The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate

by Crawlspace

 

~ Chapter 22: Family, Part 2 ~

 

 

            Sunlight was just beginning to make itself known as Minako slowly woke, blinking her eyes sleepily.  She lifted her head from the edge of the bed and winched at the crick that had formed.  She’d fallen asleep sitting on the floor, she realized, her hand moving to the ache in her neck.

 

            Minako’s movements roused Artemis from his own sleep.  The white cat stirred in his spot on Minako’s lap.  Rising, he slid off her legs, then took a moment to stretch, the fur on his back spiking as he did.  When he felt a hand come down and scratch lightly around his ears, Artemis began to purr.  One of his eyes opened enough to look up at his mistress, and he returned the small grin she was giving him.

 

            Minako went about her usual morning ritual, getting showered and ready for school.  On the trip between the bathroom and bedroom, she saw her parents talking quietly in the kitchen.  The discussion looked intent, but it wasn’t an argument.  Apparently, whatever issues they’d had with each other last night had been solved, at least enough for them to be civil with each other now.

 

            Knowing she had a little extra time this morning, Minako took her time getting dressed.  Truthfully, she wasn’t comfortable with the idea of sitting at the table and pretending to have a normal breakfast with her parents.  The tense and silent dinner with her mother last night had been bad enough.

 

            A final tug on her hair bow to make sure it was securely in place, and Minako nodded to her mirror image.  With Artemis following behind her, she went out into the other room to face her parents.

 

            “Where’s Daddy?” asked Minako when she saw her mother setting out breakfast without a place for her father.  “I thought he was driving me to school today.”

 

            “He had some things he had to take care of before work.  Besides, things are still too hectic for you to be going out,” answered her mother.  “There are reporters all over the place, and I wouldn’t put it past them to try and ambush you at school.  We don’t need any more attention to this than there already has been.”

 

            “But,” said Minako, pausing to lick her lips nervously, “we’ve got finals in a few weeks.  I really shouldn’t be missing any school.”  It was an excuse, if nothing else, and maybe if she pleaded grades, her mother might change her mind.  Just maybe.

 

            Or maybe not.

 

            The elder Aino looked pointedly at her daughter.  “Since when do you care about your grades?” she asked.  “A few days isn’t going to make any difference, anyway.”

 

            “But, Mom…”

 

            “Don’t even bother, Minako,” returned her mother.  “I don’t care if you fail the entire trimester and have to repeat the whole year because of it, you aren’t going anywhere.”  Her temper starting to show through, she went on, “I never wanted you in that school to begin with.  After we put so much into your education, just to end up having to send you to a public high school.  I should have insisted we send you back to England after you failed all your entrance exams.”

 

            “I passed one,” said Minako, an edge of petulance in her voice.

 

            Her mother shook her head in annoyance.  “And it had to be the one for Tenth Street.”  She turned away to retrieve the beginnings of her own breakfast, mumbling, “And I still don’t know how you managed to get a negative score.  I didn’t even think that was possible.”

 

            Minako smirked to her mother’s back.  Anything’s possible if you try hard enough.

 

 

*            *             *

 

            Wednesday morning, slightly warmer than normal for the time of year, and Rei sat on the porch outside her room idly throwing some seeds for Phobos and Deimos to eat.  On this side of the shrine she at least had some privacy.  The front, on the other hand, was the complete opposite.  The usual chores she would do around the yard and grounds had to be traded for what she could do inside as a result.  While Rei may not have been blessed with the green thumb Makoto was, she did know every plant and tree that lived at her shrine.  Not being able to tend to them was bothersome to her.

 

            As she watched her companions eat their breakfast, her thoughts drifted to Minako.  They had been able to talk for awhile late last night.  Hearing her voice had helped, but until she could actually see her and touch her in person, Rei wasn’t going to be able to shake the sense of foreboding that had fallen over her.  For all the reassurances she had given to try and calm Minako’s fears, Rei couldn’t bring herself to believe any truth in the words.

 

            With a sigh, Rei threw out the last handful of seeds, then stood.  She and Minako had agreed to talk at midnight.  Just fifteen more hours to go.  A small smile tugged at the corner of Rei’s mouth as she realized once again how completely addicted she was to this one person.

 

            As she passed through the main room, Rei heard the phone ring.  She ignored the insistent tone the way she had every other call in the last 48 hours.  On the fourth ring, the answering machine picked up, and Rei paused to see if this time someone would leave a message.

 

            “Rei, it’s Dad,” said the voice after the welcome message.  “Call me back when you get a chance.  The number at the hotel is…”

 

            In her haste to get to the phone, Rei hurdled a flower pot and tripped on the edge of the throw rug.  She was barely on her feet when her hand grabbed the receiver.  “Dad, I’m here,” she answered, her heart beating fast.

 

            “Rei, sweetheart, how are you doing?” he asked, his voice almost pleasant.

 

            Rei straightened up and leaned against the cabinet that held the phone.  “I’m okay, mostly,” she said slowly.  “I’m sorry, Dad, about all of this.  I didn’t mean…”

 

            “It’s okay,” her father answered, cutting her off mid apology.  “Look, Rei, I don’t have a lot of time right now, but I wanted to touch base with you.  I’m betting there’s a lot of people, right now, who want to talk you, isn’t there?”

