The Cruelty and Fairness of Fate

by Crawlspace

 

~ Chapter 25: Starting Over, Part 1 ~

 

 

            The meeting had been thrown together hastily, but there had been no complaints from the Ainos when he’d requested the schedule change.  The Senator was glad for this and how accommodating they were attempting to be, especially given the circumstances that had brought them together.  As they sat, the wife moving to poor tea for the three of them, he made a point of telling them of his appreciation.

 

            “Not at all, Senator,” replied Minako’s mother as she put the teapot back on the tray and sat beside her husband on the couch.  “We understand the demands placed on your time.  We’re just pleased you took the time to come and speak about this with us at all.”

 

            “Particularly after the brief encounter I had with you father-in-law,” added Minako’s father.  “His lack of concern in all of this is troubling to me.  Even more so since I’m certain that’s where Minako is at the moment.”

 

            The Senator took a sip of his tea as they spoke to him.  Setting the cup down on its saucer, he nodded thoughtfully.  “I spoke with Rei yesterday, though it was more simply touching base than really talking.  She mentioned your daughter not coming home, but didn’t elaborate, and I’m afraid I haven’t spoken to her grandfather since all of this started.  There’s some unpleasant tension between he and I, you understand, as a result of how my marriage ended.  We usually find it easiest to communicate through Rei.”

 

            “I sympathize,” said Minako’s father.  “But, if you’ll forgive my bluntness, you are your child’s father, and you should be the one handling her in all of this.  I imagine this situation is even more troubling to you than it is to us.  Your father-in-law has obviously taken a come-what-may stance, and, just to give you an example of how out of control all of this has gotten,” he went on as he stood and walked over to a small curio and opened one of its drawers.  He took out a folded set of papers he’d received early that morning and handed them to the Senator before sitting back down.

 

            Senator Hino looked carefully at the papers he held.  A court summons, obviously, the date to appear set as March 25th.  So this was what Rei had meant.  At that moment, he wasn’t sure if he should be proud of her for her nerve or pity her for her foolishness.  The Senator refolded the papers and laid them on the table in front of him.  “I’m sorry,” he said, sounding as apologetic as he could.  “I didn’t realize things had gone this far.”

 

            Minako’s mother nodded, then said, “It’s because we spoiled her.  She’s always gotten her way until now.  Though I doubt this was all completely her idea.”

 

            “Minako has never been what I would term a problem child,” picked up her father.  “A bit flighty at times, perhaps, but she’s considerably more intelligent than she has a tendency to appear.  In the past, the few times she’s really wanted something, Minako has resorted to some very creative ways to get those things.  Until now, there’s been no issue in letting her have her way.

 

            “I can’t place all of the blame for this on Minako, either,” he went on.  “She obviously has to take responsibility for her part, but we also have to for ours.  She knows this is a lifestyle we don’t approve of or want her indulging in.  However, I feel we may have given her mixed messages by allowing her to socialize with certain groups of people.  It was foolish to believe she would only pick up the more desirable traits of those people and not be influenced by the rest of what they do.”

 

            “You shouldn’t judge yourselves harshly,” said the Senator consolingly.  “Or Minako, either.  Teenagers are so easily influenced by what they see and hear, trying to figure out who they are and where they belong.”

 

            “True enough,” replied her mother.  “But she’s had enough of her friends’ influence to last us all several lifetimes.  From here on out, we’ll be the ones helping her find the definition of who she is.  And that will start by getting her away from here and into a more proper and stable environment.”

 

            “Once she’s back home, we plan on sending Minako to boarding school,” elaborated her father.  “Telling her when we did was a mistake, because I’m sure that’s what prompted her to run away in the first place.  But we had hoped to give her a choice and keep her close to home.  After all of this, though, I don’t see how that will be possible.  She did well when she was in England, and her English is more than passable, so we feel that’s now the best solution for her.”

 

            “Aino-san, forgive me, because I mean in no way to question your decision as a parent, but don’t you think that’s just a bit drastic?” asked the Senator.  “To send her so far away from you and her home could cause more problems than it will solve.  I speak with the experience of someone who has put such a distance between himself and his daughter, and I can say honestly that it is not an easy distance to bridge.”

 

            “I’m aware she’ll be angry with us,” answered Minako’s father.  “She already is.  But, in time, I think she’ll come to understand we’re doing what’s best for her.  This way, Minako will have a chance to put this incident behind her, and the distance will force her to find a new path and start over.  If all goes well, she’ll be able to attend University over there, as well, and when she comes home, we can all get on with our lives.  I’m not naive enough to believe it won’t take time, but I won’t lose my daughter to this.”

 

 

            An hour later, after more conversation and a light meal, the Senator left the Ainos’ apartment complex.  He nodded brusquely to his driver as the limo door was opened for him and slid tiredly inside.  Loosening his tie, he said to his assistant, “That was more annoying than I thought it would be.  Why in hell do I do these things?”

 

            Kimiko looked at him deadpan and answered, “Because you’re a power hungry, self-centered egomaniac who needs to cover his ass.”

 

            The Senator’s hand paused on the top button of his shirt as he gave her a stony stare.

 

            With a shrug that said she couldn’t care less, Kimiko returned, “I’m sorry.  I meant to say it’s because you’re a selfless individual who’s trying to make the world a better place for your fellow man.  I keep getting those two mixed up.”

 

            Ignoring her sarcasm, the Senator said, “When we get back to the hotel, you and I have some phone calls to make.  Rei and her girlfriend are grasping at straws trying to keep that girl from having to come back here, and I want to know who’s holding them.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            “Getting back to normal,” murmured Minako as she opened the bedroom door.  Her lawyer had told her that was what she needed to do, to establish a new routine that made them look as normal and responsible as the presiding judge was going to expect them to be and then some.  And part of that included going back to school.  So Minako had spent her evening keeping Makoto company and having her friend catch her up on all the things she’d need to know when she went back to school on Monday.

 

            But it wasn’t really going back to normal, Minako continued to muse as she left her bag on the floor and went to look for Rei.  They couldn’t go back, not with everything that had happened.  And while a routine had begun to set in, there was something just… different about Rei.  Since that morning with her father earlier in the week, she had been too quiet, though none of that quiet had been peaceful.  There was hostility and anger in everything she did now, be it sweeping the paths hard enough to rub away the stone or the overly curt manner in which she’d taken to addressing everyone.  Yet, there had been no real, focused outbursts.

 

            Minako had an idea of where she would find Rei, so the first place she decided to check was the fire room.  When she got there, she saw Yuichiro standing outside, looking in through the partially opened doorway.  Pushing aside the bit of awkwardness she still felt around him, Minako went and stood beside him.

 

            Yuichiro looked down at Minako for a moment, then back at Rei as she sat in front of the fire.  “She always sits too close,” he said quietly.  “She should at least tie her hair back so it doesn’t get singed.”  Then he turned back to Minako and offered a small, somewhat sad grin before leaving her alone.

