The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate
~ Chapter 23: Consequences, Part 1 ~
The monsignor’s office was best described as dark and austere. Morning light came in through the two windows behind the large oak desk that Rei and her grandfather sat in front of, but the sunshine seemed to be swallowed up by the polish of the wood paneling and the deep burgundy of the carpet. The bookshelves were a shade darker than the walls and held books and trinkets that easily gave away the profession and faith of their owner. A few plaques and scholarly degrees decorated the walls, along with a too-lifelike-for-comfort crucifix that hung squarely between the two windows.
At , Monsignor Reilly entered the room, hurrying and yet still seeming to move at a calm and leisurely pace. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he apologized as he took his seat behind the desk. “Small matter in the chapel that needed to be attended to.”
Grandpa nodded in response. “That’s perfectly all right. We haven’t been waiting long.”
Reilly leaned forward in his chair and folded his hands on top of the desk. “Well, I suppose we should get right to business. The board met privately Wednesday night, and, after several hours of discussion, we felt we’d reached a solution that will be best for all concerned. Believe me when I say this was not an easy matter for us. There was no small amount of disagreement over how Rei should be handled. She has been a student with us for so long, it was felt by the majority that had this incident not been so publicized, we might have been able to overlook it with certain conditions imposed. However, the publicity surrounding things has tied our hands. There isn’t a student, teacher, or parent who doesn’t know what’s happened. Therefore, this is what we propose.”
The monsignor’s face lost some of its socially pleasant quality as his tone became more serious and businesslike. “Rei will be withdrawn from the school voluntarily. She won’t return to class, however, she will be allowed to take finals separately from the other students. We will provide her with all the study materials necessary, as well as a schedule for the exams. After she’s completed testing, we will assist you in whatever placement procedures necessary to enroll Rei in whatever school she chooses to attend. We also ask that any further issues involving the school and yourselves be handled civilly and privately from this point on.”
As the man before her spoke, Rei’s fingers dug harder and harder into the arms of her chair. In her chest she could feel the growing weight of anger and dread. When he finished speaking and sat with a calmness that matched her grandfather’s, Rei asked harshly, “What if I refuse to leave voluntarily?”
Reilly frowned at her, whether it was because she was challenging him or because she had spoken out of turn, Rei wasn’t certain. However, he answered her question, even if he didn’t like the tone it was delivered in. “Then you will be immediately expelled and an incomplete will be placed on your record for the trimester.”
“Rei,” broke in her grandfather as he sat expressionless beside her, his fingers steepled against his lips. “Go light a candle for your mother. I’d like to speak with the monsignor privately. Go on,” he repeated more forcefully when Rei did no more than stare at him.
Her jaw clenched tight to hold back her argument as Rei rose from her seat and left the room.
After the door closed, Grandpa looked up at the monsignor. The man shifted uncomfortably under the direct gaze of his elder. While this person was never one he’d been inclined to take seriously, the piercing stare he was being fixed with made Reilly feel smaller and less sure, as if there was something he’d missed along the way that this man already held within himself.
Grandpa took a slow breath, then began to speak in an even tone. “In the last years of her life, my daughter found something in your beliefs that gave her comfort. She wanted Rei to know that part of her, to understand it and respect it, even if she didn’t practice it. And she knew that part of her was something I didn’t understand or approve of, so she came up with this school as her answer. I believe, however, that Rei has learned well more than her mother ever intended, and I agree it would be best if she moved on.”
Reilly cleared his throat and sat up straighter in his chair. “It’s good to have your cooperation in this. I’ll be meeting with Rei’s teachers later this afternoon to work out the details of her exam schedule. I would guess all the information will be ready for her by Wednesday morning.”
Grandpa nodded and stood to leave. “I’ll have someone come and pick it up. If that’s all we have to discuss, good day to you, Monsignor.”