 

            “Yeah,” said Rei.  “They’re all over the place.”

 

            “Try to ignore them,” said her father.  “I know it’s hard, but they’ll go away soon.  There’s still a few I have to deal with, but I don’t want you to talk to any of them.  If you do, it will only give invitation to others to harass you even more.  Understand, baby?”

 

            “Yes,” answered Rei.  “Dad, about Minako.  I was going to introduce her to you.  I think you’ll like her, even with all that’s happened.”

 

            “I’m sure I will,” he replied.  “Rei, I have to get going.  I’m sorry I can’t talk more right now, but there’s business I have to take care of.  We’ll talk more about everything when I come to visit.”

 

            “You’re still coming?”

 

            Her father laughed.  “Of course I am.  I promised, didn’t I?”

 

            “Yes, but…  Never mind,” said Rei, shaking her head as if to clear it.

 

            “All right, then.  I’ll see you next weekend.  Tell your grandfather ‘hello’ for me.  Maybe he’ll be lucky and get some free publicity for the shrine out of all this,” he said with a chuckle.  “Bye, sweetheart.”

 

            “Bye, Dad,” answered Rei.  When she heard the other end click, she put the phone back in its cradle.  He was coming, and she should be glad of that.  She should be even happier that he wasn’t upset with her.  Yet, that sense of uneasiness that had been nagging at her only seemed to grow.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Minako’s Wednesday was a basic replay of the day before it.  She got up and ready for school in an attempt to get out, only to be told she would be staying home again.  Talking to Rei late at night helped, but she was going to go stir crazy soon if her parents didn’t at least let her out for some air, stalker press or not.

 

            After breakfast, Minako changed her clothes, then set to washing the dishes.  After that, she willingly exiled herself to her room.  By lunchtime, she had gone through all of her manga and magazines, and her schoolwork was actually starting to look like a good alternative to being bored.  Putting that thought quickly out of her mind, she contemplated doing a bit of spring cleaning to help pass the time.  Thusly, when her father came home at six o’clock, Minako was sitting in the middle of a pile of clothes, shoes, and plain old stuff that she had gutted from her closet and drawers.

 

            “I was cleaning,” she answered with a sheepish grin when her father asked what was going on.

 

            He didn’t seem to be amused.  “Come out here.  Your mother and I want to talk to you.”

 

            Minako extricated herself from her mess and went out into the livingroom.  Her parents were seated together on the couch.  She sat in the chair next to them as she was told, her eyes glancing the thick folder that sat on the table in front of them.

 

            Her father took several moments to gather his thoughts, and Minako knew he was gearing up for a big decision speech.  That in itself made her nervous.

 

            “Your mother and I have discussed this at length,” he began.  “We feel we’ve come to what will be the best solution for everyone.  Understand, Minako, that we realize this situation hasn’t been any easier on you than it has on us, and that what we’re asking from you isn’t an easy thing, even if it is ultimately for the best.  So, to make it easier, I’ve decided the best thing would be to simply remove you from the situation as completely as possible.”

 

            Minako’s eyes widened in shock as any hope she’d held out was abruptly shattered.  She knew what was coming next.

 

            “I want you to finish high school.  It’s the only way you’ll be able to make anything of yourself,” continued her father.  He reached forward and opened the folder that sat on the table.  “I’ve looked into several schools, and your mother and I think these are the best among those closest to home.  You’ll be far enough away from all this unpleasantness, not to mention other distractions, that you’ll be able to concentrate on your studies without being so far away that you feel completely displaced.”

 

            Several brochures were laid out in front of Minako.  She stared at them without really seeing, only able to concentrate on the hole she felt forming in her chest.

 

            “You get a choice,” said her father, either not noticing or ignoring the state his daughter was in.  “The timing of this is unfortunate.  You won’t be able to complete the term, but hopefully, if you do well enough on the placement exams, whichever school you choose will be willing to overlook an incomplete term.  If not, you’ll just have to repeat the year.”  He gathered the brochures back up and returned them to the folder.  He then handed it to Minako.  “Take this back to your room and look it over.  We’ll discuss this again in a few days, after you’ve had some time to think about it.”

 

            Minako nodded.  She held the folder to her chest and rose to head back to her room.

 

            “Oh, and Minako,” said her father after she’d taken several steps.  When she turned back to look at him, he went on, “I know placement tests aren’t your strong suit, but each of those schools has one, and I expect you to pass whichever one you take.  No back-up school this time.  Remember, there are always other options open to us should you choose not to do your best.  Options I think you’d like even less than you do this.”

 

            Minako’s mouth formed into a tight frown as she looked at her father.  With a quiet, “Yes, sir,” she went back to her room.  As soon as the door was closed behind her, the folder hit the already cluttered floor, and Minako hit the bed, landing on her stomach.  She buried her face in her pillow, held on to it as tight as she could with both hands, and screamed at the top of her lungs.

 

            Artemis, startled and confused by Minako’s actions, jumped up carefully on the bed beside her.  “Mina?  What happened?”