 

            Several moments passed before Minako stepped into the room and closed the door behind her.  She walked up to Rei’s side, her bare feet making no noise against the floor.  Slowly, she sat facing Rei.  To her right, the sacred fire raged, its flames licking out angrily, but never quite touching its mistress as the waves of heat washed over both of them.

 

            Rei’s face was flushed and showing the effects of her time here.  Wisps of her hair floated loose and danced close to the promise of the fire.  Minako reached up and behind her head to undo the red ribbon that held her hair up.  She could tell Rei knew she was here, her concentration obviously not as focused as it normally was.  So Minako sat forward on her knees and carefully gathered Rei’s hair, using the ribbon to tie it back in a ponytail.

 

            Several minutes passed with nothing but the crackle of the fire and the steady sound of Rei’s breathing.  Then, gradually, the flame began to calm, and Rei opened her eyes.  Keeping her focus straight ahead rather then acknowledging Minako, Rei reached down beside her and lifted up a piece of paper.  She held the corner so the fancy stationary unfolded in front of her, the neat writing visible but unreadable in the flicker of the fire.  Minako watched silently, growing more and more worried, as Rei moved forward until the paper touched the fire, igniting and burning as Rei stared at it, expressionless.

 

            A frown of concern appeared on Minako’s face as the paper burned quickly in Rei’s grasp.  “Rei,” she said cautiously as black ash fell at Rei’s knees, the flame centimeters from where her fingers held the paper.  “Rei, drop it!” cried Minako as she quickly reached forward and forced Rei to let go just as the fire started to touch her fingers.  That was when she saw the almost empty shoebox that sat next to Rei and the small pile of dark ashes in front of her.  “Oh, Rei, you didn’t,” she whispered.

 

            “As far as I’m concerned, he’s dead,” said Rei, her voice hard.  “I’m only making it the way it should have been to begin with.” 

 

            As if to confirm her words, the fire flared, giving off an extra blast of heat.  Rei took a deep breath as the warmth hit her, then pulled away from Minako and reached for the last photograph in the box.  She held up the picture of her parents embracing, her frown deepening as she did, and began to reach forward.

 

            “Stop, Rei,” said Minako, her hands going back to Rei’s and pulling it down.  Ignoring the glare this earned her, she went on, “You’ll regret it later.  Please don’t, because I don’t want you hurt any more than you already are.”

 

            Her jaw set, and her grip on the photo tightened, crushing the edge she held.  “How could she be so stupid?” asked Rei harshly.  “Did she really think he was capable of loving her at all?  Then she forced me into it, as if everything was just perfectly normal and okay.  Like he wasn’t already on the edge of leaving us.  How could she be so stupid and blind?”

 

            Minako could see the glisten of tears in Rei’s eyes, and she heard the real question in Rei’s words.  Keeping her voice soft, she replied, “I don’t think anyone is stupid for loving someone.  And we’re never really blind when we do, because Love isn’t blind, Rei, it’s just willing to overlook a whole lot for the sake of that love.  That’s why it hurts so much when we reach the limits of how much we can ignore.  Because we’ve seen everything with a crystal clarity that no one else has.  Your mother loved him because of all the good things loving him allowed her to see and in spite of all the bad things that didn’t matter to her.  And because she was able to do that, I have you, so I can’t judge her harshly at all.”  Taking hold of the picture, Minako tugged lightly until Rei released it.  Then she set it off to the side, away from Rei’s reach.

 

            Taking a shaky breath, Rei closed her eyes again.  For a moment, her features seemed to crumble, but then set again, refusing to show anything other than the anger she was carrying.

 

            Minako reached for her and tenderly pulled Rei against her until Rei’s head rested against her shoulder.  She whispered softly to her until Rei began to relax, her hand moving in broad strokes against Rei’s back.  When she felt the warm moisture from the silent tears that had begun to trail down Rei’s cheeks, Minako swallowed down her own tears and held her, promising to be there for as long as Rei needed.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            It felt odd to Minako to be back in her classroom and acting as if it was just any old Monday morning.  On her left, Usagi was trying successfully to catch up on the sleep coming to school had deprived her of.  In the classroom, people were walking around, talking or desperately trying to get answers for the homework they hadn’t finished.  A few people had stopped her and said hello or asked how she was doing as she came in, but aside from those acknowledgements, it was just another morning.  Except their group had been one person short.

 

            Rei had sat on the edge of their bed, watching as Minako dressed for school.  All the usual jokes she would have made about Rei leering were left aside because of the look in those violet eyes.  For Rei, this was just one more reminder of something she had lost, something that meant more to her than most people realized, and Minako felt almost guilty about leaving her behind.  But Rei had brushed it off, practically pushing Minako out the door and saying she had her own batch of school work to do, not to mention all the stuff at the shrine that needed to be done.  It was forced, Minako knew, and that last bit she’d seen of Rei made her want to pick up her things and go home before school had even started.

 

            “Hi, Minako.  Welcome back,” said Yukari cheerfully as she took her seat in front of the blonde.  “We were starting to get worried about you.”

 

            Minako grinned at the brunette and the girl who stood beside them.  Yukari was almost a better gossip than she herself was, and an easy person to make a friend of.  Aika was more reserved, but still easy going, and she ran the drama club with an unmatched efficiency.

 

            “Hi, guys,” replied Minako.  “Didn’t mean to worry anyone with that extended vacation I was forced to take.”

 

            “How’s everything going?” asked Aika as she leaned against the desk behind her.  “Are you doing okay with all this… stuff that’s been going on?”

 

            “We’re getting through it,” answered Minako.

 

            Yukari grinned hugely.  “’We?’  So it’s true, then?  You and that girl you’re always with from TA?”

 

            Minako’s cheeks reddened just a bit under Yukari’s gleeful scrutiny.  She noticed Aika roll her eyes at Yukari’s lack of subtle tact, her sandy-colored ponytail swaying as she shook her head in embarrassment.

 

            “Yes,” answered Minako, a smile forming as she did.  “She’s been my girlfriend for awhile now.”

 

            “How long?” pressed Yukari, her dark eyes shining at the prospect of new information.  “Were you seeing her during the play?  She’s the one who kept sending you all those roses, isn’t she?  Oh, how terribly romantic, just like something out of a movie,” she practically squealed.  “A secret love affair between best friends.  I knew it all along.”

 

            “You did not,” declared Aika at her friend’s exaggerations.  “Over break when you saw her getting into that red sports car, you thought that was the guy she was seeing.  Then when you found out he was Tsukino-san’s boyfriend, you were certain they were having some secret rendezvous.”

 

            “You were secretly seeing my Mamo-chan?” asked Usagi suspiciously from beside them.

