, having never heard more than a few minor complaints about the history teacher, was looking more than a little concerned. “Is he really that bad?” she asked. Then, when she got nods from both Usagi and Ami, said, “I wish you had said something sooner, Mako-chan. Perhaps something could be done about him.”
“Don’t worry about it, Luna,” answered Makoto. “I’ve dealt with it for this long, and I’m pretty much used to him by now. Either way, I should just be glad he’s giving me a break. And in a month, finals will be over, and I’ll never have to deal with that man again for the rest of my life.”
The ring of the kitchen timer brought everyone’s attention back to the cake in the oven. “It’s ready, Mako-chan,” said Usagi excitedly.
“Okay,” answered Makoto, crossing her fingers behind her back. “Just turn off the oven and be careful when you take it out. Then flip it onto the plate I gave you.”
Usagi nodded and did as instructed. The cake resting on the plate, Usagi held it out happily in front of her – for all of three seconds. Then the center of the cake collapsed, leaving it looking more like a deflated balloon than a dessert.
The smile on Usagi’s face promptly fell. Her lip started to tremble, and her eyes welled up with tears.
Ami looked sympathetically at her friend as Chibi-usa rolled her eyes. Luna only shook her head.
“Now, Usagi, it’s not that bad,” said Makoto consolingly, hoping to forestall any anguished outburst Usagi might be gearing up for. She carefully moved closer to the blonde and her flattened cake. “It looks like it might still be edible. It’s just a little flat.”
That was the wrong thing to say, Makoto realized, as Usagi burst into tears. “But I did everything just like you told me to,” cried Usagi. “Why didn’t it work?”
“I don’t know, Usagi,” said Makoto gently. She took the cake plate and set it on the counter. “You know what? Bug wants a hot fudge sundae. How about we get some ice cream while we wait for Ami’s cram class to get out?”
Usagi looked up at her friend and sniffled. “Can we?”
“Mmm hmmm. My treat, since you and Chibi-usa said you’d wait with me tonight.”
Another little sniffle, and Usagi asked, “Can I have extra cherries? And sprinkles?”
Makoto laughed. “Sure.”
“Okay,” answered Usagi, her mood quickly brightening. “When do we leave? We shouldn’t wait too long. Don’t want Ami to be late for class.”
“In a half hour,” replied Makoto. “Just enough time for us to get the dishes cleaned up.”
Usagi eyed the sink of dirty dishes and sighed. “I should have known there’d be a catch.”
* * *
With one last wave, Rei watched her friends turn the corner and continue the walk to their own school. It amused Rei when she noticed the curious glances coming from her schoolmates when they noticed the outsiders with her. After a week of being walked all the way to campus because of the buddy system they’d all agreed upon, Rei thought the girls at her school would be used to seeing them by now.
Inside at her locker, she put her shoes away and tried to shake off the uneasy feeling she was getting. How many girls had looked away quickly when she’d passed them on her way in? Not the downcast eyes and blushes she would normally get when she casually addressed underclassmen, but actual avoidance, like they were hiding something. And that group she had seen huddled together near the entrance. They’d stopped talking so suddenly when she’d approached that Rei knew they’d been talking about her. Their nervous looks and stammered greetings had left her feeling ill at ease and agitated.
She closed her locker, turned, and then jumped back, startled by the girl standing there waiting for her. Natsume was her name, and Rei hadn’t heard her approach at all. This was one of the girls from the group out front. She was also one of the girls Minako jokingly referred to as Rei’s groupies.
Natsume stood before her, her head slightly down. Her feet fidgeted nervously as she gripped a newspaper in her hands. “G-good morning, Rei-sama,” she stammered out.
Rei smiled back at the girl and reclaimed the air of confidence she always wore in this place. “Good morning, Natsume-chan. Is there something I can do for you?”
“Well, I… that is, we…” Natsume looked up at Rei, then quickly back down before thrusting the paper out for her to take.
That uneasy feeling reasserted itself and rested like a lead weight in Rei’s chest. With great trepidation, she took the paper from the girl in front of her and slowly opened it. When she saw the headline, her blood went cold.
Right there on the front page was the headline, “Senator Hino’s Daughter in Secret Affair.” Under that, in smaller bold print, was the subtitle, “A Double Standard in Family Values? Just Where Does He Stand?” Beneath the bold print was a black and white photo of her and Minako from when they’d gone to a concert in the park back in September. For just a few minutes, Minako had leaned back against her, and Rei had put her arms around her. That moment had been captured perfectly in the photo, leaving no questions to the intimacy of it.
“Rei-sama?” asked Natsume cautiously. “Is… is it true? You and that girl?”
“Minako. Her name’s Minako,” answered Rei numbly. Minako. Oh, Kami, please, no.
Rei dropped the newspaper and started running, ignoring the girl calling after her and hoping she could get to her friends before anyone else did.
* * *
They were almost to school when Minako noticed her father’s car parked by the side of the road. Both her parents were inside, presumably waiting for her. She wondered why they would be here, having seen her not more than an hour before.
The small group moved closer to the car, Minako slightly ahead of the others. Her parents got out of the car when they saw her. The happy greeting Minako was going to give them died on her lips, though, when she saw the angry and displeased expressions they wore, and she stopped her approach.
Her mother closed the gap between them easily. She stopped and stood in front of Minako, giving the girl a cold stare. Then she raised her hand and brought it down in a slap so hard against Minako’s cheek that the blonde was forced back a step.
The ringing in her ears kept her from hearing Usagi’s gasp. The tears that sprang to her eyes from the sting kept her from seeing Makoto start to move forward or noticing how Ami took hold of her arm to stop her. And as her father stepped up behind her and grabbed her arm, Minako didn’t see Rei appear just on the edge of the crowd of students that was forming.
“That’s enough,” said her father sternly. “We’ve been embarrassed enough as it is. Minako, get in the car. We’re going home.” Without waiting for a response, he started walking back to the car, dragging Minako roughly along with him.
Minako looked back at her friends helplessly. Then, without any more words, she was put in the back of the car. As they started to drive away, she saw Rei coming out of the crowd of curious bystanders. Their eyes met, and Minako knew. Fear settled in around her heart, making her feel sick. And suddenly, no matter how close she held them to her, she couldn’t get her hands warm enough to stop shaking.