 

            As her muffled scream petered out, Minako’s grip and posture loosened.  She flipped over onto her back and stared up at the ceiling.  Blowing an errant lock of hair out of her eyes, she answered, “Boarding school.  They’re sending me to boarding school.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Minako lay on her bed in the dark, faint bluish light finding its way into the room from the night traffic outside.  Artemis was lying at her feet, quietly curled up and pretending to sleep.  One more hour until midnight, when she was going to have to tell Rei.

 

            The frown she’d worn all evening was still on her face.  It, along with the anger underlying it, were foreign things to her.  Yes, she had frowned before, just as she’d felt anger.  But it had never been quite this strong or lengthy, and it had never been directed at people she loved.

 

            She reached for the chain around her neck and found the ring it held.  Gliding the ring back and forth along the chain, Minako thought about her parents.  She did love them, even if she had a hard time getting along with her mother.  When you honestly loved someone, that love didn’t just go away, no matter how angry you might get at them.  But they weren’t being fair about this.

 

             Minako’s hand paused and fully gripped the ring.  Slowly, she sat up, which caused Artemis to raise his head from his paws.  The cat watched as Minako reached behind her and undid the chain.  She slid the ring off the necklace, set the chain on her nightstand, then replaced the ring on her finger.  For several minutes, she sat and stared at her hand and the ring that glinted in the nighttime dimness.  Then she abruptly got up and turned on the light.

 

            Artemis squinted against the sudden burst of artificial light that engulfed the room.  When he could see again, Minako was quickly rooting through a pile on the floor.  She emerged triumphant with a duffle bag and proceeded to immediately begin filling it with clothes.

 

            “Mina, what are you doing?” asked Artemis, sure he wasn’t going to like the answer.

 

            “I’m packing,” answered Minako as she continued to fill her bag.  “I suggest you do the same thing, if there’s anything you want to bring with you.  I don’t know if we’ll be coming back.”

 

            “Where do you think we’re going?”

 

            “To Rei’s.  Don’t ask silly questions.”

 

            Artemis sighed.  He understood her wanting to do this, but had to at least try and talk some logic into her impulsiveness.  “Running away isn’t going to solve things, Mina,” he said gently.

 

            Minako paused in her frantic packing.  “I know, Artemis,” she said quietly.  “But it can’t make things much worse.  Don’t you understand?  This isn’t my home anymore.  Rei is.  And Fate can’t wash your back if you don’t give It any soap.”

 

            “Mina?”

 

            “Setsuna told me once that nothing happens by accident,” explained Minako.  “Fate set up everything so we would become Senshi when we were supposed to.  And Fate gave me Rei.  I have no doubt that on my 20th birthday, I’ll be able to stand beside her, regardless of what happens between then and now.  That’s Fate.  What happens in the three years between then and now, though, that’s up to me.  If I’m supposed to be somewhere else, then that’s what will happen.  But I refuse to just sit by and let everything happen to me without at least trying to fight for what’s mine.  I’m going home, Artemis.”

 

            “Okay,” said Artemis, resigning himself to Minako’s will.  If she wanted to fight, then he would stand beside her, win or lose.  “Let me help you pack, then, so you don’t forget anything.”  He began to move towards the nightstand to retrieve Minako’s chain, but she stopped him.

 

            “Leave it,” she said, a shadow of her old smile coming back to her lips.  “I don’t need it anymore.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            When she didn’t come out for breakfast, he’d just assumed she had finally settled down a bit and was taking advantage of her forced vacation.  When he had finished the last of his coffee and still hadn’t heard anything from either her or her cat, he began to worry.  He’d seen the look Minako had worn as she’d gone off to her room last night.  Perhaps she was taking all of this harder than he’d anticipated.  He supposed, though, he couldn’t blame her for not wanting to speak to her parents this morning.  Still, there was something not right about how quiet she was being.  He suspected her mother noticed it also, from the looks she kept shooting in the general direction of Minako’s closed bedroom door.

 

            It was her mother who broke first.  She got up from the table and set her dishes in the sink before walking calmly to Minako’s door.  She paused for a moment, seemingly unsure and a bit nervous.  The indecision was short lived, however, and Minako’s mother knocked lightly on the door.  This surprised her husband, because she’d declared emphatically that Minako’s privacy had disappeared along with their family’s the day they’d been thrust into the headlines.  For her to change her mind now showed just how reluctant she was to see what was behind that door.

 

            When she got no answer, Minako’s mother raised her hand once more and knocked more loudly.  Again, there was no answer.  Rather than knock again, her hand instead reached for the door knob and turned it.

 

            His wife’s curse was loud and uncharacteristic.  It was also a relief in its own strange way.  Before he could dwell on that for too long, he was up and in the bedroom doorway, staring at the same thing his wife was:  an extremely messy room and no Minako.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Rei shifted a bit, sitting up straighter and moving one arm out from under Minako’s weight just enough to restore the circulation.  She resettled against the headboard of the motel bed and closed her eyes.  She was tired, but sleep eluded her.  It was a combination of nerves, adrenaline, and not knowing what might come crawling out from the corners of the room that kept her up.  But this place was the type used to getting strange visitors at all hours of the night, and they would take your money, no questions asked.  After Minako showed up on her doorstep, luggage and Artemis in tow, this was the best Rei could do to keep them from getting into any more trouble, at least for the time being.