 

            Minako looked over to see Usagi with her head still down, but one eye opened to peer at them.  “No, Usagi, I swear,” said Minako with a laugh.  “He’s not really my type.”

 

            “I don’t know,” returned Usagi as she sat up.  “Tall, dark, and really good-looking.  And Yukari did see you together.”

 

            Aika laughed at that.  “Yukari also thinks she saw the Emperor’s nephew’s son drive up in a yellow corvette to pick up Hideo-sensei and take her out to dinner.”

 

            “I do not,” said Yukari, looking supremely insulted.  “It was a Porsche, not a Corvette.  Don’t you ever listen when I talk to you?  Besides, everybody knows that’s just a silly rumor because Hideo-sensei is really having an ultra secret, highly scandalous affair with Kume-sensei.”

 

            Usagi stared at her classmate slack-jawed in shock.  Minako bit her lip, trying not to laugh outright, while Aika groaned.  “I can’t take anymore of this right now,” said Aika.  “I have to get to class.  Yukari, just no.  That’s all I can say.  That, and I’ll see you at lunch.  Minako, our last club meeting is Friday, and I’d like to see you there.  It’s the last chance I’ll have to talk to everyone together before graduation.  I want to be able to say goodbye to all my underlings properly,” she teased.

 

            Minako promised to be there, then turned her attention back to Yukari and Usagi as the pre-homeroom gossip mill continued to turn.

           

 

*            *            *

 

            Minako stood inside the charm booth, leaning against the counter with her chin propped on her hand and a small charm dangling back and forth in front of her eyes.  She counted the number of times it swung until it slowed and stopped.  A quick puff of breath set it going again, and again she counted.  Bored to tears, Minako looked down at her watch.  Three minutes since the last time she’d looked.  But, on the plus side, in seven minutes she could close up, and, once Usagi got here, they could all leave for Makoto’s.

 

            A distant rumble of thunder made her lean forward and out the window so she could look up.  The sky was grey, though not really dark, but the threat of a storm was keeping people home.  Without anyone around to try and make a sale to, this job was absolutely no fun for her at all.

 

            She pulled herself back inside and went back to playing with her charm until she saw Rei coming around from the other side of the building.  She stood up straight in her best employee stance, hiding the charm behind her back and smiling innocently.  But before Rei could say anything to her about playing with the merchandise, they heard their names being called as Usagi came rushing up the steps and over to them.

 

            “You’re late,” said Rei crossly as she set the box she was carrying on the ground under the window.

 

            Usagi bent over and, leaning against her knees to try and catch her breath, shook her head.  “Uh uh,” she puffed out.  “I’ve got five minutes until you close.”

 

            “You said you’d be here a half hour ago,” retorted Rei.

 

            “I said that so I wouldn’t be late,” answered Usagi with a grin.  She straightened up and continued to explain, “See, this way, I knew I’d be on time for you closing so we wouldn’t be late leaving.  But if I’d said I would be here when you were closing, we’d have been late getting to Mako-chan’s.”

 

            “That makes no sense, Usagi,” returned Rei.  She reached for the broom that sat against the side of the building, intent on finishing up.  “Next time, just be on time and get here when you say you will.”

 

            Usagi’s grin wilted as Rei turned away from her.  It had seemed like such a good idea when she’d thought of it.

 

            “I think it makes perfect sense,” said Minako as she came around from inside the booth.  She smiled at her friend.  “That was pretty smart thinking, Usagi.”

 

            “Thanks,” answered Usagi.  Then she brightened a bit.  “Are you ready to close up?  I can help.”

 

            “All right.  I’ll take these inside,” said Minako as she began to gather the papers and trinkets from the display outside.  “Pull the screen closed for me so I can lock it.  Just try and keep it even when you pull it across.  It likes to stick.”

 

            Usagi moved forward and reached inside the open window until her fingers found the screen.  She grasped the middle of the wooden edge and began to pull it slowly and carefully across its track.  She got it two thirds of the way over when sudden resistance made her freeze.  A small, concentrated frown appeared on her face right before Usagi gave the screen a quick, experimental tug.  Yep, it was definitely stuck.

 

            “Need help?” called Minako from around the corner of the small building.

 

            “No, I got it,” called back Usagi.  She stood on tiptoe, reaching for the top corner that had jammed in the track.  Her fingers were just able to grasp it, but she couldn’t get the leverage she needed to pull it free.  So Usagi hoisted one knee up onto the open part of the counter to gain height.  When she did, her free foot dangled for a moment before finding solidity on the box Rei had left sitting there.

 

            With one foot braced against the box and a knee against the counter, Usagi took hold of the top of the screen and pulled.  Once, twice, and nothing.  She took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds before releasing it in a huge puff and pulling with everything she had.

 

            The screen held firm, but Usagi didn’t.  Her fingers slid along the smooth frame, her balance thrown off and backward.  For a moment she flailed, and all of her weight shifted onto the leg that rested against the cardboard box.  The box gave Usagi the purchase she needed to stay upright, and she breathed a sigh of relief as she regained her balance.  Relief that was short lived, however, as the corner of the box her weight still rested on shifted and collapsed.  The accompanying crunch and crush of breaking glass under her shoe was very loud and very noticeable.

 

            Usagi jumped back from the broken box, an apology on her lips.  The words died before ever being spoken, though, when she saw the look on Rei’s face.  True anger painted Rei’s features and turned her hold on the broom into a death grip as she stared at the blonde.

 

            “Damn it, Usagi, can’t you do anything right!” snapped out Rei.  “She told you to be careful.  How hard is it to do what you’re told?”

 

            Usagi began to stammer out an apology, but Minako stepped in and stopped her.  “It was an accident, Rei,” said Minako calmly.  “She didn’t mean to do it.  We can clean it up.”

 

            “Don’t make excuses for her!” shot back Rei furiously.  She threw the broom down to the ground, the wood hitting sharply, and stalked over to the window.  She climbed onto the counter and began hitting the jammed edge with the heel of her palm.  “Everyone’s always making excuses for her.  When she breaks something, she should be held responsible.  But everyone says it’s not her fault.  When she says she’s going to show up and doesn’t, everyone says that’s just her and don’t be upset about it.  She can’t help it.  Just give her one more chance.  Well I’m sick of it, damn it!”

 

            Rei’s hand rammed up hard against the screen’s frame as that last sentence was expelled, but in the haze of her rage, her aim was off center.  Her hand grazed off the outside of the frame and pushed through the paper screening, breaking off several of the thin, wooden supports in the process.  The jagged edge of one broken support caught against her skin, tearing into the outside of her wrist as her hand moved forward.

 

            With a hiss, Rei jerked her hand back roughly and clutched it against her.  As blood stained the white sleeve of her dogi, Rei’s eyes squeezed tight against the sting of the wound.  She slid off the counter, and the second her feet touched the ground, she felt a hand touch her shoulder.  Her eyes opened enough for her to see both Minako and Usagi standing beside her, mixed expressions of worry and comfort on their faces.