After being shown to the door, Grandpa walked slowly to the school’s chapel. He stood at the entrance to the sanctuary for a moment and watched his granddaughter as she sat alone in a middle pew. Quietly, he walked up to her and stood in the aisle beside her.
“You’re going to let them expel me,” said Rei softly. There was no accusation in her voice, none of the anger her grandfather expected.
“Yes,” he answered, looking forward at the alter rather than at Rei. His hand came to rest on her shoulder. “You have to choose your battles, Rei, and you have more important ones ahead of you.”
* * *
The breeze stirred up some leaves and brushed them passed her legs as Minako sat on the swingset. The swing swayed gently as she watched three children playing on the monkeybars on the other side of the playground. She could hear their laughter, and for a moment, she envied them the ability to just be happy and enjoy a late Sunday afternoon.
She heard no footsteps behind her, but she felt the presence of the person as she walked up behind her. Minako knew who it was, knew she didn’t have to worry regardless, because Artemis was keeping watch over her from the picnic tables under the trees. So, as Setsuna sat in the swing beside her, Minako grinned. She also committed the image to memory, because the sight of Setsuna sitting casually on a playground swing wasn’t something she expected she’d see again anytime soon.
“You’re by yourself today?” asked Setsuna.
“Artemis is with me,” answered Minako. “Rei’s at the shrine. We’re going back there for good tonight. Have you guys heard about what we’re trying to do?”
Minako pushed her foot against the ground lightly to get some of her momentum back. “The same lawyer who handled everything for Mako-chan is doing everything for me. She asked to meet with me alone this afternoon, informally, before the real meeting tomorrow morning. Right before we finished the meeting, she asked me a question. Why am I doing this?”
“And what did you tell her?”
Her swing stopped abruptly as Minako’s feet touched the dirt. She leaned back, her hands high on the swing’s chains, and stared up at the sky. “Rei,” said Minako as she watched the clouds drift by. “She’s the first thing I think of when I imagine having to leave, and she’s the thing that makes it hurt the most. But there’s more to it than that.”
Minako righted herself and looked over to Setsuna. “I’m happy with my life and my friends, and more comfortable with things than I ever have been before. I don’t want to let go of that now that I have it, not even for a little while. And Mako-chan’s going to have the baby soon,” she added with a grin. “Miki is our first baby, and my first nephew. I want to be here to spoil him rotten from day one. Then, of course, there’s Usagi. Not that I could even begin to explain that to my lawyer.”
Setsuna smiled at the younger girl. “I can understand how that part might be a bit difficult.”
“Yeah,” replied Minako. “You know, Usagi was the only one of us
really surprised when Ami said she wasn’t applying to any colleges outside
Setsuna’s smile grew just a fraction, and she tilted her head in a direction behind Minako. “Speaking of Usagi, it looks as though a few of your friends decided you could use some company.”
Minako looked behind her in the direction Setsuna was indicating. At the picnic table where Artemis was, Ami and Usagi had just arrived and stood waiting for Minako to finish her conversation. Minako raised her hand to wave to them and got an enthusiastic wave back from Usagi. Then she turned back to Setsuna. “There are some things I want to do, in case I don’t get the chance later. I hate shopping alone, so I asked them to come with me, since Rei and Mako-chan aren’t allowed on this trip.”
“Makoto was at the house when I left,” said Setsuna. “I was a bit puzzled as to why Hotaru called her to help with her project. I suppose now I have some of my answer.”
“Uh huh,” replied Minako with a quick nod. “Peanut butter cookies and Hotaru. We knew Mako-chan wouldn’t be able to say no to that combination. See, Ami gets anxious when she leaves her alone for too long anymore, so this way, she can relax knowing Mako-chan is in safe custody until she gets done with what I want her for.”
“Beneath all her logic is the heart of a worrier in love,” said Setsuna quietly. “But if I were in her position, I would likely find myself doing the same.” The she asked, “What about Rei? I’m surprised she didn’t insist on coming with you.”