 

            The stirring of the girl curled up against her side caused Rei to open her eyes.  She looked down into Minako’s blue eyes and gave her a tentative smile.

 

            Minako returned the gesture, her arms tightening around Rei for several seconds.  “Did you manage to get any sleep?” she asked quietly.

 

            “A little,” lied Rei.

 

            Minako nodded slightly, then said, “I hope Artemis got to Usagi’s okay.”

 

            “I’m sure he did,” answered Rei.  “We’ll call him later to make sure.  After we figure out where we’re going to go.  I’d like to at least be someplace I can take a shower without any kind of yuck factor involved.”

 

            Minako giggled, the beginnings of a genuine smile on her lips.  “This place isn’t as bad as you keep saying.  Your standards are just too high.  But maybe we could go to Mako-chan’s for awhile.  Ami did tell us where they hide the emergency key.”

 

            After several moments of thought, Rei answered, “For a few hours, maybe, if we’re sure no one’s following us.  I don’t want to stay there, though.  This is too much stress to put on them.  It would be better if we just find a hotel to stay at.  Hopefully one where no one will recognize us.  I have enough money for a couple days, and then…”

 

            Minako waited as Rei’s voice trailed off.  When nothing more was forthcoming, she prompted with a gentle, “And then?”

 

            Letting out a frustrated sigh, Rei snapped, “I don’t know!  Why am I supposed to be the one with all the answers?”  Her eyes closed and let her head fall back against the headboard.  “I don’t know.”

 

            Surprised, and suddenly feeling a bit guilty, Minako slowly reached up and placed her fingers against Rei’s cheek.  She stroked gently until Rei’s tension started to ease.  When Rei finally opened her eyes, Minako said, “It’s okay, Rei.  I don’t think you have to have all the answers.  We’ll figure things out together.  We’ll go talk to the others, see what they think, and everything will get worked out.  We’ll be okay.”

 

            Rei grinned weakly at the hope and reassurance she heard in Minako’s voice.  She reached out and took a lock of Minako’s hair in her hand, threading the strands around her fingers.

 

            “Should we call Grandpa?” asked Minako.

 

            “No,” answered Rei.  “Not yet.  I’d rather he didn’t have to lie for us if anyone comes looking for you.  And I left him a note, so he knows I’m okay.”

 

            Minako moved away from Rei a bit and sat up completely before taking Rei’s hand and tugging her into a new position.  Rei relented reluctantly, staying on top of the blanket, but resting her head on Minako’s lap the way the blonde wanted her to.

 

            “That’s it, Rei,” said Minako, her voice as soothing as the fingers that ran through Rei’s dark tresses.  “Lie down and get some rest.  I’ll watch out for the creepy crawlies for awhile.”

 

            Rei ignored the little giggle from Minako that was aimed at her dislike of this particular establishment.  Instead, she pulled Minako closer for warmth and allowed her eyes to close as she tried once again to summon sleep.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            For the last few days, there had been a dark cloud of ill feeling hanging over the shrine.  Grandpa had hoped it would all blow over quickly.  That didn’t seem to be happening, though, not with Rei’s father taking every opportunity he could to further feed the public on what should have been a family matter.  And now he had to deal with one more thing darkening his doorstep.

 

            Grandpa reminded himself that he was playing the role of respectable family elder in this case, but only for Rei’s sake.  As such, he tried not to judge the man in front of him solely on appearances.  The uncomfortable stiffness in his posture, as well as the displeased expression on his face, could very likely just be the results of having to deal with an unsatisfied press and the invasion of his own privacy.  Grandpa also suspected it had more than a little to do with the vague note Rei had left behind this morning in place of herself.

 

            “Good morning, Aino-san,” said Grandpa pleasantly, hoping his tone would help set the direction of this encounter.  “It’s good to finally meet you, though I had hoped our fist meeting would be under better circumstances.”

 

            “Forgive my rudeness, sir, but I’m not here for a social call,” answered Minako’s father.  “It’s been a very trying morning, and the only reason I’m here is because I want to know where my daughter is.  And I want her returned to me immediately.”

 

            So that was what Rei had meant by ‘with a friend.’  The polite smile Grandpa wore began to fade.  Calmly, he replied, “She isn’t here.  I’m afraid I don’t know where she is.”

 

            After a deep breath that seemed to be as much about calming his temper as frustration, Aino-san said, “I’m sure your granddaughter has some idea where Minako might be.  If you would be good enough to ask her, I would appreciate it.”

 

            “Rei isn’t here at the moment.”

 

            Minako’s father raised an eyebrow at that.  Then he shook his head.  “Of course she isn’t.  I shouldn’t be surprised about that.”  His hand reached into his pocket and began to fiddle with his keys.  “I’d prefer not to have to bring the authorities into this, but I will if I have to.  She has until tomorrow night to come home with no further consequences.  If you speak to your granddaughter, please ask her to relay that for me.”

 

            Grandpa nodded.  Then he said, “If I may?  It’s been my experience that if a child feels threatened, they only run further away.  But if you give them some understanding, even with disapproval, they come home on their own.”

 

            Through narrowed eyes and an even deeper frown, Minako’s father replied, “I’m assuming you knew about this… relationship.”