 

            Fighting hard against the tears that suddenly filled her eyes, Rei pushed both of them away.  “Leave me alone!” she yelled.  “Just leave me the hell alone!  I don’t need you always trying to fix other people’s mistakes!”

 

            Minako took a step back without meaning to, the venom in Rei’s voice scaring her for a moment and leaving her unsure of what to do.  Usagi looked on the verge of tears herself, obviously wanting to resist Rei’s refusal of help, but afraid of making things worse.  Then Minako noticed someone else had seen all of this, too, and he was coming closer, unafraid of Rei’s wrath.

 

            Grandpa stepped up to them slowly.  Keeping his eyes on Rei, he addressed the other two.  “There’s a first aid kit in the kitchen.  I’d like you two to go and get it, please.”

 

            Minako nodded, then grabbed Usagi and hurried off.

 

            Touching Rei carefully, Grandpa tugged her down so she was sitting with her back against the wall of the charm booth.  “Here, now,” he said gently as he knelt beside her.  “Let me see what’s happened.”

 

            Refusing to look at him, Rei reluctantly gave over her injured arm.  She winced as he pulled the sleeve back away from the cut, a few of her tears finally escaping.  She reached up and swiped harshly at her eyes just before she felt a hand begin to stroke her hair.

 

            “This hurts, I know,” said Grandpa as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and placed it carefully over the cut.  “A few tears are nothing to be ashamed of.  But it’s not so bad that we can’t get it all fixed up and better.”

 

            “It’s just a stupid cut,” said Rei crossly through a sniffle.  “Stupid Usagi for causing so much trouble.”

 

            “She’s your friend.  She only wanted to help you.”

 

            “I don’t need that kind of help!” shot out Rei, her head snapping around to meet her grandfather’s gaze.  Tears she couldn’t control any more began to roll down her cheeks as she continued to lash out at the one trying to help her.  “I don’t care what her intentions were, if she couldn’t do it, she shouldn’t have said she would.  All that happens when she does is things get broken and people get hurt.  And if she isn’t going to show up when she says she is, then she shouldn’t say she’s coming at all.  Damn her!  Damn both of them!  They shouldn’t make promises they aren’t going to keep!”

 

            Rei’s body began to tremble from the combination of anger and hurt, everything she’d kept pent up flowing out of her in a river of tears and harsh words.  She cursed her friends, her parents, and her own existence.  Then, when her grandfather reached for her, she clung to him, sobbing into his chest like a frightened child.  He rocked her and whispered to her, the way he had when she was little.  The same way he had his own daughter when her fate had finally overtaken her.  And, in the process, he wound up wiping away a few of his own tears, as well.

 

            After a time, Rei’s cries quieted into a few unsteady hitches.  Her fingers loosened their grip on her grandfather’s shirt, but didn’t let go completely.

 

            Grandpa, sensing the worst of things had passed, patted Rei’s back lightly and said, “How about we get that cut taken care of now, hmm?  Your friends left the first aid kit for us, down there on the step.  I just have to get up and get it.”

 

            Rei nodded against him, then sat back so he could get up.  A moment later, he was back beside her, fussing over the shallow wound along her wrist.  When he finished taping off the bandage, he said, “That should do.  It’s going to be sore for a few days, though.”

 

            “I love you,” replied Rei, that sounding more appropriate than a simple ‘thank you.’

 

            Grandpa smiled at her and patted her cheek.  “My little Rei.  I love you, too.  I always have.”  He closed up the first aid kit and stood.  “I believe your friends are over on the main steps.  That’s the direction I saw them go off in.  If you still think you’re going to go visit your other friends, the three of you shouldn’t wait much longer.  I don’t know how long this storm is going to hold itself off.”

 

            “Okay,” answered Rei.  As her grandfather headed for the main house, Rei stood a bit shakily.  She took a few deep breaths to calm herself and wiped her eyes against her sleeve.  In the back of her mind, she wondered if she looked as bad and worn out as she felt.

 

            A few minutes later, Rei found Usagi and Minako sitting several steps down at the entrance to the shrine.  When they heard her coming, both of them stood cautiously.  Minako walked up to her, with Usagi trailing close behind her.

 

            “You gonna be okay?” Minako asked worriedly.  Her hands moved nervously over Rei, tucking her dark hair behind her ears, then running over her shoulders and down her arms until she reached the bandage around Rei’s wrist.

 

            Rei gave her a tight smile that she suspected wasn’t as reassuring as she intended.  “I’ll be okay,” she answered, then held up her wrist and smirked.  “But I can’t help wonder what people are going to think about this.”

 

            “I’ll get some regular Band-Aids tomorrow on the way home from school,” said Minako.  “Then it’ll be less noticeable.”

 

            Rei nodded in thanks, then looked over at Usagi.  She moved in close, stood staring down at the nervous blonde, and then suddenly pulled her into a tight hug.  “You’re such a silly klutz, and you have no sense of time whatsoever.  I’ll never know how you got to be my best friend.”

 

            Usagi smiled even though she could hardly breathe because of Rei’s grip.  “And what about you, with that terrible temper?  I don’t know how I’ve put up with a best friend like you for so long.”

 

            The beginnings of a real smile on her lips, Rei looked over at Minako, then reached out and pulled her into the embrace.  She held on to her friends as tightly as she could, able to feel the love and caring they had directed at her.  The sense of that pulled at her heart, erasing some of the darkness that enveloped it, making the guilt just a little worse, but mostly making her feel secure and stable.  As they stood there, a few drops of rain falling and signaling the start of what would be a larger downpour, Rei thanked the higher powers for giving her these people so she would never be truly alone.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Makoto lay propped up on the bed while Ami sat beside her, cross-legged and feeling around carefully on Makoto’s exposed belly.  Ami was in doctor mode, and the complete concentration on her face as she tried to find the baby’s back the way her mother had told her had Makoto grinning.  The stethoscope around Ami’s neck only added to that image of future doctor, as well as to Makoto’s amusement with the whole thing.

 

            Finding the spot she was searching for, Ami rubbed the end of the stethoscope to kill the chill, then put the other ends to her ears before placing the flat of it against Makoto’s stomach.  A triumphant smile appeared on her face when she was rewarded with the sound of her son’s heartbeat.

 

            It was a given that Makoto would eventually ask Ami to share, so while she waited her turn, Makoto fingered through the small paint cards that were scattered beside her.  They’d gone through all the ones they’d picked up at the store, and she’d narrowed it down to the few she liked best.  Now she just needed to make up her mind about which one was going to end up on the baby’s bedroom walls.