Minako’s face clouded over just a bit. “I used the meeting with the lawyer as an excuse, and I didn’t tell her about this part. She needs some time for herself right now, anyway, where she doesn’t have to worry about me. She’s being expelled from TA, and she’s more upset about it than she’ll admit. But at least she’s home now.” Minako slid off the swing and stood facing Setsuna with her hands in her jacket pockets. “I’m trying to find a reason, Setsuna. I look at things the way they are now, and I try to find the ‘why.’ I haven’t found anything yet, though.”
“I can’t promise you ever will,” answered Setsuna, her voice sympathetic.
“I know,” said Minako. Then she forced a grin. “But for the next few hours, I’m going to forget all about why’s and how’s, and I’m going to pretend to be normal again. And I’m going to have fun, because I’m finally going to get Rei back for what she did to me on Valentine’s Day.”
Setsuna stood and smiled down at the girl. “Then you should get going. I need to get home myself.”
The two made their goodbyes, and Minako hurried over to her waiting friends.
* * *
The jewelry store was the last place they were stopping at after having already spent several hours at various baby boutiques looking for the one thing Minako just had to have for her soon-to-be nephew – a little white sailor suit with navy blue trim. After that discovery, they’d gone to the arts and crafts store and helped clean out the leftovers of the Valentine’s clearance bin. While Minako wouldn’t get specific about what she was planning to do with all the paper hearts and colored construction paper, it wasn’t hard for Ami to make a general guess with this final stop. So, as the saleslady came over to help Minako in her search for a gold band that fit her description of perfect as well as her budget, Ami wandered away from her friends.
The various displays Ami passed ranged from gaudy and overpriced to classic and elegant. While there were a few pieces in silver or trimmed in colored gems, the store seemed to favor gold and diamonds. Such was the case at the glass cabinet where she stopped to admire several rows of diamond rings.
A small grin formed on Ami’s lips when Usagi came up behind her and peered over her shoulder at the display case. A teasing smirk appeared on the blonde’s face just before she said, in the most casual and offhand tone she could muster, “I know that all of you know that no one could ever have a better wedding than me and my Mamo-chan are going to. But it would be nice if one of my friends would at least try.”
A blush began to form across Ami’s cheeks, Usagi having touched on more than she realized, and her gaze dropped down to one of the more classically cut rings she had been favoring. “I’ll tell you a secret, Usagi. But you must promise to keep it to yourself and not tell anyone.”
Usagi’s grin grew wide, and she nodded her head. “I promise. Cross my heart.”
“I have been thinking about it a bit,” admitted Ami. “Mako-chan seemed so taken by what Rei did for Minako. I know she would like something like that, and I’d like to do something for her that shows her and everyone else what she means to me. And Mako-chan has always wished for a real wedding, where she could be a real bride, with all the trimmings. It was something she really did want, but I can see when she talks about it anymore she’s relegated that wish to a silly and useless fairytale, because of everything that’s happened and the way we’re living. I’d like to give this to her,” said Ami, her fingers running lightly over the glass case, “for everything she’s given me. I can’t do it just yet, though. The timing isn’t right, and there are a few things I need to take care of first, so that when I do this, everything is perfect for her.”
Usagi took Ami’s hand in hers, a happy light in her eyes. “It will be, Ami,” she said with quiet excitement. “Whenever you do ask her and however you do it, Mako-chan’s going to absolutely love it.”
“Thank you, Usagi,” replied Ami, returning some of Usagi’s smile. “Just please remember not to say anything. I want this to be a surprise for her, as well.”
“I’ll remember, don’t worry,” answered Usagi with a firm nod. “I can keep a secret when I have to. I haven’t told anybody about your book, after all.”
“What book?” asked Minako, startling both girls enough to make them jump as she came up beside them.
Usagi struggled to stutter out an answer even as Ami went bright red at just the thought.