 

            “I did.”

 

            “And you just simply condoned it?”

 

            “At first, I had some concerns,” answered Grandpa as he folded his arms casually across his chest.  “But I realized I had truly little reason for that concern.  Rei isn’t a child.  She understands what she’s doing.  And Minako is a fine young woman who any family would be proud to count among their own.”

 

            “Look, whatever you want to teach your child, and however you want to raise her, is no concern of mine,” said Minako’s father, the color in his face rising with his blood pressure.  “Just don’t try and include my daughter in any of it.  The responsibility for her lies solely with my wife and me.  So if she comes back here, I expect you to send her home.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other things to take care of this morning.”

 

            Grandpa didn’t bother saying anything further as the man in front of him turned and walked away.  He stood for several moments, alone and in silence, before leaving the room.  There was only so much that could be chalked up to youth and desperation.  He hoped dearly that Rei and her friend hadn’t crossed that line.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Very glad to be getting out of this place, Rei turned in the key to the room she and Minako had been using.  The motel was near lifeless at this time of day, the usual patrons all having gone back to their day to day lives.  Rei didn’t have day to day life to go back to just yet, but she did have friends with a spare key.  She and Minako could stay at Makoto’s until Ami and Makoto came home, and then just take it from there.

 

            They were almost to the exit when a voice said from behind a newspaper, “If you’re going to shack up with your girlfriend in a love motel for the night, you could at least pick someplace a little more upscale than this.”

 

            Rei froze in place, the nerves she’d finally managed to tie up instantly fraying.

 

            The newspaper lowered to reveal the smug smile of Kojima Ishata.  “And while you’re at it,” he went on, “you should make sure no one’s tailing you.  How goes it, kid?  Gonna introduce me to your sweetheart?”

 

            Rei glared daggers at the man as Minako tugged on her arm.  “Rei, do you know this guy?”

 

            Kojima stepped forward before Rei could say anything and bowed with great flare before Minako.  “Kojima Ishata, journalist for The Tokyo Daily.  It is my pleasure to finally meet you.”

 

            Minako took a reflexive step back.  “Um… nice to meet you?” she started to say hesitantly before Rei stepped completely in front of her.

 

            “Listen here, you rat,” said Rei loudly.  “I told you the other day to leave us alone.  You’ve got no idea why we’re here, and you’ve got no right to know, either.  So just go back to the sewer you crawled out of!”

 

            “That’s rather harsh,” replied Kojima, a hurt expression on his face.  Then he grinned.  “But you do have a valid point.  What the two of you were doing up there, no one really needs to know about.  Besides,” he said with a shrug, “this isn’t the kind of story The Daily would run.”

 

            Rei stared at the man, dumbfounded.  Which was nothing compared to Minako’s confusion as she watched these two, who obviously knew each other…

 

            “Wait a minute,” said Minako suddenly, the proverbial light bulb coming on.  “Kojima from The Daily?  You’re the one who wrote that first article about us.”

 

            Kojima nodded, obviously quite pleased to have Minako recognize him.

 

            “It doesn’t matter who he is,” jumped in Rei.  “And why are you here if you can’t use this as part of another article?”

 

            With a smirk, Kojima answered, “Because I want a statement from you.  I’m tired of listening to your old man.  He’ll say anything to anyone who asks.  But you…  We’re lucky if we get so much as a ‘no comment’ or ‘go to hell.’  So, when the guy I had outside your house last night called and said he was trailing you downtown, I thought I’d take a chance.”

 

            “You shouldn’t have wasted your time,” said Rei.  Then she grabbed Minako’s wrist and started pulling her towards the exit.

 

            “I wouldn’t go that way if I were you,” called Kojima.

 

            Rei would have ignored him if Minako hadn’t forced her to stop.  “Why not?” asked the blonde.

 

            “My cameraman’s still out there, parked at just the right angle to get a lovely shot of you framed nicely in the doorway of Motel Paradise.”

 

            “I thought you said you couldn’t run this kind of story.”

 

            “The Daily won’t,” answered Kojima.  “But there are others who will.  I’m always up to a little pseudonym labeled freelancing.”

 

            Rei’s shoulders slumped and she sighed.  “Don’t they make you sign contracts against that sort of thing?”

 

            Once again, Kojima shrugged.  “Eh.”  Then he smiled at them.  “Tell you what, we’ll make a trade.  You go out the alley, and I’ll pretend I never saw you here.  In return, you promise to talk to me before going to anyone else, should you feel like making any kind of official comments.  How about it?  Deal?”

 

            Rei scrutinized the man before her.  She had no real reason to believe he had anyone out there at all, or if he did, that the person wasn’t waiting in the alley to ambush them.  Still, at this point, she didn’t have anything but her pride left to lose.  So, abruptly and without saying a word, Rei jerked Minako in the opposite direction and headed for the alleyway.

 

            Kojima couldn’t stop grinning as the girls hurried passed him.  And he couldn’t help a chuckle as he heard Minako ask Rei to slow down and question just how it was she knew ‘that guy’ anyway.  The last thing he heard before sitting back down and picking up the sports section was an agitated, “I’ll tell you later.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Rei sat on the breakfast counter in Makoto’s kitchen, the phone to her ear and her bare feet tapping anxiously against the cabinets beneath her.  Minako was out in the other room with Luna and Artemis, while Rei had retreated in here to call her grandfather.