 

            Picking up the two she, Ami, and Usagi had spent the most time staring at earlier, Makoto held them up for Ami to see.  Without any words being spoken, Ami immediately tapped the one with varying gradients of blue.

 

            Makoto smirked, then waved the yellow card.  “Usagi liked this one a lot,” she said, her voice teasing.

 

            “Blue,” was Ami’s response right before she put her finger to her lips to shush Makoto.

 

            “But that’s so predictable,” went on Makoto, wanting to twick Ami just a bit and perhaps get some information out of her at the same time.  “Nobody would expect yellow from us.  And then, oh, I don’t know, maybe we could go buy some stuff to match it.  Because, at the rate we’re going, unless we empty out one of our sock drawers, Bug isn’t going to have anyplace to sleep.”

 

            Very slowly, Ami removed the stethoscope from her ears.  Looking pointedly at Makoto, she said, “Your son says to tell you he likes the blue best, and that whatever you choose for him to sleep on will be just fine, because he trusts your judgment.”

 

            “Oh, really?”

 

            Ami nodded, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

 

            With one edge of her mouth turned up and her eyes squinted appraisingly, Makoto said, “I know why you guys won’t let me buy anything for the nursery.  You’re planning someth…”

 

            One of Ami’s fingers landed against Makoto’s lips, effectively stopping her from saying any more.  “I told you to hush, or you won’t be able to hear anything,” she said quietly.  Then she took the stethoscope from around her neck and placed it on Makoto’s.

 

            When Makoto was situated and quiet the way she wanted her, Ami moved the flat of the stethoscope back to Makoto’s belly.  She watched happily as Makoto caught the first rapid thumps of the tiny heartbeat, closing her eyes to better listen.  She also saw the quick flash of relief that passed over Makoto’s features as she heard the sound.  It was the same thing she herself always felt for that first second whenever she was given a tangible sign of the healthy and strong life that was growing there, right before joy and contentment would settle over her.

 

            Makoto opened her eyes a few minutes later and smiled at Ami.  She took the stethoscope from her ears and put it back around Ami’s neck.  Settling back against her pillows, she picked back up on what she had been saying before Ami cut her off.  “Even if we don’t go shopping on Sunday, I want to do something Rei likes.  The last two weeks, she’s been… well, not her.  I’ve only seen her twice since all this stuff with her father started, and it feels like she’s getting too closed off from us.  Especially after what Usagi said happened at the shrine tonight.  You know, I feel like I’m the one who started this whole mess.  Maybe I should go over there tomorrow, endless steps or not.”

 

            Ami shook her head as she reached for the hem of Makoto’s nightshirt.  As she pulled it back over her belly and smoothed it into place, she said, “No, I don’t think that last part would be a very good idea.  Minako is with her, and, for now, I think she’s the best one to handle things.  Rei is likely feeling somewhat embarrassed over the whole thing.  We should give her a day to gather herself together before forcing any of it back on her.  So, I think while the rest of you are redeeming yourselves academically on Saturday…”

 

            “One math test, genius girl,” cut in Makoto.  “I only failed one math test.”

 

            “Then, while you’re making up that one math test,” went on Ami, “I’ll go spend the afternoon with Rei.  I can check on her, make sure she’s ready for Monday’s tests, and see if there’s anything in particular she’d like to do Sunday.  Perhaps I can be the one to help her talk about things this time instead of the other way around.”  Ami nodded, confirming for herself that this sounded like the best plan.  “It will take some time, but Rei will be okay.  We’ll make sure.  No matter what might happen, we’ll take care of her.”

 

            Makoto smiled warmly and gave Ami’s hip a little poke.  “Hey, you know what else Bug was saying?”

 

            “What?” asked Ami with a grin.

 

            “He was saying how much he loves you, and how glad he is that you’re his Ami-mama,” answered Makoto as her fingers played with the edge of Ami’s pajama top.  Then her smile turned into a self-conscious grin.  “He was also saying that he’s kinda hungry right now, and he’ll love you heaps more if you’ll take pity on his poor mama, who’s finally managed to get comfortable after being achy and cranky all day, and maybe make us a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

 

             Ami giggled at that.  “More of my son’s love.  That’s such a hard offer to say no to.”

 

            “Isn’t it?” returned Makoto playfully.  “And his mama will be your best friend forever if you cut it into triangles and take off the crust.  And maybe throw in a glass of chocolate milk, too.”

 

            “Okay,” answered Ami as she started to rise from the bed.  “But only because my Little Bug asked me so nicely.”

 

*            *            *

 

            Physics was an evil thing.  From the person who had postulated the first theory, right on down to the one who had set the type for the textbook she was now staring at, the subject was a wretched and evil thing.

 

            Rei closed her eyes and rubbed her hands into them.  Too much studying was making her vision blurry and her head hurt.  But she’d already missed three weeks of school, and with everything else that had been going on, studying for finals hadn’t been one of her top priorities.  Making this round of studying even worse was that her entrance exams for 10th Street were also riding on her getting this damn chapter of her physics book right.

 

            “Maybe we should have actually studied while Ami was here,” mumbled Rei sarcastically to herself.  She sighed and looked up, ready to voice her complaints to Minako, only to find herself still alone in the bedroom.  That just wasn’t right, thought Rei as she glanced over at the clock.  Minako had excused herself to use that bathroom almost 45 minutes ago.  She shook her head as she stood, wondering how she had let that much time slip away from her.

 

            After slowly approaching the bathroom door, Rei knocked lightly.  Hesitantly, she called, “Mina, sweetie, are you okay?  You’ve been in there a long time.  Do you need me to get you anything?”

 

            Suddenly, the door opened just enough for Minako to stick her head out.  “Now that’s love,” she giggled.  “Don’t worry.  I’m okay.”

 

            Rei looked at her disapprovingly, then reached up to pull a shred of red construction paper from Minako’s bangs.  “What are you doing in there?”

 

            “None of your business,” answered Minako through her smile.  “I’m only in here because this is the one place a person can do anything privately around here.  Key word:  Privately.  Now, shoo, so I can finish up.”

 

            Rei leaned forward and tried to see over Minako’s shoulder into the room, but was blocked by the door nearly slamming against her nose.  With a huff, Rei said, “Fine, you can have your privacy.  I’m going to go call Ami.”

 

            She had taken two steps when the door opened again.  “She’s not home,” said Minako as she stuck her head back out.  “She and Mako-chan have class tonight.”

 

            “Ami doesn’t have cram school on Saturday.  Besides, Mako-chan never goes to class with her.  Unless Ami’s decided we aren’t good enough babysitters,” answered Rei with a smirk.

 

            “Not that kind of class.  It’s a Lamaze class, so Mako-chan has to go with her or it would be kind of pointless.”

 

            A slightly annoyed expression crossed Rei’s face at that.  “Ami didn’t say anything about that when she was here this afternoon.  How come you know about it and I don’t?”