Minako giggled at her friends, then took hold of their arms. “Never mind,” she laughed. “You can tell me later. Right now, you have to come see this. I found just the right one.” With that, she pulled them over to the chosen ring and pronounced that Operation: Payback had officially begun.
* * *
Small feet padded softly across the den floor. A plate clinked lightly on one of the end tables as it was set down, just before Haruka felt the cushion beside her dip under the weight of her child. Lowering the newspaper she’d been reading, Haruka looked over to see Hotaru sitting with her legs crossed and her chin resting on her hands.
“Are you finished reading yet?” asked Hotaru. “If you are, we’re allowed to eat some cookies. Michiru-mama made us a plate of them.”
Haruka grinned. “I thought those cookies were for school.”
Hotaru mirrored the grin right back at her. “We made a lot of them.”
“Is that so? Well, I suppose we should eat them, since Michiru went to the trouble of fixing them for us.” As Hotaru turned and crawled across the couch to reach the plate of cookies, Haruka asked, “Where’s Mako-chan?”
“In the kitchen with Michiru-mama,” answered Hotaru as she took two cookies and passed the plate to Haruka. “They’re talking about baby stuff.”
“And you don’t want to be out there for all of that?”
Hotaru shook her head and swallowed a mouthful of cookie. “It’s not the good kind of baby talk right now. I mean, honestly, it’s not like I was a baby for all that long. Is it really important how many diapers I went through or how many times I threw up on you?”
“It was at the time it was happening,” answered Haruka with a smirk. “We never knew which end it was going to wind up coming out of.”
“Eewww! That’s gross! You’re worse than Michiru-mama,” complained Hotaru. Ignoring the laugh this got from her papa, Hotaru started looking around for the TV remote. When she found it between the couch cushions, she moved onto the floor, announcing, “It’s time for my show. Do you want to watch it with me?”
“Sure,” answered Haruka. She took a bite of her cookie, managing to get half of it in her mouth at once, then reached for her paper as Hotaru channel surfed to kill time until her show started.
The sound of the channels flicking stopped, and Haruka heard the familiar voice of the evening news anchor. She looked around her paper and saw on the screen what appeared to be an impromptu question and answer session. It was a common sight anymore, and Haruka frowned as she wondered how many more times and how many different ways the senator was going to find to say, ‘Pity me because she’s my daughter, but it’s not my fault.’
“Let’s watch something else until your show starts,” said Haruka when Hotaru didn’t change the channel. “And back up a little. You’re going to mess up your eyes if you keep sitting that close.”
Hotaru didn’t move. Instead, she watched the screen with a concentrated expression. “That’s him,” she said quietly.
“Him who?” asked Haruka. “You mean Rei’s father?”
“No,” answered Hotaru. She reached forward and put a finger to a man who stood off to the side of the screen. “Him, with the red tie. He’s the one who was taking our picture.”
“Are you sure?” asked Haruka as she quickly moved down beside Hotaru. At Hotaru’s nod, she said, “Hurry and get me a tape from the video cabinet, then go get Michiru.”
When she was handed the tape, Haruka put it in and hit record after a quick promise to find Michiru another copy of this somehow. As Hotaru ran out of the room to get Michiru, Haruka carefully watched the tail end of the senator’s interview. Her interest stayed with the man off on Hino’s right. He blended into the background well, which was more than likely a requirement of his job. Now that he’d been pulled out into the forefront, Haruka studied his face, mentally placing it over the image from the video they’d taken two weeks ago. They’d made an edited version of the tape for Hotaru to keep, while the original was locked away. Haruka had watched the original, freezing it for as long as it would hold on that one scene, until she was certain she would know the man if they ever crossed paths. This wasn’t how she’d expected to find him, and certainly not in this particular position.
“Haruka? What’s going on?” asked Michiru as she came into the room with Makoto and Hotaru.
Haruka tapped the screen with her knuckle. “It looks like the senator has a rat in his briefcase.”