 

            “Grandpa, it’s me,” she said when he answered.

 

            Rei heard him exhale heavily before saying, “Finally.  Where are you, Rei?  Are you and your friend all right?”

 

            “We’re doing okay,” she answered.  Then she hesitated for a moment, debating with herself before continuing, “It would be better if you don’t know where we are, though.  I think you know I’m with Minako, and her dad is looking for her.  We barely missed him once this morning, and I’m sure he’ll come by there.  I don’t want to put you in the middle of this anymore.”

 

            “He’s already been here,” replied Grandpa.  “This was probably the first place he came.  Now, tell me where you are.”

 

            Rei stopped biting her lip to answer, “Ami and Makoto’s.”

 

            “Don’t sound so worried about telling me.  I won’t tell anyone where she is.  But Minako’s father wants her home.  He said she won’t be punished if she comes home by tomorrow night.”

 

            “They’re already punishing her!” shot back Rei.  “They’re sending her away to boarding school.  All because she got involved with me.  I won’t let that happen.”

 

            “You won’t have an easy time changing her father’s mind.  He doesn’t seem to me like the type to back down from his decisions.  You can’t run forever, Rei.”

 

            “Yes, we can, if we have to.”

 

            Grandpa sighed in exasperation, and Rei could picture him with his hand to his forehead to ward off the headache this was likely causing him.  “You have to make your own decisions about this.  Just remember that you also have to live with the consequences of those decisions.  Think before you do anything else.”

 

            “I know, Grandpa.  I will, I promise.”

 

            “You can bring her back here if you want to.  But if her parents come back for her, I won’t be able to stop them from taking her home.”

 

            “I understand,” answered Rei.  “We’re making other plans, so don’t worry about it.  We aren’t staying here much longer, either.”

 

            “Whatever you do,” said Grandpa, “you’re going to have to come home tomorrow morning.  The monsignor called.  We have an appointment at the school tomorrow at nine.  Unless you took your uniform with you, you’ll need to come back here to get ready.”

 

            Rei groaned quietly and ran a hand through her hair.  “I’d forgotten about that.  Okay, Grandpa, I’ll be home tomorrow.”

 

            “I’ll see you then.  And be careful, Rei,” said Grandpa before saying goodbye.

 

            Rei hung up the phone and slid off the counter.  Now that she was done talking herself, she could hear the voices in the other room.  They must have gotten home while she was on the phone.  Usagi’s voice stood out over the others, and Rei grinned.

 

            In the livingroom, Ami and Makoto stood by Minako as Usagi threw her arms around her neck and held on as if she hadn’t seen Minako for a year.  For a moment, Rei smiled warmly at the sight.  Then the smile turned to a smirk.  “You know, Odango, there are some women who wouldn’t take kindly to you hanging onto their girlfriends like that.”

 

            “Rei!” called Usagi happily.  She tried to take a step towards Rei without letting go of Minako.  When she realized she couldn’t, she whimpered slightly, her eyes darting between her friends as she tried to decide what to do.

 

            Rei made it easy on her princess and moved over to the group.  As soon as she was close enough, Usagi latched onto her with one arm and pulled her even closer.

 

            “Yeah, I missed you, too, Usagi,” said Rei quietly as she returned the hug.  After a few moments, she wriggled away from Usagi’s stranglehold.  “Okay, okay, that’s enough.  You’re wrinkling my shirt,” she complained, using her hands and making a show of smoothing out her t-shirt.

 

            The girls settled down in the livingroom, with Ami, Usagi, Rei, and Minako squeezing together on the couch.  As Makoto slouched down in her chair and propped her feet up on the coffee table to get comfortable, Rei  began to explain in better detail what her hosts had already been told by Usagi.

 

            “We came here from the hotel,” went on Rei, already reassured more than once that it was okay they were here.  “If we’d been 15 minutes later, we would have run right into Minako’s father.”

 

            “At least I know he’s looking for me,” said Minako.

 

            “He’s been by the shrine, too,” added Rei.  “I bet he’s hitting each one of our homes trying to find out where we’ve gone.”

 

            “I guess that explains the note that was on the door,” threw in Makoto.

 

            “What note?”

 

            “The one that’s in my trashcan,” answered Makoto around a grin.  “Does he really think I’d call him to rat you guys out?”

 

            Minako shrugged.  “I guess he’s hoping you’re all more ‘reasonable’ than I am.”  She caught Artemis as he jumped up onto her lap and held him loosely as she went on.  “I never told him about you and Ami, only that you were moving into a new apartment.  My parents still think Ami lives with her mom.”

 

            Luna joined the girls and Artemis up on the couch by moving onto Ami’s lap.  She was greeted by a light scratching around her ears, to which she responded with a low, involuntary purr.  Then, remembering herself, she settled more seriously and faced Minako.  “Are you certain you don’t want to go back home?  It may be possible that this whole boarding school idea is just a knee-jerk reaction to everything that’s happened.  You may still be able to reason with your parents.”