 

            Minako shrugged.  “She didn’t really tell me about it.  She just mentioned it last week when Usagi asked what we were going to do to celebrate the last make-up Saturday of the year.  It’s why we’re doing stuff tomorrow instead of tonight.”

 

            Rei frowned, looking thoughtful for a moment.  Then she turned and started walking away.

 

            “Hey, where are you going?” called Minako as she hurried after Rei.

 

            Rei didn’t answer, instead just allowed Minako to follow her into the den.  There, Rei picked up the phone and dialed a number.  “Hello, Tsukino-san,” she said pleasantly when the other end was answered.  “Is Usagi home?”  There was a pause as Rei waited, then, “Usagi, do you know anything about this class thingy Ami and Mako-chan are at tonight?”

 

            Minako grinned and moved closer to Rei so she could lean in and hear.  Rei tilted the receiver for her as Usagi answered, “A little.  Mako-chan told me about some of the stuff they do when I was over there Thursday night.  Sounded like it might be fun.”

 

            “Do you know where it is?” asked Rei.

 

            “Yep.  The hospital at six o’clock.”

 

            Rei looked down at her wristwatch, then nodded.  “Okay, we’ve still got time if we hurry.”

 

            “Time for what?” asked Usagi curiously.

 

            “To get to class with them,” answered Rei, as if that was the most obvious thing and why would anyone even need to ask.  “I’ll get Yuichiro to drive.  He’s faster than Grandpa.  Be ready when we get there, Usagi.”

 

            The call concluded and Rei hung up.  She turned back only to see the silly grin on Minako’s face.  Crossing her arms over her chest, Rei said, “Don’t give me that look.  You’re the one who’s always saying he’s ‘our baby.’  And we’re all going to be there when he’s born, right, so we need to know what it is we’re supposed to do.”

 

            “Did I say anything?” asked Minako innocently.

 

            Rei gave her a quick, crooked grin and was starting on her way out when Grandpa walked into the room.

 

            “Excuse me,” he said, perplexity on his face, “but do these belong to either of you?”  He held up a red, construction paper heart and a white crayon.

 

            Minako blushed and went over to him, claiming back the objects.  “Sorry, Grandpa.  I’ll clean it up right away.”

 

            Grandpa voiced his approval right before Rei said, “Five minutes, and then if you’re not done, I’m leaving without you.  So you might want me to help.”

 

            “I can get it on my own, Miss Nosey,” threw back Minako.

 

            “You’re going somewhere?” asked Grandpa.

 

            “To the hospital,” answered Rei.  “I was just coming to tell you and then go find Yuichiro to take us.”

 

            Grandpa looked suddenly concerned.  “Has something happened to one of your friends?  It’s not Makoto is it?  I know it’s too soon for the baby.”

 

            “No,” said Rei with a shake of her head.  “Everyone’s okay.”

 

            “We’re going there to learn how to have a baby,” explained Minako, her expression all smiles.

 

            Grandpa started to voice his relief that everyone was well, and then Minako’s words really hit him.  He froze, all the color draining from his face.  For a moment, he stared at the bright smile on Minako’s face and the smirk that was forming on Rei’s.  Then he mumbled to himself about it all just being a phase and the kami’s way of testing him, before slowly turning and leaving the room.

 

            Minako, more than a little confused, started to go after him to ask what was wrong.  Rei stopped her, though, and laughed the first real laugh Minako had heard from her in weeks.  “I’ll explain it to you later,” said Rei.  “Now go clean up.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            Usagi was ready and waiting when the car pulled up.  She hurried out to meet them, a small backpack over her shoulder and one of her mother’s round throw pillows in her hand.  A smile on her face, she quickly slid into the back seat with Minako.

 

            “Hi, guys,” she said as she arranged herself and her belongings.  “Thanks for picking me up, Yuichiro.”

 

            Yuichiro smiled into the rearview mirror at her in acknowledgement, then started to pull away.

 

            “What’s with the pillow?” asked Rei, fighting with the seatbelt as she turned around in her seat to face the girls in the back.

 

            “Mako-chan said they have to bring their own pillows to get comfortable with.  And, since they’re not expecting us…” she drawled out, her grin getting bigger as she took the pillow and shoved it up under her shirt.  “So we look the part in case we have any trouble getting in.”

 

            Minako giggled while Rei rolled her eyes.  “I’m almost afraid to ask what’s in the backpack,” quipped Rei.

 

            Usagi reached for her bag and started to rummage around inside it while she explained, “Well, like I said, they aren’t expecting us, so I figured they probably won’t have enough snacks for everyone.  I didn’t want us to get left out.”  As she said this, she began to hand items out to show what she had.  A can of orange soda, bag of grape gummies, and a box of Pocky were handed to Minako, and a can of cola along with a small, black snack bag were handed up to Rei.

 

            Rei held the bag in front of her and gave it a shake, causing the white puffs inside to jostle and resettle.  “Popcorn?  We’re going to a baby class, Usagi, not a picnic.”

 

            “I know that,” answered Usagi.  “But Mako-chan said tonight was movie night.”

 

 

*            *            *

 

            There were several people milling around the front lobby of the hospital.  Most sat in chairs, waiting or reading magazines.  A few were browsing the gift shop or snack area that was off on the side.  The woman who sat behind the large desk at the far end of the lobby easily ignored all of those others, however, and concentrated solely on the three girls who were standing near the entrance trying not to be conspicuous.

 

            Eri watched as the girls studied the directory on the wall beside the front door.  The blonde with the red bow, who reminded Eri of her own granddaughter, ran her finger down the list of offices, stopping about two thirds of the way down.  Having found her target, the blonde’s finger gave a double tap against the glass.  Eri smiled to herself as the girls then turned her way, newly determined expressions on their faces.

 

            The girls made their way across the lobby and finally began to move past the desk towards the elevators, each of their steps deliberately casual.  They avoided looking her way or making any sort of direct eye contact, and, just to amuse herself, Eri let them get halfway by before stopping them.

 

            “Do you girls know where you’re going?” asked Eri pleasantly, causing all three of them to stop mid step.

 

            The girls turned as one to face her, each affecting their own version of an innocent smile.  The brunette, who seemed to be their leader, was the one who addressed her. 

 

            “Yes, ma’am,” answered Rei politely.  “We know which classroom we’re looking for.”

 

            Eri thought for a moment, recalling fairly clearly that the only class tonight was the childbirth class.  These three didn’t really look like that was somewhere they belonged, but she’d seen stranger types at these sorts of things, Mizuno-sensei’s daughter being the most unexpected in her recent memory.

 

            “All right,” replied Eri, still a bit unsure, but with no real reason not to let them go.  “But watch out for the third floor.  Those classrooms are fairly well hidden from everything else.  So when you start to feel like you’re lost, just keep going straight until you can’t anymore.  That should at least find you a sign to follow.”

 

            Rei smiled at the woman and thanked her, then hustled Usagi and Minako towards the elevators.

 

            After a brief ride, the elevator doors opened and left the girls at a small waiting area.  Swinging doors led to a hallway that broke off into three directions.  A sign on the wall pointed them to the right corridor, so right they went.  They passed the nurses’ station and a string of rooms before reaching another set of doors and an overhead sign that instructed them to proceed forward.

 

            There was a different feel to the hallway behind the doors.  There were no rooms or windows, only white walls bordered in a dull green.  The lighting was subdued, leaving the corners of the hallway shadowed.  All signs of life had seemed to disappear at the doors, and, as they turned another corner, the only sounds they heard were those from the ventilation system.

 

            Usagi inched a bit closer to Minako as they traveled through the maze of corridors.  “Creepy,” she whispered, though the word still sounded unusually loud because of the silence.  “Are we almost there?”

 

            “We have to be.  This place isn’t that big,” whispered back Rei.  A moment later, they came to another split, and around the corner, Rei literally saw the daylight at the end of the tunnel.  With a self-satisfied smile, she said, “See, just like I said.”

 

            Finally entering a hallway with windows at each end to let in the sunlight, things seemed to come back to life.  Doors lined each side of the hall, each with a letter pasted on it.  Through a small window in the door, they could see a light on in one of the rooms.  The sound of people talking and moving things around filtered out into the hallway, as well.

 

            “Classroom B,” said Minako as they approached the door.  “That’s the one we want.”

 

            Rei looked into the rectangular window on the door, searching for her quarry.  The class looked to be getting underway, with a dark-haired woman standing at the front happily addressing everyone, her hands doing half her talking for her.

 

            “There they are,” announced Rei when she spotted Ami and Makoto.

 

            “Are you sure?” asked Minako as she squeezed in beside Rei so she could see.

 

            Rei frowned at her in annoyance.  “Of course I’m sure.  Would I have said it if I wasn’t?  They’re right there, plain as day.”

 

            “I want to see, too,” chimed in Usagi as she pushed in close and stood on her toes to see over the other girls’ shoulders.

 

            Most of Usagi’s weight went forward onto Minako, but enough hit Rei to knock her to the side and off balance.  The hand she had resting on the doorknob gripped tight out of reflex to keep her upright, her sudden sideward motion turning it just enough to release the catch.  With all three of them leaning against it, the door swung open hard, effectively removing the only thing keeping them on their feet.  As the door slammed against the wall, all three girls tumbled into an undignified heap on the floor.

 

            Minako let out a startled gasp, and Usagi yelped as she landed on her friends.  Rei winced as she hit the cold floor, some part of the other two on top of her.  She heard a few gasps from their audience as well as Minako, and a few chairs scraping across the floor as she presumed people were standing in sudden shock from their entrance.  One of her eyes opened just enough to see the startled looks of a roomful of strangers.  Then her sight landed on the two who weren’t strangers.  Ami was staring at them, her face bright red.  Makoto had a hand covering her eyes, her head shaking slightly in denial, as if that would somehow make it all go away.  Rei thought that sounded like a good idea, and closed her eye again to see if it would work.  Then Rei heard voices, one of them actually claiming them as friends.

 

            “They’re our friends,” answered Ami when the woman in charge questioned who they were.  “I do apologize for the disturbance, Himura-san.”

 

            “You guys okay?” asked Makoto from overtop of them.

 

            “That pillow didn’t help at all,” complained Usagi as she was helped to her feet by one of the kinder bystanders.  “I think I broke my Pocky.”

 

            A round of snickers could be heard then, and Rei sighed, internally refusing to move.  Maybe if she willed it hard enough, she could disappear into the floor.  Then Minako’s weight was lifted off of her, and she could sense someone kneeling down in front of her.

 

            “Rei?” asked Ami.  “Can you get up?”

 

            Rei opened her eyes and looked up at her friend.  “I don’t suppose you have some nifty, magical item hidden away that comes with a rewind button for these sorts of things?”

 

            Ami smiled in gentle amusement and held out a hand.  “It’s really not that bad.  Well, perhaps it is,” she reconsidered.  “But you have the honor of being the one to make the night that much more interesting.”

 

            “I’d rather be dull and boring,” said Rei as she was pulled to her feet.

 

            “What are you guys doing here?” asked Makoto as she brushed off Minako’s shirt.

 

            “We need to know what to do, too,” answered Minako.  “So Rei said we should come to class with you.”

 

            “We brought our own snacks,” added Usagi, holding up her backpack.  “Though they might be a little crushed.”

 

            “Your support system, Kino-san?” asked Himura-san as she walked up to them.

 

            “Yes, ma’am.”

 

            Himura-san smiled at them.  “Well, I think we have enough room if they’d like to stay.  Grab a few chairs and we’ll get back to business.  All right, everyone,” she continued, addressing the whole class, “as soon as everyone’s settled, we’ll start the video.”

 

            Usagi seated herself happily between Makoto and Minako and quickly began setting out the goodies she’d brought with her.

 

            Makoto, a slightly confused look on her face, leaned over and whispered, “You really brought food with you?”

 

            Usagi nodded.  “Sure.  What fun is a movie without any snacks?”

 

            “Uh, Usagi, I really don’t think this is the kind of movie you’re going to want to eat through.”

 

            The question on Usagi’s face was blacked out as the lights were turned off and the TV flickered to life in all its uncensored glory.

 

 

*            *            *

 

            She knew how things worked.  She wasn’t that naive or even that innocent.  But knowing it in an abstract way was very different than having it openly presented to you in full visual detail.  Usagi shuddered as those details flashed before her mind’s eye for the umpteenth time since they’d left the hospital.  Then Rei’s hand was suddenly waving in front of her unfocused eyes, and Usagi looked up from the bus stop bench she and Makoto were sitting on.

 

            “Quick, Usagi,” said Rei, much more amused than Usagi liked.  “What’s short, pink, and really likes to annoy you?”

 

            Usagi’s eyebrows knit together in confusion.  “Chibi-usa?” she asked.

 

            Rei laughed, and standing beside her, Minako smiled widely.  “Well,” said Rei, “if we can all remember the kid, she must not have been traumatized too badly.”

 

            Usagi stuck her tongue out at Rei and ignored the humor everyone seemed to find in all of this.  Then she turned to Makoto.  “Are you really going to do it like that, Mako-chan, with no drugs at all?  Because that looked like it would really hurt.”

 

            Makoto nodded quickly, a confident smile on her face.  “Yep, that’s how we’re going to do it.  I’ve battled every kind of youma the universe could throw at us.  I’ve had my heart ripped from my chest, my dreams physically violated, and I’ve died twice.  After all of that, I can handle anything, including giving birth.”