 

            Minako shook her head.  “No, Luna, my parents thought this out.  They want me away from all of this.  And away from Rei.  Now, with my running away like this, there won’t be any other sort of reasoning.  My mom wasn’t just talking, either, the other day when she said she wished they’d sent me back to England.  If I go back there now, she’ll have me enrolled and on a plane before I can say Big Ben.”

 

            Luna nodded, and for a moment, silence fell over the group.  In her chair, Makoto fidgeted a bit, drawing Ami’s attention.  When she sat up straighter and leaned forward slightly, her eyes holding Ami’s the whole time, she got everyone else’s attention as well.  Finally, she said to Ami, “It can’t hurt just to mention it.  Let her decide what she wants to do.”

 

            A tiny frown formed on Ami’s lips, clearly indicating she didn’t like the idea, but she nodded slowly once in agreement.

 

            “Okay,” said Makoto.  She took a moment to gather her thoughts and figure out how to approach this.  “Um, well, me and Ami sort of started discussing this a few nights ago after everything happened.  Well, not this, exactly.  More like that it was a shame you didn’t have more control over what was happening to you, and how I kind of sympathized because I remember how frustrated I felt when I had to go through Yoshiro-san for the final word on everything.  I was making all the decisions, but, ultimately, he had control over everything, and that annoyed me to death.”

 

            “Who’s Yoshiro-san?” asked Usagi.

 

            “Oh.  He’s my guardian.  He was, anyway.”

 

            More than a little confusion passed among the girls.  “You have a guardian?  Since when?” asked Rei.

 

            Had a guardian,” corrected Makoto.  “And since my parents died.  You guys don’t really think anyone would let an eight-year-old live by herself, do you?”

 

            “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that exactly what you were doing?”

 

            One corner of Makoto’s mouth turned up into a lopsided grin.  “Yeah, more or less.  Yoshiro-san was never a family man.  He only took me on out of respect for my father, since they were good friends and business partners.  He also thought I was too financially independent to be reliant on the state for my upbringing.  Which basically means he didn’t trust them, so he decided to do it his way instead.  I went through three nannies in one month before he finally agreed to let me try it on my own.  He kept an eye on me, mostly through his assistants, and he made sure I knew how to handle my money before he turned control of my bank account over to me.  Actually, Ami’s got a term for it all.”

 

            “Salutary neglect,” said Ami when Makoto waved it off to her.

 

            Usagi’s eyes narrowed as she turned the words over in her head.  Salu-what-what?”

 

            Ami smiled at the blonde.  “It means, on paper, Makoto belonged to him, but he wasn’t really taking care of her the way a parent should.  He didn’t harm her, and he made sure she had all the necessities she needed to live, but he never really cared for her, either.  The relationship was purely a legal one.”

 

            “Which was exactly the way I wanted it,” interjected Makoto.  “If he’d really tried to be a father to me, he wouldn’t have made out any better than those nannies he hired.  And he’s a good man, regardless of how it all sounds.  His handling of my larger accounts is the only reason I can live like I do, and he doesn’t get anything in return for what he does for me.”

 

            Minako bit the corner of her lip and nodded.  “Mako-chan, I’m not really seeing what any of this has to do with me.  I mean, it’s kind of neat finding out you have a guardian and all…”

 

            “That’s the thing,” interrupted Makoto.  “And it’s what I keep saying.  He’s not my guardian anymore.  When I turned 14, Yoshiro-san decided since I was already living as an adult and had proven I could handled it, there was no reason I shouldn’t be completely recognized as one.  So, he helped me petition the court to make me an emancipated minor.”

 

            “It means she’s legally an adult,” said Ami when two pairs of blue eyes turned to her.  “But Makoto’s situation was different than Minako’s,” she added by way of caution.  “Her guardian endorsed the idea.  I don’t think Minako’s parents will simply agree to it, and they do have the right to challenge it.  Aside from that, if you were successful, it absolves your parents of any responsibility towards you.  They’ll still be your parents, but they won’t have to support you anymore, nor will they have to house you, and since you’ve already graduated 9th grade, they aren’t compelled to educate you any further.  You would become completely independent and responsible for yourself.”

 

            “Actually, if you can’t prove you have a place to live and a way to support yourself, the court won’t even consider the request,” said Makoto a bit ruefully.

 

            “That isn’t a problem,” replied Rei.  “She lives at the shrine with me.  Grandpa can give her a job if she has to have one.”

 

            “Mina?” said Artemis quietly when the girl sat silent as everyone talked around her.

 

            All eyes were on her now, and Minako felt the pressure from the need to make a decision.

 

            “Minako,” said Ami gently, “you don’t have to decide right away.  It was just an idea we had that we thought might help.  Keep in mind, though, that if you do decide to try this, you won’t be able to take it back, no matter what the outcome might be.”

 

            “Thanks, Ami,” answered Minako, reaching across two laps to take her friend’s hand and give it a squeeze.  “But I suppose, if I’m being honest, that the decision has already been made.  I knew when I left I wouldn’t likely be going back there, and we can’t hide out for much longer.  So, if I try Mako-chan’s idea, and it doesn’t work, my parents ship me off to boarding school overseas.  If I don’t try Mako-chan’s idea, eventually I’m going to have to go back, and my parents will still ship me off to boarding school overseas.  From my point of view, I’ve got nothing to lose, and we haven’t come up with any better ideas.”