 

            Recalling what had been said during class and how important she’d been told her roll as part of the support system was, Usagi answered, “If that’s your decision, then I support you completely and will offer all the loving encouragement you need.  But I still think you’re crazy.”  Then she looked up at Ami.  “When I have to do that, I want to be unconscious.”

 

            Ami grinned and held back a giggle.  “I promise I’ll remember that, Usagi.”

 

            Things got quiet for a few minutes while they all waited for the bus.  Feeling a bit impatient and antsy, Rei stretched her arms up over her head and blew a puff of breath through her lips.  “So, we’re all just going to go home now, huh?”

 

            Makoto glanced quickly up at Ami, then took advantage of the opportunity Rei’s mood presented.  “Actually, me and Ami have made a sort of habit of stopping for dessert on the way home.  We were just going to go to a place by the apartment and get something to take home, but if you guys want, we could all go get something together.”

 

            “There’s a good place about a block from here,” chimed in Ami.  “It would likely be less crowded than the Crown tonight.”

 

            “I wouldn’t mind missing the Hell Week crowd,” replied Rei.  “How about it, Minako?  Mind if we stay out for awhile?”

 

            Minako smile and shrugged.  “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

 

            Unanimously decided, the girls left the bus stop and made the short trek to the ice cream place.  With the night pleasant as it was, they decided to find seats outside.  So while Makoto and Usagi saved spots at two small tables, the other three went inside to place the order.

 

            “And could you put a few extra cherries on the chocolate one?” asked Rei as the girl who was fixing their order topped off Makoto’s milkshake with a hill of whipped cream.

 

            The girl nodded, and both Ami and Minako grinned at Rei.

 

            Rei sighed, disliking being so obvious in her actions.  “I snapped at Usagi pretty badly the other day,” she said quietly.  “I need to make it up to her a little, even if it was partly her own fault for being so klutzy.”

 

            Minako leaned in discretely against Rei’s side.  “I think it’s sweet,” she said, her voice low.  If there hadn’t been a small crowd, she would have kissed Rei’s cheek.  She was still very tempted to, just to see what would happen.

 

            That train of thought was interrupted as the girl behind the counter set the last of the milkshakes in front of them.  “Okay,” she said as she wiped her hands on her red and white striped shirt.  “That’s one strawberry, one chocolate peanut butter, one chocolate with extra cherries, a cookies and cream mixer, and a root beer float.  The fries will be a few more minutes.  Is there anything else I can get for you?”

 

            “That’s it, thanks,” answered Rei.

 

            Minako reached for the milkshakes and set them on a tray with some straws and napkins.  “I’ll take these outside if you guys want to wait for the rest of it.  But someone’s gonna have to get the door for me.”

 

            “I’ll get it,” said Ami.  She took a quick sip of her float, then slid off her stool to help Minako.

 

            As Rei watched them, she noticed something from the corner of her eye.  Over at one of the booths, a group of boys sat, most of them talking animatedly.  One, however, was distracted, his eyes following Ami and Minako as they walked towards the door.  Not liking the idea that some guy was staring at her Minako was beside the point, because he very easily could have been staring at Ami.  Her dislike was mainly in the way he was staring.  The look on his face wasn’t the look of someone sizing up a potential date.  It was more serious, more focused.  Then he abruptly turned away, back to his friends.  It was because Ami had started walking back, Rei realized.  He didn’t want her to notice him.

 

            Ami slid quietly back onto the stool beside Rei and began poking at the ice cream in her root beer with the long, plastic spoon she’d been provided with.  A few minutes had passed with very little talking when Rei noticed those eyes again.  She could practically feel them staring holes right into their backs.  Ami must have noticed it, too, because she was getting progressively more tense.  Finally, Rei just couldn’t take it anymore.

 

            “What the hell is your problem?!” she snapped at the boy as she turned around.

 

            The boy jumped, startled by her outburst, and stared at her like a deer caught in headlights.  One of his friends turned and looked like he was about to say something back, but quickly changed his mind and tried instead to refocus his friend on their own conversation.

 

            Heedless of the looks she was getting from a few bystanders, Rei started to say something else just to let him know how much she was annoyed by him.  It was Ami’s hand landing lightly on her arm that stopped her.

 

            “Please, Rei,” said Ami softly without turning around in her seat.  “Just let him go.  It’s not a big deal.  He just does that sometimes.”

 

            Rei looked at her in disbelief.  “You know him?”

 

            Ami nodded.

 

            “What is he?  Some kind of weird stalker?  Because something like that is a big deal.”  Ami looked as though she wasn’t going to answer, so Rei pushed forward.  “Come on, Ami.  I spilled my guts to you this morning.  That means you’re not allowed to clam up on me now.”

 

            “That’s him,” answered Ami, her voice barely above a whisper.

 

            Rei didn’t need to ask what that meant, she could see it in Ami’s eyes.  Curiosity prompted her to really look this boy over and wonder what it was Makoto had seen in him.  Short hair with dark eyes to match.  Cute enough, but not something you’d see on a boy band poster, this Satoshi was plain, simple, and seemingly unassuming.  Perhaps that in itself had been the appeal, Rei mused.

 

            She turned back in her seat and focused on Ami.  “Look, I understand not wanting to start anything here, but if he’s been bothering you, you need to say something to someone.”

 

            Ami concentrated intently on her float as she answered, “It isn’t like that.  He doesn’t do anything, and he never speaks to me.  But sometimes, he stares.  As soon as he realizes I’ve noticed, he stops.  I don’t know why he does it.  I just think he wishes I would disappear as much as I wish he would.  That way, we could both forget.”

 

            Rei fidget in her seat, the let out a frustrated sigh.  “There’s got to be something you can do about him.  You don’t need to be dealing with this.”

 

            Ami shook her head.  “I already requested a class transfer for next term,” she admitted.  “I couldn’t tell them precisely why, and Itoh-san thought it was because I was feeling burned out and overwhelmed.  He said they could help me with that, but he couldn’t, in good conscience, put me in another class.  He felt it would be a step backward academically, especially since our class is the only one running the advanced sciences program.”

 

            “You should have told him the truth,” insisted Rei.

 

            “No,” replied Ami.  “Don’t you understand?  If I’d even hinted that a male student was making me uncomfortable, they would have been obligated to investigate.  Questions would have been asked that none of us want to answer.  Mako-chan is finally comfortable with the idea of people knowing about our life.  But even that has its limits, and I don’t want to do anything that will disturb that or put any more stress on her than there already is.  Besides, you know what she would do to him if I told her any of this.”

 

            Rei reluctantly agreed with that last statement.  She also agreed just as reluctantly not to say anything to anyone.

 

            “Thank you,” said Ami.  “I can deal with it, Rei, I promise.  I’ve never liked being around him, you know that, but it won’t be for much longer.  And then I really will be rid of him forever.”