 

            “If you want, I can call Yoshiro-san in the morning,” offered Makoto.  “Find out how to get all this started.”

 

            Minako nodded.  “Thanks, Mako-chan.  I’d appreciate it.”

 

            “No problem,” answered Makoto.  She stood and stretched her arms out in front of her.  “I say we all eat, cause I’m starving.  And none of that hotel nonsense.  You guys stay here tonight.”  She turned and started to head towards the kitchen, not waiting for either Rei or Minako to protest.  “Come on, Usagi, you and Ami can help me.  I’ve got a foolproof dessert recipe for you to try out.”

 

            Ami stood as well, keeping Luna with her.  “There are some leftovers in the refrigerator for you and Artemis,” she said to the cat.  “I’ll get them for you if you come out here with us.”

 

            Taking the hint, Artemis jumped down and followed them into the kitchen.

 

            Once alone, Rei and Minako filled in the spot Usagi had vacated and moved closer together.  Rei put her arm around Minako’s shoulders and held her, Minako’s head resting on Rei’s chest.  Minako closed her eyes and listened to the sound of Rei’s heart, the steady beat slowing down her world and calming her.  Just like this, forever, she thought.  This is how it’s supposed to be.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Sitting on the bedroom floor, a few books scattered around her and her notes from the day illuminated by her booklight, Ami highlighted the particular section of the lesson she was having issues with.  She read over the paragraphs more slowly, taking apart the individual sentences to find their meaning.  Even as she did this, she still wasn’t coming up with the same conclusions her teacher had reached.  Perhaps she would bring it up in class tomorrow.  Hideo-sensei always did seem to enjoy a challenge to her own way of thinking.

 

            The bed shifted behind her, and Ami looked up from her notes, pushing her glasses back up from where they had slid down her nose as she did.

 

            Makoto sat on the edge of the bed, blinking sleepily.  She yawned once, then squinted down at Ami.  “There you are,” she said, her voice sleepy-rough.  She stood slowly and pointed towards the doorway.  “Be right back.”

 

            Ami turned back to her books and reanalyzing the passage until a toe disturbed her by nudging against her thigh.

 

            “It’s almost one,” said Makoto.  “Come to bed.”

 

            “In a few minutes,” answered Ami without looking up.  “Just let me finish this.”

 

            Makoto stayed where she was, standing over Ami, and crossed her arms over her chest.  “You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”

 

            Ami slowly closed her book and removed her glasses before looking fully up at Makoto.  “No, not really,” she answered quietly.

 

            “Don’t lie,” teased Makoto, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.  “If you were really obsessing over your schoolwork the way it looks like you are, you’d be out at your desk because you don’t care if anyone sees you studying.  But you’re in here hiding because you don’t want Rei or Minako to wake up and see you, which means you’re upset with me about bringing up that whole thing with Minako, and you’re using schoolwork as an excuse for not coming to bed.”  Makoto nodded, pleased with her breakdown of the situation.  “Yep, that’s how it is.”

 

            Ami offered back a small smile for Makoto’s mental efforts and rose from the floor.  She went over to sit on the bed, tucking her feet under her as she did.  “I’m more concerned than I am angry,” she said.  “I really do wish you hadn’t brought that up, Mako-chan.”

 

            “Why?” asked Makoto as she sat on the bed beside Ami.  “It was just an idea, and you heard Minako.  She doesn’t really have anything to lose if this doesn’t work.”

 

            Ami’s lips formed a thin line, and her eyes cast down.

 

            “Come on, Ami,” said Makoto, her finger reaching for Ami’s chin to tilt it back up.  When they were eye to eye again, Makoto lifted a finger and tapped it against Ami’s forehead.  “Tell me what’s going on up here.”

 

            “She can’t win, Mako-chan,” answered Ami solemnly.  “From a purely legal perspective, if her parents choose to fight this, they’ll win, because they haven’t done anything wrong, and no judge will take away their right to raise their daughter just because they won’t let her date whoever she wants to.  And I’m afraid of what will happen afterwards.  This could very well destroy whatever relationship Minako has left with her parents, because there is going to be a lot more anger and hurt feelings, not to mention hurt pride, caused by this.”

 

            “Ami, sweetie, Minako’s relationship with her parents went out the window when all of this started.”

 

            Ami shook her head.  “If that were true, they wouldn’t care one way or the other where she is right now or what she’s doing.”

 

            “Okay,” sighed Makoto.  “If that’s what you’ve really been thinking, why didn’t you say any of that earlier?”

 

            “Because when you first brought it up, I had no idea Minako was going to run away.  I certainly never believed this would become a viable option for her.”  Ami took a breath, then reached over to finger the sleeve of Makoto’s nightshirt.  “And because I don’t have a better solution for her.  I can tell her to be cautious, but how can I completely take away the only real chance she thinks she has to be with Rei when I can’t give her something to replace it?”

 

            Taking the hand that was tracing along a seam over her shoulder, Makoto twined her fingers around Ami’s.  “Have a little faith, Ami.  And who knows?  Maybe this time Fate will wind up smiling on all of us at once.”